Journalists and locals gather next to the rubble of buildings in Tripoli, Libya, on June 19, 2011. During a government-led tour, the group was shown damaged houses and the bodies of civilians said to have been killed in a NATO coalition bombing. MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES


March 20, 2021

Written by

Joe Dyke

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The alliance bombing campaign had a devastating toll—but, a decade after the war, leaders have still not taken responsibility.

This article was written by Airwars’ senior investigator for Foreign Policy. It can be read in full here.


Attia al-Juwaili may never know which country’s laser-guided bomb killed his young daughter. It could be a British, French, or American pilot who struck, but until he finds out, his family’s hopes for justice are forever on hold.

It has been 10 years since the NATO-led coalition dropped the first bombs targeting Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces—turning the tide in Libya’s civil war and playing a critical role in bringing down the dictator. The merits of that intervention have been long debated, with foreign meddlers and local rivals and extremists thriving in the vacuum ever since.

But there was a more direct cost. In a war fought expressly to protect civilians, NATO’s airstrikes inadvertently killed dozens. New research by the civilian casualty monitoring watchdog Airwars, where I am the senior investigator, lays out for the first time the estimated number of civilians killed by all parties to the 2011 war—including both Qaddafi forces and Libyan rebels. Almost none of the families left behind have received compensation or an apology.

While NATO insists it took steps to avoid killing civilians, when there were casualty allegations it had limited mechanisms to assess on the ground, with one former official saying they “really had no idea.”

And those seeking an apology have instead found themselves trapped in a nightmare in which NATO itself does not make condolence payments but insists accountability must be sought from individual nations. Yet, even a decade on, countries including the United Kingdom, France, and the United States still refuse to accept public responsibility for any harm they caused.

Juwaili’s family and a few others had sought refuge in the village of Majer in northern Libya a few weeks before the deadly strike, after fleeing the encroaching ground war between Qaddafi’s forces and NATO-backed rebels.

It was Ramadan, so prayers lasted late into the evening. Afterward, the women and children went inside, while the men sat in the August heat chatting.

“Then everything was black, we couldn’t see anything. After the smoke subsided it was clear the second floor was destroyed,” Juwaili told Foreign Policy.

The men rushed forward, searching through the rubble for survivors. Fifteen minutes later, another strike killed many of the rescuers.

Juwaili hunted frantically for his 2-year-old daughter, Arwa, eventually finding her lifeless under the rubble. “Thank God her body was not ripped apart,” he said.

The United Nations later concluded 34 civilians died at Majer that night, including Arwa. NATO called the site a command and control node for Qaddafi’s forces. The residents denied this, and U.N. investigators found no evidence of military activity.

“My message to NATO is that yes, mistakes happen, but you need to correct such mistakes,” Juwaili said. “I feel that we were treated as if we were nothing and they did not look back. I hope when Libya is back on its feet, we get justice.”


Read the full story on Foreign Policy here.

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