News & Investigations

News & Investigations

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

August 19, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Support from the Reva and David Logan Foundation follows recent study showing challenges of mainstream media coverage of civilian casualties.

A new Senior Investigator will be joining the Airwars core team in the coming weeks, thanks to a two year grant from the Reva and David Logan Foundation – a Chicago based family philanthropic fund.

Over the past six years, Airwars has consistently shown that its groundbreaking work has a powerful impact on the public understanding of civilian harm – and can lead to positive changes in both policies and practices among militaries. However, systemic challenges in many newsrooms can result in the issue being poorly reported. Our recent study News In Brief, authored by US investigative reporter Alexa O’Brien and also funded by the Logan Foundation, explored the many obstacles to good reporting of this critical issue.

Responding to this deficit, new funding will enable Airwars to majorly enhance its own capacity for much-needed investigations into civilian casualties and their causes, in particular with the appointment of an in-house Senior Investigator – who will be supported by a wider team of geolocation, research and design professionals.

Airwars will then seek partnerships with key US and international media on the most vital and controversial cases and stories. In doing so, it aims to bridge a critical gap in the mainstream reporting of civilian harm from war – and bring many more stories to public awareness. A key focus will be to explore innovative approaches to engaging new audiences on civilian harm issues.

Major investigations

Since its founding, Airwars has published several major investigations into civilian harm. In 2017 our then-inhouse reporter Samuel Oakford revealed with Foreign Policy that, according to senior US military officials, more than 80 civilians had been killed in non-US international airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. That investigation still serves as a key point of engagement for our advocacy work with individual belligerents.

In June 2019, Airwars partnered with Amnesty International on a major project War in Raqqa: Rhetoric versus Reality – which found that at least 1,600 civilian deaths had likely been caused by the US-led Coalition during the battle of Raqqa. More recently, Airwars has played a prominent role in reporting the scandal surrounding Dutch responsibility for a 2015 airstrike in Hawijah, Iraq, in which 70 or more civilians likely died. And in early 2020 – in partnership with the BBC, Liberation, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands – Airwars revealed that European militaries were failing to declare civilian deaths from their own actions in the war against ISIS, even where US military personnel had concluded otherwise.

“Airwars is unique. There are few organisations that shine a light so intensely on the wholesale slaughter of innocent civilians caught up in the fury of war. The Airwars team has developed groundbreaking methodology to track these horrors and has delivered their consequent findings with authority to governments, the military and the public,” commented Richard Logan, President of the Reva and David Logan Foundation.

“Their work has consistently brought changes in perceptions and in the conduct of war. It has contributed to a significant reduction of non-combatant battlefield deaths and injuries. For these and other related reasons, it is crucial to magnify Airwars’ investigative capacity to ensure that the plight of the most vulnerable stays at the forefront of all our minds. We are honoured to support their efforts.”

▲ A young girl passes a bomb crater in West Mosul, April 2017 (Image courtesy of Kainoa Little. All rights reserved)

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).

Published

February 11, 2020

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Assisted by

Dmytro Chupryna, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

During 2019 - for the first time in five years - monitors tracked a sharp move away from US-led Coalition civilian deaths.

Airwars research shows that at least 2,214 civilians were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia during 2019 – a 42% decrease in minimum claimed deaths on the previous year. This sharp fall was largely because deaths from reported US-led Coalition actions plummeted following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March.

However, elsewhere civilians remained in significant danger. Russian strikes in support of the Assad regime claimed at least 1,000 lives in the fierce Idlib and Hama offensives. Meanwhile, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October saw over 300 non-combatants alleged killed.

The year also saw alarming developments in Libya. From April, the Libyan National Army’s Tripoli offensive had a devastating impact on civilians. As more foreign powers joined the conflict, alleged deaths rose by an astonishing 720% on 2018. Almost half of all civilian deaths in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred last year.

Download our full annual report for 2019

The US-led Coalition in Syria: a brutal final assault

On March 23rd, after 55 months of war, ISIS was finally ousted from Syria, when the Syrian Democratic Forces seized the town of al-Baghuz al Fawqani in Ezzor governorate. This followed the terror group’s earlier defeat in Iraq in December 2017.

Yet this final assault came at a terrible cost for civilians trapped on the ground. Of the minimum of 2,214 civilians locally alleged killed during 2019, at least 470 deaths (21%) reportedly occurred as a result of US-led Coalition strikes in the first quarter of 2019, in Deir Ezzor governorate.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th – 19th 2019, which allegedly killed at least 160 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

After March 23rd, with ISIS downgraded to an insurgency, there was a significant winding down in Coalition strikes. As a result, locally alleged civilian deaths from alliance actions rapidly declined.

For the first time in five years, the Coalition was no longer the primary driver of civilian harm in Airwars monitoring. Indeed, our tracking shows that many more civilians were claimed killed by almost every other monitored belligerent than by the US-led alliance between April and December 2019.

With this shift away from Coalition civilian deaths, Airwars’ focus with the alliance and with partner militaries began moving towards post-conflict restitution and reconciliation engagements.

Syria’s civilians remain at great risk

Civilians may finally have gained respite from Coalition strikes, but 2019 saw them face increased danger on other fronts. Russia’s ongoing campaign in Syria continued to devastate civilian populations and infrastructure.

In total, our researchers tracked at least 1,000 civilian deaths in 710 casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Russia. Some 81% of these events were in Idlib governorate, where Russia lent its formidable airpower to the regime’s offensive to oust the rebels.

The aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on a popular market in Saraqib on July 30th (via Edlib Media Center).

Additionally, in October, Syria’s civilians faced a new threat from Turkey. The offensive came against a backdrop of repeated Turkish threats to unilaterally invade northern Syria. The chaotic withdrawal of US forces on October 7th gave Turkey a green light to launch its ‘Operation Peace Spring’.

Airwars research shows that there were between 246 and 314 locally alleged civilian deaths in 207 casualty incidents involving both sides during the final three months of 2019. Most disturbingly, there were numerous claims of war crimes by both sides, including summary executions of civilians and enemy fighters.

Libya: a 720% rise in civilian deaths

Meanwhile, civilian harm spiralled in Libya. Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its offensive on Tripoli in April. However, what was intended to be a brief conflict soon turned into a protracted siege, with foreign powers playing an increased role, particularly in a proxy drone war between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

The impact on civilians was dire. Between April 4th and December 31st 2019, local sources reported between 279 and 399 civilian deaths. A measure of the intensity of 2019’s bombing is shown by the fact that more than 48% of all locally reported civilian fatalities in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred during the nine months between April and December 2019.

Image caption translation: “Warlord Haftar’s warplane bombs oil facility and tannery in Tajoura, east Tripoli”, June 19th 2019 (via Libya Observer)

Somalia: Record number of declared US actions

In April, Airwars expanded its conflict portfolio when it took over the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s long running monitoring of US counter terrorism drone strikes and civilian harm claims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. We are currently reviewing this significant dataset using Airwars’ own internationally-respected methodology.

Our assessment of US air and ground operations in Somalia since 2007 is now complete – with our annual report revealing that a maximum of 44 civilian deaths were alleged during 2019, in thirteen locally claimed civilian harm events. Overall the US declared 63 airstrikes against both al Shabaab and ISIS for the year – the highest ever tally.

Advocating on behalf of affected non-combatants

Our emphasis at Airwars has always been working on behalf of affected civilians. Throughout 2019, our advocacy teams continued to engage with the US-led Coalition and its allies. More than half of all Coalition-conceded conceded civilian harm events during the year were Airwars referrals for example – with at least 220 additional deaths conceded.

Substantial talks on transparency and accountability for civilian harm were also held with senior Pentagon officials; with the British and Dutch ministries of defence; and with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

In November, the Netherlands finally admitted responsibility for a June 2015 strike in Hawijah, Iraq, which killed at least 70 civilians, according to locals. Airwars is now partnering with a number of Dutch NGOs and academics, with a focus on securing long term improvements in transparency and accountability for civilian harm by the Netherlands military.

“Since Airwars began in 2014, our exceptional team has tracked more than 50,000 locally reported civilian deaths across several conflict nations,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “As our 2019 report demonstrates, civilian harm remains a constant in war. Yet too often, belligerents deny or downplay civilian harm – even when local communities themselves are making clear the true costs of conflict.”

Download our full annual report for 2019

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

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd 2019 (via White Helmets)

Published

December 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Pioneering conflict monitor aims to raise at least £20,000 during holiday period

Airwars is launching its first public fundraising appeal in over two years as 2019 draws to a close – hoping to raise at least £20,000 during December for vital work tracking civilian harm in multiple wars.

Founded in 2014, Airwars is now monitoring civilian harm across six conflicts, and has recorded more than 51,000 locally alleged deaths. Admissions of more than 1,300 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria by the US-led Coalition have been majorly driven by Airwars’ own findings. However resources remain a challenge – particularly since the organisation refuses funding from belligerents it is actively monitoring, like the US and UK.

Donations raised during December will be used for example to further investigate civilian harm claims from Russian, US-led Coalition, and Turkish strikes in Syria – and also to help launch upcoming Airwars public microsites on US counter terrorism actions and associated civilian harm in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen – three heavily under-reported conflicts.

“Our emphasis at Airwars is on what civilians themselves say is happening to them during war,” says Dmytro Chupryna, head of fundraising. “We’re internationally respected for our rigorous approach, and continue to provide a vital counter-narrative to military claims that modern warfare causes little civilian harm. Yet despite our significant impact, our budget remains tiny. Public donations are much needed to help continue our crucial work.”

Please donate today

Airwars has released a fundraising video as part of the December campaign

▲ Part of the Airwars team in the London office, December 2019

Published

November 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

More than 51,000 locally reported civilian deaths have been monitored by Airwars since 2014.

November 11th 2019 marks the fifth anniversary of Airwars – the international not for profit which monitors civilian harm on the battlefield, and seeks to reduce conflict casualty numbers.

November 11th is recognised globally, as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day and Veterans Day. It was also the date on which the name Airwars was registered by founders Chris Woods and Basile Simon in 2014, as part of a new approach to all-source local language monitoring of reported civilian harm in conflict countries.

Established originally to track the US-led war against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and then Syria, Airwars now monitors several dozen belligerents in six conflict-affected nations. At present the team is most focused on Turkish and Russian military actions in northern Syria; and on a bitter civil war in Libya which is increasingly drawing in foreign powers. More than 51,000 locally alleged civilian deaths have so far been tracked by the organisation – with tens of thousands more reports of injuries.

As well as monitoring local allegations of civilian harm, Airwars works where possible with militaries to help improve transparency and accountability – with the hope of reducing battlefield casualties. The organisation has been instrumental for example in securing the admission of more than 1,300 civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria. Team members have additionally met with British, Dutch, Danish and NATO officials to seek transparency improvements. Airwars is also consulting with the Pentagon along with other NGOs, on a revised Department of Defense civilian casualty assessment process.

Airwars has also published many key investigations into civilian harm since its founding – working with news organisations including Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Le Monde, RTL Netherlands, and De Morgen. Investigations have revealed for example the existence of 80 officially admitted non-US civilian deaths which to this day, no nation will admit to. In summer 2019, Airwars also published a major study into US media reporting of civilian harm in war.

Headquartered at Goldsmiths, University of London in the UK, Airwars also has a European office in Utrecht in the Netherlands. The organisation is mainly funded by philanthropic donations – while declining support from governments participating in the conflicts it monitors.

Staff, contractors and volunteers are presently based on four continents. Maysa Ishmael is the most recent London-based staff member, focused both on UK advocacy, and on assessing civilian harm from military actions in Syria and Iraq. Maysa works alongside Mohammed al-Jumaily, another recent addition to the London team who monitors local claims of civilian harm in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The latest conflicts to be included in Airwars monitoring are US counter terror operations in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. More than 1,000 alleged drone strikes dating back to 2002 – which were originally tracked by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – are being transitioned to Airwars standards. Somalia will be the first of these conflicts to go online, later in 2019.

“November 11th is always a sombre occasion, when we remember both our civilian and military dead. So it’s fitting that this also marks the date on which Airwars was founded,” says director Chris Woods. “It’s my immense privilege to work with such an exceptional team of staff and volunteers around the world, bearing witness to civilian harm and seeking to reduce conflict casualty numbers.”

▲ An NHK-Japan documentary team recently filming with Airwars in London.

Published

May 2, 2018

Written by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

April 16, 2018

Written by

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

This is an extract from the Bureau’s report, Naming The Dead, published in April 2018, written by Jack Serle

The phenomenal assassination tool that is the attack drone was born of frustration – the inability of the US to kill Osama bin Laden.

The CIA and its Afghan militia allies were pretty sure they knew where he was, training would-be suicide bombers in his Afghan hideout. Whenever they did get a read on his location, albeit briefly, it was thanks to the CIA’s small fleet of surveillance Predator drones. They could fly high and for more than 12 hours on end, constantly filming the scene below them and sending the footage back to the US. But the CIA could never pin down his location long enough for bombers or cruise missiles to be called in to do anything about it. The solution? Add anti-tank missiles to the remotely piloted drones. By arming its drones, the US could get a fix on a target, show the video feed to lawyers in real time so they could assess if it was lawful, and wait to take the shot when there were no bystanders around to get hurt. The Predator drones and their more advanced successors, the Reapers, have been used hundreds of times for such “targeted killing”, in particular in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been tracking these strikes for more than seven years, monitoring and recording the date, time and location; and importantly, those killed. We have been doing this because there has been next to no official transparency about the US drone war. Individual strikes are usually reported in the newspapers and on social media but for the majority of drone strikes, there has been no official word on the attack.

The armed drone has the undoubted potential for being one of the most discriminating weapons ever devised. Yet the Bureau’s work shows that it doesn’t always work out this way.  Among the more controversial tactics adopted by the CIA was the signature strike. This is when drones are used to kill people based on their behaviour, not identity. Intelligence gathered over many days or weeks provides a pattern-of-life-analysis which is used to determine someone’s guilt or likelihood of being a terrorist. These strikes have been used to kill a handful of people or even large crowds. There are multiple examples of a type of signature strike, so-called “double-taps”, where CIA drones carry out a strike and wait for people to come and pick through the wreckage before striking again. These attacks have killed plenty of Taliban fighters but they have also killed scores of civilians, according to field investigations by the Bureau. The Obama administration did, through the course of his Presidency, bring in rules to govern the use of armed drones. This included putting the military in charge of the lethal end of drone operations and limiting the CIA to providing intelligence. However, the Trump administration has put the CIA back in charge, which has had an impact on transparency. The CIA has provided some information to the media, briefing reporters on successful strikes. It has also hidden behind anonymity to attack the Bureau and our findings, or issued the standard response: “feel free to say the CIA declined to comment.” The US military, in contrast, has become more forthcoming with information about its use of armed drones. Before 2013 both US Central Command (Centcom) and US Africa Command, which are responsible for US strikes in Yemen and Somalia respectively, would have little if anything to say publicly about their strikes. Now they give details in press releases, when security and diplomatic interests allow, they say. For the rest they will only confirm they happened if someone asks them directly.

While a step forward, the amount of information they are willing to give remains limited. At most they will confirm the date, the general location of the strike, a standard rationale for taking the strike, and occasionally a casualty estimate. As often as not the US and the Bureau numbers don’t tally. 

US Air Force / Jonathan Snyder

In March 2017, I sat at the back of a Senate hearing room, watching General Joseph Votel, the man in charge of Centcom, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said with evident sincerity that he was apologising for the killing of between four and 12 civilians in a botched special operations raid and drone attack in Yemen in January 2017.

Seven months later it turned out he got the numbers wrong. An investigation by NBC News revealed internal US estimates showed at least 16 civilians died. Centcom told me that Votel spoke “with the best information he had at the time”. Yet both figures are lower than the 25 civilian deaths uncovered by researchers working with the Bureau, who visited the scene of the strike. Despite advances in transparency, it can be hard to understand how the US comes to its own estimates.

In the summer of 2016 the Obama White House released its own figures of those killed in counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya – operations that were outside the declared battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – between 2009 and 2015. This was a big step forward for transparency advocates. Unfortunately, the White House published total figures for strikes and casualties for all six years in the three countries, rather than broken down by year or country. This made it impossible to examine where the US records differed from the Bureau’s data.

The figures were supposed to be published every May thereafter. Then in late January 2017, with Donald Trump just days away from moving into the White House, the Obama administration put out its estimate for the 2016 figures.

Clearly, any effort towards greater transparency is only as strong as the will of the current administration. Current guidance, although not an official instruction, is that the Pentagon doesn’t want to release information that would give the enemy an advantage. This means that it is much harder to find out details such as the date and location of strikes.

With the Trump administration clamping down on transparency around US air wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, it seems highly unlikely it will turn the data release into an annual event. This only serves to underline the importance of the Bureau’s work.

The use of drones in counter-terrorism operations has no end in sight. So far thousands have been killed, both terrorists and civilians. Continuing to investigate how the US and its allies pursue the never-ending war on terror has never been more vital.

Header image: US Air Force / Erik Gudmundson

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