May 4, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

Baghdad-based Latif Habib has been tracking and researching alleged Coalition civilian casualty incidents in Iraq for Airwars for more than two years – and has been on the front lines during the Mosul assault on five occasions so far. Here Latif reflects on why the campaign to capture Iraq’s second city has proved so lethal for civilians still trapped within. 

The plan to liberate Mosul from the control of so-called Islamic State has undergone several changes. Initially the reported aim was to leave an escape route from the western half of the city for the use of militants and possibly also civilians, in order both to relieve combat pressure and to protect civilians. Instead, hundreds of thousands of civilians have been trapped in West Mosul in what is becoming a fight to the death with ISIL. 

Plans and actions have differed radically between the right bank of the Tigris – geographically, the western half of the city – and the left bank, or eastern side. Initially, during operations to capture the east which began in October 2016, the Iraqi government and military leaders advised civilians to remain in their homes during the fighting. Coupled with the use of elite anti-terrorism forces who were well trained in urban warfare, this was a relative success – although as Airwars has reported, hundreds of civilians still likely died.

However, the same plan in far denser western Mosul has cost the lives of large numbers of civilians, in large part due to continuous aerial and artillery bombardment carried out by the Coalition and Iraqi forces. More than 5,500 bombs, missiles and rockets were used by the Coalition in Mosul in March alone, with thousands more munitions likely fired by Iraqi forces. 

These attacks have targeted Daesh facilities and units along with the headquarters of their leaders. But in many cases they have also struck the neighborhoods and markets of the Right Bank, hitting civilians and causing great loss of life. Several of the raids reportedly targeted areas where citizens were also present, including buildings and mosques that were being used as places of refuge for families displaced from other neighbourhoods where military confrontations were also taking place. This has led to even higher casualty figures.

A leaflet dropped on Mosul warns civilians to stay away from ISIL-held buildings

‘Sixty per cent of West Mosul destroyed’

The leadership of the international Coalition has continued to use long range rockets, mortars and artillery as well as airplanes to target Daesh fighters, especially inside the residential neighbourhoods of the Old City.  One particularly deadly raid on March 16th-17th hit residential buildings in which dozens of civilian families were gathered in the al Jadida neighborhood – all of them residents of the area. At least 280 civilians are now thought to have died in bombardments on the immediate neighbourhood, according to Iraqi civil defence.

Many questions remain unanswered about how these houses could have been targeted by the international coalition and Iraqi forces, with no conclusive findings so far. In my own view, there has been no serious effort to learn from the grave mistakes so far made by aircraft of the international coalition, or to deal with the resulting excessive human losses. All the arguments and excuses offered by US officials and leaders in the field have done nothing to change the tragedy of the civilians on the ground, and have not removed the suspicions among many Moslawis of the Coalition.

The excessive use of weapons like mortars and heavy machine guns inside the city, and random shelling by both sides, has caused additional casualties. The Federal Police, who are not trained in urban warfare but were even so used heavily in the battle for West Mosul, have reportedly caused a great deal of destruction. Daesh snipers also position themselves on the rooftops of buildings turning civilians into an indirect target, while the terror group’s suicide truck bombs have caused great destruction to civilian areas.

Already, many hundreds of civilian have died in the Old City, with its narrow streets and alleyways, where very intense firepower was used to compensate for the fact that Iraqi tanks and heavy equipment could not enter. Elite counter-terrorism forces who fought in eastern Mosul suffered heavy losses in that battle, and have been replaced in the west by less experienced soldiers and police. Airstrikes, rockets and artillery and mortar bombardment have, it is claimed, destroyed as much as 60% of West Mosul.

According to the United Nations the battle for Mosul is the biggest urban assault since World War Two – which has already lasted a month longer than the siege of Stalingrad. The failure by both the Coalition and the Iraqi government to create safe corridors for civilians to leave during the fighting – instead requiring them to stay in their homes – has contributed greatly to the very high number of civilian casualties now being reported.

▲ U.S. Soldiers assigned to Battery C, 2nd Battalion, 319th Airborne Field Artillery Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division fire their M777 towed 155 mm howitzer during a fire mission near Mosul, Iraq, Feb. 03, 2017. Battery C is supporting Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the global Coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Craig Jensen)


March 17, 2017

Written by

Airwars Staff

The Belgian Ministry of Defence has revealed that its F-16s carried out 639 sorties in Iraq and Syria between July 2016 and March 6th 2017, as part of the ongoing international war against so-called Islamic State. Of these sorties, 45% or about 287 were kinetic actions – meaning weapons were used. 

The fresh details about Belgium’s campaign were given at a press conference on March 14th – six months after the last such briefing. Belgium’s squadron of six F-16 fighters and seven pilots are conducting around 400 hours of sorties a month, or two to four sorties every day – a significant contribution from such a small force.

The Belgian campaign – which will end its second deployment in June – has been among the least transparent among Coalition partners. Even so Belgium continues to maintain that its actions have not killed or severely injured any Syrian or Iraqi civilians in more than two years of war.

Overall Airwars estimates that Belgium has now conducted around 390 airstrikes against ISIL since 2014 – with a higher than expected number of actions in Syria indicated in the latest release. This also suggests Belgium is the sixth most active member of the US-led Coalition.

Most Belgian airstrikes are focused at Mosul and Raqqa – where Airwars is also tracking high reported civilian casualties (Image source: Defensie – La Défense)

According to officials, 70 per cent of Belgian armed sorties since July 2016 have been around Mosul (down from 83% reported in September), with a further 12% in the Anbar area of Iraq, and 17% of actions near Raqqa in Syria – a rise of 10 per cent in recent months. A Coalition-backed advance on ISIL’s claimed capital has also seen record recent claims of civilian casualties.

Ministry of Defence officials have additionally reported that four types of munitions are in regular use by Belgium in Iraq and Syria – all of them 500lb or above. These are the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb; GBU-38 and GBU-31 GPS-guided munitions (the latter a 2,000lb bomb); and the GBU-54 combined laser/GPS-guided bomb. Unlike its closest ally the Netherlands, Belgium does not yet use the 250lb Small Diameter Bomb, known for its claimed precision. According to spokesman Colonel J. Poesen, “those have been ordered”.

Belgium says it is using four types of munition in its anti-ISIL strikes (Source: Defensie – La Défense)

‘No civilian casualties’

Belgium claims it applies both a lengthy pre-strike assessment process, and extensive post strike battle damage assessments for all of its airstrikes. It says that this careful approach, supported by two imagery analysts based in Ramstein in Germany, and four legal advisors including a red card holder (in Udeid, Qatar) means Belgian forces have not killed a single civilian. In the words of Colonel Poesen: “We have a clean record. Cleaner than some other countries.” However, it was later admitted that “zero risk does not exist” and that “there are limitations”.

While Belgium clearly attaches significant importance to civilian lives, a clean record would be unprecedented in a hot war such as the present anti-ISIL conflict – particularly when most strikes are now in urban areas. Airwars currently estimates that a minimum of 2,590 Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died in Coalition airstrikes – more than ten times the present Coalition estimate of 220 deaths.

Given that 70 per cent of recent Belgian actions have taken place around Mosul and 17% near Raqqa, it appears unlikely its forces have not been involved in any civilian casualty incidents. Hundreds of civilians have been credibly reported killed in airstrikes at both locations in recent months.

The Defence Ministry’s claim also cannot be tracked against the public record, since no dates or specific locations for Belgian strikes have been published – and with no details of any civilian casualty investigations made public. 

In a major Airwars transparency audit published in December, Belgium was rated as one of the least transparent members of the Coalition. Press conferences and the publication of monthly updates – which the MoD appears to have resumed – are signs of some improvement. Even so, public accountability and transparency continue to be problematic.  Without knowing where and when hundreds of Belgian strikes took place, the “zero civilian casualties” claim remains a claim, with the actual human cost of Belgian strikes unknown.

On March 20th, Belgian civil society is holding a conference on civilian casualty monitoring. And two days later, Airwars has been invited to present its latest transparency study to the Parliament’s Defence Committee.

Belgium performs poorly against other Coalition partners when it comes to transparency

▲ A Royal Belgian Air Force F-16 refuels over Iraq, October 10th 2016 (USAF/Tech. Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr)


October 10, 2016

Written by

Airwars Staff

Responding to a steep rise in reported civilian deaths from both Coalition and Russian airstrikes in 2016, Airwars has appointed three new full-time postholders who will help with the organisation’s monitoring, reporting and advocacy work.

The trio are New York based investigative reporter Samuel Oakford; UK-based Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan; and Eline Westra, an Amsterdam-based researcher focused on Dutch and Belgian airstrikes and transparency.

The new appointments – funded by the Open Society Foundations and the Dutch Democracy and Media Foundation – mean Airwars now has eight full and part time staff in five countries monitoring international airstrikes and civilian casualties in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Samuel Oakford joins Airwars as its first full time investigative reporter

Samuel Oakford is an investigative journalist based in New York City. His work focuses primarily on diplomacy, peacekeeping and human rights issues, particularly civilians in conflict. For two years Sam was VICE News’ United Nations correspondent, where he broke a number of stories on conflicts in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Burundi, and South Sudan.

Sam was also one of the first journalists to hold a microscope to Washington’s backing of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, publishing details of civilian casualties; Saudi threats to aid workers and the UN; and efforts to block human rights inquiries in Yemen.

Samuel’s work often looks at the phenomenon of “coalition” interventions and what that means for transparency, accountability and justice for civilian victims. In Iraq and Syria, he has applied this lens to anti-ISIL operations and reported on civilian casualties from US-led Coalition attacks, as well as Russian bombings.

Samuel’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic Magazine, Politico Magazine, the Intercept, IRIN News and IPS News. Prior to becoming a journalist, he worked for several years as a cartographer and researcher.

Refugee Abdulwahab Tahhan joins Airwars as a full time researcher, focused on international airstrikes in Syria

Abulwahab Tahhan was raised in Aleppo, Syria, where he studied English at university. A refugee from the civil war, he worked  in Turkey for Cultures of Resistance helping make the film The Suffering Grasses – a documentary about Syrian refugees which went on to win six awards.

Abdulwahab eventually made his way to the UK where he was awarded refugee status. He obtained a Masters in Applied Linguistics at Southampton University, where he also worked as a volunteer researcher for Amnesty International.

With the assistance of the Refugee Journalism Project, Abdulwahab first joined Airwars in summer 2016 as a volunteer researcher tracking Russian airstrikes and civilian casualties. His new full time role – funded by the Open Society Foundations for 18 months – will significantly improve capacity at Airwars, particularly its monitoring of Russia’s actions.

Amsterdam-based Eline Westra will focus on Dutch and Belgian airstrike transparency

Amsterdam-based researcher Eline Westra is focused exclusively on Dutch and Belgian airstrikes, thanks to a one year grant from Stichting Democratie en Media. The two nations are among the least transparent of the 13-member Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – raising significant accountability concerns.

Eline holds an MA in Human Rights and Democratisation, and has a particular interest in women’s rights; the role of religion in the public domain; and investigative journalism. Most recently she worked as a volunteer with Syrian refugees in Greece.

Her new Airwars post – based at Dutch transparency project the Open State Foundation – will see Eline working closely with Belgian and Dutch political parties, civic society and media to help stimulate engagement on transparency issues.

The trio join five other Airwars staff – and eight key volunteers – who between them seek to track thousands of international airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

“We’re absolutely delighted that Eline, Abulwahab and Samuel have joined the Airwars team,” says director Chris Woods. “Our researchers have so far tracked more than 2,000 individual events in which either Russia or the US-led Coalition is alleged to have killed civilians. These new full time posts will significantly improve our ability to research and report on such incidents – and to help hold international powers to account for their actions.”

▲ New funding for Airwars means Dutch and Belgian airstrikes - the least accountable in the Coalition - will come under more scrutiny (Belgian MoD/ Sedeyn Ritchie)


May 2016

Written by

Airwars Staff

Improving Belgian transparency and public accountability in the war against Daesh

As Brussels debated whether to extend airstrikes to Syria, we submitted a short report to parliament urging improved public transparency. The report concluded that “The act of waging war rightly places onerous responsibilities upon all combatants. It is surely
right not only that nations are held accountable for their military actions – but that they are also seen to be held accountable for those actions. At present, an Iraqi or Syrian civilian has no means of knowing whether they have potentially been affected by a Belgian airstrike.”


April 22, 2016

Written by

Airwars Staff

In a doubling of previous estimates of civilians killed in its air war against so-called Islamic State, the US has confirmed that 20 more non-combatants are believed to have died and 11 injured in nine separate events between September 2015 and February 2016.

Among those likely killed were two Iraqi families. On October 5th, US aircraft targeted an ‘ISIL mortar position’ in the village of Atshanah near Huwaijah. CENTCOM now admits that “eight civilians were killed.”

According to an earlier United Nations report, all of the dead came from one family, that of a village elder: “On 5 October, an airstrike mistakenly targeted a civilian house in Atshana village, east of Hawija and southwest of Kirkuk, that belonged to the Mukhtar of the village, killing eight persons from the same family, including several women and children and the Mukhtar himself.”

And on December 12th 2015 in Ramadi, five members of the Kazem family including three children died when US aircraft struck an ‘ISIL checkpoint.’ CENTCOM now says that “five civilians were killed after they unexpectedly moved into the target location after weapons were already in flight.”

Local media have named the dead as Duraid Ibrahim Kazem, his wife Nebras Abdul Alkarim, and three of their children: Mustafa, Mohammed and Farah. Graphic images of their bodies were posted at the time.

New admissions

Nine new civilian casualty events have been reported in total – bringing to 25 the number of cases so far admitted. A total of 41 civilian deaths and 28 injuries have now been conceded by the US.

That compares with 406 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events tracked by Airwars since strikes began in August 2014. Of these, Airwars presently assesses a further 167 events as having been fairly reported, with a likely additional civilian toll of 1,064 to 1,638 civilians killed.

All of the newly-admitted events were carried out by US aircraft, most the result of civilians entering the ‘kill box’ after weapon release. No other Coalition ally – or Russia – has so far conceded killing or injuring any civilians, despite thousands of airstrikes between them.

“While we appreciate the latest US admission of civilian casualties from its 20-month war against so-called Islamic State, we remain concerned that the Coalition is significantly under-reporting non-combatant deaths,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “Only 41 of 1,100 or more likely civilian deaths have so far been conceded – and all by the United States. Other allies in the Coalition – as well as Russia – now need to be open about the casualties they too have inflicted.”

Six of the newly admitted events took place in Iraq and three in Syria. Only a third of the incidents were publicly reported at the time, suggesting both that internal CENTCOM monitoring is capable of detecting likely civilian casualties – but also that public accounts of civilian deaths may represent a significant underreporting.

The US has also confirmed the first civilian death in Mosul – a city which has seen more Coalition airstrikes and alleged civilian fatalities than anywhere else in Iraq or Syria. On January 11th CENTCOM now admits, at least one civilian died and five or more were injured during a US air raid on a bank in the city. At the time the US let it be known it had been prepared to inflict up to 50 civilian casualties in the attack.

Latest confirmed civilian casualties from US strikes

Sept 10th 2015 Kubaysah, Iraq 2 killed and 4 injured when vehicle enters killbox
Oct 5th 2015 Atshanah, Iraq Family of 8 or 9 killed when house struck
Nov 4th 2015 Huwaijah, Iraq 2 nearby civilians injured when ‘ISIL vehicle’ hit
Nov 12th 2015 Ramadi, Iraq 1 civilian killed in strike on ‘ISIL fighters’
Dec 10th 2015 Raqqa, Syria 1 civilian killed in targeted strike on HVT
Dec 12th 2015 Ramadi, Iraq Family of 5 includng 3 children killed
Dec 24th 2015 Tishreen, Syria 1 civilian killed when motorbike enters killbox
Jan 11th 2016 Mosul, Iraq 1 civilian killed and 5 injured in strike on ‘ISIL bank’
Feb 2nd 2016 Al Ghazili, Syria 1 civilian killed in strike on ‘ISIL vehicle’
▲ Family of five killed in a reported Coalition strike December 10 (via Ramadi News)


March 2016

Written by

Airwars Staff

A Reckless Disregard for Civilian Lives: Russian airstrikes in Syria

Our analysis of Russian airstrikes in Syria between September 30th and December 31st 2015 found that despite Moscow’s continuing assertions that no civilians have been killed in its ongoing Syrian air war, there were credible indications from open source reporting that to December 31st 2015 only, between 1,098 and 1,450 non-combatants had likely died in 192 separate Russian events.


February 2016

Written by

Airwars Staff

Netherlands airstrikes in Syria: Towards improved transparency and public accountability

Our report submitted to the Dutch Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee argued that despite being an advanced democracy with membership both of the European Union and NATO, The Netherlands had also been one of the least transparent partners in the US-led Coalition against ISIS – a situation which has further deteriorated over time. “It is an uncomfortable fact that Saudi Arabia and the UAE have on occasion issued more
information on their anti-Daesh air campaigns than has the Netherlands,” we noted.


October 15, 2015

Written by

Airwars Staff
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Former US drone operator Brandon Bryant (photo: Democracy Now!/You Tube)

As a parliamentary inquiry in Berlin explores Germany’s role in America’s drone wars, former drone operator Brandon Bryant tells the Bureau about what he saw of it during his time with the Air Force.

Bryant, who himself gave testimony to the inquiry today, said that drone operators in the US would interact with Ramstein Air Force base in Germany throughout the mission.

“It was a constant communication, before every mission after every mission and every time signal strength was weak or we might lose signal strength we’d always have to call Ramstein Air Force Base for troubleshooting,” he told the Bureau.

“They were the ones that handled all of our…feeds, and they were the ones that assigned us specific codes where we would connect to the relay.”

Ramstein is a well-known US base, but until recently little was known about its role in supporting drone operations. Earlier this year, the Intercept and Spiegel reported on the existence of classified documents adding further weight to allegations that Ramstein plays a vital role in relaying the satellite signal from the machines flying over the Middle East to pilots and analysts in the US. In May, three Yemeni plaintiffs who lost relatives in a drone strike brought a court case against the German government, though the judge dismissed it.

The Bundestag committee’s inquiry was originally set up in the wake of revelations by whistleblower Edward Snowden about the extent of US surveillance activities worldwide, including in Germany.

As Bryant sees it, the stakes for the German government are high.

“Ramstein is enabling us to fly in countries where there is no declared warzone as well as declared warzones,” he said. “What does that it mean for us as a country, what does it mean for the German people as a country? Because if they accept the fact that we have used drones in illegal warzones and that’s ok then that makes them complicit in all the strikes we’ve messed up.”

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