News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

September 6, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Airwars tally offers assessment of the direct civilian impact of 20 years of US strikes

You often find a similar refrain in US media reporting of the cost of two decades of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ The trope goes something like this: “more than 7,000 US service people have died in wars since 9/11,” an article or news report will say. In the next line it will usually, though not always, try to reflect the civilian toll – but almost exclusively in generalities. Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror, Airwars has been seeking the answer to one important question – how many civilians have US strikes likely killed in the ‘Forever Wars’?

We found that the US has declared at least 91,340 strikes across seven major conflict zones.

Our research has concluded that at least 22,679, and potentially as many as 48,308 civilians, have been likely killed by US strikes.

The gap between these two figures reflects the many unknowns when it comes to civilian harm in war. Belligerents rarely track the effects of their own actions – and even then do so poorly. It is left to local communities, civil society and international agencies to count the costs. Multiple sources can however suggest different numbers of fatalities, meaning that monitoring organisations like Airwars will record both minimum and maximum estimates.

Our key findings of civilian harm from US actions since 9/11 can be seen in this video and the full dataset is available here.

This accompanying article explains the conflicts we covered and our key findings in a little more detail, before outlining our methodology and data sources.

What are the ‘Forever Wars’?

In the days after the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, in which 2,977 people were killed by Al Qaeda in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, US President George W. Bush announced the start of a new type of war, one without defined borders, boundaries, or timescales.

“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he told Americans. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

“Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he concluded.

So it came to pass. The War on Terror has been a near global endeavour. By 2017 for example, the US Department of Defense said it had around 8,000 “special operators” in 80 countries across the globe.

Dubbed the ‘Forever Wars,’ this conflict has not had clear territorial boundaries, though we have included in our dataset the seven most intensive US military campaigns. The types of conflict vary significantly but broadly fall into three categories:

    Full invasions and occupations of countries – Afghanistan 2001-2021, and Iraq 2003-2009. Major bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terror group – Iraq 2014-2021, Syria 2014-2021, and Libya 2016. More targeted US drone and airstrike campaigns against militant and terror groups – Somalia 2007-2021, Yemen 2002-2021, Pakistan 2004-2018, and Libya 2014-2019.

Key findings

Based on official US military data, we have concluded that the US has carried out a minimum of 91,340 airstrikes throughout the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Particular peaks were seen during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US declared 18,695 strike sorties. The campaign against the so-called Islamic State also saw a sustained peak, with more than 9,000 strikes a year from 2015-2017.

We then gathered together every reliable estimate of civilian harm as a result of US strikes.

Wherever possible we sought to measure civilian harm just from US airstrikes but in some cases, such as the first years of the Iraq invasion, it was impossible to disaggregate airstrikes from artillery fire and other heavy munitions, which were therefore included.

Likewise in some US-led Coalitions it was impossible to determine whether each individual strike was American, though US airpower has dominated all such campaigns.

Based on our comprehensive review of credible sources, we found at least 22,679 civilians were likely directly killed by US strikes since 9/11, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.

 

The deadliest year came in 2003, when a minimum of 5,529 civilians were reported to have been killed by US actions according to the monitoring organisation Iraq Body Count, almost all during the invasion of Iraq that year. The next deadliest year was 2017, when at least 4,931 civilians were likely killed, the vast majority in alleged Coalition bombing of Iraq and Syria. However, if we include maximum estimates of civilian harm then 2017 was in fact the worst year for civilian casualties, with up to 19,623 killed.

Almost all of the reported civilian deaths from US wars since 9/11 (97 percent) occurred in the two occupations (Iraq 2003-20119, and Afghanistan 2001-2021); as well as in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2014-2021).

In 2011, at the peak of its 20-year occupation, the US had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That conflict came to an end last month when the final US troops left after a chaotic withdrawal. During the Iraq occupation, troops numbers peaked at 166,000 in 2007, though forces withdrew by 2011.

Just three years later and following the rise of so-called Islamic State, the US and its international partners began an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS in support of allies on the ground. Campaigns to force ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2016-2017 saw some of the most intense urban fighting since the Second World War. In Raqqa alone, Coalition strikes reportedly killed at least 1,600 civilians. While the Islamists lost their last territorial stronghold in April 2019, the war continues at a low intensity.

 

As part of our research, we also sought official US military estimates for the numbers of civilians killed by its own actions since 9/11. Neither CENTCOM nor the Department of Defense have published such findings.

In the Iraq and Syria campaign against ISIS, the US-led Coalition has accepted killing 1,417 civilians – far lower than Airwars’ own estimate of at least 8,300 civilian deaths for that war.

Additionally, in 2016 the US admitted killing between 64 and 116 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in counter terrorism operations in the years between 2009 and 2015. But it provided no further details, dates or specifics – making assessment of those claims near impossible.

More publicly, the United States has admitted to killing two civilians in Pakistan; thirteen in Yemen; and five in Somalia in recent years. At least 394 and as many as 570 civilians have in fact been killed by US actions in those countries, according to monitoring organisation New America.

Airwars approached CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for most of these conflicts, directly for this project. It said data on officially recognised civilian harm was not readily available. “The information you request is not immediately on hand in our office as it spans between multiple operations/campaigns within a span of between 18 and 20 years,” CENTCOM said in an email, requesting instead that we file a Freedom of Information request. Such requests can take several years to get a response, with no guarantee of the information being released.

It’s important to note that Airwars has examined only direct harm from US strikes since 9/11 – with many of our sources providing conservative casualty estimates. We are therefore looking at a fraction of the overall civilian harm in these countries.

Between 363,939 and 370,072 civilians have been killed by all parties to these conflicts since 2001, according to the well respected Brown University Cost of War programme.

Even so, we believe this research represents the most comprehensive public assessment available of minimum civilian harm by direct US strikes and actions in the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Methodology

Parts or all of the data presented here were peer reviewed by multiple experts in the field, and our full dataset has also been published, to enable scrutiny.

That said, we acknowledge that civilian harm monitoring mechanisms have varied and evolved extensively over the past 20 years, and are rarely consistent across organisations and campaigns.

Airwars itself was formed in 2014, and has collated data on many of the US’s conflicts since then, using our all-source monitoring in local languages to gather allegations of civilian harm. However, for much of the data in the years before 2014 and for the entirety of the Afghanistan campaign – which Airwars does not monitor – we are reliant upon other organisations. This section will explain where the data was gathered from.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released civilian harm data since 2006. This includes likely civilian harm from airstrikes carried out by foreign powers. While the War on Terror was launched by the US, some allies initially joined – including European nations that sent significant contingents to Afghanistan. It was not possible to definitively conclude if all of these strikes were conducted by the US as opposed to allied nations, although the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

In the early years of the conflict, for the period 2001-05 before UNAMA was fully operational, we have relied upon an investigative dataset compiled by The Nation, which though well researched did not claim to be definitive.

Iraq 2003-11

The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, and then maintained an occupation with the support of other nations until withdrawing all forces in 2011. In the vacuum after Hussein was unseated, multiple militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State, thrived. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in ensuing conflict-related violence.

The NGO Iraq Body Count has been collating tolls of civilian harm since the 2003 invasion. It kindly agreed to provide Airwars with all data related to allegations of civilian harm caused by US actions between 2003 and 2013. According to IBC, in many cases such as the initial invasion, and the assaults on the city of Fallujah in 2004, it was near impossible to disaggregate civilian harm caused by airstrikes with artillery and other munitions. As such, the data from Iraq Body Count presented here relates to deaths caused by airstrikes and explosive weapons. Incidents where only small arms fire was involved have been excluded. As with Afghanistan, it is impossible to know for certain whether each strike was carried out by the US or partner nations, though the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

Iraq and Syria 2014-2021

In the years after the Arab Spring rippled through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Islamic State militant group seized a swathe of territory spanning northern Iraq and Syria which was roughly the size of the United Kingdom. From 2014 onwards, the US led an international coalition in a bombing campaign against the group, eventually forcing it to cede its last area of territorial control along the Iraqi-Syrian border in April 2019.

Airwars has monitored civilian harm related to the ongoing seven-year war against the Islamic State since the beginning of the campaign, using a standardised methodology and approach for all our civilian harm monitoring projects. Our researchers conduct daily monitoring of local Arabic-language media and social media in Iraq and Syria, documenting and archiving all claims of civilian harm including those claims reported by the local communities themselves. Each event has a unique assessment online, where an archived version of all sources used is also available. Events are considered ‘live’ – constantly updated as new information is found.

Libya

Al Qaeda had a limited presence in Libya following the defeat of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and was the target of a small number of US strikes. Then from 2014, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in the country – seizing control of several cities and towns a year later.

Airwars researchers have actively monitored all civilian harm caused by all parties in Libya for many years. Based on hyperlocal media monitoring, and reflecting the same methodology and approach as our Iraq-Syria assessments, we have aggregated the number of alleged civilian deaths related to US strikes against both Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State in Libya since 2012.

Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen

In the years after 9/11 the United States launched an initially secret drone campaign targeting militant organisations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. These campaigns led to often significant allegations of civilian harm.

In Pakistan, the data was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with those archives transferred to Airwars in 2019. There have been no reported US strikes since July 2018.

In Somalia, Airwars has published a comprehensive review of all civilian harm allegations from both suspected and declared US strikes and actions since the conflict began in 2007.

In Yemen, the data from 2002-2016 was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Airwars has actively monitored the US counter terrorism campaign in Yemen since 2017, and all associated allegations of civilian harm.

Differing methodological approaches

In every conflict, those organisations monitoring civilian harm have applied different methodologies. Airwars, TBIJ and Iraq Body Count are for example remote monitors – meaning that they gather all information publicly available and reflect any uncertainties in their findings – for example by using high and low casualty ranges, rather than definitive figures.

UNAMA employs a different methodology for Afghanistan. Based until recently in Kabul, it deployed field researchers in each province to physically investigate where possible sites of alleged civilian harm, and to interview witnesses. While this approach can lead to more certainty about circumstances and casualty numbers in an individual event, it may also mean that some locally reported cases can be missed. UNAMA also does not provide casualty range estimates – publishing just one number of confirmed civilians killed per year.

More information on conflict casualty standards and methodologies can be found at Every Casualty Counts, which publishes global standards on casualty monitoring, based on the expert work of more than 50 specialist member organisations.

▲ Library image: A US Air Force B-52 refuels during the US campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Credit: Department of Defense)

Published

August 27, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Assisted by

Georgia Edwards

As the international war against ISIS enters its eighth year, the UK must urgently improve its approach to the protection of civilians and civilian harm monitoring, reports Airwars' advocacy team.

Over the last decade, warfare has undergone significant changes. Countries such as the UK and US have increasingly done their best to avoid large-scale ground deployments of their own troops, focusing instead on supporting local forces, for instance by providing air power.

Through the monitoring of nearly 60,000 locally alleged civilian deaths caused by belligerents across multiple conflicts, Airwars has documented the risks to civilians that this form of engagement can pose in nations like Iraq and Syria, with heavy uses of explosive weapons in urban environments often leading to very significant civilian casualties and major destruction of civilian infrastructure.

Despite acknowledging the potential risks from recent actions, which saw “the most significant urban combat to take place since World War II”, the UK has failed to improve its approach to the Protection of Civilians (POC). In fact, the UK remains hesitant to openly acknowledge harm from its own actions. Leaving behind this current approach, by introducing public transparency and accountability for identification, review and admissions of casualties is vital to reduce present and future civilian casualties.

This article will assess current UK government action with regard to developing and updating its protection of civilian policies.

The Ministry of Defence

One of the most comprehensive reviews of UK military action in recent times, the 2016 Chilcot report, repeatedly emphasised that the MoD has failed to accurately estimate possible civilian harm that would arise from the 2003-2011 war in Iraq. In fact, the report states the MoD mistakenly estimated the war would ‘only’ cost civilian lives in the “low hundreds”. In reality, Iraq Body Count estimated that more than 114,000 civilians died as a result of violence in Iraq between 2003 and 2011.

The Chilcot report called for the UK to improve how it reaches pre-conflict estimates of civilian harm, declaring that a ‘government has a responsibility to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians.’ It also said governments should make ‘greater efforts in the post-conflict period to determine the number of civilian casualties’ and to understand the broader impact of these actions.

In response, MoD officials pledged to improve the protection of civilians in the future. Nevertheless, the key challenges to effective POC identified in the Chilcot report persist to this day, including a lack of accountability; a lack of understanding of the impact of British airstrikes on the ground; and a false belief that the use of ‘smart’ guided munitions might automatically lead to fewer casualties.

This is highlighted by the MoD’s continued claim that it has evidence of only a single civilian casualty from its ongoing seven-year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This does not mean, as the MoD has repeatedly emphasised, that they believe their actions have only caused a single civilian death, but only that they claim to have the evidence of one casualty.

However the US-led Coalition has itself concluded that fifteen additional civilians were killed in at least three actions in Iraq and Syria which are known to have been British airstrikes.

Airwars, along with other monitoring organisations, humanitarian organisations, and news outlets, have demonstrated that their own mechanisms to capture civilian harm reports are often far more accurate than those of militaries. For the past two years for example, the majority of officially declared civilian harm reports by the US-led Coalition originated with Airwars, rather than internal military reports. The UK government must therefore reflect on why it has consistently failed to incorporate adequate civilian casualty monitoring mechanisms into all recent operations.

As Airwars’ ‘Europe’s Shame’ investigation highlights, the UK’s allies are often better able to understand and report on the harm that comes from British actions than the UK itself. This was reaffirmed by the recent publication of a Pentagon report to Congress in which they detailed civilian casualties known to have been caused by allies, including Britain.

Library picture: A RAF Typhoon lands in Cyprus hours after UK voted to extend airstrikes to Syria (UK MoD)

This is not to say that there has been no progress at the MoD since the findings of the Chilcot report. When it comes to responding to requests for information regarding specific alleged civilian harm events during the war against ISIS, the MoD has been quick and responsive – at least compared to allies. Yet a number of key changes are required within the Ministry of Defence to ensure that the UK consistently and effectively protects those on the ground when it goes to war, and is transparent when things do go wrong.

Improving the MoD approach

To improve the UK Defence Ministry’s approach to POC, the following key steps must be taken. Firstly, the UK must learn from its allies and independent organisations by establishing a permanent civilian harm tracking cell within the Ministry with strong local understanding and relevant language skills, while conducting site visits and witness interviews for assessments where possible.

The UK must also review the exceptionally high bar it sets for determining civilian harm. Senior British defence officials have confirmed to both the BBC and to Airwars that the UK presently requires what it calls ‘hard facts’ when assessing civilian harm claims – an apparently higher standard even than the ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ used by UK courts. Civilian casualty assessors within the US military instead use a ‘balance of probabilities’ approach, Airwars understands – allowing them to consider local credible reports of civilian harm in their own investigations.

Transparency must then follow. Information about incidents that may have harmed civilians should be publicly disclosed, investigated and fed into internal lessons mechanisms to inform broader approaches to civilian harm mitigation. As outlined by Mike Spagat from Every Casualty Counts: “Transparency about operations can help build positive relations with the public, improve the quality of field data and, ultimately, improve military performance.”

By better understanding the negative impact of its military actions on the ground and communicating the findings in clear ways, the UK will become more accountable both to its own citizens and to those who live where the UK’s armed forces or close partners engage overseas. This would also place the UK in line with allies like the US, which have made a conscious effort to acknowledge at least some instances of civilian harm, as seen for example in Airwars’ investigation of  “The Credibles”.

As a key step towards this, we urge the British government to follow many allies, primarily European, who are increasingly implementing presumptions against the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA) in the planning and conduct of operations. As Rachel Hobley from Humanity and Inclusion emphasises: “When explosive weapons with wide area effects are used in populated areas, 90 percent of those killed or injured are civilians. This compares to just 25 percent in non-urban areas.

“These statistics, which have remained the same for the last 10 years, show the systematic humanitarian harm that arises from these practices. Not only are people killed and injured – families’ homes are also destroyed, health clinics decimated, and key services like water and electricity wiped out.”

The aftermath of a confirmed Coalition airstrike two years on. (via Amnesty)

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The MoD is only one actor among many within the UK government which is responsible for protecting civilians on the ground. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is also vital, as it leads on the UK’s official Approach to the Protection of Civilians.

It is particularly concerning that commitments made in the UK’s 2020 Approach to the Protection of Civilians policy, to “investigate any credible reports that UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, have yet to lead to any tangible changes in the UK’s approach.

At the same time, there is a lack of guidance on how the UK will respond when harm does occur. This reflects a broader trend in which cornerstone policies for the UK’s engagements abroad too often fail adequately to address the importance of protecting civilians. For example, while the government’s recent Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, which was published earlier this year, is broad in its scope – covering everything from cyber warfare to terrorism – it fails to mention the protection of civilians once. This reveals a significant lack of prioritisation of POC, despite such protections being identified time and time again as a key to obtaining strategic goals in wars.

In collaboration with partner civil society organisations, Airwars has held positive discussions with Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth, in attempts to better understand how the FCDO intends to improve its approach. At the same time, several statements from government officials, including Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, have promised to create a ‘conflict centre’. Yet, despite concerted efforts to gain more information, we are left with a long list of questions on what this will focus on; to what degree it will allow for engagement with civil society actors; and how much it will prioritise the protection of civilians.

Finally, in addition to changes that both the MoD and FCDO must implement to be accountable and protect civilians, we urge the Government to ensure that these departments also coordinate with each other as they are jointly responsible for delivering protections on the ground. As it stands, the two departments often do not even use the same terminology, with the MoD focusing on ‘Human Security’ and the FCDO pursuing ‘Protection of Civilians’. While the two agendas are implicitly connected, it remains unclear why the departments have chosen different approaches, and how they will work together to ensure delivery.

Making the UK’s approach to the protection of civilians more accountable and transparent is not going to be a quick or simple process. Yet it is a vital one; not only for the sake of the civilians who find themselves caught in conflict, but also to ensure that UK actions abroad contribute to stability.

▲ Ministry of Defence Main Building, Horse Guards Avenue.

Published

July 1, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Coalition of civil society organisations issues joint recommendations to Defence Minister, for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation

Airwars and our Dutch partners, who are involved in ongoing discussions with the Dutch military on practicable improvements in the protection of civilians, have published a Joint Statement outlining the progress so far, and our collective hopes and expectations moving forward.

In October 2019, it was revealed that the Dutch military had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike in Iraq on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more being injured. The Government had then withheld that fact from the public for more than four years.

As PAX and Airwars later noted in our joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble,  estimates are that the secondary explosions triggered by the Dutch airstrike damaged between 400 and 500 buildings in the area, including many shops, homes and schools. Sources also reported that the airstrike caused major damage to crucial infrastructure, including roads and water pipelines. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after the devastating Dutch airstrike.

As a result of the national scandal and numerous Parliamentary debates on the issue, in June 2020 the Dutch Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld, promised to Parliament improvements towards transparency and accountability regarding civilian harm as a result of Dutch military actions. Coupled with other steps taken in the months after the Hawijah scandal, the Netherlands appeared to be shedding its reputation as one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State.

One measure adopted by Defensie had recently been proposed by Airwars, Amnesty Netherlands, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Open State Foundation, PAX and the Utrecht University Intimacies of Remote Warfare Program. This called for a “Roadmap for the Ministry of Defence to review the way in which the Netherlands deals with, reports on, evaluates and accounts for civilian harm as a consequence of Dutch military efforts”.

The starting session of the Roadmap Process took place virtually on November 12th 2020, attended by senior Dutch defence officials, including the Deputy Chief of Defence Lt General Onno. In 2021, a consortium of civil society organisations then participated in four interactive sessions with the MoD. The key objective of these sessions was to share joint perspectives and expertise on how to enhance military transparency and accountability, while also creating conditions for a stronger integration of civilian harm evaluation and mitigation approaches into Dutch military deployments.

MoD staff have committed to using the outcomes of these sessions to inform policy recommendations to be presented to the Minister of Defence. The recommendations centred around improving transparency, as well as aiming to improve broader Dutch policy and practice in order to achieve better protection of civilians in future military deployments generally.

The civil society consortium has welcomed the open manner in which Defensie has engaged during the “Roadmap“ process, and has now issued a joint statement laying out our own thoughts on the way forward for the Dutch Ministry of Defence. The statement includes recommendations to the Minister of Defence for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation when engaging in military missions.

Read the statement in full here

Published

June 2, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Conservative public tallies of civilians killed by US during 2020 are almost five times higher than DoD admits

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on civilian deaths and injuries resulting from US military actions around the world has declared more than 100 recent casualties. Researchers and human rights groups, including Airwars, Amnesty International and UN monitors in Afghanistan, place the actual toll significantly higher.

For 2020 alone, the Department of Defence said that its forces had killed 23 civilians and injured a further 10 in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. An additional 63 historical deaths and 22 injuries were reported for the years 2017-2019, mostly in Syria and Yemen.

By contrast, the minimum public estimate of civilian deaths caused by US forces during 2020 across five conflict nations was 102 fatalities – almost five times higher than DoD admits.

Casualties from US actions in Afghanistan in particular appear to have been officially undercounted. While the Pentagon reports only 20 deaths and 5 injuries from its own actions last year, UNAMA – the respected UN agency in Afghanistan – says that international forces killed at least 89 civilians and injured a further 31. United States personnel made up the great majority of those foreign forces.

For Somalia, DoD declares only one civilian death from US actions last year – while Airwars and others suggest a minimum civilian toll of seven killed.

And for Iraq and Syria, while US forces declare only one death, local reporting indicates at least six civilians killed by US actions.

Only for Yemen is there agreement, with monitoring organisations and the DoD both indicating that there were no likely civilian deaths caused by US actions during the year.

Major decline in US actions

The 21-page Pentagon document, quietly released May 28th and entitled ‘Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020,’ has been a requirement of US law since 2018.

The latest report captures the very significant fall in tempo of US military actions during the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency. According to Airwars estimates, there were around 1,000 US strikes across four conflict countries during 2020 – down from approximately 3,500 strikes the previous year and a peak of 13,000 such US actions during 2016. Declared civilian deaths fell from 132 to 23 from 2019 to 2020.

The majority of civilian deaths declared by the Pentagon during 2020 were in Afghanistan – despite a major ceasefire between US forces and the Taliban for much of the year. According to the new DoD report, 20 civilians were killed and five injured in seven US actions, primarily airstrikes.

The seven civilian casualty events conceded in Afghanistan by the Pentagon for 2020

However the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) which has been recording extensive data on civilian harm from all parties to the fighting since 2009, placed the toll far higher. According to its own annual report for 2020 published earlier this year, “UNAMA attributed 120 civilian casualties (89 killed and 31 injured) to international military forces”.

While these casualties represented just one per cent of the overall reported civilian toll in Afghanistan for the year – with most civilians killed by the Taliban and Afghan forces – of concern was DoD’s major undercounting of its own impact on civilians – with UNAMA logging four and a half times more deaths primarily from US actions than those officially conceded by the Pentagon.

Reported civilian casualties from US actions against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria have remained low since the terror group’s defeat as a territorial entity in mid 2019. According to the Pentagon, just one civilian was killed by an action in Iraq, after US forces targeted Iranian linked militias at Karbala airport on March 13th 2020. Twenty three year old security guard Karrar Sabbar was killed in that US attack. However the additional reported deaths of two civilian policemen in the attack are not acknowledged by the US.

In Syria, Airwars estimates three to six likely civilian deaths from US actions during 2020, mainly during counterterrorism raids against ISIS remnants. None of these were conceded either.

In Somalia, between 7 and 13 civilians were likely killed by US actions during the year, according to Airwars monitoring of local communities. The US military itself concedes five injuries and one death, in two events in early 2020 near Jilib.

Only for Yemen did human rights organisations and DoD appear to agree, with both reporting no likely civilian deaths from US actions during the year.

US forces in Somalia killed one civilian and injured five others during 2020, according to official estimates

Public transparency

Despite continuing disparities between public and military estimates of civilian harm, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress still represents a significant transparency breakthrough. Close ally France, for example, has refused to declare a single civilian fatality from almost seven years of air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria – and recently lashed out at the United Nations after a French airstrike struck a wedding party in Mali.

Later this year the Pentagon will also issue a major overhaul of its civilian casualty mitigation policies, which it has been reviewing in consultation with human rights organisations for several years. On May 25th, new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr Colin Kahl confirmed in writing to NGOs that the new policy – known as a Department of Defense Instruction, or DoD-I – would be published by the Biden administration.

“We welcome the Pentagon’s publication to Congress of its latest annual civilian harm report, as well as confirmation that the DOD-I on civilian casualty mitigation will be published by the new administration,” noted Airwars director Chris Woods. “We remain concerned however that DoD estimates of civilian harm once again fall well below credible public estimates, and call on officials to review why such undercounts remain so common. Civilians surely deserve better.”

▲ Aftermath of a deadly US airstrike on Karbala Airport on March 13th, 2020 which the Pentagon admits killed a civilian.

Published

May 25, 2021

The research, based on a decade of work by Action on Armed Violence, strengthens calls for restrictions on explosive weapons

Nine out of ten people killed and injured by explosive weapons in cities are civilians, a new report has found, in stark findings likely to increase pressure on governments to curb the use of explosive weapons in urban areas.

In total the Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) report, which surveyed explosive violence across the globe over a ten-year period, found that 91 percent of those killed and injured when explosive weapons were used in cities were civilians. In other, less densely populated areas, the rate fell to 25 percent.

“The evidence is absolutely clear and unequivocal,” Iain Overton, the executive director of AOAV, said. “When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, civilians will be harmed. (That is) as true as it is today in Gaza as it was a decade ago in Iraq and beyond.”

The report tracked 238,892 civilians killed and injured by explosive weapons over the past decade in 123 countries and territories, using open-source monitoring of English-language media.

It found that improvised explosive devices were responsible for more than half of all civilian casualties, while airstrikes and other aerial assaults were responsible for 23 percent and ground-launched explosive weapons 21 percent.

 

The most deadly single incident occurred in Somalia in October 2017, when more than 500 people were killed in twin bomb blasts in the capital Mogadishu. The Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab was believed to be behind those explosions.

The most deadly air strike came in 2016 when the Saudi Arabian-led coalition struck a funeral procession in Yemen, killing nearly 140 people and wounding a further 600.

Reducing civilian harm

Overton argued the report would strengthen efforts to restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

Ireland has spearheaded efforts in recent years for action on EWIPA, releasing a draft document earlier this year. It stresses that even when militaries try to limit the impact of their strikes in urban areas, the closely populated nature of cities makes civilian harm inevitable.

Belgium last month became the first country to adopt a resolution against the use of EWIPA after a vote by the federal parliament’s National Defense Commission.

In October Airwars, together with Dutch organisation PAX, released a joint report examining the dire and long-lasting effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban areas in recent international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah. The report was launched in a virtual event by Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland.

Beyond the civilians directly harmed, military campaigns can leave the infrastructure of cities devastated for years.

 

During the 2016-17 campaign by the US-led coalition to remove the so-called Islamic State from Mosul an estimated 9,000 civilians were killed, while up to 80 percent of buildings in the centre of the city were destroyed.

In June 2019, the UN International Organisation for Migration reported that entire neighbourhoods of Mosul had yet to be rebuilt and that a lack of essential services and poor sanitation were still threatening public health. Additionally, unexploded bombs, missiles, rockets and shells prevented civilians from returning to the city.

“The negotiation of the political declaration (on EWIPA) is an opportunity to set new standards against the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns and cities, to better protect civilians and vital civilian infrastructure located in cities,” said Laura Boillot, Coordinator of the International Network on Explosive Weapons.

The AOAV report also found a decrease in civilian harm in 2020, a trend also noted by Airwars’s recent annual report. Factors that explain this include significant breakthroughs in conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as the knock-on implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

▲ Raqqa has been described by the United Nations as the most destroyed city in Syria (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

Published

March 2, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

US accountability for civilian casualties declines sharply during Trump's final year, as CENTCOM 'forgets' deaths of Yemen civilians.

Tracking by Airwars across multiple conflicts during 2020 shows that the number of locally reported civilian deaths from the use of explosive weapons was down by two thirds compared to the previous year. Of these fatalities, around half were in the first two months of 2020.

Comprehensive new data released by Airwars in its Annual Report 2020 suggests a possible ‘Covid effect’ – a significant reduction in conflict violence, as communities locked down during the global pandemic.

Other factors were at work too. Truce deals in Syria and Libya had a major impact in reducing civilian casualties. And the United States significantly scaled back its targeted strikes campaign in Yemen – though counterterrorism actions in Somalia continued at a high tempo. Meanwhile, limited Turkish military actions continued in both Iraq and Syria, sometimes with associated claims of civilian casualties.

“Any fall in reported civilian casualty numbers from their desperately high levels of recent years has to be welcomed,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Yet concerns remain that some of these wars will re-ignite as the impact of Covid recedes. Declines in US accountability for civilian deaths are also very worrying, and require urgent attention from the incoming Biden administration.”

US accountability challenges

Reported US actions declined steeply for the second year running – with no known US strikes in Pakistan or Libya, and significantly fewer in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. However US counterterrorism strikes remained at a high level in Somalia – with uncertainty about how many US actions in Afghanistan were conducted. In total, an estimated 1,000 US airstrikes took place during Donald Trump’s last full year as president – down from around 13,000 during Obama’s own final year in office.

Locally reported civilian harm was also sharply down. But as the Annual Report  shows, so too was US public accountability. In Iraq and Syria, there was an unexplained 80 per cent fall in the number of events assessed as ‘Credible’ by the US-led Coalition. And in Yemen, US Central Command had to apologise after forgetting that its own forces had killed up to a dozen civilians in a 2017 raid – despite CENTCOM’s former commander having publicly confirmed those deaths to the US Senate.

Limited respite for Syria, Iraq

Russia and the Assad government began 2020 with a ferocious campaign targeting rebels in several governorates, including Idlib. However of at least 398 civilian deaths allegedly resulting from Russia’s actions in Syria last year, all but 34 occurred before a major ceasefire was enacted on March 5th. That pause in hostilities – which still mostly holds – was prompted both by Covid concerns, and as a result of military pressure by Turkey on Assad’s forces.

Turkey also continued its ongoing campaigns against the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, and the PKK in northern Iraq. During 2020, Airwars tracked a total of 60 locally alleged civilian harm incidents from Turkish-led actions in Syria, resulting in at least 37 alleged deaths and the injuring of up to 152 more civilians. And in Iraq, 21 locally alleged incidents were tracked throughout the year from Turkish actions, resulting in between 27 and 33 civilian deaths and up to 23 injuries.

Meanwhile, reported civilian harm from US-led Coalition actions against ISIS in Syria during 2020 was down by an astonishing 96% – with at least 18 civilians alleged killed, versus more than 465 likely civilian fatalities the previous year. Iraq saw just three locally reported civilian harm claims from US or Coalition actions – including during the US targeted assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport.

Most civilian deaths from Russian strikes in Syria were reported prior to a March 5th ceasefire

‘Forgotten’ civilian deaths in Yemen

Ongoing monitoring by Airwars of counterterrorism actions in Yemen indicated a continuing if limited US campaign against Al Qaeda – despite US Central Command (CENTCOM) not having publicly declared a strike since summer 2019. Confirmation of several actions by US officials suggested control of the long-running campaign may have been passed to the CIA.

Meanwhile, following publication of an Airwars Yemen report in October, CENTCOM had to admit that it had forgotten its own recent admission of the killing of civilians during a 2017 raid on a Yemeni village.

Previous commander General Joseph Votel had told the US Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) during in-person evidence that he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and twelve” civilians in a botched raid. But three years later, CENTCOM was claiming only that there “may have been casualties” at Yakla. A senior official later apologised to Airwars for “Our failure to provide an accurate assessment [which] was an administrative mistake, and not an intent to deceive.”

Bucking a global trend of reduced conflict violence, US airstrikes against al Shabaab continued at near record levels during 2020 – although reported civilian deaths halved in number. That may have been a reflection of AFRICOM’s increased emphasis on assessing and reporting civilian harm under new commander General Stephen Townsend.

Advocacy team engages with militaries, governments and parliaments

As well as providing comprehensive data on locally reported civilian harm across multiple conflicts, Airwars works hard to ensure that the voices of affected communities are properly heard. During 2020 productive meetings were held with Dutch, British, US and NATO military officials – often alongside our partners – with the aim of reducing battlefield civilian harm.

Our advocacy team also briefed parliamentarians and media in several countries, offering expertise and insights on issues ranging from the perils of explosive weapon use in urban centres, to the benefits of public transparency for civilian harm claims.

In October 2020 Airwars also launched a new investigations team, aimed at building on its recent study looking at the challenges faced by newsrooms when reporting on civilian harm. Our first investigation – taking a critical look at Libya 2011 – will launch in mid March.

Read our Annual Report 2020 in full.

Locally reported civilian deaths declined across all conflicts tracked by Airwars during 2020.

Published

September 22, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars adds voice to partners calling on the US government to end its targeting of the ICC

The United States Government recently applied sanctions to senior officers of the International Criminal Court – a court of last resort established by treaty, and endorsed by a majority of countries including most of the US’s closest allies. In partnership with a number of organisations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, Airwars is calling upon the US Government to end its targeting of ICC officials. The public statement also calls on both Presidential campaigns to publicly commit to rescinding an Executive Order passed by President Trump in June, which formed the basis of the ICC sanctions.

We the undersigned, representing human rights and humanitarian non-governmental organizations working on the protection of civilians in conflict, write in opposition to United States sanctions against named senior personnel within the International Criminal Court (ICC).

We call on President Trump to revoke these harmful sanctions immediately and to rescind Executive Order 13928 on “Blocking Property of Certain Persons Associated with the International Criminal Court.” We also call on the Presidential campaigns of both major parties to publicly commit to reversing this harmful Executive Order. The United States should support the rule of law rather than punish those seeking to provide redress to victims of harm.

The ICC exists as a court of last resort to hold government officials and other powerful actors accountable when domestic courts are unable or unwilling to prosecute the most serious international crimes. The Court has secured successful prosecutions for war crimes and crimes against humanity. The primary beneficiaries are the many civilian victims who can secure no justice elsewhere and the communities subject to cycles of violence fuelled by impunity. They include many victims and survivors of violence for whom the United States has been a strong, vocal advocate for justice and accountability.

We understand that the United States takes issue with some of the ICC’s jurisprudence and assertions of jurisdiction. However, we believe that concerted diplomatic efforts and engagement with the ICC will enhance its effectiveness more than punishing individuals who have dedicated their careers to delivering justice to victims of egregious crimes.

As condemnatory statements from close U.S. allies make clear, the United States has lost significant international standing through these sanctions, which have undermined the international rule of law and provided succour to war criminals seeking to evade justice. 

The United States should recommit to an independent and credible domestic process of investigating and holding to account U.S. citizens for alleged abuses, free from executive interference and consistent with U.S. and international law. That is the best way to ensure that U.S. service members are afforded due process of law in a domestic forum for any alleged wrongdoing and that the U.S. is recognized as a leader in the pursuit of global justice and accountability.

Signed,

Action on Armed Violence

Airwars

Amnesty International USA

Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Human Rights First

Oxfam America

Oxford Research Group

Saferworld

▲ A recent appeal hearing at the International Criminal Court (Image via ICC)

Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).