News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

May 2, 2019

Written by

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

American military operations killed 120 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia last year, according to a report released by the Pentagon today.

The report, mandated by Congress, contains a detailed breakdown of the incidents that led to the civilian casualties, including where and when these took place. This differs from last year’s release which gave a total civilian casualty toll across all countries, making the figures difficult to interrogate.

Despite the increased detail, the figures released do still differ from those given by other organisations, which have recorded much higher numbers.

The US estimates 76 civilians were killed and another 58 injured in its operations in Afghanistan in 2018. Meanwhile, the UN’s mission in Afghanistan puts the figure much higher – with US strikes killing 393 and injuring a further 239 civilians.

They also differ on the death toll from individual incidents. In one strike on November 27 in Helmand province, the UN claims 23 civilians died and the US says only 14 were killed.

In Yemen, the Pentagon report states that there were no credible reports of civilian casualties in 2018. We have recorded at least eight and up to 15. Most of these deaths came from a single incident where a strike killed relatives looking for a missing child, which was reported on by AP.

The US meanwhile conceded just two civilian deaths in Somalia, and zero the year before. Research from Amnesty International found compelling evidence that US strikes in Somalia killed a total of 14 civilians and injured eight more between October 2017 and December 2018.

Airwars data also suggests much higher rates of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria than the report claims – with over 800 civilian deaths credibly reported by local communities as a result of strikes carried out by the US-led coalition, compared to the 42 admitted by the US.

The release comes two months after President Trump’s administration ended a separate annual report on civilian casualties that included information from all government agencies. The decision means that the public will no longer have access to information on CIA strikes.

Dan Mahanty, director for the US Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said the recent report showed an improvement in military transparency around overseas operations, but that there was still a transparency gap that needed closing around intelligence agencies’ operations after the administration’s decision.

“The report brings into sharp relief the fact that US government agencies that do not operate transparently may not be applying the same standards when using lethal force, which introduces an unnecessary degree of inconsistency and undermines the effort represented by the DOD report,” Mahanty said.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Clayton Cupit for US Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs

Published

May 2, 2018

Written by

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

The Trump administration is considering overturning a key Obama-era policy which sought to make counter-terrorism operations more transparent, even as it ramps them up.

The announcement, given to the Bureau by the US National Security Council late on Tuesday night, offers one of the clearest indications yet of the administration’s differing stance of transparency in counter-terrorism (known in military jargon as CT).

In response to growing concerns about accountability and civilian harm in strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, the Obama administration issued an Executive Order in 2016 requiring the government to release an annual report on these operations and the casualties associated with them. The Executive Order stipulated that the release of each year’s figures should come no later than May 1 of the following year.

On May 1, the deadline passed without the release. A National Security Council spokesperson told the Bureau that the Executive Order (EO) was under review and could be modified or rescinded. While they remained committed to avoiding civilian casualties, the spokesperson said, “the previous administration’s EO requirement for the public report was based on Obama era CT policies, many of which were rescinded to allow the warfighter to better pursue the evolving terrorist threat”.

The figures previously released under Obama, though cautiously welcomed by civil society organisations, offered only limited accountability for the US drone wars. They were aggregate figures, not broken down by where or when the strikes took place. This made it difficult to interrogate the data and work out why it differed from other estimates of the drone war’s civilian death toll.

However, their release was seen as an important step towards greater transparency. This trend had already started to reverse under Trump by the end of 2017, when the Bureau stopped receiving monthly reports on airstrikes in Afghanistan.

The restricted flow of information about counterterrorism strikes comes at a time when they are increasing substantially. President Donald Trump launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office, according to the Bureau’s data, more than triple the number carried out the year before.

While the Trump administration did not release a report on counterterrorism operations as per the Executive Order, the NSC spokesperson did say that there had been no increase in the number of civilian casualties compared to the previous year. The Obama administration found one non-combatant had been killed in strikes outside of areas of active hostilities in 2016.

It is hard to evaluate the NSC spokesperson’s estimate of the 2017 civilian casaulty toll, because the Trump administration reportedly declared parts of Yemen and Somalia to be areas of active hostilities last year. Areas of active hostilities – conventional warzones like Iraq and Syria – are not included in the tally required by the Executive Order. When asked by the Bureau whether any parts of Yemen and Somalia were excluded from the latest estimate, the NSC spokesperson said they didn’t “have any further clarity to provide.”

The Bureau recorded at least three civilian deaths in Yemen and Somalia in 2017. However, both the Bureau’s and the administration’s figures could well be an underestimate. Information from remote parts of Yemen and Somalia is hard to come by, and CENTCOM, the US military command responsible for Yemen, told the Bureau it deemed civilian casualty allegations non-credible if there was not sufficient information about them.

The robustness of the US government’s own assessments of civilian casualty claims has long been a point of concern for civil society organisations. This is acknowledged in the Executive Order – now threatened with cancellation – which obliges the government to engage proactively with non-governmental organisations in compiling the civilian casualty estimate.

Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the Trump administration’s decision not to comply with the “meagre” transparency requirements of the Executive Order “a dangerous low”.

“This increased secrecy about the costs and consequences of Trump’s killing policies prevents public oversight and accountability for wrongful deaths. The victims of our government’s lethal actions deserve better, as does the American public in whose name the Trump administration is secretly killing people,” Shamsi said.

“The Trump Administration’s backsliding on transparency continues with its failure to publicly report on civilian casualties yesterday,” said Alex Moorehead, an expert on counterterrorism and human rights at Columbia Law School.

“Increased secrecy makes effective Congressional oversight even more crucial. Congress should ask the Trump administration for details on US involvement in civilian casualties, what accountability there is for civilians killed and injured in US strikes, and demand that this information be made public,” Moorehead added.

The worst civilian casualty incident recorded by the Bureau in 2017 came from a ground operation, which would not have been included in the Executive Order-mandated tally even had it been released. On January 29 2017, US forces stormed the village of Yakla. A Bureau investigation found that 25 civilians died in this attack, including nine children under the age of 13.

President Trump called the raid “successful”, crediting with capturing key intelligence. But clips shared by US Central Command seized from a computer during the raid turned out to ten years old and readily available on the internet. Soon after, a US military investigation found that US forces killed between four and 12 civilians.

Main photo: Drone on patrol (US Air Force photo: Lt. Col Leslie Pratt)

Published

January 19, 2018

Written by

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

President Donald Trump launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office, the Bureau’s latest figures show – more than triple the number carried out the year before.

This means there were over 100 times more strikes in Yemen and more than 30 times as many strikes in Somalia during President Trump’s first year in office than during his predecessor, Barack Obama’s.

Obama carried out a single strike in Yemen and one in Somalia during his first year as president. However, by the end of his two terms, Obama had embraced the US drone programme and carried out far more strikes than his predecessor President George W Bush. Strikes in Pakistan were in their hundreds, and yearly strike totals in Yemen and Somalia had reached double digits.

President Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from Obama. His administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous administration.

The vast majority of the 126 strikes that have hit Yemen since Trump’s inauguration followed reports in March 2017 of the Trump administration declaring parts of the country areas of “active hostilities”.

This effectively side-stepped measures introduced by Obama that meant strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. In Yemen, 30 strikes hit within a month of the declaration being reported – nearly as many as the whole of 2016.

Strikes in Yemen

In Somalia, the Obama administration officially designated the al Shabaab group as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November 2016, essentially widening who could be targeted. In March, it was also reported that parts of Somalia had been declared areas of “active hostilities”, but there was no increase in strikes until July 2017, with 33 of the 35 strikes carried under President Trump taking place since then.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge, despite combat operations officially ending in December 2014.

In November last year, US forces began hitting Taliban drugs labs in Helmand. General Nicholson, commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, said the strikes were carried out under new authorities provided under President Trump’s eagerly awaited South Asia strategy.

The Bureau counted five strikes confirmed in Pakistan during Trump’s first year in office. At least four air operations were also reported along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October and November, although it was unclear on what side of the border they fell.

At its height in 2010, the CIA drone programme hit 128 targets in Pakistan. Strikes fell with each passing year after that, falling to just three in 2016.

Country Strikes since Trump’s inauguration
Yemen 126
Somalia 35
Pakistan 5

To read more on what happened last year in the countries we cover, click here.

Main photo: President Trump on the South Asia strategy during a press conference on August 21 2017. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Published

December 19, 2017

Written by

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

The number of US air strikes jumped in Yemen and Somalia in 2017, pointing to an escalation of the global war on terror.

President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen.

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Strikes in Somalia since 2007 via the Bureau

“We should keep a close eye on the increase in strike volume, as it does suggest a more aggressive approach, but it’s not yet clear to me that it represents a truly gloves off approach,” said Luke Hartig, a former counterterrorism advisor in the Obama administration and now a fellow at the New America Foundation, a US thinktank.

Hartig told the Bureau he was concerned that there had not been any significant public explanation of what the US government was now trying to achieve: “we don’t have any real basis to assess, for example, why strikes have doubled in Somalia, or if any of these operations are being conducted in direct support of partner forces on the ground rather than as unilateral actions against the threats we face as a nation.”

The Trump administration paved the way for the dramatic increase in the number of strikes in Yemen and Somalia when, in March this year, it was reported that parts of both countries had been exempted from targeting rules brought in by Obama to prevent civilian casualties. 

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. 

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

General Thomas Waldhauser, the man in charge of US military operations throughout Africa, told journalists in April 2017 that though he now had leeway to order strikes without clearing them with the White House, he would be retaining the criteria introduced by Obama that a strike could only happen if there was a near-certainty that no civilians would be harmed.

In Somalia, the Obama administration had officially designating the al Shabaab group as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November 2016, essentially widening who could be targeted. But there was no increase in strikes until July 2017, with all but 2 of this year’s 32 strikes carried out since then. 

In Yemen, 30 strikes hit within a month of the declaration being reported – nearly as many as the whole of 2016. 

In August, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy. The new plan deepened America’s commitment in Afghanistan, with additional troops deployed and an increase in strikes.

US strikes accounted for 177 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, up from 97 in the same period the previous year, the UN mission in Afghanistan found.

But as air operations in Afghanistan have intensified, and with indications civilian casualties are on the up, US transparency appears to have decreased. In September 2016, Resolute Support, the Nato mission through which the US conducts its operations in Afghanistan, started providing us with monthly data on strikes. However the flow of this crucial information has stopped as of October 2017.  

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Trump’s speech announcing the new Afghan strategy prompted further speculation that drones would return to the skies of Pakistan. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe haven for terrorist organisations,” he said. At its height in 2010, the CIA drone programme hit 128 targets. Strikes fell with each passing year after that, falling to just three in 2016.

The Bureau counted fives strikes in Pakistan in 2017. At least four air operations were reported along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October and November, although it was unclear on what side of the border they fell.

US operations in Yemen since 2002 via the Bureau

In March Trump gave the US military’s Africa Command (Africom) greater freedom to carry out strikes without having to run them by the White House first. However, this did not presage an immediate surge in strikes as expected – most strikes this year came after the end of June.

While Africom will not say how many ground operations it has carried out in Somalia, details of some have emerged. One operation ended with a US fatality after American and Somali troops were ambushed on their way to their target. 

Another operation left 10 civilians dead. There is substantial evidence indicating they were killed by American troops who had been told they were al Shabaab fighters, the insurgent group linked to al Qaeda. 

Most US operations this year have focused on al Shabaab, which the US has been targeting since January 2007. The US also carried out five airstrikes against a band of fighters from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland who split from al Shabaab in 2015 and announced it was now loyal to the Islamic State group.

Al Shabaab marginalised the IS loyalists to a mountain range in Puntland, successfully suppressing any major schism. The IS-supporting faction has managed to flourish nonetheless. Recruiting scores of fighters, it has grown from approximately 24 fighters in 2016 to as many as 200 by the summer of 2017, according to a UN monitoring body.

More US strikes hit Yemen this year than the past four years combined.

Most of the 125 strikes in 2017 hit in central Yemen, where the US military’s Central Command (Centcom) vigorously pursued fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In March 2017 the US designated parts of Yemen as an “area of active hostilities”, covering several unspecified Yemeni provinces in the country’s centre, essentially laying out the ground for anunprecedented aerial bombardment.

The US also started targeting fighters loyal to Islamic State – Centcom reported it carried out at least nine strikes targeting the group.

US Special Forces carried out two ground raids this year as well, the first such operations in Yemen to be publicly reported since December 2014. Both operations targeted what the US believed were AQAP positions. Both resulted in civilian casualties.

On 29 January 2017 American Navy commandos with UAE troops in support attacked a village in the central province of Bayda. The US initially claimed no civilians had been killed in the raid, but the Bureau found nine children under the age of 13 had died. NBC News later reported that the Pentagon did not dispute our numbers. 

The second raid, in May, targeted an “AQAP associated compound” in Marib province. The raid was the “deepest the military has gone into Yemen to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula”, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. The operation left seven AQAP fighters dead, Centcom said, but five civilian tribesmen were also killed, according to the journalist, Iona Craig.

Strikes doubled in Afghanistan in 2017 compared to the year before. 

This trend looks set to continue. President Trump announced in August 2017 that the US commitment in Afghanistan would deepen. General John Nicholson, the top general in Afghanistan, confirmed that this would include a ramping up of air support.

As part of this strategy, US forces in Afghanistan were given new authority to target the Taliban’s revenue streams. These did not come to light until November 20 2017 , when General Nicholson announced a number of strikes on Taliban drugs labs in southern Helmand.

For the Bureau, Trump’s August speech confirmed what our data had already showed. For months, we had been tracking a high number of strikes. This was made possible by key data provided to us by Resolute Support, the Nato mission in Afghanistan. We began getting monthly strike totals in September 2016. In July and August, we also received a breakdown of US strikes in Afghanistan by province.

However, the provincial data has since stopped with Resolute Support citing “capacity” issues. In October and November this year Resolute Support also failed to provide the monthly strike figures to the Bureau. It is unclear whether the US will continue to withhold this information next year. 

Despite the increasing strikes, the Taliban continued to put pressure on the Afghan security forces in 2017. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s branch of Islamic State has proved difficult to dislodge from its eastern stronghold, despite a concerted air campaign against the group.

As strikes have risen, so have civilian casualties. The UN mission in Afghanistan has found a nearly 50 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed and injured by US strikes in the first nine months of 2017 compared to the year before.

This year we continued our Naming the Dead project, collecting the names of over 150 casualties in Afghanistan in 2017.

Strikes resumed in Pakistan in March 2017, nearly two months after President Trump came into office, following a nine-month hiatus. Strikes since then have been sporadic, and none of them have been acknowledged officially by the US.  

Tensions between Washington and Islamabad escalated this year, following reports that the US administration was exploring ways to harden its approach to Pakistan, with drone strikes one of the measures being considered. In June 2017, a rare strike hit outside Pakistan’s tribal regions – only the third in 429 strikes since 2004 – angering Pakistan’s military chief. The Pakistan military has historically stayed tightlipped about such operations.

In August 2017, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy, which further angered Islamabad. In his speech, the president accused Pakistan of sheltering terrorists and threatened tougher action. This only fuelled concerns that drones would return to Pakistan’s skies.

However, only one strike has been confirmed since the President Trump’s speech. A glut of strikes were reported along the border, but it was unclear whether they hit on Pakistan or Afghan soil. 

Photo of Donald Trump greeting reporters in the spin room following a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan, by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

https://vimeo.com/247810752247810752

Stories from the Drones team in 2017

Published

December 12, 2017

Written by

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

US strikes in Somalia shot up in November, with American planes carrying out five times as many strikes as they did in the previous month.

Nearly half of these strikes targeted Islamic State, with the US hitting the group in Somalia for the first time at the beginning of the month.

A band of fighters from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland pledged loyalty to the Islamic State group in 2015, breaking their ties to al Shabaab. Last year the group numbered just a few dozen fighters but has since grown to as many as 200, according to a UN monitoring body.

The fact that the US now has two targets in Somalia could mean a rise in US air operations. A record 31 strikes have hit Somalia this year, with a third of these taking place solely in November.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had already escalated strikes in Somalia to 14 in 2016, reflecting the growing number of attacks by al Shabaab insurgents.

However, since Trump came to office the rate of drone strikes in the East African country has doubled.

This partly reflects new rules introduced by the Trump administration in March 2017 which exempted swathes of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”. This has given commanders a freer hand to launch strikes.

Main photo: An MQ-9 Reaper (John Bainter/US Air Force)

Published

September 25, 2017

Written by

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

The Bureau has decided to change how it presents its data on Yemen and Somalia to make our datasets more user-friendly.

Our database records all reported US counter-terrorism operations in the two countries, dating back to November 2001 in Yemen and January 2007 in Somalia.

Many of these were reported as drone strikes, whilst others are more ambiguously described merely as “strikes”. The US has also carried out several ground raids with special forces and at least two attacks with cruise missiles. In Somalia, a US gunboat also bombarded al Shabaab fighters on the shoreline.

We had been pulling all air strikes reported to have been carried out by drones into their own year-by-year summaries in the datasets for the two countries. All other strikes would then fall into the category of “other US operations”.

However, events this year have made it evident that our method could be tweaked to give a clearer picture of the air war in these countries.

For example, during the massive US bombardment in Yemen in March and April, the US announced how many strikes it had carried out, but did not specify whether they had used a drone in most of these cases. This means that 95 per cent of the strikes were presented as operations in our year-by-year summaries, giving the casual viewer the impression we had omitted them from our tally entirely.

Because of this, we have decided to re-organise how we aggregate the individual strike figures. We are now pulling all air strikes, including those reported to have been carried out by a drone, into the same tally.

We have also added another year-by-year summary into the Somalia dataset, which pulls in all possible strikes. Prior to this, we had a single summary which included confirmed strikes as the minimum number of strikes and possible strikes included in the maximum.   

The “other US operations” category will now tally ground operations, such as special forces raids, and the naval bombardment and the cruise missile attacks.

Published

September 6, 2017

Written by

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

The US military is investigating allegations that two separate operations involving American troops killed at least 22 civilians in the space of a week. 

The US military has confirmed it supported a Somali operation during which 10 civilians, including three young children, were reportedly shot dead. Reports suggest the raid targeted a farm in Bariire in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region on August 25. The extent of the US role is not yet clear. 

The UN mission in Afghanistan has found strikes killed at least 13 civilians and injured 12 others – all women and children – in Logar province, south of Kabul, on August 30. The US has launched an official investigation into the incident. Reports suggest possible US strikes targeted Taliban insurgents using a civilian compound to attack an aircraft.

The allegations come at a time when the US is increasing operations in both countries. Analysts fear that as the number of strikes and raids rise, so will civilian casualties. 

In Afghanistan, additional US troops are already arriving, with more to follow over the next few months. The further escalation of the war announced by US President Donald Trump will also include a continued ramping up of air strikes. In August, there were 387 strikes, US data shows, a steep increase from the 80 carried out in the same month last year.

Meanwhile, strikes in Somalia have also been on the up. In March, President Trump approved a Pentagon proposal to declare certain parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities”, freeing up commanders to carry out strikes and raids without going through the White House bureaucracy.

Despite the new authorities, there were no strikes in Somalia until June. With each passing month since then, strikes have however increased. The March authorities may expire at the end of September, meaning the uptick could be short-lived. 

Photo: F-16 Fighting Falcons at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Aug 31 2017. 

Published

January 20, 2017

Written by

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

The outgoing Obama administration said on Thursday the US had conducted 53 strikes outside areas of active hostilities in 2016, killing one non-combatant.

This contrasts slightly with reports collated by the Bureau – we recorded 49 counter-terrorism strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan in 2016, killing four to six civilians.

The White House began publishing casualty data on its counterterrorism operations last year amid calls for more transparency from civil society organisations including the Bureau.  The numbers are not broken down by country however, making it hard explain differences between official figures and our data.

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) statement did not specify where 2016’s strikes occurred, but said that areas of active hostilities included Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

One of the civilian deaths recorded by the Bureau took place in the restive Pakistani region of Balochistan. According to the victim’s family, a drone hit taxi driver Mohammed Azam while he transported Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, unaware of Mansour’s identity. Azam’s family launched a criminal case against the US demanding accountability for his death.

The Bureau also recorded reports of three civilians killed in an attack on what the US described as an al Shabaab camp in Somalia on April 11-12. Witnesses and local officials said the strikes actually hit a village under the control of the militants.

The Bureau put this version of events to a Pentagon spokesperson at the time but were told there were no reports of civilian casualties.

The DNI statement said that “no discrepancies” were identified between its post-strike assessments and credible reporting from non-governmental organisations about civilian deaths resulting from these strikes.

The Bureau recorded the deaths of 362-507 people, including the four to six civilians, as a result of US strikes outside areas of active hostilities last year. The US government put the figure of “combatants” killed in counterterrorism strikes at 431-441.

Follow the Bureau’s dedicated drone war Twitter feed: @dronereadsFollow the Bureau’s Twitter feed tracking each strike when it happens: @latest_strike

Photo of unmanned US predator aerial vehicle with a hellfire missile attached via US Air Force