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Published

May 26, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers and Oliver Imhof

Airwars and design partners Rectangle are commemorating those civilians killed and injured in conflicts, by livestreaming over 24 hours the names of 8,337 civilian casualties the international monitor has documented in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia in recent years.

The digital event marks the occasion of the UN’s 2020 Protection of Civilians Week.

Every name has a story

Over twenty-four hours starting at midnight London time on May 26th/27th – the date of the UN Secretary General’s annual Protection of Civilians (PoC)  speech –  the names of just some of the many civilians reportedly killed by air and artillery strikes in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Somalia since 2007 will be livestreamed on our website and YouTube channel.

Khaled Mustafa Qurmo and Khaled Abdel Majid were about to drop off their friend Barakat Barakat at his home in October 2019. The three friends were eating pumpkin seeds while driving through Barisha in northwestern Syria when they were reportedly hit by helicopters searching for ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi.

“There were so many shells falling on us, it was like rain. My hand, the one holding up Khaled’s head, got cut off,” Barakat explained to NPR last year. “Am I Baghdadi? How is this my fault? I’m just a civilian. I didn’t have any weapons. We’re farmers. I make less than a dollar a day. Now I’m handicapped, and my two friends are in their graves.”

Barakat Barakat is just one of 8,337 civilian casualties over the past 13 years whose names Airwars has recorded while monitoring conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Somalia.

UN Protection of Civilians Week 2020

Through its daily monitoring of local news organisations, social media and official sources, as well as via sources on the ground, Airwars has in total recorded over 119,000 reported civilian deaths and injuries since we began documenting conflicts in August 2014 – of which more than eight thousand casualties attributed to specific belligerents can presently be named.

This UN PoC Week, Airwars aims to commemorate those who have lost their lives, while calling for governments to better account for their military actions.

The project Conflicting Truth is in partnership with the Scottish-American design team Rectangle, who also produce the complex mapping and data representations on the Airwars website.

This week’s live cast is based on an original installation by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer, first shown in Detroit in March 2019. It had been hoped to show Conflicting Truth in New York during this year’s UN PoC Week. Instead, due to the Covid-19 crisis, the decision was taken to livecast a digital version.

Rimas and Shahem Hamdou with their father Hamza al Haj Hamdou. The children were killed in an alleged Russian strike in Thalatheen Street in Idlib city on March 3rd 2020 (image courtesy of the Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Not just numbers

The Airwars/ Rectangle project seeks to show that those killed and injured in conflict are not mere statistics –  they are people with names, friends and families. Their loss inflicts severe pain on relatives, and the communities they belong to.

“I was washing dishes. Suddenly our house was filled with shrapnel. I went out and called Arif (my son), but I did not see him. I only saw black smoke. When the smoke faded away, I saw my son on the ground as a martyr,” said a mother whose son Arif was among eight other children reportedly killed in alleged Turkish shelling on Tal Rifaat in Syria on December 2nd, 2019.

The suffering often does not end with losing loved ones or seeing them disabled: it also heavily impacts the lives of those spared by the fighting. “All a young man like me cares about now is how he gets home safe every day. Or when you go to bed, all you’re thinking about is the possibility that a rocket falls on you,” Marwan, a resident of the southern suburbs of the Libyan capital Tripoli recently told Airwars. “I lost friends, relatives, loved ones in this war,” he elaborates. “I’m doing an MA now, and I’m afraid to lose my dream, and my future and I can’t do anything. That makes me want to run away, to live a decent life with equal opportunities.”

Airwars aims to add as many biographical details of victims as possible. On May 16th of this year for example, the 5-year-old Bangladeshi boy Wahi Zuhair Matin was killed in alleged LNA artillery strikes on Al Fornaj neighbourhood in Tripoli. The GNA-affiliated Burkan Al Ghadab Operation wrote on Facebook that the child’s “ambition was to buy a bike and play ‘like the kids’.”

Civil Society Call for Action

Airwars is also joining with other international partners and organisations in a Civil Society Call for Action to Protect Civilians during PoC week. The joint statement signed by 22 organisations calls on the UN Security Council, Member States, and the UN System to take urgent, bold and practical steps to respond to the challenges that remain in the protection of civilians in armed conflict.

The UN Security Council added the protection of civilians in armed conflict (PoC) to its agenda in 1999, recognising PoC as a matter of international peace and security. The UN PoC Week is held annually between May 27th and June 1st. The United Nations celebrates UN Peacekeeping Day on May 29th.

▲ The original physical installation Conflicting Truth was shown in Detroit in March 2019, and was developed by Rectangle with Sophie Dyer. It features the names of civilian victims preserved in the Airwars database. (Image courtesy of Rectangle)

Published

May 7, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Nineteen of 40 events declared by the Pentagon to Congress for Iraq, Syria and Somalia for the past year were Airwars referrals, official records show

The Department of Defense (DoD) informed Congress on May 6th that US forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia had between them killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019. The Pentagon also reported a further 79 historical deaths from its actions in Syria and Iraq during 2017-18.

The 22-page Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations is the third such public declaration, mandated in law by Congress since 2018.

According to the report – which included details of continuing Pentagon efforts to improve both accountability and transparency for civilian harm – “U.S. forces also protect civilians because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. Although civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war, the U.S. military is steadfastly committed to limiting harm to civilians.”

During 2019, the majority of declared civilian deaths from US actions took place in Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, 108 civilians were killed and 75 injured in 57 incidents. Fourteen of those events involved US ground forces.

That casualty tally represented a significant undercount according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has been comprehensively monitoring civilian deaths from all parties for more than a decade. According to UNAMA’s own Annual Report, at least 559 civilians were killed and 786 injured by international military actions during 2019 – almost all by airstrikes.

Table from UNAMA’s 2019 annual report, showing the number of civilian deaths and injuries it believed had resulted from pro-government forces that year.

Iraq and Syria: ‘backward step’

Officially confirmed civilian deaths from US actions in Iraq and Syria fell steeply – down from 832 fatalities declared to Congress last year, to 101 deaths conceded in the latest report.

That sharp reduction was partly expected, given the significant reduction in battle tempo following the bloody capture of both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. However, in early 2019 very significant civilian fatalities were locally alleged from Coalition air and artillery strikes during the final stages of the war – only a fraction of which have been admitted.

Of the 73 known civilian harm claims against the US-led Coalition during 2019, Airwars presently estimates that at least 460 and as many as 1,100 non combatants likely died. However in its own report to the Pentagon, the US has conceded just 22 civilian deaths for the year across Iraq and Syria, in eleven events.

The Defense Department’s report reveals other worrying trends. Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from US actions for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the Coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected – amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

According to Airwars director Chris Woods, the apparent move by the US-led Coalition away from engaging with external sources marks a backward step, which the organisation plans to take up with both Congress and DoD officials.

“Almost all of the deaths conceded by the US in Iraq and Syria for 2019 represented self referrals from pilots and analysts, with external sources cited on only three occasions. Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored,” says Woods. “This goes against the Pentagon’s repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step.”

Mosul mystery resolved

The Pentagon’s latest report to Congress also brings further clarity to a controversial June 2017 Coalition attack in Mosul, Iraq which killed 35 members of the same extended family – including 14 children, nine women and two respected imams.

In January 2019 the Australian Defence Force (ADF) accepted responsibility for some of those deaths – confirming that a strike by one of its aircraft had killed between 6 and 18 civilians.

However the ADF also made clear that there was a second attack on the location by another Coalition ally that day – the identity of which was until now not known.

It its May 6th report to Congress, the Pentagon revealed that US aircraft conducted that second strike, additionally killing at least 11 civilians at the scene.

In February 2019, surviving family elder Engineer Amjad al-Saffar told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The level of accuracy of the bombing had always indicated to us that the attack couldn’t have been by Iraqi forces, because the house was targeted twice at the same point without any damage to the neighbouring building, and with very high accuracy.”

Asked to comment from Mosul on the Pentagon’s recent admission that its aircraft too had played a role in the mass casualty event, Engineer Amjad told Airwars: “As a well known and respected Mosul family, we feel both very sad and disappointed to learn of the US’s confession – three years after our catastrophe.- of their own role in an airstrike which killed so many. Along with Australia we hold the US fully responsible for our heavy loss of 35 family members, and demand both an apology and financial compensation.”

Other than this one case, the Pentagon’s report to Congress also revealed that all civilian harm events conceded by the US-led Coalition for Iraq and Syria over the past 12 months had been caused by US forces.

This contrasted with the previous report – which had inadvertently ‘outed’ fourteen strikes by America’s European allies which according to the Coalition itself had killed at least 40 civilians – but which the UK, France and Belgium refused to acknowledge. It remains unclear whether the Coalition’s civilian casualty cell has now ceased assessments of claims against other nations within the alliance.

Photo montage of some of the 35 victims of June 13th 2017 strikes by Australian and US aircraft, courtesy of the Al Saffar family.

One new Somalia event admitted

Two more civilian deaths from US actions in Somalia were officially conceded on April 27th, as US Africa Command issued its first ever quarterly civilian casualty report. Those same deaths were also reported to Congress two weeks later.

The newly admitted event – which according to local reports involved the death of a father and his child, and the injuring of at least three more civilians – relates to a US strike on the al Shabaab-occupied town of Kunyo Barrow on February 23rd 2019. AFRICOM had originally dismissed the claim. But it reopened an assessment after Airwars submitted a detailed dossier on the incident in January 2020, including what were believed to be precise coordinates for where casualties took place.

The latest admission has doubled both the number of cases and deaths publicly admitted by AFRICOM, during its sometimes controversial 13-year campaign to defeat the regional terror group al Shabaab. However those four deaths remain dwarfed by Airwars’ own current estimate of at least 70 civilians killed in 29 separate US actions in Somalia since 2007.

The US military’s campaign in Somalia has intensified significantly under President Donald Trump, with at least 186 declared actions since 2017 – more than four times the number of strikes officially carried out by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations combined. Local civilian harm claims have also intensified under Trump, with as many as 157 non combatant deaths locally claimed to date.

Until recently AFRICOM had routinely denied any civilian harm from its actions in Somalia – leading to complaints of poor accountability. In April 2019, AFRICOM conceded its first civilian casualty event – though also had to admit to misleading Congress on the issue. Three months later, General Stephen Townsend took command.

When previously head of the US-led Coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Townsend had overseen key transparency reforms including the publishing of regular civilian harm reports; and routine engagement with external casualty monitors such as Airwars. Those same key reforms are now being implemented at AFRICOM.

Here's the precise geolocation work that our Airwars specialists recently provided @USAFRICOM for the Kunyo Barrow strike – and which likely played a role in today's Credible determination. pic.twitter.com/idlgKAHz0f

— Airwars (@airwars) April 27, 2020

 

▲ Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)

Published

April 6, 2020

Written by

Oliver Imhof

First year of renewed civil war sees at least 324 civilians reportedly killed, as first cases of coronavirus now emerge

Tripoli, the capital of Libya, has entered its second year of being under siege, part of the most significant upsurge in violence in the country’s intermittent civil war since 2012. Hundreds of civilians have so far died – with little effort either domestically or internationally to bring the fighting to an end.

While most of the world is currently seeking refuge from the COVID-19 virus in their homes, many Libyans in the nation’s capital face a dilemma: stay in their houses and possibly fall victim to indiscriminate shelling – or leave their homes, and risk getting infected in the ongoing pandemic.

As crude as it may sound, the worldwide corona crisis had initially raised hopes among Libyans that the Libyan National Army (LNA) and the Government of National Accord (GNA) might agree to a humanitarian ceasefire. After years of destruction and mismanagement, the country’s health system is likely incapable of handling both a pandemic and civil war at the same time. An oil blockade in Libya coupled with a global collapse in oil prices is also likely to lead to a severe financial crisis.

“My most recent visit to Tripoli was in early December and it was clear at that point that the population was suffering greatly from the war, with hundreds of thousands displaced from their homes, the only operating airport in the city repeatedly shut down as a result of attacks, and concerns that the fighting would soon enter the city centre,” says Mary Fitzgerald, a well respected Libya analyst.

She adds: “Now four months on – following some of the bloodiest weeks of the war, a damaging oil blockade, and the spectre of the Coronavirus pandemic – Tripoli residents I speak to are even more fearful of the future. The fact that the war continues with no end in sight shows where the belligerents’ priorities lie.”

The impact of COVID-19 on this precarious nation has been further amplified by the recent death from the virus of former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. OCHA has so far confirmed 18 cases and one death in Libya, with over 300 people so far in quarantine.

On this day a year ago, Mr. Haftar began his #Tripoli offensive and promised to take the capital within 2 weeks. Thousands became victims of the ongoing clashes. The NPO @airwars has monitored reports of civilian casualties on both sides. I've collected them in this chart. #Libya pic.twitter.com/CyGAKBwhvX

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 4, 2020

Over half of all civilian harm in Libya since end of civil war occurred in the last year

Libya’s population has indeed been suffering greatly from the war. According to Airwars data, between 324 and 458 civilians have been killed nationally by 2,034 air and artillery strikes since April 4th 2019, and another 576 to 850 injured. This means that 52% of civilians killed since the end of the civil war in 2011 have been reportedly slain within the last twelve months.

Foreign meddling has exacerbated the impact on the civilian population. The LNA receives support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, Jordan and Egypt. The GNA, on the other hand, is publicly backed by Turkey and Qatar.

“The international backers have played a crucial role. The offensive of April 4th, 2019, was immediately met with tremendous resistance, and eastern Libyan fighters did not want to risk their lives for Haftar 600 miles away from home,” explains Jalel Harchaoui, Libya Research Fellow at Clingendael in The Hague.

“The reason the offensive managed to continue is because the UAE intervened militarily. Eager to offset the LNA’s weaknesses on the ground, the UAE carried out more than 900 air strikes in the greater Tripoli area last year using Chinese combat drones and, occasionally, French-made fighter jets,” Harchaoui asserts.

Airwars has recorded local reports of 1,113 LNA or Emirati strikes over the last year, whose air forces have become so intertwined that it’s often impossible to distinguish who bombed. These allegedly led to between 209 and 308 civilian deaths, making the LNA and UAE likely responsible for the majority of civilian harm in Libya since April last year.

Both air forces were also accused of conducting those individual strikes which resulted in the greatest civilian harm over the last 12 months. On July 3rd 2019, an airstrike hit a migrant detention centre in Tajoura, most likely conducted by an Emirati fighter jet, according to the BBC. The number of reported deaths has varied between 37 and 80 civilians, with OCHA and UNSMIL estimates at 44 and 53 deaths respectively. In December, a UN Panel of Experts report raised concerns about the thoroughness of the post-strike investigation at Tajoura, and suggested that deaths had been exaggerated. Conversely, interviews with some eyewitnesses indicate the death toll might actually be higher than 53.

The second biggest reported event was an airstrike on Murzuq on August 4th 2019, allegedly leading to between 42 and 45 civilian deaths, after a town hall meeting was reportedly hit. Again, the LNA or the Emirates were accused.

Turkey responded to the UAE by deploying Bayraktar TB2 drones and military advisers. In December, the two boosted their military cooperation by formalising a deal.

According to Airwars monitoring of local reports, the internationally recognised GNA government and its close ally Turkey conducted 402 air and artillery strikes over the last year, leading to between 55 and 75 civilian deaths.

Al Safwa hospital in Tripoli, allegedly damaged by LNA shelling on March 26th, 2020 (via Seraj)

Modern Turkish weaponry as a game changer

Despite an initially slow performance on the battlefield, the LNA was looking at potential victory towards the end of 2019, when its Chinese-made Wing Loong drones managed to take out several smaller Turkish drones over Tripoli. Haftar now ruled the skies – but was interrupted by the Berlin process and a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey. The agreement struck on January 18th brought a brief period of relative peace to the Libyan capital. Meanwhile, international backers used this period to smuggle even more weapons into the country, despite supposed commitments to respect the ongoing UN arms embargo.

The most important introduction was the Turkish Korkut, a state-of-the-art anti-aircraft gun. A UN source, who asked not to be named for this article, told Airwars: “If you fly within 4km of a Korkut you’re toast.” The source added that this strike range can potentially be extended to 11 km, using ATOM munition. However this is reportedly harder to deliver according to the source, making it unclear whether they are currently being used in Libya.

“The Korkuts are currently protecting Mitiga and Misurata airports and they’re easily hidden in a bush or something similar,” the source says. Turkey has supposedly deployed six of these anti-aircraft guns and by doing so “made it clear that Haftar cannot win the war. If the LNA wants to win now, they have to do something unusual on the frontline.”

In addition, Turkey provided T155 howitzers as well as armoured vehicles, the BBC uncovered recently. Mercenaries from Syria have also added manpower to weakened GNA forces.

The UAE seem to have reacted to the beefing up of its opponent’s forces by flying extra military materiel into Libya, sometimes through convoluted routes via Eritrea. What these deliveries contain is opaque: “As they fly it in via plane, it is harder to determine what the LNA received,” the UN source explains.

One interesting recent addition to the LNA’s arsenal is the Chinese-made DHI-UAV-D-1000JHV2 UAV counter-drone gun. Fighters have been spotted with the eye-catching device that takes down drones by jamming their signal on several occasions. However, who delivered the guns to the LNA is unclear according to the UN source.

a much clearer picture 🙂 pic.twitter.com/301Ygmyo4F

— Alhasairi (@Alhasairi1) March 22, 2020

The Berlin process – a failure

The weapon and mercenary influx on both sides is part of the reason why Libya’s hopes for a ceasefire – and any long-term success for the Berlin peace process – have proved disappointing. Instead of concentrating on assisting relief efforts for any local coronavirus outbreaks, Libyan forces and their international backers are instead exploiting distractions among the international community to resume fighting.

“The Berlin process has achieved little more than words on paper. Violations of the arms embargo have actually increased since the Berlin declaration,” Mary Fitzgerald says. “While it remains to be seen what the EU naval operation Irini achieves – though many are sceptical given its limited mandate – the crux of the matter is that no one is willing to name and shame the most egregious violators of the arms embargo, let alone sanction them.”

“I still do not think the LNA will be able to win. But it may enter the downtown area of Tripoli and do tremendous amounts of damage while doing so. One also has to highlight the very possible scenario where the Government of National Accord’s forces and the Turkish mission succeed in expelling the LAAF [Libyan Arab Armed Forces] from Tripolitania altogether,” Jalel Harchaoui concludes.

As the siege of Tripoli enters its second year, all Libyans face a bleak potential future – with worries over an escalating conflict; the COVID-19 pandemic; and financial uncertainties resulting from the collapse in oil prices. However this civil war may end, it will likely have grim consequences for Libya’s long suffering civilians.

▲ A fighter wears a facemask to protect from coronavirus (COVID-19), while taking part in operations in support of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) against the forces of warlord Khalifa Haftar in Tripoli, Libya on March 25, 2020. (Amru Salahuddien/ Anadolu Agency)

Published

March 23, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Airwars learns that another Coalition ally had refused to conduct deadly Hawijah strike

Newly declassified documents released by the Dutch Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs, and the Netherlands Public Prosecutor’s Office, have revealed a number of disturbing facts about Dutch airstrikes on Hawijah and Mosul in 2015 which killed dozens of civilians.

The previously secret documents show, for example, that the Dutch military official with a potential veto over its strikes – known as the Red Card Holder – was aware even before the airstrike on Hawijah in June 2015, which led to the deaths of approximately 70 civilians according to locals, that the expected damage from the strike could in fact be greater than the Collateral Damage Estimate (CDE) was indicating.

At least one other ally within the US-led Coalition had refused to conduct the Hawijah strike based on the available intelligence, Airwars has recently learned.

In December 2019, Airwars submitted a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request to the Dutch Ministry of Defence, requesting publication of the MoD’s own investigation into the bombing of an ISIS IED factory in Hawijah, Iraq, on the night of June 2nd- 3rd 2015. The airstrike caused significant secondary explosions, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians.

After withholding their role in this deadly event from the Dutch public for nearly five years, the government eventually took public responsibility in November 2019. In addition, the Dutch Ministry of Defence admitted conducting a controversial airstrike on a family home in Mosul in September 2015, in which four civilians were killed.

Collateral Damage Estimate

The Dutch MoD has now released its own additional investigation into the Hawijah case, which was finalised on June 30th 2016.

The document – mostly unredacted –  reveals that the Dutch Red Card Holder, the representative in the Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar with the option of vetoing actions which fell outside Dutch rules of engagement, was aware that the potential damage could be greater than the Collateral Damage Estimation, or CDE, was indicating.

The report states that the possibility of secondary explosions was taken into account during the planning phase by analysing previous attacks on similar targets. The report reads: “It was concluded that the expected collateral damage could be greater than the CDE indicated, but that this expected collateral damage would not extend beyond the industrial complex and that there would therefore only be material damage at night. This damage was then assessed by the Dutch Red Card Holder (RCH) as not excessive in relation to the expected military advantage.”

Airwars recently learned from a senior (non-Dutch) military official with knowledge of events that at least one other allied military within the Coalition had refused the Hawijah strike, implying that the potential risk to civilians was expected to be too high.

Excerpt of the additional investigation into the Hawijah bombing by the Dutch MoD, stating that the risk of destruction at Hawijah might be greater than the Collateral Damage Assessment was indicating.

The time of the attack had been moved “to the night hours (midnight local time) to minimise the chance of civil traffic and the presence of citizens”. However, the same report also states that the execution of the mission caused collateral damage to more than 400 buildings in the area – and that the secondary explosions that the Dutch airstrike triggered were not expected in either the targeting process, or the actual implementation of the strike. An internal Ministry of Foreign Affairs email reports that on June 4th 2015, a Coalition calculation “shows that there was probably more than 18,060 kilos of explosives stored, making this the largest ISIS IED factory ever.”

The only time the released investigation mentions civilian casualties is in its final sentence, which states that “there is a likely chance that the airstrike led to civilian casualties, but this cannot be additionally proven”. This was despite the fact that just days after the incident, respected media including Reuters were already reporting 70 civilian deaths.

The newly released emails also reveal that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was in confidential contact with the International Committee of the Red Cross about civilian casualties in the weeks following the airstrike. At the time, ICRC is said to have estimated the number of civilian fatalities in Hawijah to be as high as 170.

While the Dutch Ministry of Defence has continuously insisted that victims of Dutch airstrikes should turn to the Iraqi authorities for compensation, a 2014 internal document describing the procedure for minimising and reporting civilian casualties states that the Netherlands itself should assess incidents of civilian casualties individually for possible compensation, as there were no standard procedure. The document notes that “in the case of CIVCAS [civilian casualties] by NLD, compensation schemes will be established. There is no treaty with Iraq that includes possible claims for damages, nor is there any expectation that a treaty will come.”

Despite this, until now there has been no known effort by the Dutch Ministry of Defence to contact civilian survivors of Dutch airstrikes. On March 6th, a survivor of the Mosul strike which killed four close family members and destroyed two homes, Mr. Basim Razzo, filed a lawsuit against the Dutch government for two million US dollars.

“A perfect target and a perfect hit”

In response to additional FOIA requests by Dutch news organisations NOS and NRC, the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs have released additional internal documents and emails related to the Hawijah incident. These clearly indicate a lack of urgency or apparent concern among officials, despite the known high civilian death toll.

On June 4th for example, two days after the Hawijah incident, a Dutch official on secondment to CENTCOM emailed the MoD that “initial analysis of footage of the strike itself has shown that nothing unusual has taken place, apart from the secondary explosions.” That “nothing unusual had taken place” claim is far removed from the accounts eyewitnesses gave of the incident, some of whom compared the event to the city being “hit by a nuclear bomb”. In another email, a Dutch official based at CENTCOM writes: “A perfect target and a perfect hit, that’s what people are talking about here.”

On June 6th 2015, an internal email within the Ministry of Defence reads: “Yes, no particularities. All went well on our side. Do not expect any attention from the Public Prosecutor’s Office.” While the Ministry was clearly aware of media reports of more than 70 civilian deaths – they shared, for example a Daily Star article, now offline, mentioning 74 civilian deaths – internally on June 5th, none of the released emails express urgent concern about civilian harm.

Public Prosecutor’s investigation: slow and incomplete

The Hawijah case did eventually receive attention from the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office (OM), in order to assess whether international humanitarian law had been complied with. The OM has also now released emails and internal documents related to its investigations into the Hawijah and Mosul airstrikes, following FOIA requests by both NRC and NOS.

However, the actual investigations remain classified. Even so, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld has continuously referred to the OM Hawijah investigation during parliamentary debates. Bijleveld answered critical questions by MPs on her Ministry’s lack of transparency during a parliamentary debate on November 5th, 2019, for example, by stating that “the OM has concluded that [the bombing of Hawijah] was done lawfully” and that she trusted the OM to be a legitimate and independent institution.

The released though heavily redacted documentation indicates, however, that the OM was not investigating the lawfulness of the Hawijah action, as there was no suspicion of punishable criminal behaviour, but was instead conducting a fact-finding mission – intended to gather information about possible civilian casualties. Based on written responses from OM, NOS has reported that the fact-finding mission also started more than nine months after the incident itself, since it was only in March 2016 that the OM was informed by the Ministry of Defence about possible civilian casualties.

NRC and NOS also reported that the two pilots involved in the airstrike were only interviewed fifteen months after the incident. This is striking, because the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office was previously rebuked by the European Court of Human Rights in 2014 due to serious deficit in the Jaloud case, in which a civilian was shot dead by a Dutch soldier in Iraq in 2004. The ECHR criticised the OM for waiting six hours to interview the involved soldier, giving the soldier the time to “construct his own version of the truth”. In the case of Hawijah, it took fifteen months before involved military personnel were interviewed.

In addition to the OM investigation into Hawijah being very late, its scope was also limited. NRC reports that the OM was dependent solely upon information from Dutch military personnel. The US military also declined to cooperate, because this was a fact-finding assessment, and not an investigation into criminal acts, the declassified emails show.

The OM additionally published a previously secret MoD document providing guidance for  Dutch participation in the fight against ISIS, which indicates that guidelines were likely breached in the case of Hawijah. One states that “attacks on targets in the vicinity of densely populated areas should be avoided as much as possible,” while another notes that “all reasonable precautions should be taken to avoid wounding or killing civilians or causing damage to civilian objects.” It is unclear why this documentation was missing in the MoD’s own released records.

Excerpt of the previously classified “NLP Targeting Directives ATFME”

Victim of Mosul airstrike sues Dutch government

The newly declassified documents also reveal new information about a Dutch airstrike on Mosul in 2015, in which Mr. Basim Razzo lost his wife, daughter, brother and nephew. The pilot responsible for executing that attack recently revealed to Dutch journalists that months after the airstrike, it became clear that what they thought was an ISIS headquarters, was, in fact, a family home. The MoD’s own investigation, finalised on June 30th, 2016, nevertheless concluded that “given all the available information, there is a chance that the two villas were not a military target and that, while carrying out the mission aimed at ISIS headquarters on 20 September 2015, possible civilian casualties have fallen, but this cannot be substantiated.”

The report added that “the two villas may have been incorrectly identified by the CAOC as a legitimate military objective. This is the subject of research by the CAOC, in which the Netherlands is not involved.” The CENTCOM CIVCAS allegation closure report – dated February 13th 2017 and obtained by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal for their New York Times investigation The Uncounted, states that the intelligence for the mission was based on “only 1h 35 mins of FMV [full motion video]… collected over three different days”.

The erroneous conclusion that the house was an ISIS headquarters was based on the fact that there were no women and children seen around the property in the 95 minutes of footage, and that a person was observed opening the drive gate for cars. Mr. Razzo has stated in several interviews that his wife and daughter did not come outside because ISIS forced them to cover themselves and because it was over 40 degrees Celsius during the day at the time, and that both he or his brother would open the gates for visiting cars.

Instead of being informed by their own MoD of civilian casualties in the airstrike, the OM only started their own investigation into the Mosul case after Mr. Razzo’s relative, Professor Zareena Grewal, published an opinion piece about the case in the New York Times in October 2015.

The newly released documents additionally reveal that twice, requests from the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s Office for interviews with key witnesses in the Mosul case (presumably military officials) were denied by other nations. One response simply stated that “such interview cannot be arranged”. Another email insisted that the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty between their respective two countries only allowed for assistance when a criminal investigation was being prepared or was expected, and not in the case of a fact-finding mission.

One of the witness examination requests that was denied by another involved country

On March 6th 2020, Mr. Razzo filed a lawsuit against the Dutch government for two million US dollar. In an accompanying letter, his lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld – who is also preparing a legal case in name of Hawijah victims – writes to the Ministry of Defence that “given the very limited and conflicting intelligence, the Netherlands should have declined to execute the strike.” The MoD was given three weeks to respond to the claim.

▲ Library image: A Dutch F-16 pilot checking missiles before take-off from an airbase in Jordan (Netherlands defence ministry)

Published

March 15, 2020

Written by

Chris Woods

Assisted by

Abbie Cheeseman

Key European allies are denying dozens of civilian deaths from their own actions - even where the US-led Coalition finds such cases to be credible.

A major international investigation has found compelling evidence that several of the US’s key European allies in the war against so-called Islamic State routinely deny civilian harm from their own actions – even where specialist US military personnel within the international Coalition have assessed such cases to be credible.

Three European countries are implicated – the United Kingdom, France and Belgium – a lengthy investigation by the BBC, Libération, De Morgen and RTL Netherlands has found.

BBC News: US military says strikes may have killed civilians

Libération: Syrie-Irak : ces frappes meurtrières que les Etats refusent de reconnaître

De Morgen: De veertig burgerslachtoffers die niemand erkent, ook België niet

A total of eleven specific civilian harm events have so far been identified – involving the officially confirmed deaths of at least 40 Iraqi and Syrian civilians during 2017 and 2018. No European ally will admit to the fatalities.

“Cases like this expose a fundamental gap in accountability created by multinational coalitions,” notes Dan Mahanty of the US advocacy organisation CIVIC. “If warring parties simply collude to hide their actions, they can also evade their responsibilities. For civilians who lost loved ones or had their livelihoods destroyed, it means losing any hope of remedy, or even basic acknowledgement of their loss. It’s a pretty significant affront to their dignity.”

US admissions

The problem incidents came to light after the US Defense Department was legally required to report to Congress in May 2019, on all recent confirmed civilian deaths from US military actions. That Pentagon report declared 170 incidents for Iraq and Syria during 2017; and a further 13 events during 2018.

However, when Airwars then crossmatched the 183 declared US civilian harm events against those cases the anti-ISIS Coalition had officially conceded during the same period, it identified 14 further incidents which had been omitted. Several senior US defense officials independently confirmed to Airwars that all credible non-US civilian harm events had been explicitly excluded from the list given by DoD to Congress.

Three of these ‘missing’ events were previously confirmed Australian civilian harm cases. That left eleven civilian harm incidents which had not publicly been admitted by any US ally – for example the deaths of three civilians on May 28th 2017 including Hayat, the wife of Mustafa al-Saguri, who died alongside her young daughter and a third unknown civilian at al Hammam in Raqqa province.

The US-led Coalition had admitted those deaths in April 2019, noting that “Regrettably, the strike on an associated target building unintentionally resulted in the deaths of three civilians.” But which US ally was responsible?

During 2017 and 2018, five partners were still active alongside the US in the war against ISIS: the UK, France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Australia. With the al Hammam incident not included in the Pentagon’s report of US-caused civilian harm events to Congress, Airwars then crossmatched this and ten other unclaimed incidents, against published strike reports by the US’s allies for the dates in question.

In June 2019, Airwars wrote to each nation’s military, requesting confirmation of whether its forces had been responsible or not for specific confirmed civilian harm events.

Australia quickly responded that it had not conducted either of the incidents it had potentially been flagged in, noting definitively that “Australian aircraft did not conduct either of the strikes on 9 January 2017 and 15 May 2017.” Nine months later, the Dutch ministry of defence finally confirmed that it was not responsible for those deadly strikes it had in theory been linked to.

With indirect confirmation that the eleven officially confirmed civilian harm events had been the responsibility of three European militaries, Airwars then approached major news organisations with which it had engaged previously on civilian harm issues. The BBC, Libération, RTL Netherlands and De Morgen each then pursued its own national investigation, with an agreed joint embargo.

 

Britain: admits strikes but denies civilian deaths

The most comprehensive admission during the investigation came from the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD), which is among the more transparent members of the US-led Coalition.

Of the six potential UK events flagged to it by Airwars, the MoD confirmed by letter that it had been responsible for three of the strikes which the Coalition assessed had killed at least 15 civilians. However, the UK then refuted the US-led Coalition’s findings, insisting that no civilians had in fact died.

The first event took place at Mosul, Iraq on January 9th 2017, and had already sparked a BBC investigation after a military whistleblower within the Coalition had reported civilian deaths from an RAF strike. The Ministry of Defence had over-ruled that view, determining that no civilians had been harmed.

Following the BBC’s investigation, US military personnel at the Coalition had themselves then assessed the event – determining it to be Credible in March 2018 and noting that “two civilians were unintentionally killed.” In a detailed letter to Airwars, the MoD justified its own continuing refusal to accept civilian deaths:

We looked at this incident very closely indeed. It happened in an area of active fighting between Daesh and the Iraqi security forces, and neither the troops on the ground nor the coalition aircraft detected any signs of a civilian presence in the area either before or after the truck-bomb was destroyed. The group of men, by their movements and behaviour, showed every sign of being Daesh fighters – particularly the presence of a motorcyclist, frequently used by the terrorists to scout ahead during the street fighting…. We therefore concluded that, if the group did indeed sustain casualties, they were extremely likely to have been Daesh terrorists; we have no reason to believe, on the evidence available, that they were civilians.

The second RAF strike took place at Raqqa, Syria on August 13th 2017. According to the US-led Coalition, 12 civilians died after “Coalition aircraft engaged ISIS fighters utilizing a mortar system in a building used as a defensive fighting position.” Among the victims locally named that day were Walid Awad Al Qus and his young daughter Limar.

The Coalition’s admission of 12 deaths in this event represented one of the highest confirmed tallies for the entire battle of Raqqa, which an Amnesty International/ Airwars investigation later concluded had seen at least 1,600 civilians killed by Coalition actions.

Once again accepting the strike but denying the civilian deaths, the MoD asserted: “A single individual was seen on weapons system video moving in the area just prior to the impact of one of our weapons. There is no evidence that this individual was a civilian, as opposed to one of the Daesh fighters engaged with the [SDF]. We have certainly not seen any evidence that twelve civilian casualties were caused.”

In the final event, an RAF drone strike on January 20th 2018 killed one civilian nearby, according to an internal assessment by the US-led Coalition. Once again, the British reached a different conclusion. “Careful analysis was conducted of the available footage and of all available reports from the area. These showed that there was no evidence of civilians being present in the location, and the footage identified a weapon being carried by the likely casualty. It was therefore concluded that said individual was very likely a Daesh extremist and not a civilian.”

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

In effect, the UK has set the burden of proof so high that it is almost impossible for the MoD to reach a determination of civilian casualties – even when its most powerful ally the US concludes the exact opposite, critics say.

Chris Cole of the advocacy group Drone Wars UK accused the Ministry of Defence of overly focusing on managing public perceptions of war, rather than looking at appropriate levels of transparency: “We end up with obfuscation, secrecy and – as these revelations show – a kind of internal structural self-denial, where it has become seemingly impossible for the MoD even to accept that civilian casualties have occurred.”

Library image: Missiles being loaded onto an RAF Tornado prior to a mission against Daesh (via Ministry of Defence)

Belgium: “Certainly not involved in all events”

Belgium, which ended its involvement in the war against ISIS in late 2017, was potentially implicated in at least nine incidents which the US-led Coalition had deemed credible, an initial review concluded. While two of the strikes were later admitted by the UK, at least 23 civilians had died in the other seven events in which Belgium was implicated, according to US officials.

Several of these incidents were already known. In May 2017, a senior Belgian official had briefed Airwars that the Government was planning to admit two civilian harm events in Iraq earlier that year – one at al Qaim on February 27th, and a second event on March 21st near Mosul. Between them, the US-led Coalition had itself concluded, the strikes had killed at least two civilians and injured four others.

However Belgium then failed not only to declare its role in the strikes, but also publicly denied any civilian harm – which led in turn to a front page news story in De Morgen at the time.

Asked in June 2019 to say whether its aircraft were responsible for officially declared civilian harm in up to nine incidents, the Belgian Ministry of Defence told Airwars by email: “For the year 2017, BAF [Belgian Armed Forces] was certainly not involved in all events. With regard to the other data given, BAF was no longer present in theatre. BAF completed its role at the end of 2017. Our conclusion is that all ROEs [rules of engagement] were respected as confirmed by our federal court.”

That comment by Belgium – that it “was certainly not involved in all events”, appears to be tacit confirmation that their aircraft were involved in confirmed civilian harm events. However it remains unclear whether the Ministry accepts the Coalition’s own findings in any Credible case.

In its own investigation, De Morgen features Muhammad Sheikh Sa’ab, whose leg was amputated following a likely Belgian or French airstrike on May 12th-13th 2017. He was one of the lucky ones. The US-led Coalition acknowledges at least 10 deaths, while locals insist more people died. Survivors and relatives may never know which military was responsible.

“Belgium and other Coalition countries cannot bomb and then simply decide to look away from the deadly consequences. If there is proof of civilian casualties, the Belgian government needs to take responsibility,” argues Willem Staes of the Belgian advocacy organisation 11.11.11. “Mature democracies need to ensure both transparency and accountability, and provide civilian victims with adequate compensation and restitution.”

De Morgen interviewed the survivor of a probable Belgian or French airstrike which in 2017 killed at least 10 civilians, according to the US-led Coalition.

The Netherlands: Last minute transparency

When the Dutch government admitted in November 2019 that its aircraft had been responsible for the deaths of approximately 70 civilians in Hawijah, Iraq almost five years earlier – a fact which had been hidden from both Parliament and the Dutch people – defence minister Ank Bijleveld promised new transparency standards. Yet for much of this investigation, it seemed little had changed.

In June 2019, Dutch defence officials were informed of two Coalition-confirmed civilian harm events in which their aircraft were potentially involved.

While one of those events was later confirmed to be a British strike, a second at al Bahrah, Syria on February 9th 2018 still implicated both the Dutch and French militaries. “One civilian was unintentionally killed as a motorcycle entered the impact area moments before the strike,” US military investigators had concluded in August of that year.

In late January 2020, Dutch officials verbally informed Airwars that they would be neither confirming nor denying their involvement in the two Coalition-confirmed civilian harm events.

However, in a last minute turnaround, on March 13th defence officials informed Airwars and RTL Netherlands that they had not, in fact, been involved in either of the incidents, stating that “In the interests of increased transparency, we can now explicitly answer your question about these air raids. As far as the Ministry of Defense is aware, these attacks did not involve Dutch forces.” It was also indicated that from now on, the Netherlands planned to be more transparent in such cases.

“Better late than never, this is a major step in the right direction for Dutch military transparency and accountability. If implemented fully, this should benefit past and future civilian victims seeking information, assistance or compensation and it should benefit parliamentary oversight of Dutch participation in military operations,” says Wilbert van der Zeijden, a team coordinator focused on Protection of Civilians at PAX.

Library image: A Dutch F-16 pilot checking missiles before take-off from an airbase in Jordan (Netherlands Defence Ministry)

France: a refusal to engage

According to an initial review, France was potentially implicated in up to nine Coalition-confirmed civilian harm events during 2017 and 2018. While the UK has since explicitly confirmed its role in several of those strikes, France remains implicated in seven events which between them killed at least 24 civilians.

Despite conducting more air and artillery actions than any Coalition member other than the United States, the French have yet to admit to a single civilian death in their six year war against so-called Islamic State.

That silence continues. After confirming receipt from Airwars in June 2019 of details of possible French civilian casualty events, the defence ministry then ceased communication – refusing to answer all emails ever since.

Marie Forestier, who is part of the Libération team investigating civilian harm from French strikes, previously reported for the newspaper that “200 allegations of civilian casualties potentially involving the French military have been investigated.” Yet details of those investigations remain secret.

Officials do not deny that civilians have been killed by French actions. Even so, they insist that those numbers must remain buried within broader Coalition numbers.

With the United States, the UK and the Netherlands each explicitly denying involvement in a Coalition-confirmed event near al Bahrah village in Syria on February 9th 2018, only France now appears liable. Yet Ministry officials are still refusing to confirm or deny their involvement in the confirmed death of a civilian that day, according to Libération.

“The French Ministry of Defense has refused to answer direct questions and followup questions. As there is a total lack of interest from MPs, media, and public opinion in France, the Army remains unchallenged and is not encouraged to reveal more information. As a result, there is no scrutiny on French airstrikes and no accountability” asserts reporter Marie Forestier, who has been examining French accountability for civilian harm for several years.

Library: French artillery crews in action against ISIS in May 2019 (Image via Armee francaise)

Widening gulf between US and Europe

Airwars is calling for a major review by European powers of their approach to civilian harm assessments – where the US now leads on best practice.

“US military officials are certainly no pushover when it comes to determining civilian harm. Around nine out of ten claimed civilian casualty events assessed by the Coalition since 2014 have been rejected, our analysis shows,” says Dmytro Chupryna, deputy director of Airwars.

“Even so, this investigation reveals a complete unwillingness by most European allies to admit civilian harm from their own strikes – even where US military personnel determine otherwise. Europe’s civilian casualty assessment processes are presently unfit for purpose.”

On May 12th 2017, during the fierce battle for Raqqa, at least 10 and as many as 20 civilians died when Coalition aircraft attacked Asadiya farm, to the north of the city. According to local reports the dead included Khalil Dhammaage; Hassan Ismail Al Zeyabage; Muhammad Al-Nasehage; and Abu Baraa and his entire family.

Three months later, Coalition military officials concluded that “During a strike on ISIS fighters, it was assessed that 10 civilians were unintentionally killed in a building adjacent to the target.” Yet to this day, neither Belgium nor France will say whether their aircraft killed those ten or more civilians. Remaining families have no chance of an explanation, an apology, or compensation.

According to Dan Mahanty of CIVIC, “the record now clearly shows that a public accounting of civilian harm carries few risks and more than a few benefits for belligerents. It’s a shame that the overall record of transparency and accountability for the US-led Coalition is rendered less meaningful because a few governments prefer to hide in the crowd.”

In six weeks, the Pentagon is due by law to make its latest disclosure to Congress on civilian harm claims from US actions, covering a period in which at least 44 additional civilian harm events have been confirmed by the Coalition in Iraq and Syria. How many of these will again emerge as non-US events remains to be seen.

▲ A March 2017 airstrike during the battle for Mosul against Islamic State. While the US-led Coalition has admitted almost 1,400 civilian deaths during the war, European allies have remained almost silent about their own responsibility. (Via Reuters/ Alaa Al-Marjani)

Published

February 25, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars review raises tally of declared strikes, and reported civilian and militant deaths.

Airwars has launched a major new online resource for Somalia, providing the most comprehensive look yet at more than a decade of US counterterrorism actions in eastern Africa, and associated civilian harm claims.

The nine month review has identified significantly higher levels of locally reported civilian harm than previously thought, with up to 280 non combatants alleged killed in US actions since 2007. Declared US actions and reported militant deaths are also sharply up.

In Spring 2019, Airwars took over from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism its own long running monitoring of US drone strikes and civilian harm in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, with some Somalia events dating back as far as 2007. The first step was to bring event monitoring across to Airwars’ own standards. Over nine months, the team comprehensively reviewed several hundred declared and alleged US airstrikes and ground actions in Somalia, and 61 claimed civilian casualty incidents.

Event assessments were also significantly reoriented towards local Somali voices, adding many hundreds of new sources – including videos, photos, and social media posts. Airwars also worked closely with other NGOs, researchers and investigative reporters to ensure that their own important findings were incorporated.

The result is the most comprehensive understanding yet of US military and CIA actions in Somalia against al Shabaab, ISIS and al Qaeda over a thirteen year span.

    Overall, there are more than 280 declared and alleged US kinetic actions in Somalia since 2007 in the data – with 61 alleged civilian harm events. With a wider focus on US ground operations plus important new FOIA  information, Airwars now places the number of declared US actions at more than 200 (40% up on previous estimates.) The likely civilian fatality range from US actions is significantly up from the Bureau’s former estimate of 10 to 58 deaths, to Airwars’ own minimum estimate of 71 to 139 civilians killed since 2007 – with 284 non combatants locally alleged slain in total. Event data has also identified claims of as many as 2,320 al Shabaab and ISIS militants allegedly killed by US forces.

Airwars geolocation of all strikes and reported civilian harm opens up new mapping capabilities.

“Adding Somalia to our roster of monitored conflicts helps bring greater public scrutiny to this long running US campaign,” says Airwars director Chris Woods.

“While AFRICOM itself has admitted just two civilian deaths in more than a decade of strikes against terrorist groups like al Shabaab, the true toll is significantly higher. Our work with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria shows that militaries can improve their understanding and admission of civilian harm, when their actions are routinely and publicly scrutinised.”

A comprehensive Airwars approach to both strike reports and casualty monitoring has seen thousands of additional sources being added to the Bureau’s original records – most of them via local Somali media and social media. Hundreds of photographs and videos have also been added – with the names of dozens of Somali victims now listed in our comprehensive and fully searchable public database.

Airwars has also geolocated all declared and claimed US actions in Somalia since 2007 – with consultant design team Rectangle building comprehensive new maps and timelines which can now be searched separately by civilian fatalities; militant fatalities; strike locations; and strike targets. A fully searchable database can also refine by civilian harm events; civilian victim names, age and gender where known; declared versus possible US actions; and air versus ground actions.

In addition, Airwars has also permanently preserved the Bureau’s own decade-long research into Somalia – ensuring that future researchers and academics will always be able to interrogate its own groundbreaking findings. Hundreds of the Bureau’s archive news stories on US actions in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan have also been added to the Airwars site.

“If you don’t even count how many air strikes there are and how many civilians are being killed, what chance is there of reducing casualties?” notes Meirion Jones, deputy editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “The Bureau has been chronicling the death toll in Somalia for 10 years, and is now proud to hand that task over to Airwars which already does such a thorough job of counting strikes and casualties in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Airwars provided US Africa Command with comprehensive details of  alleged civilian harm events in Somalia during 2019, and also asked for clarification on alleged US actions that year. Officials have now confirmed no US military involvement in 21 claimed events last year – while promising to respond on civilian harm claims in the near future.

Several thousand militants have allegedly been killed by US actions in Somalia since 2007.

▲ The funeral of Abow Ali Wardi, according to al Shabaab killed in a lethal US drone strike on June 25th 2019 (via SomaliMemo)

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

February 6, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Book authors say pilots wish for more government openness about Dutch military campaigns

 

“After a few months, it turned out that it had indeed been a wrong target. An error had been made in the intelligence process. Instead of being an ISIS target, it turned out to just be a house. A mix-up in targets. You think: shit, it’s not possible, is it? I felt sick when I heard about it. Terrible, yes. I feel co-responsible. I launched that bomb and pressed the button. I ended the lives of people who had nothing to do with the war. That is a very particular experience. It’s a slap in your face. It goes against everything you are there for. You are there to help the Iraqi people.”

Dutch F-16 pilot ‘Stefan’, describing his role in a deadly Mosul airstrike in 2015 which killed four family members. Translation of an excerpt from the book Missie F-16 by Olof van Joolen and Silvan Schoonhoven (2019, Nieuw Amsterdam)

 

Dutch F-16s conducted hundreds of airstrikes against the terror group ISIS in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018. Yet the Netherlands has been one of the least transparent countries when it comes to possible civilian casualties from US-led Coalition actions.

Part of the reason for that Dutch secrecy has been an insistence that pilots and their families must be protected from retaliation – and until now the community has been tight, with almost no outside access. Now De Telegraaf journalists Olof van Joolen and Silvan Schoonhoven have managed to speak with Dutch pilots for their book Missie F-16 (‘F-16 Mission’), which was published in November 2019.

The book is a history of the Dutch use of F-16s in aerial warfare. The authors interviewed pilots who flew during the Cold War; the war in former Yugoslavia; and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Covering more recent conflicts, they also interviewed pilots who were operating in Libya in 2011; and in the US-led Coalition against ISIS.

The book deals surprisingly frankly with pilot concern about civilian harm – and challenges an ongoing insistence on secrecy by the Dutch ministry of defence. Airwars has been speaking with the authors.

The Mosul Incident

Olof van Joolen (a defence reporter) and Silvan Schoonhoven (reporting on terrorism and security services) published their book earlier than scheduled on November 13th 2019, after Dutch media outlets NOS and NRC broke their story about the Netherlands being responsible for at least 70 civilian deaths in Hawijah, Iraq in June 2015.

In response to that investigation, Dutch Minister of Defence Bijleveld also acknowledged responsibility for an airstrike in Mosul on September 20th, 2015, which had led to the deaths of four civilians. The book’s authors had been able to speak with Basim Razzo, who lost his brother, wife, daughter and nephew in the attack – as well as the pilot who had dropped the bomb on the Razzo house. Previously, it had been though that a US aircraft had carried out the attack.

What was it like interviewing Stefan, the pilot who dropped the bomb on the Razzo house? Schoonhoven: “We realised that he was completely drowning in this story. He was ready to tell us everything – from start to finish. He couldn’t share this with his family. These past weeks have been very tough for him – to see a videotaped interview with Basim Razzo. He had read about him, but not seen his face, let alone see him cry.”

Van Joolen: “He really would have liked to see this handled properly. He feels terrible about it. People expect some master plan from the Ministry of Defence in incidents like this. Trust me, that wasn’t the case.”

Cousins Najeeb and Tuka Razzo were among four family members killed in a Dutch F-16 airstrike in 2015 (Image courtesy of family)

Discrepancy between official and Airwars numbers

In a chapter on civilian casualties, pilot Jeffrey, nickname “Scatman”, is asked about what he thinks of Airwars estimates of civilian casualties.

“Airwars delivers nonsensical numbers”, claims Scatman. “I don’t believe that the American [military’s lower] numbers are wrong. It just doesn’t work that way. I know exactly where I flew myself and the exact metre where my bomb fell. How do they think it works? That you can secretly make casualties somewhere and then say later: “No, it wasn’t me”? And that you can get away with it?”

[Editor’s note: More than half of all Coalition-confirmed civilian harm events during 2019 were referrals from Airwars, with the alliance itself previously failing to identify  concerns. It is clear that pilots are often unaware of the consequences of their actions.]

This quote seems quite ironic now we know that this is exactly what happened for more than four years with the Hawija case. Schoonhoven: “His quote is about how he just cannot believe, from his own experiences, that the general Airwars numbers are correct. He thinks that they would have seen if indeed so many civilian casualties had fallen in the more than 2,000 airstrikes that the Netherlands carried out.”

Yet, you did not further dive into that discrepancy between the Airwars numbers and the official Coalition numbers. How did you make sure that this book did not become an uncritical outlet for pilots? Van Joolen: “I think that is a strange question. If you read the book, that is not the case. We also talked to Bassim Razzo. We wouldn’t have if we just wanted to write a glorious story about pilots. As a journalist, you can conclude that there is an Airwars number and that there is an official number, and you should mention both. We did that.”

Schoonhoven: “And if we were an outlet for the Dutch air forces, we would not even have mentioned Airwars.”

But you did not further dive into possible explanations for this massive difference. Schoonhoven: “There is a remarkable discrepancy. I cannot explain that. I believe Airwars is a legit organisation, but at the same time, I believe what Scatman says. That it is impossible to throw a bomb and then pretend you did not throw it. It’s always going to come out.”

Authors Silvan Schoonhoven (left) and Olof van Joolen with their book Missie F-16 in the office of Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf

Pilot safety

The Ministry of Defence, when asked about their lack of transparency for airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, has continually pointed to the safety of pilots and families. Yet some pilots in your book are mentioned with their full names and even pilots who were active during the fight against ISIS are pictured in their aircraft. How did you experience this safety issue when interviewing pilots themselves?

Van Joolen: “They generally don’t have issues with being photographed. They are not really clearly distinguishable people. Once they put on their jeans rather than their uniform, you couldn’t point them out. They are more worried about their full names being published. Now you might have a photo of Scatman, but it’s not online and very hard to connect to his real name. With a full name, you could find his address.”

“There is a lot of, not sure if it is the right word, trauma among these guys. The death of Jordanian pilot Moaz Al Kasabeh, who was captured by ISIS and burned to death in a cage, really left an impact. We interviewed a Dutch pilot who just spoke to Al Kasabeh on the military base in Jordan before Al Kasabeh went on his final mission. But the real fear among pilots is for their families. Their worst fear is being ‘over there’ and that there is someone back home standing near their wife, mother or children. That is when they feel threatened.”

Bottlenecks in transparency

How did officials react when they heard you were writing a book about this topic, as they have been notoriously secretive? Van Joolen: “I need to give my compliments to the Dutch air force. Whenever you publish something that involves still active military personnel, they need to approve it. Not at any time during our research have they said that we could not write something down or should change something.”

“However, something interesting occurred during our research. Pilots continuously talked to us about ‘confirmed kills’. They would say something like: “One night I had 50 confirmed kills!” The Brits have been publishing reports of these confirmed kills. So we asked the air force if we could receive a list as well. And then they said: “We do not have such a list.” I don’t believe that. The pilots kept referring to ‘confirmed kills’, but there is no official record of this? And if the Brits can publish such a list, why can’t we?”

Do you think the pilots themselves are receptive towards more transparency? Van Joolen: “Absolutely, one hundred per cent. In fact, it would help many of them. In the book we write for example write about the case of Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Back home, people thought our men were building schools and wells there, when in fact, they were risking their lives and losing their colleagues. Because it was sold as a “school building mission”. That is breaking soldiers. It is incredibly important for military personnel that people at home know what they were doing, so that when they come back, they can deal with their traumas.”

What then do you think is the main issue with improving transparency? Van Joolen: “The interesting question is: where is the bottleneck when it comes to transparency in the Netherlands? From all the interviews we have had, I think the issue is with the Department of Defence, rather than in the armed forces. There’s this quote in the book by Johan van Deventer, who is currently acting head of operations. He said: “I handed in a list in my final report as detachment commandant in the fight against ISIS, in which I explicitly stated how many fighters, buildings and vehicles we eliminated.” They did not like that in The Hague. “Did you have to do that,” they told him. Some got angry. That is a very telling quote about the mindset in The Hague.”

“That is one of the points we are trying to make with this book: stop with all the strange secrecy. Admit that if you sent a unit of F-16s, you are sending our most effective weapon to do its job. You should be transparent about that, so that people know what you are doing there. I found it very shocking to hear from military personnel who talked with Members of Parliament how little knowledge MPs had about the reality of war. They really have no idea.”

Postscript: From truth to accountability

In an interview with Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad on January 24th, 2020, Basim Razzo, the survivor of the deadly airstrike on his house in Mosul, stated that he still had not received an apology from the Dutch government, despite the public acknowledgement of Dutch responsibility.

As Mr Razzo noted: “I can’t think of a reason why I haven’t heard from the Dutch government. Out of decency and as a moral act of acknowledging responsibility, I expect them to contact me and do the right thing. I think I am entitled to an official apology and then a real compensation for the loss of four lives and two houses.”

Due to the lack of action on the side of the Dutch state, Razzo is now being supported by human rights lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, who aims to hold the Dutch government accountable for the loss and damage which Mr Razzo and his family have endured, stating to Algemeen Dagblad that “it’s actually shameful that we are have to follow legal proceedings for that”.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence told Algemeen Dagblad that they did not know why Razzo had not been contacted yet, but that a letter will be send to Parliament shortly outlining possible victim compensation.

The spokesperson also asserted that “the Netherlands is responsible, but not liable. Nevertheless, we want to see what we can do for the communities on a voluntary basis.” That letter to Parliament is expected in mid February 2020, indicating whether the Netherlands is ready not only to acknowledge the truth of its actions, but also to take accountability when strikes go wrong.

▲ LIBRARY: During the war against ISIS, a pilot sits in the cockpit of a Dutch F-16 with a second aircraft in the background (Image via Dutch MoD)