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Published

November 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

September 25, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof

Civilian casualties are sharply up - with UAE and Turkey often to blame, say experts

Foreign powers are increasingly being drawn into Libya’s civil war – with lethal air strikes reportedly carried out by at least two other nations, and with Libya’s two rival governments both hiring foreign mercenary pilots, and receiving shipments of weapons from abroad. Experts are warning that an internationalising of the conflict may further destabilize the already-fragmented North African nation.

Two nations in particular are now involved in a proxy war – with Turkey and the United Arab Emirates each targeting the other’s air assets in a battle for control of Libya’s skies.

Until fairly recently, the Libyan city of Misurata had been off limits despite armed clashes between the two rival governments for control of the nation’s capital – and likely the whole country. Even though the western coastal city of Misurata is supporting the Tripoli-based and UN-supported Government of National Accord (GNA) with ground troops and air power, Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) had refrained from attacking it. The powerful Misuratans could potentially tip the military scales against him by getting more involved, and Haftar reportedly wanted to keep a door open for negotiations.

But on July 26th, everything changed. The GNA dealt a heavy blow to Haftar’s forces that day by targeting its Jufra airbase, reportedly destroying two large cargo planes and killing a Ukrainian mercenary pilot. It is not clear whether that strike was conducted by Misuratan planes, or by Turkish armed drones.

The LNA retaliated the next day by hitting the alleged control room for Turkish armed Bayraktar TB2 drones in Misurata. Either the LNA itself or allied Emirati drones struck the city’s Air College, highlighting the increasing internationalisation of this bitter civil war.

Destroyed aircraft at Jufra airbase following a GNA airstrike on July 26th (via European Space Imaging)

Blame game

Both the LNA and GNA now openly blame foreign forces for major attacks. The catastrophic airstrike on a migrant detention on July 3rd which killed at least 53 civilians was the work of a United Arab Emirates (UAE) aircraft, insisted the GNA. The Emirates was also blamed by some for an August 4th-5th strike on the city of Murzuq in which at least 42 civilians died.

France too has been implicated in the violence, with Javelin anti-tank missiles, originally obtained by the French military, finding their way into the hands of the rebel LNA. Italy’s foreign minister openly condemned Paris for, in his words, choosing to side against the UN-supported Government of National Accord.

Haftar’s forces have in turn captured Turkish citizens, and threatened to attack Turkish targets following a spate of precision strikes, reportedly by Turkish drones. Turkey, has a robust domestic armed drone programme, and its Bayraktar TB2 drones appear to have been deployed to Libya in some numbers. Despite their limited munitions payload (45kg) and range (requiring nearby ground control centres) the Bayraktars initially had some effect on Haftar’s forces. However, increasingly the TB2s are being hunted down and destroyed – almost certainly by the UAE’s own more powerful Wing Loong armed drones.

The control room for Turkey’s TB2s had reportedly been moved several times after the previous one at Mitiga airport in Tripoli was destroyed by continuous airstrikes, according to defence and security analyst Arnaud Delalande.

“Turkey initially delivered four drones to the GNA, though three were destroyed in an LNA strike,“ he says, citing as his source Misurata Air Academy airmen. “Another five drones were ordered then, and following two more deliveries currently between six and eight are operational.”

After heavy hits to the Misurata airbase there were said to be plans to move the Turkish drones either to Zuwara in Libya’s far east, or to Ghardabiya airbase south of Sirte. With its drones re-stationed, the GNA would have the capability of striking targets deeper into Libya’s Haftar-occupied east, including the Oil Crescent. Delalande says that the LNA has preemptively been striking Zuwara and Ghardabiya to prevent any military use. By doing so, Haftar’s forces have again widened the fronts of the ongoing civil war as they struck those forces around Sirte who ousted ISIS from the city in 2016. Fighting jihadists used to be a goal that GNA and LNA were once committed to before their hostilities began.

Most of the TB2s were later destroyed, likely while landing after conducting missions. Six more drones were delivered at the end of August to the GNA, according to a source. But these too are at risk. Haftar’s forces claim to have destroyed or disabled 14 Turkish drones to date, according to an official with an international monitoring agency who asked not to be named for this report.

A GNA government source disclosed to Airwars that these drones are now constantly being moved in vehicles for the moment, instead of being housed at an airport. The Tripoli-based Rada Special Deterrence Force is they said helping Turkish personnel operate them, while Libyan militiamen are being trained in Misurata to fly drones. By doing so, the Turks and their allies are mimicking a Cold War strategy whereby the US and Soviets kept small arsenals of nuclear weapons on the move in case their ground bases were disabled.

Responding to a request for comment, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that it had “no information” on drone strikes or weapon deliveries to Libya, though said it “continues to support the GNA.”

five new aircraft shelters were set up at Misrata airport in June 2019 https://t.co/cEQfUdVtYy wide enough to house a Bayraktar UAV pic.twitter.com/HsgL9MFqv3

— Samir (@obretix) July 29, 2019

Emirati assets

While the GNA relies heavily on Turkish support, Haftar’s forces are increasingly dependent on Chinese-made armed Wing Loong drones being operated by the UAE.

“Only 30% of the LNA air fleet are operational and need to be overhauled,” explains Delalande. The emergency landing on July 22nd of an armed LNA L-39 in Tunisia, normally used as a trainer aircraft, highlighted a reliance upon inferior aircraft. An official with an international agency, who asked not to be named, claimed that manned aircraft strikes in Libya had now virtually ended – making this one of the world’s first drone versus drone conflicts. However reports persist elsewhere of some ongoing strikes by manned aircraft, most likely those of a foreign power.

Since Jun, recurring testimonies have pointed to foreign fighter jets carrying out strikes in W #Libya

That is v plausible.

Some investigative journalism would be worthwhile here

Eg, Possibility that above are #Emirati Mirage 2000-5s taking off from W #Egypt should be examined https://t.co/iVrI8xpZTk

— Jalel Harchaoui (@JMJalel_H) September 21, 2019

Despite some gains on the ground for the GNA, the situation looks bleak in the air for the UN-backed government and its ally Turkey. The Chinese Wing Loong II used by the Emiratis is superior in terms of range and capacity to the Bayraktar TB2. “The Bayraktar drones are limited to 150km which can be extended with relay units, while the Wing Loongs can strike anywhere in Libya,” a technical assessor with an international agency disclosed to Airwars. “The Wing Loong can also carry more than eight times the weight of the Bayraktar with 400kg of missiles compared to 45kg,” the source adds. Local reports of heavy bombing over the past week by LNA and Emirati planes seem to confirm their air superiority.

Without the Emirati aircraft, believed to be based at Al Khadim in eastern Libya, the LNA would not be capable of conducting night-time strikes such as the one on July 3rd in Tajoura which hit a migrant detention centre, killing at least 53 civilians, alleges Oded Berkowitz, an analyst at MAX-Security.

That incident marked the biggest civilian harm event harm in Libya since 2011. Most sources accused the LNA of conducting the strike, though with the GNA itself insisting it had been conducted by an Emirati F-16. This seems unlikely, with no other claims of UAE F-16s being used in Libya. The UAE Foreign Ministry did not respond to an Airwars request for information on Emirati involvement in Libya.

In another major incident, at least 42 civilians were reportedly killed at Murzuq when an airstrike hit a town hall meeting in early August. Again, local sources accused the LNA and the UAE of conducting the strike. Murzuq, in the far south of the country, is another frontline for Haftar’s forces which are engaged in fighting with local tribesmen from the Tebu minority. At least 90 civilians have been killed in those clashes so far, according to OCHA.

In a later development, the US itself declared an airstrike near Murzuq on September 19th, claiming it killed eight ISIS members. That marked the first officially declared US strike in Libya since November 2018. Another US strike was then conducted five days later, again near Murzuq, supposedly killing eleven terrorists.

Jordan, Russia and France also involved

In addition to the United Arab Emirates, the LNA receives backing from several other foreign powers. Egypt has reportedly scaled back its own support, with no strikes publicly reported so far, though it is said to be training pilots. Jordan, however, is increasing its involvement by training LNA officers, and supplying armoured vehicles to Haftar’s ground forces – which have been widely pictured operating in Libya.

Jordanian Al-Mared personnel carriers recently photographed in Libya (via Defence Web)

Saudi Arabia and Russia presently take minor roles through offers of financial aid, or by delivering spare parts. However, there remains a risk of greater Russian involvement, as happened with Syria in 2015. A US State Department official, speaking on terms of anonymity, claimed to Airwars that Russia has previously carried out at least one demonstration airstrike in Libya for the LNA, which was launched from an Egyptian airbase near Siwa. There were also recent claims of Russian mercenaries with Wagner now assisting the LNA on the ground.

France’s part in the conflict remains ambivalent. Officially, the GNA is supported by the United Nations – with France itself a permanent member of the UN Security Council. However there have been reports for some years of French forces supporting the rebel LNA in its fight against jihadists – with three French Special Forces soldiers killed in 2016 near Benghazi, for example.

US-made Javelin missiles were also found by GNA forces after they captured the strategically important mountain city of Gheryan from the LNA at the end of June 2019. A New York Times investigation found the missiles had originally been delivered to France, which admitted to being the owner but denied they were operational: “Damaged and out of use, these weapons were being temporarily stocked in a warehouse ahead of their destruction,” the French Ministry of Defence insisted. “They were not transferred to local forces.”

“The French explanation is insufficient, it doesn’t make sense for them to be in Gheryan for so long as there was no fighting for years,” Oded Berkowitz says. “It is more likely that there were French soldiers and the missiles somehow ended up in Gheryan.”

All such weapon deliveries not only constitute blatant violations of the UN arms embargo to Libya, but also appear to fuel the conflict. July witnessed by far the highest death toll since the beginning of the LNA’s advance on Tripoli in April. Between 75 and 114 civilians were reportedly killed, with 142 air and artillery strikes monitored. August has seen another 62 to 71 locally reported civilian deaths.

Destruction after an alleged LNA airstrike on Ain Zara near Tripoli on August 17 (via Hona Souq Al-Khmies)

Civilians at risk

The targeting of civilian infrastructure such as the Tajoura detention centre and hospitals raise concerns that an all-out war could be near. Recent military advances by the GNA have been pushed back; the war has now spread far beyond Tripoli; and yet there seems to be no solution to a military stalemate where neither side is actually capable of controlling the entire country, let alone Tripoli.

Following a brief ceasefire around the Eid al-Adha holidays on August 10th-12th, fighting resumed at its previous intensity, and Haftar recently vowed to press on with his offensive. However his LNA seems to be facing internal tensions in its stronghold of Benghazi, with infighting reported between secularist and Islamist forces in Haftar’s self-styled army.

Precisely what role foreign powers will play in the weeks ahead is unclear. Both Turkey, financially invested in Libya, and the UAE – obsessed with containing the Muslim Brotherhood with its reported ties to both Turkey and Qatar – certainly have the capabilities to step up their involvement and turn Libya into a full-fledged proxy war. Foreign sponsors backing out could also mean victory for one side – or a return to the negotiation table for both. Germany currently aims to sponsor a conference on Libya, potentially involving foreign belligerents, by the end of the year.

“More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed.”

This line from UN envoy Salame to the Security Council struck a chord, it’s been popping up across Libyan social media

— Mary Fitzgerald (@MaryFitzger) July 31, 2019

“One can make a strong, compelling case that the current situation in Tripolitania [western Libya] wouldn’t have existed at all if foreign states had refrained from interfering in Libya so doggedly throughout the recent year,” says Jalel Harchaoui, Libya scholar at the Netherlands-based Clingendael Institute. “For instance, the Haftar coalition’s offensive on Tripoli has been struggling. It has been mediocre and it is impossible to call it successful by any stretch of the imagination,” he adds.

However, “the field marshal’s certainty that he can rely upon backing from the UAE and others, in contravention of the UN’s arms embargo, has disincentivized him from pursuing any path but a military solution. He hopes for even greater backing than whatever he has been receiving thus far,” Harchaoui claims.

According to Airwars data, the conflict has already taken the lives of between 210 and 297 civilians through air and artillery strikes since April 4th. OCHA says that overall 1,093 people have been killed, including fighters on both sides. Predictions on where the troubled nation is heading remain difficult at present due to the erratic nature of many of the actors involved. As Harchaoui says, “in general, the Libya conflict stands at a place of very profound uncertainty. Several scenarios are equally plausible from here. Most of them involve thousands of additional deaths.”

The violence in #Tripoli has killed 1093 people, including 106 civilians, and injured 5752 people, including 294 civilians. More than 100 000 people are displaced.

WHO is training #Libya's doctors to serve both the physical and mental health needs of the injured and displaced.

— World Health Organization in Libya (@WHOLIBYA) July 15, 2019

▲ Aftermath of the devastating airstrike on the Tajoura Detention Centre on July 3rd (via IOM Libya)

Published

April 15, 2019

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Dozens of civilians reported killed in first few days of fighting - as thousands more flee

A major offensive on the Libyan capital Tripoli by Marshal Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has already seen dozens of civilians locally reported killed – with the United Nations warning that “Civilian casualties and displacement are expected to increase further given the continued use of air strikes and heavy artillery.”

Haftar’s assault on Tripoli – an apparent attempt to circumvent UN-brokered ceasefire talks between the LNA and the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) – risks plunging Libya into its worst violence since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The first ten days of fighting have seen dozens of airstrikes by both the LNA and GNA, with multiple Tripoli neighbourhoods caught in the battle. According to the UN’s OCHA agency, more than 18,000 civilians have so far been displaced by the fighting – with many thousands more at risk.

Airwars researchers have so far monitored twelve locally reported civilian harm events blamed on air or artillery strikes, in which up to 37 civilians were alleged killed. Among the dead were two doctors, a pregnant woman and a young child.

Over 18,000 ppl have now been displaced by ongoing hostilities in #Tripoli #Libya. 6,000 ppl directly assisted with some form of humanitarian assistance. Some 3,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in detention centers around the city. https://t.co/wUziRcFDGD pic.twitter.com/L67Olqgyos

— OCHA Libya (@OCHA_Libya) April 15, 2019

Possible stalemate

Marshal Haftar’s offensive on the capital Tripoli has been stalled by unexpected resistance from local militias, and similar matched military capabilities between the GNA and LNA make a stalemate possible.

Until recently Libya’s capital had been spared larger destruction despite eight years of on and off warfare. Unlike cities such as Sirte, Derna or Benghazi that suffered severe damage from two civil wars, Tripoli witnessed only occasional flare ups of violence that left most parts of the city intact. But with the Libyan National Army (LNA) moving towards the country’s biggest city it might now face a dire future.

Only weeks ago, hopes were high for a peaceful settlement of hostilities at the planned National Conference in Ghadames scheduled for April 14th-16th. After years of division, plans for a new constitution and elections were in turn meant to unite the country. Instead, Khalifa Haftar’s decision to move his self-styled army on Tripoli has foiled those efforts – with the conference now postponed indefinitely.

With the reported backing of foreign powers including the United Arab Emirates and France, Haftar’s aim appears to have been to take the capital quickly in a power grab which would put the entire country under his control.

Yet his forces have faced more resistance than expected. Tripoli’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which currently only has territorial control over small parts of Libya’s western territories, received help from militia forces from Misurata. Haftar’s move also united militias that were previously fighting each other, meaning that the country could now face a military standoff or even a third civil war.

This would mean yet more suffering for Libya’s civilian population, who have already faced much hardship since the 2011 revolution.

Competing air forces

Both sides have air forces and artillery which were deployed in various battles over the past years. The LNA currently controls three Su-22s, two Mirage F1s, three operational MiG-23s and a few MiG-21s – one of which was reportedly shot down over Tripoli on April 14th.

The LNA’s planes were previously stationed at Jufra air base south of Sirte, though some were moved to the Al Watyah facility near the Tunisian border. From the former Gaddafi base, protected by Zintani forces, the LNA can easily fly sorties against Tripoli. Before moving on Tripoli, the LNA had conducted 1,405 airstrikes in Libya since 2012 according to an Airwars/ New America assessment, resulting in 115 to 187 civilians killed according to local sources.

The GNA in turn operates one Mirage F1ED, two MiG-23 MLDs as well as approximately a dozen L-39 and G-2 light-attack aircraft. They are currently based both at Mitiga airport in Tripoli, and at Misurata. Mitiga airport is also used as a civilian airport but has been bombed by the LNA in order to degrade its rival’s capabilities.

GNA-aligned aircraft have been considerably less active over the past years, only conducting around 38 strikes according to local reports, which have led to between 10 to 17 civilian fatalities.

In addition, both sides control a few Mi-35 attack helicopters, and artillery brigades.

After days of fighting, who controls what in the suburbs of #Tripoli? check out my latest piece on the current situation in north-west #Libya: pic.twitter.com/zROscQxneC

— Dzsihad Hadelli (@dhadelli) April 7, 2019

In terms of ground troops, numbers on both sides are believed to be more or less even. The LNA consists of roughly 25,000 men but can hardly be called an army in the classical sense. Around 7,000 men form the regular core of the army, while the rest are made up from tribal militias, mercenaries and Salafist fighters.

The same goes for GNA forces, which are mostly made up from local militias with very different backgrounds. The Tripoli-based militias comprise around 5,000 fighters, while forces from Misurata could contribute up to 18,000 additional men if they fully join the fight. However, alliances in Libya have proven to be fluid and could shift rapidly in one party’s favour.

International actors

Defence and security analyst Arnaud Delalande describes the volume of forces as “unfavorable to Haftar. Regarding air power, Haftar must deploy the greater part of his aircraft in the west with the risk of leaving some areas of Libya without air cover. In addition, range is also important. Mitiga and Misurata are close to the clash zones. The LNA Air Force must therefore both support its forces around Tripoli, and also protect its supply lines between Jufra and the West. These lines are permanently threatened by the strikes of the Misurata air force.”

An offensive on Tripoli is also particularly problematic at the moment as the city hosts many people who fled from fighting in other parts of the country, as well as refugees and migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa. With a regular population of around 2 million people, continued shelling could have devastating consequences for the civilian population in a densely populated urban environment.

Both sides have international backers, with Egypt, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Russia openly supporting the LNA, while the GNA has support from the US, the UK, Italy, Qatar and Turkey. France has an ambivalent role, keeping ties to both factions. Most important international players, Egypt excluded, have urged all parties to stop fighting and de-escalate tensions. Though a foreign military intervention seems unlikely at present, both Egypt and the UAE have come to Haftar’s help in the past and could do so again.

The UN has unsuccessfully tried to broker a ceasefire, reminding parties that attacks on civilians could constitute war crimes. Yet conflicts of the past have shown that consideration for innocent lives diminish when everything is at stake. With more troops mobilising from each faction, Libyans risk witnessing a third civil war within a decade. After eight years of violence and instability, a peaceful solution would certainly be a relief for the people of Libya.

▲ Smoke rises up after an airstrike (via Libya Observer)

Published

April 10, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism helps secure long-term accountability for US drone wars

Airwars has announced that in partnership with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it will also now be monitoring airstrikes and reported civilian harm from secretive US campaigns in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, in addition to its current portfolio of major conflicts.

The US counter terrorism campaigns – conducted by the CIA and US Special Forces – have been monitored by the Bureau since 2010, as part of one of the longest continuous investigations in modern media history. While the Bureau will continue to pursue investigative stories, Airwars will now take over the daily monitoring of reported airstrikes and local claims of civilian harm from US actions in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan.

“Holding governments and militaries properly to account for civilian harm is central to our work at Airwars – and we’re pleased to be partnering with the Bureau to ensure long term monitoring and advocacy engagement on these challenging US conflicts,” says the Director of Airwars Chris Woods.

“The Bureau’s pioneering work investigating the use of drones in secret wars has had significant impact in improving transparency and accountability around the use of these modern weapons. Our monitoring of these strikes, and wider air strikes, has been an important part of this work,” says Rachel Oldroyd, Editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“We are delighted that Airwars has agreed to take on this crucial aspect of keeping power accountable for civilian harm, leaving our journalists able to focus on digging into the important stories buried in the data.”

Poor transparency

More than 1,100 civilian deaths have been locally alleged from US actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002, in controversial campaigns which have been dominated by CIA and Special Forces drone strikes. However US transparency for these actions has historically been poor. Limited accountability improvements introduced in the last months of the Obama  Administration were recently scrapped by President Trump.

Airwars already monitors and assesses civilian harm claims from international military actions in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. It also engages with militaries where possible to improve their own understanding of public casualty claims. This has helped lead to significant improvements in US military reporting of civilian harm during the war against ISIS, for example.

Chris Woods – who originally founded the Bureau’s award winning Drones Project back in 2010 – says casualty events and data for the three US campaigns will continue to feature on the Bureau’s website. The Airwars team expects to integrate the three additional conflicts into its own site by early summer, with daily monitoring and assessments starting immediately.

▲ Library image: A US MQ-9 Reaper drone at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada in July 2016. Creech is also home to CIA remote drone operations. (Image: US Air Force/ Airman 1st Class Kristan Campbell)

Published

December 5, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Incident marks biggest single allegation of civilian harm against US in Libya since 2011.

Local reports indicate that up to eleven civilians have been killed in a US precision strike near Al Uwaynat, in the extreme south of Libya close to the Algerian border on November 29th.

The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) has confirmed conducting the strike, originally stating that it had targeted fighters from a regional Al Qaeda faction. Responding to allegations of civilian harm, an AFRICOM spokesperson told Airwars that “we are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from the Nov. 29 airstrike near Al Uwaynat.” However the official added that “At this time, we still assess that no civilians were injured or killed.”

Local sources first reported the airstrike on November 29th, in an area mostly populated and controlled by Tuareg tribespeople. Initial claims were that only suspected militants were killed.

AFRICOM officially confirmed the strike the following day, claiming to have killed “eleven (11) al-Qa’ ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) terrorists and destroying three (3) vehicles.” It further stated that “at this time, we assess no civilians were injured or killed in this strike.”

U.S. Conducts Precision Airstrike in Libya — https://t.co/mbirKvlIwp pic.twitter.com/e3OvHxD6WJ

— US AFRICOM (@USAfricaCommand) November 30, 2018

Local demonstrations

Both locals and Al Qaeda itself quickly rejected AFRICOM’s claim of no civilian harm – insisting that the victims did not belong to any terror organisation. Members of a local Tuareg tribe issued a statement during a demonstration in Ubari against the American strike demanding justice for those killed. They further requested an investigation by the Libyan government, and the names of those killed by AFRICOM.

While the combatant status of all victims was not entirely clear, locals denied that any of the victims had belonged to Al Qaeda. At least some of those killed were said to be militiamen aligned with a US-supported faction in Libya which in 2016 had successfully ousted so-called Islamic State from the city of Sirte.

According to the Tuareg statement “the victims included civilians and military personnel. Among them was a field commander in Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, who fought terrorism in Sirte to offer his country security and stability.” Two of the alleged victims who fought ISIS have been named as Moses Tony and Issa Mousi Ahmed Malik Taraki.

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إن العين تدمع والقلب يحزن ولا نقول إلا ما يرضى ربنا وإنا بفراقك لحزينونهذا الفديو لشاب البطل #موسى_توني في #حرب_سرت_ضدالتنظيمالإرهابي_داعشعندما ترك كل شيء ورائه أسرته و أبنائه لنصرة الوطن وشارك في حرب تحرير المدينة من قبضة داعشوالآن نتفاجئ بضربات الأفريكوم الظالمة والغير مبررة لي هؤلاء الشباب في العوينات بتهمة الإرهاب وبدون أي دليل يذكر تحت صمت الحكومات وذكر موقفها من هذه الخروقات الواضحة وحملة التشويه التي تطال مناطق الطوارقوفي ظل هذه الأحداث الكارثية تطالنا الحسرة والخيبة في بعض وسائل الإعلام والنشطاء والاعلاميين لمنح هذا الموضوع حقه في تبيان الحقيقة وما مدى الظلم الذي تعرض له هؤلاء الشبابقد يكون أحدنا الضحية في المرة القادمة بتهمة الإرهاب لو أستمر الصمت والتجاهل بخصوص هذه الخروقات والجرائم ضد الإنسانية التي يمارسها الأفريكوم الإرهابي .

Geplaatst door ‎ربوع ليبيا‎ op Vrijdag 30 november 2018

Video of Moses Tony allegedly fighting ISIS

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#اوباري ..خاص – الاسم ( عيسي موسي أحمد مالك التارقي ) الشهير #تقيست_التارقي والمكني #الاقدالي ومن مواليد 1993 ومن سكان…

Geplaatst door ‎لا للإخوان و المتطرفين في ليبيا‎ op Zondag 2 december 2018

Issa Mousi Ahmed Malik Taraki

In their statement, the Tuareg further claimed that the “motorcade that was bombed was on its way to rescue a group of Tuareg, near the Algerian border, who were encountering a smuggling gang attempting to smuggle heavy machinery to Algeria.”

Sign during the demonstration in Ubari saying: “AFRICOM killing our sons in the so-called War on Terror” (via Libya’s Channel)

The incident created an abundance of online sources showing both the scorched cars following the strike in the middle of the desert, as well as a demonstration condemning the violence.

Last week’s incident may mark the biggest known loss of civilian life from a US action in Libya since 2011. Acknowledging that AFRICOM was aware of the claims of civilian harm, an official outlined the next steps: “As with any allegation of civilian casualties we receive, U.S. Africa Command will review any information it has about the incident, including any relevant information provided by third parties. If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, USAFRICOM will then determine the next appropriate step.

USAFRICOM complies with the law of armed conflict and takes all feasible precautions during the targeting process to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.”

▲ A truck reportedly destroyed in the US strike near Al Uwaynat on November 30, 2018 (via Riyadh Burshan)

Published

September 6, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

The fresh crisis was triggered after the Libyan capital was attacked by the 7th Brigade – a militia previously confined to the nearby city of of Tarhuna, and which is led by a 33 year old field commander.

The UN, the EU and the P3+1 group for Libya consisting of France, Italy, the UK and the US have all condemned recent events in and around Tripoli. According to OCHA, the United Nations agency, a total of 61 people were killed with another 159 injured and over 2,000 families forced to flee their homes in the first week of fighting.

According to a UN statement UN Secretary General António Guterres reminded “all parties that the indiscriminate use of force is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. He urges all parties to grant humanitarian relief for those in need, particularly those who are trapped by the fighting.”

A UN-brokered ceasefire appears to be holding for the moment.

Facts and numbers on the clashes provided by OCHA

New armed actor

The fresh wave of violence in Tripoli began on August 27th, and was triggered by the 7th Brigade, a militia which had previously been based at Tarhuna, 50 km south of Tripoli. It consists of 5,000 members and is fronted by Major General al-Said al-Jedi al-Tarhuni. Also known as the Kaniyat or Kani Brigade, the name was derived from the Kani family which established the Brigade in 2013.

Five Kani brothers still dominate the brigade today: Abdul Khaliq Khalifa Al Kani, who is currently a political and tribal leader, and Mohammed Khalifa Ali Kani, head of the military council of Tarhuna, reportedly come from a Salafist background. Muammar Khalifa al-Kani is responsible for the ‘Ministry of Finance’, banks and municipalities in the city, and Abdulrahim Khalifa Al-Kani, a merchant, supervises security in Tarhuna. The fifth brother is Muhsin Khalifa al-Kani, 33, who is in effective command of the 7th Brigade at Tripoli.

After seizing heavy weaponry in 2013, the 7th Brigade managed to take control of Tarhuna in the following years, providing some sort of stability in the city by reducing crime and kidnappings.

For its operation in Tripoli the 7th Brigade teamed up with other militias from Zintan, Tajoura and Misurata and remnants of groups that were ousted from Tripoli upon the arrival of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in early 2016.

According to a spokesperson for the 7th Brigade, the aim of the present operation is to ‘cleanse’ the capital of the corruption that the Tripoli militias are constantly being accused of. It has denied any affiliation with the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) controlling other areas of the country, or with any other major actors in Libya.

Prior to the assault by the 7th Brigade and its allies, Tripoli was controlled by five separate militias:

–  The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) was first established in Benghazi in 2011 and is presently led by Haitham al-Taj Tajuri. It is now known as the First Security Division of the Central General Security Administration.

–  The Special Deterrence Force (SDF) is led by Abd al-Raouf Kara, a Salafist from Tripoli, who runs a detention centre in Mitiga airport, (where up to 500 suspected ISIS members are held.) In 2013 the General National Congress (GNC) legitimized the force by bringing it under nominal Ministry of Interior authority.

–  The Ghanewa Brigade – also known as the Central Security Authority in Abu Sleem – is led by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli from Kikla in the western mountains.

–  The Central Security Force for North Tripoli, also known as the Nawasi Brigade, has a Salafist background and is led by Mustafa Kaddour.

–  The 301 Brigade is made up of Misrata forces which are based in southern Tripoli and which was established by a decree from former prime minister Khalifa al Ghwell.

These militias initially appeared to provide some stability in Tripoli, which experienced upheaval at the beginning of the second Libyan civil war in 2014. They were also supposed to protect the GNA during its early days in 2016 – but then became its only foothold in the city after the supposed national government failed to establish a proper military presence in Tripoli, or to exercise effective governance outside or inside the capital.

The resulting power vacuum resulted in reported major political influence by the militias over the GNA, with the five armed groups awarded further legitimacy when they were fully acknowledged under the umbrella of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj said in a statement that he had already dissolved the 7th Brigade in April and condemned it for still keeping its weapons arsenal. He further said: “We will not allow the repetition of the destruction and burning of state installations, and we will bear the responsibility of all the Libyans.”

Ceasefire talks

Initial efforts to de-escalate the clashes and reach a ceasefire failed due to the intensity of fighting, which included the use of tanks, artillery and continued random shelling which have so far killed up to 19 civilians.

Airwars has so far tracked five events in which civilians were harmed as a result of artillery shelling, resulting in up to ten deaths and 21 injuries. More information can be found on the Airwars Libya microsite.

On August 29th there were two claimed airstrikes targeting the 7th Brigade and its allied forces. One was reportedly in South Tripoli and the other a claimed strike inside a 7th Brigade military camp in Tarhuna city which killed three members of the brigade. The militia accused both the GNA and Italy of conducting that attack.

The escalation of violence also led to the closure of Tripoli Mitiga airport on August 31st, and as many as 400 inmates escaped from Ain Zara prison in the chaos. There were also reports of hijacking and looting of government institutions in both the south and west of Tripoli.

On September 4th all parties involved in the fighting agreed on a ceasefire brokered by UNSMIL. However, past events have shown that such agreements between militias in Libya can be highly unstable and the coming days will show if the situation around the capital remains peaceful.

UNSMIL Statement on the Facilitation of a Ceasefire Agreement to end Fighting in #Tripoli

Agreement: https://t.co/Nu4fvd9pSPPhotos: https://t.co/v0AyvqdNXX pic.twitter.com/ZhfFxsVTXp

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) September 4, 2018

▲ Destruction following an airtstrike on a Tawergha refugee camp in Tripoli (via Afrigate News)

Published

July 27, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

So-called Islamic State was ousted from the Libyan city of Sirte in late 2016 by joint US and Government of National Accord forces. Using materials uncovered as part of a major new project tracking airstrikes and civilian harm in Libya, Airwars recounts the rise and fall of the terror organization through the eyes of local citizens, journalists and fighters. A version of this feature also appeared in the Daily Beast.

During its short occupation of Sirte, ISIS was often keen to film and then propagandise its actions.

In one video released on the terror group’s Telegram channel, heavily armed Al Hisbah ‘enforcers’ stalk through a Sirte marketplace, demanding that local people stop trading after the call to prayer. The ISIS police then check vendors for banned items – on the lookout for books about the devil, sex and desire.

In the next scene, ISIS fighters can be seen gleefully destroying their discoveries – smashing shisha pipes with hammers; and destroying cigarette cartons, and even a drum kit. All were forbidden at Sirte in this extreme interpretation of Islam – one in which Al Hisbah actively persecuted the local population.

ISIS members destroying shisha pipes in Sirte, Libya

Sirte had been the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gadhafi, the once-feared leader ousted and slain in a bloody 2011 uprising. The power vacuum left by Gadhafi’s death – later described by Barack Obama as the greatest foreign policy mistake of his presidency – proved ripe territory for an expansive Islamic State, which by 2015 already controlled great swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Videos like those from 2015 and 2016, when ISIS ruled Sirte, depict how it established totalitarian rule in the city within a short period of time. Before then, a loose alliance between the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA), the militant group Libya Dawn and the Al Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia had controlled the city between them. Yet their forces were quickly overrun by ISIS – in part due to the political turmoil which engulfed Libya following the collapse of the provisional government in late 2014.

“We forced the hijab on women and we caught the smugglers,” ISIS officials can be seen explaining to a small crowd of people. “We’re providing courses about Islam for prisoners and the people”. Religious education became mandatory in Sirte under ISIS rule.

Foreign fighters

Radical Islamism did not have a particularly strong tradition in Libya prior to NATO’s intervention, with the country deciding on a secular government in 2012. That meant ISIS had to supplement its local support by recruiting members from other countries, in order to consolidate Sirte as its Libyan stronghold. People from Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria or Syria were offered what they believed to be the ideal environment to practice an extreme version of Islam.

ISIS members parading Sirte’s streets after successly capturing the city (Source: propaganda video)

Once it had seized the city, ISIS quickly established its own police force – introducing gender segregation at schools; banning alcohol; and introducing Draconian punishments such as cutting off limbs and beheading people. In its propaganda videos, the terror group proudly depicts crucifixions and the beheading of Christians. These savage punishments were usually followed by interviews with young ISIS members who described their motivations.

“This is a message to fight to all the Muslims in Libya – to fight the Jews and Crusaders. ISIS scares them by controlling more and more cities, and applying Sharia law”, a masked fighter brags in one video. His call to extremism is followed by footage of a tribunal against an alleged thief, which ends with the accused having his hand cut off.

Sometimes it appears no detail is too small to warrant the attention of ISIS’s thought police. Videos posted to the terror group’s Telegram account show Al Hisbah patrols obsessing over Western-made products in a local supermarket, including a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo.

Al Hisbah checking for Western-made products in a supermarket

Libya stronghold

ISIS had for a while had also established footholds in the Libyan cities of Sabratha and Derna. But airstrikes – and ground assaults from the more moderate Derna Shura Mujahideen Council – soon saw the terror group concentrated in just one city: Sirte.

At their peak, between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS members reportedly controlled the city. Similar to its big brother in the Levant, ISIS’s presence in Libya sparked both local and international fear – this time of the jihadists spreading throughout Libya and then across North Africa. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya reacted in May 2016 with the formation of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous operation (in Arabic, ‘Impenetrable Wall’), which immediately advanced on the city.

However after some initial success in gaining control over outer neighbourhoods of Sirte (reportedly with British special forces support), Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous struggled to break through ISIS’s inner line of defence – which heavily employed snipers and suicide attacks. This in turn prompted the GNA to request air support from the United States, which officially joined the battle on August 1st 2016.

With US air support the GNA was now able to advance more quickly, launching its Macmadas operation on August 12th. By the end of that month the troops had captured additionally neighbourhoods from ISIS – though the operation was briefly halted because of reported concerns for civilian lives.

ISIS suffered heavy losses in the attacks, including senior figures. Waleed al-Farjani, a senior judge of the Islamic court in Sirte was killed together with the Egyptian Abu Omar al-Muhajir on August 15th, for example.

Waleed al-Farjani in 2015 – killed a year later in a likely US airstrike (Image: Amaq via Al Marsad)

ISIS continued to lose its senior members in Sirte right up to the end. Fayez Al-Bidi, an imam from Benghazi, was reportedly killed in an airstrike around December 4th. Al-Bidi, a former leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, had fled from military operations against his previous organisation to Sirte – where he became a senior ISIS figure and was reportedly in charge of the terror group’s main prison.

Fayez Al-Bidi (Image: alzoberalzober on Twitter)

Civilians at risk

While there is no doubt that much of Sirte was destroyed in the subsequent fighting – and that trapped civilians were harmed – there are still no reliable numbers on how many died.

Reporting on the military operation and on civilian harm was difficult for locals and journalists for various reasons. The Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces cut off communication channels, so that people trapped in the city could not reach the outside world. And only a small number of journalists had access to the battleground, which made critical reporting almost impossible.

Nonetheless, some people on both sides sides were able to capture aspects of the battle for Sirte – in doing so creating accounts of life in a city which would be almost completely destroyed in the expanding fight against ISIS.

The first known report of likely civilian harm from US strikes was published on August 12th 2016. Various sources claimed that a teenager named Mohammed al-Qadhafi [a variant spelling of Gaddafi] died as a result of an airstrike on his family home, near the Gulf Challenge School.

With the battle for the city now fully underway, Alsharq Al-Awsat reported on September 8th 2016 that civilians had become trapped in Sirte’s ‘600’ neighbourhood – and that ISIS was using them as human shields. The GNA’s forces brought a temporary halt to their operation – though the Libya Herald claimed that the interruption was due not to the risk of civilian harm, but because ISIS fighters had managed to get behind the GNA frontline.

Video of an airstrike on Sirte posted by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces

ISIS desperately tried to fight off the advancing enemy during the campaign. It even reportedly used female snipers – a highly unusual move for the otherwise ultra- conservative terror group. Later Al Jazeera reported that the group was employing female suicide bombers as well.

Another credible report of possible civilian harm from the US-backed GNA assault came from Twitter on October 12th 2016. Majdi Alshrif and Hameda MK posted images of dead and injured children, which they claimed had been taken in the rubble of a collapsed house. On that same day the US self-reported ten airstrikes in Sirte, while local sources also described artillery shelling by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous in the 600 neighbourhood.

A child reportedly injured in airstrikes in Sirte (Image: Amaq via Hamida mk)

Throughout the month of October there were repeated reports of civilians being trapped in besieged areas due to the lack of a safe passage. On October 21st, Ahmed El Sharkawy claimed on Facebook that women and children were trapped under rubble in the city. A week later, the assault had to be halted again, as ISIS was once more said to be using civilians as human shields according to GNA spokesperson Rida Issa.

In November, the fight for the remaining neighbourhoods of Sirte still under ISIS control intensified further – with the jihadists refusing to give up despite now being fully encircled by GNA troops. The besiegers in turn not only faced continued suicide attacks, booby traps and mines; but also had to avoid civilian casualties – including ISIS hostages and human shields. Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Rida Issa as saying that “[…] GNA troops could hear ‘the cries of civilians every time a strike is carried out’ but he did not know their number, only that ISIS had entrapped them.”

Women and children were among the victims – many of them family members of ISIS fighters. Al Aan TV interviewed Tasnim Alkhudry, a radicalised woman detained in a Sirte prison who gave a frank account of events in the besieged areas: “I was convinced by their ideology, so I moved to this city as my sister was living there. After living among them and losing our husbands, we discovered that ISIS members have engaged in hugely unacceptable behaviour.

“Apparently the Islamic State was not a genuine Islamic state that can protect vulnerable people like kids and women. The State was crossing the boundaries of fair behaviour. Therefore, when the war started in Sirte we were able to observe breaches of the rules of Islam – and the use of children and women as human shields.”

Al Aan TV interview with Tasnim Alkhudry

ISIS defeated

By December 6th 2016, ISIS was finally defeated at Sirte. It now became easier for journalists and investigators to gain access – with the significant damage to the city aloso now visible to all.

During the final days of the campaign and its immediate aftermath, the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces reported saving hundreds of people from the rubble, including many children. Libya’s Channel published troubling footage of a small child wandering slowly out of a destroyed home, for example. Al Jazeera also showed powerful images of injured children receiving medical aid, and the many destroyed neighbourhoods of Sirte.

On December 16th, Elkul reported that the Misurata Central Hospital had received 47 injured children and 16 injured women during the whole campaign. And a few days later MC Doualiya published an article saying that “dozens of bodies are still under the rubble, the smell is very foul and it is feared that it will cause diseases such as plague,”. They quote a local citizen talking about unrecovered bodies: “There are terrorists, but also women and children who died of hunger and thirst under the rubble.”

Even so, there is still no official casualty count for those innocents caught up in the fighting at Sirte. AFRICOM ran the US air campaign which resulted in almost 500 strikes in 2016. When questioned about specific alleged civilian harm events during the battle, a spokesman told Airwars that “With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.”

Privately however, one senior US military official indicated to Airwars that civilian casualties from US actions may indeed have occurred at Sirte – but that no estimates could presently be reached based on the available evidence.

Libya’s Channel shows Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces rescuing families

The battle for Sirte again makes clear why tracking harm from the perspective of affected civilians themselves is so important. Local reporting clearly suggests that non-combatants weren’t just trapped in the city, but were actively held hostage in besieged neighbourhoods by ISIS. Even so, the US still conducted 495 airstrikes at Sirte, while its ground allies the GNA also conducted airstrikes as well as intense artillery shelling during the siege.

By Airwars estimates at least 37 civilians were killed and 69 more injured as a result of airstrikes during the campaign. To date, none of the belligerents have been willing to concede any civilian harm from any of their actions.

Media sources also reported around 2,500 ISIS fighters slain. Around 700 GNA fighters were also reported killed, and between 3,200 and 4,000 injured.

More than 18 months after the end of the Sirte campaign, some unclaimed bodies are still kept in refrigerated containers near Misurata. Families are often reluctant to be associated with relatives who fought with ISIS. Al Aan TV filmed the containers and said there were still hundreds of unidentified corpses within – some of them women and children.

Additionally, many children were reportedly left orphaned by the battle, with their parents said to have fought and died with ISIS. The scars left by ISIS’s brief occupation of Sirte – and the brutal assault to free the city – may be borne for generations to come.

Children orphaned by the fighting at Sirte were the subjects of an Al Jazeera report

▲ ISIS religious enforcers smash a drum kit during their brief occupation of the Libyan city of Sirte (Screen grab via propaganda video)

Published

June 20, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

A new study of the security situation in Libya between 2012 and 2018 by Airwars and the New America Foundation has identified hundreds of civilians credibly reported killed and injured by domestic and international airstrikes – but with no accountability for those deaths from any belligerent.

In total at least 2,162 strikes were identified by Airwars during the nine month research project, based on local public reporting and official claims made between 2012-2018. At least 242 civilians likely died in these actions according to local communities, yet not one of the eight belligerents identified in the new study has ever conceded casualties from its actions – an unwelcome echo of NATO’s 2011 Libya campaign, in which the alliance boasted at the time of causing zero civilian harm.

The new Libya findings were officially launched June 20th in Washington DC. “Libyans have been living with significant security concerns in the years since NATO’s 2011 intervention – though with little interest from the outside world,” said Chris Woods, the Director of Airwars. “A key way to better understand this neglected conflict is to understand what Libyans themselves are reporting – particularly when it comes to civilian harm.”

Monitoring

A small team of Airwars researchers – based in both the troubled nation and in Europe – poured over thousands of local Arabic-language reports dating from the years after dictator Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and killed in 2011.

A range of troubling patterns emerged, including intense urban bombardments; attacks on boats and ocean-going vessels; and the frequent killing of poor foreign workers and migrants alongside Libyans.

By far the most concerning trend was that of impunity among all parties to the conflict. In many respects, Libya offers a more lawless and uncontrolled version of long-criticised US counterterror operations in Somalia and Pakistan. In Libya a handful of countries now conduct strikes unilaterally – with some such as the UAE and France never choosing to declare their actions.

Research indicates that Libya has become a country where other nations and local actors have few qualms about dropping explosive munitions from above – while never taking responsibility for their effects below. New America’s report accompanying the Libya launch is aptly titled Lawless Skies.

Image of an alleged LNA airstrike in Benghazi on October 18th 2014 (via Alzarook_Nabbos on Twitter)

No accountability

NATO’s intense Libya air campaign ended in 2011. But peace did not return to Libya with the death of long-standing dictator Muamar Gaddafi. Instead the North African nation has lurched from crisis to crisis, sliding into civil war in 2014. Even today Libya has two rival governments. Former US president Barack Obama has described his administration’s failings over Libya as his greatest foreign policy regret.

Funded by the Open Society Foundations, Airwars has partnered with the US think tank New America for the Libya project. New America pioneered the monitoring of CIA drone strikes in Pakistan in 2010, and brings a wealth of analytical expertise to the project. Peter Bergen, the Director of the International Security and Future of War Program at New America, said of the partnership: “The two organizations believe that helping to document the largely forgotten war in Libya is a necessary public service.”

The new project seeks to highlight ongoing security concerns for ordinary Libyans – while also helping to provide more reliable data on civilian harm for policymakers and investigators.

“An important feature of the conflict in Libya post-2011 has been the rise of airstrikes by multiple domestic and international belligerents,” New America notes in its own report release June 20th. “At least four foreign countries and three domestic Libyan factions are reported to have conducted air and drone strikes in Libya since 2012.”

Many of the world’s most fearsome air forces, including those of the US, the UAE and France – as well as Egypt – have bombed targets in Libya in recent years. Yet after six years and more than 2,100 airstrikes between them, no single actor has admitted to harming civilians in Libya from the air – a startling and troubling failure of accountability.

Some international powers don’t even acknowledge they are bombing Libya in the first place. The UAE conducts drone and airstrikes from a ‘secret’ base in eastern Libya, deep inside the territory of one of the country’s two main warring factions. Yet no strikes are ever publicly declared – and no subsequent civilian harm acknowledged.

 AFRICOM’s Major Karl Wiest  told Airwars that “With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.”

“One of the most notable lessons of our Libya research was the abundance of belligerents we had to deal with,” said Airwars investigator Oliver Imhof. “It was at times difficult to keep track of them all. It shows to what extent Libya institutionally has become a failed state after the 2011 revolution – even though the extent of the conflict is much less horrific than in Syria or Iraq.”

Problematic as international actions are in Libya, the majority of more than 2,000 airstrikes identified since 2012 were in fact carried out by local actors. The largest and most active Libyan air force is that of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – which according to its own reports has conducted more than 1,000 airstrikes in recent years.

With the country’s military assets divided after the fall of Gaddafi, a smaller number of strikes has also been carried out by the internationally recognized General National Assembly (GNA). Neither the LNA or GNA has ever been known to have acknowledged killing or injuring a single civilian.

Despite its lack of international recognition, the LNA is in fact far more transparent about its actions than most foreign militaries engaged in Libya. Most of its strikes were officially declared at the time via media and social media outlets. With the exception of the United States (which itself has declared more than 500 recent airstrikes in Libya), no other belligerent regularly reports on its actions.

The array of domestic and foreign actors – and often challenging local reporting of events – can at times be far more confusing than Airwars’ longstanding monitoring in Iraq or Syria.

“We have events in Derna, Benghazi and al Jufra Distract where multiple local sources claimed variously that Egypt, the UAE and sometimes France were involved,” said Osama Mansour, Airwars’ chief Libya researcher.

RT Arabic showing footage of an alleged Egyptian airstrike on Derna on February 15th 2015, reportedly leading to seven civilian deaths

Patterns of civilian harm

The ending of NATO’s 2011 Libya campaign did lead to an initial lull in military actions by all parties. The number of alleged civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars was minimal through the end of 2013. However in 2014 – as the nation slipped deeper into chaos – local accounts and public reporting indicated at least 242 strikes – with the following year seeing 201 more strikes.

Yet as so-called Islamic State gained a foothold in Libya – and as the nation’s two rival factions went to war – more than 1,000 airstrikes were reported in 2016. Since then, 536 separate strikes were monitored in 2017, and 121 have been recorded so far in 2018.

Several additional patterns have emerged during the monitoring of strikes. As seen elsewhere in the region, urban areas have often borne the brunt. Nearly a third of all monitored strikes took place in Sirte – largely related to the 2016 US campaign there targeting ISIS.

However, despite heavy bombardments of residential neighbourhoods by various actors in both Benghazi and Sirte, the number of reported civilian deaths in these urban locales is relatively low when compared to recent conflict modelling in Syria and Iraq. This pattern is not limited to urban airstrikes, and may have several explanations — including lower population densities, and possibly more limited public reporting in Libya.

“Notably, the airstrikes that did not result in casualties among civilians were often declared by militaries, whereas in the event of any casualties everyone kept mute,” noted Mansour.

#بنغازي |قصف سلاح الجو الليبي قبل قليل لاهداف تابعه لتنظيم الدوله #داعش بمنطقة شارع الشريف pic.twitter.com/Mj200CX67C

— إمحمد بالريش (المرنقي) (@belreish) September 24, 2015

Heavy alleged LNA bombardment of residential neighbourhoods in Benghazi in 2015, reported via Twitter

Multiple actors

While American airstrikes in Libya often capture international attention, domestic actors are in fact responsible for most bombings. Airwars has monitored 1,122 strikes allegedly involving the LNA (Libyan National Army) — more than half of all actions documented by Airwars. These allegedly led to the deaths of between 95 and 172 civilians – the largest non-combatant death toll tied to any one belligerent.

The UN-recognised GNA (General National Assembly) has also reportedly conducted at least 68 strikes, leading to a minimum of between 7 and 9 civilian fatalities. However, a number of incidents that cite the GNA also accuse other belligerents, including the United States. Including such contested incidents, between 44 and 66 additional civilians deaths may in fact be associated with GNA attacks.

In 2016, the Obama administration listed Sirte as an “area of active hostility,” thereby avoiding strict limitations and civilian protections imposed by the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance. Hundreds of strikes followed in Sirte under Operation Odyssey Lighting, between August 1st and December 19th of that year.

US strikes have focused primarily on ISIS targets, though they have at times operated in support of the GNA. The US is the most transparent of all actors in Libya, generally announcing when it has carried out actions. AFRICOM officially declared 495 strikes during the Sirte campaign, with a further 15 strikes before and afterwards.

For those actions, researchers tracked between 6 and 13 likely civilian deaths – none of which have been acknowledged by the US. US aircraft may also be implicated in up to 14 additional events in which at least 34 more civilians reportedly died – though these claims have also been attributed by some local sources to the GNA.

AFRICOM’s Major Karl Wiest  told Airwars that “With regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.”

Major Wiest added that the US command had also itself investigated two claimed civilian harm events in Libya, but had deemed them non-credible: “From the Fall of 2016, the command has assessed two (2) recorded CIVCAS allegations related to operations in Libya. After thorough investigations, both claims were deemed not credible. In fact, the evidence gathered in one of the investigations strongly suggested that our adversaries in the region were simply lying about alleged civilian casualties in order to bolster their public perception. Evidence found at the time of the respective investigation to support this finding included our adversaries publishing photographs from another area of responsibility while claiming they were new CIVCAS incidents in Libya.”

AFRICOM declined to offer additional information when asked to identify the two events by date and location.

Additional state actors

Egypt meanwhile has launched an increasing number of strikes in Libya, often in the vicinity of a shared frontier. Strikes also take place on occasion in heavily populated areas. In February 2015, Egypt reported bombing alleged ISIS targets in Libya in response to the gruesome murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in the country. The attack, which took place in Derna, reportedly killed at least 7 civilians and injured at least 21, according to local accounts.

Amnesty International later investigated the incident and determined that “the Egyptian Air Force failed to take the necessary precautions” in launching the attack.  According to local sources monitored by the Airwars/ New America project, Egypt has carried out at least 93 strikes in Libya, which have killed at least 13 civilians.

The Egyptian government only occasionally confirms its strikes, often after attacks in border areas where smuggling or terrorist activity is alleged. A reported strike on August 21st, 2017 is indicative: video posted on the Army Facebook page shows the destruction of what the military said were nine SUVs carrying weapons and explosives in the border area. On some occasions, such as an October 30th, 2017 strike in the Kufra district along the border, there are local  reports that the targets hit are in fact civilian vehicles. However given the scarcity of information, it is at times hard to confirm such cases. The Egyptian military has itself not admitted to harming any civilians in Libya.

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مصر تعلن تنفيذ 10 ضربات جوية على الحدود مع ليبيا

بالفيديو | مصر تعلن تنفيذ 10 ضربات جوية على الحدود مع ليبيا

Geplaatst door ‎قناة ليبيا اليوم – Libya Today TV‎ op Woensdag 22 november 2017

Libya Today TV showing footage of Egyptian strikes near the border

Egypt has also played host to UAE assets engaged in their own cross-border raids. The UAE also carries out drone and air strikes in support of the LNA from within Libya. On many occasions, both the Gulf nation and the LNA might be blamed for casualties, making precise tracking more difficult. However, Airwars has monitored at least 41 strikes allegedly carried out by the UAE, leaving at least 11 civilians dead.

“While Egypt mostly seems to be interested in securing its border from smugglers and alleged terrorists with airstrikes, the reasons for Emirati involvement in Libya are less obvious due to its geographical distance,” said Imhof. “However, its current interventionist foreign policy seeking to fight political Islam and jihadism could be an explanation.”

France does not confirm its own actions in Libya, though local reports often accuse Paris of being behind attacks – particularly in the south. Often, blame for such incidents is split between France and the LNA – and in some instances they have blamed one another.  A January 10th 2016 strike reportedly killed at least 15 people — likely combatants. The LNA blamed France, while the French government in turn blamed the LNA. On November 14th of that same year, France allegedly killed at least four civilians in Wadi al Shatii district – though again, this could not be confirmed.

Overall, France has been cited for five alleged strikes in the reporting period, while it was mentioned in three more reports that also blamed the LNA – strikes that allegedly left at least 20 civilians dead.

One of the most troubling aspect of airstrikes in Libya is how many actions are by unknown belligerents. 165 Strikes without any named belligerents were assessed by Airwars. Of those, 25 were incidents of concern according to Airwars researchers, and 12 allegedly left civilian casualties.

On February 7th 2016 for example, an unknown aircraft bombed the Bab Tobruk neighborhood of Derna. Four civilians were reported killed. Though no group or nation claimed responsibility, local sources, including members of the GNA, accused the UAE of involvement.

Researchers contacted all eight local and international belligerents for comment on reported civilian harm from their actions in Libya. Only the US’s AFRICOM responded. These strikes – and the lack of clarity around them – are indicative of what New America has termed ‘Lawless Skies’.

Alnabaa shows the aftermath of the airstrike on February 7th

Troubling targets

A number of troubling patterns emerged from Airwars monitoring of civilian harm in Libya. Maritime traffic is frequently a target – with researchers tracking 66 strikes that reportedly hit vessels, including boats and ships off the coast of Libya.

The great majority of Libyans live in coastal areas, and the waters north of the country are used by an array of Libyan and foreign vessels, including – according to local sources – boats transporting weapons. In some cases such attacks are acknowledged by the LNA, which has posted videos of target vessels, for instance off the coast of Benghazi.

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#سرت صور لناقلة النفط انوار أفريقيا التي قصفت اليوم قبالة ساحل المدينة و إصابة الطاقم الذي بها.. و بعض المعلومات تؤكد أن نسور الجو #الجيش_الليبي قصفت الناقلة.

Geplaatst door ‎عمر الورفلي‎ op Zondag 24 mei 2015

Images of a burning oil tanker and its injured crew members, hit by an alleged LNA airstrike on May 11th 2015 (via Omar al-Warfali)

Airwars also identified a likely under-reporting of civilian casualties among non-Libyan populations. While the killing of Libyan citizens in airstrikes often garners local headlines, the deaths of ‘foreigners’, especially Sudanese or Chadian civilians, tend only to be footnoted, or are even reported only in Sudanese or Chadian media. Yet scattered accounts suggest a significant toll. UNSMIL reported that on May 15th 2018, three Eritreans were killed and eight more injured when their vehicle was bombed along the Libyan-Egyptian border by “unidentified air assets” – most likely an Egyptian airstrike.

Hospitals, power stations and other critical infrastructure have also been targeted or struck by several parties to the conflict in Libya. On Janaury 12th 2016, the LNA reported airstrikes against targets in Benghazi – attacks that the UN Mission in the country (UNSMIL) later condemned for hitting a power plant in the city. In October of that same year, the LNA reportedly targeted a hospital in Benghazi.

The new project by Airwars and New America marks the most comprehensive modelling of airstrike harm since NATO’s 2011 intervention. Even so, its findings may represent an undercount of civilian casualties.

A key part of Airwars’ role is to permanently archive reports and claims – including photographs and videos – in case they are removed from the internet. In Iraq and Syria for example, up to 50 per cent of local reports disappear from the Web within 12 months. People are killed and towns overrun, Facebook and Twitter accounts banned, and videos and news sites blocked.

Those vulnerabilities are likely to extend to Libya, and it is probable that much media and social media material has already been lost, in particular from the earlier years after Gaddafi was deposed.

“Public reporting often seems low in Libya compared to Syria and Iraq, even for recent cases,” says Oliver Imhof. “We simply don’t know how much material was lost over the years, especially during the early years of the conflict.”

The LNA’s 2016 Facebook page – a key resource for confirming hundreds of publicly declared airstrikes – was luckily archived in its entirety by Airwars before being deleted recently by the LNA. Without those archives, a troubling lack of accountability for military actions in Libya would be worse than it already is.