News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

October 28, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Despite at least 84 likely civilian deaths from US actions in Yemen under Donald Trump, public accountability peaked just 12 days into his presidency.

A new Airwars investigation into the ongoing US counterterrorism campaign in Yemen has identified at least 86 civilians likely killed by US actions during Donald Trump’s presidency – though the US military has admitted to no more than a dozen deaths.

Eroding Transparency, researched and written by Mohammed al-Jumaily and Edward Ray, examines US air and ground actions against both Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Islamic State in Yemen, since 2017. More than 230 declared and alleged US military and CIA actions are identified – among them 41 reported strikes in which Yemenis have alleged civilian casualties.

An accompanying public database details every alleged US action in Yemen since 2017 under President Trump. Employing its highly-effective all source monitoring approach, Airwars has significantly reoriented research towards Yemeni voices and experiences. There are some 4,400 unique sources in the new public database, sixty per cent of these in Arabic. More than 140 alleged or confirmed US actions have also been geolocated by Airwars to village-level accuracy.

Read our full report, Eroding Transparency: Trump in Yemen

Eroding Transparency shows that US operations in Yemen – already on the rise during the last two years of the Obama administration – significantly escalated under Trump, with dire consequences for civilian harm. US operations too often lacked both the transparency and accountability standards of other recent US military interventions, and the report identifies a worrying emphasis under Trump of both clandestine and covert activity in Yemen, obscured from public scrutiny.

Initial spike under Donald Trump

Airwars’ new research tracks a precipitous increase in alleged and confirmed US counterterrorism actions in Yemen during 2017. Indeed, the first year of the Trump presidency saw the highest reported US counterterrorism actions in Yemen since 2002.

This escalation was accompanied by a significant loosening of restrictions on how the US military could operate in Yemen: “It seems what happened was that the Trump administration was keen to take the gloves off, as it were, to be what they perceived was tougher on terrorism, and this was one of the first ready-made concepts of operation available,” says Luke Hartig, previously Senior Director for Counterterrorism at the National Security Council during the Obama administration.

When compared with available data on US actions during Barack Obama’s presidency (2009 – 2017), it is clear this initial spike under Trump in 2017 represented a distinct departure from the previous administration. That one year saw a record 133 officially declared US airstrikes and ground actions in Yemen. To put this in context, the total number of publicly declared actions in Yemen during the full presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, over a 14 year period, amounted to 150 events.

More recently however, Airwars research shows that US counterterrorism activity in Yemen has declined to its lowest reported levels since 2012.

Poor US response to civilian casualty concerns 

The expansion of US activity during the early Trump presidency resulted in a corresponding increase in likely civilian harm, Eroding Transparency reveals. Of the 86 minimum likely civilian deaths tracked by Airwars, some 93 per cent (80 deaths) arose from reported US actions in Yemen between January 2017 and April 2018. Reported civilian deaths tracked by Airwars in 2017 significantly outstripped alleged deaths in any year during the Obama presidency, as previously tracked by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

The estimated minimum civilian deaths from Trump strikes in Yemen include at least 28 children and 13 women, resulting from some 25 declared and likely US actions. At least 63 likely civilian deaths resulted from twenty actions that US Central Command has itself publicly declared. Eroding Transparency emphasises in particular the considerable risks of US ground actions to civilians; alleged or confirmed US ground actions, though accounting only less than three per cent of likely US actions, were responsible for at least 40 per cent of the minimum confirmed or fair civilian harm tracked by Airwars.

Airwars’ new analysis further highlights the extent to which small Yemeni communities have borne the brunt of US counterterror actions. One area of Bayda governorate, roughly 25km in radius, has been the site of almost a fifth of the total likely and declared US actions tracked by Airwars in the past four years – reportedly killing at least 38 civilians.

Yet these likely deaths have gone largely unrecognised by the US military. The US Department of Defense has conceded just four to twelve deaths from a single action – the disastrous US special forces raid in Yakla, Bayda governorate, on January 29th 2017. Just twelve days into the Trump presidency, the admission of civilian harm in that raid constituted the high watermark of accountability for the administration. Yet even this concession was a considerable underestimate, In that same ground raid, Airwars and others assess that at least 20 civilians were in fact killed.

Though President Trump removed civilian harm reporting requirements for the CIA, the Department of Defense is still obliged to report civilian harm from its own actions annually to Congress. Yet apart from the Yakla concession, the Pentagon has admitted to no further civilian deaths or injuries arising from US military actions in Yemen under Donald Trump. In its 2018 and 2019 annual civilian casualty reports to Congress, the DoD instead asserted that it had found “no credible reports of civilian casualties resulting from US military actions in Yemen” for the years in question.

During those same years, Airwars assesses, at least 30 civilian deaths were likely incurred by US actions, including events reported by local advocacy NGOs such as Mwatana for Human Rights.

US Central Command did not respond substantively to Airwars’ comprehensive submission, nine weeks prior to the publication of Eroding Transparency, of more than 1,000 pages of archived source materials, in both English and Arabic, relating to all 41 declared and alleged US actions which had led to local claims of civilian harm in Yemen under President Trump.

Precise location by the Airwars team of houses reportedly damaged as a result of an April 11th 2020 alleged drone strike (via Google Earth)

An effective counterterrorism approach?

Throughout the US’s lengthy counterterrorism campaign in Yemen, the key focus has been an almost exclusively militarised approach to degrading the Jihadist presence and influence in the country. This began in earnest in 2009, with the US taking the lead in containing AQAP as a result of what it saw as the Yemeni government’s inability to effectively counter terrorism in the country.

Since the inauguration of President Trump, Airwars has tracked a minimum total of 460 militant deaths from alleged and confirmed US actions in Yemen – the overwhelming majority belonging to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). A small cluster of strikes are also known or suspected to have targeted so-called Islamic State in Yemen, in October and November 2017. Approximately 60% of the total minimum militant deaths tracked by Airwars, amounting to 242 AQAP or ISIS fighters, were killed in 2017.

Airwars research suggests a subtle focus by both CENTCOM and the CIA on targeting “high-value” targets, with the possible exception of the October 2017 attacks on ISIS-Y training camps, which appear to have been aimed at significantly degrading the group.

According to Yemen expert Dr Elisabeth Kendall, the US’s primary focus on high-value targets has “put al-Qaeda under pressure because they end up being concerned about holding meetings to discuss strategy and iron out disputes… this means that the seeds of doubt and suspicion, both naturally occurring and sown by spies… and are left to fester and you end up with defections and splintering”. Additionally, while previously the group would have had programmes including “educational training, military training, management training,” the recent US campaign had made it almost impossible to run these programmes, says Dr Kendall.

However, the US’s militarised approach may also have thwarted local efforts to control and contain militant groups in Yemen. Given the often porous relationship between AQAP and tribes, the sometimes indiscriminate nature ofsUS strikes has actively undermined efforts by tribal elders to convince their members who have joined AQAP to leave the group in exchange for immunity.

Additionally, deadly US ground raids in 2017, in which dozens of civilians and tribal members were killed, have reportedly alienated local communities and further entrenched distrust and hostility towards US involvement in the country. Eroding Transparency highlights several cases where US actions may have had such unintended consequences.

IS-Y fighters training at the Abu Muhammad al Adnani training camp, which was targeted in October 2017 by a US action (ISIS propaganda image)

The future of US actions in Yemen

Though reported US actions have declined in frequency in the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency, there has also been a marked shift towards covert or clandestine US actions, shielded from public accountability. As Eroding Transparency shows, while CENTCOM itself asserts that it has not conducted any airstrike in Yemen since June 24th 2019, during that same period Airwars tracked 30 allegations of US strikes in Yemen.

Of these 30 incidents, 15 have been assessed by Airwars as likely US strikes based on local reporting. And in three events, all during 2020, admission of responsibility for actions by US officials has in turn indicated those attacks were conducted either by the CIA, or were clandestine US military actions.

At this juncture, the future of US counter-terrorism in Yemen remains unclear. Though Airwars has monitored a clear decline in the apparent frequency of US actions since 2018, Eroding Transparency also highlights a corresponding weakening of public accountability for those actions.

Read our full report, Eroding Transparency: Trump in Yemen

▲ Mabkhout Ali al Ameri with his 18-month old son Mohammed, shortly after a botched US raid on al Ghayil in January 2017 had killed at least 20 villagers, including Mohammed's mother Fatim Saleh Mohsen. © Iona Craig

Published

October 25, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Examining the civilian impact of the use of explosive weapons in the fight against ISIS

Airwars and PAX have published a new joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble, examining the dire and long-lasting effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban areas in recent international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah. The report calls upon States to develop and support an international political declaration to better protect civilians against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

The report was launched at a virtual event on October 26th. Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland, which is spearheading efforts to create an international consensus on limiting the use of explosive weapons in cities, told participants: “We would not have reached the point of acceptance for the need for a political declaration [on explosive weapons] if it was not because of the work of civil society organisations. Their research and advocacy are vital to the process.”

The new report concludes that ‘precision’ when using explosive weapons in urban areas is not the key determinant of civilian harm. “Rather”, write the authors, “it is the wide area effect of an explosive weapon in relation to the proximity of civilians in populated areas.”

The PAX and Airwars report furthermore concludes that the cases of Mosul, Raqqah and Hawijah show that States acting in accordance with International Humanitarian Law is not enough in itself to prevent immense civilian harm and civilian suffering when explosive weapons are deployed in populated areas.

Co-author of the report Roos Boer, programme leader of the Humanitarian Disarmament programme at Dutch peace organisation PAX, states: “Large aircraft bombs and heavy artillery are intended for open battlefields. When bombing and shelling take place in towns and cities, civilians are killed and suffer life-changing injuries, and vital infrastructure like hospitals and schools are destroyed. We need to see states agree to stronger rules that will stop these urban attacks.”

Explosive weapons in populated areas

According to data monitoring by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), 92 per cent of the 19,401 civilian deaths and injuries tracked by the organisation from the worldwide use of explosive weapons in 2019 occurred in urban areas. Furthermore, AOAV concludes that when explosive weapons, such as artillery, grenades, missiles, rockets and aircraft bombs, are used in towns and cities, nine out of ten casualties are civilians.

Explosive weapons are a major driver of forced displacement of civilians – not only because of fear of death and injury and the destruction of homes, but also because of their devastating impact on critical infrastructure services such as health care, education and water and sanitation services.

Cities in rubble

Two nations particularly affected by recent urban fighting are Iraq and Syria. While a variety of actors have caused major civilian harm and widespread destruction in both countries, the report focuses on military operations by the US-led International Coalition against ISIS. Using publicly available sources, the report analyses the short- and long-term effects of the use of explosive weapons in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah.

These cases illustrate that the effects of explosive weapons continue long after the bombs have exploded. In Mosul, the costs of the 2016-17 campaign to drive ISIS out of the city were high: at least 9,000 civilians were reportedly killed in the fighting. Around 700,000 Moslawis were displaced; and city officials have stated that 80 per cent of the inner city’s buildings were destroyed.

In June 2019, the UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that entire neighbourhoods of Mosul had yet to be rebuilt and that a lack of essential services and poor sanitation were still threatening public health. Additionally, unexploded bombs, missiles, rockets and shells prevented civilians from returning to the city.

A federal Iraqi recovery team removes a body from the ruins of west Mosul, May 2018. (Image courtesy of Mosul Eye).

New details on Hawijah disaster

Seeing Through The Rubble also adds fresh information on the current situation in Hawijah. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after a devastating 2015 Dutch airstrike on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more injured.

The report estimates that the secondary explosions triggered by the Dutch airstrike damaged between 400 and 500 buildings in the area, including many shops, homes and schools. Sources also reported that the airstrike caused major damage to crucial infrastructure, including roads and water pipelines.

According to the Mayor of Hawijah, Subhan Al Jabouri, less than 40 per cent of the buildings have been rebuilt and much rubble remains. The industrial area in Hawijah still suffers from a shortage of water and electricity.

Chris Woods, director of Airwars and a co-author of the report along with Laurie Treffers and Roos Boer, notes: “In highlighting the negative consequences for civilians of recent Western military interventions at Mosul, Hawijah and Raqqa, our new report demonstrates why militaries can’t rely simply upon compliance with the laws of war when trying to reduce civilian casualties during urban fighting. Large scale civilian harm during city battles is a terrible reality – and greater international safeguards are urgently needed.”

International political declaration 

Since 2019, Ireland has been leading a series of consultations in Geneva, aimed at drawing up an international political declaration to ban the use of explosive weapons in urban areas. The International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), a network of NGOs, urges states to take immediate action to prevent human suffering from the use of explosive weapons in populated areas. “These case studies show once again the unacceptably high levels of civilian casualties and destruction as a result of bombing and shelling in cities and other populated areas,” says Laura Boillot, coordinator of INEW, responding to the new report.

“Every year we see tens of thousands of civilians killed and injured, that suffer psychological trauma, and are forced to flee for safety. Cities are being torn apart – housing, hospitals, schools and vital infrastructure is destroyed which has disastrous consequences for the survival and wellbeing of the people that live there”, continues Boillot.

“This pattern of civilian harm should not be considered an inevitable consequence of war. Using heavy explosive weapons such as heavy artillery, multi-barrel rocket launchers and large bombs and missiles in populated areas – even against military targets – is not acceptable and must stop.”

▲ An airstrike targets a civilian neighbourhood in Mosul in March 2017 operations to drive out so called Islamic State (Reuters/ Alaa Al-Marjani)

Published

September 30, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Open letter from 11 Belgian and international organisations calls on the Defence Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm.

On October 1st 2020, Belgium will send four F-16s to Iraq and Northeast Syria for a period of 12 months, to once again participate in Operation Inherent Resolve – the international campaign against so-called Islamic State.

Yet Belgium has been one of the least transparent countries in the Coalition, refusing publicly to concede any civilian harm from its own actions and with no additional accountability mechanisms being put in place during the new deployment. despite the urgings of the Belgian parliament.. 

Airwars, together with our Belgian and international partners, is today publishing a joint open letter recently sent to Minister of Defence Philippe Goffin, which urges the Belgian government to take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its own military actions. The full text is reprinted below. 

 

Dear Mr Goffin,

On October 1st, 2020, Belgium will send four F-16s to participate in Operation Inherent Resolve. As a collective of civil society organisations, we have concerns about the limited levels of transparency and accountability of this military deployment. Belgium’s past participation in Operation Inherent Resolve still remains highly secretive. As a result, Belgian members of Parliament cannot thoroughly exercise democratic oversight, while the Belgian, Syrian and Iraqi public are kept in the dark about possible cases of civilian harm as the result of previous Belgian airstrikes or other activities in support of airstrikes in the fight against the so-called Islamic State.

Previous comparative research by Airwars has highlighted that Belgium remains one of the least transparent countries in the US-led International Coalition. As a joint investigation by Airwars, BBC, De Morgen and Liberation revealed in March 2020, Belgium refuses to acknowledge civilian casualties from its actions, even where the US-led Coalition has conceded these same cases as credible. In response to this investigation, the Belgian Ministry of Defence stated only that the Belgium Armed Forces (BAF) were “certainly not involved in all events”, without providing any more details or proof for such a bold claim.

Belgium’s focus thus far in the debate on civilian harm and accountability has been on the legality of airstrikes. As long as the Belgian Ministry of Defence does not consider civilian harm incidents to have breached international humanitarian law, it refrains from engaging in exercises or lessons learnt, or in evaluations that are publicly available.

We believe that this position is not sustainable. As we have seen in the Netherlands, where media uncovered in October 2019 that the Netherlands had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, in which at least 70 civilians died, once the truth about civilian harm incidents inevitably comes to light, it can lead to major national blowback and severely harm the trust of both Parliament and the public in its government.

Call for greater transparency 

So far, the Belgium Ministry of Defence has given few signs that it is committed to improving its transparency and accountability practices during the coming deployment of four F-16s, even while there has been a clear message from Parliament that more transparency is required. We, therefore, urge the Ministry of Defence to fully comply with a parliamentary resolution of June 25th, 2020. Specifically, Amendment number 4, 6 and 17 of this motion request the federal government to do the following (unofficial translation):

4. To demonstrate militarily responsible maximum transparency vis-à-vis the Chamber of Representatives, with regard to the prevention, monitoring and reporting of possible civilian casualties as a result of our military efforts, in particular through strengthening parliamentary scrutiny of the actions of the national Red Card Holder.

6. To actively consult with the Dutch government in order to take note of all the lessons learned from the Hawija tragedy, to understand them and to subsequently report to the Chamber of Representatives on how these lessons will be used during the Belgian military deployment, in order to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible.

17. To communicate publicly, after investigation and taking into account military and security considerations, about possible civilian casualties as a result of Belgian military operations and to ensure active cooperation and exchange with external monitoring groups and human rights organizations (emphasis added).

Currently, consultative processes are ongoing [with militaries] in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands to improve transparency and accountability for civilian harm and to implement policies to better protect civilians in armed conflict. These processes are taking place in consultation with various civil society organisations, including academics and NGOs, such as Airwars, CIVIC, Amnesty International and local civil society organisations.

We believe that it is crucial that Belgium commits itself to improve its poor transparency and accountability track record. We hereby wish to inform you that we, as a collective of civil society organisations, stand ready to actively work together and share our expertise and knowledge with the Ministry of Defence in order to make concrete progress towards improved transparency and accountability of Belgium’s upcoming military deployment in Iraq and Syria.

Recommendations

The undersigned organisations call upon the Belgian government to, at the minimum:

    Publish the exact date and near location of all Belgian air raids carried out in the fight against ISIS; Publish the results of all investigations into civilian casualties – including the data, location, targets and number of civilian casualties of military action – even if the Ministry of Defence’s own investigation concludes that there has been no violation of international humanitarian law; Draft guidelines for proactively publishing this information (in the future) as open data in a machine-readable overview that enables control by independent parties; To work together with external parties, including NGOs, by drawing up standards for the minimum criteria that external claims for civilian victims must meet in order for the Ministry of Defence to be able to assess them; Provide capacity at the Ministry of Defence so that officials can focus on monitoring and actively publishing data on airstrikes and civilian casualties in armed conflict, including in future military interventions so that the consequences of military intervention are systematically monitored and published; Introduce or support a mechanism where potential victims of Coalition bombardments can come forward and report issues of concern; Adopt a political declaration on the use of explosive weapons in populated areas with a clear commitment to data collection and transparent reporting.

While the Belgian military has decided to use precise small diameter bombs during the coming deployment period, we believe that it is crucial to emphasise that protecting the lives of civilians and civilian infrastructure, in particular in urban areas, requires more than using precision weapons.

The undersigned organisations are preparing to publicly communicate on this matter and share a copy of this letter with the Belgian press by the end of September, as we believe this discussion concerns the Belgian public. We hope that you will respond positively to our call for cooperation and exchange on this important matter, and we are happy to enter into dialogue with the Ministry of Defence for further discussion of our recommendations.

Signed,

11.11.11

Agir pour la Paix

Airwars

Amnesty Belgium

CNAPD

GRIP

Humanity & Inclusion

Oxfam Belgium

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

▲ Library image: The F-16s of the Belgian military have been deployed to Iraq and Syria several times since 2014. Picture via Belgian Ministry of Defence.

Published

September 22, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars adds voice to partners calling on the US government to end its targeting of the ICC

The United States Government recently applied sanctions to senior officers of the International Criminal Court – a court of last resort established by treaty, and endorsed by a majority of countries including most of the US’s closest allies. In partnership with a number of organisations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, Airwars is calling upon the US Government to end its targeting of ICC officials. The public statement also calls on both Presidential campaigns to publicly commit to rescinding an Executive Order passed by President Trump in June, which formed the basis of the ICC sanctions.

We the undersigned, representing human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, write in opposition to United States sanctions against named senior personnel within the International Criminal Court (ICC).

We call on President Trump to revoke these harmful sanctions immediately and to rescind Executive Order 13928 on “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Associated with the International Criminal Court.” We also call on the Presidential campaigns of both major parties to publicly commit to reversing this harmful Executive Order. The United States should support the rule of law rather than punish those seeking to provide redress to victims of harm.

The ICC exists as a court of last resort to hold government officials and other powerful actors accountable when domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute the most serious international crimes. The Court has secured successful prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The primary beneficiaries are the many civilian victims who can secure no justice elsewhere and the communities subject to cycles of violence fuelled by impunity. They include many victims and survivors of violence for whom the United States has been a strong, vocal advocate for justice and accountability.

We understand that the United States takes issue with some of the ICC’s jurisprudence and assertions of jurisdiction. However, we believe that concerted diplomatic efforts and engagement with the ICC will enhance its effectiveness more than punishing individuals who have dedicated their careers to delivering justice to victims of egregious crimes.

As condemnatory statements from close U.S. allies make clear, the United States has lost significant international standing through these sanctions, which have undermined the international rule of law and provided succour to war criminals seeking to evade justice. 

The United States should recommit to an independent and credible domestic process of investigating and holding to account U.S. citizens for alleged abuses, free from executive interference and consistent with U.S. and international law. That is the best way to ensure that U.S. service members are afforded due process of law in a domestic forum for any alleged wrongdoing and that the U.S. is recognized as a leader in the pursuit of global justice and accountability.

Signed,

Action on Armed Violence

Airwars

Amnesty International USA

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Human Rights First

Oxfam America

Oxford Research Group

Saferworld

▲ A recent appeal hearing at the International Criminal Court (Image via ICC)

Published

August 19, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Support from the Reva and David Logan Foundation follows recent study showing challenges of mainstream media coverage of civilian casualties.

A new Senior Investigator will be joining the Airwars core team in the coming weeks, thanks to a two year grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation – a Chicago based family philanthropic fund.

Over the past six years, Airwars has consistently shown that its groundbreaking work has a powerful impact on the public understanding of civilian harm – and can lead to positive changes in both policies and practices among militaries. However, systemic challenges in many newsrooms can result in the issue being poorly reported. Our recent study News In Brief, authored by US investigative reporter Alexa O’Brien and also funded by the Logan Foundation, explored the many obstacles to good reporting of this critical issue.

Responding to this deficit, new funding will enable Airwars to majorly enhance its own capacity for much-needed investigations into civilian casualties and their causes, in particular with the appointment of an in-house Senior Investigator – who will be supported by a wider team of geolocation, research and design professionals.

Airwars will then seek partnerships with key US and international media on the most vital and controversial cases and stories. In doing so, it aims to bridge a critical gap in the mainstream reporting of civilian harm from war – and bring many more stories to public awareness. A key focus will be to explore innovative approaches to engaging new audiences on civilian harm issues.

Major investigations

Since its founding, Airwars has published several major investigations into civilian harm. In 2017 our then-inhouse reporter Samuel Oakford revealed with Foreign Policy that, according to senior US military officials, more than 80 civilians had been killed in non-US international airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. That investigation still serves as a key point of engagement for our advocacy work with individual belligerents.

In June 2019, Airwars partnered with Amnesty International on a major project War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality – which found that at least 1,600 civilian deaths had likely been caused by the US-led Coalition during the battle of Raqqa. More recently, Airwars has played a prominent role in reporting the scandal surrounding Dutch responsibility for a 2015 airstrike in Hawijah, Iraq, in which 70 or more civilians likely died. And in early 2020 – in partnership with the BBC, Liberation, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands – Airwars revealed that European militaries were failing to declare civilian deaths from their own actions in the war against ISIS, even where US military personnel had concluded otherwise.

“Airwars is unique. There are few organisations that shine a light so intensely on the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians caught up in the fury of war. The Airwars team has developed groundbreaking methodology to track these horrors and has delivered their consequent findings with authority to governments, the military and the public,” commented Richard Logan, President of the Reva and David Logan Foundation.

“Their work has consistently brought changes in perceptions and in the conduct of war. It has contributed to a significant reduction of non-combatant battlefield deaths and injuries. For these and other related reasons, it is crucial to magnify Airwars’ investigative capacity to ensure that the plight of the most vulnerable stays at the forefront of all our minds. We are honoured to support their efforts.”

▲ A young girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 2017 (Image courtesy of Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).

Published

May 7, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Nineteen of 40 events declared by the Pentagon to Congress for Iraq, Syria and Somalia for the past year were Airwars referrals, official records show

The Department of Defense (DoD) informed Congress on May 6th that US forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia had between them killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019. The Pentagon also reported a further 79 historical deaths from its actions in Syria and Iraq during 2017-18.

The 22-page Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations is the third such public declaration, mandated in law by Congress since 2018.

According to the report – which included details of continuing Pentagon efforts to improve both accountability and transparency for civilian harm – “U.S. forces also protect civilians because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. Although civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war, the U.S. military is steadfastly committed to limiting harm to civilians.”

During 2019, the majority of declared civilian deaths from US actions took place in Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, 108 civilians were killed and 75 injured in 57 incidents. Fourteen of those events involved US ground forces.

That casualty tally represented a significant undercount according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has been comprehensively monitoring civilian deaths from all parties for more than a decade. According to UNAMA’s own Annual Report, at least 559 civilians were killed and 786 injured by international military actions during 2019 – almost all by airstrikes.

Table from UNAMA’s 2019 annual report, showing the number of civilian deaths and injuries it believed had resulted from pro-government forces that year.

Iraq and Syria: ‘backward step’

Officially confirmed civilian deaths from US actions in Iraq and Syria fell steeply – down from 832 fatalities declared to Congress last year, to 101 deaths conceded in the latest report.

That sharp reduction was partly expected, given the significant reduction in battle tempo following the bloody capture of both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. However, in early 2019 very significant civilian fatalities were locally alleged from Coalition air and artillery strikes during the final stages of the war – only a fraction of which have been admitted.

Of the 73 known civilian harm claims against the US-led Coalition during 2019, Airwars presently estimates that at least 460 and as many as 1,100 non combatants likely died. However in its own report to the Pentagon, the US has conceded just 22 civilian deaths for the year across Iraq and Syria, in eleven events.

The Defense Department’s report reveals other worrying trends. Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from US actions for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the Coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected – amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

According to Airwars director Chris Woods, the apparent move by the US-led Coalition away from engaging with external sources marks a backward step, which the organisation plans to take up with both Congress and DoD officials.

“Almost all of the deaths conceded by the US in Iraq and Syria for 2019 represented self referrals from pilots and analysts, with external sources cited on only three occasions. Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored,” says Woods. “This goes against the Pentagon’s repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step.”

Mosul mystery resolved

The Pentagon’s latest report to Congress also brings further clarity to a controversial June 2017 Coalition attack in Mosul, Iraq which killed 35 members of the same extended family – including 14 children, nine women and two respected imams.

In January 2019 the Australian Defence Force (ADF) accepted responsibility for some of those deaths – confirming that a strike by one of its aircraft had killed between 6 and 18 civilians.

However the ADF also made clear that there was a second attack on the location by another Coalition ally that day – the identity of which was until now not known.

It its May 6th report to Congress, the Pentagon revealed that US aircraft conducted that second strike, additionally killing at least 11 civilians at the scene.

In February 2019, surviving family elder Engineer Amjad al-Saffar told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The level of accuracy of the bombing had always indicated to us that the attack couldn’t have been by Iraqi forces, because the house was targeted twice at the same point without any damage to the neighbouring building, and with very high accuracy.”

Asked to comment from Mosul on the Pentagon’s recent admission that its aircraft too had played a role in the mass casualty event, Engineer Amjad told Airwars: “As a well known and respected Mosul family, we feel both very sad and disappointed to learn of the US’s confession – three years after our catastrophe.- of their own role in an airstrike which killed so many. Along with Australia we hold the US fully responsible for our heavy loss of 35 family members, and demand both an apology and financial compensation.”

Other than this one case, the Pentagon’s report to Congress also revealed that all civilian harm events conceded by the US-led Coalition for Iraq and Syria over the past 12 months had been caused by US forces.

This contrasted with the previous report – which had inadvertently ‘outed’ fourteen strikes by America’s European allies which according to the Coalition itself had killed at least 40 civilians – but which the UK, France and Belgium refused to acknowledge. It remains unclear whether the Coalition’s civilian casualty cell has now ceased assessments of claims against other nations within the alliance.

Photo montage of some of the 35 victims of June 13th 2017 strikes by Australian and US aircraft, courtesy of the Al Saffar family.

One new Somalia event admitted

Two more civilian deaths from US actions in Somalia were officially conceded on April 27th, as US Africa Command issued its first ever quarterly civilian casualty report. Those same deaths were also reported to Congress two weeks later.

The newly admitted event – which according to local reports involved the death of a father and his child, and the injuring of at least three more civilians – relates to a US strike on the al Shabaab-occupied town of Kunyo Barrow on February 23rd 2019. AFRICOM had originally dismissed the claim. But it reopened an assessment after Airwars submitted a detailed dossier on the incident in January 2020, including what were believed to be precise coordinates for where casualties took place.

The latest admission has doubled both the number of cases and deaths publicly admitted by AFRICOM, during its sometimes controversial 13-year campaign to defeat the regional terror group al Shabaab. However those four deaths remain dwarfed by Airwars’ own current estimate of at least 70 civilians killed in 29 separate US actions in Somalia since 2007.

The US military’s campaign in Somalia has intensified significantly under President Donald Trump, with at least 186 declared actions since 2017 – more than four times the number of strikes officially carried out by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations combined. Local civilian harm claims have also intensified under Trump, with as many as 157 non combatant deaths locally claimed to date.

Until recently AFRICOM had routinely denied any civilian harm from its actions in Somalia – leading to complaints of poor accountability. In April 2019, AFRICOM conceded its first civilian casualty event – though also had to admit to misleading Congress on the issue. Three months later, General Stephen Townsend took command.

When previously head of the US-led Coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Townsend had overseen key transparency reforms including the publishing of regular civilian harm reports; and routine engagement with external casualty monitors such as Airwars. Those same key reforms are now being implemented at AFRICOM.

Here's the precise geolocation work that our Airwars specialists recently provided @USAFRICOM for the Kunyo Barrow strike – and which likely played a role in today's Credible determination. pic.twitter.com/idlgKAHz0f

— Airwars (@airwars) April 27, 2020

 

▲ Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)

Published

February 25, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars review raises tally of declared strikes, and reported civilian and militant deaths.

Airwars has launched a major new online resource for Somalia, providing the most comprehensive look yet at more than a decade of US counterterrorism actions in eastern Africa, and associated civilian harm claims.

The nine month review has identified significantly higher levels of locally reported civilian harm than previously thought, with up to 280 non combatants alleged killed in US actions since 2007. Declared US actions and reported militant deaths are also sharply up.

In Spring 2019, Airwars took over from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism its own long running monitoring of US drone strikes and civilian harm in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, with some Somalia events dating back as far as 2007. The first step was to bring event monitoring across to Airwars’ own standards. Over nine months, the team comprehensively reviewed several hundred declared and alleged US airstrikes and ground actions in Somalia, and 61 claimed civilian casualty incidents.

Event assessments were also significantly reoriented towards local Somali voices, adding many hundreds of new sources – including videos, photos, and social media posts. Airwars also worked closely with other NGOs, researchers and investigative reporters to ensure that their own important findings were incorporated.

The result is the most comprehensive understanding yet of US military and CIA actions in Somalia against al Shabaab, ISIS and al Qaeda over a thirteen year span.

    Overall, there are more than 280 declared and alleged US kinetic actions in Somalia since 2007 in the data – with 61 alleged civilian harm events. With a wider focus on US ground operations plus important new FOIA  information, Airwars now places the number of declared US actions at more than 200 (40% up on previous estimates.) The likely civilian fatality range from US actions is significantly up from the Bureau’s former estimate of 10 to 58 deaths, to Airwars’ own minimum estimate of 71 to 139 civilians killed since 2007 – with 284 non combatants locally alleged slain in total. Event data has also identified claims of as many as 2,320 al Shabaab and ISIS militants allegedly killed by US forces.

Airwars geolocation of all strikes and reported civilian harm opens up new mapping capabilities.

“Adding Somalia to our roster of monitored conflicts helps bring greater public scrutiny to this long running US campaign,” says Airwars director Chris Woods.

“While AFRICOM itself has admitted just two civilian deaths in more than a decade of strikes against terrorist groups like al Shabaab, the true toll is significantly higher. Our work with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria shows that militaries can improve their understanding and admission of civilian harm, when their actions are routinely and publicly scrutinised.”

A comprehensive Airwars approach to both strike reports and casualty monitoring has seen thousands of additional sources being added to the Bureau’s original records – most of them via local Somali media and social media. Hundreds of photographs and videos have also been added – with the names of dozens of Somali victims now listed in our comprehensive and fully searchable public database.

Airwars has also geolocated all declared and claimed US actions in Somalia since 2007 – with consultant design team Rectangle building comprehensive new maps and timelines which can now be searched separately by civilian fatalities; militant fatalities; strike locations; and strike targets. A fully searchable database can also refine by civilian harm events; civilian victim names, age and gender where known; declared versus possible US actions; and air versus ground actions.

In addition, Airwars has also permanently preserved the Bureau’s own decade-long research into Somalia – ensuring that future researchers and academics will always be able to interrogate its own groundbreaking findings. Hundreds of the Bureau’s archive news stories on US actions in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan have also been added to the Airwars site.

“If you don’t even count how many air strikes there are and how many civilians are being killed, what chance is there of reducing casualties?” notes Meirion Jones, deputy editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “The Bureau has been chronicling the death toll in Somalia for 10 years, and is now proud to hand that task over to Airwars which already does such a thorough job of counting strikes and casualties in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Airwars provided US Africa Command with comprehensive details of  alleged civilian harm events in Somalia during 2019, and also asked for clarification on alleged US actions that year. Officials have now confirmed no US military involvement in 21 claimed events last year – while promising to respond on civilian harm claims in the near future.

Several thousand militants have allegedly been killed by US actions in Somalia since 2007.

▲ The funeral of Abow Ali Wardi, according to al Shabaab killed in a lethal US drone strike on June 25th 2019 (via SomaliMemo)