News & Investigations

News & Investigations

U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Published

October 14, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

Header Image

U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Last week marked twenty years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan began, following which the UK, Netherlands and other NATO members began their own presence with the declared aim to install “security, stability and the rule of law.”

This anniversary happens after last month saw a wave of resignations by senior Ministerial staff and frank debate across Parliaments in Europe, including in relation to the sudden and chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Airwars and Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) urge the new ministers to take a frank look at the mistakes of their predecessors, and understand what could have been done differently. The public and political criticism surrounding the withdrawal of the United States and its allies from Afghanistan and the devastating humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, sends a strong message about the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation, transparency and accountability policies in future military operations.

We encourage the new ministers in the Netherlands and in the UK to learn about the risks to civilians caught in armed conflict in planning phases for any military operations, so they may work towards their protection. We also call on them to commit to improving transparency and accountability for civilian harm, including by consistently tracking, investigating, publicly acknowledging, and amending harm through compensation payments, apologies, and other offerings in accordance with victims’ needs and preferences.  We extend the same call to the United States and other NATO nations. This is especially important because the risk to civilians in Afghanistan is not unique. In fact, in the 20 years since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, we have seen risks to civilians multiply and deepen in many parts of the world. War is now increasingly fought in urban environments with long-lasting and lethal effects. NATO members, increasingly hesitant to deploy “boots on the ground,” have relied instead on supporting local forces through air support – even when local partners may lack the capacity to protect civilians. And multiple countries have claimed the power to use force anywhere in the world, including outside recognized war zones and including through the use of armed drones, sometimes devastating civilian communities in the process.

As risks to civilians have increased, transparency and accountability for harm is diminishing.  In Iraq and Syria, the UK still only admits one civilian death over the course of its operation, despite declaring thousands of UK airstrikes and despite Airwars’ own assessment showing that at least 8,300 civilians have likely been killed by the US-led Coalition.

We urge all NATO nations to take heed of these past mistakes, which had devastating and continuing consequences on the lives of civilians. As Liz Truss starts as the new UK Foreign Secretary, and as the new Dutch Minister of Defence, Henk Kamp, and Foreign Minister, Ben Knapen, begin their tenure, we urge them to immediately take the following steps:

    Recognise publicly and through a revision of doctrine, the imperative of civilian harm mitigation, transparency, and accountability in all aspects of defence and foreign affairs, including in their nations’ own operations as well as “train, advise, and assist” missions. Prioritise resourcing for the monitoring and tracking of civilian harm in current and future military deployments. Commit to investigating, publicly recognizing, and amending legacy civilian harm from Afghanistan and other operations over the past 20 years, including by issuing compensation or solatia payments; and commit to applying these policies and practices in all future operations. Adopt and implement clear policies for civilian harm tracking, mitigation and response through consultation with civil society experts, which are adequately resourced at all areas of deployment. Incorporate open-source information from civil society, the media, and other external sources into civilian harm assessments and investigations. Publish the specific date; location; munition type used; and nature of target for all weapon deployments in the anti-ISIS Coalition from 2014 to the present day and in all future operations. Publish regular reports on civilian harm allegations from past and current missions. Engage with conflict-affected civilians (including civil society groups and communities) on issues pertaining to civilian protection and civilian harm mitigation, both at the capital level and in countries of deployment. This includes the establishment of a regular dialogue with civil society, as well as establishing safe channels of communication with conflict-affected civilians to discuss protection concerns. As part of all lessons learned processes around the war in Afghanistan, withdrawal, and evacuation, identify gaps in civilian harm mitigation as well as gaps in civil-military coordination that may have hampered the capacity of civil society and at-risk Afghans to access safe and secure air evacuation options.
▲ U.S. Army soldiers watch from an observation post in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan (Image via U.S. Army)

Published

October 12, 2021

Written by

Georgia Edwards

Header Image

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Open letter from Airwars calls on new UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to work collaboratively with Ministry of Defence on the protection of civilians affected by UK military actions.

Last week marked 20 years since the US-led ‘War on Terror’ began. The conflict has been defined by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and allies in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. The recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan saw the reshuffle of Dominic Raab from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, amid widespread criticism for the way millions of Afghans were left in uncertain – and concerning – situations.

The UK continues to operate in Iraq and Syria with the US-led Coalition against ISIS to this day – yet refuses to hold itself truly accountable for civilians harmed by its actions in these countries, nor in historical incidents in Afghanistan.

Despite various commitments from the UK government to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm”, there have been insufficient efforts to work with civil society organisations; to ensure transparent cross-departmental work to make this feasible; nor to put legislation in place to truly offer change.

As Britain’s new Foreign Secretary, Rt. Hon. Liz Truss now has the opportunity to respond to the urgent need for stronger approaches to civilian harm mitigation and monitoring policies which will allow the UK to catch up with its allies, and become more accountable for its actions. 

Airwars this week sent the Foreign Secretary an open letter outlining key improvements we believe are needed now. The full text of our letter is reprinted below.

 

October, 8th  2021

Rt. Hon. Liz Truss Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office King Charles Street Whitehall London SW1A 2AH

cc. Rt. Hon. Ben Wallace, Secretary of State for Defence

RE: Open letter from Airwars to the new Secretary of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, calling for the FCDO and MoD to work together and improve protections for civilians resulting from UK military actions. 

Dear Rt. Hon. Liz Truss,

We would like to congratulate you on your promotion to Foreign Secretary. We look forward to working with you to improve UK policy to protect civilians in conflict.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the US-led so-called War on Terror. This conflict has been defined as you know by a series of major military actions in which the UK has supported the US and other allies, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. These countries have been among those consistently most dangerous for civilians over the last two decades, with military actions involving explosive weapons increasingly taking place in urban environments.

Airwars recently found, for example, that at least 22,679 and potentially as many 48,308 civilians have likely been killed by US-led strikes over the last twenty years.

In light of the recent chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, we are concerned about the UK government’s potential shift to remote warfare in that country, noting the Defence Secretary’s comments on 7th September that “I’ll do whatever I have to do to protect citizens’ lives and our interests and our allies, when we’re called upon to do so, wherever that may be.”

We reiterate our calls for robust and transparent mechanisms to mitigate, monitor, and investigate all instances of civilian harm potentially resulting from UK actions, before these actions are considered. As it stands, the UK is systematically failing to hold itself accountable for  civilians harmed by its own actions in the War on Terror; and there have been insufficient efforts to adequately investigate historical instances flagged by monitoring organisations such as Airwars.

The most striking example of this is the UK’s insistence that there is only evidence of a single civilian casualty from the entire campaign against ISIS within the US-led Coalition in Syria and Iraq. Our own independent monitoring suggests that at least 8,300 and as many as 13,000 civilians have likely been killed so far by the US-led Coalition, including from thousands of British airstrikes. The failure of the MoD to more accurately understand and account for civilian harm on the ground from its own actions places the UK dangerously behind key allies, including the US and Netherlands.

Below we note our main concerns, and reiterate our urgent call for a more open and collaborative approach from the FCDO on civilian harm mitigation. We would very much welcome a meeting to discuss these issues at your earliest convenience.

Improving transparency and accountability

As conflicts have changed over the past two decades, the UK has focused increasingly on assisting local forces through airstrikes, rather than through large-scale deployment of ground forces. Yet such airpower-focused conflicts  are much less accountable to civilians on the ground, we and our partners believe.

UK policies to protect civilians have fallen behind other allies such as the US Department of Defense and the Dutch Ministry of Defence, which have made significant legislation-driven improvements. For example, since 2018, the US DoD has been legally obliged to report annually to Congress on all civilians it deems have been killed by US actions in the past 12 months. No such legislation exists in the UK; and key recommendations from the Chilcot report, “to make every reasonable effort to identify and understand the likely and actual effects of its military actions on civilians,” have yet to be implemented.

We are also concerned that the current MoD review methodology used to determine only one civilian casualty from its ongoing seven year campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is in part a result of the exceptionally high ‘proof’ threshold currently applied within the Department when assessing civilian harm claims. In other words, this low estimate of civilian harm is a reflection of poor evidence gathering and analysis, not of effective strategies to protect civilians.

The FCDO leads the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. Yet despite commitments made to “investigate any credible reports that the UK actions may have caused civilian harm,” there has yet to be any published evidence of change in its approach.  There was no mention of how the MoD and FCDO intend to protect affected communities in the recent Integrated Review, nor how the “Conflict Centre” will work cross-department, or be resourced for these areas.

1. Will the MoD consider assessing its current methodology to determine civilian harm and publish the results of these assessments?

2. Will the FCDO publish its most recent assessment to show how it plans to meet commitments in the UK Approach to the Protection of Civilians?

3. Will the FCDO and MoD publish a document showing how they both intend to work together on civilian harm mitigation, including with the Conflict Centre and conflict strategy?

 

Meaningful collaboration with civil society organisations using open source data

The MoD and FCDO commitment to work with civil society organisations to better protect civilians in regions where the UK is operating has decreased to concerning levels. Airwars has been keen to offer meaningful feedback on policies and operations and to work together with MoD to investigate and re-investigate instances of potential civilian harm when it has been flagged from our monitoring and investigations. For example, the UK still admits evidence of only one civilian casualty from its actions as part of the US-led Coalition. We note with concern that recently, the Pentagon wrongly claimed responsibility to Congress for civilian harm from a series of historical strikes, that were actually carried out by its allies, including the UK.

Airwars remains the primary public reference for locally reported reported civilian harm events from international and domestic military actions tracked across Syria, Libya, and Iraq,  involving air delivered munitions – and is therefore a critical reference point for affected local communities, for media and analysts, and for both the Pentagon and US combatant commands. There has never been the same level of engagement with the UK and MoD.  We feel that this is a wasted opportunity; meaningful dialogue between the MoD and civil society organisations could contribute significant value to the planning, design, implementation and evaluation of military operations and security partnerships, while reinforcing effective governance and oversight.

As the new Foreign Secretary, we reiterate our calls to you for the UK to create and institutionalise systematic engagement with civil society organisations, where civil society can play an essential role in fostering accountability and transparency in the conduct of operations and civilian harm monitoring.

4. Will the MoD consider investigating and re-investigating where necessary specific instances of civilian harm caused by UK airstrikes with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria flagged by civil society monitoring organisations, and publish the results?

5. Will you recommend MoD and FCDO officials to meet with Airwars to discuss better practise recommendations and to encourage a meaningful relationship between civil society organisations and your Departments?

Thank you for taking the time to note our concerns, and we wish you the best in your new role, while looking forward to working with you on these issues.

Yours sincerely,

Chris Woods,

Director, Airwars

▲ The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

Incident Code

TI074

Incident date

October 9, 2021

Location

Saydani village, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Airwars assessment

Between one and two people, including a woman, were killed and two civilians were injured in alleged Turkish drone strikes on Saydani village on October 9, 2021. The majority of sources refer to all of the casualties from the incident as civilians except BasNews, which identified two Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) fighters as being killed.

Rudaw News reported that a woman was killed and two others were wounded in Turkish drone strikes. The person killed had not yet been identified because “the body is mangled and therefore we can’t determine the age of the deceased,” Sharif Rahim, spokesperson for Chamchamal’s health directorate, told Rudaw, adding that “the wounded are between 25 and 35 years of age.”

According to BasNews, two Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) fighters were killed in the drone strike, which struck a car. BasNews was the only source that identified PKK fighters as being involved and not civilians. Hawar News specifically referred to a “civilian car” being hit by the airstrikes and identified those injured as being civilians.

Xeber24 News added that the two injured civilians were transferred to Chamchamal Hospital and the woman who was killed’s body was taken to forensic medicine in Sulaymaniyah.

The Political Bureau of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan issued a statement to public opinion, which stated: “The Political Bureau of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan condemns the bombing by Turkish planes of the Qaranjir border near the city of Kirkuk, which left casualties and damages.”

All of the sources attributed the strikes to Turkish drones or reported that they “believed” Turkey was responsible.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Drone Strike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    0 – 1
  • (0–1 women)
  • Civilians reported injured
    2
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other
  • Belligerents reported killed
    0–2

Sources (7) [ collapse]

Turkish Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Turkish Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Drone Strike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    0 – 1
  • (0–1 women)
  • Civilians reported injured
    2
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other
  • Belligerents reported killed
    0–2

Sources (7) [ collapse]

Incident Code

TI073

Incident date

October 4, 2021

Location

Saydani village, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Airwars assessment

Two to three people, including a woman, were injured in alleged Turkish drone strikes on the village of Saydani on October 4, 2021. Local sources were conflicted as to whether those injured were civilians or members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

According to Rudaw News, a 24 year old woman and a 53 year old man were injured in a Turkish drone strike on Saydani village. Sharif Rahim, spokesperson for Chamchamal health directorate, told Rudaw “the injury to the man is serious.”

The head of Chemchemal’s health directorate, Sharif Raheem Moawen, told Shafaq News Agency, “two civilians from Sidan village, the Chemchemal district, were injured: a 24 years old male and a 33 years old male.”

Hawar News reported that the drone strike struck a car while Kurdistan 24 referred to the location as being an alleged Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) outpost, adding that “Two injured people were transferred to the emergency hospital in Chamchamal,” Chamchamal health directorate spokesman Sharif Rahim told Kurdistan 24. It was not immediately clear if the victims were PKK members or civilians.”

Said Karim, a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official in Qarahanjir, told BasNews that “As a result of this bombardment, three fighters of PKK have been injured who have now been transferred to Chamchamall hospital for medical treatment.”

All of the sources that reported on the incident attributed the strikes to Turkey.

The incident occured at approximately 5:00 pm local time.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Drone Strike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    0–2
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other
  • Belligerents reported injured
    0–3

Sources (5) [ collapse]

Turkish Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Turkish Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Drone Strike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    0–2
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other
  • Belligerents reported injured
    0–3

Sources (5) [ collapse]

Published

October 1, 2021

Written by

Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen

Header Image

A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

Open letter from Belgian and international organisations calls on the Defence Minister to increase transparency and accountability for civilian harm.

October 1st marks the anniversary of Belgium relaunching its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve – the international campaign against so-called Islamic State.

Throughout its engagement in this coalition, Belgium has been one of the least transparent – and least accountable – countries when it comes to acknowledging civilian harm. In fact, the Government has refused to publicly concede any civilian harm from its own actions. While the Parliament called for changes last year, urging the Government to introduce transparency and engage with civil society organisations, we have seen no tangible improvements. 

Together, we are publishing a joint open letter to Minister of Defence Dedonder with our Belgian and international partners. We ask the Belgian government to urgently take concrete steps to improve its transparency and accountability for civilian harm resulting from its own military actions. The full text of the letter is reprinted below.

 

Dear Minister Dedonder,

October 1st marks one year since Belgium re-joined Operation Inherent Resolve, the US-led war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, while Belgium has made significant contributions to this conflict for more than 7 years, conducting well over 1,000 missions, there remains a severe lack of transparency over the harm to civilians from Belgian actions; in fact, Belgium stands out among allies in its blanket refusal to acknowledge casualties. This refusal persists even when the US-led Coalition have conceded Belgian involvement in specific strikes which killed and injured civilians.

On June 25, 2020, the Belgian Parliament adopted resolution 1298. Among other things, it asked the federal government to ensure; “maximum transparency (…) with regard to the prevention, monitoring and reporting of possible civilian casualties as a result of our military deployment”. In addition, the government was asked to enter into a dialogue with its counterparts in the Netherlands about the lessons learned from the disaster of Hawija, in which dozens of civilians were killed as a result of a bombing raid carried out by the Dutch army. Finally, the resolution also called for public communication about possible civilian casualties and active cooperation with external monitoring groups and human rights organisations.

Yet it is unclear to us whether (and if so, how) these recommendations were implemented in any way during the deployment of the last year. No interim mission reports were published and the MoD continues to fail to provide data on the number of strikes and civilian casualties in a meaningful way.

Engagement with civil society

Since Belgium relaunched its participation in Operation Inherent Resolve, we have had some promising engagements with the Ministry of Defence. In May 2021, for instance, some of us were able to meet with officials and shared key lessons from the last decade of counting civilian harm. Nonetheless a more sustained approach is needed. We would encourage Belgium to draw inspiration from the processes set up by some of Belgium’s allies, in particular those in the Netherlands and the US. We stand ready to engage and share our lessons and key findings in a constructive way, to ensure that past civilian harm can lead to improvements in future protection of civilians.

We understand that recent events in Afghanistan may have delayed follow-up to our concerns. Those same events, however, should make it abundantly clear that a sustained, institutional, and consultative discussion about how to prevent civilian casualties is needed. We urge the minister to react to this, and relaunch discussions with civil society groups on this topic. We further urge the minister to do so with urgency so that experts from  civil society organisations may feed into Belgium’s update of the Strategic Vision 2030:  the need to address civilian harm and the protection of civilians in this document is crucial.

Recommendations

The undersigned organisations call upon the Belgian government to do the following, at minimum:

–      Engage in a sustained, systematised debate with civil society organisations in Belgium, who hold specialist knowledge on lessons that can be learned on how to best protect civilians and which are keen to share such knowledge;

–      Publish the exact date and near location of all Belgian air raids carried out in the fight against ISIS;

–      Launch an evaluation of claimed civilian harm that has occurred from suspected Belgian strikes in Iraq and Syria over the last year, including strikes which were IHL compliant, covering lessons which can be learned from this, and how civilians can better be protected in the future;

–      Publish the results of all investigations into civilian casualties – including the date, location, targets and number of civilian casualties of military action – even if the Ministry of Defence’s own investigation concludes that there has been no violation of international humanitarian law;

–      Draft guidelines for proactively publishing this information (in the future) as open data in a machine-readable overview that enables use by independent parties;

–      Work together with external parties, including NGOs, by drawing up standards for the minimum criteria that external claims for civilian victims must meet in order for the Ministry of Defence to be able to assess them;

–          Provide capacity at the Ministry of Defence so that officials can focus on monitoring and actively publishing data on airstrikes and civilian casualties in armed conflict, including in future military interventions, so that the consequences of military intervention are systematically monitored and published;

–      Introduce or support a mechanism where potential victims of Coalition bombardments can come forward and report issues of concern;

–      In line with the clear wishes of the Belgian Parliament, support a strong political declaration against the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas – with a clear commitment to data collection and transparent reporting.

Signed,

11.11.11

Airwars Stichting

Amnesty Belgium

Agir pour la Paix

CNAPD

Humanity & Inclusion

Pax Christi Flanders

Vredesactie

Vrede vzw

▲ A F-16 Fighting Falcon from the Belgian Air Force refuels

Incident Code

TI071

Incident date

September 7–8, 2021

Location

قرية سناموك, Sinamoka village, Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

Airwars assessment

Up to two civilians were killed and up to two others were injured in alleged Turkish airstrikes on the village of Sinamoka on September 7, 2021.

According to Roj News, two civilians were injured in the Turkish bombing of the village of Sinamoka that involved three airstrikes. Baghdad concurred that two civilians were wounded.

Basnews initially reported that two civilians were injured but later stated that two civilians were killed in the strikes on Sinamoka. Mayor Nahro Abdullah told BasNews that the airstrikes occurred around 1:30am and that Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters were in the area.

In addition to the civilian casualties, the bombing resulted in damage to civilian property.

All of the sources that reported on the incident attributed the airstrikes to Turkey.

The incident occured at approximately 1:30 am local time.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    2
  • Civilians reported injured
    2
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other

Sources (6) [ collapse]

Turkish Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Turkish Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    2
  • Civilians reported injured
    2
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Other

Sources (6) [ collapse]

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)

Incident Code

TI070

Incident date

September 4, 2021

Location

قرية هرور, Hirrur, Dohuk, Iraq

Airwars assessment

Up to three civilians, including two women, were reported injured in alleged Turkish artillery shelling on Hirrur on September 4th 2021. There were some claims that chemical weapons featured in the attack.

A resident of the village of Hirrur told IQ News, “Turkish artillery bombed our village this evening, as a result of which a woman and her daughter were wounded, and they were taken to the hospital for treatment.” Various other news outlets quoted the same source and reported the same information.

ANF News reported that three civilians were injured when an artillery shell landed near their home and that the injured were transferred to Zakho Hospital.

ANF News later added that Turkish forces also used chemical weapons during the bombardment. Those affected by the chemicals “had shortness of breath, redness in their eyes and an irregular heartbeat.” According local sources reported on ANF News, Turkey has been using chemical weapons in the Werxelê area and a video posted by ANF shows chemical gas coming out of a tunnel following an attack.

According to Rudaw News, Turkish forces dropped six bombs and they landed nearly a kilometer from Abdullah Hassan’s house. Hassan, his wife Hadiya Mustafa, and their daughter Zhiman were hospitalized two hours after smoke from the bombs reached their house.

“A Turkish bomb brought this to me. Smoke came towards me and I said ‘go inside as this smoke stinks.’ I went into the house,” Mustafa, 66, told Rudaw. Adeeb Mousa, who lives in the same village, said that six bombs landed in the vicinity of the village and one of them “produced a black smoke” that spread to Hassan’s house. The others emitted a yellow smoke. Hassan was discharged from the hospital a day after the attack while his wife and daughter were discharged two days after the attack.

This was not the first time that Haasan and his family have been impacted by the conflict. They narrowly survived an alleged Turkish bombardment in late June when shrapnel hit the front of their house.

Dr. Rasul Mohammed, the doctor who provided them with first aid at the nearby Rozana health center told Rudaw that the family’s symptoms were that “They had breathing issues. Their eyes teared up and were painful. Two of them felt nauseous and dizzy. It was strange to me to see that a bombardment could cause these symptoms.” Amir Ali, head of Zakho health directorate’s media office, said that he was in touch with the specialists regarding the incident, but that “there is no equipment to know whether it was 100 percent a poisonous gas or something else.”

In an article published by Roj News on September 9th 2021, Jihad Abdullah, a relative of the three victims, said they were still feeling dizzy and unwell after being discharged from hospital. Mr. Abdullah accused hospital staff of failing to investigate whether his family had been exposed to chemicals gas: “This incident that has befallen us is no less than the incident in Halabja. But unfortunately we have been neglected. We have registered a complaint with the Human Rights Institution. But the hospital does not give us an accurate report until we can use it as evidence. ” After reviewing video footage of an alleged chemical weapons attack in another part of northern Iraq, Gisela Penteker, a director at the International Union of Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), told ANF that the footage warranted further investigation and called on the United Nations to “start an investigation”.

All of the sources attributed the attack to Turkey.

The local time of the incident is unknown.

The victims were named as:

Family members (3)

  • Abdullah Hassan 76 years old male injured
  • Hadiya Mustafa Adult female injured
  • Zhiman 28 years old female injured

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    2–3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces

Sources (9) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (2) [ collapse]

  • Image of Hadiya Mustafa being treated at a hospital following an alleged chemical attack on the village of Hirrur on September 4, 2021. (Image posted by Rudaw News)

Turkish Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Turkish Armed Forces
  • Turkish Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Civilians reported injured
    2–3
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Fair
    Reported by two or more credible sources, with likely or confirmed near actions by a belligerent.
  • Suspected attacker
    Turkish Armed Forces

Sources (9) [ collapse]