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Biden Admin’s Drone Strike in Somalia Draws Fire From Sanders, Lee and Murphy

The three senators affirmed the need to reestablish a system of checks and balances in U.S. military action.

The Pentagon insists that AFRICOM did not need White House approval for the latest drone strike.

A trio of senators, including Bernie Sanders of Vermont, issued a statement late Thursday condemning the U.S. military’s drone strike in Somalia earlier this week, the first known bombing of the East African country since President Joe Biden took office in January.

“We’re troubled that no one in the administration sought the required legal authorization from Congress for Tuesday’s drone strike in Somalia especially with no American forces at risk—and apparently, did not even check with our commander-in-chief,” Sanders, an independent, said in a joint statement with Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah).

“We need to reestablish a system of checks and balances in our national security to make Congress a part of these decisions about war and peace and put the interests of the American people front and center,” said the three senators, who earlier this week unveiled legislation aimed at reasserting congressional authority over war powers. “It’s time to do away with questionable legal justifications claimed by one administration after the next for acts of war like this.”

The drone strike in Somalia was carried out by the U.S. military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM), which claimed in an emailed statement to media outlets that the strike targeted al-Shabab militants who were purportedly attacking members of a U.S.-trained Somali commando force.

The Biden administration — which, like its predecessors, has been accused of drastically undercounting civilian deaths in U.S. military operations — said no civilians were injured or killed in the latest airstrike. The transparency organization Airwars estimates that U.S. military actions have killed between 70 and 143 civilians in Somalia since 2007, when the Bush administration kicked off a bombing campaign that accelerated under Obama and continued under Trump.

According to Somali state media, the latest U.S. strike killed at least 20 al-Shabab militants and wounded “many” more.

While there were no U.S. forces accompanying the Somali commando force as it allegedly came under attack Tuesday, Pentagon spokesperson Cindi King justified the drone strike as “collective self-defense” — a rationale that drew scrutiny from legal experts.

“I’m surprised Biden’s first strike in Somalia isn’t getting more attention,” said Oona Hathaway, a professor of international law at Yale University. “AFRICOM carried out the strike against al-Shabaab militants, and the administration is citing ‘collective self defense.’ This is very puzzling.”

“Collective self-defense is an international law term,” Hathaway explained. “Under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, a state can take an action in ‘collective self defense’ of another state. But that only applies if the action might otherwise violate Article 2(4). But that’s not the case here… So what’s going on? Is this somehow to get around new restrictions on drone strikes?”

On its first day in power, the Biden administration quietly imposed temporary constraints on so-called counterterrorism strikes outside of “conventional war zones.” As the New York Times reported in March, the administration’s order required the military and CIA to “obtain White House permission to attack terrorism suspects” in nations where there are few U.S. ground troops, including Somalia.

But the Pentagon insists that AFRICOM did not need White House approval for the latest drone strike because the military “has the authority to conduct strikes in support of…designated partner forces under collective self-defense.”

As Stars and Stripes reported Tuesday, the last previous drone strikes in Somalia “were carried out January 18 and 19, just days after the U.S. military completed its withdrawal of some 700 troops from the country under Trump’s orders.”

According to the Times, the Pentagon is currently “developing a proposal to send dozens of Special Forces trainers back to Somalia to help local forces combat al-Shabab.”

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