A Somali man only identified as “CD” has launched legal action against the United States and Germany, claiming that his father, “AB”, was unlawfully killed in a U.S. drone strike in Somalia in February 2012. The strike targeted Mohamed Sakr, a former British citizen accused of traveling to Somalia to join the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab. AB’s body was found among the wreckage left behind by the strike, including the bodies of several of his camels.
Pilots in the U.S., operating aircraft launched from Djibouti, remotely conduct drone strikes in Somalia. However, the data streams “on which the drones rely” are “funneled” through Ramstein air base in Germany. CD’s lawyers claim that Ramstein played a larger role in the strikes, asserting, “personnel at the base also analyze the material collected by drones before it passes to drone pilots.”
Amrit Singh, a senior lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, claimed that the heart of this case lies in the controversy surrounding Germany’s involvement in what he calls, “a secret killing program.” CD has filed a criminal complaint accusing the U.S. and Germany of “the intentional killing of Sakr, and the death of AB as a consequence.”
One can imagine that if this case was presented in a U.S. court, that the court would invoke the state’s secrets doctrine to protect sensitive information in the case. However, the article states that information regarding Ramstein’s role in facilitating U.S. drone strikes was already revealed in documents that were leaked by Edward Snowden. There have been other cases brought forth claiming Germany’s involvement in U.S. drone strikes, however many have been dismissed due to the concern that it would be seen as “condemnation of the U.S.” or that it would breech German “separation of powers”, setting a dangerous precedent.
This case brings into question the legality of German involvement in support of U.S. drone strikes “outside of traditional battlefields.” It also questions the U.S.’s declaration of war on Al Qaeda. While Al-Shabaab is thought to be an Al Qaeda affiliate, it is unclear how closely tied the two groups are. In the “war on terror” it seems as though any terrorist group, regardless of their ability to pose an imminent threat against the U.S., is being included in this definition.
This case also highlights the issue of civilian casualties. Drone technology is only becoming more and more accurate, which further questions why AB, a camel herder, was also killed in the strike. Sakr was in a moving vehicle when the strike was carried out, however, it seems unlikely that the drone operator could not have waited until the vehicle was a safe distance away from AB and his herd, to carry out the strike.
Finally, this case demonstrates the “globalized” nature of national security. Drone operators located in the U.S. remotely operate aircraft in Djibouti using information processed in Germany, all to conduct an airstrike in Somalia. This disjointed line of operations complicates the legality of the airstrikes because many state actors are involved in the operations. It will be interesting to see how this case unfolds and affects other states’ willingness to work with the U.S. in conducting airstrikes.