News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

February 8, 2022

Written by

Adam Gnych and Clive Vella

Investigation suggests a PKK bomb, rather than the Turkish military, may have killed two Iraqi holidaymakers in Kurdish region

On August 22nd 2021, security forces in the Kurdish region of Iraq came across a battered white Kia Sportage at the side of the road. In it, they found the bodies of two men.

Ahmed Shukr, 40, and Youssef Omar, 26, from the city of Mosul, were on holiday in the mountainous Darkar region of Zakho district, a popular retreat for domestic tourists seeking to escape the sweltering summer heat. They had been reported missing two days earlier.

While a place of leisure and relaxation for some, Iraqi Kurdistan is also in the midst of an ongoing conflict between the Turkish armed forces and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist militant group that calls for greater autonomy and increased rights for Kurds within Turkey. Seeking to crush the group, Turkish forces have expanded into parts of northern Iraq, backed by air and artillery strikes. Dozens of civilians have been killed in the fighting, with thousands displaced.

Almost all local sources attributed the men’s deaths last August to either a Turkish air, drone or artillery strike. At the scene Omer Jalal, a relative, told Rudaw: “You are in your own country and it is safe, but you get bombed by the Turks…. Where is our government?”.

Yet an Airwars investigation piecing together the final moments of the two men’s lives has found they were most likely killed by a roadside bomb, possibly planted by the PKK. One of the first such instances of civilians killed by such munitions in Iraqi Kurdistan, it could indicate a dangerous trend for those living in or visiting these conflict-affected areas.

The investigation also reveals how the spread of the conflict has resulted in a sharp rise of reported civilian harm in the Darkar region.

Verifying the video

On the morning of August 20th, Shukr and Omar apparently set off from their resort, keen to explore the rugged mountains.

At the outskirts of the village of Sharanish, the men took a turn, seemingly unaware they were entering a militarized area known locally as the “Red” or “Forbidden” zone. In recent years Turkey has set up military bases in areas previously largely unaffected by the conflict, including the area around Sharanish.

Farhad Mahmood, the mayor of Batifa sub-district, said that Iraqi border guards who had been manning a roadside checkpoint in the area mistook the tourist for locals and waved them through. Moments later that error proved fatal.

An explosion hit the car, which ultimately crashed into a rock. Local media alleged it had been hit by Turkish artillery fire or possibly a drone strike. “A Turkish artillery shell fell near their car,” a security source in the predominantly Kurdish area told the Shafaq News Agency.

But later that day a video, published by local media outlet Kurdistan 24, emerged that challenged the prevailing narrative.

It appeared to show a car driving along a rural road when an explosion rocks it. The car then drives out of shot.

The first challenge was to locate the strike and check whether the video showed the same explosion that killed the men.

A still image from the video of the explosion

The road appeared to be in the base of a valley. A steep sparsely-vegetated hillside is visible to the right, while a low gradient heavily forested slope can be seen on the left. In addition to the distinctive contours of the road, an earthen bank runs along its left side. A structure is visible in the top right of the frame, indicated by a solid red box and the letter B. A cylindrical structure, seen closer to the vehicle, is indicated by a dashed red box and the letter A.

Having first identified features within the frame, finding the location using satellite imagery is considerably easier if you know where these features are in relation to one another (i.e north, south, east or west).

The fact it was sunny on the day the video was filmed helped with this process.

The size and orientation of the shadows generated by the explosion helped to identify both the approximate time of day, and the direction the car was traveling in.

After the explosion there is a dust plume perhaps 50 metres high, which generates a shadow shorter than its height – indicating the sun is high in the sky and therefore that the incident occurred around noon. Since the shadow appears to the right of the plume – and Iraq being in the northern hemisphere where at noon shadows orient north – this led to the conclusion the car was traveling from west to east.

Another image from the video shows the plume of smoke after the explosion

Reports indicated the incident occurred close to the village of Banke. Using this information Airwars’ geolocation team was able to identify the below location as the site of the explosion. Structure B, seen in the video and highlighted in image 1, is also visible in satellite imagery. Structure A appears to have been built after ​​November 2019, the date of the most recent, high-quality, publicly available satellite imagery of the area. From this, we are able to determine that the men were driving west to east on a stretch of road between the villages of Sharanish and Banke.

Satellite imagery of the blast site. Structure B, seen in the video, is also visible in satellite imagery. Structure A appears to have been constructed after ​​November 2019 and is therefore not present.

Using Google Earth, we were then able to locate images of first responders loading the bodies of the two men into an ambulance.

An image of the men’s bodies being loaded into an ambulance. Image courtesy of Kurdistan 24.

The same hill range located on Google Maps

The location is 500 metres from the strike, suggesting the car drove on, likely as the wounded driver attempted to keep it on the road, before eventually crashing.

An image of the men’s bodies being loaded into an ambulance suggested their vehicle continued down the road for a further 500m before crashing.

The video was reportedly filmed from a nearby Iraqi border guard position. Once the location of the strike had been confirmed, Airwars was able to narrow in on a possible location of the guard post.

A side-by-side comparison of the video and the location highlighted by Airwars.

IED not artillery

Having verified that the video very likely showed the explosion that killed Shukr and Omar, the question became what photographs and video could reveal about the strike.

Airwars approached two munitions experts to review the visual material available.

Chris Cobb Smith, a munitions expert and former Major in the British Army, said it was very unlikely to have been artillery fire from a nearby Turkish base. “Artillery is notoriously inaccurate and would seldom be used to engage a target like this,” he said.

Contortion to the bodywork of the car seemed to have been caused primarily by the force of the blast. Image courtesy of Kurdistan 24.

He noted that artillery strikes would typically result in the location, or in this case the car (below), being pockmarked by shrapnel, but there was very little evidence of this visible on its bodywork. Instead, the crumpling and contortion to the bodywork seemed to have been caused primarily by the blast effect.

Roger Davies, a former British Army ammunition specialist with decades of experience analysing explosions from both conventional munitions and improvised devices, said he was “95 percent certain this is an IED strike.”

A view of the side of the vehicle closest to the blast. Image courtesy of Shafaq News Agency

“The fragmentation damage could have been caused by a small amount of shrapnel, or by a metal container used to house the bomb, or stones and rubble thrown upwards by the force of the explosion, but it is not consistent with an artillery round,” said Mr. Davies.

Mr. Davies said the video and photographs suggested an IED weighing in the order of 5kg, likely initiated by a radio signal and laid above ground, a tactic commonly employed by those who want to limit the time they spend installing a device, “especially if they suspect they are under observation.”

Experts would have expected to see more widespread fragmentation damage to both sides of the vehicle in the event of a conventional munition strike. Image courtesy of Kurdistan 24.

Due to the colour of the smoke given off by the blast, TNT – a carbon-rich explosive commonly used in conventional munitions – was ruled out as a possible charge.

Questioned as to whether the car may have been targeted by a guided munition, Mr. Davies said he thought it unlikely, as neither the damage to the vehicle nor video footage showed evidence of such a strike.

The real target?

A cursory look at nearby mountains reveals why so many of the sources may have implicated Turkey in the strike, and why whoever planted the bomb may have chosen the location.

In the latter half of 2020, the area witnessed a significant military build-up, one that forced many local residents to flee.

In May 2021 resident, Ali Mahmoud, told Rudaw: “It’s (the Darkar area) on the main street. It’s a tourist place… people come and go and the situation was very calm… Two months ago the Turkish army and PKK ruined our situation.”

A suspected Turkish military position is seen before, and after, construction. (Images via: Sentinel hub.)

The arrival of Turkish troops in the area may suggest they were the intended target.

On November 4th 2020, one member of the Iraqi Kurdish security forces was killed and two others wounded when IEDs struck their vehicles in Chamanke sub-district in Dohuk. The People’s Defense Forces (HPG), the PKK’s military wing, accepted responsibility for the strike after it said government forces encroached on their self proclaimed area of operation. The attack resulted in condemnation of the PKK from the US, France and the federal Iraqi government.

Despite this, reported civilian harm in Iraq stemming from PKK IED strikes has remained low.

An escalation in reported civilian harm

Whether the deaths of Ahmed and Youssef were caused by an IED or some other action, it’s clear that risks continue for civilians in the region. Over the course of 2021, Airwars recorded four instances of civilian harm in the Darkar area, resulting in two civilian deaths and four injuries, a dramatic increase in comparison to previous years.

    On May 26th, two shepherds were injured by alleged Turkish artillery fire that struck the village of Behri. Video of the aftermath of the attack featured in a recent PBS News report. On August 10th Abdulrahman Yousif, 55, was seriously injured in an alleged Turkish artillery strike on Bosal village, according to the monitoring organisation Christian Peacemakers Teams. Mr. Yousif was reportedly picking figs in his orchard when he was targeted by artillery fire from a recently constructed Turkish military base. (As a single-source claim Airwars deemed the assessment ‘Weak”.) On December 27th, a 42-year-old woman was injured in an alleged Turkish air or artillery strike in the village of Banke. She was reported to be in a serious condition and was transported to Zakho hospital for treatment. One source alleged that the artillery fire originated from a Turkish military base in the area.

Prior to the base’s construction, Airwars had recorded just one incident of reported civilian harm in Batifa sub-district over the course of six years of monitoring – an alleged Turkish artillery strike that injured four civilians in 2017.

Conclusion

Airwars’ investigation into the events of August 20th suggests that Ahmed Shukr and Youssef Omar were killed by a roadside IED rather than by a Turkish military attack, as was widely reported at the time. While no party has claimed responsibility for the attack, suspicion may point to members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a case of mistaken identity.

Data collected by Airwars also shows how a military build-up in the area resulted in a significant rise in reported civilian harm. In the past year, up to 36 civilians have been killed by alleged Turkish military actions inside Iraqi Kurdistan.

As the conflict spreads into more populated areas, there is a potential for the use of such IEDs to become a more commonplace feature of the conflict in northern Iraq, greatly increasing the threat already posed to civilians.

In the short term, the spread of the conflict has had far wider implications in terms of displacement. In a recent report by PBS News, a local official claimed that 24 out of 26 villages in Darkar have been emptied by fighting in the past two years.

▲ Ahmed Shukr, 40, and Youssef Omar, 26, were killed while holidaying in the Kurdish Region of Iraq on August 20th, 2021. (Image courtesy of the Naynawa Alghad Facebook page.)

Published

September 24, 2021

Written by

Adam Gnych and Jessica Purkiss

Contrition over Kabul strike must prompt further review of hundreds more events in which civilians were likely killed by US actions.

The final drone strike of the US occupation of Afghanistan killed up to 10 civilians, including seven children. That is not our opinion, but the determination of the US military.

On September 17th, after separate investigations by The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, a contrite head of CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for Afghanistan, admitted a “tragic” mistake. General McKenzie said the August 29th attack, initially described as a “righteous strike” against the Afghan branch of the Islamic State, had in fact killed 43-year-old aid worker Zemari Ahmadi and his family outside their home.

The apology won’t ease the suffering of those remaining family members, but it does at least open the door to the possibility of solatia payments to support them through the coming years. For the US, this incident ought to lead to some soul searching – with a fresh investigation launched into the failings of the initial probe.

Yet this contrition has been the exception rather than the rule in US operations in Afghanistan, with thousands of civilians credibly reported killed by US actions since 2001. The former head of NATO’s civilian casualty assessment team now says that “civilian casualty investigations in Afghanistan were strongly weighted against finding sufficient evidence for an allegation to be recorded as credible.”

There are many specific reasons why this final incident garnered more attention. It occurred in relatively easily accessible Kabul, at a time when many foreign journalists were visiting the city to cover the American withdrawal. Mr Ahmadi also worked for a US aid organisation that was willing to vouch for his reputation. All these factors led to intense pressure on the US military to respond quickly to the allegations it had killed civilians.

Sadly the vast majority of civilians killed by the US in Afghanistan never receive the same attention, or apologies.

A recent Airwars investigation found that overall, at least 22,000 civilians have likely been killed by US airstrikes during the ‘war on terror’ since 2001. At least 4,815 of these fatalities were in Afghanistan, though that number could be far higher. Only a fraction of these events have received official US recognition. Many families can wait months, or even years, for a reply. Most never hear back.

Major General Chris Donahue, the final US soldier in Afghanistan, leaves on August 30 (U.S. Army photo)

Amnesty International, calling for a fuller investigation into the Kabul strike, pointed out that “many similar strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia have happened out of the spotlight, and the US continues to deny responsibility while devastated families suffer in silence.”

Here are just five examples of Afghan families still waiting for justice after losing family members to alleged US strikes in recent years. Many were originally investigated by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Drone Warfare project, which ended in 2020 and whose archives are now curated by Airwars.

1. The Khans

In the early hours of March 9th 2019, Dr Nazargul Khan and his children were sleeping in their village in the Hesarak district, Nangarhar province – around 30 miles east of Kabul. Suddenly their home was ripped apart.

“The first bomb that was dropped was on my cousins who were sleeping in the next room,” Waheeda, 14, Nazargul’s oldest child, told Al Jazeera. “My father got up and went to their room but by the time they reached the room another bomb was dropped on my father, sisters, and mother.”

In total twelve members of the Khan family, including Nazargul and nine children, died that night in an alleged US strike.

Despite the testimony of Sherif and Waheeda, the US has not accepted causing the civilian harm. Instead, it designated the allegations “possible” and closed the investigation, leaving the survivors with no clear answers and no route to seek compensation or justice.

 

2. The Ishaqzai family

On November 24th 2018, the village of Loy Manda, ten miles outside of Lashkar Gah in southwestern Afghanistan, found itself on the frontline as Afghan government forces – backed up by their American allies – battled the Taliban.

As a column of Afghan and US Special Operations forces moved into the area, the Ishaqzai family huddled in their home. In an apparent attempt to hit Taliban fighters moving through the area, the US called in an airstrike, witnesses told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. A father and son were killed and 13 members of the extended family injured, 10 of them children.

The US military later admitted that four civilians were injured in a strike in Helmand on this day in their annual report on civilian casualties. This is believed to be a significant undercount.

 

3. The Mubarez family

On the evening of September 22rd 2018, the inhabitants of the village of Mullah Hafiz, in Wardak province, were alerted to the sound of an operation in progress. Explosions ripped through the town as soldiers swept in for a raid on a Taliban prison.

Masih Ur-Rahman Mubarez was in Iran for work but his wife and all their seven children, alongside four young cousins, were killed in an airstrike. His youngest was just four years old.

“Our life was full of love,” Masih told The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

Image compiled by Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Clockwise from top left: Masih’s children Mohammad Elyas (8), Mohammad Wiqad (10), Fahim (5), Samina (7) and Mohammad Fayaz (4) all died in the strike, alongside their two elder sisters, Anisa (14), and Safia (12), and their mother Amina (32). (Fahim appears in both photos in the bottom row)

Initially the US repeatedly denied it had bombed Masih’s house, or even that any airstrike had taken place in the area. Later after The New York Times and researchers from TBIJ investigated further, the military admitted that it did conduct a strike in that location, saying it was “possible, although unlikely, civilians died.”

 

4. The Rais family

On the 28th of September 2016, 15 Afghans were killed in a single US drone strike in the province of Nangarhar, east of the capital of Kabul, according to the United Nations.

The US said it struck militants from the so-called Islamic State, describing it as a “counter-terrorism” strike. The UN said it had hit a gathering of residents welcoming a tribal elder returning from religious pilgrimage to Mecca. The UN did acknowledge reports that IS fighters were among the dead but said the majority were civilians including “students and a teacher, as well as members of families considered to be pro-government.” Haji Rais, the owner of the house hit, lost his son in the strike.

The day after the strike, the then-spokesman for the US military in Afghanistan, Brigadier General Charles, told The New York Times the allegations of civilian casualties were being investigated. “We continue to work with Afghan authorities to determine if there is cause for additional investigation,” he said.

 

5. Abdul Hamid Alkoazay &  Abdul Rahim

In the early hours of the morning on May 24th 2019, an alleged US airstrike struck a building in Shib Koh district, Farah province, which runs along the border with Iran in western Afghanistan.

Abdul Hamid and Abdul Rahim were colleagues and had decided to stay the night at the offices of the emergency aid NGO they worked for. At approximately 1:20 am the building was leveled, with the two men killed instantly.

Abdul Rahim was 22 and had married just a month before his death. He worked as a supervisor at the charity, which he had joined relatively recently. One colleague said of him: “He was such a softly spoken person. He was a very good man with the best manners.”

The US military ultimately deemed the allegations of civilian harm “possible”, a phrasing neither accepting nor denying responsibility.

 

‘Hand-wringing’

CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for Afghanistan, had not replied at publication of this article to requests from Airwars seeking updates about its investigations into these five cases.

In the years before the final American soldier left Afghanistan last month, the US had relied increasingly on airpower. In 2015 there were about 500 US strikes. By 2019 that figure was more than 7,000. That year the United Nations documented the highest number of civilian fatalities from airstrikes since they began recording in 2009, most of them by US aircraft.

However, the US military officially accepted only a fifth of the civilian deaths attributed to it by the United Nations in 2019. Allegations are frequently determined as either “not credible” or “disproved”. Often this is based on the military not having sufficient information to fully investigate.

“There has been a lot of hand wringing and convenient blaming of intelligence over the past weeks,” says Mark Goodwin-Hudson, who in 2016 as a Lieutenant Colonel headed NATO’s Civilian Casualty Investigation Team in Afghanistan. “The killing highlights how shallow and misleading the assumption is that war can be conducted successfully from over the horizon. It doesn’t matter how accurate a modern weapon system is if the intelligence that underpins the strike is flawed.”

“In my experience civilian casualty investigations in Afghanistan were strongly weighted against finding sufficient evidence for an allegation to be recorded as credible,” Goodwin-Hudson added. “In some instances, investigators were denied access to mission critical intelligence, as it was deemed too sensitive to be read by anyone who was not already in the classified compartment that had planned, authorised and implemented the strike in question.”

For the families of those left behind, the mechanisms of getting official recognition that their loved ones were innocent was complicated enough before the US withdrawal. For many it may now be all but impossible.

▲ Library image: A US Navy Super Hornet receives fuel from an Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker over Afghanistan, December 7th 2017. (US Air Force/ Jeff Parkinson)