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September 29, 2016

Written by

Samuel Oakford

Russia is marking the first year of a bombing campaign in Syria with some of its deadliest strikes yet, leaving hundreds of civilian casualties in just the past week in besieged Eastern Aleppo – and effectively scuttling diplomatic efforts to pause the war.

According to local monitors more than 3,000 civilians have so far been killed by Russia in its campaign in support of the Assad regime. A new Airwars assessment published this week shows that in January 2016 alone, Russia likely killed more than 700 civilians in Syria.

The severity of the Russian campaign over the past year has varied, reaching a previous high in January and February before falling off for several months, according to Airwars tracking. The latest strikes in Aleppo are heavily concentrated. Yet the huge civilian toll follows a pattern which has characterized Russia’s campaign since it first intervened on September 30th 2015. Implausibly, Russia has not admitted to killing a single Syrian civilian since then.

Researchers at Airwars have assessed extensive open source evidence to determine that in just the first four months of bombing, 291 separate attacks involving Russian forces left between 1,783 and 2,394 noncombatants dead and more than 2,722 injured.

Russian heavy bombers target ‘terrorist facilities in Syria’, August 2016

In total, Airwars has tracked more than 1,300 civilian casualty events allegedly involving Russian forces. Those claims list over 7,000 potential civilian fatalities to date – a figure which will be reduced as researchers vet each incident to determine if possible who was responsible, and whether initially reported casualty numbers were accurate.

The already-vetted data tells us much about the ferocity of Russia’s campaign. The minimum civilian toll from Russian strikes between September 30th and January 31st – 1,783 deaths – is already higher than the 1,612 civilian that researchers at Airwars estimate have been killed by US-led Coalition strikes in both Iraq and Syria in the two years since it began a separate campaign targeting ISIL. In other words, Russia has killed more civilians than the Coalition, in one sixth of the time.

Though the US has carried out investigations into civilian casualties, it has admitted to just 55 civilian deaths in Syria and Iraq – a miniscule number that sets a dangerous precedent for accountability. Those low Coalition casualty claims also weaken any moral pressure the US and its allies might hope to bring on Russia and Assad – even as Aleppo burns.

In a report published this March, Airwars said its database of incidents “indicates that Russia has systematically targeted civilian neighbourhoods and civilian infrastructure – including water plants, wells, marketplaces, bakeries, food depots and aid convoys.” That pattern has continued.

Just last week, suspected Russian planes were involved in an attack on a UN-coordinated aid convoy in the countryside of Aleppo. Eighteen of 31 trucks were destroyed and at least 20 people killed. According to the UN’s child welfare agency UNICEF, nearly 100 children have been killed since last Friday alone in Aleppo. Monitoring groups say Russia has carried out most attacks in the city since the breakdown of a tentative ceasefire.

“There is no doubt that the Russians are deliberately targeting civilians,” says Fadel Abdul Ghany, head of the Syrian Network For Human Rights, one of the groups whose reporting Airwars draws from and evaluates. Ghany says he presented details of Moscow’s strikes to Russian diplomats in New York late last year. “They denied everything,” he now recalls of the encounter.

Naming the dead

Though often unidentified in the media outside of high profile attacks, victims of alleged Russian strikes have in fact been consistently named by local monitoring organizations. In those first four months of Russian bombing between September 30th and January 31st, Airwars has so far been able to list the names of 2,104 civilians allegedly killed by Moscow’s strikes – or three in four of those reported slain.

Among these are at least eight civilians named by the Violations Documentation Center as being killed by Russian airstrikes on January 9th 2016, in Aleppo’s Al Ameria and Al Sukkari neighbourhoods. Most were elderly men in their seventies and eighties. VDC has named Shaker Hweidi (aged 70); Omar Hweidi (84); Abdulaziz Hweidi (82); Kamel Sultan (81); Mohammad Sultan (82); Nader Sultan (aged 30); and a young boy from the Sultan Family.

The White Helmets at the scene of an airstrike on Al Sukkari, Aleppo on January 9th 2016 which killed eight civilians – including five elderly men (via White Helmets)

According to Google archiving, there are now more videod minutes of the Syria conflict than minutes of the war itself. Events that used to exist in a fog of war are now posted online almost instantaneously. Though Russia denies killing civilians, thousands upon thousands of videos on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook show otherwise.

Though the exact perpetrator of these killings cannot always be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, the only question in most cases is whether they fell victim to Russia’s bombs or to those of the Assad regime.

“From 2011 it was clear that the regime’s forces were carrying out crimes against humanity, and subsequently from 2012 war crimes in going after the civilian population,” says Neil Sammonds, Syria researcher at Amnesty International. “Russia followed suit almost immediately when it came to the regime’s rescue one year ago.”

Within months, Amnesty had determined Russia was deliberately targeting civilians. By this April says Sammonds, Russia “was appearing to be actively targeting the essential facilities that a civilian population needs in order to survive,  thereby intending to forcibly displace civilians and not allow them access to IDP camps and medical care on the road.” Hospitals in particular have been targeted.

Russian strikes, adds Sammonds, tend to be more powerful than those of the regime. In addition to their use of cluster munitions and incendiary weapons, recent reports indicate that in Aleppo, Russia has now employed powerful “bunker buster” bombs that can penetrate further and leave a vast and deep blast radius. 

Aftermath of a likely Russian airstrike on a mosque in Qadi A’skar, Aleppo governorate, January 12th (via White Helmets) One month: 713 civilians killed

Airwars has now released comprehensive data for January 2016, which adds significantly to existing totals.  Its provisional view is that between 713 and 974 non combatants died during January alone, making it the deadliest month of Russian strikes to date. Among those victims were a minimum of 198 children, representing a 157 percent increase over child deaths in December. Reported deaths of women also more than doubled to at least 105. Attacks were particularly bloody in the final week of January in both Aleppo and the Islamic State-besieged city of Deir ez-Zor.

Among the detailed strike reports released this week by Airwars is an account of bombings most likely carried out by Russian warplanes in Fayloun, Idlib governorate on January 16th. According to local sources, at least eight children and three women – all members of the al-Saeed family – were killed. The Violations Documentation Center named four of the dead girls as Abeer; Tasneem; Hiba; and Alyaa. Four boys were were also named: Abdulqader; Mohammad; Ahmad; and Abdulrazzaq. The three women were named Seham, Defaf and Hanifah. Footage posted to Youtube shortly afterwards showed rescuers picking up body parts.

Another strike analysed by Airwars occured on January 27th in Al Houla, Homs governorate. According to local sources, six civilians, including a woman, a boy and a girl were killed in Russian strikes. Video posted online by the Homs Media Center showed medics tending to wounded civilians, including children, as relatives cry out in anguish. Suffering like this occurs every day across Syria.

Airwars is currently combing through more than 800 more alleged Russian civilian casualty events reported since January 31st.

The United Nations stopped tracking deaths in Syria over years ago, when it last presented a figure of 250,000. Monitors have put the toll at double that, and earlier this year the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura told reporters he believed the number of overall deaths stood at 400,000.

Yet at the UN’s Security Council, both Russia and China have blocked attempts to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court – a step which would allow the court to open a preliminary inquiry.

UN Security Council meeting on Syria, December 18th 2015 (US State Department)

A commission of inquiry established by the UN Human Human Rights Council in 2011 continues its work today, but has not broached the question of civilian casualties from foreign airstrikes in a meaningful way. Following remarks last year by its chairman, there was confusion as to whether the commission even viewed its mandate as encompassing strikes carried out by foreign powers in Syria.

More recently, commission staffers have told Airwars they are now making a greater effort – but remain limited both by a lack of resources and by access issues. Unlike UN efforts to track civilian casualties in countries like Afghanistan or Yemen, the independent Commission of Inquiry is unable to send investigators to bombing sites in Syria. The torrent of civilian and local casualty reporting is often deemed unusable by the Commission, which must abide by strict evidentiary guidelines. In its most recent report dated August 11th 2016, the commission did not even mention that Russian strikes have killed civilians.

Amidst a climate of total impunity in Syria, there is currently no credible official accounting of civilian deaths from the airstrikes of foreign powers in Syria. Neither the UN nor the foreign powers that are bombing Syria – predominantly Russia and the United States – have fulfilled their own obligations in this area.

This continued failure makes local reporting efforts and tracking by monitors indispensable. Without them, the many thousands of civilian victims of foreign airstrikes in Syria could be lost to history.


August 8, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Research by Latif Habib, Kinda Haddad, Alex Hopkins, Basile Simon and Christiaan Triebert

The US-led Coalition enters the third year of its war against so-called Islamic State having already conducted more than 14,300 airstrikes against the terror group – and with thousands of ground forces also now committed.

ISIL is under significant pressure on multiple fronts, having lost much of its territory over the past year. The cities of Ramadi and Fallujah are back in the hands of Iraq’s government, with Mosul encircled. The US’s Kurdish proxies have also captured a swathe of northern Syria from ISIL – and stand poised to seize the key town of Manbij after a brutal campaign.

But millions of civilians still under occupation face the greatest risk yet from Coalition actions, with the number of likely deaths almost doubling in the past year. In total, Airwars estimates that at least 1,568 civilians have so far died in strikes. The Coalition puts that figure at just 55 dead, despite an estimated 52,000 weapons so far being released.

War by the numbers

While the Coalition estimates it has killed more than 25,000 enemy fighters, just four of its own personnel have so far been declared lost in combat. Jordanian pilot Muath al Kasabeh was murdered by ISIL on January 3rd 2015, shortly after his plane came down in Syria. Three US fighters have also been killed in action – one each from the Army, Navy and Marines. Sixteen others have been wounded in ground actions, despite the US insisting it is not involved in a ground war aganist ISIL.

The war has intensified significantly. While the US and its allies conducted 5,977 airstrikes in the first year, attacks were up by 39% in year two – with 8,329 additional strikes declared to August 8th 2016. Washington continues to bear the heaviest burden, with 95% of all Coalition strikes in Syria and 68% of all actions in Iraq carried out by  the United States.

Among the allies the British remain the most active partner, with 905 airstrikes so far declared in Iraq and 53 in Syria. France (796 strikes), the Netherlands (an estimated 492 actions) and Australia (roughly 366 strikes) have also contributed strongly.

But others have now left the Coalition. Arab partners Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates had quit the air war by September 2015, after conducting about 135 Syria airstrikes between them. And Canada ended kinetic operations on February 15th 2016, after 251 airstrikes.

According to CENTCOM – which is leading the US military campaign – more than 26,000 enemy targets had been damaged or destroyed in the Coalition campaign to May 31st. More than 6,500 of these were buildings – illustrating the urban nature of the war.

To July 15th 2016, the war against ISIL had already cost the United States $8.4 billion – an average of $11.9 million per day. The UK – as the second most active member of the Coalition – has declared spending £280 million  ($365m) to March 2016.

A near-doubling of reported civilian deaths

The second year of the Coalition’s war saw a major jump in reported civilian deaths – a rise which cannot be explained alone by the 40% increase in the number of airstrikes. Likely civilian deaths from Coalition actions were up by 92 per cent on the first year.

While Coalition strikes present a significantly lower risk to civilians than those of Russia, the Assad regime or Iraqi forces,  Airwars still estimates that one civilian is being killed for roughly every nine Coalition airstrikes – a similar toll to that officially reported in Afghanistan, and in US covert strikes in places like Yemen and Pakistan.

In Iraq and Syria however, the US and its allies insist that on average one civilian dies for every 260 of their strikes – a highly implausible claim given the fierce tempo of the war and the routine targeting of heavily-populated areas.

In the first year of the war from August 2014, there were 193 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events tracked by Airwars across Iraq and Syria – with a claimed range of 1,130 to 1,561 fatalities. The US has confirmed 14 of these events, with 19 or more civilian deaths admitted. Airwars presently assesses another 80 of these events as having likely caused 496 to 692 additonal civilian deaths.

In the war’s second year the likely number of civilian deaths almost doubled – with 1,031 new fatalities thought likely. In total, 333 new alleged Coalition casusalty events were reported in the past 12 months, with a total claimed range of 2,332 to 3,177 deaths.

Only 36 of these 2015-2016 deaths have so far been confirmed by the US – and none by its Coalition allies. Among those slain was Dr Ziad Kalaf, one of four civilians now admitted killed by the US during a targeted strike in Mosul against an Australian ISIL recruiter in April this year.

Dr Ziad Kalaf, killed in a US targeted killing operation in Mosul on April 29th 2016

One reason for the sharp jump in the number of likely civilian deaths has been an easing of battlefield restrictions. In the early phases of the war, Coalition partners were under strict instructions to limit to zero wherever possible the number of civilians killed.

But now, the US and its allies are prepared to accept up to 10 civilian casualties in any action according to reports. During one strike on a bank in Mosul, the US had been prepared to accept up to 50 casualties in an effort to destroy millions of dollars of ISIL funds. One woman is now admitted to have died in that event, with five other civilians injured.

The recent siege of Manbij in Syria may be a portent of worse to come. In July 2016 alone, Airwars tracked 36 separate Coalition civilian casualty allegations in the vicinity – the highest number of reported of civilian deaths in two years of war. At least 190 civilians died in those Manbij actions, Airwars presently estimates.

“As the war enters its third year the Coalition will increasingly set its sights on the ISIL-occupied cities of Mosul and Ar Raqqa – where millions of civilians remain trapped,” says Kinda Haddad, head of the Airwars Syria team. “The US and its allies must prioritise the lives of local civilians if they wish to be seen as liberators. Unfortunately much commentary from the ground is now hostile. The single most prominent reason given is the Coalition’s apparent disregard for civilian life.”

▲ Sailors load a 2,000lb bomb onto an FA/18 Super Hornet aboard the USS Dwight D Eisenhower , July 31st 2016 (US Navy/ Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard) ARABIAN GULF (July 31, 2016) – Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike) transport an MK 84/BLU 117 2,000-pound general-purpose bomb. Ike and its Carrier Strike Group are deployed in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan T. Beard/Released)


July 28, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Research by Latif Habib and Kinda Haddad

CENTCOM has conceded 14 additional civilian deaths from US military actions in the war against so-called Islamic State, in both Iraq and Syria. The admission brings to 55 the official tally of civilian dead, from more than 10,700 declared US airstrikes.

The newly-admitted deaths relate to six events between July 2015 and late April 2016. Public reports suggest the toll from these incidents could be as high as 27 civilians killed – including eight children.

“We deeply regret the unintentional loss of life and injuries resulting from our airstrikes and express our sympathies to those affected“, CENTCOM noted in a statement issued to media.

Contrasting starkly with US claims of 55 deaths, Airwars estimates that at least 1,521 to 2,308 non-combatants have likely died in Coalition strikes across Iraq and Syria since August 2014. Iraq Body Count says up to 2,554 civilians have been killed by the US and its allies in Iraq alone. And the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that 594 civilians had died up to July 23rd in the Coalition’s 22-month Syria campaign.

None of the US’s 12 partners in the Coalition has so far declared any civilian casualties from their own actions – despite more than 3,200 additional airstrikes between them.

Targeted killing

Five of the newly declared US incidents took place during 2016 in Iraq. For February 15th, CENTCOM now says that “near Al Qaim, Iraq, during a strike on an ISIL staging area, it is assessed that three civilians were killed.” Reports from the time said up to nine non-combatants were killed in that attack.

#وكالة_أعماق 9 قتلى ودمار كبير في ممتلكات المدنيين جراء قصف عنيف لطيران التحالف الدولي منتصف ليلة أمس على مدينة #القائم غربي #الأنبار

— المكتب الإعلامي ( ج.م.ث) (@SYRIA_GID) February 16, 2016

A tweet from February 16th suggests nine deaths overnight in a Coalition strike on Al Qaim

The following day on February 16th, CENTCOM reports that “in Ar Rayhaniyah, Iraq near Mosul, during a strike on an ISIL vehicle, it is assessed that one person was injured along the side of the road.” No public reports are known for this event, suggesting that CENTCOM’s own post-strike assessment succesfully picked up the civilian casualty.

On April 5th the US carried out an airstrike on an ‘ISIL financial storage facility’ in Mosul which it now confirms killed three civilians. We know much more about this thanks to comments from a US commander shortly after the event.

General Peter Gersten, deputy chief of operations and intelligence for the Coalition, revealed on April 26th that US aircraft had detonated a Hellfire missile above the house as a ‘warning’ to a woman and her children known to be inside.

“We went as far as actually to put a Hellfire on top of the building and air burst it so it wouldn’t destroy the building, simply knock on the roof to ensure that she and the children were out of the building. And then we proceeded with our operations.”

But the tactic failed according to Gersten: “As much as we tried to do exactly what we wanted to do and minimize civilian casualties, post-weapons release, she actually ran back into the building. That’s a — we watched, very difficult for us to watch.”

On April 26, 2016 in Sharqat near Qayyarah, the US attacked an ISIL checkpoint. According to CENTCOM “it is [now] assessed that one civilian was killed when a motorcycle unexpectedly appeared in the target area after the US aircraft had already released its weapon.”

That attack on a checkpoint near the Jumeila bridge was reported at the time – though there was no mention of civilian casualties.

In the final Iraqi event on April 29th, the succesful US targeted killing of the Australian Neil Prakash, ‘an ISIL external operations facilitator’ also “struck three civilians on the road and one civilian located on an adjacent compound.”

One of the four civilians killed in the airstrike that day has been named by local sources as Dr Ziad Kalaf,  a university teacher.

Dr Ziad Kalaf, accidentally killed in a US targeted killing operation in Mosul on April 29th 2016


CENTCOM has also reassessed a Syrian incident near Idlib dating back to July 28th 2015, noting that “during a strike on a senior Khorasan Group advisor, it is assessed that three civilians were killed and one vehicle destroyed when their vehicle appeared in the target area after the Coalition aircraft released its weapon.”

Alongside the Coalition’s war against ISIL, the US is also conducting a unilateral campaign against elements of the Al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front – the so-called Khorasan Group. That July 28th strike was almost certainly carried out by US Specal Forces.

The US may be under-estimating the number of people it killed that day. The Syrian Network for Human Rights concluded in its own investigation that at least eight named civilians died at Kafr Hind – six of them children – after the attack ignited nearby gasoline containers.

Aftermath of a US targeted strike in Syria on July 28th 2015 which is now confirmed to have killed at least 3 civilians (via Shaam News)

‘Worst reported incident’

In related news the US has also announced a formal investigation into a confirmed July 19th Coalition airstrike at Tokhar, which public reports suggest killed at least 78 named civilians. Tokhar may be the single worst civilian fatality event in the Coalition’s two year air war.

Chief Coalition spokesman Colonel Chris Garver told Pentagon reporters on July 27th that a credibility assessment had been completed into Tokhar “and the result was that the information available was credible enough to warrant formal investigation, which we have initiated.”

Garver also disclosed that an additional event was being looked at: “The second allegation is from July 23rd of an alleged strike in the village of Al Nawaja, which is east of Manbij. That credibility assessment is still ongoing.” Between 10 and 22 civilians are reported to have died at al Nawaja in a ‘Coalition strike’, during a fierce ground battle between US proxies the Syrian Defence Force and so-called Islamic State.

The reported incidents at al Nawaja and Tokhar are just two of more than 50 alleged civilian casualty events tracked by Airwars in and around Manbij since an assault on the city began more than two months ago. CENTCOM officials are still refusing to disclose how many of these claimed incidents have so far been assessed for potential civilian casualties.

Airwars tracking shows that July is by far the worst single month for reported civilian deaths from Coalition strikes since the Syrian air campaign began in September 2014. Almost all of the alleged deaths reportedly occured in and around Manbij.

Reported civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in Syria have tripled in July, according to Airwars monitoring

▲ A US targeted strike on an Al Qaeda-linkled commander on July 28th 2015 is now admitted to have killed at least three civilians. Credible reports say as many as 10 actually died (Picture via Syrian Network for Human Rights)


July 19, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Research by Kinda Haddad

A major Coalition-backed campaign to liberate the ISIL-occupied northern Syrian town of Manbij and surrounding villages has led to the deaths of hundreds of civilians, according to local reports.

The Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) – a proxy US-trained force comprising mostly Kurdish fighters – is currently advancing on the town centre amid heavy streetfighting.

But at least 70,000 non-combatants remain trapped within Manbij – caught between US airstrikes, advancing SAC forces and ISIL snipers. Water and food is said to be running low following the two-month siege.

“There are corpses on the streets and under the rubble that people are not able to remove,” Free Manbij Media Centre told Airwars on July 19th. “The numbers of those killed is between 500 and 700 martyrs according to estimates, the majority of them a result of Coalition planes bombing.” The local Manbij Coordination Committee placed the overall number of civilian deaths lower, at 368.

Airwars’ own estimate – based on hundreds of reports from local journalists, media activists, rebel groups and casualty monitors – suggests at least 190 civilians may so far have died in Coalition strikes in and around Manbij since May 31st.

We're tracking the worst ever week of alleged Coalition civilian casualties in 2 years of war – almost all at Manbij

— Airwars (@airwars) July 18, 2016

Local monitors describe a desperate situation. The Manbij Agency for Documentation – a group trying to track civilians killed in the fighting – has given its own harrowing account of life under siege: “The smell of decomposing bodies fills the streets, as residents are unable to leave their homes for fear of snipers from both sides. Many of the civilians’ bodies are still stuck under the rubble of houses shelled by Coalition aircraft. Some of them are alive and others are dead.”

Airwars tracking indicates the situation is worsening. The period of July 11th-18th saw the greatest number of claimed Coalition civilian casualty events in two years of war against ISIL – with 14 of 15 alleged incidents taking place in or around Manbij.

In the latest reported event, at least 56 civilians from multiple families died in alleged Coalition airstrikes on the village of Tokhar in the early hours of July 19th. Victims were shown being buried in a mass grave. Though reporting remains confused, Tokhar may be the single largest alleged Coalition civilian casualty event since August 2014.

Victims of an alleged Coalition strike near Manbij July 19th are buried in a mass grave (via Manbij Mother of All Worlds)

450 airstrikes

Coalition attacks on Manbij began in earnest on May 21st, in support of a ground assault by the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC.) Since then more than 450 strikes have targeted the town and surrounding areas, hitting “Da’esh heavy weapons, vehicles, fortifications, VBIED facilities, armored vehicles, technical vehicles, bridges, and caches,” according to the Coalition.

The United States is responsible for almost every strike at Manbij. According to official data, between May 22nd and July 17th this year 637 US airstrikes were carried out in Syria – with just 13 by its Coalition partners.

The US-led Coalition initially focused on driving Islamic State fighters from nearby villages – a tactic “which is encouraging ISIL’s retreat into the city” according to a June 15th press release. By early July almost all strikes were hitting Manbij itself.

The Coalition claims civilians have been able to escape the siege thanks to evacuation corridors provided by advancing SAC forces. But monitors dispute this, insisting ISIL snipers try to kill any non-combatants attempting to leave Manbij.

Expect to see measured pace in the fight to liberate #Manbij. It will not be easy, and we are confident SDF will take city back from ISIL

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) July 15, 2016

Civilian deaths

Casualty claims have been mounting since the siege began, with 40 separate alleged Coalition civilian casualty events reported in and around Manbij to July 19th.

Airwars presently assesses 29 of these events as fair: that is, featuring two or more credible reports, with Coalition strikes confirmed in the near vicinity. At least 190 civilians appear to have died in these actions, including 39 or more children and 23 women. A further 134 or more civilians were reportedly injured.

A significant number of these slain civilians  – 164 so far – have been named by local monitors. One such case is Leen Samer Yusuf Waik, a young girl who died with her grandfather and two other named victims in a July 9th incident.

11-year old Leen Samer Yusuf Waik among 3 named victims reported killed in Coalition strikes on Manbij centre July 9

— Airwars (@airwars) July 11, 2016

The Coalition has been aware of civilian casualty allegations at Manbij for some weeks. In the first known siege-related incident on May 31st, at least 3 and as many as 15 civilians died when the Coalition allegedly struck the al Hawatma area of the town. Yet despite widespread media reports on the day, the Coalition claimed to be unaware of civilian casualty allegations when approached by the Independent.

Despite numerous credible allegations of non-combatants killed since then, the US-led Coalition has yet to admit a single civilian casualty from its siege of Manbij.

A CENTCOM statement provided to Airwars and other media on June 19th noted: “We are aware of reports alleging civilian casualties near Manbij, Syria, recently. As with any allegation we receive, we will review any information we have about the incident, including information provided by third parties, such as the proximity of the location to CJTF airstrikes, and any other relevant information presented. If the information supporting the allegation is determined to be credible, we will then determine the next appropriate step.”

▲ Smoke bellows from Manbij following alleged Coalition strikes on June 22nd (via Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)


July 1, 2016

Written by

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

Chris Woods set up the Bureau’s award-winning Drones Project in 2011, and is the author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars. He now runs Airwars, which monitors international airstrikes and civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria.

Targeted killings or assassinations beyond the battlefield remain a highly charged subject. Most controversial of all is the number of civilians killed in US covert and clandestine drone strikes since 2002.

The new White House data relates only to Obama’s first seven years in office – during which it says 473 covert and clandestine airstrikes and drone attacks were carried out in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.

The US claims that between 64 and 116 civilians died in these actions – around one non-combatant killed for every seven or so strikes. That official estimate suggests civilians are significantly more likely to die in a JSOC or CIA drone attack than in conventional US airstrikes. United Nations data for Afghanistan indicates that one civilian was killed for every 11 international airstrikes in 2014, for example.

But for Obama’s secret wars, the public record suggests a far worse reality. According to Bureau monitoring, between 2009 and 2015 an estimated 256 civilians have died in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. A further 124 civilians are likely to have been slain in Yemen, with less than 10 non-combatants estimated killed in Somalia strikes. Similar tallies are reported by the New America Foundation and the Long War Journal.

So why have civilians been at greater risk from these covert and clandestine US airstrikes? Part of the answer lies in who the US kills. Many of those pursued are high value targets – senior or middle ranking terrorist or militant group commanders. Bluntly put, the higher the value of the target – and the greater the threat they represent to you – the more the laws of war allow you to put civilians in harm’s way.

The CIA also frequently missed those same high-value targets. A 2014 study by legal charity Reprieve suggested that US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan had killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in failed attempts to kill 41 named targets.

It’s also clear the CIA has been using a very different rule book. In an effort to lower civilian deaths in Afghanistan, international airstrikes on buildings and urban locations were mostly banned from 2008. Yet in Pakistan, more than 60% of CIA strikes have targeted domestic buildings (or “militant compounds”) according to Bureau research.

When President Obama apologised for the accidental 2015 killing of US aid worker Warren Weinstein, he revealed that the US had kept the target building under surveillance for “hundreds of hours” – yet had never known there were civilians inside. Many of the women and children credibly reported killed by the CIA in Pakistan have died in similar circumstances – though few of their deaths have ever been conceded.

Then there have been the more shocking tactics employed by the CIA. There was the deliberate targeting of funerals and rescuers, again first revealed by the Bureau. And the widespread use of so-called signature strikes during the Obama years – the targeting of suspects based not on their known identities, but on their behavioural patterns.

In the most notorious such incident, at least 35 civilians died when the CIA targeted a tribal meeting in 2011 – an action which significantly damaged US-Pakistani relations. None of those deaths appear have been included in the White House’s casualty estimates. Missing too are the 41 civilians – including 22 children – slain in a JSOC cruise missile strike on Yemen in 2009. These two events alone indicate more civilian deaths than all of those now admitted across seven years.

The CIA has long played down the number of civilians killed in its drone strikes. It was the Bureau which first challenged John Brennan after he claimed there had been no civilian deaths from CIA strikes for 15 months. The public record showed otherwise. Even leaked CIA documents demonstrated Brennan’s economy with the truth.

US Special Forces have also long hidden the true effect of their actions. Leaked cables obtained by Wikileaks revealed that under Obama, Centcom conspired with Yemen’s then-president to cover up US involvement in the deaths of civilians. And four years later, JSOC’s bombing of a Yemen wedding convoy led (anonymous) CIA officials to criticise the elite unit – even as the Pentagon publicly denied any civilian deaths.

Today’s official White House estimates should be read in the context of these continued evasions and untruths. Though welcome as a general step towards improved transparency – and with new rules which may reduce the risk to civilians – they do little to reconcile the continuing gulf between public estimates and official claims.

Image via USAF


July 1, 2016

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.

The US government today claimed it has killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.

This is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualty range recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, court papers and the result of field investigations.

While the number of civilian casualties recorded by the Bureau is six times higher than the US Government’s figure, the assessments of the minimum total number of people killed were strikingly similar. The White House put this figure at 2,436, whilst the Bureau has recorded 2,753.

Since becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama has significantly extended the use of drones in the War on Terror. Operating outside declared battlefields, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, this air war has been largely fought in Pakistan and Yemen.

The White House’s announcement today is long-awaited. It comes three years after the White House first said it planned to publish casualty figures, and four months after President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the data would be released.

The figures released do not include civilians killed in drones strikes that happened under George W Bush, who instigated the use of counter-terrorism strikes outside declared war zones and in 58 strikes killed 174 reported civilians.

Graphic by Dean Vipond

Today’s announcement is intended to shed light on the US’s controversial targeted killing programme, in which it has used drones to run an arms-length war against al Qaeda and Islamic State.

The US Government also committed to continued transparency saying it will provide an annual summary of information about the number of strikes against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities as well as the range of combatants and non-combatants killed.

But the US has not released a year-by-year breakdown of strikes nor provided any detail on particularly controversial strikes which immediately sparked criticism from civil liberty groups.

Jamel Jaffer, Deputy Legal Director of the American Civil Liberties Union said: “While any disclosure of information about the government’s targeted-killing policies is welcome, the government should be releasing information about every strike—the date of the strike, the location, the numbers of casualties, and the civilian or combatant status of those casualties. Perhaps this kind of information should be released after a short delay, rather than immediately, but it should be released. The public has a right to know who the government is killing—and if the government doesn’t know who it’s killing, the public should know that.”

The gap between US figures and other estimates, including the Bureau’s data, also raised concerns.

Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at Reprieve said: “For three years now, President Obama has been promising to shed light on the CIA’s covert drone programme. Today, he had a golden opportunity to do just that. Instead, he chose to do the opposite. He published numbers that are hundreds lower than even the lowest estimates by independent organisations. The only thing those numbers tell us is that this Administration simply doesn’t know who it has killed. Back in 2011, it claimed to have killed “only 60” civilians. Does it really expect us to believe that it has killed only 4 more civilians since then, despite taking hundreds more strikes?

“The most glaring absence from this announcement are the names and faces of those civilians that have been killed.  Today’s announcement tells us nothing about 14 year old Faheem Qureshi, who was severely injured in Obama’s first drone strike. Reports suggest Obama knew he had killed civilians that day.”

The US government said in a statement: “First, although there are inherent limitations on determining the precise number of combatant and non-combatant deaths, particularly when operating in non-permissive environments, the US Government uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over years and that use information that is generally unavailable to non-government organsations.”

Bibi Mamana

Bibi Mamana was a grandmother and midwife living in the the tribal region of North Waziristan on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

On October 24 2012, she was preparing for the Muslim festival of Eid. She used to say that the joy of Eid was the excitement it brought to children. Her eight-year-old granddaughter Nabeela was reported to be in a field with her as she gathered vegetables when a drone killed Mamana.

“I saw the first two missiles coming through the air,” Nabeela later told The Times. “They were following each other with fire at the back. When they hit the ground, there was a loud noise. After that I don’t remember anything.” Nabeela was injured by flying shrapnel.

At the sound of the explosion, Mamana’s 18-year-old grandson Kaleem ran from the house to help. But a few minutes later the drones struck again, he told the BBC. He was knocked unconscious. His leg was badly broken and damaged by shrapnel, and needed surgery.

Atiq, one of Mamana’s sons, was in the mosque as Manama gathered vegetables. On hearing the blast and seeing the plume of smoke he rushed to the scene. When he arrived he could not see any sign of his mother.

Picture credit: BBC

“I started calling out for her but there was no reply,” Atiq told the Times. “Then I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards. It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected many different parts from the field and put a turban over her body.”

Atiq’s brother Rafiq told Al Jazeera English he received a letter after the strike from a Pakistani official that said the attack was a US drone strike and that Mamana was innocent. But nothing more came of it, he said. The following year Rafiq, a teacher, travelled to the US to speak to Congress about the strike.

“My job is to educate,” he said in an emotional testimony. “But how do I teach something like this? How do I explain what I myself do not understand?”

Evaluating the numbers

The administration has called its drone programme a precise, effective form of warfare that targets terrorists and rarely hits civilians.

With the release of the figures today President Obama said, “All armed conflict invites tragedy.  But by narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life.”

In June 2011 Obama’s then counter terrorism chief, now CIA director, John Brennan made a similar statement. He also declared drone strikes were “exceptionally precise and surgical” and had not killed a single civilian since August 2010. A Bureau investigation in July 2011 demonstrated this claim was untrue.

Most of the Bureau’s data sources are media reports by local and international news outlets, including Reuters, Associated Press and The New York Times.

The US Government says it has a much clearer view of post-strike situations than such reporting, suggesting this is the reason why there is such a gap between the numbers that have been recorded by the Bureau, and similar organisations, and those released today.

But the Bureau has also gathered essential information from its own field investigations.

The tribal areas have long been considered a difficult if not impossible area for journalists to access. However, occasionally reporters have been able to gain access to the site of the strikes to interview survivors, witnesses and relatives of people killed in drone strikes.

The Bureau conducted a field investigation through the end of 2011 into 2012, in partnership with The Sunday Times. Through extensive interviews with local villagers, the Bureau found 12 strikes killed 57 civilians.

The Associated Press also sent reporters into the Fata, reporting its findings in February 2012. It found 56 civilians and 138 militants were killed in 10 strikes.

Access to affected areas is a challenge in Yemen too. But in December 2009 a deputation of Yemeni parliamentarians sent to the scene of a strike discovered the burnt remnants of a camp, which had been set up by several families from one of Yemen’s poorest tribes.

A subsequent investigation by journalist Jeremy Scahill revealed a deception that hid US responsibility for the deaths of 41 civilians at the camp – half of them children, five of them pregnant women.

The reality on the ground flew in the face of the US governments understanding of events. A leaked US diplomatic record of a meeting in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, between General David Petraeus and the Yemeni president revealed the US government was ignorant of the civilian death toll.

Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber

Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a 40-year-old father of seven, was exactly the kind of man the US needed in Yemen. A widely respected cleric in rural Yemen, he delivered sermons in his village mosque denouncing al-Qaida.

Picture credit: Private

He gave just such a speech in August 2012 and earned the attention of the terrorist group. Three anonymous fighters arrived in his village two days later, after dark, calling for Jaber to come out and talk.

He went to meet them, taking his policeman cousin, Walid Abdullah bin Ali Jaber, with him for protection. The five men stood arguing in the night air when Hellfire missiles tore into them.

A “huge explosion” rocked the village, a witness said. Jaber’s father, Ahmad bin Salim Salih bin Ali Jaber, 77, arrived on the scene to find people “wrapping up body parts of people from the ground, from here and there, putting them in grave clothes like lamb.”

All the dead were al Qaeda fighters, unnamed Yemeni officials claimed. However Jaber’s family refused to allow him to be smeared as a terrorist.

For three years they fought in courts in America and Germany for recognition that he was an innocent civilian. In November 2013 they visited Washington and even managed to arrange a meeting in the White House to plead their case. In 2014 the family said it was offered a bag containing $100,000 by a Yemen national security official. The official said it was a US strike and it had been a mistake.

By late 2015 the family offered to drop their lawsuits against the US government if the administration would apologise. The Department of Justice refused. In February 2016 the court dismissed the family’s suit but they have not stopped fighting: in April they announced they would appeal.

Falling numbers of civilian casualties

The White House stressed that it was concerned to protect civilians and that best practices were in place to help reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties.

The Bureau’s data does show a significant decline in the reports of civilian casualties in recent years.

In Pakistan, where the largest number of strikes have occurred, there have been only three reported civilian casualties since the end of 2012. Two of these casualties – Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto – were Western hostages held by al Qaeda. The US, unaware they were targeting the American and Italian’s captors, flattened the house they were being held in.

The accidental killing of a US citizen spurred Obama to apologise for the strike – the first and only time he had publicly discussed a specific CIA drone strike in Pakistan. With the apology came an offer of a “condolence payment to both the families,” National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told the Bureau. However, they have yet to receive any compensation from the US government for their loss.

Families who have lost relatives in Pakistan  have not reported been compensated for their loss. In Yemen, money has been given to families for their loss but it is not clear whether it actually comes from the US. The money is disbursed by Yemeni government intermediaries, nominally from the Yemeni government.

Tariq Khan

Tariq Khan was a 16-year-old from North Waziristan who attended a high-profile anti-drone rally in Islamabad in October 2011. Only days later, he and his cousin were killed in a drone strike.

Tariq was the youngest of seven children. He was described by relatives as a quiet teenager who was good with computers. His uncle Noor Kalam said: “He was just a normal boy who loved football.”

On 27 October, Tariq made the eight-hour drive to Islamabad for a meeting convened by Waziri elders to discuss how to end civilian deaths in drone strikes. The Pakistani politician Imran Khan, his former wife Jemima, members of the legal campaign group Reprieve and several western journalists also attended the meeting.

Neil Williams from Reprieve said Tariq seemed very introverted at the meeting. He asked the boy if he had ever seen a drone. Tariq replied he saw 10 or 15 every day. He said they prevented him from sleeping. “He looked absolutely terrified,” Williams said.

After a four-hour debate, the audience joined around 2,000 people at a protest rally outside the Pakistani parliament. After the rally, the tribesmen made the long journey home. The day after he got back, Tariq and his cousin Wahid went to pick up his newly married aunt, according a Bureau reporter who met Tariq at the Islamabad meeting. When they were 200 yards from the house two missiles slammed into their car. The blast killed Tariq and Wahid instantly.

Some reports suggested Wahid was 12 years old.

An anonymous US official acknowledged the CIA had launched the strike but denied they were children. The occupants of that car were militants, he said.


Most of the dead from CIA strikes in Pakistan are unnamed Pakistanis and Afghans, according to Naming the Dead – a research project by the Bureau. Over three years the Bureau has painstakingly gathered names of the dead from US drone strikes in Pakistan. The project has recorded just 732 names of people killed since 2004. The project has named 213 civilians killed under Obama.

The fact that so many people are unnamed adds to the confusion about who has been killed.

A controversial US tactic, signature strikes, demonstrates how identities of the dead, and their status as a combatant or non-combatant, eludes the US. These strikes target people based on so-called pattern of life analysis, built from surveillance and intelligence but not the actual identity of a person.

And the CIA’s own records leaked to the news agency McClatchy show the US is sometimes not only ignorant of the identities of people it has killed, but also of the armed groups they belong to. They are merely listed as “other militants” and “foreign fighters” in the leaked records.

Former Deputy US Secretary of State, Richard Armitage outlined his unease with such internal reporting in an interview with Chris Woods for his book Sudden Justice. “Mr Obama was popping up with these drones left, right and down the middle, and I would read these accounts, ’12 insurgents killed.’ ’15!’ You don’t know that. You don’t know that. They could be insurgents, they could be cooks.”

Image of funeral of Akram Shah and at least four other civilians in June 2011 via AFP/Getty Images


April 22, 2016

Written by

Airwars Staff

In a doubling of previous estimates of civilians killed in its air war against so-called Islamic State, the US has confirmed that 20 more non-combatants are believed to have died and 11 injured in nine separate events between September 2015 and February 2016.

Among those likely killed were two Iraqi families. On October 5th, US aircraft targeted an ‘ISIL mortar position’ in the village of Atshanah near Huwaijah. CENTCOM now admits that “eight civilians were killed.”

According to an earlier United Nations report, all of the dead came from one family, that of a village elder: “On 5 October, an airstrike mistakenly targeted a civilian house in Atshana village, east of Hawija and southwest of Kirkuk, that belonged to the Mukhtar of the village, killing eight persons from the same family, including several women and children and the Mukhtar himself.”

And on December 12th 2015 in Ramadi, five members of the Kazem family including three children died when US aircraft struck an ‘ISIL checkpoint.’ CENTCOM now says that “five civilians were killed after they unexpectedly moved into the target location after weapons were already in flight.”

Local media have named the dead as Duraid Ibrahim Kazem, his wife Nebras Abdul Alkarim, and three of their children: Mustafa, Mohammed and Farah. Graphic images of their bodies were posted at the time.

New admissions

Nine new civilian casualty events have been reported in total – bringing to 25 the number of cases so far admitted. A total of 41 civilian deaths and 28 injuries have now been conceded by the US.

That compares with 406 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events tracked by Airwars since strikes began in August 2014. Of these, Airwars presently assesses a further 167 events as having been fairly reported, with a likely additional civilian toll of 1,064 to 1,638 civilians killed.

All of the newly-admitted events were carried out by US aircraft, most the result of civilians entering the ‘kill box’ after weapon release. No other Coalition ally – or Russia – has so far conceded killing or injuring any civilians, despite thousands of airstrikes between them.

“While we appreciate the latest US admission of civilian casualties from its 20-month war against so-called Islamic State, we remain concerned that the Coalition is significantly under-reporting non-combatant deaths,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “Only 41 of 1,100 or more likely civilian deaths have so far been conceded – and all by the United States. Other allies in the Coalition – as well as Russia – now need to be open about the casualties they too have inflicted.”

Six of the newly admitted events took place in Iraq and three in Syria. Only a third of the incidents were publicly reported at the time, suggesting both that internal CENTCOM monitoring is capable of detecting likely civilian casualties – but also that public accounts of civilian deaths may represent a significant underreporting.

The US has also confirmed the first civilian death in Mosul – a city which has seen more Coalition airstrikes and alleged civilian fatalities than anywhere else in Iraq or Syria. On January 11th CENTCOM now admits, at least one civilian died and five or more were injured during a US air raid on a bank in the city. At the time the US let it be known it had been prepared to inflict up to 50 civilian casualties in the attack.

Latest confirmed civilian casualties from US strikes

Sept 10th 2015 Kubaysah, Iraq 2 killed and 4 injured when vehicle enters killbox
Oct 5th 2015 Atshanah, Iraq Family of 8 or 9 killed when house struck
Nov 4th 2015 Huwaijah, Iraq 2 nearby civilians injured when ‘ISIL vehicle’ hit
Nov 12th 2015 Ramadi, Iraq 1 civilian killed in strike on ‘ISIL fighters’
Dec 10th 2015 Raqqa, Syria 1 civilian killed in targeted strike on HVT
Dec 12th 2015 Ramadi, Iraq Family of 5 includng 3 children killed
Dec 24th 2015 Tishreen, Syria 1 civilian killed when motorbike enters killbox
Jan 11th 2016 Mosul, Iraq 1 civilian killed and 5 injured in strike on ‘ISIL bank’
Feb 2nd 2016 Al Ghazili, Syria 1 civilian killed in strike on ‘ISIL vehicle’
▲ Family of five killed in a reported Coalition strike December 10 (via Ramadi News)


March 9, 2016

Written by

Chris Woods

Additional research by Kinda Haddad, Latif Habib, Alex Hopkins and Basile Simon

Latest assessments suggest more than 1,000 civilians may now have died in 18 months of Coalition airstrikes across Iraq and Syria. The estimate is fifty times greater than the number of civilian deaths so far admitted by the US-led alliance.

Airwars researchers have so far identified 352 reported civilian casualty events, in which Coalition aircraft allegedly killed between 2,232 and 2,961 non-combatants in the war against so-called Islamic State.

Based on credible public reports and confirmed Coalition strikes in the vicinity, some 166 of these incidents are currently assessed as having likely led to civilian deaths – with a reported range of 1,004 to 1,419 killed.

The US has so far confirmed just sixteen of these events, which according to the Pentagon likely killed 21 civilians (Airwars places the toll slightly higher at 34 fatalities.)

None of the US’s eleven allies has admitted causing any civilian deaths, despite more than 10,800 Coalition airstrikes and 39,715 bombs and missiles dropped. Officials claim more than 25,000 enemy fighters have been slain.

Syria: Losing the war of ideas The first alleged civilian deaths from Coalition strikes were reported on August 16th 2014 – just one week into the 18-month air campaign. Since then, an average of four events a week have been claimed across Iraq and Syria – though few are reported by international media.

Recent weeks have seen a worrying rise in reported fatalities, which may be linked to less restrictive rules of engagement.

There were 22 alleged Coalition civilian casualty events in February 2016 for example, which between them are claimed to have killed at least 144 civilians. Nine of those incidents were clustered around the city of al Shadadi in Syria, recently captured by Kurdish forces with direct air support from the Coalition. A CENTCOM spokesman told Airwars only two of these reported incidents are under investigation.

In total, between 504 and 697 civilians are lkely to have been killed in Coalition strikes across Syria since September 23rd 2014. While Russia is likely to have killed four times that number in just five months, neither campaign has admitted to killing a single civilian in the country since Moscow began its own air war.

Kinda Haddad leads the Airwars team assessing Russian and Coalition airstrikes in Syria. She says she is troubled by the widening gulf between credible field reports of civilian deaths, and public military estimates:

Much like the war in Syria, the war against ISIS will not be won on the battlefields.  It is a generational war of ideas, and as long as we give Middle Eastern lives less value than our own, we will keep on feeding the hatred and suspicion that nihilistic groups like ISIS capitalise on to recruit the young and vulnerable in all our societies.

Iraq: ‘I feel like a helpless witness’ Iraqis also report a significant number of civilian deaths from international airstrikes – though most Coalition partners deny any responsibility.

The UK, Denmark, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Australia and Jordan all insist they have killed no civilians – despite more than 2,300 airstrikes in Iraq between them. And the Pentagon admits to killing just eight civilians in Iraq, from 4,917 declared US airstrikes in the country since August 2014.

Estimated strikes by non-US partners in Iraq, Sept 2014-March 2016

Once again the public record suggests a different reality, with at least 500 civilians credibly reported killed in 69 separate events in which Coalition strikes are confirmed nearby.

In the latest alleged incidents,  21 civilian victims have been named by local sources (including 13 children) after a March 5th Coalition strike on a Daesh weapons facility in Mosul. The extended family was said to be living in outbuildings in the derelict factory complex when it was targeted.

Two days later – again in Mosul – a family of six was reported killed in an alleged Coalition strike, with a source complaining to Yaqen News that “indiscriminate bombardment by Coalition aircraft operations has increased dramatically recently, and led to the deaths of many civilians.”^tfw

Latif Habib helps Airwars assess claims of civilian deaths in Iraq from international airstrikes. “I feel I’m a helpless witness to 1,000 innocent victims killed by Coalition airstrikes in Iraq and Syria during the last 18 months,” he said this week from Baghdad.

▲ An image shows burning supply trucks following a Feb 26 strike which also killed five civilians (via NRN News)