News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

February 6, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Book authors say pilots wish for more government openness about Dutch military campaigns

 

“After a few months, it turned out that it had indeed been a wrong target. An error had been made in the intelligence process. Instead of being an ISIS target, it turned out to just be a house. A mix-up in targets. You think: shit, it’s not possible, is it? I felt sick when I heard about it. Terrible, yes. I feel co-responsible. I launched that bomb and pressed the button. I ended the lives of people who had nothing to do with the war. That is a very particular experience. It’s a slap in your face. It goes against everything you are there for. You are there to help the Iraqi people.”

Dutch F-16 pilot ‘Stefan’, describing his role in a deadly Mosul airstrike in 2015 which killed four family members. Translation of an excerpt from the book Missie F-16 by Olof van Joolen and Silvan Schoonhoven (2019, Nieuw Amsterdam)

 

Dutch F-16s conducted hundreds of airstrikes against the terror group ISIS in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018. Yet the Netherlands has been one of the least transparent countries when it comes to possible civilian casualties from US-led Coalition actions.

Part of the reason for that Dutch secrecy has been an insistence that pilots and their families must be protected from retaliation – and until now the community has been tight, with almost no outside access. Now De Telegraaf journalists Olof van Joolen and Silvan Schoonhoven have managed to speak with Dutch pilots for their book Missie F-16 (‘F-16 Mission’), which was published in November 2019.

The book is a history of the Dutch use of F-16s in aerial warfare. The authors interviewed pilots who flew during the Cold War; the war in former Yugoslavia; and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Covering more recent conflicts, they also interviewed pilots who were operating in Libya in 2011; and in the US-led Coalition against ISIS.

The book deals surprisingly frankly with pilot concern about civilian harm – and challenges an ongoing insistence on secrecy by the Dutch ministry of defence. Airwars has been speaking with the authors.

The Mosul Incident

Olof van Joolen (a defence reporter) and Silvan Schoonhoven (reporting on terrorism and security services) published their book earlier than scheduled on November 13th 2019, after Dutch media outlets NOS and NRC broke their story about the Netherlands being responsible for at least 70 civilian deaths in Hawijah, Iraq in June 2015.

In response to that investigation, Dutch Minister of Defence Bijleveld also acknowledged responsibility for an airstrike in Mosul on September 20th, 2015, which had led to the deaths of four civilians. The book’s authors had been able to speak with Basim Razzo, who lost his brother, wife, daughter and nephew in the attack – as well as the pilot who had dropped the bomb on the Razzo house. Previously, it had been though that a US aircraft had carried out the attack.

What was it like interviewing Stefan, the pilot who dropped the bomb on the Razzo house? Schoonhoven: “We realised that he was completely drowning in this story. He was ready to tell us everything – from start to finish. He couldn’t share this with his family. These past weeks have been very tough for him – to see a videotaped interview with Basim Razzo. He had read about him, but not seen his face, let alone see him cry.”

Van Joolen: “He really would have liked to see this handled properly. He feels terrible about it. People expect some master plan from the Ministry of Defence in incidents like this. Trust me, that wasn’t the case.”

Cousins Najeeb and Tuka Razzo were among four family members killed in a Dutch F-16 airstrike in 2015 (Image courtesy of family)

Discrepancy between official and Airwars numbers

In a chapter on civilian casualties, pilot Jeffrey, nickname “Scatman”, is asked about what he thinks of Airwars estimates of civilian casualties.

“Airwars delivers nonsensical numbers”, claims Scatman. “I don’t believe that the American [military’s lower] numbers are wrong. It just doesn’t work that way. I know exactly where I flew myself and the exact metre where my bomb fell. How do they think it works? That you can secretly make casualties somewhere and then say later: “No, it wasn’t me”? And that you can get away with it?”

[Editor’s note: More than half of all Coalition-confirmed civilian harm events during 2019 were referrals from Airwars, with the alliance itself previously failing to identify  concerns. It is clear that pilots are often unaware of the consequences of their actions.]

This quote seems quite ironic now we know that this is exactly what happened for more than four years with the Hawija case. Schoonhoven: “His quote is about how he just cannot believe, from his own experiences, that the general Airwars numbers are correct. He thinks that they would have seen if indeed so many civilian casualties had fallen in the more than 2,000 airstrikes that the Netherlands carried out.”

Yet, you did not further dive into that discrepancy between the Airwars numbers and the official Coalition numbers. How did you make sure that this book did not become an uncritical outlet for pilots? Van Joolen: “I think that is a strange question. If you read the book, that is not the case. We also talked to Bassim Razzo. We wouldn’t have if we just wanted to write a glorious story about pilots. As a journalist, you can conclude that there is an Airwars number and that there is an official number, and you should mention both. We did that.”

Schoonhoven: “And if we were an outlet for the Dutch air forces, we would not even have mentioned Airwars.”

But you did not further dive into possible explanations for this massive difference. Schoonhoven: “There is a remarkable discrepancy. I cannot explain that. I believe Airwars is a legit organisation, but at the same time, I believe what Scatman says. That it is impossible to throw a bomb and then pretend you did not throw it. It’s always going to come out.”

Authors Silvan Schoonhoven (left) and Olof van Joolen with their book Missie F-16 in the office of Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf

Pilot safety

The Ministry of Defence, when asked about their lack of transparency for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, has continually pointed to the safety of pilots and families. Yet some pilots in your book are mentioned with their full names and even pilots who were active during the fight against ISIS are pictured in their aircraft. How did you experience this safety issue when interviewing pilots themselves?

Van Joolen: “They generally don’t have issues with being photographed. They are not really clearly distinguishable people. Once they put on their jeans rather than their uniform, you couldn’t point them out. They are more worried about their full names being published. Now you might have a photo of Scatman, but it’s not online and very hard to connect to his real name. With a full name, you could find his address.”

“There is a lot of, not sure if it is the right word, trauma among these guys. The death of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al Kasabeh, who was captured by ISIS and burned to death in a cage, really left an impact. We interviewed a Dutch pilot who just spoke to Al Kasabeh on the military base in Jordan before Al Kasabeh went on his final mission. But the real fear among pilots is for their families. Their worst fear is being ‘over there’ and that there is someone back home standing near their wife, mother or children. That is when they feel threatened.”

Bottlenecks in transparency

How did officials react when they heard you were writing a book about this topic, as they have been notoriously secretive? Van Joolen: “I need to give my compliments to the Dutch air force. Whenever you publish something that involves still active military personnel, they need to approve it. Not at any time during our research have they said that we could not write something down or should change something.”

“However, something interesting occurred during our research. Pilots continuously talked to us about ‘confirmed kills’. They would say something like: “One night I had 50 confirmed kills!” The Brits have been publishing reports of these confirmed kills. So we asked the air force if we could receive a list as well. And then they said: “We do not have such a list.” I don’t believe that. The pilots kept referring to ‘confirmed kills’, but there is no official record of this? And if the Brits can publish such a list, why can’t we?”

Do you think the pilots themselves are receptive towards more transparency? Van Joolen: “Absolutely, one hundred per cent. In fact, it would help many of them. In the book we write for example write about the case of Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Back home, people thought our men were building schools and wells there, when in fact, they were risking their lives and losing their colleagues. Because it was sold as a “school building mission”. That is breaking soldiers. It is incredibly important for military personnel that people at home know what they were doing, so that when they come back, they can deal with their traumas.”

What then do you think is the main issue with improving transparency? Van Joolen: “The interesting question is: where is the bottleneck when it comes to transparency in the Netherlands? From all the interviews we have had, I think the issue is with the Department of Defence, rather than in the armed forces. There’s this quote in the book by Johan van Deventer, who is currently acting head of operations. He said: “I handed in a list in my final report as detachment commandant in the fight against ISIS, in which I explicitly stated how many fighters, buildings and vehicles we eliminated.” They did not like that in The Hague. “Did you have to do that,” they told him. Some got angry. That is a very telling quote about the mindset in The Hague.”

“That is one of the points we are trying to make with this book: stop with all the strange secrecy. Admit that if you sent a unit of F-16s, you are sending our most effective weapon to do its job. You should be transparent about that, so that people know what you are doing there. I found it very shocking to hear from military personnel who talked with Members of Parliament how little knowledge MPs had about the reality of war. They really have no idea.”

Postscript: From truth to accountability

In an interview with Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad on January 24th, 2020, Basim Razzo, the survivor of the deadly airstrike on his house in Mosul, stated that he still had not received an apology from the Dutch government, despite the public acknowledgement of Dutch responsibility.

As Mr Razzo noted: “I can’t think of a reason why I haven’t heard from the Dutch government. Out of decency and as a moral act of acknowledging responsibility, I expect them to contact me and do the right thing. I think I am entitled to an official apology and then a real compensation for the loss of four lives and two houses.”

Due to the lack of action on the side of the Dutch state, Razzo is now being supported by human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who aims to hold the Dutch government accountable for the loss and damage which Mr Razzo and his family have endured, stating to Algemeen Dagblad that “it’s actually shameful that we are have to follow legal proceedings for that”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told Algemeen Dagblad that they did not know why Razzo had not been contacted yet, but that a letter will be send to Parliament shortly outlining possible victim compensation.

The spokesperson also asserted that “the Netherlands is responsible, but not liable. Nevertheless, we want to see what we can do for the communities on a voluntary basis.” That letter to Parliament is expected in mid February 2020, indicating whether the Netherlands is ready not only to acknowledge the truth of its actions, but also to take accountability when strikes go wrong.

▲ LIBRARY: During the war against ISIS, a pilot sits in the cockpit of a Dutch F-16 with a second aircraft in the background (Image via Dutch MoD)

Published

November 29, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Promises follow three weeks after Ministry of Defence claimed responsibility for the 2015 Hawijah incident

The Dutch government is promising to introduce transparency improvements for conflict-related civilian harm resulting from its military actions. The announcement came on November 25th, in the wake of an ongoing national scandal, following the withholding for more than four years of details of Dutch involvement in an airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, on the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, which led to the likely deaths of at least 70 civilians.

In a comprehensive letter to parliament on November 25th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld promised to retroactively report the number of missions, locations, target type and weapon deployment for the entire first deployment of the Dutch contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition from October 2014 to June 2016.

In the event of future air operations, such weekly reporting would be standardised. In addition, Bijleveld promised to ensure sufficient capacity at the Ministry to monitor possible civilian harm cases during future military action. And parliament will be confidentially briefed about investigations into civilian casualties as soon as possible.

The government says it is also exploring possible compensation options for victims of Dutch military actions in Iraq.

Debate

In the weeks since the government admitted the role of the Royal Netherlands Air Force in the deadly Hawijah strike, the crisis has threatened to engulf several leading political figures – including the Prime Minister.

A parliamentary debate on November 27th focused significantly on to what extent Prime Minister Mark Rutte had been informed about possible civilian casualties in the airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in Hawijah. MP Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked if perhaps “the prolonging of the [Dutch] mission [against ISIS] had been more important than telling the truth”?

Rutte said that Hawijah was not discussed in cabinet meetings before the government had prolonged Dutch military action against ISIS on June 19th, 2015 – just three weeks after the incident. He argued that “it [information about possible civilian casualties in Hawijah] would not have been relevant [for the decision to prolong the mission], as we knew before starting this mission that there was a risk of civilian casualties”.

During the debate, MP Salima Belhaj of the D66 party – which is a part of the ruling coalition –  handed in a motion calling for a fact finding mission on the ground to determine how many civilians died at Hawijah.

Defence Minister Bijleveld responded that while she was unsure if such an investigation would generate any new information, she would seriously look into options.

The Socialist Party also handed in a motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Cabinet, which while supported by some opposition parties, did not pass.

Gisteren dienden we een motie van wantrouwen in. We vroegen zo vaak naar de waarheid, maar we kregen leugens ? #burgerslachtoffers #Irak pic.twitter.com/ypM49wxDVz

— Lilian Marijnissen (@MarijnissenL) November 28, 2019

MP Lilian Marijnissen (Socialist Party) handed in a motion of no confidence, claiming that “We asked for the truth so many times, but all we got were lies”.

‘Parliament misled in 2015’

The first public Dutch acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian casualties in the war against ISIS earlier this month followed after an investigation into Dutch involvement in the Hawijah case published by news outlets NRC and NOS.

In a letter to parliament on November 4th, Bijleveld wrote that her predecessor Jeanine Hennis had wrongly informed parliament on the matter. Hennis herself had informed MPs on June 23rd 2015 that “there has been no Dutch involvement in civilian casualties”, despite having received a CENTCOM report stating that claims of civilian casualties in the Hawija incident were deemed ‘credible’ a week earlier, according to Bijleveld.

On November 25th, Bijleveld released a second letter to parliament. She wrote that Hennis had personally informed the former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bert Koenders) and “presumably” Prime Minister Mark Rutte about Hawijah back in 2015. According to Hennis who is cited in the new letter, her tone had not been alarming, but she did mention that further inquiries would look into the possibility of civilian casualties. Neither Koenders nor Rutte recall having this conversation, although Rutte said he does not  “rule out” that it happened.

The letter revealed that CENTCOM had sent the Dutch Ministry of Defence their own additional investigation report on January 22nd 2016, in which they concluded that while the targeting process was done correctly, it was “probable” that civilians had died, while not apparently specifying numbers. Although CENTCOM officials stated that the investigation was now considered “closed”, an official final report never followed. On May 26th of that year, MoD finalised their own additional investigation, drawing the same conclusions.

Bijleveld asserts that “to this day, it is still uncertain how many civilian casualties there were in Hawijah”. However, in December 2018, a senior Coalition military official responded via email to questions by Dutch newspaper NRC, confirming 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”.

When Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked about this email in the debate on November 27th, minister BIjleveld answered that she had asked for a clarification by CENTCOM, who she claimed had said they were unsure why their spokesperson did not follow the ‘official conclusions’.

Prime minister Rutte continues to state that "until today, it is unknown how many civilians died", while CENTCOM officials confirmed in December 2018 in an email to Dutch media @NRC and @NOS that 70 civilians had died. pic.twitter.com/AA1M8OSZXz

— Airwars (@airwars) November 27, 2019

Future transparency

So far, Bijleveld has continually referred to the standing policy of not providing any information on ongoing Dutch military operations in light of ‘national, operational and personnel security’.This has led to Airwars for several years rating the Netherlands the least transparent and publicly accountable member of the 14-nation coalition against ISIS.

The minister still argues in her letter of November 25th that it is not possible to create a new standard, as assessments of the permissible level of transparency must be made based on the current security situation.

However Bijleveld does now promise a new standard for informing parliament, writing that MPs will confidentially be briefed about all Dutch weapon deployments. In cases where the defence ministry initiates investigation into civilian casualties, parliament will also be confidentially informed as soon as possible. Parliament will further be included in any considerations regarding the degree of public transparency that is considered “permissible in the context of security”.

The Minister writes that further inquiry into possible voluntary compensation for relatives of victims and the affected communities of Hawijah is taking place.

“While many questions remain unanswered on Hawijah, Airwars nevertheless welcomes recent indications by the Defence Ministry that it will improve the reporting of its military actions and any associated civilian harm,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “These announced structural policy changes have the potential to improve transparency for Dutch military actions moving forward, so that mass civilian casualty cases such as Hawijah can never again be hidden from the public.”

▲ Destruction at Hawijah following a Dutch airstrike on June 2nd/3rd 2015, published as propaganda by the Islamic State shortly after the incident (via VRT).

Published

October 22, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Airwars suspends cooperation with Netherlands defence ministry until possible role of Dutch F-16s in lethal event is clarified

On Friday October 18th, Dutch news organisations NRC and NOS published a story in which they accused the Dutch military of being responsible for a 2015 airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in the city of Hawijah, Iraq, that led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians. The Dutch Ministry of Defence has so far refused to confirm or deny its involvement in one of the deadliest Coalition airstrikes in the war against ISIS.

Airwars has since announced the suspension of its ongoing engagement with defence ministry on transparency and accountability issues, until the Dutch government confirms or denies whether it was involved in the event.

On the night of June 2nd-3rd, 2015, aircraft belonging to the international Coalition against ISIS bombed an IED facility in the city of Hawijah, in Iraq’s Kirkuk province. Subsequent explosions from stored munitions killed at least 70 civilians, Coalition officials confirmed to NRC and NOS.

The Airwars assessment of the incident, based on local reporting and investigations by others, concluded that at least 26 children and 22 women were among those killed at Hawijah that day. Many victims were refugees from other parts of the country, who had found shelter in buildings surrounding the weapon storage facility. More than 100 civilians were also injured in the attack. According to local reports Airwars analysed, as many as 100 ISIS militants may also additionally have been killed.

Suspicion of Dutch involvement

Until now, no Coalition member has publicly claimed responsibility for an airstrike that Bas News described at the time as “one of the worst mass casualty incidents in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.” Journalists at the Dutch newspaper NRC and the public broadcasting foundation NOS investigated the incident for many months, as they suspected possible Dutch involvement following a letter sent by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence to the House of Representatives in April 2018.

In that letter, ministers revealed that the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had investigated four air strikes – out of a total of approximately 2,100 munitions released – that the Netherlands had carried out between October 2014 and June 2016. The Public Prosecution Service concluded that three out of the four investigated incidents indeed seemed to have led to civilian casualties. However any further information on these four strikes – such as place, date and time of the attack – was omitted. The Public Prosecution Service furthermore stated that while it was likely that these three Dutch strikes had killed civilians, it saw no reason to prosecute as in its view, the rules of war had been followed.

At the time, researchers and journalists noted that the first described case in the letter showed a potential resemblance to what had happened in Hawijah, three years earlier. The two ministers wrote about this first incident that “it […] was an attack by Dutch F-16s on a facility where so-called vehicle borne IEDs [car bombs] were manufactured. […] The IED factory later turned out to have contained many more explosives than was known or could be estimated in advance. It is very likely that this attack resulted in civilian casualties.” Requests for confirmation by Airwars and journalists on whether the ministry was indeed referring to the incident of Hawija have remained unanswered until now.

In a press conference the day after the Hawijah incident, American commander Lt General John Hesterman had also said that a “fairly small weapon” was used in the strike. According to NRC’s reconstruction of their investigation, weapon experts it consulted had concluded Hesterman must have been talking about GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs. In 2015, only two Coalition allies were using this type of munition in their military actions in Syria and Iraq: the United States and the Netherlands. However US and British armed drones were also using smaller 100lb Hellfire missiles at the time.

The aftermath of the alleged strike (via Iraqi Revolution)

The investigation

Both NRC and NOS visited the site of the airstrike in 2019, collecting on the ground statements from affected communities. They furthermore spoke to both US and Dutch officials. Kees Versteegh, one of the journalists working on the investigation, said in NRC’s daily podcast that several anonymous officials had confirmed to him that it was in fact a Dutch F16 that dropped the bomb.

Responding to the investigation, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld tweeted that she could  “neither confirm nor deny” Dutch responsibility for the Hawijah incident “at this moment”, but that she hoped to be able to do so in the near future. “We want to put the safety of everyone, especially the pilots, first”, Bijleveld stated, according to NRC. Prime Minister Mark Rutte was also questioned by journalists about the allegations, but answered that “while it is terrible when civilian casualties occur”, that he could not comment on the allegations.

Ik kijk momenteel serieus naar meer openheid over onze luchtaanvallen in relatie tot burgerslachtoffers. Hierin nemen wij voorstellen van de Kamer mee en uiteraard zal de Kamer hierover als eerste worden geïnformeerd. Ik kan betrokkenheid bij deze casus bevestigen noch ontkennen. https://t.co/qxn6ekWHDy

— Ank Bijleveld (@MinBijleveld) October 18, 2019

Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld says she can ‘neither confirm nor deny’ Dutch involvement in a deadly 2015 strike

Members of Parliament have been demanding that the Minister provides clarity on the topic, so far unsuccessfully. Sadet Karabulut, MP for the opposition Socialist Party (SP), who has submitted several motions regarding transparency on civilian casualties in the past, tweeted: “We weren’t told anything at all. Every time, we asked for [information]. We never got an answer. The minister has a problem if this is true and has a lot to explain. I want to know everything. All information should be on the table now very quickly, and we should have a debate.”

MP Isabelle Diks of GroenLinks stated that “it is unbelievable that the House of Representatives is only now hearing through the press, that in the event of a Dutch attack, so many civilian victims have fallen, while the House of Representatives has specifically asked about this on several occasions.” She said she expected an explanation from the Minister soon.

Ongelooflijk dat de Kamer nu pas via de pers hoort, dat bij een Nederlandse aanval zo onthutsend veel burgerslachtoffers zijn gevallen, terwijl de Kamer hier meermaals specifiek naar heeft gevraagd. @MinBijleveld heeft heel wat uit te leggen! Snel meer info in een brief dan debat

— Isabelle Diks (@IsabelleDiks) October 18, 2019

Joël Voordewind, MP for the ChristenUnie, also demanded answers on Twitter: “Why was there no follow-up investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on the bombing in Hawija, hardly any compensation paid, and why was it not foreseen that a second explosion could occur, resulting in so many civilian casualties? I expect clear answers.”

And Salima Belhaj, MP for D66 which is a part of the government coalition, insisted that future civilian casualties must be communicated as fast as possible to parliament.

While the Dutch government has so far yet to officially confirm its involvement in the deadly attack, Defence Minister Bijleveld made a further statement on October 19th regarding compensation for relatives of the victims of the airstrike and those who suffered material loss. According to NOS, Bijleveld claimed that “it is the international agreement that it will be settled in the country itself [Iraq]”. This contradicts statements made by CENTCOM to Airwars in 2016 that each member nation of the alliance was individually responsible for any payouts for civilian harm resulting from its own actions.

Airwars and Airwars Stichting issued a statement noting that it would be a “national scandal if the defence ministry and successive governments have withheld the death of 70 civilians resulting from a Dutch military action more than 4 years ago”, and calling for an urgent factual statement from both the Ministry of Defence and the government. Airwars has additionally suspended planned further talks with defence officials on transparency and accountability for civilian harm, until the Dutch government has publicly clarified any involvement in this incident.

▲ Library image: A Dutch F-16 is prepared for a mission against ISIS (Image via Defensie)