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Published

February 11, 2020

Written by

Alex Hopkins

Assisted by

Dmytro Chupryna, Laurie Treffers, Maysa Ismael, Mohammed al Jumaily and Oliver Imhof

During 2019 - for the first time in five years - monitors tracked a sharp move away from US-led Coalition civilian deaths.

Airwars research shows that at least 2,214 civilians were locally alleged killed by international military actions across Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia during 2019 – a 42% decrease in minimum claimed deaths on the previous year. This sharp fall was largely because deaths from reported US-led Coalition actions plummeted following the territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria in March.

However, elsewhere civilians remained in significant danger. Russian strikes in support of the Assad regime claimed at least 1,000 lives in the fierce Idlib and Hama offensives. Meanwhile, Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria in October saw over 300 non-combatants alleged killed.

The year also saw alarming developments in Libya. From April, the Libyan National Army’s Tripoli offensive had a devastating impact on civilians. As more foreign powers joined the conflict, alleged deaths rose by an astonishing 720% on 2018. Almost half of all civilian deaths in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred last year.

Download our full annual report for 2019

The US-led Coalition in Syria: a brutal final assault

On March 23rd, after 55 months of war, ISIS was finally ousted from Syria, when the Syrian Democratic Forces seized the town of al-Baghuz al Fawqani in Ezzor governorate. This followed the terror group’s earlier defeat in Iraq in December 2017.

Yet this final assault came at a terrible cost for civilians trapped on the ground. Of the minimum of 2,214 civilians locally alleged killed during 2019, at least 470 deaths (21%) reportedly occurred as a result of US-led Coalition strikes in the first quarter of 2019, in Deir Ezzor governorate.

The aftermath of alleged Coalition shelling of Al Baghouz camp, March 18th – 19th 2019, which allegedly killed at least 160 civilians (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

After March 23rd, with ISIS downgraded to an insurgency, there was a significant winding down in Coalition strikes. As a result, locally alleged civilian deaths from alliance actions rapidly declined.

For the first time in five years, the Coalition was no longer the primary driver of civilian harm in Airwars monitoring. Indeed, our tracking shows that many more civilians were claimed killed by almost every other monitored belligerent than by the US-led alliance between April and December 2019.

With this shift away from Coalition civilian deaths, Airwars’ focus with the alliance and with partner militaries began moving towards post-conflict restitution and reconciliation engagements.

Syria’s civilians remain at great risk

Civilians may finally have gained respite from Coalition strikes, but 2019 saw them face increased danger on other fronts. Russia’s ongoing campaign in Syria continued to devastate civilian populations and infrastructure.

In total, our researchers tracked at least 1,000 civilian deaths in 710 casualty incidents reportedly carried out by Russia. Some 81% of these events were in Idlib governorate, where Russia lent its formidable airpower to the regime’s offensive to oust the rebels.

The aftermath of an alleged Russian airstrike on a popular market in Saraqib on July 30th (via Edlib Media Center).

Additionally, in October, Syria’s civilians faced a new threat from Turkey. The offensive came against a backdrop of repeated Turkish threats to unilaterally invade northern Syria. The chaotic withdrawal of US forces on October 7th gave Turkey a green light to launch its ‘Operation Peace Spring’.

Airwars research shows that there were between 246 and 314 locally alleged civilian deaths in 207 casualty incidents involving both sides during the final three months of 2019. Most disturbingly, there were numerous claims of war crimes by both sides, including summary executions of civilians and enemy fighters.

Libya: a 720% rise in civilian deaths

Meanwhile, civilian harm spiralled in Libya. Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) launched its offensive on Tripoli in April. However, what was intended to be a brief conflict soon turned into a protracted siege, with foreign powers playing an increased role, particularly in a proxy drone war between the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

The impact on civilians was dire. Between April 4th and December 31st 2019, local sources reported between 279 and 399 civilian deaths. A measure of the intensity of 2019’s bombing is shown by the fact that more than 48% of all locally reported civilian fatalities in Libya’s civil war since 2012 occurred during the nine months between April and December 2019.

Image caption translation: “Warlord Haftar’s warplane bombs oil facility and tannery in Tajoura, east Tripoli”, June 19th 2019 (via Libya Observer)

Somalia: Record number of declared US actions

In April, Airwars expanded its conflict portfolio when it took over the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s long running monitoring of US counter terrorism drone strikes and civilian harm claims in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. We are currently reviewing this significant dataset using Airwars’ own internationally-respected methodology.

Our assessment of US air and ground operations in Somalia since 2007 is now complete – with our annual report revealing that a maximum of 44 civilian deaths were alleged during 2019, in thirteen locally claimed civilian harm events. Overall the US declared 63 airstrikes against both al Shabaab and ISIS for the year – the highest ever tally.

Advocating on behalf of affected non-combatants

Our emphasis at Airwars has always been working on behalf of affected civilians. Throughout 2019, our advocacy teams continued to engage with the US-led Coalition and its allies. More than half of all Coalition-conceded conceded civilian harm events during the year were Airwars referrals for example – with at least 220 additional deaths conceded.

Substantial talks on transparency and accountability for civilian harm were also held with senior Pentagon officials; with the British and Dutch ministries of defence; and with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.

In November, the Netherlands finally admitted responsibility for a June 2015 strike in Hawijah, Iraq, which killed at least 70 civilians, according to locals. Airwars is now partnering with a number of Dutch NGOs and academics, with a focus on securing long term improvements in transparency and accountability for civilian harm by the Netherlands military.

“Since Airwars began in 2014, our exceptional team has tracked more than 50,000 locally reported civilian deaths across several conflict nations,” notes Airwars director Chris Woods. “As our 2019 report demonstrates, civilian harm remains a constant in war. Yet too often, belligerents deny or downplay civilian harm – even when local communities themselves are making clear the true costs of conflict.”

Download our full annual report for 2019

Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq which killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)

▲ The aftermath of an alleged Russian or Syrian regime airstrike on Saraqib, Idlib, June 22nd 2019 (via White Helmets)

Published

February 6, 2020

Written by

Laurie Treffers

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

The Mosul Incident

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

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

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

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

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

Discrepancy between official and Airwars numbers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pilot safety

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

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

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

Bottlenecks in transparency

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript: From truth to accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published

December 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

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

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

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

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

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

Please donate today

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

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

Published

November 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

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

Geplaatst door ‎ليبيا الامل‎ 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)