Somali victims of US drone strike take legal action against The Netherlands

Two Somali victims of a US drone strike take legal action against the Netherlands. In January 2014, both men were hit by an American missile and lost two young daughters. One nomad lost his leg and their livestock was mostly annihilated. The Somalis and their lawyers hold the Netherlands co-responsible for the attack by the Americans, they said to reporters of De Volkskrant.

Maud Effting en Huib Modderkolk
Pastoralist Somali farmers stand beside their cattle in the market of Dhobley in Somalia on August 11, 2011. Beeld afp
Pastoralist Somali farmers stand beside their cattle in the market of Dhobley in Somalia on August 11, 2011.Beeld afp

The 2014 American drone strike targeted a convoy of cars transporting members of the Somali terrorist organization Al Shabaab. According to CNN, the intended target of the attack was Ahmed Godane. He remained unharmed, but other Al Shabaab members were killed. The nomads and their children and cattle were in the area when the missiles struck. No civilian casualties were reported by Western media or the US government.

Dutch court

The nomads are represented by two Dutch lawyers, Göran Sluiter and Liesbeth Zegveld.

This is the first time that victims of an American drone strike apply to a Dutch court. They claim that the Netherlands are co-responsible for the attack since the Dutch provide important intelligence about Somali communications to the US.

Documents leaked by former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden have already shown that telecommunication intercepted by the Netherlands plays an important part in American covert operations in Somalia. The Dutch military intelligence agency MIVD has intercepted millions of telephone calls and text messages by Somalis over the past few years, using a satellite receiver in the small town of Burum in the Friesland province.

'Ocean Shield'

This was done as part of the anti-piracy operation 'Ocean Shield', in which the Netherlands participated. The communication's 'meta data', such as which number called which other number and for how long, were shared with the Americans. As the Americans had little useful intelligence on Somalia, the NSA also provided Dutch military intelligence service MIVD with special interception technology for listening in on telephone traffic from ships off the coast of Somalia.

Secret documents published on the website The Intercept reveal how in more than fifty percent of the cases the Americans choose targets in Yemen and Somalia on the basis of meta data. Telecommunication intercepted by foreign parties is crucial in this, as the documents reveal: signal intelligence 'is often provided by foreign partners.'

'By providing these telecom data, the Netherlands are supporting these American strikes to a considerable extent,' says Sluiter, one of the lawyers. 'Even more so: without the Dutch support the US could never have realized their drone program in those areas.'

Barack Obama

The Netherlands should realize that these targeted killings are not as 'clean' as they are sometimes made out to be, says Sluiter. 'Drone strikes are only allowed if there are no innocent victims in the area. But obviously the drones are not controlled with due care.' According to him, these actions are culpably negligent: 'They could have spotted these people. Also, there was a lot of livestock around, a clear indication that there were people nearby.'

The American president Barack Obama has repeatedly praised the 'efficiency' of drone strikes before, saying that they made few civilian casualties. In 2013, he called them 'lawful and effective.'

However, the official numbers on casualties are being heavily criticized. Recently, The Intercept published internal documents regarding the drone program, citing much higher numbers of civilian casualties then the official ones. Over a period of five months between 2012 and 2013, drones have killed over 200 people in Afghanistan alone. Only 35 of these were intended targets.


Sluiter says that the case is similar to that of Srebrenica. Although Bosnian Serbs were primarily responsible for the death of three Muslim men in 1995, the Dutch Supreme Court judged that because of the actions of Dutchbat the State of the Netherlands was also responsible.
Sluiter came into contact with the Somali nomads last year, through an intermediary. They had sought legal protection in Somalia in vain. Sluiter and Zegveld decided to represent them because they feel that it is an 'important and principal' case.

Sluiter states that 'culpable actions' by the Americans have led to 'innocent casualties.' Until now, it was not known that innocent people had been killed in this American attack. Bringing a lawsuit against the country that launched the strike, i.e. against the United States, is more difficult than taking the Netherlands to court, says Sluiter. 'The Americans would claim that they were protecting national security. Especially since these are non-American casualties.' The Netherlands - profiling itself with The Hague as the international center of peace and justice - are more amenable to cases that involve innocent victims of war crimes, he thinks. 'According to Dutch law, this was a war crime.'

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