Former Somali military commander and accused war criminal Yusuf Abdi Ali has been facing a civil lawsuit in Virginia over allegations of “gross human rights abuses” in the separatist region of Somaliland in the 1970s and 1980s, during the reign of U.S.-backed dictator Siad Barre. He was also a driver for Uber and Lyft until CNN reporters notified the two companies he had slipped through their background checks, CNN reported on Tuesday.
Undercover CNN reporters caught an Uber ride with Ali, who had an “Uber Pro Diamond” rating of 4.89 out of five. Ali told the reporters he made a “full time” living off ridesharing apps and preferred driving with Uber over Lyft.
“They just want your background check, that’s it,” Ali told the undercover team. “If you apply tonight maybe after two days it will come, you know, everything.”
A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary in 1992 detailed horrific crimes allegedly committed by Ali and soldiers under his command from 1984-1989, back when he was known as “Colonel Tukeh” (meaning “the crow”) and Barre’s military was committing genocide against the Isaaq ethnic group. Those included burning captives alive and dragging a man behind a vehicle until he was torn apart, according to CNN.
The case in Virginia was brought by California’s Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) on behalf of an Isaaq man named Farhan Warfaa, who says he was interrogated and tortured for several months by Ali’s brigade during a 1987 crackdown on the Somali National Movement (SNM), the Guardian reported. Court documents say that when SNM fighters eventually attacked the brigade’s headquarters in 1988, Ali paused to order a counterattack before shooting Warfaa five times. Ali ordered his men to bury Warfaa’s body, but the guards saw Warfaa had survived instead ransomed him to his family for a bribe.
Ali denies all of the allegations.
According to the Guardian, Ali later moved to Canada but was deported to the U.S. after locals learned of his past. According to the Nation, “U.S. authorities knew his record, but nevertheless did not prevent him from settling in the United States and living for decades a suburban American life.” Ali is now a U.S. citizen.
Ali even managed to obtain a job as a security guard at Dulles International Airport after passing through a process that included a “criminal history records check by the FBI, a security threat assessment by the TSA, and being licensed by the Commonwealth of Virginia,” according to Fox 5. However, he was publicly outed by CNN in 2016 (with his employer denying knowledge of the litigation) and fired.
Uber told CNN it had suspended Ali’s access to the app pending an inquiry into the matter, and Lyft said they had permanently banned him. Lyft also told CNN that Ali had not driven with the company since September 2018. Both companies said in statements to the network that they screen drivers for criminal offences and red flags on driving histories. CNN noted that Uber has also said it improved its background check process to include ongoing updates and accusations of serious offences that did not result in conviction last year, when a separate CNN report found the company had improperly cleared thousands of felons.
According to CNN, Uber and Lyft’s main third party partner for background checks, Checkr, said that the company relies on verified sources like the sex offender and terrorism databases and public court records. It added that searches of civil litigation are not usually requested, CNN wrote:
Uber and Lyft’s background checks are mostly performed by a separate company called Checkr, which uses applicants’ names and Social Security numbers to search for information in a national sex offender database, federal and local court records and databases used to flag suspected terrorists and others, representatives from the companies said.
A Checkr spokesperson told CNN that its background checks “rely on public criminal records that have been adjudicated in a court of law rather than unverified sources like Google search results. Similarly, most employers don’t request background checks that include pending civil litigation due to its subjective nature.”
CNN noted that there is currently no court with jurisdiction to charge Ali criminally, as the International Criminal Court “wasn’t formally envisioned until 1994” and local authorities are woefully underfunded and unable to pursue effective prosecutions.
No other international mechanism was established to hold Barre regime officials responsible for crimes against humanity, according to Just Security, though prior CJA lawsuits brought on behalf of victims had resulted in civil judgments against two living in the U.S.: former Somali Prime Minister and Minister of Defence General Mohammed Ali Samantar and former National Security Service Department of Investigations chief Colonel Abdi Aden Magan. Samantar died in the U.S. in 2016 before any money could be recovered, while Magan fled to Kenya to avoid liability.
Warfaa is testifying in court against Ali this week after nearly 15 years of debates over whether the former commander could be held liable in the U.S. for crimes committed in foreign country. While a Virginia appeals court removed specific war crimes and crimes against humanity elements from the case in 2016, Ali is still potentially liable for “unspecified damages for torture and attempted extra-judicial killing,” the Guardian wrote.