Ilhan Omar challenges Biden admiration over renewed airstrikes in Somalia

Ilhan Omar is demanding answers from President Joe Biden about this week's unmanned aerial drone strike against al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON - Ilhan Omar, the Somali-born US congresswoman, is now challenging the renewed airstrikes in Somalia by the US Africa Command, which has been helping the Horn of Africa nation contain the Al-Shabaab threat for the last couple of years.

This comes after Tuesday's airstrike by the US which targeted suspected Al-Shabaab members in central Somalia where US commandos helped the Danab Special Forces, who had come under attack from that Al-Qaida-linked militants.

In her latest criticism, the Minnesota 5th District Representative accused the US of failing to compensate families of innocent civilians, who end up being killed by the airstrikes, in a letter written to President Joe Biden, a Democrat she supported in November 2020 polls.

Tuesday's airstrike in Somalia was the first in as many months under the administration of Joe Biden, but the Department of Defense also argues that it was a rescue mission strategy given it targeted militants who were attacking the Special Forces who were under attack from the Al-Shabaab.

Omar, who grew up in Somalia before spending four years in a Kenyan refugee camp, represents a district with a heavy Somali American population. She's viewed as a social democrat leaning to the right-wing in US politics.

The airstrike near the city of Galkayo targeted militants in al-Shabab, an insurgency group based in Somalia that the U.S. has long fought as part of its so-called global war on terror. Sullivan’s directive instructed the military and CIA to gain White House permission before launching attacks in places like Somalia and Yemen.

In January 2021, nearly 700 US soldiers stationed in Somalia were withdrawn by the regime of President Donald Trump, who claimed that this was part of the cost-saving strategy. Trump was also keen to withdraw a number of US soldiers working across Africa.

According to the New York Times, Tuesday’s attack occurred without White House approval. In this case, the militants were supposedly attacking members of an elite U.S.-trained Somali commando force called Danab, and Pentagon spokesperson Cindi King said AFRICOM had the power to authorize the response independently under the military’s “collective self-defense” justification.

No U.S. troops were actually with the Danab commandos when the attack occurred, as they were advising the unit remotely.

Omar found the rationale unpersuasive. “As you know,” she wrote in the letter, “‘collective self-defense’ is a term with variable meanings in national and international law, and especially in the context of your ongoing review of airstrike authorities, its use merits further explanation in this case. This is also an important and timely matter since it seems suggestive of your Administration’s broader approach to airstrikes in Somalia.”

The strike on Somalia occurred amid growing mobilization in the House of Representatives and Senate to reclaim oversight of the extensive war powers the White House has amassed since 9/11. On Tuesday, Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., introduced the National Security Powers Act to assert congressional authority over the deployment of force, export of weaponry, and declaration of national emergencies.

Last month, the House voted to repeal the 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, that greenlighted the war in Iraq and that Trump used to justify assassinating Iranian Gen. Qassim Suleimani. But the far more consequential approval — and thus the more difficult one to repeal — is the 2001 AUMF that authorized the war in Afghanistan and that the U.S. has continuously invoked to defend airstrikes against alleged terrorists around the world, driving activists to seek its reversal.

Its repeal would, however, still be far from a guarantee that the White House will defer to Congress. Just last month, Biden claimed that Article II of the Constitution offers him self-defense authorities that would rationalize airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Syria and Iraq.

Citing an airstrike effort that began under the Trump administration, Omar noted that “the increase in strikes corresponded with an almost doubling of terrorist attacks on civilians committed by Al-Shabaab,” the precise opposite of the administration’s stated goals.

“It is critical that we realize we are not going to simply drone the Al-Shabaab problem to death,” Omar wrote, “and that any kinetic action is part of a broader strategy focused first and foremost on the security of Somali people and the stability of the Somali state.”


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