December 19, 2019

Written by

Chris Woods

Airwars analysis of official data indicates US officials were privately acknowledging 70 civilian deaths at Hawijah, long before the Dutch government admitted the event.

The Netherlands Ministry of Defence (Defensie) has provided an inaccurate statement to both MPs and the media, Airwars analysis indicates – on the eve of a critical parliamentary debate on the deaths of scores of civilians in Iraq which had resulted from a Dutch airstrike in 2015.

Credible reports at the time had indicated that at least 70 civilians died at Hawijah in June 2015, after a Coalition airstrike detonated ISIS explosives held in a VBIED factory. Much of the surrounding neighbourhood was destroyed, and the Coalition almost immediately ordered an inquiry into the attack, which has never been published.

However it was only on November 4th 2019 that the Dutch government finally admitted responsibility for Hawijah – following a major investigation by news organisations NOS and NRC.

Since then, as a political crisis has engulfed the coalition government, Defensie has sought to play down or dismiss reports that 70 civilians died at Hawijah – and also that US defence officials had privately conceded those deaths long before the Dutch admission.

Dismissing the evidence

One problem for Defensie was that several pieces of evidence appeared to contradict their denials of 70 civilian deaths. In April 2017 CENTCOM officials had declared 80 non-US civilian deaths, in frustration at their unnamed Coalition allies not accepting public responsibility for events. The suspicion remains that Hawijah formed a significant proportion of those 80 deaths.

Then in December 2018, an on the record email to Dutch reporters from then-Coalition official spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan explicitly stated that “The strike to the VBIED factory caused secondary explosions that unfortunately killed 70 civilians despite the precautions the Coalition took to mitigate civilian casualties.”

Finally, in a declassified 2018 Pentagon report produced by the US National Defense University (NDU) – which was obtained by the Washington Post and published in February 2019 – a graphic appeared to show a clear casualty spike in official US military tallies of civilian deaths in Iraq, at exactly the point at which Hawijah occurred.

With the US-led Coalition recently and inexplicably withdrawing its estimate of 70 civilians killed at Hawijah, Defensie is also now seeking to downplay the importance of the NDU graphic.

In a statement issued to parliament on December 18th, the defense ministry claimed that the NDU graphic did not in fact feature the Hawijah data, asserting instead that “It can be concluded from the table that, based on investigations into possible civilian casualties as a result of the Coalition’s deployment of weapons, CENTCOM was able to confirm [only] that a higher number of civilian casualties occurred in this period than in the preceding and subsequent period. [translated from Dutch]”


How Airwars assessment indicates Defensie is wrong

A review by Airwars shows that based on official Coalition data, the casualty spike in the NDU graphic can in fact only be explained if the Hawijah event had been included – indicating that US officials have long privately counted those 70 deaths in their own data, despite the Netherlands hiding its own involvement in the event.

For its assessment, Airwars examined all confirmed (‘Credible’) Coalition civilian harm events declared for the time window of May 1st to July 31st 2015. There were 17 such events totalling 106 confirmed deaths and 9 injuries if Hawijah was included – or 16 events with 36 deaths and 9 injuries if Hawijah was excluded, as Defensie claimed was the case.

However, the NDU graphic makes clear that the 2015 casualty spike relates only to Iraq – meaning that twelve Syrian events should be discounted. Three of the incidents had also been confirmed only in 2019, meaning that they were deemed Credible only after the NDU study was published.

That left just three events in Iraq: Hawihjah with 70 deaths; and two incidents in July 2015 each injuring one civilian according to the official data.

The casualty spike in the NDU graphic could only therefore be explained if the Hawijah estimate of 70 deaths had been included in the official tally, Airwars concluded.

“Defensie appears to have made a major error in claiming to the Dutch parliament that Hawijah  was excluded from the NDU study data,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “In fact, the only possible explanation for the visible casualty spike in summer 2015, depicted in the NDU graphic, was that the Hawijah event was already being included privately by the Pentagon in its own assessments of civilian harm resulting from Coalition actions.”

Screenshot of Airwars assessment of all declared Coalition civilian harm events for the period May 1st 2015 to July 31st 2015.

▲ The controversial NDU graphic which indicates that by 2018, the Pentagon was already privately counting a major loss of civilian life in Iraq during the summer of 2015, at the time of the Hawijah event.


April 2, 2017

Written by

Chris Woods

The US-led Coalition has conceded that a supposed ‘ISIS headquarters’ it targeted at Mosul in September 2015 was in fact a family home, noting in its latest civilian casualty release that “four civilians were unintentionally killed and two civilians were unintentionally injured in the building.”

Four members of the Rezzo family died when Coalition aircraft bombed their suburban Mosul villa on the night of September 20th-21st 2015. Despite a record 558 days between the incident and the Coalition’s public admission of error on April 1st, officials had known of possible civilian deaths within hours of the attack.

“This report was opened and a credibility assessment completed in 2015. However, the report was never officially closed or reported publicly. I do not know why that was,” Colonel Joe Scrocca, Director of Public Affairs for the Coalition told Airwars. “The case was brought to our attention by the media and we discovered the oversight, relooked [at] the case based on the information provided by the journalist and family, which confirmed the 2015 assessment, and officially closed the report in February.”

There was relief among family members that the deaths had finally been admitted – but also concern: “For eighteen months, we have been fighting for this admission of a mistake, for our loved ones to be counted as civilians,” Professor Zareena Grewal told Airwars from New York. “It is a small relief to have the US government concede that this airstrike was a mistake, that they mistakenly targeted the residential homes of a family that opposed ISIS. It is also deeply frightening because this case is an indictment of the quality of US intelligence.”

The Coalition admission – one of five newly confirmed civilian casualty events, all in Mosul – brings to 229 the number of Iraqi and Syrian civilians so far admitted killed in the US-led air war against so called Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS.) Airwars presently estimates that at least 2,831 civilians have so far died as a result of Coalition actions.

A family’s home destroyed

Among the declared targets struck by the US-led alliance on September 20th 2015 were “an ISIL VBIED facility, an ISIL bunker, an ISIL building, [and] an ISIL C2 node.” Now the Coalition says it also conducted “a strike on what was evaluated at the time to be an ISIS headquarters building.”

Cousins Najib and Tuka, both killed in a Coalition airstrike on September 20th-21st 2015 (Picture courtesy of the Altalib family)

Instead the home of a middle class family was destroyed. University professor Mohannad Rezzo; his 17-year old son Najib Mohannad Rezzo; his brother Bassim’s wife Miyada Rezzo and their 21-year old daughter Tuka Rezzo all died.

“Mohannad’s wife, Sana, survived the explosion, which flung her, burned, from her second-floor bedroom to the driveway below. Mohannad’s older brother, Bassim, also narrowly survived,” US-based relative Zareena Grewal wrote in the New York Times just days after the strike. “Bassim’s pelvis and leg were shattered in the attack and require surgery, but it is his emotional pain that consumes him.”

According to CENTCOM, military officials were aware of civilian casualty allegations within a day of the incident. Professor Grewal noted on October 4th 2015 that she had already been told that “Centcom was assessing the credibility of the reports, before determining any follow-on action, which might include a ‘formal investigation.'”

Yet despite Rezzo family members long ago coming forward with key photographic and other evidence, the alliance has continued publicly to deny any casualties until now. So confident were officials they had destroyed the right target that for more than a year, an official video of the Mosul attack was posted on the Coalition’s YouTube channel. It has since been removed, though not before being preserved by a pair of reporters who have been instrumental in helping secure a public admission of the Coalition’s error.

The Coalition’s own video of its attack on the Rezzo family home – since removed from its official YouTube channel

‘A long time coming’

Investigative journalists Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal have spent more than a year working closely with family members to secure an admission from the Coalition that it made a deadly error.

“Today’s official recognition of this airstrike having killed civilians has been a long time coming, and should have been made public previously. It is also a searing reminder of the immense difficulty families face in getting the loss of their loved ones recognized, even in cases in which there is ample evidence of civilian loss,” Azmat Khan told Airwars in an emailed comment.

“There is still information that the Coalition has refused to provide us, for example, the kind of aircraft and munitions used in this airstrike, as well as the reason why the Rezzo family homes were hit. We are also still awaiting the results of our Freedom of Information Act requests for the government’s own investigations into this incident.” Khan and Gopal’s major investigation into the incident is expected to publish in the near future.

Family members – while welcoming the official admission that their relatives were accidentally slain – remain angry that the process took so long. “Despite eyewitness testimony, a UN investigation, photographic evidence, and video footage of the strike that clearly demonstrated Coalition forces had hit two residential homes, the Pentagon did not count our family members as civilian victims and simply lumped them together with the death toll of Islamic State fighters,” says Professor Grewal. “The claim that our military air strike campaigns are precise is a dangerous and bloody myth.”

“We regret the unintentional loss of civilian lives resulting from Coalition efforts to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria and express our deepest sympathies to the families and others affected by these strikes,” the Coalition noted in its own press release.

Asked how the Coalition could have mistaken a family home for an ‘ISIS headquarters, a spokesman told Airwars: “ISIS uses many different types of structures to plan its terrorist activities. Many of which are residential homes taken from the people of Iraq and Syria.”

Backlog of allegations

The Rezzo admission is one of five new Mosul cases confirmed by the Coalition in its latest monthly civilian casualty report.

A Coalition strike on ‘an ISIS weapons manufacturing facility’ on January 30th 2017 is now thought to have unintentionallly killed one civilian in the building according to officials. Airwars understands that this event took place at Tanak neighbourhood, where up to 11 civilian deaths were reported by ISIL in a Coalition attack that day. Among those said by local monitors to have been slain were a young man Mustafa Mayser Mahmoud, his mother, and his father Mayser Mahmoud.

On February 6th the Coalition now says that “during a strike on ISIS fighters, it was assessed that three civilians were unintentionally injured when they entered the target area after the munition was released.” A similar attack against an ISIL truck bomb facility six days later also saw two civilians accidentally killed “when they entered the target area after the munition was released.”

The previously-unknown fifth incident on February 16th, again on “an ISIS VBIED facility” – this time in West Mosul’s Ar Rabi neighbourhood – killed a further two civilians according to officials.

Airwars is currently seeking to ascertain whether all five newly confirmed events were, as on previous occasions, the result of US-only actions.

In a mark of how steeply civilian casualty allegations are now rising, the Coalition announced in its latest report that it is still assessing 36 additional claimed civilian casualty events for February – on top of six more incidents for the month it has already deemed ‘not credible.’ Even so, this record monthly tally of 45 events under investigation still represents only half of the 90 claimed cases for February so far tracked by Airwars.

The international alliance admits it is falling behind on claims, though insists it intends to work through all cases: “The Coalition does have a backlog of allegations it is currently waiting to assess, to include additional allegations brought to our attention by Airwars. Credibility assessments take time and manpower to complete thoroughly,” Colonel Scrocca said in an emailed statement.

“While the primary mission of the Coalition is to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria, we should not and will not rush through this process for the sake of expediency. We take this responsibility very seriously and will continue to scrupulously assess every single allegation to ensure a full accounting of our findings.”

Mustafer Mayser Mahmoud died with his father (right) and mother in a reported airstrike on January 30th 2017, which the Coalition now appears to have conceded killed at least one civilian (via Mosul Ateka)


August 8, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Research by Latif Habib, Kinda Haddad, Alex Hopkins, Basile Simon and Christiaan Triebert

The US-led Coalition enters the third year of its war against so-called Islamic State having already conducted more than 14,300 airstrikes against the terror group – and with thousands of ground forces also now committed.

ISIL is under significant pressure on multiple fronts, having lost much of its territory over the past year. The cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are back in the hands of Iraq’s government, with Mosul encircled. The US’s Kurdish proxies have also captured a swathe of northern Syria from ISIL – and stand poised to seize the key town of Manbij after a brutal campaign.

But millions of civilians still under occupation face the greatest risk yet from Coalition actions, with the number of likely deaths almost doubling in the past year. In total, Airwars estimates that at least 1,568 civilians have so far died in strikes. The Coalition puts that figure at just 55 dead, despite an estimated 52,000 weapons so far being released.

War by the numbers

While the Coalition estimates it has killed more than 25,000 enemy fighters, just four of its own personnel have so far been declared lost in combat. Jordanian pilot Muath al Kasabeh was murdered by ISIL on January 3rd 2015, shortly after his plane came down in Syria. Three US fighters have also been killed in action – one each from the Army, Navy and Marines. Sixteen others have been wounded in ground actions, despite the US insisting it is not involved in a ground war aganist ISIL.

The war has intensified significantly. While the US and its allies conducted 5,977 airstrikes in the first year, attacks were up by 39% in year two – with 8,329 additional strikes declared to August 8th 2016. Washington continues to bear the heaviest burden, with 95% of all Coalition strikes in Syria and 68% of all actions in Iraq carried out by  the United States.

Among the allies the British remain the most active partner, with 905 airstrikes so far declared in Iraq and 53 in Syria. France (796 strikes), the Netherlands (an estimated 492 actions) and Australia (roughly 366 strikes) have also contributed strongly.

But others have now left the Coalition. Arab partners Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates had quit the air war by September 2015, after conducting about 135 Syria airstrikes between them. And Canada ended kinetic operations on February 15th 2016, after 251 airstrikes.

According to CENTCOM – which is leading the US military campaign – more than 26,000 enemy targets had been damaged or destroyed in the Coalition campaign to May 31st. More than 6,500 of these were buildings – illustrating the urban nature of the war.

To July 15th 2016, the war against ISIL had already cost the United States $8.4 billion – an average of $11.9 million per day. The UK – as the second most active member of the Coalition – has declared spending £280 million  ($365m) to March 2016.

A near-doubling of reported civilian deaths

The second year of the Coalition’s war saw a major jump in reported civilian deaths – a rise which cannot be explained alone by the 40% increase in the number of airstrikes. Likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions were up by 92 per cent on the first year.

While Coalition strikes present a significantly lower risk to civilians than those of Russia, the Assad regime or Iraqi forces,  Airwars still estimates that one civilian is being killed for roughly every nine Coalition airstrikes – a similar toll to that officially reported in Afghanistan, and in US covert strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan.

In Iraq and Syria however, the US and its allies insist that on average one civilian dies for every 260 of their strikes – a highly implausible claim given the fierce tempo of the war and the routine targeting of heavily-populated areas.

In the first year of the war from August 2014, there were 193 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events tracked by Airwars across Iraq and Syria – with a claimed range of 1,130 to 1,561 fatalities. The US has confirmed 14 of these events, with 19 or more civilian deaths admitted. Airwars presently assesses another 80 of these events as having likely caused 496 to 692 additonal civilian deaths.

In the war’s second year the likely number of civilian deaths almost doubled – with 1,031 new fatalities thought likely. In total, 333 new alleged Coalition casusalty events were reported in the past 12 months, with a total claimed range of 2,332 to 3,177 deaths.

Only 36 of these 2015-2016 deaths have so far been confirmed by the US – and none by its Coalition allies. Among those slain was Dr Ziad Kalaf, one of four civilians now admitted killed by the US during a targeted strike in Mosul against an Australian ISIL recruiter in April this year.

Dr Ziad Kalaf, killed in a US targeted killing operation in Mosul on April 29th 2016

One reason for the sharp jump in the number of likely civilian deaths has been an easing of battlefield restrictions. In the early phases of the war, Coalition partners were under strict instructions to limit to zero wherever possible the number of civilians killed.

But now, the US and its allies are prepared to accept up to 10 civilian casualties in any action according to reports. During one strike on a bank in Mosul, the US had been prepared to accept up to 50 casualties in an effort to destroy millions of dollars of ISIL funds. One woman is now admitted to have died in that event, with five other civilians injured.

The recent siege of Manbij in Syria may be a portent of worse to come. In July 2016 alone, Airwars tracked 36 separate Coalition civilian casualty allegations in the vicinity – the highest number of reported of civilian deaths in two years of war. At least 190 civilians died in those Manbij actions, Airwars presently estimates.

“As the war enters its third year the Coalition will increasingly set its sights on the ISIL-occupied cities of Mosul and Ar Raqqa – where millions of civilians remain trapped,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “The US and its allies must prioritise the lives of local civilians if they wish to be seen as liberators. Unfortunately much commentary from the ground is now hostile. The single most prominent reason given is the Coalition’s apparent disregard for civilian life.”

▲ Sailors load a 2,000lb bomb onto an FA/18 Super Hornet aboard the USS Dwight D Eisenhower , July 31st 2016 (US Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard) ARABIAN GULF (July 31, 2016) – Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike) transport an MK 84/BLU 117 2,000-pound general-purpose bomb. Ike and its Carrier Strike Group are deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard/Released)


July 28, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Research by Latif Habib and Kinda Haddad

CENTCOM has conceded 14 additional civilian deaths from US military actions in the war against so-called Islamic State, in both Iraq and Syria. The admission brings to 55 the official tally of civilian dead, from more than 10,700 declared US airstrikes.

The newly-admitted deaths relate to six events between July 2015 and late April 2016. Public reports suggest the toll from these incidents could be as high as 27 civilians killed – including eight children.

“We deeply regret the unintentional loss of life and injuries resulting from our airstrikes and express our sympathies to those affected“, CENTCOM noted in a statement issued to media.

Contrasting starkly with US claims of 55 deaths, Airwars estimates that at least 1,521 to 2,308 non-combatants have likely died in Coalition strikes across Iraq and Syria since August 2014. Iraq Body Count says up to 2,554 civilians have been killed by the US and its allies in Iraq alone. And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that 594 civilians had died up to July 23rd in the Coalition’s 22-month Syria campaign.

None of the US’s 12 partners in the Coalition has so far declared any civilian casualties from their own actions – despite more than 3,200 additional airstrikes between them.

Targeted killing

Five of the newly declared US incidents took place during 2016 in Iraq. For February 15th, CENTCOM now says that “near Al Qaim, Iraq, during a strike on an ISIL staging area, it is assessed that three civilians were killed.” Reports from the time said up to nine non-combatants were killed in that attack.

#وكالة_أعماق 9 قتلى ودمار كبير في ممتلكات المدنيين جراء قصف عنيف لطيران التحالف الدولي منتصف ليلة أمس على مدينة #القائم غربي #الأنبار

— الــمـكـــتـــب (@SYRIA_GID) February 16, 2016

A tweet from February 16th suggests nine deaths overnight in a Coalition strike on Al Qaim

The following day on February 16th, CENTCOM reports that “in Ar Rayhaniyah, Iraq near Mosul, during a strike on an ISIL vehicle, it is assessed that one person was injured along the side of the road.” No public reports are known for this event, suggesting that CENTCOM’s own post-strike assessment succesfully picked up the civilian casualty.

On April 5th the US carried out an airstrike on an ‘ISIL financial storage facility’ in Mosul which it now confirms killed three civilians. We know much more about this thanks to comments from a US commander shortly after the event.

General Peter Gersten, deputy chief of operations and intelligence for the Coalition, revealed on April 26th that US aircraft had detonated a Hellfire missile above the house as a ‘warning’ to a woman and her children known to be inside.

“We went as far as actually to put a Hellfire on top of the building and air burst it so it wouldn’t destroy the building, simply knock on the roof to ensure that she and the children were out of the building. And then we proceeded with our operations.”

But the tactic failed according to Gersten: “As much as we tried to do exactly what we wanted to do and minimize civilian casualties, post-weapons release, she actually ran back into the building. That’s a — we watched, very difficult for us to watch.”

On April 26, 2016 in Sharqat near Qayyarah, the US attacked an ISIL checkpoint. According to CENTCOM “it is [now] assessed that one civilian was killed when a motorcycle unexpectedly appeared in the target area after the US aircraft had already released its weapon.”

That attack on a checkpoint near the Jumeila bridge was reported at the time – though there was no mention of civilian casualties.

In the final Iraqi event on April 29th, the succesful US targeted killing of the Australian Neil Prakash, ‘an ISIL external operations facilitator’ also “struck three civilians on the road and one civilian located on an adjacent compound.”

One of the four civilians killed in the airstrike that day has been named by local sources as Dr Ziad Kalaf,  a university teacher.

Dr Ziad Kalaf, accidentally killed in a US targeted killing operation in Mosul on April 29th 2016


CENTCOM has also reassessed a Syrian incident near Idlib dating back to July 28th 2015, noting that “during a strike on a senior Khorasan Group advisor, it is assessed that three civilians were killed and one vehicle destroyed when their vehicle appeared in the target area after the Coalition aircraft released its weapon.”

Alongside the Coalition’s war against ISIL, the US is also conducting a unilateral campaign against elements of the Al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front – the so-called Khorasan Group. That July 28th strike was almost certainly carried out by US Specal Forces.

The US may be under-estimating the number of people it killed that day. The Syrian Network for Human Rights concluded in its own investigation that at least eight named civilians died at Kafr Hind – six of them children – after the attack ignited nearby gasoline containers.

Aftermath of a US targeted strike in Syria on July 28th 2015 which is now confirmed to have killed at least 3 civilians (via Shaam News)

‘Worst reported incident’

In related news the US has also announced a formal investigation into a confirmed July 19th Coalition airstrike at Tokhar, which public reports suggest killed at least 78 named civilians. Tokhar may be the single worst civilian fatality event in the Coalition’s two year air war.

Chief Coalition spokesman Colonel Chris Garver told Pentagon reporters on July 27th that a credibility assessment had been completed into Tokhar “and the result was that the information available was credible enough to warrant formal investigation, which we have initiated.”

Garver also disclosed that an additional event was being looked at: “The second allegation is from July 23rd of an alleged strike in the village of Al Nawaja, which is east of Manbij. That credibility assessment is still ongoing.” Between 10 and 22 civilians are reported to have died at al Nawaja in a ‘Coalition strike’, during a fierce ground battle between US proxies the Syrian Defence Force and so-called Islamic State.

The reported incidents at al Nawaja and Tokhar are just two of more than 50 alleged civilian casualty events tracked by Airwars in and around Manbij since an assault on the city began more than two months ago. CENTCOM officials are still refusing to disclose how many of these claimed incidents have so far been assessed for potential civilian casualties.

Airwars tracking shows that July is by far the worst single month for reported civilian deaths from Coalition strikes since the Syrian air campaign began in September 2014. Almost all of the alleged deaths reportedly occured in and around Manbij.

Reported civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in Syria have tripled in July, according to Airwars monitoring

▲ A US targeted strike on an Al Qaeda-linkled commander on July 28th 2015 is now admitted to have killed at least three civilians. Credible reports say as many as 10 actually died (Picture via Syrian Network for Human Rights)


July 19, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Research by Kinda Haddad

A major Coalition-backed campaign to liberate the ISIL-occupied northern Syrian town of Manbij and surrounding villages has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians, according to local reports.

The Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) – a proxy US-trained force comprising mostly Kurdish fighters – is currently advancing on the town centre amid heavy streetfighting.

But at least 70,000 non-combatants remain trapped within Manbij – caught between US airstrikes, advancing SAC forces and ISIL snipers. Water and food is said to be running low following the two-month siege.

“There are corpses on the streets and under the rubble that people are not able to remove,” Free Manbij Media Centre told Airwars on July 19th. “The numbers of those killed is between 500 and 700 martyrs according to estimates, the majority of them a result of Coalition planes bombing.” The local Manbij Coordination Committee placed the overall number of civilian deaths lower, at 368.

Airwars’ own estimate – based on hundreds of reports from local journalists, media activists, rebel groups and casualty monitors – suggests at least 190 civilians may so far have died in Coalition strikes in and around Manbij since May 31st.

We're tracking the worst ever week of alleged Coalition civilian casualties in 2 years of war – almost all at Manbij

— Airwars (@airwars) July 18, 2016

Local monitors describe a desperate situation. The Manbij Agency for Documentation – a group trying to track civilians killed in the fighting – has given its own harrowing account of life under siege: “The smell of decomposing bodies fills the streets, as residents are unable to leave their homes for fear of snipers from both sides. Many of the civilians’ bodies are still stuck under the rubble of houses shelled by Coalition aircraft. Some of them are alive and others are dead.”

Airwars tracking indicates the situation is worsening. The period of July 11th-18th saw the greatest number of claimed Coalition civilian casualty events in two years of war against ISIL – with 14 of 15 alleged incidents taking place in or around Manbij.

In the latest reported event, at least 56 civilians from multiple families died in alleged Coalition airstrikes on the village of Tokhar in the early hours of July 19th. Victims were shown being buried in a mass grave. Though reporting remains confused, Tokhar may be the single largest alleged Coalition civilian casualty event since August 2014.

Victims of an alleged Coalition strike near Manbij July 19th are buried in a mass grave (via Manbij Mother of All Worlds)

450 airstrikes

Coalition attacks on Manbij began in earnest on May 21st, in support of a ground assault by the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC.) Since then more than 450 strikes have targeted the town and surrounding areas, hitting “Da’esh heavy weapons, vehicles, fortifications, VBIED facilities, armored vehicles, technical vehicles, bridges, and caches,” according to the Coalition.

The United States is responsible for almost every strike at Manbij. According to official data, between May 22nd and July 17th this year 637 US airstrikes were carried out in Syria – with just 13 by its Coalition partners.

The US-led Coalition initially focused on driving Islamic State fighters from nearby villages – a tactic “which is encouraging ISIL’s retreat into the city” according to a June 15th press release. By early July almost all strikes were hitting Manbij itself.

The Coalition claims civilians have been able to escape the siege thanks to evacuation corridors provided by advancing SAC forces. But monitors dispute this, insisting ISIL snipers try to kill any non-combatants attempting to leave Manbij.

Expect to see measured pace in the fight to liberate #Manbij. It will not be easy, and we are confident SDF will take city back from ISIL

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) July 15, 2016

Civilian deaths

Casualty claims have been mounting since the siege began, with 40 separate alleged Coalition civilian casualty events reported in and around Manbij to July 19th.

Airwars presently assesses 29 of these events as fair: that is, featuring two or more credible reports, with Coalition strikes confirmed in the near vicinity. At least 190 civilians appear to have died in these actions, including 39 or more children and 23 women. A further 134 or more civilians were reportedly injured.

A significant number of these slain civilians  – 164 so far – have been named by local monitors. One such case is Leen Samer Yusuf Waik, a young girl who died with her grandfather and two other named victims in a July 9th incident.

11-year old Leen Samer Yusuf Waik among 3 named victims reported killed in Coalition strikes on Manbij centre July 9

— Airwars (@airwars) July 11, 2016

The Coalition has been aware of civilian casualty allegations at Manbij for some weeks. In the first known siege-related incident on May 31st, at least 3 and as many as 15 civilians died when the Coalition allegedly struck the al Hawatma area of the town. Yet despite widespread media reports on the day, the Coalition claimed to be unaware of civilian casualty allegations when approached by the Independent.

Despite numerous credible allegations of non-combatants killed since then, the US-led Coalition has yet to admit a single civilian casualty from its siege of Manbij.

A CENTCOM statement provided to Airwars and other media on June 19th noted: “We are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties near Manbij, Syria, recently. As with any allegation we receive, we will review any information we have about the incident, including information provided by third parties, such as the proximity of the location to CJTF airstrikes, and any other relevant information presented. If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step.”

▲ Smoke bellows from Manbij following alleged Coalition strikes on June 22nd (via Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)


July 1, 2016

Written by

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

Chris Woods set up the Bureau’s award-winning Drones Project in 2011, and is the author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars. He now runs Airwars, which monitors international airstrikes and civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria.

Targeted killings or assassinations beyond the battlefield remain a highly charged subject. Most controversial of all is the number of civilians killed in US covert and clandestine drone strikes since 2002.

The new White House data relates only to Obama’s first seven years in office – during which it says 473 covert and clandestine airstrikes and drone attacks were carried out in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

The US claims that between 64 and 116 civilians died in these actions – around one non-combatant killed for every seven or so strikes. That official estimate suggests civilians are significantly more likely to die in a JSOC or CIA drone attack than in conventional US airstrikes. United Nations data for Afghanistan indicates that one civilian was killed for every 11 international airstrikes in 2014, for example.

But for Obama’s secret wars, the public record suggests a far worse reality. According to Bureau monitoring, between 2009 and 2015 an estimated 256 civilians have died in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. A further 124 civilians are likely to have been slain in Yemen, with less than 10 non-combatants estimated killed in Somalia strikes. Similar tallies are reported by the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal.

So why have civilians been at greater risk from these covert and clandestine US airstrikes? Part of the answer lies in who the US kills. Many of those pursued are high value targets – senior or middle ranking terrorist or militant group commanders. Bluntly put, the higher the value of the target – and the greater the threat they represent to you – the more the laws of war allow you to put civilians in harm’s way.

The CIA also frequently missed those same high-value targets. A 2014 study by legal charity Reprieve suggested that US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan had killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in failed attempts to kill 41 named targets.

It’s also clear the CIA has been using a very different rule book. In an effort to lower civilian deaths in Afghanistan, international airstrikes on buildings and urban locations were mostly banned from 2008. Yet in Pakistan, more than 60% of CIA strikes have targeted domestic buildings (or “militant compounds”) according to Bureau research.

When President Obama apologised for the accidental 2015 killing of US aid worker Warren Weinstein, he revealed that the US had kept the target building under surveillance for “hundreds of hours” – yet had never known there were civilians inside. Many of the women and children credibly reported killed by the CIA in Pakistan have died in similar circumstances – though few of their deaths have ever been conceded.

Then there have been the more shocking tactics employed by the CIA. There was the deliberate targeting of funerals and rescuers, again first revealed by the Bureau. And the widespread use of so-called signature strikes during the Obama years – the targeting of suspects based not on their known identities, but on their behavioural patterns.

In the most notorious such incident, at least 35 civilians died when the CIA targeted a tribal meeting in 2011 – an action which significantly damaged US-Pakistani relations. None of those deaths appear have been included in the White House’s casualty estimates. Missing too are the 41 civilians – including 22 children – slain in a JSOC cruise missile strike on Yemen in 2009. These two events alone indicate more civilian deaths than all of those now admitted across seven years.

The CIA has long played down the number of civilians killed in its drone strikes. It was the Bureau which first challenged John Brennan after he claimed there had been no civilian deaths from CIA strikes for 15 months. The public record showed otherwise. Even leaked CIA documents demonstrated Brennan’s economy with the truth.

US Special Forces have also long hidden the true effect of their actions. Leaked cables obtained by Wikileaks revealed that under Obama, Centcom conspired with Yemen’s then-president to cover up US involvement in the deaths of civilians. And four years later, JSOC’s bombing of a Yemen wedding convoy led (anonymous) CIA officials to criticise the elite unit – even as the Pentagon publicly denied any civilian deaths.

Today’s official White House estimates should be read in the context of these continued evasions and untruths. Though welcome as a general step towards improved transparency – and with new rules which may reduce the risk to civilians – they do little to reconcile the continuing gulf between public estimates and official claims.

Image via USAF


March 9, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Additional research by Kinda Haddad, Latif Habib, Alex Hopkins and Basile Simon

Latest assessments suggest more than 1,000 civilians may now have died in 18 months of Coalition airstrikes across Iraq and Syria. The estimate is fifty times greater than the number of civilian deaths so far admitted by the US-led alliance.

Airwars researchers have so far identified 352 reported civilian casualty events, in which Coalition aircraft allegedly killed between 2,232 and 2,961 non-combatants in the war against so-called Islamic State.

Based on credible public reports and confirmed Coalition strikes in the vicinity, some 166 of these incidents are currently assessed as having likely led to civilian deaths – with a reported range of 1,004 to 1,419 killed.

The US has so far confirmed just sixteen of these events, which according to the Pentagon likely killed 21 civilians (Airwars places the toll slightly higher at 34 fatalities.)

None of the US’s eleven allies has admitted causing any civilian deaths, despite more than 10,800 Coalition airstrikes and 39,715 bombs and missiles dropped. Officials claim more than 25,000 enemy fighters have been slain.

Syria: Losing the war of ideas The first alleged civilian deaths from Coalition strikes were reported on August 16th 2014 – just one week into the 18-month air campaign. Since then, an average of four events a week have been claimed across Iraq and Syria – though few are reported by international media.

Recent weeks have seen a worrying rise in reported fatalities, which may be linked to less restrictive rules of engagement.

There were 22 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events in February 2016 for example, which between them are claimed to have killed at least 144 civilians. Nine of those incidents were clustered around the city of al Shadadi in Syria, recently captured by Kurdish forces with direct air support from the Coalition. A CENTCOM spokesman told Airwars only two of these reported incidents are under investigation.

In total, between 504 and 697 civilians are lkely to have been killed in Coalition strikes across Syria since September 23rd 2014. While Russia is likely to have killed four times that number in just five months, neither campaign has admitted to killing a single civilian in the country since Moscow began its own air war.

Kinda Haddad leads the Airwars team assessing Russian and Coalition airstrikes in Syria. She says she is troubled by the widening gulf between credible field reports of civilian deaths, and public military estimates:

Much like the war in Syria, the war against ISIS will not be won on the battlefields.  It is a generational war of ideas, and as long as we give Middle Eastern lives less value than our own, we will keep on feeding the hatred and suspicion that nihilistic groups like ISIS capitalise on to recruit the young and vulnerable in all our societies.

Iraq: ‘I feel like a helpless witness’ Iraqis also report a significant number of civilian deaths from international airstrikes – though most Coalition partners deny any responsibility.

The UK, Denmark, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Jordan all insist they have killed no civilians – despite more than 2,300 airstrikes in Iraq between them. And the Pentagon admits to killing just eight civilians in Iraq, from 4,917 declared US airstrikes in the country since August 2014.

Estimated strikes by non-US partners in Iraq, Sept 2014-March 2016

Once again the public record suggests a different reality, with at least 500 civilians credibly reported killed in 69 separate events in which Coalition strikes are confirmed nearby.

In the latest alleged incidents,  21 civilian victims have been named by local sources (including 13 children) after a March 5th Coalition strike on a Daesh weapons facility in Mosul. The extended family was said to be living in outbuildings in the derelict factory complex when it was targeted.

Two days later – again in Mosul – a family of six was reported killed in an alleged Coalition strike, with a source complaining to Yaqen News that “indiscriminate bombardment by Coalition aircraft operations has increased dramatically recently, and led to the deaths of many civilians.”^tfw

Latif Habib helps Airwars assess claims of civilian deaths in Iraq from international airstrikes. “I feel I’m a helpless witness to 1,000 innocent victims killed by Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria during the last 18 months,” he said this week from Baghdad.

▲ An image shows burning supply trucks following a Feb 26 strike which also killed five civilians (via NRN News)


February 3, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Royal Air Force combat aircraft were not involved in eight alleged civilian casualty incidents in Iraq in December 2015, according to Britain’s Defence Secretary.

Concerns were first raised by Scottish media and politicians in early January, after cross-referencing of reported civilian casualty incidents with UK airstrikes in Iraq had indicated possible concerns.

Eight claimed incidents in the cities of Mosul and Ramadi had been alleged, for days on which the Ministry of Defence had already confirmed UK airstrikes in the vicinity (see below.) The Scottish National Party led calls for the MoD to investigate whether RAF aircraft might have been involved in any civilian casualty events.

Tomorrow's front @ScotNational @TheCommonSpace investigation demands probe into civilian deaths in Iraq

— The National (@ScotNational) January 7, 2016

How Scotland’s media first reported casualty concerns

In its initial response on January 16th, the MoD dismissed claims that RAF airstrikes might have been responsible for civilian deaths in Iraq but gave few further details. Pressed for more information by Labour MP Graham Allen, the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon has now made clear that following an investigation, the MoD is certain UK aircraft played no role in the alleged events.

“RAF aircraft were not involved in strikes in seven of the incidents cited,” according to Mr Fallon. “The eighth incident was impossible to locate from the detail given in the letter: all information from the RAF air strike conducted on that particular day has been reviewed and there was no indication of any civilian casualties resulting from the strike.“

It remains possible that aircraft from other Coalition allies might have been responsible for some of the alleged incidents in Ramadi and Mosul. The MoD says it has already passed on Airwars’ concerns regarding the eight reported events to CENTCOM, the US military command which leads the Coalition’s efforts in Iraq and Syria.

“I welcome the recent change of the MoD’s position, which for the first time has now accepted and examined credible reports of civilian casualties from external organisations,” Graham Allen MP told Airwars. “It is absolutely crucial that the MoD is as transparent as possible about all airstrikes carried out, and that it does not rely on its internal investigations only.“

Despite 534 British airstrikes in Iraq and 26 in Syria to January 28th, the MoD insists there have been no civilian casualties from UK actions. A spokesperson told Airwars: “In the hundreds of air strikes conducted by the RAF we have found no evidence of civilian casualties resulting from UK military action in Iraq or Syria. We do an assessment after every British strike and if we had any reason to believe, either from this analysis or from other credible reports, that there might have been civilian casualties, we would conduct an investigation, in conjunction with Coalition authorities.”

New US admissions

In related news, the Pentagon has continued its own policy of ‘normalising’ the reporting of civilian casualties from US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

On January 29th CENTCOM released details of four additional casualty events in both Iraq and Syria. No civilians were publicly reported killed or injured in any of the airstrikes at the time, indicating that the US’s internal monitoring mechanisms continue to pick up casualty incidents which might otherwise go unreported.

In the most controversial of the four events, the US now admits that a failed attempt to kill British cyber-jihadist Junaid Hussain in Raqqa on August 13th 2015 instead resulted in eight civilian casualties.

“The strikes that occurred Aug. 13, 2015, were against Junaid Hussain, which resulted in injuries to him that were not fatal,” a CENTCOM spokesman told Airwars. “During this strike, as today’s news release points out, we assessed that three civilians were unfortunately killed and five were injured. Junaid Hussain was killed during a subsequent strike on Aug. 24, 2015, near Raqqah, Syria.”

British cyber terrorist Junaid Hussain. A failed attempt by the US to kill him in August 2015 caused the deaths of at least three civilians in Raqaa

The three other casualty incidents all took place in Iraq in 2015. On July 27th, a US airstrike against ‘ISIL vehicles’ resulted in the injuring of a civilian, CENTCOM now says.

On September 24th, two civilians were killled at Sinjar when their vehicle was caught up in a targeted US strike on a motorbike. “Weapons were released while the target was stopped at an intersection; however, another vehicle approached after weapons were in flight. Both the motorcycle and the vehicle were destroyed,” CENTCOM reported.

In the fourth event, at least two civilians were injured after a vehicle carrying a Daesh cleric was hit by US aircraft – causing it “to veer into oncoming traffic.” According to CENTCOM, the target on October 15th was “ISIL Sharia Judge Mullah Maysar.” Real name Akram Kurbash aka Abu Akram, he was a senior figure in Daesh and a target of previous targeted strikes. He was first reported killed in a Coalition attack on May 13th 2015 by the Iraqi Defence Ministry, a claim later played down by the US.

CENTCOM has now confirmed 16 separate civilian casualty incidents across Iraq and Syria from US airstrikes, as well as one ‘friendly fire’ event which killed Iraqi soldiers. No other member of the 12-strong international Coalition has so far admitted causing any civilian casualties, despite more than 2,000 non-US strikes.

The eight alleged events UK says its aircraft not involved in

Date Location Allegation
13/12/15 Mosul Three professors from University of Mosul among 4 civilians and a Daesh official reportedly killed in alleged Coalition airstrike
Mosul Single-source claim that 19 civilians died in Coalition strike on Mosul. However Airwars’ own sources in Nineveh contested claim.
21/12/15 Mosul Reuters reported that “About 20 people, including at least 12 civilians, were killed on Monday in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, in two air strikes that destroyed houses believed to be used by Islamic State militants, six eyewitnesses and a medical source said.” Well-reported event suggested Coalition responsible.
Mosul 17 civilians including 4 women and 5 children reported killed in alleged Coalition strike in Wehda and Methak neighbourhoods east of Mosul. Some doubt regarding the incident, with local NRN News denying civilians had died.
Mosul According to three Arabic media sources, 6 civilians reportedly killed and 3 injured – all children and women – after Coalition jets allegedly bombed their house in Keseir village east of Mosul.
22/12/15 Ramadi During fierce air and ground assault on Ramadi, local sources claimed airstrikes had targeted a nearby area, resulting in 8 civilian deaths and 12 injuries.
25/12/15 Ramadi Military aircraft reportedly killed 5 civilians in a Christmas Day strike. According to local sources the attack could have been either by the Iraq Army or the Coalition.
29/12/15 Mosul According to local media, vehicles used by Daesh to transport oil were destroyed killing about 15 militants. But the attack also destroyed the ‘Cairo’ gas station, which in turn damaged a number of civilian homes nearby.

A house was also reportedly targeted in northern Mosul killing 20 Daesh. But according to media, “the house is located in a residential area and is surrounded by many other homes, which suffered significant physical damage. Civilians were also killed and injured.”

▲ Library image: A British Typhoon is refuelled over Iraq by a US Stratotanker, December 22 2015 (USAF/ Staff Sgt Corey Hook)


January 22, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

The Pentagon has confirmed five additional casualty events from US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, which officials say between them killed two civilians while injuring a further four.

Yet all of those described as injured by US officials actually died from their wounds according to the public record – with each victim named at the time by local casualty recorders.  That suggests CENTCOM investigators are still not making effective use of credible external reporting when assessing claims.

Airwars understands that this latest US admission is part of a broader Coalition move to ‘normalise’ civilian casualty reporting, after months of officials playing down such claims.

Named victims

The five new confirmed incidents – all within a 13-day time window in July 2015 – make clear that civilian casualties from Coalition strikes are a common event in both Iraq and Syria, as Airwars and others have long indicated.

“One civilian in a truck with a trailer was likely killed” when the Coalition destroyed 16 bridges in the Daesh-controlled city of Raqaa on July 4th, according to US Central Command (CENTCOM) in a press release issued January 22nd.

That death in Raqaa was not publicly reported at the time – suggesting the casualty was only spotted by Coalition aerial surveillance. What its aircraft won’t have been able to see that day was a family of seven reportedly crushed to death when one of the bridges collapsed on top of them according to a later field investigation by BuzzFeed.

On July 7th, US aircraft attacked a group of Daesh fighters, again in Raqqah. According to CENTCOM “a civilian was injured by a secondary explosion and flying debris from the initial strike.” In fact 27-year old Ezz al Deen al Nazzal died of his injuries, as the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported at the time.

A US targeted killing operation against Al Qaeda-linked militant Muhsin al-Fadhli went wrong on July 8th, when a passing motorcycle was caught in the blast (see video below). Rider and passenger were “likely injured” claims CENTCOM. In fact local factory workers Ahmad Mohamad al Tahini, and Hussein Mohammad Kheir al Tahini both died, according to multiple sources.

Aftermath of a US strike on July 8th which killed two named factory workers

On July 11th the US admits it killed another civilian at Raqqah, named by monitoring groups as Issa Al Hmeidan. Unmentioned in CENTCOM’s report are two additional alleged events in the city that day, in which a mother and her children and a firefighting team were separately reported slain in Coalition airstrikes.

And finally on July 17th, CENTCOM says it “injured” a civilian during a targeted strike on a vehicle in the Iraqi city of Mosul. According to local monitors, waiter Muhannad Hisham Alnemah (pictured below) had tried to rescue a terrified young child in the street during the strike, but was hit by flying shrapnel. He later died of his injuries in hospital.

Confirming the latest civilian casualties, CENTCOM again noted that “We deeply regret the unintentional loss of life and injuries resulting from those strikes and express our deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and those affected.”

Waiter Muhannad Hisham, killed in a US airstrike on Mosul July 17 2015 (via Mosul Ateka)

Sharp contrast

What stands out from these latest incidents is not how little is known about civilian deaths from Coalition airstrikes – but how much casualty recorders on the ground are often able to determine from an early stage.

Volunteers with groups such as the Syrian Network for Human Rights and Raqaa Is Being Slaughtered Silently often take great risks gathering such information – only to have their findings often ignored by Coalition partners and international media.

But now there are signs of change. Just weeks ago the Coalition had admitted just two ‘likely’ civilian casualty events. That number has now risen to 13 incidents – and according to Pentagon officials the number of admitted events will continue to rise, as the Coalition seeks to ‘normalise’ reporting of civilian deaths and injuries.

CENTCOM itself plans to confirm an additional four cases in the week beginning January 24th. That will mean a total of 16 civilian casualty cases – and one friendly fire incident – confirmed by the US so far.

Asked to explain why the number of confirmed civilian casualty cases had leapt up in just a few weeks, a CENTCOM spokesman told Airwars that “Based on the balance between keeping the public informed and the lengthy (sometime months) declassification and redaction process associated with individual cases, we made the decision to delink that process from the release of available unclassified information.”

According to CENTCOM, this means that “in accordance with our commitment to transparency, we are working to release the assessment findings of the remaining closed allegations as soon as possible.”

Even so, the Coalition lags far behind the public record when it comes to investigating alleged civilian casualty incidents. As the primary investigator for the Coalition, CENTCOM says it has only assessed 120 such events – and has already deemed 87 of them to be ‘not credible.’

In contrast Airwars believes that out of 320 incidents so far alleged across Iraq and Syria, 135 civilian casualty events involving Coalition partners are already likely to have occured – which between them appear to have killed 830 or more civilians in addition to those already admitted.

Despite more than 2,000 airstrikes by the US’s twelve allies in Iraq and Syria, no other Coalition partner has so far admitted causing any civilian casualties.


January 15, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

The United States has conceded five fresh civilian casualty incidents in Iraq and Syria which between them killed eight or more non-combatants, it believes.

Analysis suggests the actual toll from these five events is between 14 and 21 civilians killed, raising fresh questions about US and Coalition dependence upon aerial-only footage during post-strike investigations.

Airwars presently estimates that a further 803 to 1,127 civilians are likely to have died in an additional 132 problematic Coalition strikes since August 2014.

Five incidents

In a press release issued January 15th 2016, CENTCOM notes that “After a thorough review of the facts and circumstances for each allegation, the preponderance of evidence indicates five separate U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, between April 12 and July 4, have likely resulted in the death of eight civilians and injuries to an additional three civilians.”

The US military command – which spearheads the international campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, also adds: “We deeply regret the unintentional loss of life and injuries resulting from those airstrikes and express our deepest sympathies to the victims’ families and those affected.”

Two previous civilian casualty incidents – and one ‘friendly fire’ event – have also been conceded by the United States. The other twelve partners in the alliance claim to have killed no civilians between them – despite more than 2,000 non-US airstrikes against Daesh to January 11th 2016.

For a full assessment of each incident – including all known sources, victim names and supportive photographs and videos – see our 2015 civilian casualty pages

The five new incidents admitted by CENTCOM took place over a three month period beginning April 2015.

Three cases were the result solely of internal reporting by US aircrews and analysts – with no known public records of civilian casualties at the locations for those dates.

Following a strike by an A-10 Warthog at Hawijah in Iraq on April 12th “it was assessed that two unidentified civilians were killed” CENTCOM reports.

On June 19th a civilian was also injured when they strayed into the ‘kill box’ during an attack on ISIL vehicles near Tall al Adwaniyah in Hassakah province, Syria.

And on June 29th 2015, two or more civilians were killed or injured during a US strike on an ISIL tactical unit and two ISIL vehicles. As the attack commenced, two civilian vehicles also approached. As CENTCOM now notes, “there was insufficient evidence to determine the level of injuries to the civilians operating the passing car and motorcycle.”

Underestimating casualties

Two other events conceded by CENTCOM were previously known to field researchers and journalists. And here it seems, the US is underestimating the number of killed and injured.

On June 11th 2015 at Slouk near Raqqa in Syria, US aircraft targeted an ISIL tactical unit. CENTCOM now says its assessment is that “three unidentified civilians were killed.”

Yet local casualty recorders Raqaa Is being Slaughtered Silently had reported almost immediately after the attack that civilian Yusuf Al Sayid had died, along with his two wives and their five children.

Ouday Ammar Al Shawakh, killed in a US airstrike on July 4th 2015 (via SN4HR)

And on July 4th last, a US targeted strike in central Raqaa killed at least seven named civilians – among them three children – rather than the “three unidentified civilians” CENTCOM says were likely killed. Among the non-combatants known to have died that day are Mohammed Khalil Al Raheel (aged 50), Fouad Hamoud Al Nimr (aged 10), Ouday Ammar Al Shawakh (pictured right) and Raed Na’ila (11 years old.)

Despite such discrepancies, the decision by CENTCOM to release fresh details of civilian fatalities is likely to be welcomed by regional casualty recorders and NGOs.

Before now, the Coalition had yet to confirm a single civilian fatality – despite 35,000 bombs and missiles having been dropped on Iraq and Syria to December 31st. Instead, six ‘likely’ civilian deaths had been admitted to – a fraction of the many hundreds of civilians which all casualty recorders agree the Coalition is likely to have killed to date.

David Cameron: ‘We must look at allegations’

In related news, British Prime Minister David Cameron has stepped into an increasingly fraught row regarding alleged civilian casualties from RAF airstrikes.

Airwars researchers identified eight claimed incidents in December 2015 in the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Ramadi, in which a total of 72 to 83 civilian deaths were alleged.

Some of these December incidents are poorly reported, while others are contested. Even so, Airwars believes four of the events – each based on claims by two or more credible sources – warrant urgent investigation. The RAF has confirmed it carried out airstrikes in both cities on the dates in question, alongside other Coalition nations.

David Cameron: ‘We must look at civilian casualty allegations’

Yet the Ministry of Defence (MoD) revealed on January 7th that when it came to assessing whether UK airstrikes in Iraq and Syria might have caused civilian casualties, it would not consider credible reports by outside agencies such as casualty monitors, international news media or NGOs.

Instead, the MoD said it was relying solely on “our own aerial assessments following each strike as well as on the ground evaluations from partners.” The disclosure appeared to contradict earlier assurances by a defence minister that the MoD “would consider all information relating to civilian casualties received.”

Challenged on the issue by the Scottish Nationalists this week, Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to indicate a policy shift: “We take a very careful approach to minimise and eradicate civilian casualties wherever we can. But obviously if people make allegations we must look at them,” he told senior MPs.


November 21, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

Centcom has finally confirmed that US-led Coalition operations against Daesh in Iraq have ‘likely’ killed civilians on the ground.

The November 20th admission comes some 468 days into a bombing campaign which has seen more than 5,400 airstrikes in Iraq alone, with hundreds of civilians so far alleged killed.

According to a newly declassified Pentagon investigation, a strike on March 13th 2015 – understood to have been by a US A-10 attack aircraft – targeted a Daesh checkpoint at the town of Hatra.

But also present were two civilian vehicles which aircrews and analysts failed to properly identify. In the ensuing strike both cars were also destroyed. At least seven civilians reportedly died – including two women and three children.

Coalition commander Lt General John Hesterman signed off on the investigation in June, noting: “I concur with the findings and conclusions of the IO [investigating officer], who substantiated by a preponderance of the evidence that civilian casualties had occured.”

‘I concur with the findings… that civilian casualties had occured.’ Coalition commander Lt General John Hesterman signs off on the investigation

Deaths at Hatra

Centcom now concedes four civilians ‘likely’ died in the attack at Hatra, including at least one child. Its investigation confirms that Coalition analysts and targeters failed to discriminate between civilian and ‘ISIL’ vehicles at the time – and did not spot the likely presence of a child at the target location, in the short time between the release of a GBU-38 missile and impact.

The tragic events of March 13th were never publicly reported. Instead, the owner of one of the vehicles destroyed in the airstrike later wrote to the Coalition asking for compensation. Her testimony indicates the civilian toll is likely to be at least seven killed.

In a redacted email, the owner reveals that her car was carrying a family of two women and three children along with a civilian driver. Another vehicle with one or more civilians in it – possibly another family – was also present, she claims.

The partly redacted testimony of an Iraqi car owner which led Centcom to conclude it had killed civilians in Iraq on March 13th 2015

Rare admission

The US-led Coalition has displayed little urgency when it comes to addressing credible allegations of civilians killed.

Airwars researchers have so far identified 263 incidents in Iraq and Syria in which civilians were allegedly killed by the Coalition – with between 1,544 and 2,051 civilian deaths claimed in total.

Based on available evidence and confirmed Coalition strikes in the vicinity, we presently view at least 111 of these incidents – which reportedly killed 680 to 975 civilians between them – as having likely been carried out by US-led forces.

Yet this newly declassified report is only the second admission by the Coalition that it has killed any civilians in its long air war against Daesh. Two young girls were ‘likely’ slain in a US airstrike in Syria in November 2014, it was admitted six months later.

US officials were hinting in early September 2015 that another civilian casualty investigation was ready for release, and it remains unclear why the Coalition delayed publication for so long. A previously-secret Centcom document published by Airwars and others shows investigators had already concluded by early May of this year that “the allegation of CIVCAS [at Hatra] was likely credible.”

“An eight month delay between credible allegations of civilian casualties and publication of findings is unacceptable,” says Kinda Haddad of Airwars. “With more than 250 claimed incidents of civilians killed by US-led forces in Iraq and Syria, we need to see the Coalition taking this vital issue much more seriously.”

In a statement accompanying the Hatra report, Centcom spokesman Colonel Patrick Ryder noted that “we regret the unintentional loss of lives and keep those families in our thoughts“.

▲ Recent library image of a US A-10 attack plane, of the type thought to have carried out the Hatra strike (USAF/ Airman 1st Class Cory W. Bush)


September 30, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

British manned and unmanned aicraft have carried out at least 324 airstrikes against Islamic State in their first year of operations, according to an Airwars assessment of Ministry of Defence reports.

The attacks – second only to the United States in number – have killed hundreds of Daesh fighters, the MoD says. Officials also insist that no civilian has died in British attacks – a claim greeted with skepticism by some analysts.

Britain became the seventh member of the international Coalition to carry out anti-Daesh strikes, when on September 30th 2014 a pair of RAF Tornados targeted “an ISIL heavy weapon position which was engaging Kurdish ground forces. One Paveway IV guided bomb was used to attack the ISIL position.” The aircraft then went on to destroy a nearby truck.

Channel 4 News captures a British Tornado strike on camera October 1st 2014

The following day, Jonathan Rugman of Britain’s Channel 4 News watched as two RAF Tornados destroyed an ISIL stronghold at the border town of Rabia. As he noted at the time: “The building shook and billowed smoke and fire. The Kurds told each other how marvellous this was – and then they told me how grateful they were for foreign air support. These men appear lamentably short of weapons and training, but now they have friends in high places that their enemy does not.”

But Rugman also urged caution at the MoD’s insistence no civilians had died, noting: “We don’t know if there were civilian casualties: the peshmerga said they feared the jihadists had forced women to accompany them as human shields.”

Those first British strikes came just days after Parliament voted to begin attacks in Iraq – though not in Syria. As Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said at the time: “Halting the advance of ISIL and helping the Iraqi government turn it back, and helping the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces to do that, is a huge task and is going to be a long campaign.”

All British strikes were initially carried out by the RAF’s ageing 30-year old Tornado manned aircraft, flying out of Akrotiri in Cyprus. Much of that fleet was due for retirement in 2015 – though some squadrons will now continue in service until at least 2017.

British propaganda release on role of Tornado aircraft in Iraq, issued July 2015

Heavy drone use Britain’s 10-strong fleet of Reaper unmanned drones began surveillance-only operations in Iraq on October 22nd 2014. Despite Parliament’s earlier vote, ISR-only flights also took place in Syria, supplying intelligence for lethal attacks by other Coalition nations.

British Reapers carried out their first strike in Iraq on November 10th, killing “ISIL terrorists [who] were laying improvised explosive devices. The Reaper, using procedures identical to those of manned aircraft, successfully attacked the terrorists using a Hellfire missile.”

Since then the Reapers have been used at an unprecedented pace – carrying out half of all British airstrikes in Iraq, according to analysis by campaigning group Drone Wars UK. That compares with roughly one in four airstrikes carried out by Reapers in Afghanistan towards the end of the UK’s 13-year deployment there.

“Most of the airstrikes we’re seeing in Iraq today involve dynamic targeting – where aircraft attack targets of opportunity,” says Chris Coles of Drone Wars UK. “With Reapers able to stay in the air for many hours, they may be more suited to hunting down these kinds of targets.”

Reported targets of UK manned and unmanned aircraft in Iraq to August 2015 (courtesy of Drone Wars UK)

‘No civilian casualties’ With eight Coalition members having bombed Iraq – alongside Iraqi and Iranian warplanes – transparency is vital in the event of civilian casualties. Each nation is individually liable for the non-combatants it kills and injures, according to CENTCOM.

Despite more than 320 airstrikes so far, Britain insists it has killed no civilians. That claim implies an unprecedented development in modern warfare. In Afghanistan, airstrikes represented the single greatest threat to civilians from international forces. United Nations data shows that in 2014, one civilian was killed for every 11 strikes – a figure the UK and others have not contested.

In Iraq, Britain’s assertion it has killed no civilians appears based on a claimed absence of reports: As a spokeswoman recently told the Guardian, “We are not aware of any incidents of civilian casualties as a result of UK strike activity over Iraq.”

Yet as Jonathan Rugman’s comments cited above make clear, there has been credible speculation about possible civilian casualties from UK strikes from the beginning. There are other events of concern too. A recently declassified CENTCOM document identified at least one incident which may have involved UK aircraft.

[pullquote]The UK’s continued refusal to say where it carries out drone attacks makes it impossible to verify MoD claims that no civilians have died [/pullquote]Reports that a March 13th Coalition strike on an ISIL checkpoint in Hatra had killed civilians were deemed “likely credible“ by CENTCOM. Britain reported at the time it had carried out Tornado strikes in the vicinity – yet there are no indications of the UK having investigated this event or others.

A further cause for concern is the UK’s refusal to say where it carries out drone strikes in Iraq. Speaking in July, an MoD spokesperson told Airwars “it’s a longstanding UK policy not to comment on Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets (including Reaper) for obvious reasons.”

Yet the UK is inconsistent. Our archive of war reports shows the MoD did in fact report the locations of early drone strikes, noting attacks in Kirkuk and Bayji in November 2014. And on May 15th this year, the RAF declared a Reaper strike at Ramadi.

The UK’s continued refusal to say where it carries out drone attacks makes it impossible, at present, to verify MoD claims that no civilians have died in British attacks.

The Syria Question As Britain begins its second year of airstrikes against Islamic State, it remains unclear whether conventional attacks will extend to Syria.

A small number of airstrikes have been carried out there by Royal Navy pilots embedded with US forces, the MoD has admitted – though it insists these did not contravene the will of Parliament. Armed Reapers also continue to provide potentially lethal intelligence to other Coalition members.

Yet any regular UK airstrikes in Syria are dependent upon a fresh vote in Parliament. As David Cameron told MPs voting for airstrikes in Iraq back in September 2014, “this motion does not endorse UK air strikes in Syria as part of this campaign and any proposal to do so would be subject to a separate vote in Parliament.”

A fresh debate had been expected this autumn. But with the landslide election of veteran anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Party leader, it now appears unlikely Cameron can muster enough support in the House of Commons to extend Britain’s mandate to Syria.

“The answer to this complex and tragic conflict can’t simply be found in a few more bombs,” Corbyn told his party this week. “Military strikes against Isil aren’t succeeding, not because we do not have enough high explosives, but because we do not have a diplomatic strategy on Syria.“

The first British airstrike in Iraq, September 30th 2014 (MoD)

Targeted assassination Despite a ban on conventional strikes in Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron stunned the House of Commons in early September 2015, when he announced that an RAF Reaper drone had unilaterally carried out a targeted assassination of two British citizens, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin,  on August 21st.

Cameron also reported that a third Briton, Junaid Hussain, had been killed by the United States in Syria three days later. Reports said Hussain died as a result of information supplied by British intelligence.

Justifying the attacks, the Prime Minister stated: “We took this action because there was no alternative. In this area, there is no Government we can work with; we have no military on the ground to detain those preparing plots; and there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home.”

The killings were popular in many quarters, with British tabloids aggressively supporting the strikes and calling for more. It soon emerged the UK now had its own ‘kill list’, with up to ten Britons earmarked for assassination.

The Conservative government insisted the Reaper assassination had been lawful, despite it taking place away from any ‘hot’ battlefield. Only Israel and the United States operate similar – and controversial – publicly-acknowledged targeted killing programmes, the lawfulness of which remains contested.

British ministers have controversially refused to release legal advice on the Syria killings given to the Prime Minister by the Attorney General. Former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer MP is among many legal experts troubled by the potential unlawfulness of the attack: “My concern really is that there seems to be an accountability vacuum,” he recently told a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones.

    The MoD refused to answer any questions from Airwars on potential civilian fatalities for this article, referring us instead to a general press release which makes no mention of non-combatant casualty issues.
▲ RAF Tornado over Middle East April 2015, after refueling from a Royal Australian Air Force KC-30A tanker (Australian MoD)


September 3, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

Additional reporting by Kinda Haddad and Latif Habib

A newly-declassified CENTCOM document – published by Airwars and international media partners for the first time today –  reveals that by early May of this year, the anti-ISIL Coalition had already internally investigated dozens of events involving at least 325 possible civilian deaths from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

Yet despite often significant published evidence of civilians killed in Coalition strikes, most allegations were dismissed as “Not credible” within 48 hours – with few signs of later follow-ups.

The document also reveals for the first time that French, Canadian, Dutch and Australian aircraft have all been involved in problem incidents in Iraq, which between them allegedly killed up to 30 civilians.

The previously-secret 14-page file – obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by journalist Joseph Trevithick for War Is Boring – offers a rare insight into internal military workings. It also makes clear that the US and its 12 international allies have long known of significant allegations of civilians killed in some 6,500 airstrikes – far more than the two deaths presently admitted to.

Extract from declassified CENTCOM file

Dating to early May 2015, the document summarises a CENTCOM database known as the Iraq/Syria CIVCAS Allegation Tracker. Some 45 individual problem events are listed, ranging from September 14th 2014 to April 30th 2015.

The date and location of each alleged incident is given, as well as a summary of preliminary investigations. Thirteen cases were prompted by Coalition self-reporting rather than by any external claims, and were not previously known to Airwars. These range from pilots reporting that civilian vehicles had strayed into their killbox, to FBI informants alleging mass casualties.

The CENTCOM document also provides crucial insights into problem strikes carried out by America’s allies – details which most have kept hidden from their own publics.

Canadian strike A Canadian airstrike on January 21st at Kisik Junction in Iraq is already front-page news in Ottowa, after it was revealed that the country’s Defence Minister had been kept in the dark about the incident.

Under pressure from the media, a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) spokesman did recently identify the date of that strike but gave few more details, other than insisting an internal investigation had found “no evidence of civilian casualties.“

A Canadian crew arms an aircraft prior to its Iraq mission (Canadian MoD)

The newly declassified CENTCOM document provides far more information, revealing that between 6 and 27 civilians allegedly died in the Canadian attack. The source for that claim, we now know, was an English-speaking peshmerga fighter who passed on his concerns to Coalition Special Forces based in Iraq.

A CAF spokesman told Airwars that Canada’s own investigation of the incident – which involved reviewing video and strike records – concluded there was no case to answer: “The review uncovered no evidence of civilian casualties. Furthermore, it was re-confirmed that the target was a valid military objective from which ISIS was firing a heavy machine gun at Iraqi Kurdish troops. The area in question is still within ISIS held territory.”

Airwars researchers have found no published claims of civilians killed at Kisik that night – although some reports at the time placed the number of Islamic State fighters killed in a Kurdish offensive on the town at over 250.

‘Daesh propaganda’ Australia remains one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition against Islamic State, refusing to say where or when it bombs in Iraq. Officials insist that any published information “could be distorted and used against Australia in Daesh propaganda.”

Canberra is therefore unlikely to be happy with CENTCOM for publicly revealing that on two occasions to April 30th, Australian combat aircraft may have killed or injured civilians in Iraq.

On October 8th 2014, a Coalition strike on an ISIL checkpoint near Ramadi may also have hit a civilian truck. As the internal document notes, weapon system video from an Australian F-18 showed that “it was apparent that a truck entered the target area between weapon release and impact.” On that occasion, a more thorough review of the video led to a decision that “No further inquiry” was needed.

A woman and child may also have been injured in a major Australian airstrike at Fallujah on December 21st 2014. That attack was focused on a’suspected weapons factory’ in the city.

[pullquote]Despite the apparent seriousness of the incident, it was quickly dismissed by both Australian and US military investigators[/pullquote]Military surveillance revealed a woman and child walking through the immediate strike area some minutes after the last missile impacted. The child was then observed being taken to the local hospital, while the woman “walked to the median strip on the road and lay down, and was not observed any further.”

Despite the apparent seriousness of the incident, it was quickly dismissed by both Australian and US military investigators who decided “there is insufficient information to warrant further inquiry… The lack of urgency and fact that the child walked apparently normally suggested his injuries were not life-threatening.”

The report also claimed that there were “no Iraqi allegations of CIVCAS.” This was incorrect. Airwars researchers have identified major news reports from the time, which alleged civilians were killed by both the Coalition and the Iraq Army in Fallujah that night.

BBC Arabic for example described medical sources at the city’s main hospital as “receiving 13 bodies and seven wounded, including women and children who fell during the incessant shelling.” Those casualties were attributed both to the Iraqi military and to “air strikes launched by the international coalition on the city of Fallujah on Sunday night (21st) and until dawn Monday, targeting places where IS fighters are believed to be.”

‘Possible child’ Thirteen incidents listed in the declassified document were self-reported internally, with no matching public claims of civilian casualties. An internal post-strike assessment revealed, for example, that a child may accidentally have been caught up in a French airstrike in Mosul on February 3rd 2015.

According to CENTCOM, surveillance footage showed a “possible child entering a targeted bunker and then disappearing out of the field of view (FOV) approximately 19 minutes before Strike.”

The attack which followed, carried out by a French Mirage 2000 using a guided GBU-49 bomb, killed an estimated five enemy fighters, the report says.

Claims that a child had died were deemed “not credible” by military intelligence officers, who decided “that individuals struck were fighters.“ Airwars researchers could find no reference to a child fatality in Mosul for this date, although reports did note an intensification of Coalition strikes on the city.

Dutch aircraft were also suspected of killing two civilians in an incident on the morning of December 26th 2014. According to the document, “while conducting dynamic coalition airstrikes on ISIL fighters and technical vehicles NLD F· l6AM [ie a Dutch F-16] may have unintentionally struck two unidentified persons on motorcycles who entered the target area during the strikes.”

Dutch aircrew prepare a plane for offensive operations (Dutch MoD/ Henry Westendorp)

These claims of civilian deaths were deemed serious enough to trigger a rare formal investigation into the event. This later concluded that there was not enough evidence to indicate civilian fatalities, though neither CENTCOM nor the Dutch military has published that report. A Pentagon spokesman told Airwars in July 2015 that “after reviewing all available evidence, the allegations of civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in these instances were unfounded.”

A determination that no civilians had died was based partly on an assessment of the ammunition used, the declassified document suggests: “No CIVCAS found due to the Dutch using ball ammo rather than HE [high explosive] rounds.”

Airwars researchers have found no public reports of civilian fatalities for Fallujah on December 25th-26th, although there was coverage of ongoing clashes between the Iraq military and Daesh.

‘Not Credible’ Nine of the 45 alleged incidents investigated by the Coalition in the report turned out not to have been the work of international aircraft. Claims that up to 45 people died in Coalition attacks on Aleppo in Syria on December 26th 2014 were dismissed, for example, after it was found none had taken place “during the relevant time period.” On that occasion the Assad regime was most likely responsible.

On another occasion, any Coalition role in the deaths of 15 worshipers at a mosque in Iraq were ruled out after it was found that the “nearest coalition strike to Haditha was 34km and was not within close enough proximity to be considered credible.”

Yassir Rafeh was among 15 worshippers allegedly killed in a Coalition airstrike at Haditha, February 17th 2015. The declassified CENTCOM report confirms this was not the case.

On numerous other occasions CENTCOM investigators dismissed claims of civilian casualties within 48 hours based on extremely limited information. Few of these events were later re-examined, despite significant evidence of civilian deaths often emerging.

On September 23 2014 for example, US airstrikes hit al Qaeda-linked militants in the Syrian town of Kafr Daryan. Up to 13 named civilians also died that night, according to extensive video reports and eyewitness testimony from survivors.

[pullquote]A rudimentary search by CENTCOM would have identified multiple photographs and videos relating to September 23rd itself.[/pullquote]Even so CENTCOM dismissed claims of civilian deaths, in part based on an assessment that “Open source images presented as casualties from the strikes actually came from previous GoS [Government of Syria] strikes.”

Airwars has examined all known published images relating to the Kafr Daryan event. As our Syria researcher Kinda Haddad notes, “Every picture but one we are aware of first appears on 23rd September 2014, and in connection with Kafr Daryan.”

That one known exception is a picture which first appeared as a tweet on September 2nd, after a child was killed by the Assad regime. Shortly after the Kafr Daryan attack some three weeks later, that same image was claimed in English by at least one site to have been taken at Kafr Daryan.

However a rudimentary search by CENTCOM would have identified multiple photographs and videos relating to September 23rd itself. Even when investigators noted new evidence on the strike from the Syrian Network for Human Rights in April 2015, this did not appear to trigger any new inquiry.

Claims that this pictured child was killed at Kafr Daryan three weeks later helped lead CENTCOM to conclude no civilians died in a US attack 

‘Insufficient information’ In another case, CENTCOM was prompted by the US State Department to reinvestigate some six months after a Coalition attack on a gas station in Syria reportedly killed three named civilians.

Weapon system video from the time was reviewed and air crews interviewed. Investigators again concluded that there was “Insufficient evidence to determine CIVCAS,” despite apparent evidence to the contrary from the ground. Yet at the same time, the CENTCOM report admits to “limited video analysis” and “intermittent visual contact with the ground.”

On April 1st 2015, CENTCOM also reassessed claims that between 50 and 60 civilians had been killed in a US attack at Al Bab, Syria four months previously. It concluded that there was still “insufficient information to determine CIVCAS.” This was partly justified by citing an Assad regime airstrike on the city some 48 hours before the US attack, “which resulted in media reports of CIVCAS as well.” Yet no reports from the time appeared to confuse these two events, both of which reportedly caused mass casualties.

An FBI source alleged 41 Yazidi women died in Mosul, Iraq in November 2014

Other incidents in the CENTCOM file are less conclusive. In November 2014 an FBI source alleged the deaths of “41 Yezidi captive females killed in a strike on a named OBJ IVO [objective in the vicinity of] Mosul.”

In the investigation which followed, a Coalition strike with an AGM-114 missile was identified as having taken place some 3.2km from the site of the alleged incident  (suggesting that the aircraft involved was a drone.)

However, the report also noted that “the engagement conducted a cold shift on the weapon due to collateral concerns entering the area of the strike.” As a result it was concluded “No further inquiry needed.”

According to former US Air Force personnel consulted by Airwars, a ‘cold shift’ refers to the deliberate in-flight aborting of a missile to a predesignated safe spot.

While Airwars researchers have not been able to identify any published claims of mass casualties among Yazidi women in Mosul at the time, there were reports of women escaping as a result of Coalition airstrikes. One local news source cited the Director-General for Yazidi Affairs at the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in Kurdistan as saying that “about 250 Yazidi from Mosul and Sinjar escaped during the aerial bombardment of these gatherings.”

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


August 10, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

IMAGE: An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from USS Carl Vinson, October 2014 (US Navy/ Alex King)

At 1.45pm local time on August 8th 2014, the United States began airstrikes against Islamic State (Daesh), after the terror group had overrun much of northern Iraq and begun massacring non-Sunnis.

Six weeks later that air war was expanded to Syria, eventually drawing in eleven other partners which have also launched direct attacks on Daesh.

From the start, the team that would become Airwars has been tracking these Coalition strikes and outcomes. We’ve logged more than 1,000 military reports of airstrikes and targets, and maintain one of the most extensive public archive of the war available.

We’re also the only monitoring group to track reported civilian fatalities across both Iraq and Syria – and have so far identified claims of up to 1,250 civilians allegedly killed in Coalition airstrikes.

Here we present our own analysis of the first year of the Coalition’s air war against Daesh: what has been achieved, and at what cost to civilians.

5,975 airstrikes

As modeling by our data analyst Basile Simon shows, air attacks against Daesh continued to ramp up during the first year of operations, with 5,975 airstrikes recorded overall.  In July 2015, Coalition aircraft launched an average of 27 strikes per day – more than five times the tempo of attacks almost a year earlier.

Upward trend: Over time the intensity of Coalition strikes has increased significantly

Having quit Iraq completely at the end of 2011, it took the United States some weeks to get its strike assets back into the region in August 2014. Erbil, the Mosul Dam and Mount Sinjar were the primary focus of these early airstrikes, as the US Air Force and Navy focused on areas most likely to fall to Daesh’s lightning advance.

On the orders of President Obama, on September 15th US airstrikes were expanded across all areas of Iraq threatened by Daesh. Iraq’s capital now began to experience airstrikes, with even Baghdad at risk of falling.

After 41 days of US-only airstrikes, France became the second nation to take on Daesh from the air on September 19th – attacking a logistics depot in north eastern Iraq.

It was four days later that the international Coalition was truly born, when five Arab nations joined the US in attacking Daesh in Syria. Combat aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain all attacked on September 23rd, while Qatar provided support.

Iraq too saw a rapid expansion of international partners. British Tornados began airstrikes on September 30th, and were soon joined by aircraft from Belgium (October 5th), the Netherlands (October 7th), Australia (October 8th), Denmark on October 16th, and Canada on November 2nd.

Two different air wars

Although the Coalition battles Islamic State on both sides of an international border, the air war has evolved into two distinctly different fights.

Iraqi airstrikes remain almost exclusively a Western affair, with only Jordan among the Arab allies having carried out attacks on the territory of its near neighbour.

Heavy lifting: The US carried out two thirds of all airstrikes in Iraq in the first year

Those airstrikes support three different forces on the ground. To the north, Kurdish peshmerga are holding back Daesh across a 1,000km front. In central and western Iraq, Coalition strikes assist the Iraq Army and Shia militias which are attempting to drive back the terrorists.

It’s often a chaotic business. When Daesh captured Mosul in summer 2014, it seized the military hardware of two entire army divisions – including tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers and Humvees. So distinguishing between friend and enemy on the battlefield can be a challenge for aircrews.

Addressing the issue of ‘friendly fire’ incidents, Lt General John Hesterman of the Coalition recently noted that ‘There’s probably been a case or two, you know. Nobody’s perfect at this.’  

Military officials refuse to say more – although research by Airwars has identified nine alleged ‘friendly fire’ events in the first year of strikes – which between them reportedly killed as many as 180  allied forces. All but one of these alleged incidents occurred in Iraq.

Three fifths of all Coalition bombings in the first year targeted Daesh in Iraq – some 3,664 airstrikes by our count. Historically that’s high – more than all the airstrikes carried out by international forces in Iraq between 2004 and 2011 combined, according to CENTCOM data.

Yet assessing the impact of these current airstrikes against Daesh remains challenging. Most advances by the terror group were halted, with some territory including Tikrit even recaptured.

However elsewhere Daesh has actually advanced, with the fall of Ramadi in May 2015 particularly alarming. And many of Iraq’s biggest cities remain in Islamic State hands – with millions of people under their sway. As a consequence most Coalition airstrikes are focused on these same urban centres – with clear risks to civilians on the ground.

Syria: an American campaign

While the early campaign in Syria saw action by half a dozen Coalition members, this has not been sustained. Today the United States is effectively conducting a unilateral air war against Daesh in Syria.

Every week since early December, the Coalition has provided Airwars with a breakdown of  those airstrikes carried out by the US, and by its allies. This enables us to track how active America’s partners have been in Syria. The results are not encouraging.

Since December 1st, only 51 strikes were carried out in Syria by non-US aircraft. That compares with 1,759 American airstrikes targeting Daesh during the same period. For ten of those weeks, only US aircraft carried out Coalition strikes in Syria.

Canada’s Syrian engagement has so far had little impact on the campaign. In the four months since April, only four strikes have been carried out by Ottawa’s Super Hornets. Military leaders have described Canada’s operations in Syria as “a little bit more problematic” than those in Iraq – something British politicians may choose to bear in mind when they finally vote on whether to extend their own kinetic operations to Syria.

Of the 2,311 Coalition airstrikes in Syria during the first year of the campaign, many were focused on target sets which differed significantly from Iraq. A quarter of all Coalition attacks – 710 airstrikes – took place in just one location for example – the town of Kobane during Islamic State’s failed four month siege.

Other attackss were focused on destroying Daesh’s oil supply infrastructure, or on damaging its supply lines and border crossings. Only in recent months has the Coalition begun heavily targeting Syria’s ISIL-occupied towns. And it is here that we have seen most civilians reportedly killed.

Hundreds of civilians killed

All monitoring groups tracking civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria are in agreement that hundreds of non-combatants have so far been killed in Coalition airstrikes. Airwars shares that view.

Our first major report into alleged civilian fatalities was published in early August, achieving international impact. That study only ran to June 30th. We’re now able to provide estimates for the first full year of Coalition strikes.

To August 8th 2015 our Iraqi and Syrian researchers Latif Habib and Kinda Haddad have identified an overall total of between 986 and 1,251 claimed civilian fatalities, from 141 separate alleged incidents.

From among these, 68 incidents in particular are a cause for concern. On each occasion two or more credible sources reported civilian deaths – with Coalition airstrikes also confirmed in the near vicinity.

Omar Huwaidi Al Mueissat, 22, reported killed in Coalition strike at Ar Raqaa, July 18 2015 (via Raqaa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Based on these events only, Airwars believes there is reasonable evidence to support claims of between 470 and 631 civilian non-combatants killed in the first year of Coalition airstrikes.

Many hundreds more civilian deaths have also been attributed to the Coalition – though at present we don’t have enough information to determine what took place.

In stark contrast, the international coalition has only conceded two “likely” deaths so far, both from a US airstrike in Harem Syria in early November 2014. CENTCOM says it’s also investigating six more incidents of concern.

One worry at Airwars is that reports of civilian deaths are actually rising. July saw the heaviest Coalition bombing yet of both Iraq and Syria, with 856 airstrikes during the month.

Claims of non-combatant deaths also peaked, with 22 incidents of concern flagged for July. Ten of these alleged events were in just one city, Ar Raqqa – Daesh’s putative capital and the target of 54 Coalition strikes during the month. In total, 22 civilians were reported killed in Coalition attacks on Ar Raqqa for July – thirteen of whom have so far been named.

As the Coalition’s campaign enters its second year, international airstrikes will increasingly focus on those Daesh-occupied towns and cities of Iraq and Syria which remain home to millions of non-combatants. Further civilian deaths are inevitable. Whether the 12-nation Coalition will be more forthcoming about such fatalities moving forward remains to be seen.

▲ An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from USS Carl Vinson, October 2014 (US Navy/ Alex King)


August 3, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

ABOVE: Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq on June 3rd 2015 which reportedly killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)

A six-month investigation into alleged civilian and ‘friendly fire’ deaths from Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has identified more than 120 incidents of concern to June 30th according to an Airwars report published today – three times more problem events than the Coalition itself was aware of.

Airwars believes that for 57 of these incidents, there is sufficient publicly-available evidence to indicate Coalition responsibility for civilian and friendly forces deaths. Between them these events account for 459-591 alleged civilian fatalities, and the reported deaths of 48-80 allied forces.

In stark contrast, the Coalition has investigated just ten incidents – and has so far conceded just two civilian deaths in thousands of airstrikes across Iraq and Syria since August 2014.

Read The Guardian’s comprehensive report on our investigation here

1,000 alleged fatalities

Since February Airwars has been examining claims totaling more than 1,000 alleged civilian fatalities. Many of these incidents remain difficult to verify. Some are contested, with counterclaims that Iraqi or Syrian forces carried out an attack. Other events are poorly reported. On occasion claims of civilian fatalities have turned out to be false, researchers found.

Even so, the public record clearly suggests a significant under-reporting of civilian deaths by the Coalition.

Airwars is publishing its own full findings online, with detailed descriptions of each event and links to every known source. The database features hundreds of photographs and videos, along with the names of more than 260 alleged victims.

‘The international Coalition has boasted that its air war against Islamic State is “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Yet facts from the ground suggest a very different story,’ says Chris Woods, Director of Airwars.

‘With more than 5,800 airstrikes so far and over 18,000 bombs and missiles dropped on the cities and towns of Iraq and Syria, all indications are that hundreds of civilians have already died in Coalition strikes.’

Airwars also reports a troubling lack of accountability among the twelve Coalition members. Only Canada has consistently reported where and when its aircraft strike.

In contrast other nations have released almost no information about their actions, with Australia claiming that it ‘will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in ISIL propaganda.’ With Coalition nations individually liable when civilians are killed in Iraq or Syria, those affected on the ground presently have almost no recourse to justice or compensation.

Key findings

    Between August 8 2014 and June 30th 2015, 53 incidents of concern were reported for Iraq, with claims of between 578-732 civilians killed by the Coalition. Most reports are focused on cities and towns – scene of the heaviest bombings. Of these events, Airwars believes 17 Iraqi cases in particular (involving 233-311 alleged fatalities) warrant urgent further investigation.
    Coalition airstrikes began in Syria on September 23rd 2014, and to June 30th 2015 Airwars has identified 65 alleged incidents in which civilians died. Of these, we believe 35 cases demonstrate a fair level of public reporting – with Coalition airstrikes also confirmed in the near vicinity for that date. An estimated 226-280 civilians died in these Syrian events.
    Nine claimed ‘friendly fire’ incidents have occurred since Coalition operations began – eight in Iraq. These allege that up to 185 allied forces (mostly Shia militia) have been killed. Airwars believes there is reasonable evidence to support five of these claims – which killed an estimated 48 to 80 friendly forces between them.
    Although overall the Coalition does a fair job of informing where and when it strikes, it remains almost impossible to hold any of the 12 individual members accountable in the event of civilian deaths. Only Canada consistently reports where and when its aircraft attack.

Shared concerns

Other monitoring groups tracking the violence in Iraq and Syria are also raising concerns, with each reporting hundreds of civilian fatalities from Coalition strikes to June 30th.

Iraq Syria Totals
Airwars [total range] 233-732 226-354 459-1,086
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 173
Syrian Network for Human Rights 198
Syria Violations Documentation Center 276
Iraq Body Count 487*
Averaged fatality estimates 360-641 218-250 578-891*

Monitoring groups in Syria accept that the Coalition generally tries to limit civilian fatalities – particularly when compared with other actors in the brutal civil war.

Yet as Bassam al-Ahmad of VDC notes to Airwars, the Coalition still has its own obligations when it pursues Daesh amid civilian populations: ‘We know that ISIS is taking civilians as human shields, and is building all its military bases in civilian neighborhood. But according to the Laws of War, the Coalition also has to take into account the general principles of international humanitarian law when conducting its strikes.’

As the international air war against Islamic State enters its second year, there is little sign of the risk to civilians on the ground abating.

As Airwars published its report July 2015 was emerging as the most intensive month yet of Coalition bombings, with 371 strikes reported in Syria alone. Civilian casualty claims also peaked, with 14 new alleged events reported for Syria and eight for Iraq – a new and grim record.

* An error in our published Report meant that we included an IBC estimate (369 deaths) which referred to 2015 figures only. In fact the group’s total estimate to June 30th is of 487 civilians killed. Our chart figures have been adjusted here accordingly. 

▲ Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq which killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)


May 28, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

Was lethal airstrike at Fadhiliya, Iraq aimed at Islamic State attacks in vicinity of nearby Canadian troops? Library image shows personnel departing for Iraq, November 2014 (Canadian MoD/ Cpl LS Eduardo Jorge)

Nine months and 4,000 airstrikes into the international coalition’s air war against Islamic State, the US-led alliance has to date only conceded the “likely” non-combatant deaths of two children in a November 2014 airstrike.

At Airwars we believe this to be a major under-reporting of the facts. Claims of up to 740 civilian deaths have already been published by local and international media, by monitoring groups and by affected communities.

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.

Reporter Fazel Hawramy

Airwars has been speaking with journalist Fazel Hawramy, who with his US-based colleague Raya Jalabi recently published a major story with the Guardian about a family of five killed near Mosul in early April, in a likely coalition airstrike.

We began by asking the Irbil-based reporter what had led him to investigate this particular event:

Fazel Hawramy: Since the coalition strikes started last August, when ISIS was closing in on Irbil, there have been reports of civilian casualties in areas under Islamic State control. You see many photos of children badly wounded, sometimes dead children and civilians, published by ISIS-affiliated tweeps on Twitter from Mosul and surrounding areas.

The problem for me with that as a journalist is that it’s very difficult to verify the allegations in these tweets. Because there’s no way that I can access the locals in these areas.

On this occasion, I was online a few weeks ago and a friend shared an update from Facebook from another friend of his saying there’d been a strike in the vlllage of Fadhiliya north of Mosul. And he gave some descriptive details of what happened there. I contacted the guy sharing, who was ready to help with contacting people on the ground. This was a village still under ISIS control, by the way.

All the evidence pointed to a family in Fadhiliya having been hit by a coalition airstrike. Through my contact I was able to speak to some people in the village. Of course they didn’t want to be named in the piece because  ISIS is still there – and if they don’t like something it may put these peoples’ lives in danger. So I agreed to give them anonymity so that they could talk candidly.

Airwars: Do you think, based on your findings for the Guardian, that we should be taking more seriously other claims of civilian deaths from alleged coalition strikes?

Hawramy: Definitely. In this particular case I was fortunate in that I speak Kurdish, so I was able to speak with people in the village and question each of them for around half an hour about the details of the incident.

There are of course civilian casualties from coalition strikes. The problem always for journalists is to get access to the people. And unfortunately the danger to civilians who are under ISIS control is so great that I sometimes feel uncomfortable putting people’s lives in danger.

Danya Laith Hazem, killed in a likely coalition airstrike near Mosul on April 4 2015 (Courtesy of family via Guardian)

But on this particular occasion people in Fadhiliya were happy to talk about the event. Their only condition was that they shouldn’t be named. There are casualties [being caused] not only by the coalition but from the Iraq Army, the Air Force – there have been many casualties. I’ve interviewed people in Kirkuk in [IDP] camps who’ve said that parts of their families were obliterated by the Iraqi Air Force. And clearly there needs to be more focus on this aspect of the war against ISIS.

Airwars: When you spoke with villagers in Fadhiliya, did you get a sense of how they viewed the fact that the coalition appears to be in denial about civilian deaths?

Hawramy: These villagers weren’t very well connected to the outside world in terms of the internet and so on. They’re aware of strikes being carried out around their area of Mosul, but aren’t necessarily aware of civilian casualties in other areas.

One issue I have with the data issued by CENTCOM is that on this particular occasion on April 4, they said there were strikes “near Mosul.” This was too general, making it really difficult to ascertain whether there was a strike near Fadhiliya. Fortunately my colleagues in Washington DC managed to confirm with them that there was a strike around Fadhiliya.

But when you read that press release by CENTCOM it’s really not clear. They just say “a strike around Mosul.” And Mosul is vast, involving three front lines between the Kurds and Islamic State. They could be more co-operative in providing information on where their strikes actually occur.

Airwars: What about the affected family themselves – what do they want? An apology, a recognition that five relatives were killed? What would help them? 

Hawramy: I didn’t speak directly with the family itself. I have spoken with members of the extended family. I was trying to talk with the two girls that were wounded [in the alleged airstrike]. But then I was told by people in Fadhiliya that they were in such a state of mind that it would be difficult for them to discuss what had happened that early morning.

Identity document of Lina Laith Hazem, 16, wounded in Fadhiliya air strike April 4 (Courtesy of family via Guardian)

However, from speaking with their MP in the Iraqi parliament – and with the extended family – I understand that they want acknowledgement of what happened in Fadhiliya, and also compensation for the loss and pain that the coalition caused to that family.

The olive tree farm that this family owns is very big, and some distance away from Fadhiliya. And I was interested to know whether there had been any Islamic State forces on their property that night. The four people I spoke with all said no, there were no ISIS units around the farm – although they are present in the village itself where they have a small base of up to 12 fighters.

Airwars: The Guardian was able to get confirmation from CENTCOM that it had in fact carried out an airstrike at Fadhiliya on the day in question. Based on the available evidence, is it your view that the international coalition did cause these civilian deaths? 

Hawramy: Based on CENTCOM’s confirmation that there was an airstrike around Fadhiliya – and talking to villagers and to their MP – I am pretty convinced.

The MP, Mala Salim Juma Mohammad, a member of the Shabak party, has spoken with the Iraqi Defence Ministry who were confident that they did not launch the air strike. He’s also been to the US Embassy in Baghdad who say they’re investigating the case.

I also have a source in the Iraqi Air Force who told me that they do not carry out airstrikes north of Mosul in the areas around Fadhiliya. The village is very close to Bashiqa Mountain, which is where the Canadian soldiers are based and where one of them died a few months ago in a ‘friendly fire’ incident. And there was recent fighting on that mountain between the peshmerga and ISIS.

So based on the location of the village – and the fact that the peshmerga are constantly calling in coalition airstrikes – I think I’m pretty confident that this was carried out by the coalition.

Missile fragment from Fadhiliya village

Airwars: Where next for your investigation into this incident?

Hawramy: I did manage to obtain photographs of fragments of a missile that was used in the strike, and they’re presently being analysed.

If they come back as positively identifying [weapons used by the coalition], that adds weight to the attack having been carried out by coalition forces. I also plan to speak with villagers again to see what happens with this case moving forward.

Follow Airwars on Twitter – now also tweeting in Arabic



April 27, 2015

Written by

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

The US Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, has played a key role in the CIA drone strikes that killed seven Germany citizens (Flickr/US Army)

The debate over America’s use of drones to kill its own citizens has never been as intense. Last week in an unprecedented announcement, President Barack Obama admitted that CIA drones had killed three Americans in Pakistan in January, including al Qaeda hostage and aid worker Warren Weinstein.

It is not just Americans who have been killed. As new research by the Bureau shows, Weinstein is one of at least 38 Westerners to have been killed in the US’s covert drone war on terror. Citizens of some of America’s closest allies – the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada among them – are among the dead.

The deaths of these Westerners represent a mere fraction of the total death toll for drones. Yet their killing pose troubling questions for the White House over the legality of the programme. There is also growing concern within allied countries.

On May 27 a Cologne court will begin hearing complaints from three Yemeni survivors of a US drone strike, in a case brought by Reprieve and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.

Complaints centre on the use of Ramstein airbase by the US. The Intercept recently published leaked top secret documents showing that all drone satellite data from Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia transits through the German military base.

That means Ramstein will inevitably have helped facilitate the drone killing of seven or more German citizens by America, actions which may give further traction to the impending lawsuit. Kat Craig, from Reprieve, told the Bureau: “The time has come for Germany and the US’s other Western allies to face the facts: they are complicit in an illegal and immoral war – one which violates their own legal framework and should see them prosecuted.” 

Could the case succeed? The track record of Europe’s courts on earlier CIA progammes, including torture and rendition, is not encouraging. 

In this exclusive extract from Chris Woods’ new book Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, the former Bureau reporter shows how Germany’s role in the CIA’s covert drone wars has been highly controversial for years.

In early 2011, an urgent order was issued by Germany’s Interior Ministry: intelligence agencies could no longer pass information to the United States if there was any risk this might be used to kill German citizens. Berlin’s ban was triggered by a CIA drone strike on October 4, 2010, which according to early reports had killed as many as eight German nationals (two had in fact died).

In the days prior to that bombing, there were claims of impending terror attacks against Berlin and other European cities: “Terrorists plotting to carry out a Mumbai-style mas­sacre in Western Europe have a list of high-profile targets in their sights ranging from the Eiffel Tower to a hotel near Berlin’s famed Brandenburg Gate,” ran one of many such stories, with Fox News reporting that the source was “a German-Pakistani national interrogated at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, an anonymous US official told Reuters: “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that links between plots and those who are orchestrating them lead to decisive American action. The terrorists who are involved are, as everyone should expect, going to be targets. That’s the whole point of all of this.”

Shahab Dashti – IMU propaganda

Binyamin Erdogan was talking in the courtyard of his rented home with fellow-German Shahab Dashti and three Pakistanis when a Hellfire missile detonated among them at around 7pm local time.

Erdogan’s widow, his pregnant sister-in-law, and infant nephew were just meters away, though survived unscathed. His brother Emrah was in a nearby room: “My eyes were full of earth because the houses were made of mud,” he later recalled. Staggering outside, he found Dashti mortally injured and his brother Binyamin dead.

Testimony from Emrah’s wife has described how her one-year-old son had been playing with his uncle in the courtyard only minutes before a US missile struck. She has recalled the scene imme­diately after: “The bodies of the three strangers had been cut into pieces by the attack and we could hardly find anything of them. The body of my brother-in-law lay in the soil. He was already dead and the back of his head had been blown apart… Although our friend´s [Dashti’s] hand was still trembling he was dead already as well… The whole courtyard had been turned to rubble by the attack.”

Related story: Hostage deaths mean 38 Westerners killed by US drone strikes, Bureau investigation reveals

Scared that he still risked being killed, and now on the run, the surviving brother contacted Hans-Christian Ströbele, the German Green Party MP:

Emrah contacted me via mail, apparently from Pakistan and at first anonymously. He told me what he’d experienced, that he was present during the drone strike and was indeed unbelievably lucky to survive. He also sent me photos of his dead brother and asked for my help.

Ströbele helped arrange for the return of Emrah Erdogan and his wife to Germany, where the former was ultimately imprisoned for seven years on terrorism-related charges.

Hans-Christian Strobele – German Green Party parliamentarian (Stephan Röhl)

It was widely assumed in media reports that those Germans bombed by the CIA in Waziristan had been involved in the “imminent terror plots” described just days beforehand.

Yet Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maziere had insisted at the time that “there is no concrete imminent attack plan that we are aware of… We are looking at every­thing but there is no fever thermometer of danger”.

The strike on the Erdogan home again raised concerns about the extent to which Western intelligence agencies were colluding in lethal operations. Discomfort at the deaths of Germans—coupled with the later criminal trials of Emrah Erdogan and others–saw key aspects of the intelligence process exposed.

It emerged, for example, that Germany’s intelligence agencies had known of the Erdogans’ presence in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, for many weeks prior to the attack. Indeed, all phone calls made by the men were being recorded and analysed.

In a prophetic conversation in August 2010, for example, Emrah described his life in “dangerous Waziristan” to his fam­ily in Germany. Stern magazine, which obtained transcripts of the con­versations, described how Erdogan believed that “houses are marked so that airplanes can identify them and bomb them more accurately.” Only an American air raid would ever be able to reach them, he said. Other calls reportedly described a planned suicide mission in Afghanistan by Binyamin which was designed to kill “many dozens of people”.

With the Mir Ali house under direct surveillance by both US and German intelligence agencies, it is unclear why the United States had proceeded with a lethal strike when it did—particularly since women and children were in immediate proximity to the targets.

Modelling of the strike that killed Erdogan by Forensic Architecture.

Questioned by the Bundestag’s oversight committee, the German intel­ligence community admitted, according to Ströbele, that on occasion “they gave information to US [intelligence] services but explicitly not for killings or executions by Special Commando or drones, they would not do this. Then I asked, ‘Can you exclude the possibility?’ and they answered, ‘No.’” A government minister later insisted that while the intelligence ser­vices did share cellphone data with “other foreign secret services,” this was “not specific enough to pinpoint exact locations”.

“The only question for me was whether Germany’s intelligence services had the intention to kill Binyamin or oth­ers, or just gave the information and didn’t ask any questions.”

– Marc Lindemann

Critics complained that such data could still lead the CIA’s drones to the near vicinity of a German citizen, from where its own electronic eavesdropping technologies might easily locate them. Under pressure from MPs, in January 2011 prosecu­tors opened a criminal investigation into whether Germany’s intelligence agencies had been complicit in the killing of citizens.

Marc Lindemann, a former Military Intelligence officer who has made a study of the Erdogan case, believes it was “pretty likely” that Germany shared material with the Americans related to the strike: “The only question for me was whether Germany’s intelligence services had the intention to kill Binyamin or oth­ers, or just gave the information and didn’t ask any questions.”

Yet almost three years later, the inquiry concluded that there were no charges to answer, since Binyamin Erdogan had been a “civilian combatant” and was therefore “lawfully killed”. Questions relating to intelligence-sharing were sidestepped.

Even as federal investigators gathered their evidence, other Germans were still being killed by the CIA in Pakistan—regardless of any ban on intelligence sharing. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Mohammad al-Faateh, a 27-year-old Berliner and suspected militant, was killed by the Americans in North Waziristan along with an alleged local Haqqani Network official and a Saudi Al Qaeda operative.

Seven months later, Samir Hatour also died. According to a martyrdom video obtained by SITE, a for-profit organisation that tracks the online activity of various extremist groups, “on the morning of March 9 2012, which was a Friday, Abu Laith [Hatour] went to his family, and on the way with three other mujahidin, the car he was in was fired upon by an American drone and the brothers died as martyrs.”

Ahmed B – the “King of Setterich” (from a eulogy video)

In October 2012 Ahmad B was also killed, a 24-year-old man of Moroccan origin who had been born in the town of Setterich in the German state of Aachen. Announcing his death, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which took in many European radicals), pronounced in a 13-minute German-language video: “Dear brothers and sisters, the King of Setterich is now a martyr.”

As the longest-serving member of the Bundestag oversight commit­tee for Germany’s intelligence community, Ströbele was deeply con­cerned at the issues raised by the killing of Binyamin Erdogan and other nationals: “Our intelligence agencies always deny any involvement with surveillance and the use of drones, because they know that it is a very delicate issue here. First they would be liable to prosecution and sec­ond they would be violating the constitution.”

Sitting in a Berlin office stacked from floor to ceiling with box files of investigations he has con­ducted, Ströbele admitted to being disheartened at how little true over­sight politicians in Germany, Britain, and the United States now had over their respective intelligence services: “Too often we are dependent on good investigative journalists to get hold of certain facts, which then give us the chance to follow up with the intelligence services. Without the work of Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung and others, our work would be far less worthy or of no worth at all.”

It was a disturbing admission from a politician whose role was to help hold to democratic account the intelligence world.

Follow Chris Woods 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.


April 23, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Al Qaeda’s US hostage, Warren Weinstein, killed in a US drone strike in January 2015.

In an unprecedented announcement today President Barack Obama admitted that two al Qaeda hostages, an American and an Italian, were killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in January.

He also said two other US citizens were killed in a subsequent strike later in the same month.

These were not the only Westerners killed by the US in its covert drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

An in-depth analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and author Chris Woods has found that seven other US citizens have been killed since the White House launched its covert drone war on suspected terrorists in 2002.

These findings are part of a major investigation into the nationalities of people killed by the US drone war.

At least 38 Westerners in total have now been killed by US drones in the three target countries. The research raises serious questions about US policy and the extent to which Western governments have been colluding with the US over unlawful intelligence sharing.

The 38 Western deaths include 10 Americans, eight Britons, seven Germans, three Australians, two Spaniards, two Canadians, one Belgian or Swiss national, and now one Italian. There have also been four ‘Westerners’ of unidentified nationality.

Before today’s announcement, the most prominent strike on a Westerner was the one which killed US citizen Anwar al Awlaki, a cleric who became a leading figure and propagandist in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who died in Yemen in September 2011.

The Bureau has compiled these figures over the past four years through an extensive analysis of thousands of media reports and NGO filings, as well as from court papers and leaked government documents. In all there have been at least 514 US drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen since the first in November 2002.

Of the 38 Westerners killed, six are believed to have converted to Islam. At least 18, half the total, were European citizens. We now know two of the 38 were innocent hostages.

The White House today said the US accidentally killed the two hostages, saying they were unaware Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto were in a building when the strike hit. The US “had no reason to believe either hostage was present,” added White House spokesman Josh Earnest.

The two Americans killed in the second January strike in Pakistan were named as al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn and Ahmed Farouq, an al Qaeda leader.

Obama announced today he has launched a thorough investigation into this attack.


Total Westerners killed in US drone strikes

in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia

US 10
UK 8
Germany 7
“Western” 4
Australia 3
Spain 2
Canada 2
Italy 1
Switzerland or Belgium 1


Shared intelligence

Western casualties are a tiny percentage of the total killed by CIA and Pentagon drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The Bureau has established a country or region of origin for 2,350 people killed by drones. Of that total, the 38 Westerners comprise just 1.6%.

But these findings could reignite debate about fundamental issues surrounding the US drone programme, including the role of Washington’s European allies. It has long been assumed allies such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand have shared intelligence with the US that has been used in drone strikes.

Just last week, The Intercept, US investigative reporting site, revealed leaked documents that confirmed the US’s major military base in Ramstein, Germany, is fundamental to the drone programme. It relays signals to and from pilots stationed on bases in the US and the Predator and Reaper drones flying over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. That seven German citizens have been killed via this route may fuel concern in Berlin about the use of their territory.

Related story: Could German court halt White House’s ‘illegal’ drone war? An exclusive extract from Chris Woods’ new book Sudden Justice

“The US’ drone programme has dragged many Western allies into a dirty, secret war,” said Kat Craig, legal director of British charity Reprieve. “It is time to lift the veil on this programme, which has so far been shrouded in secrecy and been allowed to operate without any democratic transparency, and hold all complicit governments responsible for killing innocents and terrorising communities to account.”

The Bureau’s new research was carried out in conjunction with investigative author Chris Woods, a former Bureau journalist. In his new book, Sudden Justice, Woods reveals many of the Westerners were targeted as a result of a deliberate CIA policy that had been sanctioned by George W Bush.

In 2008 according to a former senior US intelligence official, the CIA adopted a policy of deliberately targeting and killing Westerners in Pakistan’s tribal areas. That decision was reportedly approved by both President George W Bush and his deputy Dick Cheney, amid fears of a new 9/11-style atrocity.

A number of radicalised Westerners had recently made their way to Pakistan’s tribal areas for terrorist training, the CIA learned. “These were folks who would not have called attention to themselves if they were standing next to you in the passport line or at McDonald’s,” a former high ranking US intelligence official told Woods.

The Agency now wanted to target and kill these Westerners. To do so, it needed approval at the highest level.

“At the heart of our discussion was that this now is the recreating of the threat to the homeland,” according to the former US intelligence official. “And that’s a pretty stark place for the intel guys to put a policy-maker in. But that’s kind of an accurate description of the box we built for the President and Vice President in the summer of 2008.”

In 2012, former CIA Director Michael Hayden told a Canadian newspaper that Westerners were indeed targeted. He describes once telling President Bush that Pakistan’s tribal areas were “a safe haven that’s being used to prepare people to come attack us. And therefore I recommend – and this is the best I can give you on this – stronger courses of action.”

The shift resulted in a dramatic increase in the frequency of drone attacks in Pakistan. From July 28 onwards that year, there were 33 strikes killing at least 199 people. There were just five strikes in the six months before, killing 53.

Britons killed

Briton Rashid Rauf was one of the 199 to die in the second half of 2008.

He was linked to the July 7 2005 terrorist attacks in London in which 52 people died. His role in this attack raised his profile in al Qaeda. This reportedly gained him a more central role in the planning of another operation – a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, en route to the US from London.

The following year the second Briton died. Abdul Jabbar had travelled to Afghanistan and then Pakistan with his two brothers around the time of the September 11 attacks. Jabbar’s older brother, Mohammed Azmir Khan, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan November 2011.

A third UK citizen died in the same strike as Khan – Londoner Ibrahim Adam. Many details about these three Britons emerged in court documents relating to the testimony of Mohammed Junaid Babar, an al Qaeda supergrass. Babar, a US citizen, appeared as a witness in the trial of several men accused of plotting to detonated a massive fertiliser bomb in London in 2004.

There is a complete lack of detail available for two UK citizens killed in Pakistan. “Mr Dearsmith” and “Mr Stephen” were killed in December 2010 – they were both believed to be converts to Islam and originally came from the Midlands.

Rashid Rauf leaving court in Rawalpindi in 2006 (Associated Press/Anjum Naveed)

While six Britons were killed in Pakistan, two died in Somalia. The US killed Mohammed Sakr and Bilal al Berjawi with drones in January and February 2012 – roughly 18 months after the British government stripped them of their UK citizenship.

They were part of a loose group of young Londoners who left the UK to join terrorist groups, along with Mohammed Emwazi, the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) fighter known as Jihadi John.

Almost as many Germans as Britons died in US drone strikes – all of them in CIA attacks in Pakistan. The first died in 2010, the year the CIA’s “shackles were unleashed“, according to an administration security official, and President Obama reportedly let the agency hike its drone strikes. Three Germans were killed in October 2010 alone.

Allegations of US allies providing the drone campaign with intelligence have surfaced in relation to a number of Western deaths. There were serious concerns the UK had given the US Berjawi’s location. He had reportedly called his wife in London shortly before the drones struck.

Debate about intelligence sharing for drone strikes, and consequently being complicit in a highly legally contentious policy, has intensified with the publication of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

These have demonstrated just how close the US and UK intelligence communities are. In 2013 UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson told British parliamentarians that it is “inevitable” that intelligence shared by UK spies with the US had been used in drone strikes. “It would be absurd if it were not the case,” he added.

The Snowden leaks have also underlined how close the US intelligence relationship is with Australia and New Zealand. The spotlight fell on this proximity when the US killed an Australian citizen and an Australian-New Zealand dual-national in Yemen in November 2013.

The Australian intelligence service knew Australian citizen Christopher Havard was in Yemen when he was killed. The Australian Federal Police had obtained a warrant for his arrest three weeks before.

And New Zealand’s spies knew Daryl Jones was in Yemen for “quite some time,” according to Prime Minister John Key who had signed a warrant allowing his intelligence services to spy on Jones.

In an echo of the Berjawi case, both men had their passports revoked the year before they were killed.

Jones and Havard were two of only six Westerners recorded as killed in Yemen. The other four were all Americans. The first of them, Kamal Darwish, was killed in November 2002. It was the first US drone strike outside Afghanistan.

He was wanted on suspicion of being the recruiter of a terror support cell that had been rounded up in Buffalo, New York state. He was killed in a strike on a car with five others, including one of the alleged masterminds of the US Cole attack.

In September 2011 the US killed Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were propagandists, responsible for the English language magazine Inspire. The following month the US killed Abdulrahman al Awlaki, Anwar’s 16 year old son. He died in a strike while barbecuing with friends.

On May 22 2013, the US attorney-general Eric Holder acknowledged in a letter to Congress that the US had killed four of its own citizens in drone strikes. The four were: Samir Khan, Anwar and Abdulrahman al Awlaki, as well as Jude Kenan Mohamed from Raleigh, North Carolina, killed in Pakistan in November 2011. The letter claimed only Anwar al Awlaki was deliberately targeted. It made no mention of the other three Americans killed with drones.

The Bureau contacted the CIA for comment on this story. However the Agency has yet to reply.

Western citizens reported killed in US covert drone strikes, 2002-2015
Name Nationality Date Location
Kemal Darwish American November 3 2002 Yemen
Amer Azizi Spanish December 1 2005 Pakistan
Raquel Burgos Garcia* Spanish December 1 2005 Pakistan
Unknown Canadian August 30 2008 Pakistan
Unknown Canadian August 30 2008 Pakistan
Unknown American November 7 2008 Pakistan
Unknown American November 7 2008 Pakistan
Unknown “Western” November 7 2008 Pakistan
Unknown “Western” November 7 2008 Pakistan
Rashid Rauf British November 22 2008 Pakistan
Buenyamin Erdogan German October 4 2010 Pakistan
Shahab Dashti German October 4 2010 Pakistan
Mohammed Abdul Jabbar British October 6 2010 Pakistan
Hayrettin Burhan German October 18 2010 Pakistan
Unknown “Western” October 27 2010 Pakistan
Unknown “Western” October 27 2010 Pakistan
“Mr Dearsmith”* British December 10 2010 Pakistan
“Mr Stephens”* British December 10 2010 Pakistan
Saifullah* Australian July 5 2011 Pakistan
Mohammad al Fateh German September 11 2011 Pakistan
Ibrahim Adam British Sept-Nov 2011 Pakistan
Mohammed Azmir British Sept-Nov 2011 Pakistan
Anwar al Awlaki American September 30 2011 Yemen
Samir Khan American September 30 2011 Yemen
Abdel-Rahman al Awlaki American October 14 2011 Yemen
Jude Kenan Mohammed American November 16 2011 Pakistan
Bilal al Berjawi British (ex) January 21 2012 Somalia
Patrick K German February 16 2013 Pakistan
Mohammed Sakr British (ex) February 23 2012 Somalia
Samir H German March 9 2012 Pakistan
Ahmad B German October 10 2012 Pakistan
Moezzedine Garsalloui Belgian or Swiss October 10 2012 Pakistan
Christopher Havard* Australian November 19 2013 Yemen
Daryl Jones* Australian/New Zealand November 19 2013 Yemen
Warren Weinstein American January 2015** Pakistan
Giovanni Lo Porto Italian January 2015** Pakistan
Ahmed Farouq American January 2015** Pakistan
Adam Gadahn American January 2015** Pakistan

* People believed to have converted to Islam.

** Weinstein, Lo Porto and Farouq were killed in one strike in January 2015, Gadahn in another in January 2015. The precise dates are not yet clear.

Data for this investigation came in part from the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project which is supported by Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.

Chris Woods is author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars.

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


October 26, 2013

Written by

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

UN members call for greater transparency (Image: Chris Woods)

Key members of the United Nations – including some of Washington’s closest allies – broke with a decade of tradition on Friday when they endorsed calls for greater transparency over drone civilian deaths.

The European Union, the United Kingdom and Switzerland were joined by the Russian Federation and China in calling for greater openness from those carrying out drone strikes. Pakistan was particularly strident, insisting that there was ‘no implicit or explicit consent’ for US drone strikes on its territory, which it insists have a ‘disastrous humanitarian impact.’ In previous debates states had refused to support similar calls for greater transparency.

The nations were responding to a pair of reports delivered to a busy session of the General Assembly in New York by special rapporteurs Ben Emmerson QC and Professor Christof Heyns. The studies, announced a year ago in London, are part of an ongoing UN investigation into the legal and ethical problems posed by the use of armed drones – especially in non-conventional conflicts.

The United States, one of only three nations which presently uses armed drones, also indicated that it will continue to co-operate with the UN’s inquiry. So too did the UK. Only Israel – which has suspended its involvement with the UN’s Human Rights Council – has so far failed to engage.

Heyns, as UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, stressed that existing international law should be sufficient to provide an adequate framework for managing strikes: ‘The drone should follow the law, not the law follow the drone,’ he told member nations.

The issue was not the law but how drones were sometimes used, Heyns said: ‘Armed drones are not illegal, but as lethal weapons they may be easily abused and lead to unlawful loss of life, if used inappropriately.

‘States must be transparent about the development, acquisition and use of armed drones. They must publicly disclose the legal basis for the use of drones, operational responsibility, criteria for targeting, impact (including civilian casualties), and information about alleged violations, investigations and prosecutions,’ his report notes.

Brandon Bryrant, former USAF pilot (photo: Chris Woods)

The South African professor of law also expressed concern that an increased reliance on drone strikes by nations risked a decreased emphasis on diplomacy, and on law and order operations.

Heyns once again raised the issue of possible war crimes in relation to the deliberate targeting of civilians with drones, saying there was an ‘obligation’ on member states to investigate such instances.

That appeared to be a reference to the now well-reported US practice of deliberately targeting first responders at the scene of an original drone attack. Earlier this week, Amnesty International became the latest organisation to produce evidence of so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes in Pakistan. Findings of similar attacks have been reported by the Bureau, by legal charityReprieve and by Stanford and New York university law schools.

Interim study

In his own report to the UN, British barrister Ben Emmerson –the rapporteur for counter terrorism and human rights -repeatedly emphasised what he described as the obligation of states to properly investigate credible reports of civilian deaths.

‘The single greatest obstacle to an evaluation of the civilian impact of drone strikes is lack of transparency, he said. ‘In any case in which civilians have been, or appear to have been killed, the State responsible is under an obligation to conduct a prompt, independent and impartial fact-finding inquiry and to provide a detailed public explanation.’ It was that call for transparency which other member states then endorsed.

Emmerson was also keen to stress that his study is interim. A team of legal investigators based in London has also been examining 33 problematic drone strikes carried out by the United States, Israel and the UK, which raise significant concerns regarding legality, civilian deaths or possible war crimes. As Emmerson told a later press conference: ‘The really difficult part of the process is this next stage,’ when the three countries will be asked to comment in detail on individual strikes. That final report is expected in 2014.

Responding in the General Assembly to Heyns’ report and comments, the US was careful not to imply that it accepted any definition of its own drone strikes as ‘extrajudicial killings’, actions it condemned outright. However, the US surprised some observers by indicating that it intends to continue co-operation with Emmerson’s ongoing investigation.

Constitutional rights

The two rapporteurs also spoke at a panel discussion at the UN’s Manhattan building. They were joined by a former US drone operator, along with academics and human rights investigators. A short film, prepared by Forensic Architects, showed in Emmerson’s words ‘an indication of the potential to mount investigations’ into problematic strikes. ‘With enough effort and political will it can be done,’ he insisted. ‘I refuse to give up trying to obtain that co-operation.’

In a late addition to the panel, former US Air Force drone operator Brandon Bryant also endorsed calls for drone strike transparency and accountability. He said that his own misgivings about some US actions came about after he was ‘party to the violation of the constitutional rights of a US citizen.’ This, he said, was despite his having sworn an oath to uphold the same Constitution when he joined the military.

Friday’s UN presentations came at the end of a week of reports covering aspects of the ongoing secret US drone war. After the weekend release of a major study into Yemen drone strikes by Swiss NGO Alkarama, both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch followed with their own damning reports into recent US drone axctivity in Yemen and Pakistan. In a testy response a State Department official insisted that US civilian casualties from drones were ‘much lower,’ but refused to provide either estimates or evidence to back her claims.

On Wednesday, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also told President Obama on a visit to Washington DC that drone strikes on his country had to stop. The impact of that call was muted by a leaked story in the Washington Post later that day, insinuating that Pakistan may still give its tacit consent to US drone strikes. In contrast Emmerson’s UN report states that whilst there is ‘strong evidence’ that Pakistan previously allowed US strikes on its territory, any such consent had been removed by April 2012 at the latest.

He also insisted that any side-deals cut between the US and Pakistan’s military or intelligence services had no validity:‘The democratically elected Government is the body responsible for Pakistani international relations and the sole entity able to express the will of the State in its international affairs,’ Emmerson writes.

Although Friday’s UN presentations appeared to make a reasonable impact, this was not the first time that the General Assembly had debated the issue of drone strikes. In 2010 former UN special rapporteur Philip Alston also presented a report to the UN, and some of his recommendations are being repeated by Emmerson and Heyns.

There is now more acknowledgement of the need for debate and transparency, the current rapporteurs believe.

Heyns said he believed that nations are now ready to ‘take stock’ of the use of armed drones, particularly given the potential for their proliferation. And noting that the European Union and others have now explicitly lined up behind calls for transparency, Ben Emmerson said that there was a far deeper public awareness of the impact of armed drones.

He also noted that alongside Washington’s co-operation with the investigation to date, CIA director John Brennan has indicated he would like to see US civilian drone casualty data published. ‘I am optimistic, and refuse to limit my expectations,’ Emmerson told assembled journalists.

Chris Woods is a freelance investigative reporter whose work with the Bureau on US covert drone strikes recently won the prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize. His book on the pivotal role of armed drones in the War on Terror, Sudden Justice, is published next year.


July 25, 2013

Written by

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

A Pakistani soldier in FATA, where there have been 370 CIA drone strikes. (Photo: Chris Woods)

US officials are claiming that an internal Pakistani assessment of civilian deaths from US drone strikes – obtained and published in full by the Bureau –  is ‘far from authoritative.’

The secret document was obtained by the Bureau from three independent sources. It provides details of more than 70 CIA drone strikes between 2006 and 2009, and was compiled by civilian officials throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas.

They noted that at least 147 of 746 people listed as killed in CIA drone strikes between 2006 and 2009 were said to be civilians. That number could be as high as 220 civilian dead, the leaked report indicates.

Related article: Exclusive – Leaked Pakistani report confirms high civilian death toll in CIA drone  

Now unnamed US officials are questioning the contents of the leaked report. A written statement has been provided to news organisations including the Bureau.

At least 147 of 746 people listed as killed in CIA drone strikes between 2006 and 2009 were said to be civilians. That number could be as high as 220 civilian dead, the leaked report indicates.’

The statement notes that the leaked document was based on ‘indirect input from a loose network of Pakistani government and tribal contacts’. As such, an official indicated, ‘the result is a report whose findings are far from authoritative’.

The same statement added: ‘The notion that the United States has undertaken operations in Pakistan that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Pakistanis is ludicrous. There is no credible information whatsoever to substantiate the report’s distorted figures.’

Voice of America also reported receiving a written statement from US officials. Its version cited one as saying that the leaked document is not credible since it relies ‘in part on erroneous media reporting’.

Pakistan estimates

There seems little gap between Pakistan’s official position on civilian casualties, and the contents of the leaked report obtained by the Bureau.

Earlier this year Ben Emmerson QC, the UN’s special rapporteur on counter-terrorism, was officially informed by Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs that CIA drones had so far killed at least 2,200 people in the country, including at least 400 civilians.

The figures were disclosed to Emmerson as he made a three-day visit to the country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which compiled the figures, said a further 200 of the total dead were also likely to be civilians.

And reporting on leaked US intelligence documents obtained by news agency McClatchy suggests that US records privately indicate civilian deaths where publicly the administration denies them.

Those documents, which have not yet been published, are said to cover two periods: 2006 to 2008, and January 2010 to September 2011, and indicate that what US officials say publicly about drone strikes does not always match intelligence reports.

The notion that the United States has undertaken operations in Pakistan that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Pakistanis is ludicrous.’

US official

Pakistan’s government has so far refused to confirm the authenticity of the latest leaked document obtained by the Bureau – though it is not contesting the report’s claims of high civilian deaths.

‘I am not in a position to authenticate the veracity of this report, but the facts that are being revealed are something which is not new,’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Aizaz Ahmed Choudhry told Voice of America. ‘ We have always said that drone strikes cause civilian casualties.’

Lawyer Shahzad Akbar of legal charity Reprieve has brought a number of legal cases in Pakistan and Europe trying to force greater clarity on the issue of civilian deaths. He told the Bureau he found it troubling that the US appears to be claiming that only it can accurately assess civilian deaths in Pakistan.

‘How is it possible for the US to determine who has been killed, when they often do not know to start with who they are targeting?’ Akbar emailed from Islamabad.

‘Drone surveillance alone cannot determine who is militant and who is not.’

Related article: Get the Data – The Pakistan government’s secret document 

‘Poor US intelligence’

In a fresh development, a retired military figure once responsible for security in Waziristan now says that historically, poor US practice may have contributed to higher non-combatant casualties.

Brigadier Mahmood Shah claimed to Voice of America that CIA drone strikes in the early days of the campaign were based on poor US ground intelligence:

‘They [the US] gave us 28 places that here are militants, then we had full recce [reconnaissance] of the area and we visited the places and we found that 27 out of 28 were incorrect, and one was correct,’ Shah told VoA.

‘So this was the amount of accuracy and if they had the permission to shoot at that time, which we never thought would be possible, you can imagine how many people, civilian people that would have killed.’

The Bureau presently estimates that 410-928 civilians are among 2,509-3,576 people killed in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. This is based on a two-year analysis of news reports, court documents, field investigations, leaked intelligence papers and other credible sources.


July 1, 2013

Written by

Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In May, President Obama admitted for the first time US drones have caused civilian casualties in the covert drone war (Image: Peter Souza/White House).

Bureau data suggests the CIA is killing fewer people in each strike in Pakistan.

Lack of official transparency means it remains unclear who is carrying out strikes in Yemen.

No reports of US operations in Somalia but al Shabaab continues to launch attacks.


June 2013 actions

Total CIA strikes in June: 1

Total killed in US strikes in June: 7-9, of whom 0 were reportedly civilians


All actions 2004 – June 30 2013

Total Obama strikes: 318

Total US strikes since 2004: 370

Total reported killed: 2,548-3,549

Civilians reported killed: 411-890

Children reported killed: 168-197

Total reported injured: 1,177-1,480For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here.


A single CIA drone strike hit Pakistan in June. The attack, on June 7, killed seven including Mutaqi (aka Bahadar Khan), described by some sources as a ‘key Pakistan Taliban commander’.

The attack came two days after new prime minister Nawaz Sharif used his inaugural address to demand an end to US drone strikes. After the attack, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned deputy US ambassador Richard Hoagland to protest.

Tensions in the region continue to grow after the killing of Pakistan Taliban (TTP) deputy leader Wali Ur Rehman in a drone attack in May hardened the stance of the militant group. Rehman’s death dashed hopes of peace talks between the militant group and Pakistan authorities in Islamabad. The TTP has since claimed that a spate of bloody attacks were in retaliation for Rehman’s death, including the murder of ten climbers and their guide in the mountainous north of the country.

While peace negotiations have faltered in Pakistan, across the border the US is trying to negotiate peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. The militant group opened its political office in Qatar – a move that provoked a visceral response from the Afghan government.

Six-monthly trendsMuch has been written about the steep decline in the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan: strikes are now at their lowest level since early 2008. The number of reported civilian deaths is also at an all-time low, a trend first high-lighted by the Bureau in 2012.

The average number of people being killed in each drone strike has fallen sharply too, an analysis of the Bureau’s data shows. An average of four people now die in each attack – just a third of the rate in the first six months of 2010.

Research by the Bureau and others indicates that some of the highest casualties in the US drone war occur when the CIA carries out ‘signature strikes’ – attacks on groups of men judged to be behaving in a suspicious manner.

The rate CIA drones kill people per strike has continued to fall since the first half of 2009.

The smaller death tolls seen in recent months suggest the CIA may be limiting its use of the controversial tactic.

The Bureau showed its analysis in the graph above to law professor Rosa Brooks who recently testified before a Senate committee on the constitutional and counterterrorism implications of the US drone wars. She said the White House’s use of drones has come under pressure and the drop in the casualty rate is ‘almost certainly an effort to respond to the criticisms’. However, she added, this is ‘the optimistic theory’. ‘The less optimistic theory would simply be they have started running out of targets.’

The first half of 2013 began with a flurry of strikes in January before the CIA scaled back operations. This coincided with a move by the White House to more transparency about the drone programme. In February new CIA director John Brennan discussed the Agency’s targeted killing programme with the US Senate during his confirmation hearing. And in May President Obama for the first time acknowledged US drone strikes have killed civilians, in a major foreign policy speech.

The past six months have been bookended with the death of two significant militant leaders. Maulvi Nazir, one of the most senior commanders of the so-called ‘Good Taliban’, was killed in January. And Wali Ur Rehman, deputy leader of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) was killed in May.

In February a leak to NBC provided a summary of the secret legal justification that allows the US to kill its own citizens in drone strikes. In April another leak to the McClatchy news agency was reported as showing the that US is not clear who it has been killing in Pakistan. According to the leaked secret documents many killed by drones were merely classified as ‘unknown‘.


June 2013 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 0

Further reported/possible US strike events: 2

Total reported killed in US operations: 0-15

Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0-1

All actions 2002 – June 30 2013*

Confirmed US drone strikes: 46-56

Total reported killed: 240-349

Civilians reported killed: 14-49

Children reported killed: 2

Reported injured: 62-144

Possible extra US drone strikes: 80-99

Total reported killed: 284-454

Civilians reported killed: 25-50

Children reported killed: 9-11

Reported injured: 78-101

All other US covert operations: 12-77

Total reported killed: 148-377

Civilians reported killed: 60-88

Children reported killed: 25-26

Reported injured: 22-111Click here for the full Yemen data.


A 10-year-old boy reportedly died in a suspected US drone strike in June, alongside up to six alleged al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militants. The boy, Abdulaziz, was the younger brother of alleged AQAP commander Hassan al-Saleh Huraydan – described as a key figure in enabling the movement of money and fighters from Saudi Arabia to Yemen. They were killed, reportedly along with Saudi nationals, in a vehicle as they travelled through the northern province of al Jawf on June 9.

The strike was the second of the month. The first hit Abyan province on June 1, killing alleged senior AQAP militant Awadh Ali Lakra and a second alleged militant, Lawar.

There was strong evidence to suggest both were drone strikes. Yemen Air Force commander Rashid al Janad said he was ‘unaware of any air strikes that have been launched’ by Yemeni planes. And June’s second attack targeted a moving vehicle which is potentially beyond the Yemen Air Force’s capability. However the Bureau could not confirm US involvement – or the use of drones – in either.

Six-monthly trendsThe covert drone war has been openly discussed by senior figures in the US administration. So too has President Obama’s wish to become more transparent about the drone programme – an effort to ‘push back against a lot of these allegations that are not true‘. And Brennan hinted at giving the Pentagon control of drone strikes outside Pakistan during his Senate hearing. Some suggest this would make the programme more transparent because unlike CIA strikes, Pentagon drone strikes can be publicly acknowledged by the government.

Moving the programme to military control is not a guarantee of more transparency. Earlier this year the US military significantly reduced its openness about its use of drones in Afghanistan, reversing an earlier decision to regularly publish data about the use of drones. It had originally agreed to declassify the data following months of discussions with the Bureau, but reclassified the data, claiming attention had ‘disproportionately focused’ on drones.

In Yemen the Pentagon has also run a targeted killing programme for four years or more, and does not publish details of these operations.

So far this year the Bureau has recorded four confirmed US strikes on Yemen. However it is not clear who carried out up to 12 other reported strikes. In the first half of 2012 this pattern was more pronounced – the Bureau recorded at least 21 confirmed US drone strikes, but cannot confirm US involvement in 42 more reported attacks.

US involvement cannot be confirmed in the majority of reported drone strikes.

The Yemen government has claimed its airforce carried out many of the ‘other’ attacks. But the Yemen Air Force is incapable of flying missions at night, let alone carrying out precision strikes such as many of those reported in Yemen.

At least 183 people died in these unconfirmed drone attacks in the first half of 2012 – more than double the dead from confirmed US operations. And at least 28 people have died in possible drone strikes so far in 2013, double those killed in confirmed US attacks.

Journalists have struggled at times to investigate reported drone strikes, particularly in 2012 when neither government nor AQAP forces would allow journalists into areas under al Qaeda’s control. Retrospective investigations have uncovered evidence of US involvement in strikes, and discovered previously unreported civilian casualties.

This year investigators from human rights charities HOOD and al Karama and, independently, journalists from a Swedish radio programme visited the site of a January strike. They found fragments of Hellfire missiles, confirming it was a US attack. And they discovered the Yemeni government had acknowledged the deaths of two civilians in the strike, a university student and a teacher. This is despite anonymous government sources previously naming all the dead as al Qaeda militants.

More than half of this year’s reported strikes took place in January, before an 85-day pause while Yemen’s numerous tribes convened for the start of reconciliation talks in the capital. As this conference continued the drones returned in April killing at least four people in Wessab. A week later journalist and activist Farea al Muslimi, who was born in Wessab, testified before the US Congress about the effect of drones on Yemen and its people.

* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.


June 2013 actions

Total reported US operations: 0


All actions 2007 – June 30 2013

US drone strikes: 3-9

Total reported killed: 7-27

Civilians reported killed: 0-15

Children reported killed: 0

Reported injured: 2-24

All other US covert operations: 7-14

Total reported killed: 47-143

Civilians reported killed: 7-42

Children reported killed: 1-3

Reported injured: 12-20Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia.


Once again there were no US drone strikes reported in Somalia in June – the tenth consecutive month with no reported US operations in the country. However al Shabaab continues to threaten Somali security. The militant group once again successfully penetrated the heightened security area around Mogadishu airport to attack the UN Development Programme offices on June 19. As many as 22 people were killed in the assault and ensuing 90-minute gun battle.

Al Shabaab militants were driven from Kismayo late last year by a combination of Kenyan soldiers and local militia. Yet the government in Mogadishu has failed to exert sufficient influence on the southern port, and fighting between competing clans and militia on June 7 and 8 left 31 civilians dead and 38 injured, according to the World Health Organisation. At least seven were killed in further clashes on June 26 and 27.

It emerged that the US operates its drones over Somalia using a satellite relay station in Ramstein, Germany.

Another drone reportedly crashed in Somalia, this time in the north of the country in the autonomous region of Puntland. It is unclear who the drone belonged to, in contrast with an earlier incident in May when the Pentagon unusually claimed a crashed surveillance drone as its own.

Six-monthly trendsThe Bureau has not recorded a single US drone attack or other covert operation in Somalia in the first half of 2013. Whether this is due to poor reporting from the region or an absence of attacks is unclear.

This is in contrast to 2012 when there were a number of reports of US drone strikes in the African country including two that killed British citizens. This was reported on in a major Bureau investigation published by the Independent in February which revealed that two former British citizens died in US drone strikes in Somalia in 2012 after having their British citizenships removed. Bilal al Berjawi was killed by a drone in January 2012, with his childhood friend and fellow alleged militant Mohammed Sakr dying in a US drone strike the following month.

Both were UK citizens until Home Secretary Theresa May signed an order in 2010 removing their UK nationality while they were out of the country. May has the power to remove someone’s citizenship on national security grounds. Only individuals with dual nationality can be deprived of their British citizenship. But being born in the UK is not a protection. The Bureau has identified five dual nations who were born in the UK who have been deprived of their British nationality – including Mohamed Sakr. 

Sakr’s lawyer Saghir Hussain told the Bureau there appeared to be a link between the deprivation of citizenship and subsequent US action. Leading immigration lawyer Ian McDonald QC said that stripping people of their citizenship ‘means that the British government can completely wash their hands if the security services give information to the Americans who use their drones to track someone and kill them’.

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To sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project click here.


June 3, 2013

Written by

Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A US drone crashed in al Shabaab-controlled southern Somalia this month

(Photo: Twitter)

The Pakistan Taliban’s deputy commander is killed in a CIA drone strike

A CIA drone attack in Yemen kills four, reportedly including a senior leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

The Pentagon admits a US surveillance drone has crashed in Somalia


May 2013 actions

Total CIA strikes in May: 1

Total killed in strikes in May: 4-7, of whom 0 were reportedly civilians


All actions 2004 – May 31 2013

Total Obama strikes: 317

Total US strikes since 2004: 369

Total reported killed: 2,541-3,540

Civilians reported killed: 411-884

Children reported killed: 168-197

Total reported injured: 1,174-1,479For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here.


The only drone strike reported to hit Pakistan in May killed Wali Ur Rehman, second-in-command of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP). It was the first US attack in Pakistan for 42 days and came less than a week after President Obama set out his new drone policy. In a major speech, the president stipulated that a strike could only target individuals who posed ‘a continuing, imminent threat to US persons’, and that the US did not carry out revenge attacks.

Rehman was a prominent Taliban figure responsible for numerous bloody terrorist attacks within Pakistan. The US also blamed him for the December 2009 Khost bombing in which seven CIA officers were killed. An unnamed Pakistani intelligence officer said his death ‘is crippling for [the Taliban’s] top command’. The TTP held Pakistan partially responsible for the attack, promising ‘revenge in the strongest way’ and pledging, ‘attacks in Pakistan will continue’.

This was the first CIA attack in Pakistan since the elections on May 11. Prime minister-elect Nawaz Sharif had started preparing the ground for peace talks with the TTP. However after Rehman’s death Taliban spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said: ‘The government has failed to stop drone strikes, so we decided to end any talks with the government.’

Rehman’s successor, Khan Said (38), was selected hours after Rehman’s death. The attack that killed the Taliban commander, hit a mud-built house in North Waziristan in the early morning. Up to six alleged militants were also killed. They were identified by the Nation as Nasarullah; Shahabuddin; Adil; Nasiruddinand Saeedur Rehman; and Fakhar ul Islam, Rehman’s aide.

Earlier in the month the Obama administration admitted killing four US citizens in covert drone strikes, three in Yemen and one, whose death had previously only been a rumour, in Pakistan. The strike in Pakistan killed Jude Kenan Mohammed on November 16 2011 (Ob255).


May 2013 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 1

Further reported/possible US strike events: 1

Total reported killed in US operations: 4-11

Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0

All actions 2002 – May 31 2013*

Confirmed US drone strikes: 46-56

Total reported killed: 240-349

Civilians reported killed: 14-49

Children reported killed: 2

Reported injured: 62-144

Possible extra US drone strikes: 78-96

Total reported killed: 275-442

Civilians reported killed: 25-48

Children reported killed: 9-10

Reported injured: 76-98

All other US covert operations: 12-76

Total reported killed: 148-366

Civilians reported killed: 60-87

Children reported killed: 25

Reported injured: 22-111Click here for the full Yemen data.


* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.

The CIA conducted at least one drone strike in Yemen this month, reportedly killing Jalal Balaabed, described at a senior figure in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He commanded Abyan’s capital, Zinjibar, when the militant group controlled the province in 2011 and 2012. However al Mahfad district security chief Colonel Ahmed al Rab’i said he could neither confirm nor deny Balaabed’s death. The dead man’s relatives also reportedly denied he had been killed.

A second possible US strike killed alleged militants later named as Abd Rabbo Mokbal Mohammed Jarallah al Zouba and Abbad Mossad Abbad Khobzi by the Yemen defence ministry website. However Yemeni media could not independently verify their connection to al Qaeda.

Three additional airstrikes were reported in May. Two were labelled US drone strikes by a single source. The third, on May 24, was reported either as a US drone strike or as a Saudi Arabian airstrike. The attack hit an area close to the Saudi border in al Jawf province. While most local media sources attributed the strike to the US, several sources said the attack was carried out by Saudi jets. Responsibility remains unclear.

Also in May, a Yemen Air Force fighter-bomber crashed in Sanaa while on a training mission. The Russian-made Su-22 exploded in mid-air over a residential district. The pilot was killed and up to 22 people on the ground were injured. This was the third military plane to crash in the city in seven months. In February another Su-22 crashed in the capital, killing 12 people. And in November an Antonov M26 transport plane caught fire and crashed, killing all 10 on board.

The Air Force was the victim of ‘sabotage’, according to service chief General Rashed al Janad. The latest Su-22 was caused by ‘shots hitting the engine’ as it prepared to land he explained, adding ‘the black box of the aircraft was hit’. The Antonov crashed in 2012 after ‘shots caused a fire in one of its engines’, General al Janad said.

Also this month General al Janad said (Arabic) the US does not notify Sanaa before launching drone strikes. He told al Jazeera he had suffered personally from US attacks when a cousin of his died in a strike in Dhamar province. However an unnamed Yemen Air Force source said the country’s military high command is aware of any incursion by foreign military aircraft into its airspace. Yemeni analyst Saeed Obaid said al Janad appeared to be distancing himself from anger at civilian casualties.


May 2013 actions

Total reported US operations: 0


All actions 2007 – May 31 2013

US drone strikes: 3-9

Total reported killed: 7-27

Civilians reported killed: 0-15

Children reported killed: 0

Reported injured: 2-24

All other US covert operations: 7-14

Total reported killed: 47-143

Civilians reported killed: 7-42

Children reported killed: 1-3

Reported injured: 12-20Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia.


There were once again no reported drone strikes in Somalia in May. But the Pentagon admitted an unarmed US helicopter drone crashed in al Shabaab-controlled territory south of Mogadishu. The US said the aircraft was on a surveillance mission but would not say what kind of drone it was, or why it crashed. The local governor Abdikadir Mohamed Nur claimed militants shot the drone down. He said they were firing at it for hours before it crashed. But the US denied this and al Shabaab only said the drone crashed.

Al Shabaab militants tweeted pictures of the wreckage and in one image Schiebel, the name of a Viennese defence firm, is clearly visible on a piece of debris. Schiebel makes only one model of drone, a surveillance helicopter dubbed the S-100 Camcopter. This revelation prompted some speculation the drone was French, after Paris reportedly test-flew the drone as part of a failed attempt by commandos to rescue a captured French spy in January 2013.

Security remains perilous in Somalia. Al Shabaab killed six people in an attack at the Kenyan border on May 25. A 15-year-old boy, two police officers, a teacher and a Red Cross official were among the bodies. Also in May, UN deputy secretary general Jan Eliasson told reporters the African Union peacekeeping force Amisom has suffered up to 3,000 casualties since it began operations in 2007. The UN quickly backtracked on the statement, and Amisom’s spokesman told Pentagon-funded news site Sabahi Online the peacekeepers had lost fewer than 500 troops.

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To sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project click here.


May 24, 2013

Written by

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

Clarity from the White House (Photo: Michael Baird/ Flickr)

Two of the most controversial aspects of the US covert drone campaign – CIA control of strikes in Pakistan, and the use of so-called signature strikes – look set to continue until at least 2014, papers released by the White House indicate.

In the wake of President Obama’s Thursday speech on counter-terrorism policy, White House national security officials have released two key documents. The first, US Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism, lays out the standards now being used to decide whether to deploy ‘lethal force’ outside the battlefield.

The White House has also released the transcript of a background briefing for journalists, in which anonymous senior administration officials offer their interpretation of the new guidance.

Between them, the two documents offer significant insights into how the US targeted killing programme is governed.

Related story – Obama frames covert drone war as necessary evil

Officials have also provided the most comprehensive understanding yet of how the US government defines a civilian – or ‘non-combatant’ – in places such as Pakistan and Yemen.

But claims that the US has ended controversial ‘signature strikes’ – and will transfer all covert drones from the CIA to the Pentagon – appear to have been overstated. As one official puts it, ‘you’ll see also a lot of continuity in the way in which we approach these things that are basically being codified in the guidance that’s been issued.’

Rule BookBuilding on President Obama’s counter terrorism speech at National Defense University on Thursday, officials have laid out ‘certain key elements’ of the standards and procedures governing the US targeted killing programme.

Noting that the US has a preference where possible ‘to capture a terrorism suspect’, guidance notes then lay out the circumstances in which a lethal covert drone strike or other form of targeted killing can take place.

All proposed killings outside the conventional battlefield must have a ‘legal basis’; must not be an act of punishment; and must only be used if the target represents ‘a continuing, imminent threat to US persons’, according to the document.

You’ll see also a lot of continuity in the way in which we approach these things that are basically being codified in the guidance that’s been issued.’Senior US administration official

But it goes on to make clear: ‘It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to US persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.’

In recent months, some senior administration figures including CIA Director John Brennan have pushed for a far looser definition of imminence. That effort appears to have failed.

The White House then presents five rules which it says must now be followed before a targeted killing can take place:

1) Near certainty that the terrorist target is present;

2) Near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed;

3) An assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation;

4) An assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to US persons

5) An assessment that no other reasonable alternatives exist to effectively address the threat to US persons.


In a key move, national security officials also offer an explanation of how civilians – or ‘non-combatants’ – are being defined in the context of targeted killings outside the battlefield.

‘Non-combatants are individuals who may not be made the object of attack under applicable international law,’ the document notes.

‘The term “non-combatant” does not include an individual who is part of a belligerent party to an armed conflict, an individual who is taking a direct part in hostilities, or an individual who is targetable in the exercise of national self defense. Males of military age may be non-combatants; it is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.’

That final point – that military-aged males are not automatically classed as combatants in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, may mark a major sea-change. A story in the New York Times generated huge controversy in 2012 when it reported that the US ‘counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent’.

Non-combatants are individuals who may not be made the object of attack under applicable international law’US Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism

The list of rules issued by the White House concludes with an assertion that the US ‘respects’ national sovereignty and international law:

‘Whenever the United States uses force in foreign territories, international legal principles, including respect for sovereignty and the law of armed conflict, impose important constraints on the ability of the United States to act unilaterally – and on the way in which the United States can use force. The United States respects national sovereignty and international law,’ the document notes.

Ben Emmerson QC, the UN investigator currently looking into drone strikes, said he welcomed the Obama administration’s publication of its rule book.

Describing it as ‘a significant step towards increased transparency and accountability,’ he added that ‘it also disposes of a number of myths, including the suggestion that the US is entitled to regard all military-aged males as combatants, and therefore as legitimate targets.’

Background briefingIn advance of President Obama’s major speech, journalists also took part in a background briefing with anonymous senior administration officials on Thursday, which has now been published.

Much of that briefing focused on the proposed closure of Guantanamo, and whether the War on Terror is drawing down. But officials also offered their interpretation of the new targeted killing guidelines.

Claims by some that all US covert drone strikes will pass from the CIA to the Pentagon appear overstated, based on the comments of two officials.

One notes that there is an ‘expressed preference’ for the US military to have the lead in carrying out targeted killings, ‘given their traditional role and given the transparency [that] can be associated with actions by the United States military’. But he added that the US continues to ‘pursue a range of counter-terrorism operations around the world,’ indicating that the CIA might retain a role.

The New York Times has since cited US officials who indicate  that the CIA will not transfer control of drone strikes in Pakistan to the US military until ‘the withdrawal of combat units from Afghanistan at the end of 2014’.

In another exchange with journalists, officials at Thursday’s briefing addressed whether the three US citizens killed in covert drone strikes who had not been intentionally targeted were being classed by the Administration ‘as collateral damage or guilty by association?’

‘There are times when there are individuals who are present at al Qaeda and associated forces facilities, and in that regard they are subject to the lethal action that we take,’ a senior official responded. ‘There are other instances when there are tragic cases of civilian casualties and people that the United States does not in any way intend to target.’

There are times when there are individuals who are present at al Qaeda and associated forces facilities, and in that regard they are subject to the lethal action that we take.’Senior US administration official

Signature strikes

There was further confusion on the question of whether signature strikes have now ended.

An editorial in today’s The New York Times claims that ‘From now on, the Central Intelligence Agency and the military will no longer target individuals or groups of people in countries like Pakistan based merely on the suspicion that their location or actions link them to al Qaeda or other groups allied with the terrorist network.’

Yet when asked, ‘Will signature strikes explicitly be prohibited now?’, an official at the briefing framed his response in the context of the war in Afghanistan, noting the need to ‘take action against forces that are massing to support attacks on our troops and on coalition forces in Afghanistan.’

The official then noted that ‘by the end of 2014, as we wind down the war in Afghanistan, we will not have the same need for force protection and those types of strikes that are designed to protect our forces in Afghanistan. Furthermore, we believe that the core of al Qaeda has been greatly diminished so, therefore, that will reduce the need for unmanned strikes against the core of al Qaeda as well.’

In short, officials appear to be indicating that signature strikes, along with CIA control of strikes inside Pakistan, will remain a reality at least until troops withdraw from Afghanistan next year.

// US Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities (PDF)  US Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities (Text)


May 23, 2013

Written by

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

 Barack Obama at a recent meeting of the National Security Council. (Pete Souza/ White House)

Barack Obama has made it clear that the US will continue with its controversial targeted killing programme.

In a major speech the US president also announced that he has signed into force a new – and secret – rule book for lethal action that provides ‘clear guidelines, oversight and accountability’ for covert drone strikes.

Counter-terrorism officials indicated that control of covert drone strikes will progressively pass from the Central Intelligence Agency to the Pentagon.

The rules will also ‘impose the same standard for strikes on foreign enemies now used only for American citizens deemed to be terrorists’.

Related story – White House briefings lay out new drone rulebook – but questions remain

There was some dispute about whether the Presidential Policy Guidance would prevent much-criticised attacks on groups of men based on their patterns of behaviour – so-called ‘signature strikes.’ The New York Times insisted that this was the case. But other major US media were more cautious.

Impassioned defenceSpeaking for an hour in front of an invited audience at the National Defense University in Washington DC, Obama made an impassioned defence of the US targeted killing programme, insisting that it was both effective and legal. But he admitted that this may not be enough:

‘To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance.  For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it,’ he said.

He addressed head-on controversies surrounding civilian casualties. Acknowledging that there was a ‘wide gap’ between US and non-governmental assessments, he bluntly conceded that civilians have died in US strikes. Obama said that for himself and ‘those in my chain of command, these deaths will haunt us as long as we live’.

He declared: ‘before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.’

But he also insisted that civilian deaths were sometimes a necessary risk. ‘As Commander-in-Chief, I must weigh these heartbreaking tragedies against the alternatives. To do nothing in the face of terrorist networks would invite far more civilian casualties – not just in our cities at home and facilities abroad, but also in the very places –like Sana’a and Kabul and Mogadishu – where terrorists seek a foothold.’

These deaths will haunt us as long as we live.’President Obama

Bureau estimates indicate that since 2002, at least 2,800 people have died in 420 covert drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Of those killed, more than 400 are likely to have been civilians.

Obama has so far carried out seven times more covert drone strikes than his predecessor, George W Bush. However, the number of reported strikes has declined steeply over the past year, along with reported civilian casualties.

‘Boots on the ground’

Insisting that his administration had ‘a strong preference for the detention and prosecution of terrorists’, Obama said there were occasions when only lethal drone strikes would suffice.

At times ‘putting US boots on the ground may trigger a major international crisis’ and inflame local civilian populations, he said. Suspects may also ‘hide in caves and walled compounds’ in areas where there was little or no governance.

But he acknowledged that the use of drones was not without constitutional risk: ‘The very precision of drones strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.’

Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.President Obama

President Obama announced that he would work with Congress towards greater oversight of the targeted killing campaign. And he said he would be seeking to ‘refine, and ultimately repeal’ the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress in 2001, which the US asserts is the legal bedrock for its covert drone campaign.

Unlocking GuantanamoThe president also used the speech to challenge Congress to aid him in closing the detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay, calling on members to end the ban on detainee transfers to prisons on the US mainland. ‘I know the politics are hard. But history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it,’ he said, adding that nobody had ever escaped a US supermax jail.

Obama announced the end of a moratorium on transferring detainees to Yemen: instead, transfers will be examined on a case-by-case basis. At least 84 current Guantanamo inmates are Yemeni.

The speech was repeatedly interrupted at one point by Code Pink protester Medea Benjamin. Obama was forced to pause and wait three times for Benjamin to finish comments including references to the death of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son in a drone strike in Yemen. As Benjamin was escorted out, he recovered his poise – joking that he was being forced to depart from his script, but saying she raised ‘tough issues’.

Obama administration admits killing four US citizens 

In a related move, US attorney general Eric Holder released a letter on Wednesday evening admitting that four US citizens had been killed in US drone strikes since 2009. The Bureau’s own data suggests that  seven or more US citizens have been killed in US drone strikes since 2002.

One of those named by the attorney general – Jude Kenan Mohammed – was until now only rumoured to have been killed. The New York Times reports that Mohammed died in a CIA attack in South Waziristan, Pakistan on November 16 2011.

According to an open US indictment dated September 2009, Mohammed ‘departed the United States to travel to Pakistan to engage in violent jihad’. He was also accused of engaging in ‘planning and perpetrating a Federal crime of terrorism against the United States, citizens and residents of the United States, and their property.’

The other three US citizens named by Holder were radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16 year old son Abdalrahman al-Awalaki; and Samir Khan, a propagandist for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – all killed in Yemen in autumn 2011. According to the attorney general, only Anwar al Awlaki was ‘specifically targeted by the United States’.

In his speech, Obama insisted that it was right to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, stating that the citizenship of such an alleged threat ‘should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a Swat team.’

At least three additional US citizens have been killed in US drone attacks. In the first ever drone strike outside a battlefield, US citizen Kamal Darwish was among six men killed by the CIA in Yemen in 2002. The Bush administration insisted at the time that the intended targets were alleged al Qaeda suspects accompanying Darwish in the vehicle.

And veteran Washington reporter Bob Woodward has revealed that on November 7 2008, ‘many Westerners, including some US passport holders’ died in an attack near Miranshah in North Waziristan.

As Woodward noted in his book Obama’s Wars, in a subsequent meeting with Pakistan’s President Zardari ‘The CIA would not reveal the particulars due to the implications under American law. A top secret CIA map detailing the attacks had been given to the Pakistanis. Missing from it was the alarming fact about the American deaths … The CIA was not going to elaborate.’

Addressing the fact that three of the four US citizens named by Holder were not the intended targets, New York University law professor Sarah Knuckey told the Bureau: ‘Does it mean that the three were killed as intentional but lawful collateral damage in a strike on some other legitimate target? Or that they were accidental collateral? Or does it mean that they were killed in signature strikes?  We just don’t know what it is intended to mean. In a letter that touts throughout the government’s commitment to transparency and “unprecedented disclosure”, the government has introduced new vague language, and thus new concerns about its targeting policies and practices.’

This article was amended on May 24 to take note of ambiguities regarding the possible abandonment of ‘signature strikes.’


May 2, 2013

Written by

Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

An armed Reaper sits on the apron at Nellis Air Force Base. (cclark395/Flickr)

Two CIA strikes kill at least eight in Pakistan, including an al Qaeda commander.

US drone strikes return to Yemen after an 85-day pause.

Militants launch one of their most well organised and deadly attacks to date, on a court house in Somalia.


April 2013 actions

Total CIA strikes in April: 2

Total killed in strikes in April: 8-12, of whom 0 were reportedly civilians

All actions 2004 – April 30 2013

Total Obama strikes: 316

Total US strikes since 2004: 368

Total reported killed: 2,541-3,533

Civilians reported killed: 411-884

Children reported killed: 168-197

Total reported injured: 1,173-1,472For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here.

The US launched two strikes on Pakistan, killing at least eight. CIA drones have attacked Pakistan’s tribal areas twice every month since January, when six strikes killed 27 people.

A strike on April 14 was the first of the month and the first to happen under Mir Hazar Khan Khoso, 84, who was declared caretaker prime minister in Pakistan on March 24. He will be in charge until the general election scheduled for May 11.

Campaigning has been dogged by violence. News agency Reuters reported that more than 50 people have been killed in terrorist actions targeting election campaigning. Militants have attacked rallies and Pakistan Taliban (TTP) leader Hakimullah Mehsud urged his followers to target senior politicians and party leaders. His group’s intention is to ‘end the democratic system’, he declared.

The April 14 strike reportedly killed a senior al Qaeda militant (Ob315), Abu Ubaydah Abdullah al Adam. His death was reported by two alleged militants, Al Wathiq Billah and Barod, on April 20. Al Adam was a Palestinian raised in Saudi Arabia.

An anonymous US intelligence official said he was ‘essentially al Qaeda’s intelligence and internal security chief’ and a ‘very dangerous operative’ who was ‘on the target list’. Al Adam had replaced Mohammad Khalil Hasan al Hakaymah (aka Abu Jehad al Misri) who was killed in a drone strike on November 1 2008 (B38). An alleged local Taliban commander, Madni was reported to have been killed in the second strike of the month, on April 17.

There were no credible reports of civilian casualties in Pakistan in April.

Leaked documents obtained by news agency McClatchy show US intelligence officials were aware of at least one civilian had died in CIA strikes in 2011, despite claims to the contrary by the Agency’s new director, John Brennan. In June 2011 Brennan, at the time President Obama‘s chief counter terrorism adviser, stated publicly that for ‘almost a year’ no civilian had died in US drone strikes in Pakistan.


April 2013 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 1 Further reported/possible US strike events: 1 Total reported killed in US operations: 4-7Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0

All actions 2002 – April 30 2013*

Confirmed US drone strikes: 44-54

Total reported killed: 232-333Civilians reported killed: 12-47Children reported killed: 2Reported injured: 62-144

Possible extra US drone strikes: 78-96

Total reported killed: 277-445

Civilians reported killed: 27-50

Children reported killed: 9-10

Reported injured: 76-98

All other US covert operations: 12-76Total reported killed: 148-366Civilians reported killed: 60-87Children reported killed: 25Reported injured: 22-111Click here for the full Yemen data.

* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.

Two strikes hit Yemen this month, at least one launched by a US drone. It was the first confirmed US strike in 85 days. This is the longest break between attacks since May 2011, when the US ended a year-long pause.

The confirmed drone strike on April 17 killed as many as five named alleged al Qaeda militants. One of those killed was reportedly Hamid al Rademi, who has been described as a senior al Qaeda commander by officials and other sources including Yemeni journalist Nasser Arrabyee.  

Others, however, have questioned his al Qaeda links. Writer and activist Farea al Muslimi, a native of Wessab, where the strike hit, claimed al Rademi was called ‘an ordinary man’ by security officials and grew powerful in the area thanks to his government connections, not his terrorist connections.

The strike caused some controversy with campaigners, including al Muslimi, questioning the decision to kill rather than capture al Rademi. The noise around the strike echoed the response to one last year on November 7 (YEM122) which killed Adnan al Qathi – an individual with government and military connections, who like al Rademi could easily have been arrested rather than killed.

The strike that killed al Rademi was described in detail at a Senate subcommittee hearing by al Muslimi who was flown into Washington to testify. He spoke powerfully of the human toll of the US’s covert campaign in Yemen. The subcommittee also heard from retired general James Cartwright who said he feared the US had ‘ceded the moral authority’ through its use of drones. Retired US Air Force colonel Martha McSally also testified. She said there was ‘too much vagueness’ from the chain of command about the legal justification for drone strikes.


April 2013 actions

Total reported US operations: 0

All actions 2007 – April 30 2013

US drone strikes: 3-9Total reported killed: 7-27Civilians reported killed: 0-15Children reported killed: 0Reported injured: 2-24

All other US covert operations: 7-14Total reported killed: 47-143Civilians reported killed: 7-42Children reported killed: 1-3Reported injured: 12-20Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia.


For the eighth consecutive month, no US strikes were reported on Somalia. This was despite al Shabaab launching one of its most audacious attacks on Mogadishu since US-backed and UN-mandated African Union soldiers forced the militants from the capital in August 2011.

The city has been unstable since the militants were pushed out. Al Shabaab has persistently made it past security to launch terrorist attacks. However the coordinated bombings on April 14 were the most deadly with more than 90 reported dead and wounded.

A suicide squad burst into the court complex in the capital and fought ‘an extended gun battle’ with court guards, witnesses said. Somali investigators told the Toronto Star they believe a Canadian militant named Mahad Ali Dhore organised the assault. A second bombing hit a vehicle carrying Turkish aid officials. Western diplomats said the sophistication of the attacks and explosives used suggest foreign al Qaeda terrorists were involved.

Follow Jack Serle and Chris Woods on Twitter.

To sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project click here.

In May, support the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project identifying those killed in drone strikes, through the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Click here to donate.


April 11, 2013

Written by

Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

John Brennan being sworn in as CIA director in March 2013. (White House/ David Lienemann)

US intelligence officials were aware that at least one civilian had died in drone strikes in Pakistan during 2011, despite claims to the contrary made by the man now running the Central Intelligence Agency.

In June 2011, John Brennan, at the time President Obama’s chief counter terrorism adviser, stated publicly that for ‘almost a year’ no civilian had died in US drone strikes in Pakistan.

But leaked US intelligence documents obtained by news agency McClatchy show this was not true.

According to national security reporter Jonathan Landry, the intelligence documents, which chronicle the drone war in Pakistan, admit to a civilian death on April 22 2011 – two months prior to Brennan’s public claim.

At the time of the strike, an anonymous US official had insisted to CNN that ‘there is no evidence to support that claim [of civilian casualties] whatsoever.’

The April 22 drone strike hit a house before dawn, killing at least 25 people in North Waziristan. Seven media organisations reported that at least five civilians died, including three children. Both Associated Press and the Bureau sent investigators into the field. Each confirmed that civilians, including women and children, were killed in the attack.

‘Highly sensitive’The McClatchy investigation involves the most significant leak so far of US intelligence documents covering the CIA’s Pakistan drone war.

The documents, which have not yet been published, are said to cover two periods: 2006 to 2008, and January 2010 to September 2011.

Reporting on the leaked papers indicate that what US officials say publicly about drone strikes does not always match their private records.

Throughout the first half of 2011 US intelligence sources had been insisting that civilians were no longer being killed by drone attacks. On June 29 2011 Brennan said ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral [civilian] death‘ in Pakistan in 10 months.

The Bureau was the first to challenge this assertion. After carrying out a field investigation in Pakistan’s tribal areas, it submitted to the US administration a list of 45 civilians killed in drone strikes in the period Brennan had referred to. A senior US counter terrorism official refuted the findings at the time, insisting: ‘The most accurate information on counter-terror operations resides with the United States.’

None of these civilian deaths seem to be reflected in the US records obtained by McClatchy, including dozens killed in a strike in March 2011.

‘Forced approval’According to the news agency the documents also show that cooperation between Pakistan’s intelligence service the ISI and the CIA went far deeper than previously understood.

From 2006 to mid-way through 2008 the CIA sought approval for strikes from its Pakistani counterpart, according to the reports. In 2006, for example, the CIA asked permission to carry out seven strikes, with the ISI agreeing to five. It is not known if all of these took place.

The documents, if published in full, could prove important to the public’s understanding of the covert drone war. The Bureau’s data for example only records three US attacks for 2006, with New America Foundation, which also records drone strikes, listing two.

The documents reveal the US was also sometimes the beneficiary of negotiations. On at least two occasions the ISI gave its ‘forced approval’ for CIA attacks, having ‘relented under CIA cajoling’ according to the US news agency.

And the documents report at least one previously unrecorded drone strike. The ISI asked the US to target an ‘insurgent training camp’ in North Waziristan on May 22 2007. An assault by the Pakistani army on the camp had failed and the ISI called for drones, despite having been told the Agency’s Predators would not be used to support Pakistani combat operations, according to McClatchy.

‘The extended Haqqani family’Other civilian deaths are reported in the leaked documents – although these happened under President Bush. On September 5 2008 the US targeted a house belonging to Jalaluddin Haqqani, patriarch of the Haqqani Network.

Despite only declaring the Haqqani Network a terrorist group in 2012, the leaked records show that the CIA targeted the leader’s home four years earlier. And the documents confirm that Haqqani women and children were killed in the strike.

Another secret US intelligence report obtained by Dawn in 2009 also noted that the CIA knew ‘members of the extended Haqqani family were killed’ in the September 2008 attack.

The McClatchy investigation reveals other differences between US officials’ public statements and private records. In September 2012 President Obama told CNN that drone strikes can only be launched when there is a ‘serious and not speculative’ threat.

He added that drones could only be used  in a situation ‘in which we can’t capture the individual before they move forward on some sort of operational plot against the United States’.

But the leaked documents indicate that far from targeting senior al Qaeda militants intent on attacking the US, they have killed vaguely identified Afghan, Pakistani or ‘unknown’ militants.


April 2, 2013

Written by

Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

An armed Reaper waits on the ramp in Afghanistan (US Air Force).

Two strikes hit Pakistan, ending a month-long pause between attacks.

There were no reported US drone strikes in Yemen in March, marking the longest pause between covert attacks in three years.

No strikes were again recorded in Somalia.


March 2013 actions

Total CIA strikes in March: 2

Total killed in strikes in March: 2-7, of whom 0 were reportedly civilians

All actions 2004 – March 31 2013

Total Obama strikes: 314

Total US strikes since 2004: 366

Total reported killed: 2,537-3,581

Civilians reported killed: 411-884

Children reported killed: 168-197

Total reported injured: 1,174-1,465For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here.


Two CIA drone strikes killed at least two people in March. All those reported killed were unidentified and there were no credible reports of civilian casualties.

The first strike of the month hit on March 10 (Ob313), ending a 29 day pause. It hit the day before UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson arrived in Islamabad on a three-day visit. The second strike (Ob314) hit 11 days after the first, killing 1-4.

There were conflicting reports of both strikes. The March 10 strike killed alleged militants who were either riding a motorbike or a horse. The horse was killed. Other reports claimed a house was destroyed. The March 21 strike was reported by some as destroying a house. Others claimed a vehicle in a bazaar was hit.

The New York Times also cast some doubt on two strikes that occurred in the previous month, claiming that three ‘American officials’ had told the paper ‘they were not ours’. The Long War Journal’s Bill Roggio challenged this claim, later reporting that ‘US intelligence officials involved with the drone programme in Pakistan’ had said that the two strikes in February ‘were indeed US operations’.

Ben Emmerson QC met with government and tribal officials, and victim groups, as a part of his investigation into the legality and casualties of drone strikes. Pakistani officials told the UN investigator that US drones have so far killed a minimum of 2,200 people, including at least 400 civilians.

The civilian government in Islamabad also stated that 40,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil since September 11 2001. However nearly two weeks later Pakistan’s spy agency the ISI told the Supreme Court that 49,000 had died – more than 25,000 of them in the post-2008 military offensives in the tribal regions.

Also in March, John Brennan was confirmed as CIA director. During his confirmation hearing, Brennan told the Senate he believes ‘the CIA should not be doing traditional military activities and operations’. So his appointment could be a prelude to the Agency ultimately surrendering control of drone strikes to the Pentagon. It is not clear if this will lead to greater transparency, as some believe. The US military’s established drone campaign in Afghanistan became less transparent, when it emerged that Isaf had stopped publishing drone strike data and had stripped all drone statistics out of each preceding release of its data.


March 2013 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 0 Further reported/possible US strike events: 0 Total reported killed in US operations: 0Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0

All actions 2002 – March 31 2013*

Confirmed US drone strikes: 43-53

Total reported killed: 228-325Civilians reported killed: 12-45Children reported killed: 2Reported injured: 62-144

Possible extra US drone strikes: 77-95

Total reported killed: 277-443

Civilians reported killed: 23-49

Children reported killed: 9-10

Reported injured: 73-94

All other US covert operations: 12-76Total reported killed: 148-366Civilians reported killed: 60-87Children reported killed: 25Reported injured: 22-111Click here for the full Yemen data.

There were no reported US operations in Yemen – confirmed or otherwise. There has not been a reported strike in Yemen for over two months, after nine attacks in January left 22-34 people dead, including up to 10 civilians.

This was the longest halt between strikes recorded by the Bureau since May 24 2010 when US jets mistakenly killed Jaber al-Shabwani, deputy governor of Marib province. He was travelling to meet his brother, a local al Qaeda leader, to attempt a reconciliation. Tribesmen loyal to al Shabwani rose up – enraged by his killing they destroyed a vital oil pipeline. There were no strikes for 12 months after that botched attack.

Yemen’s long awaited National Dialogue Conference started on March 18. The talks are aiming to reach a new draft constitution. This will set the stage for elections in February 2014.

Hundreds of representatives from political parties and civil society are attending. However southern Yemen secessionists and state security forces continue to clash and there remain fears that there will be further fighting.

Also in March, 31 academics, journalists and former US diplomats wrote to Barack Obama. Under the auspices of the Atlantic Council and the Project on Middle East Democracy, they urged US caution as it pursues its own security agenda in Yemen.

‘The chronic and pervasive perception both here and in Yemen [is] that the United States pursues its security interests with little regard to the strategy’s impact on Yemen itself,’ the authors noted. Signatories included Barbara Bodine, Washington’s former ambassador to Yemen.

The open letter described current US policy in Yemen as ‘counterproductive and in need of urgent re-evaluation’. This echoed the sentiment of General James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff. The retired General said that US covert drone strikes could be undermining long-term efforts to battle extremism.

Cartwright was the not only former national security adviser this month to express concerns over US drone strategy. General Stanley McChrystal told Foreign Affairs magazine: ‘If we were to use our technological capabilities carelessly … then we should not be upset when someone responds with their equivalent, which is a suicide bomb in Central Park.’

* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.


March 2013 actions

Total reported US operations: 0

All actions 2007 – March 31 2013

US drone strikes: 3-9Total reported killed: 7-27Civilians reported killed: 0-15Children reported killed: 0Reported injured: 2-24

All other US covert operations: 7-14Total reported killed: 51-143Civilians reported killed: 11-42Children reported killed: 1-3Reported injured: 15-20Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia.


Once again no US strikes were reported in Somalia – the seventh month in a row. However security remains fragile, even in the capital. An al Shabaab bomber penetrated the most secure district of the city, targeting Mogadishu’s security chief and killing 10.

Government forces reportedly retook Hudur, capital of Bakool, from al Shabaab fighters. The militants had occupied the town near the Ethiopian border, northwest of Mogadishu, after Ethiopian troops had vacated the area. Militants reportedly ‘arrested’ 10 people and killed three, including beheading a 75-year-old Imam.

US operations in Africa could be set to expand further, after the establishment of another drone base on the continent last month in Niger. The State Department also added Mali-based militant group Ansar Dine to its list of ‘terrorist organisations’. A US military adviser said this could be the precursor for US intelligence-gathering operations to evolve into direct action.

Follow Jack Serle and Chris Woods on Twitter.

To sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project click here.

In April, support the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project identifying those killed in drone strikes, through the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Click here to donate.


March 15, 2013

Written by

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

Gamal Sakr blames government for son’s death. (Image: Susannah Ireland, Independent)

The parents of a British-born man killed by a US drone strike after being stripped of his UK citizenship have spoken out for the first time – to say they will never forgive the British Government for his death.

Mohamed Sakr was born and brought up in London before he was targeted and killed in February 2012 in Somalia.

Now his Egyptian-born parents Gamal and Eman Sakr, who have lived in Britain for 35 years, have accused ministers of betraying this country’s democratic values.

Speaking to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from their London home, the couple said they believe their son was left vulnerable to the attack after the government stripped him of his British citizenship months before he was killed.

“This is the hardest time we have ever come across in our family life,’ Mr Sakr said in tears. “I’ll never stop blaming the British government for what they did to my son. They broke my family’s back.”

Mohamed Sakr as a teenager. Image: Sakr family, all rights reserved.

The comments follow the revelations by the Bureau and published in the Independent that the Home Secretary Theresa May has ramped up the use of powers allowing her to strip UK citizenship from dual nationals without first proving wrongdoing in the courts.

Related article: Former British citizens killed by drone strikes after passports revoked

The investigation revealed the Coalition government has stripped 16 people, including five born in Britain, of their UK passports. Two, including Sakr, were later killed by drone strikes and one was secretly rendered to the United States.

The law states that the government cannot make someone stateless when it removes their citizenship. But Egyptian-born Mr and Mrs Sakr say their son Mohamed never had anything other than a British passport, despite in principle having dual nationality.

In September 2010 the family received notification that the government intended to remove their son’s British citizenship, on the grounds that he was ‘involved in terrorism-related activity’.

I’ll never stop blaming the British government for what they did to my son. They broke my family’s back. Mohamed was everything to us.’Eman Sakr

It was the first known instance in modern times of a British-born person being stripped of his nationality. His family insist that the action meant Mohamed, who was in Somalia, was left effectively stateless and stranded.

His mother still can’t quite believe it happened. ‘I was shocked. It never crossed my mind that something here in Britain would happen like this, especially as Mohamed had no other passport, no other nationality. He was brought up here, all his life is here.’

Mohamed’s parents were so worried that their other sons might also lose their British citizenship that they renounced the entire family’s dual Egyptian nationalities, shortly after they were told that Mohamed had been deprived of his citizenship.

‘I did this for the protection of the family, because they grew up here, they were all born here. And I felt that for them it was my responsibility to protect them. It was the only way I could protect them against that stupid law,’ says Mr Sakr.

‘No member of my family ever had an Egyptian passport,’ says Mr Sakr. ‘For the kids it never crossed my mind that they would have anything other than their British passports. I know they are British, born British, they are British, and carried their British passports.’

Mr Sakr at his home in London. (Image: Susannah Ireland, Independent).

Mr and Mrs Sakr have thrived in Britain, running a successful business. They moved here from Egypt 35 years ago thinking it was a good place to raise a family.

‘It was democratic, and compared to where I was before in Egypt that was a big gap,’ Mr Sakr explains. ’There was no dictator here, no bad laws like there were back home, so we decided to start a new life.’

Mohamed was born in London in 1985 and grew up as a normal, sporty child. ‘He was very popular amongst his friends, yet very quiet at the same time, very polite, he was just a normal child,’ recalls Eman.

As he got older his parents had worried about him getting into trouble.  ‘He loved going out, he loved to dress up, to wear the best clothes, he liked everything to be top range,’ recalls Mr Sakr.

‘I used to tell him, after midnight there’s no good news. So I’d say, “Make sure you are home before 12”. He said “OK, OK I’ll try, you know,”’ said his mother.

In his early twenties he calmed down and in 2007 set up an executive car valeting business. His parents thought their son would follow in his father’s entrepreneurial footsteps.

I was shocked. It never crossed my mind that something here in Britain would happen like this, especially as Mohamed had no other passport, no other nationality. He was brought up here, all his life is here.’Eman Sakr

But in the summer of the same year Mohamed travelled to Saudi Arabia on what his parents say was a pilgrimage ‘with a couple of friends and their wives’, before heading to Egypt to join his family on holiday. From there, the Sakrs say, Mohamed and his younger brother also visited the family of a girlfriend in Dubai.

His actions were innocent, the family insists. But Mohamed was questioned for ‘at least three hours’ by immigration officials on his return to the UK. The questions focused on the countries he had visited and his reasons for going there.

‘He told them, “I didn’t plan to visit all these countries ­- it’s just how my summer has happened,”’ his mother recalls.

It’s thought that UK counter-terrorism officials were becoming concerned that a group of radicalised young men was emerging in the capital, influenced by British Islamists who had returned home after fighting in Somalia.

The Sakrs both say that their eldest son became the subject of repeated police ‘harassment’ in which he was stopped on numerous occasions by plain-clothes officers.

After one incident Mohamed told his mother ‘They’re watching me momma, everywhere I go they watch me.’ The family became convinced that their phones were being tapped.

Mohamed was spending a lot of time with a friend he had met when he was 12 – Bilal al­-Berjawi. The two had lived in adjacent flats.

The childhood friends would both lose their British citizenship weeks apart in 2010 – and would die weeks apart too, in covert US airstrikes.

Berjawi’s Lebanese parents had brought him to London as a baby, and like Sakr, Berjawi had drawn the attention of Britain’s counter-terrorism agencies.

Mohamed Sakr

The Sakr family insists they were not aware of any wrongdoing on Mohamed’s part, despite frequent trouble with the police.

In February 2009 Berjawi and Sakr visited Kenya for what they told their families was a ‘safari’.

Both were detained in Nairobi, where they were said to have been interrogated by British intelligence officials. The authorities suspected them of terrorism-related activities.

They were released and only deported back to the UK because both, at that time, still had their British citizenship.

While the two were still being detained in Kenya, police arrived at the London family home with a search warrant.

Cards left behind by officers identify them as members of SO15,­ the Met’s counter-terrorism squad. Mr Sakr says he was shocked to be told that the family might have to vacate their home for up to two weeks while officers searched. The indignant family found themselves put up in the nearby Hilton hotel.

Two days later the family was allowed home. And shortly afterwards Mohamed and Bilal were deported back to Britain.

He was very popular amongst his friends, yet very quiet at the same time, very polite, he was just a normal child.’Eman Sakr

Mr Sakr challenged his son: ‘I was asking questions, why has this happened and Mohamed said “Daddy, it’s finished, it will never happen again. It’s all done and dusted.” So I just put a cap on it and continued with a normal life.’

Mohamed’s mother insisted on accompanying him to a mosque so she could hear the sermons he was listening to.

‘I wanted to hear what they’re saying, I was always on top of this, always. I wanted to know why the police were after him, why?’ says Mrs Sakr. ‘So he used to take me to different mosques, and the sermons were normal, nothing unusual.’

In October 2009, with ever-growing trouble with the British authorities, Mohamed and Berjawi decided to slip out of the country. Neither told their families that they were leaving, or where they were going.

‘The police came asking “Where is Mohamed?” And I said “I don’t know.” That was the honest answer, I didn’t know where my son was,’ says Mr Sakr.

Months later Mohamed phoned his parents from Somalia. Both he and Berjawi were now living in a country gripped by civil war between radical Islamists and a rump UN-backed government.

While it’s been reported that both men were drawn to terrorist-linked groups, the Sakrs say the pair had innocent connections with the troubled east African nation. Berjawi had married a Somali woman in London, and Sakr at one time had also been engaged to marry a Somali girl.

Although both were killed by the US, most of the allegations against Sakr and Berjawi remain secret.

Some information has emerged, however. In November 2009, the pair were named along with a third British man in a Ugandan manhunt, accused of ‘sneaking into the country’ to plot terrorist activities. Later the men were linked to deadly bombings in that country’s capital.

The letter seen by the Bureau informing Mohamed’s family that he was losing his citizenship states he was ‘involved in terrorism-related activity’ and for having links with ‘Islamist extremists’, including his friend Bilal al-Berjawi.

For the kids it never crossed my mind that they would have anything other than their British passports. I know they are British, born British, they are British, and carried their British passports.’Gamal Sakr

The Sakrs remain defensive about these claims. ‘Have they done anything? Have they been caught in anything? Have they been caught in any action? Do they have any evidence against them that they have been involved in this or that? I haven’t seen. And they haven’t come up with it,’ says Mr Sakr.

‘It says they took his freedom away because he knew Bilal! Does it mean that because I know a bad person it means I’m bad, or know good people that I’m good? He’d known Bilal since he was 12 years old!,’ says Mohamed’s mother.

Related story: Graphic detail: How UK government has used its powers of banishment

At first Mohamed wanted to fight the deprivation order, and his family hired lawyers in the UK. But they were told that in order to mount an effective appeal Mohamed would need to return to Britain.

Letter from the Home Office. 

His parents say he was too scared to come back.

‘He said, “Daddy, it is impossible for me,”’ says Mr Sakr. “He said, “If I go from here, they’ve already taken my passport from me, maybe they will catch me somewhere, and you will never hear from me again.” He knew something could happen to him.’

In February 2012, news agencies reported that a high-ranking Egyptian al Qaeda official had been killed in a US drone strike in Somalia.

It would be days before the family realised those reports actually referred to their son.

Mr Sakr says: ‘Their hands were washed. And that’s what they claimed when the news first came. They announced that Mohamed was Egyptian [cries]. That’s why they tried to show to the rest of the world, “He’s an Egyptian. He’s not British.”

‘Intelligence killed millions of Iraqis on the basis of wrong information. If we go and kill everyone based on intelligence information, then we are not living in the world of democracy and justice. We are living in the world of “Who has the power and who has the weapons to kill,”’ Mr Sakr rails.

‘If you’re not happy about a dictator or about rules or freedom of speech, and then you come to a country like Britain which we know for hundreds and hundreds of years has talked of democracy and freedom, and laws and justice. And suddenly you find there’s no justice, no freedom of speech, no democracy.’

In response to the Bureau’s original report, a Home Office spokeswoman said: ‘Citizenship is a privilege not a right. The Home Secretary has the power to remove citizenship from individuals where she considers it is conducive to the public good.’

Asked whether intelligence was provided to foreign governments, she said: ‘We don’t comment on intelligence issues. Drone strikes are a matter for the states concerned.’

A version of this piece was published in the Independent newspaper.

Follow Chris Woods on Twitter.


March 1, 2013

Written by

Alice Ross, Chris Woods and Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

John Brennan – leading proponent of the drone programme

and the CIA’s director-designate (C-Span).

CIA drones kill two alleged al Qaeda commanders in two strikes on Pakistan.

US operations drop to zero in Yemen a year after President Saleh was ousted from power.

No operations reported in Somalia.


February 2013 actions

Total CIA strikes in February: 2

Total killed in strikes in February: 9-14, of whom 0-2 were reportedly civilians

All actions 2004 – February 28 2013

Total Obama strikes: 312

Total US strikes since 2004: 364

Total reported killed: 2,534-3,573

Civilians reported killed: 411-884Children reported killed: 168-197

Total reported injured: 1,172-1,463For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here.

Two CIA drone strikes hit Pakistan this month, killing at least nine people. This is a significant drop from January when six strikes reportedly killed 27-54 people.

On February 7 John Brennan, Barack Obama’s nominee for CIA director, went before the Senate Intelligence Committee for his confirmation hearing.

The two Pakistan strikes book-ended the Brennan hearing. The first hit the day beforehand, destroying a house and killing alleged Pakistan Taliban (TTP) militants. It coincided with a Pakistan Air Force raid on TTP positions in Orakzai Tribal Agency.

The second strike took place the day after the hearing finished – alleged TTP militants were reportedly targeted once again. A house was hit near the border between North and South Waziristan, killing at least six people. Abu Majid al Iraqi and Yemeni ‘bomb expert‘ Sheikh Abu Waqas (35), alleged al Qaeda commanders, were reportedly among the dead.

Not since 2009 have US drones so consistently targeted the TTP. On February 2, TTP militants targeted a Pakistan Army outpost, killing up to 35. A Taliban spokesman said the attack was ‘revenge’ on the Pakistani state which he accused of ‘co-operating with the US in its drone strikes that killed our two senior commanders, Faisal Khan (Ob306) and Toofani (aka Wali Mohammed Mehsud, Ob307)’.


February 2013 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 0 Further reported/possible US strike events: 0 Total reported killed in US operations: 0Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0Children reported killed in US strikes: 0

All actions 2002 – February 28 2013*

Total confirmed US operations: 54-64

Total confirmed US drone strikes: 42-52

Possible additional US operations: 135-157

Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 77-93

Total reported killed: 374-1,112

Total civilians killed: 72-178

Children killed: 27-37Click here for the full Yemen data.

* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.

There were no reported drone strikes or any other US covert actions in Yemen this month – in marked contrast to January, when up to eight US strikes killed as many as 38 people.

This is the first month without a reported US strike since early 2012. In fact the Bureau’s data shows that no US drone or airstrike has ever been reported in the month of February.

US operations peaked in spring last year but halted during protests

and political upheaval in February 2012 and 2013.

February also marked the first anniversary of the ousting of Ali Abdullah Saleh. The deal that lead to Saleh being replaced by his deputy Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi followed months of brutally repressed protests. Anniversary demonstrations were again met with violence by security services, especially in southern Yemen, and at least three people were killed in clashes.

Also in February, the New York Times finally reported that CIA drones fly over Yemen from a base in Saudi Arabia. It emerged that the paper, among other leading US media outlets, had suppressed this detail at the request of the White House, even though it was first reported by The Times of London in 2011.

Al Jazeera’s Listening Post on the CIA’s once-secret Saudi base.

A Russian-made Yemen Air Force fighter-bomber crashed in a central Sanaa neighbourhood on February 19. Buildings were set on fire and 12 people died, including two children. It was described as an incident of ‘heartrending absurdity‘ that reinforced how decrepit and unfit for purpose much of the Yemen Air Force remains.


February 2013 actions

Total reported US operations: 0

All actions 2007 – February 28 2013

Total US operations: 10-23

Total US drone strikes: 3-9Total reported killed: 58-170Civilians reported killed: 11-57

Children reported killed: 1-3

Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia.

Once again there were no reported US operations in Somalia – the sixth consecutive month without an apparent strike. It remains extremely difficult to obtain credible information regarding military actions in the country, even for intelligence agencies.

This month saw al Shabaab return to Twitter after falling foul of the website’s terms of use. New profiles replace English and Arabic predecessors that were blocked after they were used to broadcast images of dead French commandos and threats to kill Kenyan hostages.

Other news

US military expansion in Africa continues with President Obama sending 100 soldiers to Niger. The Sahel state is host to the US’ latest drone base, a response to growing militancy in the region and ongoing hostility in Mali.

John Brennan went before the Senate Intelligence Committee as the President’s nominee for director of the CIA. Brennan promised to bring greater transparency to the drone programme, saying drone strikes are ‘a last resort to save lives, when there’s no other alternative.’

Oversight and transparency of the drone programme remain prominent concerns. This has led some, including chair of the Senate Intelligence committee Dianne Feinstein and former US defence secretary Robert Gates, to suggest a secret court be formed to provide some oversight to the targeted killing programme. And officials have told reporters the administration is considering moving control of some drone strikes from the CIA to the Pentagon. However strikes in Pakistan would remain under the Agency’s control.

Bureau changes

It is now two years since the Bureau began compiling data on US covert drone strikes in Pakistan. Our work has expanded significantly to cover the conflicts in Yemen and Somalia, with more than 500 incidents now recorded across many data sets. As the Bureau embarks on its new project, Naming the Dead, we have recently completed an audit of our Pakistan drone strike data to ensure consistency across all of our work. This has led to a small fall in our minimum number of reported civilian casualties, mostly a result of our reclassifying some strikes to better reflect our sources.

We have also made more overt the sourcing for all reports of civilian casualties, and have introduced yearly tables into the data. Our Methodology also now spells out more clearly our processes when handling reports of civilian deaths.

Follow Chris Woods, Alice Ross and Jack Serle on Twitter.

To sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project click here.

In February and March, support the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project, identifying those killed in drone strikes, through the Freedom of the Press Foundation. Click here to donate.


February 27, 2013

Written by

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

Are Congressional oversight bodies really doing their ‘utmost’? (Photo L’ennnui/ Flickr)

Claims by a powerful Senate oversight committee that it is doing its ‘utmost’ to verify claims of civilian casualties from covert US drone strikes have been undermined by the discovery that it has made no contact with any group conducting field studies into civilian deaths in Pakistan.

On February 7 the CIA’s director-designate John Brennan was questioned by members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

In her opening remarks, chair Dianne Feinstein insisted that civilian deaths from US covert strikes ‘each year has typically been in the single digits’.

Feinstein also said that ‘for the past several years, this committee has done significant oversight of the government’s conduct of targeted strikes’ and had done its ‘utmost to confirm’ civilian casualty data provided by the executive branch.

However, the Bureau can find no indication that either the House or Senate intelligence committees have sought evidence from beyond the US intelligence community, when following up claims of civilian deaths.

While public estimates of civilian deaths vary, all monitoring groups report higher than ‘single digit’ fatalities for most years. The Bureau presently estimates that at least 411 civilians have been killed by the CIA in Pakistan since 2004, for example.


‘Never contacted’

Professor Sarah Knuckey, who co-led the recent field investigation by New York and Stanford universities into the Pakistan strikes, confirmed that her team has never been contacted by any US government official, or Congressional oversight committee member or aide.

‘US officials have stated that they have done their utmost to verify civilian casualty numbers, and that they investigate and take seriously reports of civilian harm. These public commitments are welcome,’ Knuckey told the Bureau.

‘But if the commitments are serious, why haven’t officials followed up with the organizations and journalists who investigated strikes and collected information relevant to determining any civilian harm?’

Those concerns were echoed by Sarah Holewinski, executive director of the Center for Civilians in Conflict. Thirty months after it issued its ground-breaking report into civilian deaths, Holewinski said this week that ‘we have never been contacted by Administration officials about our research and analysis on the covert drone program.’

Why haven’t officials followed up with the organizations and journalists who investigated strikes and collected information relevant to determining any civilian harm?Professor Sarah Knuckey, New York University

‘I give him further details of some other strikes that killed civilians, and without looking at what I was giving him Hoagland insisted that he checked the figure that morning and it was still in single digits,’ said Akhbar.

Associated Press, which interviewed more than 80 civilian eyewitnesses in the tribal areas for a major report in early 2012, confirmed that no US officials had ever sought follow -up.

The Bureau’s managing editor Christopher Hird also noted that ‘We have always been happy to share and discuss our findings with others researching this subject, but in the two years of our work we have never heard from either of these committees, or their staff.”

Organisation Year Findings
Center for Civilians

in Conflict (Civic)

2010 Extensive eyewitness reports of civilian deaths
Reprieve/FFR 2010 –


Ongoing field work and legal cases
The Bureau 2011 –


Three field investigations into reported deaths
Associated Press 2012 Major field study of recent high-casualty




2012 Detailed eyewitness reports of civilian deaths

and broader impact of CIA campaign

Secure RoomBoth the House of Representatives and the Senate have committees tasked with overseeing the vast US intelligence community – including the CIA, which carries out the majority of covert drone strikes.

Most oversight is carried out in secret. However, some details have recently emerged of how the two committees seek to hold the CIA to account on the drone programme.

Senator Feinstein first revealed the process in a letter to the Los Angeles Times in May 2012.

She implied that monthly oversight had begun in January 2010, a year after Obama took office, noting that her committee ‘receive notification with key details shortly after every strike’. She added that her staff  ‘has held 28 monthly in-depth oversight meetings to review strike records and question every aspect of the program including legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign policy implications and the care taken to minimize noncombatant casualties.’

Most oversight is carried out in secret. However, some details have recently emerged of how the two committees seek to hold the CIA to account on the drone programme.

more details

According to a Los Angeles Times report on the process, oversight committee staffers gathered in a secure room at CIA headquarters ‘also sometimes examine telephone intercepts and after-the-fact evidence, such as the CIA’s assessment of who was hit.’

One senior staffer told the paper: ‘I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything that we thought was inappropriate.’

‘Blind faith’

Sarah Holewinski of the Center for Civilians in Conflict is now urging the Congressional oversight committees to be far more pro-active in their approach – and far less dependent solely on the word of the CIA.

She noted that unlike in Afghanistan, investigations into reported civilian deaths in US covert drone operations ‘are limited to overhead surveillance, not collecting witness statements and digging in the dirt for evidence of what happened or who exactly was killed.’

And Holewinski pointed to the risk of reliance on the Agency’s own definitions of those it is killing which may not accord with international law. Noting the CIA’s use of so-called signature strikes against alleged militants, whose identity is unknown and who appear to fit certain patterns of behaviour, Holewinski told the Bureau: ‘There’s every reason to want to believe claims of such low civilian casualties caused by drone strikes.’

‘But given obstacles to knowing precisely who was killed on the ground and without real evidence to back up the claims, to believe officials’ claims would be an act of blind faith that isn’t fair to the civilians suffering losses.’

At the time of writing, Senator Feinstein’s office had not responded to requests for comment. 

Follow Chris Woods on Twitter.