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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)

Published

December 24, 2019

Written by

Mohammed al Jumaily

Despite October ceasefires, the violence has continued with atrocities alleged on both sides.

Eleven weeks on from the October 9th launch of a Turkish-led offensive against Kurds in northern Syria, known as ‘Operation Peace Spring’, fighting continues to rage with civilians still encountering significant violence.

Since the beginning of the latest clashes, Airwars researchers have overall monitored between 244 and 312 reported civilian deaths resulting from air, artillery and ground action by both sides, as well as the wounding of between 705 and 924 civilians.

See our searchable database of reported Turkish civilian harm events in Syria

The recent conflict between Turkish-led forces and the Kurds has also seen a sharp rise in reported atrocities from both sides, which could be considered war crimes according to international law.

While the majority of civilian deaths tracked by Airwars resulted from actions by Turkey and its proxies, around one in four fatalities were however reportedly caused by Kurdish strikes – a significant change from Afrin.

Between 172 and 225 civilian fatalities and between 419 and 553 civilian injuries were attributed by local sources to Turkey and its proxy forces in Syria across 117 incidents, which are presently graded as fairly reported by Airwars. This means that two or more credible, uncontested sources have reported civilian harm blamed on a specific belligerent.

Meanwhile, between 55 and 64 civilian fatalities and between 208 and 260 injuries were attributed to Kurdish armed groups in 35 civilian harm incidents for which Airwars has assessed the reporting as fair.

Reported civilian harm from Kurdish counterfire – the incidents

The offensive, which Turkey had been preparing for since July 2019, followed the chaotic initial withdrawal of US forces from Syria in a bid by President Trump to deflate US-Turkish tensions. The assault by Ankara is the latest in a long history of hostilities between the Turkish state, and Kurdish separatists affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

However, more recent tensions began after the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), operating under the broader umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began to grow in prominence in northern Syria during their successful campaign against ISIS, with the support of the United States and the international Coalition.

The SDF’s growing strength despite thousands of losses in the war against ISIS – and the significant territory it now controlled in northern Syria – reportedly elevated fears in Ankara that an autonomous administration dominated by the YPG on its restive border could inspire separatist sentiments amongst Kurds in southern Turkey.

The apparent purpose of this incursion, therefore, was both to weaken the YPG, and to create a buffer zone along the Syria-Turkey border, by driving out the local Kurdish population and replacing it with forcibly returned Syrian refugees, a policy which some academics and commentators have described as displaying the hallmarks of ethnic cleansing.

‘Operation Peace Spring’

The beginning of the recent campaign saw Turkish forces and their proxy allies on the ground bombard key towns and urban settlements under the control of the SDF. such as Ras al-Ain in Hasakah province; Tal Abyad in Raqqa province; and Kobani in Aleppo province, as well as numerous other civilian-populated areas of northern Syria. The SDF in turn hit back, targeting Turkish forces and affiliated groups’ positions in Syria as well as towns in southern Turkey.

In stark contrast to Turkey’s Afrin campaign in January 2018 – when the SDF had also been embroiled in their major campaign against ISIS in northeastern Syria, leaving them vulnerable to Turkey’s offensive – Kurdish forces appeared more prepared this time. The proportion of Kurdish counterstrikes to Turkish attacks in this campaign are significantly higher than previous campaigns, as evidenced by Airwars monitoring. In the Afrin campaign, there were 4.75 Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident, while in comparison during this latest confrontation, there have been three Turkish incidents for every Kurdish incident.

While supposed ceasefires between the warring parties were reached on October 17th and October 22nd, mediated by Washington and Moscow respectively, the violence did not cease and civilians continued to be caught in attacks. Since October 18th, following the implementation of the ceasefire, 57 additional civilian harm event allegations have been levelled against Turkey and 25 such allegations against Kurdish forces.

The worst reported event since October 17th occurred just one day after the ceasefire was announced in the village of Zirgan, close to the city of Ras al-Ain, where between 12 and 19 civilians were killed, including four children, in what Kurdish media sources described as a massacre.

Turkish jets struck a convoy heading from Cizire to Serekaniye. Initial reports say that the airstrike left many people dead or wounded. Journalists from France and Brazil are also reported to be in the targeted convoy. pic.twitter.com/LfJlmfrkbZ

— Firat News Agency (@anfenglish) October 13, 2019

The ineffectual ceasefire also failed to protect humanitarian workers from harm. On November 3rd, a Doctors Without Borders convoy was targeted by an alleged Turkish mortar strike, killing Zau Seng, a member of the Free Burma Rangers and injuring three others.

Today, Nov. 3, our Kachin cameraman and medic from Burma, Zau Seng, was killed today by an FSA/Turkish Army mortar strike that hit our CCP. Our Iraqi coordinator was also wounded. Thank you for your prayers during this time. https://t.co/LT1YANLbj1

— Free Burma Rangers (@FreeBurmaRangrs) November 3, 2019

Diplomatic negotiations between Ankara, Moscow and Washington gave the Kurds time to withdraw their forces 30km back from a 120km long strip along the Turkey-Syria border – at least partially granting Turkey its ‘safe zone’.

However, this was achieved at the expense of a humanitarian crisis in northern Syria. Beyond the disastrous loss of life, hundreds of thousands have been forcefully displaced as a result of the fighting. According to Refugee International, over 215,000 people have so far been driven from their homes as a result of the offensive, compounding an already bleak humanitarian situation in northeast Syria, where, according to the United Nations, 1.3 million people were already in need of humanitarian assistance.

Allegations of war crimes

Civil society activists, human rights groups, medical personnel and journalists have all accused the Turkish military and Turkish-backed groups of committing war crimes and human rights violations over the course of the offensive. These abuses have taken various forms. Local sources have for example reported numerous cases of summary execution of civilians and public officials.

The most notorious case was the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army’s (SNA) execution of Hevrin Khalaf of the Syria Future Party and the mutilation of her body, which was captured on camera. Numerous other cases have emerged of Turkish-backed forces summarily executing civilians and combatants alike. The M4 highway, which runs parallel with Syria’s northern border with Turkey has become synonymous with summary executions and extrajudicial killings. A plethora of videos have emerged showing Turkish-backed forces taunting victims before killing them and mutilating their bodies.

Here are the murderer gangs of leader of Future of Syria Party MARTYR Hevrin Khalaf. pic.twitter.com/bYDwWolc1N

— Turkey Untold (@TurkeyUntold) October 12, 2019

However, there is also ample evidence to indicate that atrocities have been carried out by both sides of the conflict. In one case, on October 20th, YPG forces reportedly handcuffed and executed seven civilians, including three from the same family in Ras al-Ain on charges of conspiring with Turkish-backed forces in the region. The fact that these atrocities have been so widespread from both sides points to an unprecedented level of brutality in this campaign, that was absent even from the Afrin offensive in 2018.

Additionally, reports have emerged of indiscriminate shelling by Turkey of medical facilities in Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad, as well as civilian-populated neighbourhoods of major cities such as Qamishli.

Turkish backed forces have also been accused of looting and pillaging the property of civilians, with numerous reports emerging over the course of the conflict suggesting that the SNA had allegedly ransacked homes, shops, businesses and farms belonging to civilians in northern Syria.

Finally, the suspected use of prohibited weapons, allegedly by Turkey, has been well documented by journalists and medical personnel. According to a report by Dr Abbas Mansouran, a senior member of the medical staff at the main hospital of Hasakah, approximately 30 victims, mostly civilians were admitted to the hospital with severe and unusual burns and injuries, which he believes were caused by chemical weapons use, specifically the use of white phosphorus munitions.

According to Dr Mansouran, Turkish forces may have used dense inert metal explosive (DIME) bombs, which have similar chemical properties to white phosphorus.

    Airwars reached out for comment from both Turkish and YPG military authorities for this article, though had received no response at time of publication.
▲ A civilian in a wheelchair and his helper attempt to flee Mishrafa village, Hasakah Governorate, Syria, on October 9th following an alleged Turkish strike (via @dersi4m)

Published

December 19, 2019

Written by

Chris Woods

Airwars analysis of official data indicates US officials were privately acknowledging 70 civilian deaths at Hawijah, long before the Dutch government admitted the event.

The Netherlands Ministry of Defence (Defensie) has provided an inaccurate statement to both MPs and the media, Airwars analysis indicates – on the eve of a critical parliamentary debate on the deaths of scores of civilians in Iraq which had resulted from a Dutch airstrike in 2015.

Credible reports at the time had indicated that at least 70 civilians died at Hawijah in June 2015, after a Coalition airstrike detonated ISIS explosives held in a VBIED factory. Much of the surrounding neighbourhood was destroyed, and the Coalition almost immediately ordered an inquiry into the attack, which has never been published.

However it was only on November 4th 2019 that the Dutch government finally admitted responsibility for Hawijah – following a major investigation by news organisations NOS and NRC.

Since then, as a political crisis has engulfed the coalition government, Defensie has sought to play down or dismiss reports that 70 civilians died at Hawijah – and also that US defence officials had privately conceded those deaths long before the Dutch admission.

Dismissing the evidence

One problem for Defensie was that several pieces of evidence appeared to contradict their denials of 70 civilian deaths. In April 2017 CENTCOM officials had declared 80 non-US civilian deaths, in frustration at their unnamed Coalition allies not accepting public responsibility for events. The suspicion remains that Hawijah formed a significant proportion of those 80 deaths.

Then in December 2018, an on the record email to Dutch reporters from then-Coalition official spokesman Colonel Sean Ryan explicitly stated that “The strike to the VBIED factory caused secondary explosions that unfortunately killed 70 civilians despite the precautions the Coalition took to mitigate civilian casualties.”

Finally, in a declassified 2018 Pentagon report produced by the US National Defense University (NDU) – which was obtained by the Washington Post and published in February 2019 – a graphic appeared to show a clear casualty spike in official US military tallies of civilian deaths in Iraq, at exactly the point at which Hawijah occurred.

With the US-led Coalition recently and inexplicably withdrawing its estimate of 70 civilians killed at Hawijah, Defensie is also now seeking to downplay the importance of the NDU graphic.

In a statement issued to parliament on December 18th, the defense ministry claimed that the NDU graphic did not in fact feature the Hawijah data, asserting instead that “It can be concluded from the table that, based on investigations into possible civilian casualties as a result of the Coalition’s deployment of weapons, CENTCOM was able to confirm [only] that a higher number of civilian casualties occurred in this period than in the preceding and subsequent period. [translated from Dutch]”

 

How Airwars assessment indicates Defensie is wrong

A review by Airwars shows that based on official Coalition data, the casualty spike in the NDU graphic can in fact only be explained if the Hawijah event had been included – indicating that US officials have long privately counted those 70 deaths in their own data, despite the Netherlands hiding its own involvement in the event.

For its assessment, Airwars examined all confirmed (‘Credible’) Coalition civilian harm events declared for the time window of May 1st to July 31st 2015. There were 17 such events totalling 106 confirmed deaths and 9 injuries if Hawijah was included – or 16 events with 36 deaths and 9 injuries if Hawijah was excluded, as Defensie claimed was the case.

However, the NDU graphic makes clear that the 2015 casualty spike relates only to Iraq – meaning that twelve Syrian events should be discounted. Three of the incidents had also been confirmed only in 2019, meaning that they were deemed Credible only after the NDU study was published.

That left just three events in Iraq: Hawihjah with 70 deaths; and two incidents in July 2015 each injuring one civilian according to the official data.

The casualty spike in the NDU graphic could only therefore be explained if the Hawijah estimate of 70 deaths had been included in the official tally, Airwars concluded.

“Defensie appears to have made a major error in claiming to the Dutch parliament that Hawijah  was excluded from the NDU study data,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “In fact, the only possible explanation for the visible casualty spike in summer 2015, depicted in the NDU graphic, was that the Hawijah event was already being included privately by the Pentagon in its own assessments of civilian harm resulting from Coalition actions.”

Screenshot of Airwars assessment of all declared Coalition civilian harm events for the period May 1st 2015 to July 31st 2015.

▲ The controversial NDU graphic which indicates that by 2018, the Pentagon was already privately counting a major loss of civilian life in Iraq during the summer of 2015, at the time of the Hawijah event.

Published

December 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

Please donate today

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

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

Published

November 29, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Promises follow three weeks after Ministry of Defence claimed responsibility for the 2015 Hawijah incident

The Dutch government is promising to introduce transparency improvements for conflict-related civilian harm resulting from its military actions. The announcement came on November 25th, in the wake of an ongoing national scandal, following the withholding for more than four years of details of Dutch involvement in an airstrike on Hawijah, Iraq, on the night of June 2nd-3rd 2015, which led to the likely deaths of at least 70 civilians.

In a comprehensive letter to parliament on November 25th, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld promised to retroactively report the number of missions, locations, target type and weapon deployment for the entire first deployment of the Dutch contribution to the anti-ISIS coalition from October 2014 to June 2016.

In the event of future air operations, such weekly reporting would be standardised. In addition, Bijleveld promised to ensure sufficient capacity at the Ministry to monitor possible civilian harm cases during future military action. And parliament will be confidentially briefed about investigations into civilian casualties as soon as possible.

The government says it is also exploring possible compensation options for victims of Dutch military actions in Iraq.

Debate

In the weeks since the government admitted the role of the Royal Netherlands Air Force in the deadly Hawijah strike, the crisis has threatened to engulf several leading political figures – including the Prime Minister.

A parliamentary debate on November 27th focused significantly on to what extent Prime Minister Mark Rutte had been informed about possible civilian casualties in the airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in Hawijah. MP Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked if perhaps “the prolonging of the [Dutch] mission [against ISIS] had been more important than telling the truth”?

Rutte said that Hawijah was not discussed in cabinet meetings before the government had prolonged Dutch military action against ISIS on June 19th, 2015 – just three weeks after the incident. He argued that “it [information about possible civilian casualties in Hawijah] would not have been relevant [for the decision to prolong the mission], as we knew before starting this mission that there was a risk of civilian casualties”.

During the debate, MP Salima Belhaj of the D66 party – which is a part of the ruling coalition –  handed in a motion calling for a fact finding mission on the ground to determine how many civilians died at Hawijah.

Defence Minister Bijleveld responded that while she was unsure if such an investigation would generate any new information, she would seriously look into options.

The Socialist Party also handed in a motion of no confidence against the Prime Minister, the Minister of Defence and the Cabinet, which while supported by some opposition parties, did not pass.

Gisteren dienden we een motie van wantrouwen in. We vroegen zo vaak naar de waarheid, maar we kregen leugens 👇 #burgerslachtoffers #Irak pic.twitter.com/ypM49wxDVz

— Lilian Marijnissen (@MarijnissenL) November 28, 2019

MP Lilian Marijnissen (Socialist Party) handed in a motion of no confidence, claiming that “We asked for the truth so many times, but all we got were lies”.

‘Parliament misled in 2015’

The first public Dutch acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian casualties in the war against ISIS earlier this month followed after an investigation into Dutch involvement in the Hawijah case published by news outlets NRC and NOS.

In a letter to parliament on November 4th, Bijleveld wrote that her predecessor Jeanine Hennis had wrongly informed parliament on the matter. Hennis herself had informed MPs on June 23rd 2015 that “there has been no Dutch involvement in civilian casualties”, despite having received a CENTCOM report stating that claims of civilian casualties in the Hawija incident were deemed ‘credible’ a week earlier, according to Bijleveld.

On November 25th, Bijleveld released a second letter to parliament. She wrote that Hennis had personally informed the former Minister of Foreign Affairs (Bert Koenders) and “presumably” Prime Minister Mark Rutte about Hawijah back in 2015. According to Hennis who is cited in the new letter, her tone had not been alarming, but she did mention that further inquiries would look into the possibility of civilian casualties. Neither Koenders nor Rutte recall having this conversation, although Rutte said he does not  “rule out” that it happened.

The letter revealed that CENTCOM had sent the Dutch Ministry of Defence their own additional investigation report on January 22nd 2016, in which they concluded that while the targeting process was done correctly, it was “probable” that civilians had died, while not apparently specifying numbers. Although CENTCOM officials stated that the investigation was now considered “closed”, an official final report never followed. On May 26th of that year, MoD finalised their own additional investigation, drawing the same conclusions.

Bijleveld asserts that “to this day, it is still uncertain how many civilian casualties there were in Hawijah”. However, in December 2018, a senior Coalition military official responded via email to questions by Dutch newspaper NRC, confirming that “the strike to the VBIED factory caused secondary explosions that unfortunately killed 70 civilians despite the precautions the Coalition took to mitigate civilian casualties”.

When Jesse Klaver (GroenLinks) asked about this email in the debate on November 27th, minister BIjleveld answered that she had asked for a clarification by CENTCOM, who she claimed had said they were unsure why their spokesperson did not follow the ‘official conclusions’.

Prime minister Rutte continues to state that "until today, it is unknown how many civilians died", while CENTCOM officials confirmed in December 2018 in an email to Dutch media @NRC and @NOS that 70 civilians had died. pic.twitter.com/AA1M8OSZXz

— Airwars (@airwars) November 27, 2019

Future transparency

So far, Bijleveld has continually referred to the standing policy of not providing any information on ongoing Dutch military operations in light of ‘national, operational and personnel security’.This has led to Airwars for several years rating the Netherlands the least transparent and publicly accountable member of the 14-nation coalition against ISIS.

The minister still argues in her letter of November 25th that it is not possible to create a new standard, as assessments of the permissible level of transparency must be made based on the current security situation.

However Bijleveld does now promise a new standard for informing parliament, writing that MPs will confidentially be briefed about all Dutch weapon deployments. In cases where the defence ministry initiates investigation into civilian casualties, parliament will also be confidentially informed as soon as possible. Parliament will further be included in any considerations regarding the degree of public transparency that is considered “permissible in the context of security”.

The Minister writes that further inquiry into possible voluntary compensation for relatives of victims and the affected communities of Hawijah is taking place.

“While many questions remain unanswered on Hawijah, Airwars nevertheless welcomes recent indications by the Defence Ministry that it will improve the reporting of its military actions and any associated civilian harm,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “These announced structural policy changes have the potential to improve transparency for Dutch military actions moving forward, so that mass civilian casualty cases such as Hawijah can never again be hidden from the public.”

▲ Destruction at Hawijah following a Dutch airstrike on June 2nd/3rd 2015, published as propaganda by the Islamic State shortly after the incident (via VRT).

Published

November 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

October 22, 2019

Written by

Laurie Treffers

Airwars suspends cooperation with Netherlands defence ministry until possible role of Dutch F-16s in lethal event is clarified

On Friday October 18th, Dutch news organisations NRC and NOS published a story in which they accused the Dutch military of being responsible for a 2015 airstrike on an ISIS weapon storage facility in the city of Hawijah, Iraq, that led to the deaths of at least 70 civilians. The Dutch Ministry of Defence has so far refused to confirm or deny its involvement in one of the deadliest Coalition airstrikes in the war against ISIS.

Airwars has since announced the suspension of its ongoing engagement with defence ministry on transparency and accountability issues, until the Dutch government confirms or denies whether it was involved in the event.

On the night of June 2nd-3rd, 2015, aircraft belonging to the international Coalition against ISIS bombed an IED facility in the city of Hawijah, in Iraq’s Kirkuk province. Subsequent explosions from stored munitions killed at least 70 civilians, Coalition officials confirmed to NRC and NOS.

The Airwars assessment of the incident, based on local reporting and investigations by others, concluded that at least 26 children and 22 women were among those killed at Hawijah that day. Many victims were refugees from other parts of the country, who had found shelter in buildings surrounding the weapon storage facility. More than 100 civilians were also injured in the attack. According to local reports Airwars analysed, as many as 100 ISIS militants may also additionally have been killed.

Suspicion of Dutch involvement

Until now, no Coalition member has publicly claimed responsibility for an airstrike that Bas News described at the time as “one of the worst mass casualty incidents in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.” Journalists at the Dutch newspaper NRC and the public broadcasting foundation NOS investigated the incident for many months, as they suspected possible Dutch involvement following a letter sent by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defence to the House of Representatives in April 2018.

In that letter, ministers revealed that the Dutch Public Prosecution Service had investigated four air strikes – out of a total of approximately 2,100 munitions released – that the Netherlands had carried out between October 2014 and June 2016. The Public Prosecution Service concluded that three out of the four investigated incidents indeed seemed to have led to civilian casualties. However any further information on these four strikes – such as place, date and time of the attack – was omitted. The Public Prosecution Service furthermore stated that while it was likely that these three Dutch strikes had killed civilians, it saw no reason to prosecute as in its view, the rules of war had been followed.

At the time, researchers and journalists noted that the first described case in the letter showed a potential resemblance to what had happened in Hawijah, three years earlier. The two ministers wrote about this first incident that “it […] was an attack by Dutch F-16s on a facility where so-called vehicle borne IEDs [car bombs] were manufactured. […] The IED factory later turned out to have contained many more explosives than was known or could be estimated in advance. It is very likely that this attack resulted in civilian casualties.” Requests for confirmation by Airwars and journalists on whether the ministry was indeed referring to the incident of Hawija have remained unanswered until now.

In a press conference the day after the Hawijah incident, American commander Lt General John Hesterman had also said that a “fairly small weapon” was used in the strike. According to NRC’s reconstruction of their investigation, weapon experts it consulted had concluded Hesterman must have been talking about GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs. In 2015, only two Coalition allies were using this type of munition in their military actions in Syria and Iraq: the United States and the Netherlands. However US and British armed drones were also using smaller 100lb Hellfire missiles at the time.

The aftermath of the alleged strike (via Iraqi Revolution)

The investigation

Both NRC and NOS visited the site of the airstrike in 2019, collecting on the ground statements from affected communities. They furthermore spoke to both US and Dutch officials. Kees Versteegh, one of the journalists working on the investigation, said in NRC’s daily podcast that several anonymous officials had confirmed to him that it was in fact a Dutch F16 that dropped the bomb.

Responding to the investigation, Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld tweeted that she could  “neither confirm nor deny” Dutch responsibility for the Hawijah incident “at this moment”, but that she hoped to be able to do so in the near future. “We want to put the safety of everyone, especially the pilots, first”, Bijleveld stated, according to NRC. Prime Minister Mark Rutte was also questioned by journalists about the allegations, but answered that “while it is terrible when civilian casualties occur”, that he could not comment on the allegations.

Ik kijk momenteel serieus naar meer openheid over onze luchtaanvallen in relatie tot burgerslachtoffers. Hierin nemen wij voorstellen van de Kamer mee en uiteraard zal de Kamer hierover als eerste worden geïnformeerd. Ik kan betrokkenheid bij deze casus bevestigen noch ontkennen. https://t.co/qxn6ekWHDy

— Ank Bijleveld (@MinBijleveld) October 18, 2019

Defence Minister Ank Bijleveld says she can ‘neither confirm nor deny’ Dutch involvement in a deadly 2015 strike

Members of Parliament have been demanding that the Minister provides clarity on the topic, so far unsuccessfully. Sadet Karabulut, MP for the opposition Socialist Party (SP), who has submitted several motions regarding transparency on civilian casualties in the past, tweeted: “We weren’t told anything at all. Every time, we asked for [information]. We never got an answer. The minister has a problem if this is true and has a lot to explain. I want to know everything. All information should be on the table now very quickly, and we should have a debate.”

MP Isabelle Diks of GroenLinks stated that “it is unbelievable that the House of Representatives is only now hearing through the press, that in the event of a Dutch attack, so many civilian victims have fallen, while the House of Representatives has specifically asked about this on several occasions.” She said she expected an explanation from the Minister soon.

Ongelooflijk dat de Kamer nu pas via de pers hoort, dat bij een Nederlandse aanval zo onthutsend veel burgerslachtoffers zijn gevallen, terwijl de Kamer hier meermaals specifiek naar heeft gevraagd. @MinBijleveld heeft heel wat uit te leggen! Snel meer info in een brief dan debat

— Isabelle Diks (@IsabelleDiks) October 18, 2019

Joël Voordewind, MP for the ChristenUnie, also demanded answers on Twitter: “Why was there no follow-up investigation by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on the bombing in Hawija, hardly any compensation paid, and why was it not foreseen that a second explosion could occur, resulting in so many civilian casualties? I expect clear answers.”

And Salima Belhaj, MP for D66 which is a part of the government coalition, insisted that future civilian casualties must be communicated as fast as possible to parliament.

While the Dutch government has so far yet to officially confirm its involvement in the deadly attack, Defence Minister Bijleveld made a further statement on October 19th regarding compensation for relatives of the victims of the airstrike and those who suffered material loss. According to NOS, Bijleveld claimed that “it is the international agreement that it will be settled in the country itself [Iraq]”. This contradicts statements made by CENTCOM to Airwars in 2016 that each member nation of the alliance was individually responsible for any payouts for civilian harm resulting from its own actions.

Airwars and Airwars Stichting issued a statement noting that it would be a “national scandal if the defence ministry and successive governments have withheld the death of 70 civilians resulting from a Dutch military action more than 4 years ago”, and calling for an urgent factual statement from both the Ministry of Defence and the government. Airwars has additionally suspended planned further talks with defence officials on transparency and accountability for civilian harm, until the Dutch government has publicly clarified any involvement in this incident.

▲ Library image: A Dutch F-16 is prepared for a mission against ISIS (Image via Defensie)