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September 3, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

Additional reporting by Kinda Haddad and Latif Habib

A newly-declassified CENTCOM document – published by Airwars and international media partners for the first time today –  reveals that by early May of this year, the anti-ISIL Coalition had already internally investigated dozens of events involving at least 325 possible civilian deaths from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

Yet despite often significant published evidence of civilians killed in Coalition strikes, most allegations were dismissed as “Not credible” within 48 hours – with few signs of later follow-ups.

The document also reveals for the first time that French, Canadian, Dutch and Australian aircraft have all been involved in problem incidents in Iraq, which between them allegedly killed up to 30 civilians.

The previously-secret 14-page file – obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by journalist Joseph Trevithick for War Is Boring – offers a rare insight into internal military workings. It also makes clear that the US and its 12 international allies have long known of significant allegations of civilians killed in some 6,500 airstrikes – far more than the two deaths presently admitted to.

Extract from declassified CENTCOM file

Dating to early May 2015, the document summarises a CENTCOM database known as the Iraq/Syria CIVCAS Allegation Tracker. Some 45 individual problem events are listed, ranging from September 14th 2014 to April 30th 2015.

The date and location of each alleged incident is given, as well as a summary of preliminary investigations. Thirteen cases were prompted by Coalition self-reporting rather than by any external claims, and were not previously known to Airwars. These range from pilots reporting that civilian vehicles had strayed into their killbox, to FBI informants alleging mass casualties.

The CENTCOM document also provides crucial insights into problem strikes carried out by America’s allies – details which most have kept hidden from their own publics.

Canadian strike A Canadian airstrike on January 21st at Kisik Junction in Iraq is already front-page news in Ottowa, after it was revealed that the country’s Defence Minister had been kept in the dark about the incident.

Under pressure from the media, a Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) spokesman did recently identify the date of that strike but gave few more details, other than insisting an internal investigation had found “no evidence of civilian casualties.“

A Canadian crew arms an aircraft prior to its Iraq mission (Canadian MoD)

The newly declassified CENTCOM document provides far more information, revealing that between 6 and 27 civilians allegedly died in the Canadian attack. The source for that claim, we now know, was an English-speaking peshmerga fighter who passed on his concerns to Coalition Special Forces based in Iraq.

A CAF spokesman told Airwars that Canada’s own investigation of the incident – which involved reviewing video and strike records – concluded there was no case to answer: “The review uncovered no evidence of civilian casualties. Furthermore, it was re-confirmed that the target was a valid military objective from which ISIS was firing a heavy machine gun at Iraqi Kurdish troops. The area in question is still within ISIS held territory.”

Airwars researchers have found no published claims of civilians killed at Kisik that night – although some reports at the time placed the number of Islamic State fighters killed in a Kurdish offensive on the town at over 250.

‘Daesh propaganda’ Australia remains one of the least transparent members of the international Coalition against Islamic State, refusing to say where or when it bombs in Iraq. Officials insist that any published information “could be distorted and used against Australia in Daesh propaganda.”

Canberra is therefore unlikely to be happy with CENTCOM for publicly revealing that on two occasions to April 30th, Australian combat aircraft may have killed or injured civilians in Iraq.

On October 8th 2014, a Coalition strike on an ISIL checkpoint near Ramadi may also have hit a civilian truck. As the internal document notes, weapon system video from an Australian F-18 showed that “it was apparent that a truck entered the target area between weapon release and impact.” On that occasion, a more thorough review of the video led to a decision that “No further inquiry” was needed.

A woman and child may also have been injured in a major Australian airstrike at Fallujah on December 21st 2014. That attack was focused on a’suspected weapons factory’ in the city.

Despite the apparent seriousness of the incident, it was quickly dismissed by both Australian and US military investigators

Military surveillance revealed a woman and child walking through the immediate strike area some minutes after the last missile impacted. The child was then observed being taken to the local hospital, while the woman “walked to the median strip on the road and lay down, and was not observed any further.”

Despite the apparent seriousness of the incident, it was quickly dismissed by both Australian and US military investigators who decided “there is insufficient information to warrant further inquiry… The lack of urgency and fact that the child walked apparently normally suggested his injuries were not life-threatening.”

The report also claimed that there were “no Iraqi allegations of CIVCAS.” This was incorrect. Airwars researchers have identified major news reports from the time, which alleged civilians were killed by both the Coalition and the Iraq Army in Fallujah that night.

BBC Arabic for example described medical sources at the city’s main hospital as “receiving 13 bodies and seven wounded, including women and children who fell during the incessant shelling.” Those casualties were attributed both to the Iraqi military and to “air strikes launched by the international coalition on the city of Fallujah on Sunday night (21st) and until dawn Monday, targeting places where IS fighters are believed to be.”

‘Possible child’ Thirteen incidents listed in the declassified document were self-reported internally, with no matching public claims of civilian casualties. An internal post-strike assessment revealed, for example, that a child may accidentally have been caught up in a French airstrike in Mosul on February 3rd 2015.

According to CENTCOM, surveillance footage showed a “possible child entering a targeted bunker and then disappearing out of the field of view (FOV) approximately 19 minutes before Strike.”

The attack which followed, carried out by a French Mirage 2000 using a guided GBU-49 bomb, killed an estimated five enemy fighters, the report says.

Claims that a child had died were deemed “not credible” by military intelligence officers, who decided “that individuals struck were fighters.“ Airwars researchers could find no reference to a child fatality in Mosul for this date, although reports did note an intensification of Coalition strikes on the city.

Dutch aircraft were also suspected of killing two civilians in an incident on the morning of December 26th 2015. According to the document, “while conducting dynamic coalition airstrikes on ISIL fighters and technical vehicles NLD F· l6AM [ie a Dutch F-16] may have unintentionally struck two unidentified persons on motorcycles who entered the target area during the strikes.”

Dutch aircrew prepare a plane for offensive operations (Dutch MoD/ Henry Westendorp)

These claims of civilian deaths were deemed serious enough to trigger a rare formal investigation into the event. This later concluded that there was not enough evidence to indicate civilian fatalities, though neither CENTCOM nor the Dutch military has published that report. A Pentagon spokesman told Airwars in July 2015 that “after reviewing all available evidence, the allegations of civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in these instances were unfounded.”

A determination that no civilians had died was based partly on an assessment of the ammunition used, the declassified document suggests: “No CIVCAS found due to the Dutch using ball ammo rather than HE [high explosive] rounds.”

Airwars researchers have found no public reports of civilian fatalities for Fallujah on December 25th-26th, although there was coverage of ongoing clashes between the Iraq military and Daesh.

‘Not Credible’ Nine of the 45 alleged incidents investigated by the Coalition in the report turned out not to have been the work of international aircraft. Claims that up to 45 people died in Coalition attacks on Aleppo in Syria on December 26th 2014 were dismissed, for example, after it was found none had taken place “during the relevant time period.” On that occasion the Assad regime was most likely responsible.

On another occasion, any Coalition role in the deaths of 15 worshipers at a mosque in Iraq were ruled out after it was found that the “nearest coalition strike to Haditha was 34km and was not within close enough proximity to be considered credible.”

Yassir Rafeh was among 15 worshippers allegedly killed in a Coalition airstrike at Haditha, February 17th 2015. The declassified CENTCOM report confirms this was not the case.

On numerous other occasions CENTCOM investigators dismissed claims of civilian casualties within 48 hours based on extremely limited information. Few of these events were later re-examined, despite significant evidence of civilian deaths often emerging.

On September 23 2014 for example, US airstrikes hit al Qaeda-linked militants in the Syrian town of Kafr Daryan. Up to 13 named civilians also died that night, according to extensive video reports and eyewitness testimony from survivors.

A rudimentary search by CENTCOM would have identified multiple photographs and videos relating to September 23rd itself.

Even so CENTCOM dismissed claims of civilian deaths, in part based on an assessment that “Open source images presented as casualties from the strikes actually came from previous GoS [Government of Syria] strikes.”

Airwars has examined all known published images relating to the Kafr Daryan event. As our Syria researcher Kinda Haddad notes, “Every picture but one we are aware of first appears on 23rd September 2014, and in connection with Kafr Daryan.”

That one known exception is a picture which first appeared as a tweet on September 2nd, after a child was killed by the Assad regime. Shortly after the Kafr Daryan attack some three weeks later, that same image was claimed in English by at least one site to have been taken at Kafr Daryan.

However a rudimentary search by CENTCOM would have identified multiple photographs and videos relating to September 23rd itself. Even when investigators noted new evidence on the strike from the Syrian Network for Human Rights in April 2015, this did not appear to trigger any new inquiry.

Claims that this pictured child was killed at Kafr Daryan three weeks later helped lead CENTCOM to conclude no civilians died in a US attack 

‘Insufficient information’ In another case, CENTCOM was prompted by the US State Department to reinvestigate some six months after a Coalition attack on a gas station in Syria reportedly killed three named civilians.

Weapon system video from the time was reviewed and air crews interviewed. Investigators again concluded that there was “Insufficient evidence to determine CIVCAS,” despite apparent evidence to the contrary from the ground. Yet at the same time, the CENTCOM report admits to “limited video analysis” and “intermittent visual contact with the ground.”

On April 1st 2015, CENTCOM also reassessed claims that between 50 and 60 civilians had been killed in a US attack at Al Bab, Syria four months previously. It concluded that there was still “insufficient information to determine CIVCAS.” This was partly justified by citing an Assad regime airstrike on the city some 48 hours before the US attack, “which resulted in media reports of CIVCAS as well.” Yet no reports from the time appeared to confuse these two events, both of which reportedly caused mass casualties.

An FBI source alleged 41 Yazidi women died in Mosul, Iraq in November 2014

Other incidents in the CENTCOM file are less conclusive. In November 2014 an FBI source alleged the deaths of “41 Yezidi captive females killed in a strike on a named OBJ IVO [objective in the vicinity of] Mosul.”

In the investigation which followed, a Coalition strike with an AGM-114 missile was identified as having taken place some 3.2km from the site of the alleged incident  (suggesting that the aircraft involved was a drone.)

However, the report also noted that “the engagement conducted a cold shift on the weapon due to collateral concerns entering the area of the strike.” As a result it was concluded “No further inquiry needed.”

According to former US Air Force personnel consulted by Airwars, a ‘cold shift’ refers to the deliberate in-flight aborting of a missile to a predesignated safe spot.

While Airwars researchers have not been able to identify any published claims of mass casualties among Yazidi women in Mosul at the time, there were reports of women escaping as a result of Coalition airstrikes. One local news source cited the Director-General for Yazidi Affairs at the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in Kurdistan as saying that “about 250 Yazidi from Mosul and Sinjar escaped during the aerial bombardment of these gatherings.”

▲ French attack aircraft onboard the carrier Charles de Gaulle, March 20th 2014 (Ministère de la Défense)


August 10, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

IMAGE: An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from USS Carl Vinson, October 2014 (US Navy/ Alex King)

At 1.45pm local time on August 8th 2014, the United States began airstrikes against Islamic State (Daesh), after the terror group had overrun much of northern Iraq and begun massacring non-Sunnis.

Six weeks later that air war was expanded to Syria, eventually drawing in eleven other partners which have also launched direct attacks on Daesh.

From the start, the team that would become Airwars has been tracking these Coalition strikes and outcomes. We’ve logged more than 1,000 military reports of airstrikes and targets, and maintain one of the most extensive public archive of the war available.

We’re also the only monitoring group to track reported civilian fatalities across both Iraq and Syria – and have so far identified claims of up to 1,250 civilians allegedly killed in Coalition airstrikes.

Here we present our own analysis of the first year of the Coalition’s air war against Daesh: what has been achieved, and at what cost to civilians.

5,975 airstrikes

As modeling by our data analyst Basile Simon shows, air attacks against Daesh continued to ramp up during the first year of operations, with 5,975 airstrikes recorded overall.  In July 2015, Coalition aircraft launched an average of 27 strikes per day – more than five times the tempo of attacks almost a year earlier.

Upward trend: Over time the intensity of Coalition strikes has increased significantly

Having quit Iraq completely at the end of 2011, it took the United States some weeks to get its strike assets back into the region in August 2014. Erbil, the Mosul Dam and Mount Sinjar were the primary focus of these early airstrikes, as the US Air Force and Navy focused on areas most likely to fall to Daesh’s lightning advance.

On the orders of President Obama, on September 15th US airstrikes were expanded across all areas of Iraq threatened by Daesh. Iraq’s capital now began to experience airstrikes, with even Baghdad at risk of falling.

After 41 days of US-only airstrikes, France became the second nation to take on Daesh from the air on September 19th – attacking a logistics depot in north eastern Iraq.

It was four days later that the international Coalition was truly born, when five Arab nations joined the US in attacking Daesh in Syria. Combat aircraft from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain all attacked on September 23rd, while Qatar provided support.

Iraq too saw a rapid expansion of international partners. British Tornados began airstrikes on September 30th, and were soon joined by aircraft from Belgium (October 5th), the Netherlands (October 7th), Australia (October 8th), Denmark on October 16th, and Canada on November 2nd.

Two different air wars

Although the Coalition battles Islamic State on both sides of an international border, the air war has evolved into two distinctly different fights.

Iraqi airstrikes remain almost exclusively a Western affair, with only Jordan among the Arab allies having carried out attacks on the territory of its near neighbour.

Heavy lifting: The US carried out two thirds of all airstrikes in Iraq in the first year

Those airstrikes support three different forces on the ground. To the north, Kurdish peshmerga are holding back Daesh across a 1,000km front. In central and western Iraq, Coalition strikes assist the Iraq Army and Shia militias which are attempting to drive back the terrorists.

It’s often a chaotic business. When Daesh captured Mosul in summer 2014, it seized the military hardware of two entire army divisions – including tanks, artillery, armoured personnel carriers and Humvees. So distinguishing between friend and enemy on the battlefield can be a challenge for aircrews.

Addressing the issue of ‘friendly fire’ incidents, Lt General John Hesterman of the Coalition recently noted that ‘There’s probably been a case or two, you know. Nobody’s perfect at this.’  

Military officials refuse to say more – although research by Airwars has identified nine alleged ‘friendly fire’ events in the first year of strikes – which between them reportedly killed as many as 180  allied forces. All but one of these alleged incidents occurred in Iraq.

Three fifths of all Coalition bombings in the first year targeted Daesh in Iraq – some 3,664 airstrikes by our count. Historically that’s high – more than all the airstrikes carried out by international forces in Iraq between 2004 and 2011 combined, according to CENTCOM data.

Yet assessing the impact of these current airstrikes against Daesh remains challenging. Most advances by the terror group were halted, with some territory including Tikrit even recaptured.

However elsewhere Daesh has actually advanced, with the fall of Ramadi in May 2015 particularly alarming. And many of Iraq’s biggest cities remain in Islamic State hands – with millions of people under their sway. As a consequence most Coalition airstrikes are focused on these same urban centres – with clear risks to civilians on the ground.

Syria: an American campaign

While the early campaign in Syria saw action by half a dozen Coalition members, this has not been sustained. Today the United States is effectively conducting a unilateral air war against Daesh in Syria.

Every week since early December, the Coalition has provided Airwars with a breakdown of  those airstrikes carried out by the US, and by its allies. This enables us to track how active America’s partners have been in Syria. The results are not encouraging.

Since December 1st, only 51 strikes were carried out in Syria by non-US aircraft. That compares with 1,759 American airstrikes targeting Daesh during the same period. For ten of those weeks, only US aircraft carried out Coalition strikes in Syria.

Canada’s Syrian engagement has so far had little impact on the campaign. In the four months since April, only four strikes have been carried out by Ottawa’s Super Hornets. Military leaders have described Canada’s operations in Syria as “a little bit more problematic” than those in Iraq – something British politicians may choose to bear in mind when they finally vote on whether to extend their own kinetic operations to Syria.

Of the 2,311 Coalition airstrikes in Syria during the first year of the campaign, many were focused on target sets which differed significantly from Iraq. A quarter of all Coalition attacks – 710 airstrikes – took place in just one location for example – the town of Kobane during Islamic State’s failed four month siege.

Other attackss were focused on destroying Daesh’s oil supply infrastructure, or on damaging its supply lines and border crossings. Only in recent months has the Coalition begun heavily targeting Syria’s ISIL-occupied towns. And it is here that we have seen most civilians reportedly killed.

Hundreds of civilians killed

All monitoring groups tracking civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria are in agreement that hundreds of non-combatants have so far been killed in Coalition airstrikes. Airwars shares that view.

Our first major report into alleged civilian fatalities was published in early August, achieving international impact. That study only ran to June 30th. We’re now able to provide estimates for the first full year of Coalition strikes.

To August 8th 2015 our Iraqi and Syrian researchers Latif Habib and Kinda Haddad have identified an overall total of between 986 and 1,251 claimed civilian fatalities, from 141 separate alleged incidents.

From among these, 68 incidents in particular are a cause for concern. On each occasion two or more credible sources reported civilian deaths – with Coalition airstrikes also confirmed in the near vicinity.

Omar Huwaidi Al Mueissat, 22, reported killed in Coalition strike at Ar Raqaa, July 18 2015 (via Raqaa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Based on these events only, Airwars believes there is reasonable evidence to support claims of between 470 and 631 civilian non-combatants killed in the first year of Coalition airstrikes.

Many hundreds more civilian deaths have also been attributed to the Coalition – though at present we don’t have enough information to determine what took place.

In stark contrast, the international coalition has only conceded two “likely” deaths so far, both from a US airstrike in Harem Syria in early November 2014. CENTCOM says it’s also investigating six more incidents of concern.

One worry at Airwars is that reports of civilian deaths are actually rising. July saw the heaviest Coalition bombing yet of both Iraq and Syria, with 856 airstrikes during the month.

Claims of non-combatant deaths also peaked, with 22 incidents of concern flagged for July. Ten of these alleged events were in just one city, Ar Raqqa – Daesh’s putative capital and the target of 54 Coalition strikes during the month. In total, 22 civilians were reported killed in Coalition attacks on Ar Raqqa for July – thirteen of whom have so far been named.

As the Coalition’s campaign enters its second year, international airstrikes will increasingly focus on those Daesh-occupied towns and cities of Iraq and Syria which remain home to millions of non-combatants. Further civilian deaths are inevitable. Whether the 12-nation Coalition will be more forthcoming about such fatalities moving forward remains to be seen.

▲ An F/A-18 Super Hornet launches from USS Carl Vinson, October 2014 (US Navy/ Alex King)


August 3, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

ABOVE: Scene of a devastating Coalition strike at Hawijah, Iraq on June 3rd 2015 which reportedly killed up to 70 civilians (via Iraqi Spring)

A six-month investigation into alleged civilian and ‘friendly fire’ deaths from Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria has identified more than 120 incidents of concern to June 30th according to an Airwars report published today – three times more problem events than the Coalition itself was aware of.

Airwars believes that for 57 of these incidents, there is sufficient publicly-available evidence to indicate Coalition responsibility for civilian and friendly forces deaths. Between them these events account for 459-591 alleged civilian fatalities, and the reported deaths of 48-80 allied forces.

In stark contrast, the Coalition has investigated just ten incidents – and has so far conceded just two civilian deaths in thousands of airstrikes across Iraq and Syria since August 2014.

Read The Guardian’s comprehensive report on our investigation here

1,000 alleged fatalities

Since February Airwars has been examining claims totaling more than 1,000 alleged civilian fatalities. Many of these incidents remain difficult to verify. Some are contested, with counterclaims that Iraqi or Syrian forces carried out an attack. Other events are poorly reported. On occasion claims of civilian fatalities have turned out to be false, researchers found.

Even so, the public record clearly suggests a significant under-reporting of civilian deaths by the Coalition.

Airwars is publishing its own full findings online, with detailed descriptions of each event and links to every known source. The database features hundreds of photographs and videos, along with the names of more than 260 alleged victims.

‘The international Coalition has boasted that its air war against Islamic State is “the most precise and disciplined in the history of aerial warfare.” Yet facts from the ground suggest a very different story,’ says Chris Woods, Director of Airwars.

‘With more than 5,800 airstrikes so far and over 18,000 bombs and missiles dropped on the cities and towns of Iraq and Syria, all indications are that hundreds of civilians have already died in Coalition strikes.’

Airwars also reports a troubling lack of accountability among the twelve Coalition members. Only Canada has consistently reported where and when its aircraft strike.

In contrast other nations have released almost no information about their actions, with Australia claiming that it ‘will not release information that could be distorted and used against Australia in ISIL propaganda.’ With Coalition nations individually liable when civilians are killed in Iraq or Syria, those affected on the ground presently have almost no recourse to justice or compensation.

Key findings

    Between August 8 2014 and June 30th 2015, 53 incidents of concern were reported for Iraq, with claims of between 578-732 civilians killed by the Coalition. Most reports are focused on cities and towns – scene of the heaviest bombings. Of these events, Airwars believes 17 Iraqi cases in particular (involving 233-311 alleged fatalities) warrant urgent further investigation.
    Coalition airstrikes began in Syria on September 23rd 2014, and to June 30th 2015 Airwars has identified 65 alleged incidents in which civilians died. Of these, we believe 35 cases demonstrate a fair level of public reporting – with Coalition airstrikes also confirmed in the near vicinity for that date. An estimated 226-280 civilians died in these Syrian events.
    Nine claimed ‘friendly fire’ incidents have occurred since Coalition operations began – eight in Iraq. These allege that up to 185 allied forces (mostly Shia militia) have been killed. Airwars believes there is reasonable evidence to support five of these claims – which killed an estimated 48 to 80 friendly forces between them.
    Although overall the Coalition does a fair job of informing where and when it strikes, it remains almost impossible to hold any of the 12 individual members accountable in the event of civilian deaths. Only Canada consistently reports where and when its aircraft attack.

Shared concerns

Other monitoring groups tracking the violence in Iraq and Syria are also raising concerns, with each reporting hundreds of civilian fatalities from Coalition strikes to June 30th.

Iraq Syria Totals
Airwars [total range] 233-732 226-354 459-1,086
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 173
Syrian Network for Human Rights 198
Syria Violations Documentation Center 276
Iraq Body Count 487*
Averaged fatality estimates 360-641 218-250 578-891*

Monitoring groups in Syria accept that the Coalition generally tries to limit civilian fatalities – particularly when compared with other actors in the brutal civil war.

Yet as Bassam al-Ahmad of VDC notes to Airwars, the Coalition still has its own obligations when it pursues Daesh amid civilian populations: ‘We know that ISIS is taking civilians as human shields, and is building all its military bases in civilian neighborhood. But according to the Laws of War, the Coalition also has to take into account the general principles of international humanitarian law when conducting its strikes.’

As the international air war against Islamic State enters its second year, there is little sign of the risk to civilians on the ground abating.

As Airwars published its report July 2015 was emerging as the most intensive month yet of Coalition bombings, with 371 strikes reported in Syria alone. Civilian casualty claims also peaked, with 14 new alleged events reported for Syria and eight for Iraq – a new and grim record.

* An error in our published Report meant that we included an IBC estimate (369 deaths) which referred to 2015 figures only. In fact the group’s total estimate to June 30th is of 487 civilians killed. Our chart figures have been adjusted here accordingly. 

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


May 28, 2015

Written by

Chris Woods

Was lethal airstrike at Fadhiliya, Iraq aimed at Islamic State attacks in vicinity of nearby Canadian troops? Library image shows personnel departing for Iraq, November 2014 (Canadian MoD/ Cpl LS Eduardo Jorge)

Nine months and 4,000 airstrikes into the international coalition’s air war against Islamic State, the US-led alliance has to date only conceded the “likely” non-combatant deaths of two children in a November 2014 airstrike.

At Airwars we believe this to be a major under-reporting of the facts. Claims of up to 740 civilian deaths have already been published by local and international media, by monitoring groups and by affected communities.

Verifying these claims can be extremely difficult. Most areas being bombed by the coalition are occupied by Islamic State. Civic society has often collapsed, and local people live in fear of retaliation for speaking out. Even so, evidence linking the coalition to civilian deaths can often be compelling.

Reporter Fazel Hawramy

Airwars has been speaking with journalist Fazel Hawramy, who with his US-based colleague Raya Jalabi recently published a major story with the Guardian about a family of five killed near Mosul in early April, in a likely coalition airstrike.

We began by asking the Irbil-based reporter what had led him to investigate this particular event:

Fazel Hawramy: Since the coalition strikes started last August, when ISIS was closing in on Irbil, there have been reports of civilian casualties in areas under Islamic State control. You see many photos of children badly wounded, sometimes dead children and civilians, published by ISIS-affiliated tweeps on Twitter from Mosul and surrounding areas.

The problem for me with that as a journalist is that it’s very difficult to verify the allegations in these tweets. Because there’s no way that I can access the locals in these areas.

On this occasion, I was online a few weeks ago and a friend shared an update from Facebook from another friend of his saying there’d been a strike in the vlllage of Fadhiliya north of Mosul. And he gave some descriptive details of what happened there. I contacted the guy sharing, who was ready to help with contacting people on the ground. This was a village still under ISIS control, by the way.

All the evidence pointed to a family in Fadhiliya having been hit by a coalition airstrike. Through my contact I was able to speak to some people in the village. Of course they didn’t want to be named in the piece because  ISIS is still there – and if they don’t like something it may put these peoples’ lives in danger. So I agreed to give them anonymity so that they could talk candidly.

Airwars: Do you think, based on your findings for the Guardian, that we should be taking more seriously other claims of civilian deaths from alleged coalition strikes?

Hawramy: Definitely. In this particular case I was fortunate in that I speak Kurdish, so I was able to speak with people in the village and question each of them for around half an hour about the details of the incident.

There are of course civilian casualties from coalition strikes. The problem always for journalists is to get access to the people. And unfortunately the danger to civilians who are under ISIS control is so great that I sometimes feel uncomfortable putting people’s lives in danger.

Danya Laith Hazem, killed in a likely coalition airstrike near Mosul on April 4 2015 (Courtesy of family via Guardian)

But on this particular occasion people in Fadhiliya were happy to talk about the event. Their only condition was that they shouldn’t be named. There are casualties [being caused] not only by the coalition but from the Iraq Army, the Air Force – there have been many casualties. I’ve interviewed people in Kirkuk in [IDP] camps who’ve said that parts of their families were obliterated by the Iraqi Air Force. And clearly there needs to be more focus on this aspect of the war against ISIS.

Airwars: When you spoke with villagers in Fadhiliya, did you get a sense of how they viewed the fact that the coalition appears to be in denial about civilian deaths?

Hawramy: These villagers weren’t very well connected to the outside world in terms of the internet and so on. They’re aware of strikes being carried out around their area of Mosul, but aren’t necessarily aware of civilian casualties in other areas.

One issue I have with the data issued by CENTCOM is that on this particular occasion on April 4, they said there were strikes “near Mosul.” This was too general, making it really difficult to ascertain whether there was a strike near Fadhiliya. Fortunately my colleagues in Washington DC managed to confirm with them that there was a strike around Fadhiliya.

But when you read that press release by CENTCOM it’s really not clear. They just say “a strike around Mosul.” And Mosul is vast, involving three front lines between the Kurds and Islamic State. They could be more co-operative in providing information on where their strikes actually occur.

Airwars: What about the affected family themselves – what do they want? An apology, a recognition that five relatives were killed? What would help them? 

Hawramy: I didn’t speak directly with the family itself. I have spoken with members of the extended family. I was trying to talk with the two girls that were wounded [in the alleged airstrike]. But then I was told by people in Fadhiliya that they were in such a state of mind that it would be difficult for them to discuss what had happened that early morning.

Identity document of Lina Laith Hazem, 16, wounded in Fadhiliya air strike April 4 (Courtesy of family via Guardian)

However, from speaking with their MP in the Iraqi parliament – and with the extended family – I understand that they want acknowledgement of what happened in Fadhiliya, and also compensation for the loss and pain that the coalition caused to that family.

The olive tree farm that this family owns is very big, and some distance away from Fadhiliya. And I was interested to know whether there had been any Islamic State forces on their property that night. The four people I spoke with all said no, there were no ISIS units around the farm – although they are present in the village itself where they have a small base of up to 12 fighters.

Airwars: The Guardian was able to get confirmation from CENTCOM that it had in fact carried out an airstrike at Fadhiliya on the day in question. Based on the available evidence, is it your view that the international coalition did cause these civilian deaths? 

Hawramy: Based on CENTCOM’s confirmation that there was an airstrike around Fadhiliya – and talking to villagers and to their MP – I am pretty convinced.

The MP, Mala Salim Juma Mohammad, a member of the Shabak party, has spoken with the Iraqi Defence Ministry who were confident that they did not launch the air strike. He’s also been to the US Embassy in Baghdad who say they’re investigating the case.

I also have a source in the Iraqi Air Force who told me that they do not carry out airstrikes north of Mosul in the areas around Fadhiliya. The village is very close to Bashiqa Mountain, which is where the Canadian soldiers are based and where one of them died a few months ago in a ‘friendly fire’ incident. And there was recent fighting on that mountain between the peshmerga and ISIS.

So based on the location of the village – and the fact that the peshmerga are constantly calling in coalition airstrikes – I think I’m pretty confident that this was carried out by the coalition.

Missile fragment from Fadhiliya village

Airwars: Where next for your investigation into this incident?

Hawramy: I did manage to obtain photographs of fragments of a missile that was used in the strike, and they’re presently being analysed.

If they come back as positively identifying [weapons used by the coalition], that adds weight to the attack having been carried out by coalition forces. I also plan to speak with villagers again to see what happens with this case moving forward.

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May 21, 2015

Written by

Airwars Staff

After more than 4,000 airstrikes by the international alliance over a nine month period, the US-led coalition has finally conceded that its actions have killed civilians.

According to a statement issued by CENTCOM late on May 21st, an airstrike on the village of Harem near Aleppo six months previously had “likely led to the deaths of two non-combatant children.”

Five year old Daniya Ali Al Haj Qaddour and her father, alleged militant Ali Saeed Al Haj Qaddour, both killed in a US air strike at Harem, November 5th 2014 (via SNHR)

According to Airwars’ own records, one of those killed was five year old Daniya Ali Al Haj Qaddour, whose father Ali Saeed Al Haj Qaddour (an alleged fighter with the Al Nusra Front) also died in the attack according to reports at the time.

Daniya’s mother, and her young brother Saeed, were also reported to have been severely wounded in the bombing. The identity of the second slain child is not clear.

While welcome, CENTCOM’s admission that it has killed non-combatants also raises uncomfortable questions.

Details of the childrens’ deaths were published on social media and by Syrian monitoring groups within hours of the US attack, on the night of November 5th-6th 2014.

And redacted emails released by CENTCOM indicate that military officials were aware of possible civilian deaths almost immediately after the event.

Yet it was not until January 8 2015 – two months after the killings – that an inquiry was ordered. Overseen by coalition commander Lt. General James L. Terry, the declassified report confirms that a series of US air raids on the so-called Khorasan Group, a faction of Al Qaeda, had also “triggered secondary explosions.”

Although four children were reported killed at the time of the attack, CENTCOM’s investigation has only been able to confirm two “likely” deaths.

‘Too little, too late’ Airwars will shortly publish its own major report into civilians allegedly killed by the coalition since August.

Our provisional findings show that between 384 and 753 civilians have been reported killed in some 97 problem incidents, according to local and international media, and Iraqi and Syrian monitoring groups.

Verifying these claims can be extremely difficult. Most areas being bombed by the coalition are occupied by Islamic State. Civic society has often collapsed, and local people live in fear of retaliation for speaking out. Even so, evidence linking the coalition to civilian deaths can often be compelling.

“While we welcome CENTCOM’s admission after nine months of bombings that it has indeed killed civilians, it’s a case of too little too late,” says Chris Woods of Airwars.

“The first claims of civilian deaths from coalition actions emerged just days after air strikes began in August 2014. Since then, hundreds of likely non-combatant deaths have occurred, many in incidents better documented than the November 5th incident which CENTCOM has now conceded.”

Woods urged the coalition to speed up its investigation and review process – and to be far more transparent about where and when individual coalition members are bombing in Iraq and Syria.

Airwars Report on November 5th-6th Strike

November 5th-6th 2014: Harem, Idlib governorate, Syria Summary: Six months after US air raids targeted the Khorasan Group (part of the Nusra Front) and the militant group Ahrar al-Sham, the coalition finally conceded that two children had died in the attack – the first public concession of any civilian deaths after 4,000 airstrikes over nine months. The November 5th US raid targeted the villages of Harem, Bab Al Hawa, Sarmada, Reef Al-Muhameen and Binsh. Reports from the night remains confused, with civilian deaths claimed at a number of locations. Reuters carried a statement from Ahrar al-Sham saying that “The air strikes came last night and hit a number of areas in the liberated Idlib countryside,” and that casualties included “women and children and civilians.” CENTCOM later confirmed that US actions had led to civilian deaths at Harem. According to the Syrian Revolution Forum blog: “The planes of the Arab/Western coalition launched air strikes on Syrian cities adjacent to the Turkish border.  The centre of the town of Harem was targeted with more than six raids causing the death of four children and causing massive destruction to residential and commercial property on Al Sijn street.” One of the children named as killed was five year old Daniya Ali Al Haj Qaddour, whose father Ali Saeed Al Haj Qaddour – a fighter with the Al Nusra Front – also died in the attack (both pictured below.) Daniya’s mother and brother Saeed were reported to have been severely wounded. Reported killed: 2-4 children Reported injured: Unknown Sources: Reuters, GRAPHIC Jakob Sheikh Facebook page [Danish], Syrian Revolution Forum [Arabic], Free Syrian Army [Arabic], Syrian Network for Human Rights [Arabic] [English], GRAPHIC YouTube video [two slain children], YouTube [post-strike destruction in Harem], YouTube (2nd video of destruction in Harem), YouTube, Syrian Martyrs [Arabic], YouTube [civil-defence rescuers search for survivors in Harem – Arabic commentary], YouTube [Syrian rescue services hunt for survivors], Violations Documentation Center [Arabic], CENTCOM declassified report Quality of reporting: High, with coalition confirming civilian casualties Coalition position: CENTCOM confirmed on May 21st 2015 that it likely killed two children in an airstrike at Harem. “We regret the unintentional loss of lives,” Lt General Terry said of the incident. “The Coalition continues to take all reasonable measures during the targeting process to mitigate risks to non-combatants, and to comply with the principles of the Law of Armed Conflict.”

GRAPHIC: Two child victims of  US airstrike, Harem in Syria November 5 2015


May 13, 2015

Written by

Airwars Staff

In the first 40 weeks of US-led military action against so-called Islamic State (Daesh), more than 3,800 airstrikes were carried out by a dozen international coalition members across both Iraq and Syria. Those strikes saw around 13,000 bombs and missiles dropped in an aerial war likely to continue for many more months, if not years.

Civilian non-combatants already faced great risk on the ground. Islamic State and other militant and terrorist groups have caused untold death and misery to thousands. In Syria, civilians are also repeatedly targeted by the Assad regime in indiscriminate bombings, while in Iraq both the Army and associated militias have been accused  of atrocities.

Yet civilians are also at risk from the international coalition’s actions. This is a complex conflict, involving multiple allies fighting across two nations. It is also an intense air war, with Islamic State frequently targeted by airstrikes within the towns and cities it now occupies. Civilian casualties are inevitable.

Ibrahim al Mussul, a shepherd killed with his two daughters Jozah and Zahra in a reported US airstrike on his home, February 2nd 2015 (Syrian Network for Human Rights)

Promoting accountability Most of the 12 coalition members do issue at least some information about the strikes they conduct – yet there is rarely mention of any casualties inflicted.

With so many nations carrying out bombings, determining responsibility when civilians are killed or injured presents major challenges. We believe there is an acute need for greater openness from our militaries – and our project is an attempt to address this.

Airwars is a non-aligned, not-for-profit organisation seeking to promote transparency and accountability by the US and its allies in the following ways:

* We monitor and record the international coalition’s airstrikes against Islamic State (Daesh) in both Iraq and Syria

* We archive all publicly available official military reports of the war

* We collate – and aim to verify wherever possible – all credible claims of non-combatant civilian deaths.

The Airwars project was begun in August 2014 by journalist Chris Woods, who previously set up and ran the award-winning Drones Project at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“With so many airstrikes being carried out by so many nations in Iraq and Syria – yet with little real transparency or accountability – there is an urgent need for credible independent monitoring,” says Woods. “We know from other recent conflicts that holding combatants to account for their actions can play a significant role in reducing the risk to civilians on the ground.”

Airwars today comprises a small team of professional journalists and researchers. While much of our work is voluntary, thanks to generous funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust we also employ two part time specialists – an Iraqi and a Syrian – who monitor  Arabic media and monitoring groups, and follow up wherever possible credible claims of civilian casualties.

In March 2015, Airwars transitioned to this purpose-built website thanks to the project’s second core volunteer, data journalist Basile Simon.

Montage of damage from a reported coalition airstrike near Mosul April 20th 2015 (Photo: Mosul Residents Facebook page)

Civilian casualties Airstrikes can often represent the greatest threat to civilians on the ground during conflicts. And there are plenty of indications that the coalition’s air war against Islamic State places non-combatants at risk of death or injury:

    Coalition strikes are often focused on towns and cities, in both Iraq and Syria. Recent official data showed that at least a third of all coalition airstrikes have been aimed at buildings, for example. Most coalition airstrikes are dynamic – that is, they’re aimed at targets of opportunity as opposed to pre-planned operations. As a consequence, little may be known about civilians in the immediate vicinity of a strike location. There are very few forward air controllers in Iraq – and none in Syria – meaning the coalition is heavily dependent upon aerial surveillance for accuracy. Yet as Airwars monitoring shows, ISR provision still lags far behind other conflicts such as Afghanistan. There appears little or no accountability for coalition actions – crucial if pressure is to be applied to reduce non-combatant deaths. Some nations like Belgium and Saudi Arabia generally refuse to release details of their airstrikes, while others will only say how many bombs they drop – and not where they strike.

Despite these risks, the coalition continues to insist that it cannot officially confirm the death of a single civilian after nine months of airstrikes.

In its latest statement to Airwars dated March 25th, a Pentagon spokesman told us: “It is CENTCOM‘s view that no non-combatant deaths from coalition airstrikes in either Iraq or Syria have officially been confirmed.”

Counting the dead Instead of the ‘zero civilians killed’ which CENTCOM insists upon, Airwars has identified a significant number of non-combatants likely to have been killed in coalition strikes.

Our early findings have (as of May 13th 2015) identified 95 incidents of concern, in which between 587 and 734 civilian non-combatant fatalities have been claimed.

Many of these events represent significant challenges to our researchers. That said, it is our present view that there are reasonable indications of between 370-465 non-combatant deaths likely to have been caused by coalition strikes.

A further 130-145 deaths are presently poorly reported, or are single-sourced. And an additional 85-125 fatalities result from a contested event (for example, alongside claims that the Iraq military might instead have been responsible.)

Our researchers have also identified 140 or more ‘friendly fire’ deaths of allied ground forces which have been attributed to the coalition, with varying levels of certainty.

Four year old Abdullah Ghassan Salem al Hadid, killed with his family in a reported coalition airstrike on Mosul, Iraq on April 23 2015

“Claims by the coalition that it has killed few or no civilians in its many thousands of airstrikes are not borne out by the evidence,” says Woods. “For numerous events, we have detailed information regarding non-combatants killed – and confirmed coalition strikes in the immediate vicinity. Yet there is little evidence the international alliance is following up on such cases.

“The coalition needs to improve both its post-strike investigations, and to acknowledge promptly and publicly any non-combatant fatalities. Failure to do so risks undermining support among Iraqi and Syrian civilians for ongoing operations – and also hands a propaganda tool to those opposing international intervention.”

If, as expected, the coalition’s airwar continues for some time, Airwars believes there is a vital public interest in its continuing to monitor, scrutinize and challenge military and government narratives of the war.

Experience from previous conflicts such as Afghanistan also indicates that sustained public scrutiny can help to reduce the risk to non-combatants on the battlefield.

Archiving the war Another important role for Airwars is to gather and permanently archive public military records of the war.

Already the Daily Reports section of our website has collated hundreds of official releases by the US and other militaries. We cross-reference these records where possible against claims of civilian casualties, and also archive video, photographic and other evidence of strikes and their consequences.

There are important reasons for doing this. Official digital records of recent conflicts have proven highly vulnerable to amendment or deletion.

Records of the recent Afghanistan conflict have already fragmented, with CENTCOM only making available records dating back four years. Researchers then have to re-obtain such data using Freedom of Information requests, a laborious and time-consuming process. The British government too has removed daily reports published as recently as 2012.

April 5: RAF reports Tornado strike at RamadiApril 16th: Strike details are goneThis is why we archive everything.

— Airwars (@airwars) April 16, 2015

Already in the present coalition air war, some records have disappeared from the public record. On April 5th for example, the UK reported an airstrike by one of its Tornados at Ramadi in Iraq [see above]. Eleven days later that record was removed.

By publishing all official reports as they are released, our aim is to archive the entire air war, ensuring that future researchers have full public access to records as they were issued.

For our latest news on coalition strikes follow Airwars on Twitter

▲ French attack aircraft onboard the carrier Charles de Gaulle, March 20th 2014 (Ministère de la Défense)