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Published

September 6, 2021

Written by

Imogen Piper and Joe Dyke

Airwars tally offers assessment of the direct civilian impact of 20 years of US strikes

You often find a similar refrain in US media reporting of the cost of two decades of the so-called ‘War on Terror.’ The trope goes something like this: “more than 7,000 US service people have died in wars since 9/11,” an article or news report will say. In the next line it will usually, though not always, try to reflect the civilian toll – but almost exclusively in generalities. Tens, or even hundreds, of thousands.

Ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, and the subsequent launch of the War on Terror, Airwars has been seeking the answer to one important question – how many civilians have US strikes likely killed in the ‘Forever Wars’?

We found that the US has declared at least 91,340 strikes across seven major conflict zones.

Our research has concluded that at least 22,679, and potentially as many as 48,308 civilians, have been likely killed by US strikes.

The gap between these two figures reflects the many unknowns when it comes to civilian harm in war. Belligerents rarely track the effects of their own actions – and even then do so poorly. It is left to local communities, civil society and international agencies to count the costs. Multiple sources can however suggest different numbers of fatalities, meaning that monitoring organisations like Airwars will record both minimum and maximum estimates.

Our key findings of civilian harm from US actions since 9/11 can be seen in this video and the full dataset is available here.

This accompanying article explains the conflicts we covered and our key findings in a little more detail, before outlining our methodology and data sources.

What are the ‘Forever Wars’?

In the days after the terrorist atrocities of September 11, 2001, in which 2,977 people were killed by Al Qaeda in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia, US President George W. Bush announced the start of a new type of war, one without defined borders, boundaries, or timescales.

“Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” he told Americans. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.”

“Americans should not expect one battle, but a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen. It may include dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success.”

“Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” he concluded.

So it came to pass. The War on Terror has been a near global endeavour. By 2017 for example, the US Department of Defense said it had around 8,000 “special operators” in 80 countries across the globe.

Dubbed the ‘Forever Wars,’ this conflict has not had clear territorial boundaries, though we have included in our dataset the seven most intensive US military campaigns. The types of conflict vary significantly but broadly fall into three categories:

    Full invasions and occupations of countries – Afghanistan 2001-2021, and Iraq 2003-2009. Major bombing campaigns against the Islamic State terror group – Iraq 2014-2021, Syria 2014-2021, and Libya 2016. More targeted US drone and airstrike campaigns against militant and terror groups – Somalia 2007-2021, Yemen 2002-2021, Pakistan 2004-2018, and Libya 2014-2019.

Key findings

Based on official US military data, we have concluded that the US has carried out a minimum of 91,340 airstrikes throughout the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Particular peaks were seen during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when the US declared 18,695 strike sorties. The campaign against the so-called Islamic State also saw a sustained peak, with more than 9,000 strikes a year from 2015-2017.

We then gathered together every reliable estimate of civilian harm as a result of US strikes.

Wherever possible we sought to measure civilian harm just from US airstrikes but in some cases, such as the first years of the Iraq invasion, it was impossible to disaggregate airstrikes from artillery fire and other heavy munitions, which were therefore included.

Likewise in some US-led Coalitions it was impossible to determine whether each individual strike was American, though US airpower has dominated all such campaigns.

Based on our comprehensive review of credible sources, we found at least 22,679 civilians were likely directly killed by US strikes since 9/11, with that number potentially as high as 48,308.

 

The deadliest year came in 2003, when a minimum of 5,529 civilians were reported to have been killed by US actions according to the monitoring organisation Iraq Body Count, almost all during the invasion of Iraq that year. The next deadliest year was 2017, when at least 4,931 civilians were likely killed, the vast majority in alleged Coalition bombing of Iraq and Syria. However, if we include maximum estimates of civilian harm then 2017 was in fact the worst year for civilian casualties, with up to 19,623 killed.

Almost all of the reported civilian deaths from US wars since 9/11 (97 percent) occurred in the two occupations (Iraq 2003-20119, and Afghanistan 2001-2021); as well as in the campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (2014-2021).

In 2011, at the peak of its 20-year occupation, the US had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. That conflict came to an end last month when the final US troops left after a chaotic withdrawal. During the Iraq occupation, troops numbers peaked at 166,000 in 2007, though forces withdrew by 2011.

Just three years later and following the rise of so-called Islamic State, the US and its international partners began an aerial bombing campaign against ISIS in support of allies on the ground. Campaigns to force ISIS from the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa in 2016-2017 saw some of the most intense urban fighting since the Second World War. In Raqqa alone, Coalition strikes reportedly killed at least 1,600 civilians. While the Islamists lost their last territorial stronghold in April 2019, the war continues at a low intensity.

 

As part of our research, we also sought official US military estimates for the numbers of civilians killed by its own actions since 9/11. Neither CENTCOM nor the Department of Defense have published such findings.

In the Iraq and Syria campaign against ISIS, the US-led Coalition has accepted killing 1,417 civilians – far lower than Airwars’ own estimate of at least 8,300 civilian deaths for that war.

Additionally, in 2016 the US admitted killing between 64 and 116 civilians in Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen in counter terrorism operations in the years between 2009 and 2015. But it provided no further details, dates or specifics – making assessment of those claims near impossible.

More publicly, the United States has admitted to killing two civilians in Pakistan; thirteen in Yemen; and five in Somalia in recent years. At least 394 and as many as 570 civilians have in fact been killed by US actions in those countries, according to monitoring organisation New America.

Airwars approached CENTCOM, the part of the US military responsible for most of these conflicts, directly for this project. It said data on officially recognised civilian harm was not readily available. “The information you request is not immediately on hand in our office as it spans between multiple operations/campaigns within a span of between 18 and 20 years,” CENTCOM said in an email, requesting instead that we file a Freedom of Information request. Such requests can take several years to get a response, with no guarantee of the information being released.

It’s important to note that Airwars has examined only direct harm from US strikes since 9/11 – with many of our sources providing conservative casualty estimates. We are therefore looking at a fraction of the overall civilian harm in these countries.

Between 363,939 and 370,072 civilians have been killed by all parties to these conflicts since 2001, according to the well respected Brown University Cost of War programme.

Even so, we believe this research represents the most comprehensive public assessment available of minimum civilian harm by direct US strikes and actions in the 20 years of the War on Terror.

Methodology

Parts or all of the data presented here were peer reviewed by multiple experts in the field, and our full dataset has also been published, to enable scrutiny.

That said, we acknowledge that civilian harm monitoring mechanisms have varied and evolved extensively over the past 20 years, and are rarely consistent across organisations and campaigns.

Airwars itself was formed in 2014, and has collated data on many of the US’s conflicts since then, using our all-source monitoring in local languages to gather allegations of civilian harm. However, for much of the data in the years before 2014 and for the entirety of the Afghanistan campaign – which Airwars does not monitor – we are reliant upon other organisations. This section will explain where the data was gathered from.

Afghanistan

In Afghanistan the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has released civilian harm data since 2006. This includes likely civilian harm from airstrikes carried out by foreign powers. While the War on Terror was launched by the US, some allies initially joined – including European nations that sent significant contingents to Afghanistan. It was not possible to definitively conclude if all of these strikes were conducted by the US as opposed to allied nations, although the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

In the early years of the conflict, for the period 2001-05 before UNAMA was fully operational, we have relied upon an investigative dataset compiled by The Nation, which though well researched did not claim to be definitive.

Iraq 2003-11

The US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003 to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, and then maintained an occupation with the support of other nations until withdrawing all forces in 2011. In the vacuum after Hussein was unseated, multiple militant groups, including Al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State, thrived. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed in ensuing conflict-related violence.

The NGO Iraq Body Count has been collating tolls of civilian harm since the 2003 invasion. It kindly agreed to provide Airwars with all data related to allegations of civilian harm caused by US actions between 2003 and 2013. According to IBC, in many cases such as the initial invasion, and the assaults on the city of Fallujah in 2004, it was near impossible to disaggregate civilian harm caused by airstrikes with artillery and other munitions. As such, the data from Iraq Body Count presented here relates to deaths caused by airstrikes and explosive weapons. Incidents where only small arms fire was involved have been excluded. As with Afghanistan, it is impossible to know for certain whether each strike was carried out by the US or partner nations, though the US provided the overwhelming majority of airpower throughout the war.

Iraq and Syria 2014-2021

In the years after the Arab Spring rippled through the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, the Islamic State militant group seized a swathe of territory spanning northern Iraq and Syria which was roughly the size of the United Kingdom. From 2014 onwards, the US led an international coalition in a bombing campaign against the group, eventually forcing it to cede its last area of territorial control along the Iraqi-Syrian border in April 2019.

Airwars has monitored civilian harm related to the ongoing seven-year war against the Islamic State since the beginning of the campaign, using a standardised methodology and approach for all our civilian harm monitoring projects. Our researchers conduct daily monitoring of local Arabic-language media and social media in Iraq and Syria, documenting and archiving all claims of civilian harm including those claims reported by the local communities themselves. Each event has a unique assessment online, where an archived version of all sources used is also available. Events are considered ‘live’ – constantly updated as new information is found.

Libya

Al Qaeda had a limited presence in Libya following the defeat of dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, and was the target of a small number of US strikes. Then from 2014, an Islamic State affiliate emerged in the country – seizing control of several cities and towns a year later.

Airwars researchers have actively monitored all civilian harm caused by all parties in Libya for many years. Based on hyperlocal media monitoring, and reflecting the same methodology and approach as our Iraq-Syria assessments, we have aggregated the number of alleged civilian deaths related to US strikes against both Al Qaeda and so-called Islamic State in Libya since 2012.

Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen

In the years after 9/11 the United States launched an initially secret drone campaign targeting militant organisations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. These campaigns led to often significant allegations of civilian harm.

In Pakistan, the data was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, with those archives transferred to Airwars in 2019. There have been no reported US strikes since July 2018.

In Somalia, Airwars has published a comprehensive review of all civilian harm allegations from both suspected and declared US strikes and actions since the conflict began in 2007.

In Yemen, the data from 2002-2016 was originally collected by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Airwars has actively monitored the US counter terrorism campaign in Yemen since 2017, and all associated allegations of civilian harm.

Differing methodological approaches

In every conflict, those organisations monitoring civilian harm have applied different methodologies. Airwars, TBIJ and Iraq Body Count are for example remote monitors – meaning that they gather all information publicly available and reflect any uncertainties in their findings – for example by using high and low casualty ranges, rather than definitive figures.

UNAMA employs a different methodology for Afghanistan. Based until recently in Kabul, it deployed field researchers in each province to physically investigate where possible sites of alleged civilian harm, and to interview witnesses. While this approach can lead to more certainty about circumstances and casualty numbers in an individual event, it may also mean that some locally reported cases can be missed. UNAMA also does not provide casualty range estimates – publishing just one number of confirmed civilians killed per year.

More information on conflict casualty standards and methodologies can be found at Every Casualty Counts, which publishes global standards on casualty monitoring, based on the expert work of more than 50 specialist member organisations.

▲ Library image: A US Air Force B-52 refuels during the US campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Credit: Department of Defense)

Published

July 1, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Coalition of civil society organisations issues joint recommendations to Defence Minister, for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation

Airwars and our Dutch partners, who are involved in ongoing discussions with the Dutch military on practicable improvements in the protection of civilians, have published a Joint Statement outlining the progress so far, and our collective hopes and expectations moving forward.

In October 2019, it was revealed that the Dutch military had been responsible for a 2015 airstrike in Iraq on an ISIS IED factory, leading to the deaths of at least 70 civilians and hundreds more being injured. The Government had then withheld that fact from the public for more than four years.

As PAX and Airwars later noted in our joint report, Seeing Through The Rubble,  estimates are that the secondary explosions triggered by the Dutch airstrike damaged between 400 and 500 buildings in the area, including many shops, homes and schools. Sources also reported that the airstrike caused major damage to crucial infrastructure, including roads and water pipelines. Six different sources, including Hawijah’s mayor, were interviewed for the report on the recent state of the city after the devastating Dutch airstrike.

As a result of the national scandal and numerous Parliamentary debates on the issue, in June 2020 the Dutch Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld, promised to Parliament improvements towards transparency and accountability regarding civilian harm as a result of Dutch military actions. Coupled with other steps taken in the months after the Hawijah scandal, the Netherlands appeared to be shedding its reputation as one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition fighting so-called Islamic State.

One measure adopted by Defensie had recently been proposed by Airwars, Amnesty Netherlands, the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), Open State Foundation, PAX and the Utrecht University Intimacies of Remote Warfare Program. This called for a “Roadmap for the Ministry of Defence to review the way in which the Netherlands deals with, reports on, evaluates and accounts for civilian harm as a consequence of Dutch military efforts”.

The starting session of the Roadmap Process took place virtually on November 12th 2020, attended by senior Dutch defence officials, including the Deputy Chief of Defence Lt General Onno. In 2021, a consortium of civil society organisations then participated in four interactive sessions with the MoD. The key objective of these sessions was to share joint perspectives and expertise on how to enhance military transparency and accountability, while also creating conditions for a stronger integration of civilian harm evaluation and mitigation approaches into Dutch military deployments.

MoD staff have committed to using the outcomes of these sessions to inform policy recommendations to be presented to the Minister of Defence. The recommendations centred around improving transparency, as well as aiming to improve broader Dutch policy and practice in order to achieve better protection of civilians in future military deployments generally.

The civil society consortium has welcomed the open manner in which Defensie has engaged during the “Roadmap“ process, and has now issued a joint statement laying out our own thoughts on the way forward for the Dutch Ministry of Defence. The statement includes recommendations to the Minister of Defence for improvements to Dutch policy on transparency and civilian harm mitigation when engaging in military missions.

Read the statement in full here

Published

June 2, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

Conservative public tallies of civilians killed by US during 2020 are almost five times higher than DoD admits

The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on civilian deaths and injuries resulting from US military actions around the world has declared more than 100 recent casualties. Researchers and human rights groups, including Airwars, Amnesty International and UN monitors in Afghanistan, place the actual toll significantly higher.

For 2020 alone, the Department of Defence said that its forces had killed 23 civilians and injured a further 10 in Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq. An additional 63 historical deaths and 22 injuries were reported for the years 2017-2019, mostly in Syria and Yemen.

By contrast, the minimum public estimate of civilian deaths caused by US forces during 2020 across five conflict nations was 102 fatalities – almost five times higher than DoD admits.

Casualties from US actions in Afghanistan in particular appear to have been officially undercounted. While the Pentagon reports only 20 deaths and 5 injuries from its own actions last year, UNAMA – the respected UN agency in Afghanistan – says that international forces killed at least 89 civilians and injured a further 31. United States personnel made up the great majority of those foreign forces.

For Somalia, DoD declares only one civilian death from US actions last year – while Airwars and others suggest a minimum civilian toll of seven killed.

And for Iraq and Syria, while US forces declare only one death, local reporting indicates at least six civilians killed by US actions.

Only for Yemen is there agreement, with monitoring organisations and the DoD both indicating that there were no likely civilian deaths caused by US actions during the year.

Major decline in US actions

The 21-page Pentagon document, quietly released May 28th and entitled ‘Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations in 2020,’ has been a requirement of US law since 2018.

The latest report captures the very significant fall in tempo of US military actions during the latter years of Donald Trump’s presidency. According to Airwars estimates, there were around 1,000 US strikes across four conflict countries during 2020 – down from approximately 3,500 strikes the previous year and a peak of 13,000 such US actions during 2016. Declared civilian deaths fell from 132 to 23 from 2019 to 2020.

The majority of civilian deaths declared by the Pentagon during 2020 were in Afghanistan – despite a major ceasefire between US forces and the Taliban for much of the year. According to the new DoD report, 20 civilians were killed and five injured in seven US actions, primarily airstrikes.

The seven civilian casualty events conceded in Afghanistan by the Pentagon for 2020

However the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) which has been recording extensive data on civilian harm from all parties to the fighting since 2009, placed the toll far higher. According to its own annual report for 2020 published earlier this year, “UNAMA attributed 120 civilian casualties (89 killed and 31 injured) to international military forces”.

While these casualties represented just one per cent of the overall reported civilian toll in Afghanistan for the year – with most civilians killed by the Taliban and Afghan forces – of concern was DoD’s major undercounting of its own impact on civilians – with UNAMA logging four and a half times more deaths primarily from US actions than those officially conceded by the Pentagon.

Reported civilian casualties from US actions against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria have remained low since the terror group’s defeat as a territorial entity in mid 2019. According to the Pentagon, just one civilian was killed by an action in Iraq, after US forces targeted Iranian linked militias at Karbala airport on March 13th 2020. Twenty three year old security guard Karrar Sabbar was killed in that US attack. However the additional reported deaths of two civilian policemen in the attack are not acknowledged by the US.

In Syria, Airwars estimates three to six likely civilian deaths from US actions during 2020, mainly during counterterrorism raids against ISIS remnants. None of these were conceded either.

In Somalia, between 7 and 13 civilians were likely killed by US actions during the year, according to Airwars monitoring of local communities. The US military itself concedes five injuries and one death, in two events in early 2020 near Jilib.

Only for Yemen did human rights organisations and DoD appear to agree, with both reporting no likely civilian deaths from US actions during the year.

US forces in Somalia killed one civilian and injured five others during 2020, according to official estimates

Public transparency

Despite continuing disparities between public and military estimates of civilian harm, the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress still represents a significant transparency breakthrough. Close ally France, for example, has refused to declare a single civilian fatality from almost seven years of air and artillery strikes in Iraq and Syria – and recently lashed out at the United Nations after a French airstrike struck a wedding party in Mali.

Later this year the Pentagon will also issue a major overhaul of its civilian casualty mitigation policies, which it has been reviewing in consultation with human rights organisations for several years. On May 25th, new Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Dr Colin Kahl confirmed in writing to NGOs that the new policy – known as a Department of Defense Instruction, or DoD-I – would be published by the Biden administration.

“We welcome the Pentagon’s publication to Congress of its latest annual civilian harm report, as well as confirmation that the DOD-I on civilian casualty mitigation will be published by the new administration,” noted Airwars director Chris Woods. “We remain concerned however that DoD estimates of civilian harm once again fall well below credible public estimates, and call on officials to review why such undercounts remain so common. Civilians surely deserve better.”

▲ Aftermath of a deadly US airstrike on Karbala Airport on March 13th, 2020 which the Pentagon admits killed a civilian.

Published

May 25, 2021

The research, based on a decade of work by Action on Armed Violence, strengthens calls for restrictions on explosive weapons

Nine out of ten people killed and injured by explosive weapons in cities are civilians, a new report has found, in stark findings likely to increase pressure on governments to curb the use of explosive weapons in urban areas.

In total the Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) report, which surveyed explosive violence across the globe over a ten-year period, found that 91 percent of those killed and injured when explosive weapons were used in cities were civilians. In other, less densely populated areas, the rate fell to 25 percent.

“The evidence is absolutely clear and unequivocal,” Iain Overton, the executive director of AOAV, said. “When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, civilians will be harmed. (That is) as true as it is today in Gaza as it was a decade ago in Iraq and beyond.”

The report tracked 238,892 civilians killed and injured by explosive weapons over the past decade in 123 countries and territories, using open-source monitoring of English-language media.

It found that improvised explosive devices were responsible for more than half of all civilian casualties, while airstrikes and other aerial assaults were responsible for 23 percent and ground-launched explosive weapons 21 percent.

 

The most deadly single incident occurred in Somalia in October 2017, when more than 500 people were killed in twin bomb blasts in the capital Mogadishu. The Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab was believed to be behind those explosions.

The most deadly air strike came in 2016 when the Saudi Arabian-led coalition struck a funeral procession in Yemen, killing nearly 140 people and wounding a further 600.

Reducing civilian harm

Overton argued the report would strengthen efforts to restrict the use of explosive weapons in populated areas (EWIPA).

Ireland has spearheaded efforts in recent years for action on EWIPA, releasing a draft document earlier this year. It stresses that even when militaries try to limit the impact of their strikes in urban areas, the closely populated nature of cities makes civilian harm inevitable.

Belgium last month became the first country to adopt a resolution against the use of EWIPA after a vote by the federal parliament’s National Defense Commission.

In October Airwars, together with Dutch organisation PAX, released a joint report examining the dire and long-lasting effects of explosive weapons on civilian populations in urban areas in recent international military campaigns in Mosul, Raqqa and Hawijah. The report was launched in a virtual event by Ambassador Michael Gaffey of Ireland.

Beyond the civilians directly harmed, military campaigns can leave the infrastructure of cities devastated for years.

 

During the 2016-17 campaign by the US-led coalition to remove the so-called Islamic State from Mosul an estimated 9,000 civilians were killed, while up to 80 percent of buildings in the centre of the city were destroyed.

In June 2019, the UN International Organisation for Migration reported that entire neighbourhoods of Mosul had yet to be rebuilt and that a lack of essential services and poor sanitation were still threatening public health. Additionally, unexploded bombs, missiles, rockets and shells prevented civilians from returning to the city.

“The negotiation of the political declaration (on EWIPA) is an opportunity to set new standards against the use of heavy explosive weapons in towns and cities, to better protect civilians and vital civilian infrastructure located in cities,” said Laura Boillot, Coordinator of the International Network on Explosive Weapons.

The AOAV report also found a decrease in civilian harm in 2020, a trend also noted by Airwars’s recent annual report. Factors that explain this include significant breakthroughs in conflicts in Libya and Syria, as well as the knock-on implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.

▲ Raqqa has been described by the United Nations as the most destroyed city in Syria (Image courtesy of Amnesty International)

Published

March 18, 2021

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Assisted by

Anna Zahn, Ayana Enomoto-Hurst, Clive Vella, Duncan Salkovskis, Imogen Piper, Mai Fareed, Mohammed al Jumaily, Osama Mansour, Peixian Wang, Shihab Halep and Mohamed ben Halim

NATO members still refuse to discuss potential civilian harm from their strikes a decade after intervening against Gaddafi.

Ten years ago, French President Nicholas Sarkozy welcomed British Prime Minister David Cameron and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Elysee Palace with a shock announcement. “He surprised us both when he said that he had already issued orders for French jets to take off,” Cameron later recalled. The first airstrikes of the international intervention against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s forces hit their targets less than an hour later.

The 2011 Libyan civil war had begun on February 17th as an Arab Spring uprising, with tens of thousands taking to the streets. Within weeks Gaddafi’s forces had brutally crushed most of the protests, and were closing in on the last major rebel stronghold of Benghazi. With fears of a Srebrenica-style massacre, the United Nations passed a resolution demanding the protection of civilians, upon which the NATO intervention was then justified. The war officially ended in October as Gaddafi, whose forces had been routed, was captured and killed by NATO-backed rebels.

Neither during nor after the war has there been a thorough analysis of the number of civilians likely killed by all sides. For the tenth anniversary of the conflict, Airwars has conducted the first comprehensive overview of civilian harm from all belligerents, based on the available public materials.

Over six months Airwars reviewed thousands of media and social media posts, and post-conflict investigations; as well as conducting interviews with survivors and officials.

The result is a detailed look at a brief but violent conflict that killed at least 1,142 civilians and injured at least one thousand more in 212 incidents of concern that Airwars researched. By the highest estimate, as many as 3,400 civilians were killed in those events.

The new archive offers a detailed insight into gruesome air and artillery strikes, as well as shocking ground massacres that occurred during the civil war. The tally of civilian deaths during the uprising was almost certainly significantly higher than the Airwars study indicates. In 2011 for example, social media use by Libyans was still relatively limited, and independent media in the country was not yet established. Based on Airwars’ experience of other conflicts such as Syria, a significant number of local claims of civilian harm made online at the time may also since have been lost, as a result of sites being closed or accounts being shut down.

Many small scale ground actions are additionally not reflected at present in the Airwars database – though likely constituted a key element of the civilian toll. Most estimates of Libya 2011 casualties to date have included both fighters and civilians – with a Libyan government study from 2013 likely being the most accurate, with its estimate of 4,700 fighter and civilian deaths on the rebel side alone, as well as at least 2,100 people listed at the time as missing.

Armed men at the edge of Fashlum Al-Dhahra neighbourhood in Tripoli on February 20th 2011, where up to 700 civilians were alleged killed by Gaddafi forces while taking part in mass demonstrations, Image via Taha Krewi

Most deaths from Gaddafi forces

The tragedy of Libya’s 2011 war was not just of those who were killed, injured and displaced – but of the new world it ushered in. Following a couple of years of uneasy calm, by 2014 the country had split in two and reverted to civil war. Only in October 2020 was a United Nations-brokered deal seemingly able to bring a decade of violence to an end, though the rifts remain.

Hala Bugaighis, a Libyan lawyer and founder of the Jusoor Libya think tank, said the 2011 war has had two long-lasting effects that have deeply impacted Libyan society.

“The first is the impact on the social fabric that emerged from armed conflicts between cities,” she told Airwars. During the war some neighbouring towns found themselves on either side of the conflict, with one broadly loyal to Gaddafi’s forces and the other supporting the rebellion.

“The second is the long term effect of the conflict on the mental wellbeing of civilians, including PTSD, stress and depression,” Bugaighis added.

The majority of civilian harm identified in the events reviewed by Airwars was reportedly caused by forces of the Gaddafi regime – with between 869 and 1,999 likely deaths and as many as 1,100 injuries identified from 105 assessed actions. Overall, as many as 2,300 civilian deaths were locally alleged from these same Gaddafi actions. Many more small-scale killings have yet to be fully documented.

At the beginning of the uprising, Gaddafi forces were reported to have deliberately targeted protesters with both heavy weaponry and small arms fire, causing high numbers of casualties.

Later on, several massacres and indiscriminate shelling of urban areas by the regime were documented in both local and international media.

“In the first days of the uprising, I was so scared,” said Bugaighis, who lived in Tripoli at the time. “Growing up in Libya we were raised to fear the regime, so at first, I thought nothing would take down the regime. I started to realise that it is more serious when the state of emergency was declared in Tripoli and foreigners were evacuated.”

Many Gaddafi forces incidents had previously gone unreported to an international audience, given the tendency of international media to focus only on larger scale events. On June 29th for example, a review of local sources found that a 13-year old boy named Moftah Muhammad Jalwal was killed and six more civilians injured by Gaddafi forces shelling on the Doufan neighbourhood of Misurata. Gruesome videos showed bloodstains at the site and injured children in the local hospital.

Moftah Muhammad Jalwal, reportedly killed by Gaddafi forces on June 29th 2011 in Misurata (Screengrab via a video by Ali Al Dadi)

NATO: lower civilian harm but lack of accountability

A decade on from NATO’s intervention, neither it nor any individual member has ever publicly admitted to a single civilian death. Libyans themselves tell a very different story.

Airwars reviewed claims of thousands of airstrikes reportedly conducted by NATO and its allies during Libya 2011, which between them resulted in 223 to 403 likely civilian deaths and 215 to 357 injuries in 84 events of concern, according to our assessment. NATO itself declared having conducted 7,600 strikes. Overall, Airwars identified as many as 800 civilians locally alleged killed by NATO forces – though those higher claims appear to have been significantly exaggerated by pro-Gaddafi sources at the time.

United Nations investigators after the war accused both Gaddafi and rebel forces of indiscriminate killings, but concluded that NATO had conducted a “highly precise campaign with a demonstrable determination to avoid civilian casualties.” They noted that the international alliance had used precision-guided munitions and carried out extensive pre-strike assessments to try and avoid killing civilians.

Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, said NATO planners were supported by Western special forces marking targets on the ground, which had contributed to the accuracy of bombing and helped avoid civilian harm.

Both rebels and NATO were “very active in liaison, coordinating various operation centres even though NATO commandos made clear they were not acting as the rebels’ air force,” he says.

But while NATO itself insisted it was purely focused on protecting civilians, key members of the alliance were accused of supporting regime change. An Airwars investigation has found that a Norwegian effort to negotiate Gaddafi’s stepping down in April 2011 was seemingly undermined by France and the UK. As the former Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Store now notes, “Had there been in the international community a willingness to pursue this track with some authority and dedication, I believe there could have been an opening to achieve a less dramatic outcome and avoid the collapse of the Libyan state.”

Even though the number of reported civilian casualties from NATO actions is far lower when compared to Gaddafi forces, Airwars’ findings indicate that likely fatalities were still significantly higher than the estimated 60 deaths that the United Nations documented at the time, in its review of 20 events of concern.

By contrast and based on local reporting from the time across Libya, as well as major investigations by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the New York Times, Airwars has identified at least 223 likely civilian deaths.

Reported victims of NATO airstrikes on Majer on August 8th 2011 (via Majer Zletin Massacre)

Those seeking clarity about individual incidents remain sadly disappointed. Inquiries to NATO about civilian harm from its actions in Libya are routinely referred to member states, which in turn then refer back to NATO. All recent Freedom of Information requests from Airwars to individual member states about their potential role in civilian harm during 2011 have been denied.

Only on one known occasion, on June 19th 2011, did NATO acknowledge that a malfunction of a munition in an attack on Tripoli’s Souk al Joumaa neighbourhood had potentially resulted in civilian casualties.

Mohammed Al Gharari, who lost five family members in the strike, told Airwars he had the following questions for NATO: “You struck people and admitted that it was by mistake. Why did you never care about us? If you had any humanity and you believe in human rights, you would have at least cared.”

“Even after ten years, no phone call or even any official has contacted us.”

Aftermath of the incident in Souq Al Joumaa on June 19th, 2011

Little reporting on civilian harm from rebels

Among the three parties to Libya’s 2011 war, the lowest documented number of civilian casualties was reported from rebel actions – with 57 incidents of concern reviewed by Airwars containing allegations of between 50 and 113 likely deaths.

That relatively low estimate of civilian harm from rebel actions can be explained by the lack of an air force and access to heavy weapons, particularly early on. It may also reflect a lack of media interest at the time.

The largest known loss of civilian life from rebel actions was reported on August 10th in the remote southern city of Tawergha, when between 24 and 74 inhabitants, including whole families and an imam of the town, were claimed killed by artillery fire. Tawergha was considered loyal to Gaddafi, with its more than 40,000 residents forced to flee by rebels. The majority of residents have still not been able to return a decade on.

“130 men from Tawergha are missing ever since, and no one knows anything about them. They were taken by the rebels. My brother is one of them,” Gabriel Farag, who also had to flee Tawergha, told Airwars. “These 130 men were arrested just for the mere fact that they are from Tawergha.”

“The war has impacted Libyan society in many ways, especially in social relationships among tribes. Libyan society is a tribal society, and the war has broken the connections between tribes across the country,” says Mustafa Al Fetouri, a Libyan journalist who covered the civil war back in 2011.

Mabrouk Elyan, reportedly among those killed by rebel forces on August 10th 2011 in Tawergha, via Tawergha Martyrs

Ten years of anarchy

What followed after the 2011 defeat of Gaddafi was a decade of chaos and on-and-off civil war that turned Libya into a failed state. Many hopes were betrayed and opportunities missed in a country that had once been described as Africa’s most developed.

“The notion of justice was completely absent after the revolution,” says Bughaigis. “Instead of avoiding a repetition of the injustice that occurred in the past, such as the Abu Salim prison incident or the killing of students, all we saw was the repetition of these mistakes over and over again.”

Airwars found that some victims had been paid compensation by one of Libya’s post-revolution governments, but only for damage done to property. Efforts to create proper mechanisms for restitution were abandoned when the country slipped into civil war again in 2014.

“Justice was one of the principles of the Libyan uprising. However, all those in power have failed to do so, and it may be in a systematic way to entrench chaos and hate,” explained Bughaigis.

Former US President Barack Obama once described the failure to plan for what came after NATO’s intervention in Libya as a “shit show”, and as his biggest foreign policy mistake. “We averted large-scale civilian casualties, we prevented what almost surely would have been a prolonged and bloody civil conflict. And despite all that, Libya is a mess,” he told The Atlantic in 2016.

However, better times could now be ahead for Libyans, with the country recently selecting a unified transitional government which has committed to working on a reconciliation process for those affected by the civil wars. Those in the international community who have become embroiled in Libya’s violence since 2011 could now too – it might be hoped – finally acknowledge the civilian harm they themselves have caused.

Out with the old, in with the new.

Family photo of Libya’s outgoing Presidency Council today after they handed over power to new unity government represented here by prime minister Dabaiba & new Presidency Council president Mnefi (front right and left) pic.twitter.com/Zgq36LCFde

— Mary Fitzgerald (@MaryFitzger) March 16, 2021

▲ Vehicles belonging to Gaddafi forces explode after a NATO air strike between Benghazi and Ajdabiyah, March 20th 2011 (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)

Published

March 2, 2021

Written by

Airwars Staff

US accountability for civilian casualties declines sharply during Trump's final year, as CENTCOM 'forgets' deaths of Yemen civilians.

Tracking by Airwars across multiple conflicts during 2020 shows that the number of locally reported civilian deaths from the use of explosive weapons was down by two thirds compared to the previous year. Of these fatalities, around half were in the first two months of 2020.

Comprehensive new data released by Airwars in its Annual Report 2020 suggests a possible ‘Covid effect’ – a significant reduction in conflict violence, as communities locked down during the global pandemic.

Other factors were at work too. Truce deals in Syria and Libya had a major impact in reducing civilian casualties. And the United States significantly scaled back its targeted strikes campaign in Yemen – though counterterrorism actions in Somalia continued at a high tempo. Meanwhile, limited Turkish military actions continued in both Iraq and Syria, sometimes with associated claims of civilian casualties.

“Any fall in reported civilian casualty numbers from their desperately high levels of recent years has to be welcomed,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Yet concerns remain that some of these wars will re-ignite as the impact of Covid recedes. Declines in US accountability for civilian deaths are also very worrying, and require urgent attention from the incoming Biden administration.”

US accountability challenges

Reported US actions declined steeply for the second year running – with no known US strikes in Pakistan or Libya, and significantly fewer in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. However US counterterrorism strikes remained at a high level in Somalia – with uncertainty about how many US actions in Afghanistan were conducted. In total, an estimated 1,000 US airstrikes took place during Donald Trump’s last full year as president – down from around 13,000 during Obama’s own final year in office.

Locally reported civilian harm was also sharply down. But as the Annual Report  shows, so too was US public accountability. In Iraq and Syria, there was an unexplained 80 per cent fall in the number of events assessed as ‘Credible’ by the US-led Coalition. And in Yemen, US Central Command had to apologise after forgetting that its own forces had killed up to a dozen civilians in a 2017 raid – despite CENTCOM’s former commander having publicly confirmed those deaths to the US Senate.

Limited respite for Syria, Iraq

Russia and the Assad government began 2020 with a ferocious campaign targeting rebels in several governorates, including Idlib. However of at least 398 civilian deaths allegedly resulting from Russia’s actions in Syria last year, all but 34 occurred before a major ceasefire was enacted on March 5th. That pause in hostilities – which still mostly holds – was prompted both by Covid concerns, and as a result of military pressure by Turkey on Assad’s forces.

Turkey also continued its ongoing campaigns against the Kurdish YPG in northern Syria, and the PKK in northern Iraq. During 2020, Airwars tracked a total of 60 locally alleged civilian harm incidents from Turkish-led actions in Syria, resulting in at least 37 alleged deaths and the injuring of up to 152 more civilians. And in Iraq, 21 locally alleged incidents were tracked throughout the year from Turkish actions, resulting in between 27 and 33 civilian deaths and up to 23 injuries.

Meanwhile, reported civilian harm from US-led Coalition actions against ISIS in Syria during 2020 was down by an astonishing 96% – with at least 18 civilians alleged killed, versus more than 465 likely civilian fatalities the previous year. Iraq saw just three locally reported civilian harm claims from US or Coalition actions – including during the US targeted assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani at Baghdad International Airport.

Most civilian deaths from Russian strikes in Syria were reported prior to a March 5th ceasefire

‘Forgotten’ civilian deaths in Yemen

Ongoing monitoring by Airwars of counterterrorism actions in Yemen indicated a continuing if limited US campaign against Al Qaeda – despite US Central Command (CENTCOM) not having publicly declared a strike since summer 2019. Confirmation of several actions by US officials suggested control of the long-running campaign may have been passed to the CIA.

Meanwhile, following publication of an Airwars Yemen report in October, CENTCOM had to admit that it had forgotten its own recent admission of the killing of civilians during a 2017 raid on a Yemeni village.

Previous commander General Joseph Votel had told the US Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) during in-person evidence that he took personal responsibility for the deaths of “between four and twelve” civilians in a botched raid. But three years later, CENTCOM was claiming only that there “may have been casualties” at Yakla. A senior official later apologised to Airwars for “Our failure to provide an accurate assessment [which] was an administrative mistake, and not an intent to deceive.”

Bucking a global trend of reduced conflict violence, US airstrikes against al Shabaab continued at near record levels during 2020 – although reported civilian deaths halved in number. That may have been a reflection of AFRICOM’s increased emphasis on assessing and reporting civilian harm under new commander General Stephen Townsend.

Advocacy team engages with militaries, governments and parliaments

As well as providing comprehensive data on locally reported civilian harm across multiple conflicts, Airwars works hard to ensure that the voices of affected communities are properly heard. During 2020 productive meetings were held with Dutch, British, US and NATO military officials – often alongside our partners – with the aim of reducing battlefield civilian harm.

Our advocacy team also briefed parliamentarians and media in several countries, offering expertise and insights on issues ranging from the perils of explosive weapon use in urban centres, to the benefits of public transparency for civilian harm claims.

In October 2020 Airwars also launched a new investigations team, aimed at building on its recent study looking at the challenges faced by newsrooms when reporting on civilian harm. Our first investigation – taking a critical look at Libya 2011 – will launch in mid March.

Read our Annual Report 2020 in full.

Locally reported civilian deaths declined across all conflicts tracked by Airwars during 2020.

Published

February 5, 2021

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and Mohammad Menfi will lead country blighted by years of conflict into elections

Libya’s rival political factions agreed to form a transitional government on February 5th, further cementing a June ceasefire meant to end the country’s civil war.

After a lengthy UN-mediated process, the 73 delegates of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) voted for Mohammad Menfi as head of the Presidency Council; Abdul Hamid Dbeibah as Prime Minister; and Mossa Al-Koni and Abdullah Hussein Al-Lafi as members of the Presidency Council. They will lead the country until full elections, scheduled for December.

The list had support from across the divided nation. Menfi, a former General National Congress member, enjoys support in the country’s East while Dbeibah, a powerful businessman from Misrata – as well as Al-Lafi – represent Libya’s West. Al-Koni comes from the sparsely populated South.

During the talks in Geneva, Menfi’s list surprised many observers by beating an alternative list – headed by current Minister of Interior Fathi Bashaga and Head of the House of Representatives Aqila Saleh – by 39 to 34 votes. The two lists had won most votes in the first round among an initial four slates.

#Libya’ new Presidential Council and Prime Minister pic.twitter.com/fxAvMhm2dO

— The Libya Observer (@Lyobserver) February 5, 2021

Little known about new government’s plans

Libya has seen 10 years of on-and-off civil war since the overthrow of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. In June 2020, all sides agreed a ceasefire deal after years of fighting, and the new administration will be tasked with implementing it.

However little is known about the new interim government’s policy plans as no concrete proposals have so far been presented, analysts said.

Among many challenges are the disarmament of militias, and the withdrawal of foreign fighters from Libya. Foreign support played a significant role in recent stages of the civil war, with the United Arab Emirates backing general Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, and Turkey supporting the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

Besides the political dialogue continuing in Libya, a new constitution has to be drafted and common financial and economic institutions built. The process is supposed to end with fresh general elections on December 24th this year.

The LPDF marks a return to negotiations between parties, many of whom had been only recently been locked in bitter conflict.

“For the first time in years we are witnessing a (commitment) to political progress by all parties instead of moving to an armed conflict,” a UN source familiar with the dialogue told Airwars. “This is the first fruitful outcome from the whole process.”

General Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army which tried to seize control of Tripoli in 2019, had unsuccessfully sought to block the process, the UN source said.

Muslim Brotherhood-backed militias also opposed the dialogue and tried to disrupt it at various points, the source claimed.

Another issue of concern is appeasing international sponsors of a conflict in which at least 788 civilians have been killed since 2012 through air and artillery strikes, according to Airwars data.

“Turkey wants something out of that deal – the gas agreement, a joint venture for the Mediterranean,” the UN source says. Other foreign players are likely to block any such deal, which would give Turkey extensive drilling rights in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Alleged corruption and limited influence

Commentators said massive challenges remain – and questioned the potential effectiveness of the new government.

Tarek Megerisi, Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the dialogue was designed to bring all parties together, and to do so had helped to avoid confrontation.

“The process was engineered to ensure it produced something, rather than try to solve any of the underlying drivers of fragmentation and conflict,” he said. “So I don’t expect this government to be unifying, pacifying or very interested in repairing the various failures of the state over the last 10 years.”

Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah has faced questions over his suitability for the role, with some critics highlighting allegations of corruption against him during his time leading a construction unit in the former Gaddafi government.

“The figures [in the new government] are perhaps less controversial than the alternative ones were – except for (Dbeibah) who is a bit more polarising,” said Emadeddin Badi, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

There are also questions over the limited territorial influence of the new government due to Libya’s highly localised politics. Even though the new leaders enjoy social ties and patronage networks in Libya, they may be comparatively little known among the wider population.

So far the new administration has not presented any concrete plans about what to do with local militias and foreign fighters.

“Quick calls of support from the Ministers of Defence and Interior suggest that there is an expectation that the work done with Turkey to reconstruct western Libya’s security services will continue. Although the question of what to do with Tripoli’s militias and how Haftar will react hangs ominously over this,” Megerisi said.

The election is only an initial step that will hopefully lead to a more peaceful future for a nation exhausted by years of fighting. The United Nations Security Council has now  requested ceasefire monitors, but it remains to be seen if the ongoing ceasefire can be transformed into effective political dialogue.

“We’ll be watching those you have selected to make sure they truly go back to the Libyan people on December 24 of this year to democratically elect Libya’s representatives and political leadership,” UN acting special representative Stephanie Williams said.

▲ The Libyan Political Dialogue Forum convened in Geneva to elect a transitional government on February 5th, 2021 (via UNSMIL

Published

January 15, 2021

Written by

Oliver Imhof

New graphics also compare airstrikes and reported civilian harm by recent US presidents in Iraq, Syria, Somalia.

In it latest data project, Airwars has published comprehensive mapping of more than 5,400 air and artillery strikes in Libya since 2012. The new data covers all known locally-reported strikes to date, conducted by all parties to an on-and-off civil war that is currently on pause, after last year’s UN-brokered ceasefire deal.

A team of researchers, geolocators and specialist volunteers for several months meticulously researched the location of every claimed strike event in as much detail as possible, placing the majority at least to neighbourhood level, and with many civilian harm events now including more exact locations. The new strike data joins more than 230 reported civilian harm events in Libya since 2012 which are already published by Airwars.

The new data and mapping has been visualised by Glasgow-based design studio Rectangle, an innovator when it comes to visualising conflict data. Daniel Powers and Lizzie Malcolm of Rectangle say about the project: “The new maps visualise these incidents by civilian fatalities, militant fatalities, and strikes carried out by each belligerent. The maps are navigable by a histogram of the map data over time, to try to provide an overview of a particularly complex conflict.”

The new interactive map enables users to explore the conflict in Libya and its impact on different regions of the country. Filters make it possible to see which faction bombed how much in which region; and who caused the most reported harm to civilians – revealing a clear correlation between the use of explosive weapons in urban areas and non-combatant deaths. According to Airwars modelling of local claims, the Libya conflict from 2012 to date has claimed the lives of up to 1,100 civilians through air and artillery strikes. Additionally the map also depicts claimed deaths among militant groups.

Claudia Gazzini, senior analyst at the International Crisis Group, says of the new mapping: “This is a great instrument that visualises extremely clearly how airstrikes have affected Libya throughout its ten-year transition. In a glance we see with extreme clarity where airstrikes have occurred, how many civilian casualties there have been as a result, and the presumed belligerent.”

Overview of Airwars’ Libya mapping showing the whole range of the conflict

As a timeline above the mapping shows, Libya has witnessed intense periods of fighting since 2012 – with the LNA’s offensive on Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020 by far the heaviest. Inga Kristina Trauthig, Libya Research Fellow at the ICSR think tank, recalls some of the shocking attacks that occurred during the war. “Buried in this quantitative data are infamous examples, such as the airstrike at a military school in the capital, Tripoli which killed over 30 people in January 2020; as well as numerous strikes against medical facilities, also in Tripoli, in late July 2019 conducted by the Libyan National Army in violation of international humanitarian law.”

Gazzini adds: “What emerges extremely clearly is also how damaging the 14 months war on Tripoli was – the majority of strikes and civilian casualties occurred within that time frame, in many cases by unknown actors.”

Violence towards civilians in Tripoli during the recent siege had also been visualised in detail for Airwars by Rectangle in innovative mapping.

Detailed view of the Battle of Tripoli between April 2019 and June 2020

“What the data really shows us is the overall consistency and ubiquitousness (of the conflict). The data visualisation powerfully brings across how heavily Libya is affected by airstrikes,” says Trauthig.

She pointed out the tool enabled macro analysis of Libya’s war but would also help identify trends during specific time periods of intense conflict “such as the correlation between increased US airstrikes in Sirte with the fight against Islamic State.”

Clicking on the map reveals more detail about individual events, such as the suspected or known belligerent and any associated deaths. Civilian casualty incidents are also linked to the Airwars database, where more granular analysis can be found.

Arabic language researchers on the project included – among others – Osama Mansour, Shihab Halep and Mohammed al-Jumaily. Volunteers included Samuel Brownsword, Eleftheria Kousta, Douglas Statt, Vasiliki Touhouliotis and Anna Zahn. Clive Vella, Giacomo Nanni and Riley Mellen worked on the geolocation team.

New graphs compare strikes, civilian harm from Trump, Obama and Bush

Also being introduced by Airwars are new graphics comparing airstrike and reported civilian harm numbers grouped by US president – initially for the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, and in Somalia.

The US-led war against so-called Islamic State has seen more than 34,000 declared international air and artillery strikes since 2014. Using official Coalition data, Airwars modelling now shows that a slim majority of those strikes took place during Barack Obama’s second term. However more than twice the level of civilian harm was reported under Trump than Obama – partly a reflection of the intensity of the latter stages of the war, though also raising questions about possible relaxation of standards to protect non combatants.

In Somalia too, new graphics show that US actions against Al Shabaab under Donald Trump surged to their highest levels since counterterrorism actions began in 2007. Alleged civilian harm under Trump was more than double that of George W Bush and Barack Obama’s presidencies combined.

Despite a slim majority of declared strikes against ISIS taking place under Barack Obama, more than twice the level of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria was alleged from actions under Donald Trump.

▲ New Airwars mapping reveals thousands of locally reported air and artillery strikes in Libya by belligerents since 2012.