August 2015

Written by

Airwars Staff

Cause for Concern – Hundreds of civilian non-combatants credibly reported killed in first year of Coalition airstrikes against Islamic State

Our first major report challenged claims by the US-led Coalition’s airstrikes against so-called Islamic State were not harming civilians. As we noted at the time, “Efforts to limit the risk to civilians on the ground continue to be hampered by an absence of effective transparency and accountability from almost all Coalition members. It is unacceptable that only one of twelve Coalition partners – Canada – has consistently stated in a timely fashion both where and when it carries out airstrikes.”


July 2015

Written by

Airwars Staff

ABOVE: A bomb-laden Belgian F-16 prepares for a mission in Iraq, December 2014 (Belgian MoD)


Major Developments

    Belgium announces it has ended its military role in the coalition, withdrawing its F-16s after approximately 41 airstrikes 13 fresh problem events are reported for June in both Iraq and Syria, involving multiple civilian deaths allegedly caused by coalition aircraft Airstrikes in Iraq alone now total over 3,000 UK considers expanding its air war against Daesh to Syria, in the wake of a Tunisia massacre of 30 British civilians by the terror group


Civilian Casualties

    In Iraq, seven new incidents of concern were reported for June in which coalition aircraft may have killed civilians.  Up to 81 people died in three events where coalition strikes were confirmed in the near vicinity, and where the publicly available evidence indicates a coalition role in the deaths.

A further 47 civilian fatalities were alleged by single sources only for three more incidents in Iraq, while one attack which killed up to 50 people at Huwija’s marketplace appears to have been the work of the Iraqi military.

In the most serious incident, as many as 70 civilians died when the coalition did bomb an IED factory at Huwija on June 3rd. Announcing a formal investigation into the mass killing three weeks later, a CENTCOM spokesman accepted that claims of civilian deaths in the attack were “credible.”

    In Syria, six new events led to multiple claims of coalition-inflicted civilian deaths for June. Between 16 and 34 people died in four attacks in which strikes by coalition aircraft were confirmed in the near vicinity. One further alleged strike is presently single-source only, while an attack at Kheshan which killed three may have been the work of the Assad regime.

In the most recent reported event for Syria, a 10-year old boy named as Mohmmad Ali Ahmad Al Assaf died with unnamed others when their car was struck near Tal Abyad on June 30th by an alleged coalition air strike.

#الرقة طيران التحالف يستهدف سيارة مدنية جنوب سلوك 20كم ويوقع عدد من المدنيين قتلى عرف منهم الطفل"محمد علي احمد العساف

— Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi (@raqqa_mcr) June 30, 2015

ABOVE: Tweet by local activist describes June 30th death of 10 year old boy in alleged coalition airstrike

    The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, reports that 19,205 Assad regime air raids in Syria between January and June 2015 killed and injured some 30,000 people.


Military Actions

    During June 2015, the international coalition carried out 622 airstrikes, 407 of which targeted Daesh in Iraq, and 215 in Syria. After May and January 2015 (respectively 677 and 625 strikes), this represents the third most intense month of bombings since the beginning of the campaign in August 2014.

More than 3,000 airstrikes have now targeted Iraq alone since coalition operations began.

    Belgium appears to have caught some of its coalition partners by surprise this week, announcing on July 2nd that its military contribution to the coalition – Operation Desert Falcon – was officially over.

According to officials, Belgium’s six F-16 aircraft had released 141 bombs and missiles on Islamic State positions in Iraq since October 5th 2014 (approximately 40 airstrikes.) This represented the smallest contribution of any western military to the campaign.

Coalition officials were keen to downplay Belgium’s exit from the air war. One European military spokesman, speaking on background terms, told Airwars that financial pressures appeared to lie behind the Belgian government’s decision to withdraw its forces – and that there were hopes that Belgium’s aircraft might return to Iraq in 2016.

    Britain’s Prime Minister and Defense Secretary have both mooted the possibility of the UK expanding its attacks against Islamic State to targets inside Syria. The UK is already the second most active member of the international military coalition, responsible for around one in 10 of all airstrikes in Iraq.

Until now, the UK has been prevented from striking inside Syria following a parliamentary vote on September 26 2014. However, in the wake of a Daesh atrocity in Tunisia on June 26th which killed 38 people – 30 of them British – the ruling Conservative administration in the UK is keen to see the air war expanded.

A fresh parliamentary vote is not expected until September, by which time a new leader of the Labour Opposition will have been elected.

The Netherlands marked its 1,000th armed sortie against Islamic State forces in Iraq this week (Dutch MoD)


June 5, 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.

John Brennan, the Director of the CIA since March 2013

Transferring control of the US drone programme away from the CIA could paradoxically result in less accountability, author and investigative journalist Chris Woods told this week’s Drone News.

Since President Barack Obama announced in April that a CIA drone strike on an al Qaeda compound in Pakistan had accidentally killed two Western hostages, calls for the drone programme to be transferred to the Pentagon have been amplified.

Woods said however that former senior US intelligence officials he interviewed for his new book, ‘Sudden Justice’, told him that the CIA was bound by more stringent congressional reporting requirements than the Department of Defense’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which has its own drone programme.  “That was a surprise to me,” said Woods, formerly a reporter at the Bureau.

“What my sources told me was ‘if you think you’ve got it bad now, if this goes to JSOC we may never know anything.’”

The CIA is legally obliged to declare its actions to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees, Woods said, whereas there is no such obligation to the Armed Services Committee, which oversees the military.

During research for his book, he was also surprised how high a proportion of drone strikes have been conducted on conventional battlefields, such as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

He said: “If 80% of drone strikes are happening on the regular battlefield under full military control and the laws of war, which they are, then that really maybe changes the way we think about drones….in terms of the threat they represent towards civilians.”

“One of the conclusions I reached for the book was that drones can – if used properly – significantly reduce the risk to civilians on the battlefield. But there’s got to be the political will there, and time after time where we’ve found problems with civilian deaths in places like Pakistan or Yemen it’s because there hasn’t been the political will to control those deaths.”

Download the Podcast here

When asked by Jack Serle why it was so hard to obtain information about the US’s use of drones in conventional battlegrounds, Woods said it was likely due to different drone programmes being “bundled tightly together”.

He said: “You have special forces drones, CIA drones and regular drones all flown by the regular Air Force and in fact owned by Air Combat Command. What happened over time was that they realised that if they started to allow information about one aspect of the war to come out, the whole thing risked unbundling, so what they’ve actually done is classify all drone operations including on the regular battlefield.”

Follow our drones team Owen Bennett-Jones, Abigail Fielding-Smith and Jack Serle on Twitter.

Sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project, subscribe to our podcast Drone News, and follow Drone Reads on Twitter to see what our team is reading.


May 21, 2015

Written by

Airwars Staff

After more than 4,000 airstrikes by the international alliance over a nine month period, the US-led coalition has finally conceded that its actions have killed civilians.

According to a statement issued by CENTCOM late on May 21st, an airstrike on the village of Harem near Aleppo six months previously had “likely led to the deaths of two non-combatant children.”

Five year old Daniya Ali Al Haj Qaddour and her father, alleged militant Ali Saeed Al Haj Qaddour, both killed in a US air strike at Harem, November 5th 2014 (via SNHR)

According to Airwars’ own records, one of those killed was five year old Daniya Ali Al Haj Qaddour, whose father Ali Saeed Al Haj Qaddour (an alleged fighter with the Al Nusra Front) also died in the attack according to reports at the time.

Daniya’s mother, and her young brother Saeed, were also reported to have been severely wounded in the bombing. The identity of the second slain child is not clear.

While welcome, CENTCOM’s admission that it has killed non-combatants also raises uncomfortable questions.

Details of the childrens’ deaths were published on social media and by Syrian monitoring groups within hours of the US attack, on the night of November 5th-6th 2014.

And redacted emails released by CENTCOM indicate that military officials were aware of possible civilian deaths almost immediately after the event.

Yet it was not until January 8 2015 – two months after the killings – that an inquiry was ordered. Overseen by coalition commander Lt. General James L. Terry, the declassified report confirms that a series of US air raids on the so-called Khorasan Group, a faction of Al Qaeda, had also “triggered secondary explosions.”

Although four children were reported killed at the time of the attack, CENTCOM’s investigation has only been able to confirm two “likely” deaths.

‘Too little, too late’ Airwars will shortly publish its own major report into civilians allegedly killed by the coalition since August.

Our provisional findings show that between 384 and 753 civilians have been reported killed in some 97 problem incidents, according to local and international media, and Iraqi and Syrian monitoring groups.

Verifying these claims can be extremely difficult. Most areas being bombed by the coalition are occupied by Islamic State. Civic society has often collapsed, and local people live in fear of retaliation for speaking out. Even so, evidence linking the coalition to civilian deaths can often be compelling.

“While we welcome CENTCOM’s admission after nine months of bombings that it has indeed killed civilians, it’s a case of too little too late,” says Chris Woods of Airwars.

“The first claims of civilian deaths from coalition actions emerged just days after air strikes began in August 2014. Since then, hundreds of likely non-combatant deaths have occurred, many in incidents better documented than the November 5th incident which CENTCOM has now conceded.”

Woods urged the coalition to speed up its investigation and review process – and to be far more transparent about where and when individual coalition members are bombing in Iraq and Syria.

Airwars Report on November 5th-6th Strike

November 5th-6th 2014: Harem, Idlib governorate, Syria Summary: Six months after US air raids targeted the Khorasan Group (part of the Nusra Front) and the militant group Ahrar al-Sham, the coalition finally conceded that two children had died in the attack – the first public concession of any civilian deaths after 4,000 airstrikes over nine months. The November 5th US raid targeted the villages of Harem, Bab Al Hawa, Sarmada, Reef Al-Muhameen and Binsh. Reports from the night remains confused, with civilian deaths claimed at a number of locations. Reuters carried a statement from Ahrar al-Sham saying that “The air strikes came last night and hit a number of areas in the liberated Idlib countryside,” and that casualties included “women and children and civilians.” CENTCOM later confirmed that US actions had led to civilian deaths at Harem. According to the Syrian Revolution Forum blog: “The planes of the Arab/Western coalition launched air strikes on Syrian cities adjacent to the Turkish border.  The centre of the town of Harem was targeted with more than six raids causing the death of four children and causing massive destruction to residential and commercial property on Al Sijn street.” One of the children named as killed was five year old Daniya Ali Al Haj Qaddour, whose father Ali Saeed Al Haj Qaddour – a fighter with the Al Nusra Front – also died in the attack (both pictured below.) Daniya’s mother and brother Saeed were reported to have been severely wounded. Reported killed: 2-4 children Reported injured: Unknown Sources: Reuters, GRAPHIC Jakob Sheikh Facebook page [Danish], Syrian Revolution Forum [Arabic], Free Syrian Army [Arabic], Syrian Network for Human Rights [Arabic] [English], GRAPHIC YouTube video [two slain children], YouTube [post-strike destruction in Harem], YouTube (2nd video of destruction in Harem), YouTube, Syrian Martyrs [Arabic], YouTube [civil-defence rescuers search for survivors in Harem – Arabic commentary], YouTube [Syrian rescue services hunt for survivors], Violations Documentation Center [Arabic], CENTCOM declassified report Quality of reporting: High, with coalition confirming civilian casualties Coalition position: CENTCOM confirmed on May 21st 2015 that it likely killed two children in an airstrike at Harem. “We regret the unintentional loss of lives,” Lt General Terry said of the incident. “The Coalition continues to take all reasonable measures during the targeting process to mitigate risks to non-combatants, and to comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.”

GRAPHIC: Two child victims of  US airstrike, Harem in Syria November 5 2015


May 13, 2015

Written by

Airwars Staff

In the first 40 weeks of US-led military action against so-called Islamic State (Daesh), more than 3,800 airstrikes were carried out by a dozen international coalition members across both Iraq and Syria. Those strikes saw around 13,000 bombs and missiles dropped in an aerial war likely to continue for many more months, if not years.

Civilian non-combatants already faced great risk on the ground. Islamic State and other militant and terrorist groups have caused untold death and misery to thousands. In Syria, civilians are also repeatedly targeted by the Assad regime in indiscriminate bombings, while in Iraq both the Army and associated militias have been accused  of atrocities.

Yet civilians are also at risk from the international coalition’s actions. This is a complex conflict, involving multiple allies fighting across two nations. It is also an intense air war, with Islamic State frequently targeted by airstrikes within the towns and cities it now occupies. Civilian casualties are inevitable.

Ibrahim al Mussul, a shepherd killed with his two daughters Jozah and Zahra in a reported US airstrike on his home, February 2nd 2015 (Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Promoting accountability Most of the 12 coalition members do issue at least some information about the strikes they conduct – yet there is rarely mention of any casualties inflicted.

With so many nations carrying out bombings, determining responsibility when civilians are killed or injured presents major challenges. We believe there is an acute need for greater openness from our militaries – and our project is an attempt to address this.

Airwars is a non-aligned, not-for-profit organisation seeking to promote transparency and accountability by the US and its allies in the following ways:

* We monitor and record the international coalition’s airstrikes against Islamic State (Daesh) in both Iraq and Syria

* We archive all publicly available official military reports of the war

* We collate – and aim to verify wherever possible – all credible claims of non-combatant civilian deaths.

The Airwars project was begun in August 2014 by journalist Chris Woods, who previously set up and ran the award-winning Drones Project at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“With so many airstrikes being carried out by so many nations in Iraq and Syria – yet with little real transparency or accountability – there is an urgent need for credible independent monitoring,” says Woods. “We know from other recent conflicts that holding combatants to account for their actions can play a significant role in reducing the risk to civilians on the ground.”

Airwars today comprises a small team of professional journalists and researchers. While much of our work is voluntary, thanks to generous funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust we also employ two part time specialists – an Iraqi and a Syrian – who monitor  Arabic media and monitoring groups, and follow up wherever possible credible claims of civilian casualties.

In March 2015, Airwars transitioned to this purpose-built website thanks to the project’s second core volunteer, data journalist Basile Simon.

Montage of damage from a reported coalition airstrike near Mosul April 20th 2015 (Photo: Mosul Residents Facebook page)

Civilian casualties Airstrikes can often represent the greatest threat to civilians on the ground during conflicts. And there are plenty of indications that the coalition’s air war against Islamic State places non-combatants at risk of death or injury:

    Coalition strikes are often focused on towns and cities, in both Iraq and Syria. Recent official data showed that at least a third of all coalition airstrikes have been aimed at buildings, for example. Most coalition airstrikes are dynamic – that is, they’re aimed at targets of opportunity as opposed to pre-planned operations. As a consequence, little may be known about civilians in the immediate vicinity of a strike location. There are very few forward air controllers in Iraq – and none in Syria – meaning the coalition is heavily dependent upon aerial surveillance for accuracy. Yet as Airwars monitoring shows, ISR provision still lags far behind other conflicts such as Afghanistan. There appears little or no accountability for coalition actions – crucial if pressure is to be applied to reduce non-combatant deaths. Some nations like Belgium and Saudi Arabia generally refuse to release details of their airstrikes, while others will only say how many bombs they drop – and not where they strike.

Despite these risks, the coalition continues to insist that it cannot officially confirm the death of a single civilian after nine months of airstrikes.

In its latest statement to Airwars dated March 25th, a Pentagon spokesman told us: “It is CENTCOM‘s view that no non-combatant deaths from coalition airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria have officially been confirmed.”

Counting the dead Instead of the ‘zero civilians killed’ which CENTCOM insists upon, Airwars has identified a significant number of non-combatants likely to have been killed in coalition strikes.

Our early findings have (as of May 13th 2015) identified 95 incidents of concern, in which between 587 and 734 civilian non-combatant fatalities have been claimed.

Many of these events represent significant challenges to our researchers. That said, it is our present view that there are reasonable indications of between 370-465 non-combatant deaths likely to have been caused by coalition strikes.

A further 130-145 deaths are presently poorly reported, or are single-sourced. And an additional 85-125 fatalities result from a contested event (for example, alongside claims that the Iraq military might instead have been responsible.)

Our researchers have also identified 140 or more ‘friendly fire’ deaths of allied ground forces which have been attributed to the coalition, with varying levels of certainty.

Four year old Abdullah Ghassan Salem al Hadid, killed with his family in a reported coalition airstrike on Mosul, Iraq on April 23 2015

“Claims by the coalition that it has killed few or no civilians in its many thousands of airstrikes are not borne out by the evidence,” says Woods. “For numerous events, we have detailed information regarding non-combatants killed – and confirmed coalition strikes in the immediate vicinity. Yet there is little evidence the international alliance is following up on such cases.

“The coalition needs to improve both its post-strike investigations, and to acknowledge promptly and publicly any non-combatant fatalities. Failure to do so risks undermining support among Iraqi and Syrian civilians for ongoing operations – and also hands a propaganda tool to those opposing international intervention.”

If, as expected, the coalition’s airwar continues for some time, Airwars believes there is a vital public interest in its continuing to monitor, scrutinize and challenge military and government narratives of the war.

Experience from previous conflicts such as Afghanistan also indicates that sustained public scrutiny can help to reduce the risk to non-combatants on the battlefield.

Archiving the war Another important role for Airwars is to gather and permanently archive public military records of the war.

Already the Daily Reports section of our website has collated hundreds of official releases by the US and other militaries. We cross-reference these records where possible against claims of civilian casualties, and also archive video, photographic and other evidence of strikes and their consequences.

There are important reasons for doing this. Official digital records of recent conflicts have proven highly vulnerable to amendment or deletion.

Records of the recent Afghanistan conflict have already fragmented, with CENTCOM only making available records dating back four years. Researchers then have to re-obtain such data using Freedom of Information requests, a laborious and time-consuming process. The British government too has removed daily reports published as recently as 2012.

April 5: RAF reports Tornado strike at RamadiApril 16th: Strike details are goneThis is why we archive everything.

— Airwars (@airwars) April 16, 2015

Already in the present coalition air war, some records have disappeared from the public record. On April 5th for example, the UK reported an airstrike by one of its Tornados at Ramadi in Iraq [see above]. Eleven days later that record was removed.

By publishing all official reports as they are released, our aim is to archive the entire air war, ensuring that future researchers have full public access to records as they were issued.

For our latest news on coalition strikes follow Airwars on Twitter

▲ French attack aircraft onboard the carrier Charles de Gaulle, March 20th 2014 (Ministère de la Défense)