News & Investigations

News & Investigations

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

April 8, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Despite receiving comprehensive findings on 38 civilian deaths five months ago, CENTCOM has yet to respond says human rights group.

The Yemeni human rights group Mwatana has accused US Central Command of being “very disrespectful to victims”, after it emerged that CENTCOM has still not publicly responded to a major investigation into civilians killed by US airstrikes and ground raids. Given five months’ advance notice of the findings of the investigation, which comprehensively detailed the deaths of at least 38 civilians in twelve likely US actions in Yemen during the Trump presidency, Mwatana says that CENTCOM has still not responded.

The 124-page report from Mwatana, ‘Death Falling From The Sky’, was eventually published in late March without input from CENTCOM. It presents a grim view of an intensive campaign by the US military under President Trump to target alleged Al Qaeda fighters in Yemen, part of a long-running counterterrorism effort begun by Barack Obama in 2009.

In total according to Airwars monitoring, a record 327 US airstrikes and ground actions in Yemen were alleged during the Trump presidency, of which 181 were officially declared. As many as 199 civilian deaths were locally alleged, with Airwars presently estimating that, based on the available public record, between 76 and 152 civilians were likely killed by the US in Yemen under Trump in 26 incidents.

Mwatana’s own report focuses on just twelve of these events – recording in meticulous detail the devastating effects of some US actions on local communities. Dozens of family members, survivors and eyewitnesses were interviewed in person. Comprehensive paperwork including hospital records and university and workplace documentation was gathered, confirming the civilian status of victims. Photographs and videos detail injuries to victims and damage to homes.

“The standard of information, and what we were able to get from the ground, is built on years of Mwatana work,” says Bonyan Jamal, an accountability officer at the Yemeni human rights organisation. “Thanks to our incredible researchers, and high quality work, we are able to speak directly to families and gain their trust.”

All twelve events documented by Mwatana were already publicly known – though civilian casualties have only been admitted by CENTCOM in one case. A detailed review by Airwars of ‘Death Falling From The Sky’ found it to be meticulously researched and documented; and conservative in its estimates of civilian harm from US actions. Victims were only identified, for example, after being explicitly named by witnesses and surviving family members. In any case where the combatant status of a casualty was less than clear, they were excluded from the potential civilian tally.

A disastrous US raid on the village of Yakla in late January 2017 killed up to 12 civilians, CENTCOM itself has confirmed. Others have placed the toll far higher. In its own estimate, Mwatana conservatively says that at least 15 civilians died that day. “For the Yakla event, we respect that others have reached different findings,” says Kristine Beckerle, legal director, accountability and redress at Mwatana. “We never say ‘these are all the people killed that day’. What we can say is that we are confident in those victims that we name.”

That conservative approach makes the investigation’s conclusion all the more damning. “This report raises serious concerns about the extent to which the United States is complying with international law in its use of lethal force in Yemen,” Mwatana asserts. “It finds that the United States is failing to investigate credible allegations of violations, to hold individuals responsible for violations to account, and to provide prompt and adequate reparations.”

Mwatana’s list of fifteen named fatal victims of a US raid on Yakla, Yemen in January 2017.

US silence on deaths of women

Each of the twelve events detailed in the Mwatana investigation provides such compelling evidence of civilian harm that CENTCOM’s continued silence appears inexplicable.

More than three weeks after the incident itself, a public US Central Command statement had for example confirmed that a US strike had taken place in the Yemeni province of Bayda on December 15th 2017, which it indicated had resulted in the death of Miqdad al-Sana’ani, described in the press release as an “external operations facilitator” for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). CENTCOM made no mention of civilian harm.

The only locally reported action in Bayda that December day was again in the village of Yakla – where all local sources agreed that a likely US drone strike had killed Hajera Ahmed Saleh Al Taisi, 33 years old and pregnant, and her 63-year old aunt, Dhabia Ahmad Al Taisi.

According to Mwatana, “On the day of the strike, Dhabia was visiting Hajera’s home, about 90 meters from Dhabia’s own small house. At about 6pm, as Dhabia was leaving the house, the strike occurred. The strike hit right next to the entrance of the house, killing Dhabia, who was standing by the door. Hajera was in her kitchen. She was hit by shrapnel in the neck, which ripped through her back. The surrounding homes suffered varying degrees of damage from the strike.”

According to one report, a man was also killed in the attack who may have been the AQAP suspect al-Sana’ani. Yet there is no dispute locally that two women died that day. As Hajera’s husband told Mwatana, ‘My wife was expecting a child; the shrapnel killed her and her fetus … The life of people and their movements are almost paralyzed by fear.”

Kristine Beckerle says this was one of the events she had expected CENTCOM to concede: “Maybe, I thought, they would admit the case of these two women – one pregnant, killed in their house. There is no advantage I can see to their not engaging on this case. Yet we have had no response until now.”

The #UnitedStates has never fully investigated the civilian cost of its operations in #Yemen, and has never taken sufficient steps to review the efficacy of these operations.

Read #DeathFallingFromTheSky report: https://t.co/ASqTtoyYlZ

— Mwatana for Human Rights (@MwatanaEn) March 31, 2021

CENTCOM: lack of accountability

US Central Command was first provided full details of the Mwatana investigation on November 4th 2020, says accountability officer Bonyan Jamal. “They have had more than five months to respond. We even delayed publication several times to give them the opportunity to respond. That CENTCOM didn’t even take the time to write a proper response to express their position on these findings is very disrespectful to victims.”

This echoes other recent experiences with the US’s largest combatant command. As this organisation recently noted in its own recent Yemen study Eroding Transparency, “Despite Airwars providing CENTCOM with its complete civilian harm findings on Yemen during the Trump presidency nine weeks prior to this report’s publication, officials unfortunately failed to provide any event responses.”

CENTCOM also had to issue an apology in late 2020 as a result of what it described as an “administrative error”, after conceding it had forgotten its own earlier public admission of the killing of up to 12 civilians during the raid on Yakla village in early 2017.

Accountability for civilian harm at CENTCOM appears to be in decline across several theatres under current commander General Kenneth ’Frank’ McKenzie, who took up his post in March 2019. As Airwars recently noted in its annual report, 2020 saw an unexplained 80 per cent drop in the number of civilian harm allegations deemed ‘Credible’ by CENTCOM assessors working with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria. And in Afghanistan, US forces have taken an increasingly robust stance against UN data which continue to flag concerns about civilian harm from international actions.

“The great majority of alleged civilian deaths and injuries from US military actions each year are within CENTCOM’s area of responsibility. And we need to see significant improvements in its identifying, reviewing and reporting of those claims,” says Chris Woods, director of Airwars. “Mwatana’s investigation is scrupulously researched and offers compelling evidence of at least 38 civilians likely killed in recent US actions in Yemen. It is not good enough for CENTCOM apparently to ignore that evidence for more than five months.”

▲ Villagers in Jaeir, al Bayda, protest a reported US strike in January 2019 that killed a 67 year old civilian man, according to Mwatana investigators and local sources

Incident Code

USYEMTr234-C

Incident date

March 16, 2021

Location

حي جو النسيم, Jao Al-Naseem, Marib, Yemen

Airwars assessment

Local sources in Marib reported casualties among civilians as a result of a reported attack either by a US-drone on a car entering a popular market in Marib – or by a Houthi balluistic missile strike on the market – on March 16th, 2021.

While @aalnaasi said the attack happened on Dahbeel station in Al-Naseem, @assssa1234a said that the attack led to the killing of two people who were in the car, and the injuring of citizens who were in the vicinity.

The Yemeni news agency Saba claimed that a US drone had targeted an unknown car as it entered a crowd of citizens’ vehicles in the Jao Al-Naseem neighbourhood, east of the city of Ma’rib. A local source told Saba that ” an American drone targeted an unidentified car with a laser-guided missile while entering the middle of a car gathering in the Jao Al-Naseem neighborhood, resulting in deaths on board the car and wounding a number of citizens near it.”

Saba also claimed that “It is noteworthy that American drones have intensified their raids on the governorates of Marib and Shabwa over the past few days.” However no further proofs were offered to support that claim.

While most sources blamed a US drone for the attack, al Jazeera reported ” 2 dead and 7 wounded due to the fall of a ballistic missile fired by the Houthis on a popular market in Marib city”.

The identity of those killed is not clear yet and no further information is presently available. A a possible moratorium on US strikes in Yemen by the Biden Administration may also have been in operation since January 20th 2021.

The incident occured in the afternoon.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike and/or Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    2
  • Civilians reported injured
    7
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attackers
    United States Armed Forces, Houthi Forces
  • Suspected target
    Unknown
  • Belligerents reported killed
    2

Sources (10) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (1) [ collapse]

United States Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    United States Armed Forces
  • United States Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Houthi Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    Houthi Forces
  • Houthi Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Contested strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike and/or Artillery
  • Civilian harm reported
    Yes
  • Civilians reported killed
    2
  • Civilians reported injured
    7
  • Airwars civilian harm grading
    Contested
    Competing claims of responsibility e.g. multiple belligerents, or casualties also attributed to ground forces.
  • Suspected attackers
    United States Armed Forces, Houthi Forces
  • Suspected target
    Unknown
  • Belligerents reported killed
    2

Sources (10) [ collapse]

Published

March 2, 2021

Written by

Joseph Dyke

Previous declaration to Congress of civilian deaths in Yemen under Donald Trump was forgotten, CENTCOM admits

The US military has blamed an “administrative mistake” after conceding it forgot its own admission of the killing of up to 12 civilians during a raid on a Yemeni village in early 2017. Details of the admission feature in the Airwars annual report for 2020 which published March 2nd.

The US military led a raid targeting alleged senior Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) operatives in January 2017, just days after President Trump’s inauguration. According to the residents of Yakla, at least 20 and as many as 56 civilians died in the attack – including women and children. One American soldier was also killed in the fierce assault.

The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) admitted the deaths of civilians just days after the assault; and CENTCOM’s then commander General Joseph Votel later told the US Senate he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and 12” civilians.

However in a public statement issued November 5th, in response to Airwars’ recent findings on the Trump administration’s actions in Yemen, CENTCOM appeared to row back heavily on Gen. Votel’s earlier admission, claiming only that “there may have been civilian casualties” during the Yakla raid.

Asked by Airwars to clarify whether it still stood by General Votel’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), a contrite CENTCOM admitted it had effectively forgotten its own role in the deaths of Yemeni civilians during what it described as an intense firefight between US forces and Al Qaeda.

“USCENTCOM stands by GEN Votel’s statement to the SASC, and we have subsequently found the appropriate documentation that credibly assesses between 4 and 12 non-combatant casualties died”.

Captain Bill Urban, CENTCOM’s spokesman, also insisted that this represented an administrative error.

“Please accept our apologies for our errant ‘may have’ in yesterday’s initial statement regarding the Jan 2017 raid…Our failure to provide an accurate assessment was an administrative mistake, and not an intent to deceive.”

Bonyan Gamal, a lawyer with the Yemeni human rights organisation Mwatana, said the US mistake would be “painful” for the families of those killed at Yakla, many of whom had hoped for an official apology or compensation from the US government.

“It is shocking and I think it will cause more anger. This raid caused such sadness and shock in Yemen,” she told Airwars.

“A key criticism in our recent report on US counterterror actions in Yemen was of systemic failings in civilian casualty assessments at CENTCOM,” said Chris Woods, director of Airwars, which monitors civilian casualties in multiple conflicts. “It’s insulting to both Yemenis and Americans that the deaths of so many civilians in a recent botched US raid don’t appear to form a part of CENTCOM’s institutional memory.”

Years of unaccountable war 

Yemen, an impoverished country on the Arabian Peninsula, has been locked in civil war for half a decade. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia has also carried out a prolonged aerial campaign, supported by the United States, in a bid to unseat Houthi rebels in the capital Sanaa.

Parts of the country remain fertile territory for Al-Qaeda and more recently, for a local Islamic State franchise. Since 2009 the US has been conducting counterterrorism airstrikes and occasional ground raids. These ramped up significantly during Donald Trump’s presidency, with the US military conducting at least 190 armed actions in Yemen – but with at least 86 civilians also allegedly killed, according to Airwars research.

The most deadly single incident came on January 29th 2017, only nine days after Trump’s inauguration.

US forces snuck into the village of Yakla, reportedly to target senior AQAP leaders. In the ensuing firefight dozens were killed. Several field investigations concluded that at least twenty civilians died in the attack, including women and children reportedly gunned down from the air. US Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer William Owens also died in the attack.

“This raid was one of the worst cases we have seen in Yemen,” Bonyan Gamal said. “I can only imagine the psychological and mental impact.”

During in-person testimony to the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2017, Gen. Votel admitted his troops had killed between four and 12 civilians at Yakla.

“We lost a lot on this operation. We lost a valued operator, we had people wounded, we caused civilian casualties,” Votel told the committee. “We have made a determination based on our best information available that we did cause casualties, somewhere between 4 and 12 casualties that we accept – I accept  – responsibility for.”

An Airwars report published October 28th highlighted civilian casualties reportedly caused by US strikes and raids in Yemen during the Trump era, including the Yakla raid. Airwars provided comprehensive data and evidence on locally alleged civilian harm to CENTCOM more than two months ahead of publication, but received no reply until after the report was released.

On November 5th CENTCOM then admitted its first civilian harm case since Yakla, crediting Airwars for drawing a September 2017 incident to its attention. However Central Command rejected 39 other civilian harm allegations under Trump which had been flagged by Airwars – and claimed only that it “may” have harmed civilians in the notorious Yakla raid.

Transparency lacking

In 2016, outgoing US President Barack Obama had signed an Executive Order requiring the Director of National Intelligence to publish an annual summary of strikes against militant groups, and associated civilian harm, in countries such as Yemen.

Donald Trump, however, reversed that ruling in 2019 and critics say transparency around strikes had then decreased.

Peter Salisbury, senior Yemen analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank, said the Trump administration had a far worse record on transparency than the Obama administration, “which itself was hardly open about what it knew.”

President Joe Biden recently announced an end to US support for the brutal Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels. The status of the 12-year long US campaign against al Qaeda in Yemen is less clear – though a recent report suggested the entire US covert drone strikes campaign is now in review.

According to Mwatana’s Bonyan Gamal, unaccountable US strikes can feed extremism. “Yakla is in a very remote area in Yemen,” she noted. “They don’t get basic services such as water, schooling, or even cell phone service. Nothing reaches there except US drones.”

▲ Children standing in the rubble of Yakla following a deadly US raid on the village in January 2017 (Image courtesy of Iona Craig)

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.

Incident Code

USYEMTr233

Incident date

December 14, 2020

Location

البطحة, Al Batha area, Marib, Yemen

Airwars assessment

At least one person, believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, was reported killed in an alleged US drone strike on a motorcycle in the Al Batha area, Marib governorate, on December 14th, 2020, according to local sources.

Al Arabiya reported that according to a source within the local authority in Marib, “an unmanned drone, likely to be an American, launched a raid on an al-Qaeda operative in the Al Batha area, isolating the forts of Al Jalal in the Wadi Directorate, northeast of the city of Ma’rib.”

@Ywbmmd tweeted that “a drone, believed to be an American, targeted a motorcycle in which a person (believed to be affiliated with Al Qaeda) was travelling in the Al Batha area – the car market in the forts of Al Jalal.” According to @Abolbrahim2018, the victim was a senior leader of Al Qaeda.

Several sources, including Al Hadath Center, reported two killed Al Qaeda militants.  @mobass20 was the only source reporting that the motorcycle was carrying three Al Qaeda militants.

According to Yemen Post, the event took place in the “Al Batha area in the car market in the forts of Al Jalal of the Wadi Directorate.”

Sahaftak wrote that “local sources said that a drone bombed a motorcycle carrying two Al Qaeda operatives in the Al Jalal fortress area in the valley, killing two Al Qaeda operatives and burning the motorcycle.”

@saifbinrashid7 reported that “an Al Qaeda operative was killed in Marib by bombing of an American drone.”

According to Al Sharae News, the identity of the target was unknown. The source added that the killed man’s “body parts were littered with his motorcycle”.

Al Hadath Center reported that “the airstrike resulted in the killing of the target and the burning of his bicycle, without identifying him.”

All sources blamed the United States for the strike.

The incident occured in the evening.

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Drone Strike
  • Civilian harm reported
    None known
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Suspected attacker
    United States Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
  • Belligerents reported killed
    1–3

Sources (34) [ collapse]

Media
from sources (2) [ collapse]

  • Translation: “A drone, believed to be an American, targeted a motorcycle in which a person (believed to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda) was traveling in the Al-Batha area - the car market in the forts of Al Jalal” (via @aden_news24).
  • Aftermath of an alleged US drone strike on motorcycle reportedly carrying an Al Qaeda operative near Al Batha area, Marib governorate, on December 14th, 2020 (via @aden_news24).

United States Armed Forces Assessment:

  • Suspected belligerent
    United States Armed Forces
  • United States Armed Forces position on incident
    Not yet assessed

Summary

  • Strike status
    Likely strike
  • Strike type
    Airstrike, Drone Strike
  • Civilian harm reported
    None known
  • Civilians reported killed
    Unknown
  • Suspected attacker
    United States Armed Forces
  • Suspected target
    Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
  • Belligerents reported killed
    1–3

Sources (34) [ collapse]