US Forces in Somalia

Library image of an armed Reaper drone, December 2019 (US Air Force/ Senior Sergeant Haley Stevens)

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Published

July 9, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Killing of Iranian commander by US drone strike represents 'not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff', warns Special Rapporteur

The US assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), in Baghdad in January 2020, was unlawful on several counts, according to a new report submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council by its expert on extrajudicial killings.

Dr Agnes Callamard, the current UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, asserts in her latest report that Soleimani’s controversial assassination by a US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport on January 3rd 2020 had violated international law in several ways.

Noting that the US drone strike had also killed several Iraqi military personnel, Dr Callamard notes that “By killing General Soleimani on Iraqi soil without first obtaining Iraq’s consent, the US violated the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

The Special Rapporteur also argues that by failing to demonstrate that Soleimani represented an imminent threat to the United States – and instead focusing on his past actions dating back to 2006 – that his killing “would be unlawful under jus ad bellum“, the criteria by which a state may engage in war.

In the bluntest condemnation yet of the Trump Administration’s killing of Iran’s leading military commander, Dr Callamard argues that “the targeted killing of General Soleimani, coming in the wake of 20 years of distortions of international law, and repeated massive violations of humanitarian law, is not just a slippery slope. It is a cliff.”

She also warns that the killing of Iran’s top general may see other nations exploit the US’s justification for the assassination: “The international community must now confront the very real prospect that States may opt to ‘strategically’ eliminate high ranking military officials outside the context of a ‘known’ war, and seek to justify the killing on the grounds of the target’s classification as a ‘terrorist’ who posed a potential future threat.”

Speaking to Airwars from Geneva ahead of her presentation to the UNHRC, Dr Callamard described the US killing of General Soleimani as “a significant escalation in the use of armed drones, and in the use of extraterritorial force. Until now, drones have focused on terrorism and on counterterrorism responses. Here we’re seeing the displacement of a counterterrorism strategy onto State officials.” She described the Trump administration’s justification of the assassination of a senior Iranian government official as “a distortion of self defence.”

Qasem Soleimani, Iran’s highest ranked military commander, was assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad on January 3rd 2020 (via @IRaqiRev).

‘The second drone age’

Dr Callamard’s denouncement of the US’s killing of Qasem Soleimani marks the latest in almost 20 years of concerns raised by United Nations experts on the use of armed drones for targeted assassinations. In 2002, following the killing of five al Qaeda suspects in Yemen by the CIA, then-rapporteur Asma Jahangir warned for example that the attack constituted “a clear case of extrajudicial killing”.

UN reports since then have tended to focus on controversial drone campaigns outside the hot battlefield, in countries including Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Palestine’s West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With her new report, delivered to the UNHRC on July 9th, Dr Callamard seeks to bring the discussion on armed drone use up to date, noting that “the world has entered what has been called the ‘second drone age’ with a now vast array of State and non-State actors deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, making their use a major and fast becoming international security issue.” The term ‘second drone age’ was originally coined by Airwars director Chris Woods, to reflect a growing wave of armed drone proliferation among state and non-state actors.

My latest report to the UN #HRC44 focus on targeted killings by armed drones: https://t.co/qLsqubaMpA The world has entered a “second drone age”, in which State and non-State actors are deploying ever more advanced drone technologies, a major international, security issue.

— Agnes Callamard (@AgnesCallamard) July 8, 2020

 

As Dr Callamard and her team write: “The present report seeks to update previous findings. It interrogates the reasons for drones’ proliferation and the legal implications of their promises; questions the legal bases upon which their use is founded and legitimized; and identifies the mechanisms and institutions (or lack thereof) to regulate drones’ use and respond to targeted killings. The report shows that drones are a lightning rod for key questions about protection of the right to life in conflicts, asymmetrical warfare, counter-terrorism operations, and so-called peace situations.”

Many of the conflicts monitored by Airwars are referenced by Dr Callamard.

    In Iraq, she notes that non state actors including ISIS deployed armed drones, sometimes to devastating effect. “In 2017 in Mosul, Iraq, for example, within a 24-hour period ‘there were no less than 82 drones of all shapes and sizes’ striking at Iraqi, Kurdish, US, and French forces.” In Libya, the Special Rapporteur asserts that “The Haftar Armed Forces carried out over 600 drone strikes against opposition targets resulting allegedly in massive civilian casualties, including, in August 2019, against a migrant detention center.” Callamard notes that a ‘nations unwilling or unable to act’ defence – first used by George W Bush’s administration to justify drone strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere – had been employed by several nations, including Turkey and Israel, to justify attacks in Syria. The UN Special Rapporteur also cautions that as more States acquire armed drones, their use domestically has increased: “Turkey has reportedly used drones domestically against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), while Nigeria first confirmed attack was carried out against a Boko Haram logistics base in 2016. In 2015 Pakistan allegedly used its armed drones for the very first time in an operation to kill three ‘high profile terrorists.’ Iraq has similarly purchased drones to carry out strikes against ISIS in Anbar province in 2016.” Finally, Dr Callamard warns that non-State actors including terrorist groups increasingly have access to remotely piloted technologies – noting that “At least 20 armed non-State actors have reportedly obtained armed and unarmed drone systems.”

“Drones are now the weapon of choice for many countries. They are claimed to be both surgical and to save lives – though we have insufficient evidence to conclude either,” Dr Callamard told Airwars. “Drones may save the lives of ‘our’ soldiers – but on the ground is another matter.”

Civilian harm concerns

The UN Special Rapporteur’s latest report highlights concerns about ongoing risks to civilians from armed drone use. Citing multiple studies, she writes that “even when a drone (eventually) strikes its intended target, accurately and ‘successfully’, the evidence shows that frequently many more people die, sometimes because of multiple strikes.”

Callamard also cautions that “Civilian harm caused by armed drone strikes extends far beyond killings, with many more wounded. While the consequences of both armed and non-combat drones remain to be systematically studied, evidence shows that the populations living under ‘drones’ persistent stare and noise experience generalized threat and daily terror’.”

The UN’s expert on extrajudicial killings additionally notes the key role drones play in helping militaries to determine likely civilian harm: “Without on-the-ground, post-strike assessment, authorities rely on pre- and post-strike drone-video feeds to detect civilian casualties leaving potentially significant numbers of civilian casualties, including of those misidentified as ‘enemies’, undiscovered. Studies showed that in Syria and Iraq the initial military estimates missed 57% of casualties.”

The Special Rapporteur does however point out that civilian harm can be reduced by militaries, “through stronger coordination, improved data analysis, better training of drones’ operators, and systematic evaluation of strikes.”

▲ Aftermath of US drone strike on Baghdad International Airport in January 2020 which assassinated Iranian General Qasem Soleimani (via Arab48).

Published

May 7, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Nineteen of 40 events declared by the Pentagon to Congress for Iraq, Syria and Somalia for the past year were Airwars referrals, official records show

The Department of Defense (DoD) informed Congress on May 6th that US forces in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia had between them killed at least 132 civilians and injured 91 more during 2019. The Pentagon also reported a further 79 historical deaths from its actions in Syria and Iraq during 2017-18.

The 22-page Annual Report on Civilian Casualties In Connection With United States Military Operations is the third such public declaration, mandated in law by Congress since 2018.

According to the report – which included details of continuing Pentagon efforts to improve both accountability and transparency for civilian harm – “U.S. forces also protect civilians because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. Although civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war, the U.S. military is steadfastly committed to limiting harm to civilians.”

During 2019, the majority of declared civilian deaths from US actions took place in Afghanistan. According to the Pentagon, 108 civilians were killed and 75 injured in 57 incidents. Fourteen of those events involved US ground forces.

That casualty tally represented a significant undercount according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which has been comprehensively monitoring civilian deaths from all parties for more than a decade. According to UNAMA’s own Annual Report, at least 559 civilians were killed and 786 injured by international military actions during 2019 – almost all by airstrikes.

Table from UNAMA’s 2019 annual report, showing the number of civilian deaths and injuries it believed had resulted from pro-government forces that year.

Iraq and Syria: ‘backward step’

Officially confirmed civilian deaths from US actions in Iraq and Syria fell steeply – down from 832 fatalities declared to Congress last year, to 101 deaths conceded in the latest report.

That sharp reduction was partly expected, given the significant reduction in battle tempo following the bloody capture of both Mosul and Raqqa in 2017. However, in early 2019 very significant civilian fatalities were locally alleged from Coalition air and artillery strikes during the final stages of the war – only a fraction of which have been admitted.

Of the 73 known civilian harm claims against the US-led Coalition during 2019, Airwars presently estimates that at least 460 and as many as 1,100 non combatants likely died. However in its own report to the Pentagon, the US has conceded just 22 civilian deaths for the year across Iraq and Syria, in eleven events.

The Defense Department’s report reveals other worrying trends. Of the 21 historical cases officially conceded from US actions for 2017 over the past year, 18 had been Airwars referrals. Yet every single allegation referred by Airwars to the Coalition for both 2018 and 2019 was rejected – amounting to many hundreds of dismissed local claims.

According to Airwars director Chris Woods, the apparent move by the US-led Coalition away from engaging with external sources marks a backward step, which the organisation plans to take up with both Congress and DoD officials.

“Almost all of the deaths conceded by the US in Iraq and Syria for 2019 represented self referrals from pilots and analysts, with external sources cited on only three occasions. Many hundreds of civilian deaths which were credibly reported by local communities appear to have been ignored,” says Woods. “This goes against the Pentagon’s repeated promise to engage better with external NGOs including monitors, and we will be asking for an urgent explanation from officials of this apparent backward step.”

Mosul mystery resolved

The Pentagon’s latest report to Congress also brings further clarity to a controversial June 2017 Coalition attack in Mosul, Iraq which killed 35 members of the same extended family – including 14 children, nine women and two respected imams.

In January 2019 the Australian Defence Force (ADF) accepted responsibility for some of those deaths – confirming that a strike by one of its aircraft had killed between 6 and 18 civilians.

However the ADF also made clear that there was a second attack on the location by another Coalition ally that day – the identity of which was until now not known.

It its May 6th report to Congress, the Pentagon revealed that US aircraft conducted that second strike, additionally killing at least 11 civilians at the scene.

In February 2019, surviving family elder Engineer Amjad al-Saffar told the Sydney Morning Herald: “The level of accuracy of the bombing had always indicated to us that the attack couldn’t have been by Iraqi forces, because the house was targeted twice at the same point without any damage to the neighbouring building, and with very high accuracy.”

Asked to comment from Mosul on the Pentagon’s recent admission that its aircraft too had played a role in the mass casualty event, Engineer Amjad told Airwars: “As a well known and respected Mosul family, we feel both very sad and disappointed to learn of the US’s confession – three years after our catastrophe.- of their own role in an airstrike which killed so many. Along with Australia we hold the US fully responsible for our heavy loss of 35 family members, and demand both an apology and financial compensation.”

Other than this one case, the Pentagon’s report to Congress also revealed that all civilian harm events conceded by the US-led Coalition for Iraq and Syria over the past 12 months had been caused by US forces.

This contrasted with the previous report – which had inadvertently ‘outed’ fourteen strikes by America’s European allies which according to the Coalition itself had killed at least 40 civilians – but which the UK, France and Belgium refused to acknowledge. It remains unclear whether the Coalition’s civilian casualty cell has now ceased assessments of claims against other nations within the alliance.

Photo montage of some of the 35 victims of June 13th 2017 strikes by Australian and US aircraft, courtesy of the Al Saffar family.

One new Somalia event admitted

Two more civilian deaths from US actions in Somalia were officially conceded on April 27th, as US Africa Command issued its first ever quarterly civilian casualty report. Those same deaths were also reported to Congress two weeks later.

The newly admitted event – which according to local reports involved the death of a father and his child, and the injuring of at least three more civilians – relates to a US strike on the al Shabaab-occupied town of Kunyo Barrow on February 23rd 2019. AFRICOM had originally dismissed the claim. But it reopened an assessment after Airwars submitted a detailed dossier on the incident in January 2020, including what were believed to be precise coordinates for where casualties took place.

The latest admission has doubled both the number of cases and deaths publicly admitted by AFRICOM, during its sometimes controversial 13-year campaign to defeat the regional terror group al Shabaab. However those four deaths remain dwarfed by Airwars’ own current estimate of at least 70 civilians killed in 29 separate US actions in Somalia since 2007.

The US military’s campaign in Somalia has intensified significantly under President Donald Trump, with at least 186 declared actions since 2017 – more than four times the number of strikes officially carried out by the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations combined. Local civilian harm claims have also intensified under Trump, with as many as 157 non combatant deaths locally claimed to date.

Until recently AFRICOM had routinely denied any civilian harm from its actions in Somalia – leading to complaints of poor accountability. In April 2019, AFRICOM conceded its first civilian casualty event – though also had to admit to misleading Congress on the issue. Three months later, General Stephen Townsend took command.

When previously head of the US-led Coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Townsend had overseen key transparency reforms including the publishing of regular civilian harm reports; and routine engagement with external casualty monitors such as Airwars. Those same key reforms are now being implemented at AFRICOM.

Here's the precise geolocation work that our Airwars specialists recently provided @USAFRICOM for the Kunyo Barrow strike – and which likely played a role in today's Credible determination. pic.twitter.com/idlgKAHz0f

— Airwars (@airwars) April 27, 2020

 

▲ Ruins of a family home in which 35 civilians died at Mosul on June 13th 2017 - in what is now known to have been US and Australian airstrikes (Image courtesy of the Al Saffar family. All rights reserved.)

Published

February 25, 2020

Written by

Airwars Staff

Airwars review raises tally of declared strikes, and reported civilian and militant deaths.

Airwars has launched a major new online resource for Somalia, providing the most comprehensive look yet at more than a decade of US counterterrorism actions in eastern Africa, and associated civilian harm claims.

The nine month review has identified significantly higher levels of locally reported civilian harm than previously thought, with up to 280 non combatants alleged killed in US actions since 2007. Declared US actions and reported militant deaths are also sharply up.

In Spring 2019, Airwars took over from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism its own long running monitoring of US drone strikes and civilian harm in Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, with some Somalia events dating back as far as 2007. The first step was to bring event monitoring across to Airwars’ own standards. Over nine months, the team comprehensively reviewed several hundred declared and alleged US airstrikes and ground actions in Somalia, and 61 claimed civilian casualty incidents.

Event assessments were also significantly reoriented towards local Somali voices, adding many hundreds of new sources – including videos, photos, and social media posts. Airwars also worked closely with other NGOs, researchers and investigative reporters to ensure that their own important findings were incorporated.

The result is the most comprehensive understanding yet of US military and CIA actions in Somalia against al Shabaab, ISIS and al Qaeda over a thirteen year span.

    Overall, there are more than 280 declared and alleged US kinetic actions in Somalia since 2007 in the data – with 61 alleged civilian harm events. With a wider focus on US ground operations plus important new FOIA  information, Airwars now places the number of declared US actions at more than 200 (40% up on previous estimates.) The likely civilian fatality range from US actions is significantly up from the Bureau’s former estimate of 10 to 58 deaths, to Airwars’ own minimum estimate of 71 to 139 civilians killed since 2007 – with 284 non combatants locally alleged slain in total. Event data has also identified claims of as many as 2,320 al Shabaab and ISIS militants allegedly killed by US forces.

Airwars geolocation of all strikes and reported civilian harm opens up new mapping capabilities.

“Adding Somalia to our roster of monitored conflicts helps bring greater public scrutiny to this long running US campaign,” says Airwars director Chris Woods.

“While AFRICOM itself has admitted just two civilian deaths in more than a decade of strikes against terrorist groups like al Shabaab, the true toll is significantly higher. Our work with the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria shows that militaries can improve their understanding and admission of civilian harm, when their actions are routinely and publicly scrutinised.”

A comprehensive Airwars approach to both strike reports and casualty monitoring has seen thousands of additional sources being added to the Bureau’s original records – most of them via local Somali media and social media. Hundreds of photographs and videos have also been added – with the names of dozens of Somali victims now listed in our comprehensive and fully searchable public database.

Airwars has also geolocated all declared and claimed US actions in Somalia since 2007 – with consultant design team Rectangle building comprehensive new maps and timelines which can now be searched separately by civilian fatalities; militant fatalities; strike locations; and strike targets. A fully searchable database can also refine by civilian harm events; civilian victim names, age and gender where known; declared versus possible US actions; and air versus ground actions.

In addition, Airwars has also permanently preserved the Bureau’s own decade-long research into Somalia – ensuring that future researchers and academics will always be able to interrogate its own groundbreaking findings. Hundreds of the Bureau’s archive news stories on US actions in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan have also been added to the Airwars site.

“If you don’t even count how many air strikes there are and how many civilians are being killed, what chance is there of reducing casualties?” notes Meirion Jones, deputy editor at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. “The Bureau has been chronicling the death toll in Somalia for 10 years, and is now proud to hand that task over to Airwars which already does such a thorough job of counting strikes and casualties in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”

Airwars provided US Africa Command with comprehensive details of  alleged civilian harm events in Somalia during 2019, and also asked for clarification on alleged US actions that year. Officials have now confirmed no US military involvement in 21 claimed events last year – while promising to respond on civilian harm claims in the near future.

Several thousand militants have allegedly been killed by US actions in Somalia since 2007.

▲ The funeral of Abow Ali Wardi, according to al Shabaab killed in a lethal US drone strike on June 25th 2019 (via SomaliMemo)

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

May 2, 2019

Written by

Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

American military operations killed 120 civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Somalia last year, according to a report released by the Pentagon today.

The report, mandated by Congress, contains a detailed breakdown of the incidents that led to the civilian casualties, including where and when these took place. This differs from last year’s release which gave a total civilian casualty toll across all countries, making the figures difficult to interrogate.

Despite the increased detail, the figures released do still differ from those given by other organisations, which have recorded much higher numbers.

The US estimates 76 civilians were killed and another 58 injured in its operations in Afghanistan in 2018. Meanwhile, the UN’s mission in Afghanistan puts the figure much higher – with US strikes killing 393 and injuring a further 239 civilians.

They also differ on the death toll from individual incidents. In one strike on November 27 in Helmand province, the UN claims 23 civilians died and the US says only 14 were killed.

In Yemen, the Pentagon report states that there were no credible reports of civilian casualties in 2018. We have recorded at least eight and up to 15. Most of these deaths came from a single incident where a strike killed relatives looking for a missing child, which was reported on by AP.

The US meanwhile conceded just two civilian deaths in Somalia, and zero the year before. Research from Amnesty International found compelling evidence that US strikes in Somalia killed a total of 14 civilians and injured eight more between October 2017 and December 2018.

Airwars data also suggests much higher rates of civilian harm in Iraq and Syria than the report claims – with over 800 civilian deaths credibly reported by local communities as a result of strikes carried out by the US-led coalition, compared to the 42 admitted by the US.

The release comes two months after President Trump’s administration ended a separate annual report on civilian casualties that included information from all government agencies. The decision means that the public will no longer have access to information on CIA strikes.

Dan Mahanty, director for the US Program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, said the recent report showed an improvement in military transparency around overseas operations, but that there was still a transparency gap that needed closing around intelligence agencies’ operations after the administration’s decision.

“The report brings into sharp relief the fact that US government agencies that do not operate transparently may not be applying the same standards when using lethal force, which introduces an unnecessary degree of inconsistency and undermines the effort represented by the DOD report,” Mahanty said.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Clayton Cupit for US Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs

Published

May 2, 2018

Written by

Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Trump administration is considering overturning a key Obama-era policy which sought to make counter-terrorism operations more transparent, even as it ramps them up.

The announcement, given to the Bureau by the US National Security Council late on Tuesday night, offers one of the clearest indications yet of the administration’s differing stance of transparency in counter-terrorism (known in military jargon as CT).

In response to growing concerns about accountability and civilian harm in strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, the Obama administration issued an Executive Order in 2016 requiring the government to release an annual report on these operations and the casualties associated with them. The Executive Order stipulated that the release of each year’s figures should come no later than May 1 of the following year.

On May 1, the deadline passed without the release. A National Security Council spokesperson told the Bureau that the Executive Order (EO) was under review and could be modified or rescinded. While they remained committed to avoiding civilian casualties, the spokesperson said, “the previous administration’s EO requirement for the public report was based on Obama era CT policies, many of which were rescinded to allow the warfighter to better pursue the evolving terrorist threat”.

The figures previously released under Obama, though cautiously welcomed by civil society organisations, offered only limited accountability for the US drone wars. They were aggregate figures, not broken down by where or when the strikes took place. This made it difficult to interrogate the data and work out why it differed from other estimates of the drone war’s civilian death toll.

However, their release was seen as an important step towards greater transparency. This trend had already started to reverse under Trump by the end of 2017, when the Bureau stopped receiving monthly reports on airstrikes in Afghanistan.

The restricted flow of information about counterterrorism strikes comes at a time when they are increasing substantially. President Donald Trump launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office, according to the Bureau’s data, more than triple the number carried out the year before.

While the Trump administration did not release a report on counterterrorism operations as per the Executive Order, the NSC spokesperson did say that there had been no increase in the number of civilian casualties compared to the previous year. The Obama administration found one non-combatant had been killed in strikes outside of areas of active hostilities in 2016.

It is hard to evaluate the NSC spokesperson’s estimate of the 2017 civilian casaulty toll, because the Trump administration reportedly declared parts of Yemen and Somalia to be areas of active hostilities last year. Areas of active hostilities – conventional warzones like Iraq and Syria – are not included in the tally required by the Executive Order. When asked by the Bureau whether any parts of Yemen and Somalia were excluded from the latest estimate, the NSC spokesperson said they didn’t “have any further clarity to provide.”

The Bureau recorded at least three civilian deaths in Yemen and Somalia in 2017. However, both the Bureau’s and the administration’s figures could well be an underestimate. Information from remote parts of Yemen and Somalia is hard to come by, and CENTCOM, the US military command responsible for Yemen, told the Bureau it deemed civilian casualty allegations non-credible if there was not sufficient information about them.

The robustness of the US government’s own assessments of civilian casualty claims has long been a point of concern for civil society organisations. This is acknowledged in the Executive Order – now threatened with cancellation – which obliges the government to engage proactively with non-governmental organisations in compiling the civilian casualty estimate.

Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the Trump administration’s decision not to comply with the “meagre” transparency requirements of the Executive Order “a dangerous low”.

“This increased secrecy about the costs and consequences of Trump’s killing policies prevents public oversight and accountability for wrongful deaths. The victims of our government’s lethal actions deserve better, as does the American public in whose name the Trump administration is secretly killing people,” Shamsi said.

“The Trump Administration’s backsliding on transparency continues with its failure to publicly report on civilian casualties yesterday,” said Alex Moorehead, an expert on counterterrorism and human rights at Columbia Law School.

“Increased secrecy makes effective Congressional oversight even more crucial. Congress should ask the Trump administration for details on US involvement in civilian casualties, what accountability there is for civilians killed and injured in US strikes, and demand that this information be made public,” Moorehead added.

The worst civilian casualty incident recorded by the Bureau in 2017 came from a ground operation, which would not have been included in the Executive Order-mandated tally even had it been released. On January 29 2017, US forces stormed the village of Yakla. A Bureau investigation found that 25 civilians died in this attack, including nine children under the age of 13.

President Trump called the raid “successful”, crediting with capturing key intelligence. But clips shared by US Central Command seized from a computer during the raid turned out to ten years old and readily available on the internet. Soon after, a US military investigation found that US forces killed between four and 12 civilians.

Main photo: Drone on patrol (US Air Force photo: Lt. Col Leslie Pratt)

Published

April 16, 2018

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This is an extract from the Bureau’s report, Naming The Dead, published in April 2018, written by Jack Serle

The phenomenal assassination tool that is the attack drone was born of frustration – the inability of the US to kill Osama bin Laden.

The CIA and its Afghan militia allies were pretty sure they knew where he was, training would-be suicide bombers in his Afghan hideout. Whenever they did get a read on his location, albeit briefly, it was thanks to the CIA’s small fleet of surveillance Predator drones. They could fly high and for more than 12 hours on end, constantly filming the scene below them and sending the footage back to the US. But the CIA could never pin down his location long enough for bombers or cruise missiles to be called in to do anything about it. The solution? Add anti-tank missiles to the remotely piloted drones. By arming its drones, the US could get a fix on a target, show the video feed to lawyers in real time so they could assess if it was lawful, and wait to take the shot when there were no bystanders around to get hurt. The Predator drones and their more advanced successors, the Reapers, have been used hundreds of times for such “targeted killing”, in particular in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been tracking these strikes for more than seven years, monitoring and recording the date, time and location; and importantly, those killed. We have been doing this because there has been next to no official transparency about the US drone war. Individual strikes are usually reported in the newspapers and on social media but for the majority of drone strikes, there has been no official word on the attack.

The armed drone has the undoubted potential for being one of the most discriminating weapons ever devised. Yet the Bureau’s work shows that it doesn’t always work out this way.  Among the more controversial tactics adopted by the CIA was the signature strike. This is when drones are used to kill people based on their behaviour, not identity. Intelligence gathered over many days or weeks provides a pattern-of-life-analysis which is used to determine someone’s guilt or likelihood of being a terrorist. These strikes have been used to kill a handful of people or even large crowds. There are multiple examples of a type of signature strike, so-called “double-taps”, where CIA drones carry out a strike and wait for people to come and pick through the wreckage before striking again. These attacks have killed plenty of Taliban fighters but they have also killed scores of civilians, according to field investigations by the Bureau. The Obama administration did, through the course of his Presidency, bring in rules to govern the use of armed drones. This included putting the military in charge of the lethal end of drone operations and limiting the CIA to providing intelligence. However, the Trump administration has put the CIA back in charge, which has had an impact on transparency. The CIA has provided some information to the media, briefing reporters on successful strikes. It has also hidden behind anonymity to attack the Bureau and our findings, or issued the standard response: “feel free to say the CIA declined to comment.” The US military, in contrast, has become more forthcoming with information about its use of armed drones. Before 2013 both US Central Command (Centcom) and US Africa Command, which are responsible for US strikes in Yemen and Somalia respectively, would have little if anything to say publicly about their strikes. Now they give details in press releases, when security and diplomatic interests allow, they say. For the rest they will only confirm they happened if someone asks them directly.

While a step forward, the amount of information they are willing to give remains limited. At most they will confirm the date, the general location of the strike, a standard rationale for taking the strike, and occasionally a casualty estimate. As often as not the US and the Bureau numbers don’t tally. 

US Air Force / Jonathan Snyder

In March 2017, I sat at the back of a Senate hearing room, watching General Joseph Votel, the man in charge of Centcom, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said with evident sincerity that he was apologising for the killing of between four and 12 civilians in a botched special operations raid and drone attack in Yemen in January 2017.

Seven months later it turned out he got the numbers wrong. An investigation by NBC News revealed internal US estimates showed at least 16 civilians died. Centcom told me that Votel spoke “with the best information he had at the time”. Yet both figures are lower than the 25 civilian deaths uncovered by researchers working with the Bureau, who visited the scene of the strike. Despite advances in transparency, it can be hard to understand how the US comes to its own estimates.

In the summer of 2016 the Obama White House released its own figures of those killed in counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya – operations that were outside the declared battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – between 2009 and 2015. This was a big step forward for transparency advocates. Unfortunately, the White House published total figures for strikes and casualties for all six years in the three countries, rather than broken down by year or country. This made it impossible to examine where the US records differed from the Bureau’s data.

The figures were supposed to be published every May thereafter. Then in late January 2017, with Donald Trump just days away from moving into the White House, the Obama administration put out its estimate for the 2016 figures.

Clearly, any effort towards greater transparency is only as strong as the will of the current administration. Current guidance, although not an official instruction, is that the Pentagon doesn’t want to release information that would give the enemy an advantage. This means that it is much harder to find out details such as the date and location of strikes.

With the Trump administration clamping down on transparency around US air wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, it seems highly unlikely it will turn the data release into an annual event. This only serves to underline the importance of the Bureau’s work.

The use of drones in counter-terrorism operations has no end in sight. So far thousands have been killed, both terrorists and civilians. Continuing to investigate how the US and its allies pursue the never-ending war on terror has never been more vital.

Header image: US Air Force / Erik Gudmundson

Read the full report:

Published

January 19, 2018

Written by

Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office, the Bureau’s latest figures show – more than triple the number carried out the year before.

This means there were over 100 times more strikes in Yemen and more than 30 times as many strikes in Somalia during President Trump’s first year in office than during his predecessor, Barack Obama’s.

Obama carried out a single strike in Yemen and one in Somalia during his first year as president. However, by the end of his two terms, Obama had embraced the US drone programme and carried out far more strikes than his predecessor President George W Bush. Strikes in Pakistan were in their hundreds, and yearly strike totals in Yemen and Somalia had reached double digits.

President Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from Obama. His administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous administration.

The vast majority of the 126 strikes that have hit Yemen since Trump’s inauguration followed reports in March 2017 of the Trump administration declaring parts of the country areas of “active hostilities”.

This effectively side-stepped measures introduced by Obama that meant strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. In Yemen, 30 strikes hit within a month of the declaration being reported – nearly as many as the whole of 2016.

Strikes in Yemen

In Somalia, the Obama administration officially designated the al Shabaab group as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November 2016, essentially widening who could be targeted. In March, it was also reported that parts of Somalia had been declared areas of “active hostilities”, but there was no increase in strikes until July 2017, with 33 of the 35 strikes carried under President Trump taking place since then.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge, despite combat operations officially ending in December 2014.

In November last year, US forces began hitting Taliban drugs labs in Helmand. General Nicholson, commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, said the strikes were carried out under new authorities provided under President Trump’s eagerly awaited South Asia strategy.

The Bureau counted five strikes confirmed in Pakistan during Trump’s first year in office. At least four air operations were also reported along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October and November, although it was unclear on what side of the border they fell.

At its height in 2010, the CIA drone programme hit 128 targets in Pakistan. Strikes fell with each passing year after that, falling to just three in 2016.

Country Strikes since Trump’s inauguration
Yemen 126
Somalia 35
Pakistan 5

To read more on what happened last year in the countries we cover, click here.

Main photo: President Trump on the South Asia strategy during a press conference on August 21 2017. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)