US-led Coalition in Iraq & Syria

Civilians in the ruins of Mosul city. (Maranie R. Staab)

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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 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

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

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)

Published

August 7, 2019

Written by

Alex Hopkins and Oliver Imhof

The fifth anniversary of the international war against so-called Islamic State has seen the total defeat of the terrorist group as a territorial entity in both Iraq and Syria. Now degraded to insurgency, the US and its allies try to contain the jihadist organisation. However, after five years of fighting the cost to civilians on the ground has been high.

In total, since the US-led Coalition conducted its first airstrike on August 8th 2014, there have been 34,402 air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria, by Airwars’ count. In a conflict that has now lasted longer than the First World War, 117,677 munitions have been dropped on ISIS from air – almost seven times more than in Afghanistan during the same period.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding only 1,321 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

On March 23rd, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) forces declared victory over the caliphate established by the so-called Islamic State. While around 40,000 fighters from 80 countries had travelled to Iraq and Syria to join the caliphate, the US estimates that between 70,000 and 100,000 ISIS fighters have been killed – many in airstrikes – since Coalition actions began in August 2014.

Despite declarations of victory, strikes against ISIS remnants have continued into 2019 – though at a very low rate – amid fears of the group rising again. Territory formerly seized by ISIS is now controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces – who are in constant struggle with Turkey. This is due to Turkey’s contention that the SDF is controlled by the YPG/PKK, which Ankara deems a terror organisation. In addition, the SDF is backed by the US – normally a NATO ally to Turkey. The YPG has also called upon the Assad regime, currently bombarding Idlib, for help in the past.

US-President Donald Trump has said that he wants US troops out of Syria as quickly as possible, asking France, the UK and Germany to share more responsibility in Syria. However, uncertainty about what would happen to the US’ Kurdish allies, crucial in defeating and containing ISIS, has kept the US in Syria so far.

Ferocious final assault

The final US-led assault on Baghouz, which led to the fall of the so-called Islamic State as a territorial entity, took a heavy toll on civilian life. Some 98% of the minimum 416 civilians assessed by Airwars as likely killed by the Coalition in the first six months of 2019 perished between January 1st and the final announcement of the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS on March 23rd.

Civilians in the so-called MERV (Middle Euphrates Valley) were particularly at risk due to the high intensity of the bombing campaign. An Airwars analysis indicates a sometimes higher tempo of Coalition actions in Syria in the first two months of 2019 than were recorded at Mosul during March 2017, the most intense and lethal period of the battle for Iraq’s second city.

Civilians still at risk

Following the liberation of Baghouz from ISIS, strikes in Syria all but ceased, and the Coalition has reported only one strike in Syria since May 4th. However, Airwars has continued to track civilian harm from counter-terrorism operations in the country. The Coalition carries out these sorties to support the SDF in their attempts to clear remaining hideouts of ISIS fighters, who often hide in the desert at the Syrian-Iraqi border.

The last civilian harm incident Airwars researchers tracked in Iraq was on March 24th, however, Coalition strikes have continued there, with 231 strikes publicly reported within the first six months of 2019 – a 76% rise on the number conducted in the first half of 2018. Alarmingly, the Coalition slashed transparency for its actions in December 2018, meaning that it’s now impossible to assess where or on which specific dates these strikes occurred – and for Airwars to cross-match any potential civilian harm events.

The Coalition has so far acknowledged killing 1,321 civilians in its strikes across Iraq and Syria, in what it has repeatedly called “the most precise war in history”. There is a huge disparity between the death toll given by the Coalition and Airwars. Our own estimate is that between 8,106 and 12,980 civilians have likely died in strikes by the alliance since August 8th 2014. In total, we our research team has tracked almost 2,900 civilian casualty events allegedly linked to Coalition forces, with as many as 29,400 civilians locally alleged killed in Iraq and Syria.

The house of Ali al-Muhammad al-Furaiji after it was struck by an airstrike between April 14th and 15th 2019 (via Euphrates Post)

Densely populated areas

The war has taken an increasingly deadly toll on ordinary Iraqis and Syrians on the ground as it’s progressed. Likely deaths jumped by 82% in 2016 on the following year when we saw the fighting shift to more densely populated areas. The impact on civilians trapped on the ground was dire. Of the 8,106 civilians estimated killed since 2014, almost 50% of these deaths occurred during 2017, a year marked by the increasingly ferocious battles for Mosul and Raqqa.

Overall, likely deaths fell by 80% in 2018 on the previous year, but by November 2018, with the push to eradicate ISIS from the slithers of territory it clung on to in eastern Syria, civilian harm began to spiral. This suggested that the US-led Coalition had applied few of the lessons learned during the brutal urban assaults on Mosul and Raqqa, when it came to the protection of civilians.

Stories of affected communities must be heard

As the war against ISIS moves into its sixth year, the true impact of the fighting is yet to be revealed, and there are thousands of stories needing to be heard. A major investigation by Airwars and Amnesty International has concluded that 1,600 civilians were killed by the Coalition during the Battle of Raqqa alone – ten times higher than the Coalition admits.

Five years of war against ISIS have had a devastating impact on Iraq and Syria. While rebuilding measures in some areas have been quick, only 6,000 out 24,000 properties destroyed in Nineveh, Iraq have been rebuilt, according to Sky News. As well as continuing to track all claims of civilian harm from alleged Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria – and in other conflicts – Airwars is now focusing on reconciliation and restitution for civilians affected by the military actions of the US and its allies.

While the so-called Islamic State has been defeated as a territorial power, the fight continues on different levels as calls for reconciliation and restitution become more pressing. Justice for civilians affected by the war can play a key role in rebuilding broken societies to establish peace in the crisis-torn region and stop ISIS from rising again.

What a difference rehabilitation can make! This school in west #Mosul has re-opened with support from UNDP & @DFID_UK, allowing almost 700 kids return to school🙌#IraqStabilization pic.twitter.com/EtRCcMhA5H

— UNDP Iraq (@undpiniraq) August 6, 2019

▲ SDF forces backed by the International Coalition attack Al Baghouz on March 3rd 2019 (via Euphrates Post)

Published

July 16, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Drawing on experiences of conflict-focused journalists, report identifies significant obstacles to proper reporting of civilian casualties.

Despite a significant majority of almost 100 surveyed journalists believing that the reporting of civilian casualties remains critical to broader war coverage, major US news organisations have too often failed properly to report on the issue during the five year conflict against so-called Islamic State.

That’s the key finding of a major new Airwars study into US media coverage of civilian harm during the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which published on July 16th.

The Airwars study, News In Brief, is a comprehensive analysis of US media coverage of civilian casualties in the recent war against ISIS. Authored by respected investigative journalist Alexa O’Brien, the report canvasses the in-depth views of almost 100 US media professionals, with a particular emphasis on field reporters and defence correspondents.

With more than 29,000 civilian deaths locally alleged from US-led Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria, the report asks whether “US readers, listeners and viewers obtained a proper sense of the cost of modern war?”

Airwars also looked at the frequency and character of actual US newspaper coverage of the issue during two key periods of the conflict. A third review examined any references to civilian harm at more than 900 Pentagon press briefings since the war against ISIS began in August 2014. O’Brien’s study also includes five practical recommendations to managing editors, to help improve reporting on the issue in future conflicts.

“Media professionals are clear that the issue of civilian harm is central to war reporting.  And airpower dominated conflicts, especially when conducted without large contingents of US ground forces, necessitate even greater scrutiny and more consistent oversight by major media institutions, not less.” says report author Alexa O’Brien.

Media coverage of civilian harm remains critical

A significant majority of media professionals believe that it is the responsibility of news outlets to investigate all major cases of civilian harm during US wars. Coverage is critical not only for a proper understanding of war itself, but also to help ensure the proper oversight of US government and military strategy, policy, and operations, journalists said.

As one reporter put it to O’Brien, “I always see the civilian casualty stories as an important way to remind people, ‘Hey, this is not antiseptic.'”

Yet when Airwars measured actual coverage, news reporting on civilian casualties from US-led actions against ISIS was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict. For entire months, no major US news organisations reported on civilian harm resulting from US-led Coalition actions – although the alliance itself has since confirmed many such deaths.

“Declining foreign bureaus and newsroom staff at US media outlets; a ferocious news cycle dominated by domestic politics; the quandary of credible sourcing for civilian casualty claims; little opportunity to embed with US troops on the ground; and the expense and risk of security and logistics for reporters in the field” all helped contribute to generally poor reporting of civilian harm, Airwars concludes.

Major US media were also five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul, the study found – despite similar levels of locally reported civilian harm in late 2016. That suggests a reluctance by newsrooms to engage on the issue when US forces are implicated, the report suggests.

Reporters in newsrooms are themselves aware of the challenges it seems, with 63% of those surveyed saying they were somewhat or very unsatisfied with US media industry coverage of civilian harm during the war against ISIS.

More than 60% of surveyed journalists felt that US media coverage of civilian harm was unsatisfactory..

Importance of field and home reporting

The Airwars study finds that reporting from the field remains critical to proper coverage of civilian harm issues. Field reporters write most of the copy about the subject. They are also considered best suited to do so, those surveyed said.

Yet civilian casualty coverage by field reporters is generally not adequately prioritized in the pool of available resources, reporters complain. This contributes to an inability to properly cover the issue. During the culmination of the battle for western Mosul in early 2017 for example, there was effectively no major US media coverage of civilian harm the study found. During those same months, more than 1,100 civilian deaths from Coalition actions were locally alleged across Iraq and Syria.

With limited reporting from the field, the onus is on home reporters to cover the issue. Once again Airwars identified significant challenges. The study found that the Pentagon press corps rarely verbally inquired about Coalition-related civilian harm during the conflict against ISIS, even when reporting from the field was limited. A survey of more than 900 US Department of Defense transcripts found that officials were, for example, the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.

In one case the report cites, a senior Coalition official opened a Pentagon press briefing by announcing an inquiry into a reported major civilian harm event at Mosul that weekend. In the hour long discussion which followed, no reporters asked any questions about the incident.

Reporting on civilian harm by friendly forces may also be a point of discomfort in US newsrooms. Surveyed media professionals said they considered media reporting on civilian harm caused by so-called Islamic State, by Syrian government forces, or by the Russia military to have been more satisfactorily covered than civilian harm caused by the US and its allies.

Trustworthy sources

Challenges in the coverage of civilian harm were not solely due to proper resourcing or job demarcation issues, but also to sourcing concerns. In the absence of reliable or credible information about civilian harm via field reporters, media professionals say they need increasingly to rely upon open-source material and analysis; and reports from inter-governmental and humanitarian organizations, and monitors.

Journalists also say they rely on specialist non- governmental organizations—like Airwars—that monitor civilian harm outside the conflict zone, as well as those that investigate it on the ground, more than they rely on official US government or military sources, evidencing the significant role that such organizations now play in reporting on the topic. Reporters also say that these organizations and eyewitness accounts have more credibility than official US sources regarding civilian harm.

As a result, some media professionals expressed support for a reputable and commonly accepted industry-wide methodology or standards for alternative civilian harm counts, that can be used to help credibly report on the topic during conflicts.

There are also concerns that the US military’s limited responses to journalists’ information requests thwarted news coverage about civilian harm claims, or made it more onerous and resource intensive to report on. Industry professionals said that the military’s responses were often not complete or timely enough to meet deadlines; and that as journalists they then had to conduct extensive and costly investigations or follow-ups to obtain the information required to perform due diligence.

Finally, more than half of US media professionals who were surveyed said that they are not sufficiently prepared to report on civilian harm with regard to specific related disciplines, and that they would benefit from training in such disciplines.

Stories on civilian harm were more likely to be rejected due to a lack of editorial interest than any other reason, surveyed reporters told Airwars

Recommendations for improvement

The Airwars study suggests practical steps which can be taken to help improve future newsroom coverage of civilian harm- with author Alexa O’Brien scheduled to meet with relevant editors on many major US titles in the coming days. The five recommendations are:

A clear editorial mandate for civilian harm coverage at media outlets

One key reason identified by reporters for poor casualty reporting is that the issue lacks a relevant mandate from managing editors. That in turn means the subject is generally siloed, fragmented, and largely self-directed by individual journalists.

Citing the effectiveness of newsroom mandates on the reporting of fatal shootings of people of colour by US police, News In Brief urges editors to adopt a similar mandated approach to civilian harm coverage.

Persistent and well-resourced field reporting and balanced sourcing

The presence of properly resourced and prioritized field reporters remains a key part of ensuring that civilian harm coverage is consistent and balanced during wars. Without adequate resourcing or prioritization, reporting on casualties from US actions risks being fragmented, one-sided, or even non-existent.

Coordination of civilian harm coverage by Pentagon reporters and others covering the US military back home

While there is consensus that field reporters are best placed to cover civilian harm issues during US wars, this is not always possible.

Managing editors should therefore appropriately task and coordinate coverage of civilian harm from home, especially when on-the-ground reporting is diminished during conflicts—as with the war against ISIS.

Support for reputable initiatives and standards for alternative civilian harm counts

Reliable and trustworthy counts of civilian harm are critical to reporting on the topic, and to understanding its significance in terms of the strategy, policy, and operations of the US government and military.  Such an independent effort to establish monitoring standards is currently underway by a consortium of international non-governmental organizations, led by EveryCasualty.

Journalists remarked that a reputable media industry-wide consortium, to pool resources in order to vet civilian harm claims in airpower dominated and inaccessible conflict zones, might be another solution to the increasing requirements and challenges of covering the subject adequately in future wars.

Training in disciplines related to civilian harm reporting

More than three-quarters of surveyed journalists say they have never received training on how to cover civilian harm in military conflicts. They are also keen to see such training, saying that it would benefit both them and their coverage of the issue.

Read the full report on US media reporting of civilian harm in the war against ISIS

▲ A reporter in Mosul during the battle to evict so-called Islamic State. Image courtesy of Harry Chun.