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July 5, 2018

Written by

Koen Kluessien

Despite concerns raised by MPs, the Netherlands Defence Minister confirmed during a recent parliamentary debate that the government still has no plans to disclose where or when in Iraq or Syria its airstrikes might have harmed civilians.

While the renewed Dutch air campaign against so-called Islamic State has seen improved transparency, all requests for information on the mission have so far been refused. On April 18th 2018, the Supreme Court of the Netherlands turned down a Freedom of Information request from RTL News for Internal Memoranda, which contained the locations and dates of Dutch strikes in Iraq. According to the Court, publishing this information could present a “danger to the security of the state” and might, in an ongoing mission, “harm the relations with other states and international organizations”.

This refusal to publish information on Dutch airstrikes was reiterated by Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld during a June 27th debate in the Netherlands Parliament. Political interest has grown in civilian harm issues after The Netherlands officially conceded for the first time in April that its aircraft had caused civilian casualties in up to three incidents in Iraq. 

The Defence Ministry has however refused to say where or when these events took place – or how many civilians were harmed. On June 27th, the issue was discussed in a general debate on current Dutch military missions. Despite the efforts of several MPs to push for more details of civilian harm events, the Ministry of Defence stuck to its initial decision not to disclose further information.

21 written questions on civilian harm

Prior to the debate, elected representatives posed 72 written questions on the general progress the Dutch anti-ISIS mission has made over the past year. Of these, 21 were questions specifically focused on civilian harm issues, and the lack of public transparency and accountability for Dutch strikes. Some of those questions drew on a recent parliamentary briefing provided by Airwars to MPs. 

Specifically, MPs requested that Minister of Defence Ank Bijleveld make available more information about investigated incidents in which civilian casualties may have occurred, so that “independent investigation is possible”. One question specifically asked whether or not the Defence Ministry could rule out responsibility for a major civilian harm incident at Hawija in 2015 – a civilian casualty event which has already attracted private speculation among Dutch journalists as to whether Netherlands aircraft might have been responsible.

Although the Cabinet has stated that it “attaches importance to communicating as openly as possible,” it was it said not prepared to respond to requests for more information on any of the four cases assessed by the Public Prosecution Service, citing national and operational security.

Prepared for this often-repeated argument, MPs requested further explanations as to how more transparency about civilian casualties in Dutch operations might endanger Dutch troops or civilians domestically, as the government has claimed. Without going into further detail, the Defence Minister responded that the guiding principle of releasing information would always be “the safety of the individual pilot and the unit, but also the safety of their home front and of Dutch society and the Coalition as a whole.”

Following up on this lack of transparency – the worst among all 14 Coalition allies – Socialist Party MP Sadet Karabulut noted during the debate that “if that were the case, the United Kingdom and Australia would also not publish the locations. This information is made public because it is also in the interest of our military.” The Minister in turn answered that “Each country of the Coalition makes its own decisions.”

“That’s just how we do it”

Salima Belhaj, MP for the social-liberal D66 which is a part of the governing coalition, reminded the minister of her own party’s successful cross-party motion which calls for more detailed reporting on Dutch weapon deployments. “Wouldn’t you find it interesting if the Cabinet would publish the locations and dates?” she asked the Minister. Karabulut added that her party wholeheartedly supported this request for more transparency, stating that “SP and D66 have throughout the years always jointly pushed for this.” 

“We cannot report more than we do at the moment”, Minister Bijleveld responded. “You stated that our weekly updates on Wednesday are a step in the right direction. They are. But we will not do more than that because in the end the safety of the state always stands at first place.”

Karabulut in turn stressed that there is in fact a direct strategic incentive for the disclosure of airstrike data. “Because specific information on three incidents is not made public, the Netherlands can possibly be connected to hundreds of possible civilian casualty incidents.”

When Karabulut asked if the Minister did not want to rule out possible responsibility for these incidents, she replied that the Public Prosecution Service had concluded that there was no question of criminal offences in the four assessed Dutch strikes. “Because that is what it really is about”, she stated. “That is the method we use in the Netherlands and it is different from other countries, but that’s just how we do it”.

However, according to Airwars director Chris Woods, such a narrow legalistic approach to civilian harm is insufficient: “With most reported battlefield casualties in the Coalition’s war against ISIS likely occurring within the framework of International Humanitarian Law (IHL), we urge the Defence Ministry to tackle the broader issue of mitigating civilian harm from all actions. That means properly understanding where and when casualties occur – including those strikes which do not breach IHL.”

▲ Library image: Dutch F-16 takes off (via Netherlands Defence Ministry).


June 29, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition against so-called Islamic State has quietly admitted to killing at least 40 civilians in a March 2017 strike near Raqqa, finally acknowledging what a UN inquiry and human rights groups have long said was among the bloodiest incidents of the four year bombing campaign.

The overnight raid on March 20th-21st 2017 targeted a school sheltering displaced civilians in the town of al Mansoura. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) field investigation published in September 2017 said that ISIS members and their families were also present in the building, though were separate from large numbers of displaced people who had sought safety inside.

After interviewing locals, HRW researchers were able to name 40 civilians who died in the raid, a number it stressed was a minimum, and doubtless far below the true toll. Others have placed the civilian toll that night at 150 or more deaths. 

The Coalition directly cited Human Rights Watch in its admission, included in a monthly civilian casualty review released June 28th. The report stated that the incident was “reopened after the receipt of new evidence from Human Rights Watch.” The Coalition then determined that “During a strike on Daesh militant multifunctional center allegedly caused civilian casualties. Forty civilians were unintentionally killed.”

The admitted number of 40 fatalities appeared to be based on the Human Rights Watch findings, though it was unclear what additional steps the Coalition had taken which had led them to reverse repeated denials issued over the previous 16 months. The al Mansoura raid now represents the second largest death toll admitted to by the Coalition, after an attack days earlier in March 2017 in Mosul which killed over 100 civilians. 

“The updated assessment of the Mansoura allegation was based largely on a video report from Human Rights Watch,” a senior Coalition official told Airwars. “HRW visited the site and interviewed individuals present during the strike and after. Their accounts included specific details regarding the strike more likely to be known by somebody who had been present. Compelling, detailed, and accurate firsthand accounts tend to weigh heavily in favor of a finding of ‘credible.'”

“It’s positive that they are acknowledging this now, but it’s an incomplete step,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “We are not getting more clarity about how they are doing these investigations.”

Human Rights Watch investigation into al Mansoura

UN Commission: 150 civilians killed in attack

From the start, the Coalition had strongly pushed back against reports of civilian harm at the Al Badiya school building. A week after the attack – and before any official assessment or investigation had concluded – the then Coalition commander Lt. Gen Stephen J. Townsend told reporters there was no reason to believe civilians had perished.

“We had multiple corroborating intelligence sources from various types of intelligence that told us the enemy was using that school,” Townsend said on March 28th, 2017. “And we observed it. And we saw what we expected to see. We struck it.”

“Afterwards, we got an allegation that it wasn’t ISIS fighters in there… it was instead refugees of some sort in the school,” Townsend explained to reporters. “Yet, not seeing any corroborating evidence of that. In fact, everything we’ve seen since then suggests that it was the 30 or so ISIS fighters we expected to be there.”

Townsend would later take aim at Airwars, claiming that reports of civilian casualties due to Coalition strikes were “vastly inflated.” The al Mansoura allegation, like a growing number related to the assault on Raqqa, was later officially determined to be ‘non-credible’ by the Coalition’s civilian casualty investigative unit.

In March 2018, the UN’s Commission of Inquiry for Syria released  its own findings concerning the incident, stating that 150 civilians were in fact killed in the attack. Unlike Human Rights Watch, the Commission was unable to visit the site (it is banned from the country by the Assad government), but instead conducted a number of remote interviews from outside Syria. The Commission reported that Coalition personnel should have been aware of the large internally displaced person (IDP) presence at the site.

An Airwars survey of local reporting in the lead up to the attack – provided shortly afterwards to the Coalition – had also turned up several reports indicating a significant IDP presence in the vicinity of al Mansoura. After the Commission released its findings, the Coalition for the first time showed a willingness to re-open the case, telling Airwars it would do so “if credible or compelling additional information can be obtained.”

The al Mansoura strike proved further controversial due to the discovery of the involvement of German reconnaissance aircraft. A number of Coalition members, while not carrying out strikes on their own, nevertheless provide intelligence and logistical capabilities to assist  bombings by other nations. Whatever pre-strike surveillance the Coalition conducted at al Mansoura proved insufficient to protect civilians at the site, the alliance’s admission of 40 deaths now shows.

“It is not enough to just say we killed some civilians. No one is saying it was intentional, but that is not the point of conducting the investigation,” said HRW’s Nadim Houry. “Where did things go wrong? What steps have they taken to ensure this doesn’t happen in the future?”

Casualty reports for the al Mansoura event monitored by Airwars varied widely, from several dozen deaths to claims of as many as 400 people killed. Nadim Houry says that 40 fatalities, including 16 children, was HRW’s baseline after visiting the site twice. “40 are the ones that we were actually able to identify, but the actual number is much higher,” he said.

Human Rights Watch also investigated a nearby incident that occurred less than 48 hours later, when at least 44 civilians including 14 children were allegedly killed after bombs hit a market in Tabqa, west of Raqqa city. That March 22nd 2017 incident remains unconfirmed by the Coalition.

Concerns at Raqqa

In a further concession to international NGOs, the Coalition also acknowledges in its latest report the findings of a recent Amnesty International field investigation into civilian harm at Raqqa.

The Amnesty field study, War of Annihilation, looked at four families devastated by the recent fighting for Raqqa. “Between them, they lost 90 relatives and neighbours – 39 from a single family – almost all of them killed by Coalition air strikes,” Amnesty reported.

The Coalition initially greeted the report with hostility. However, it has now opened assessments into five cases based on Amnesty’s findings, while rejecting a sixth. “The Coalition takes these and all allegations seriously, and this month’s civilian casualty report reflects the current status of six cases pertaining to Amnesty’s recent report,” the US-led alliance now notes.

Despite @amnesty’s allegations on @CJTFOIR conduct, they never discussed the article w/us & didn’t thoroughly research things we said. They failed to check the public record & get facts straight. We are open to criticism, but they didn’t make the effort to understand what we do

— OIR Spokesman (@OIRSpox) June 5, 2018

The Coalition’s initial response to Amnesty’s field study was hostile

The fight to capture Raqqa from ISIS did not officially begin until June 6th 2017. Overall, more than 2,000 non combatants were credibly reported killed by all parties to that battle – with mass graves still being discovered. 

Airwars estimates that at least 1,400 civilians perished in Coalition air and artillery strikes before the city’s capture in mid-October. More than 21,000 munitions were fired on Raqqa in just five months – many times more than were released across all of Afghanistan by international forces for all of 2017. 

Despite this ferocious assault, the Coalition has admitted to very few deaths in Raqqa – even as its civilian casualty unit churns through and discards allegations. Only 26 fatalities have so far been conceded.

In the same monthly report that saw the al Mansoura strike acknowledged, the Coalition classed more than 120 civilian harm allegations relating to the battle of Raqqa as ‘non-credible.’ In the last two months alone, the Coalition has evaluated almost 200 civilian harm events from the battle and rated them all in this way.

Overall, the Coalition has only admitted to 4% of more than 450 locally reported civilian casualty events for the battle of Raqqa. Airwars instead rates more than 70 per cent of those cases as Fair – that is, with two or more credible local reports, and Coalition strikes confirmed in the near vicinity. 

“Since March 2018, the Coalition has not assessed a single incident of civilian harm in the Battle of Raqqa as Credible. In other words, they have dismissed all the reports we and others have submitted to them, the majority of which we had significant confidence in,” said Sophie Dyer of the Airwars advocacy team. “This disparity between the local reports we have gathered, and the Coalition’s own assessments – which are heavily reliant on post strike video analysis and observable harm – is greatly troubling.”

Asked why so few casualty claims for Raqqa are being assessed as Credible, a senior Coalition official provided Airwars with the following statement: “A number of factors go into the assessment of an allegation: the quality of the information and detail provided in the allegation, the nature of the strike and the evidence available, for example. Each allegation is assessed with fresh eyes based on the available evidence without regard to previous assessments and without any credibility percentages in mind.

“If any allegation or any grouping of allegations is assessed as ‘non-credible,’ it is because each individual allegation either didn’t correlate to any Coalition strikes, didn’t contain sufficient information to make an assessment, or that an assessment based on all reasonably available information did not corroborate the allegation.”


June 20, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

No accountability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterns of civilian harm

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

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

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

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

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

#بنغازي |قصف سلاح الجو الليبي قبل قليل لاهداف تابعه لتنظيم الدوله #داعش بمنطقة شارع الشريف

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

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

Multiple actors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional state actors

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

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

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

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مصر تعلن تنفيذ 10 ضربات جوية على الحدود مع ليبيا

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

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

Libya Today TV showing footage of Egyptian strikes near the border

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alnabaa shows the aftermath of the airstrike on February 7th

Troubling targets

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

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

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

Geplaatst door ‎عمر الورفلي‎ op Zondag 24 mei 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


June 20, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

Airwars has obtained fresh details regarding four confirmed US airstrikes in Libya in recent months – actions which the US military command AFRICOM had originally chosen not to declare.

The four airstrikes – three in late 2017 and one in January of this year – were first admitted in March by the US following queries from the New York Times. Up to that point, AFRICOM had only publicly reported half of eight US airstrikes in Libya since Donald Trump had taken office in January 2017.

Until now, AFRICOM has not stated where the four attacks took place. By matching the approximate public locations given by AFRICOM with local Libyan reports of airstrikes in the vicinity on matching dates, Airwars has been able to build up a far more detailed picture of one of the strikes and its intended targets. No civilian harm was reported in the vicinity on the dates of any of the attacks. And only one of the events had previously been reported beyond Libya at the time as a possible US action.

The new information came to light as part of a joint research project by Airwars and New America, tracking reported civilian harm from domestic and foreign airstrikes in Libya from 2012 to the present day. That project was launched in Washington DC on June 20th.

AFRICOM declaration on the four strikes

September 29th 2017 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike in Libya killing a small number of ISIS militants on Friday, Sept. 29. The strike occurred approximately 100 miles southwest of Sirte.’
October 9th 2017 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike in Libya killing a small number of ISIS militants on Monday, Oct. 9. The strike occurred approximately 250 miles south of Sirte.’
October 18th 2017 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike in Libya killing a small number of ISIS militants on Wednesday, Oct. 18. The strike occurred in the Wasdi al Shatii district of Libya.’
January 23rd 2018 ‘In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike on Friday, Jan. 23 against ISIS near Fuqaha in central Libya, destroying two vehicles.’

Of the four incidents, only the January 23rd 2018 airstrike had been reported within the US as a possible American action at the time, by both CNN and Fox News. As Fox’s Lucas Tomlinson had noted, “US drone strike kills ISIS fighters traveling in two vehicles in central Libya Tuesday seven hours south of Sirte where US launched nearly 500 airstrikes in late 2016.”

According to fresh details released by AFRICOM, that action took place “near Fuqaha in central Libya, destroying two vehicles.” No local reports blamed the United States for the attack at the time – indicating that both CNN and Fox News had been briefed by US officials.

The Airwars Libya team has also been checking local media and social media sources for information on the other three recently declared US actions.

Locals placed the site of the September 29th 2017 strike at Wadi al-Hosan. According to AFRICOM, its actions took place 100 miles south west of the city of Sirte, “killing a small number of ISIS militants.”

The TV channel Akhbar Alaan accompanied pro-American Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous (GNA) fighters to the location of the airstrike and filmed the impact. Destroyed vehicles and dead bodies can be spotted in the video – but there was no mention of civilian casualties. Libya Observer also posted graphic images.

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Al-Bonyan Al-Marsoos forces find bodies of dead #ISIS militants in southeast of #Sirte killed by U.S. airstrikes. Photos: Abdul-Latif Shinbira

Geplaatst door The Libya Observer op Maandag 2 oktober 2017

For the incident on October 9th 2017, 250 miles south of Sirte, no local source could be found. According to AFRICOM the precision strike again killed “a small number of ISIS militants.”

The October 18th confirmed US strike also escaped the attention of both local and international media. This can most likely be explained by the fact that the reported target area of Wadi al Shatii is located in a remote desert area in Western Libya, close to the sparsely populated Algerian border region.

Information withheld

Among the multiple domestic and international belligerents known to have conducted recent airstrikes in Libya, AFRICOM has consistently been the most transparent. More than 500 airstrikes have been publicly declared in recent years – most during the 2016 battle for Sirte.

Even so, a number of US strikes have been kept secret – publicly revealed sometimes months later only after prompting by journalists.

Airwars assessed both those recent Libya strikes directly admitted by the US, and those which it only later declared on request – and found no discernible geographical or targeting patterns. Asked why AFRICOM withheld some strike details, Major Karl Wiest told Airwars that “When we limit our acknowledgement to responses to query, it is because of a realistic operational security concern, a significant force protection matter, or potential diplomatic sensitivities.”

Local reporting can often reveal significant additional details about US airstrikes in Libya – many of which closely resemble the drone targeted killings conducted in other US covert and clandestine theatres including Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. Mid to high ranking ISIS and Al Qaeda commanders are frequent targets, with precision strikes often aimed at moving vehicles.

On March 24th 2018, a US precision strike reportedly killed Musa Abu Dawud, a high-ranking Al Qaeda member, as well as five other jihadists near Ubari. Local sources produced an abundance of material, including images of destroyed cars and two dead bodies whose heads had been removed – possibly to deter identification.

#Libya – 5 militants were probably killed in a US airstrike on a house in al-Fursan neighborhood northeast of Ubari town, 120 km west of Sebha. According to witnesses, 3 bodies were taken by militants & carried with them in a car type Hyundai "Vernon" (1/2)

— Arnaud Delalande (@Arn_Del) March 24, 2018

In another recent strike on June 6th, the US said it had targeted four ISIS members near Bani Walid. Again, plenty of local sources picked up on the event. This time however, many reported that civilians were among the dead. While there was consensus that one of those killed – Abdul-Ati Eshtewi – was an ISIS commander, most local reports also insisted that his three companions in the vehicle (Matouq Saad Milad Yaga, Mohammed Wanis Abusta and Selim Mohammed Al-Drouei) were all non-combatants.

AFRICOM nevertheless insists that no civilians have been harmed in any of its recent actions – with Major Karl Wiest telling Airwars that its Libya strikes “were conducted at remote desert locations against clearly identified and known ISIS Targets.”

Fresh revelations about airstrikes show that Libya remains an important security concern for the United States – particularly given that ISIS fighters returning from Syria and Iraq might try to regroup there. Al Qaeda’s regional branch has also re-emerged as a challenge, with two recent AFRICOM strikes aimed at its personnel.

With two competing governments, various active militias, and current fighting in Derna and the south, there was little surprise when President Trump renewed an emergency US protocol for Libya in February – the eighth successive year since America spearheaded the 2011 NATO intervention against former leader Muamar Ghadafi. How many more years the US will remain embroiled in Libyan affairs remains less clear.

▲ The remains of a suspected ISIS fighter following a clandestine US airstrike, September 2017 (via Libya Observer)


June 20, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

As part of our new Libya monitoring project, Airwars and New America reached out to AFRICOM, the US military command for Africa, highlighting all known alleged civilian casualty events in which US aircraft had been implicated. We also included a list of all reported airstrikes by unknown belligerents between 2012 and 2018, and asked whether US forces had participated in any of those events.

AFRICOM’s full response from spokesman Major Karl Wiest is published below – lightly edited to remove personal details.

AFRICOM response to Airwars

“Thank you for contacting U.S. Africa Command and for allowing our team to assess the data you provided.

Before responding to the questions you posed, I would like to be clear that U.S. Africa Command has many processes in place to ensure the safety and protection of the local population remains a top priority. These procedures, combined with precision strike capabilities, safeguard civilians and infrastructure in areas of operation. The protection of civilians is fundamentally consistent with the effective, efficient, and decisive use of force in pursuit of U.S. national interests. As a matter of policy, U.S. forces therefore routinely conduct operations under policy standards that are more protective than the requirements of the law of war that relate to the protection of civilians. U.S. forces also protect civilians because it is the moral and ethical thing to do. Although civilian casualties are a tragic and unavoidable part of war, no force in history has been more committed to limiting harm to civilians than the U.S. military.

As for your questions, since 2012 U.S. Africa Command has conducted post-strike assessments of all U.S. Military actions. From the Fall of 2016, the command has assessed two (2) recorded CIVCAS allegations related to operations in Libya. After thorough investigations, both claims were deemed not credible. In fact, the evidence gathered in one of the investigations strongly suggested that our adversaries in the region were simply lying about alleged civilian casualties in order to bolster their public perception. Evidence found at the time of the respective investigation to support this finding included our adversaries publishing photographs from another area of responsibility while claiming they were new CIVCAS incidents in Libya.*

Also, with regards to the specific incidents you highlighted and asked our team to review, they are not assessed as credible with the information currently available.

Lastly, U.S. Africa Command does not maintain a list of Host Nation or other Nations’ strikes, nor do we track the military engagements of host nations. As such, we are unable to accurately assess the associated credibility of the unknown belligerent incidents on the spreadsheet you provided.”

In addition, in response to local reports that three civilians were killed along with an ISIS commander in a confirmed US strike on June 6th 2018, AFRICOM issued the following statement on June 20th:

“In coordination with the Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA), U.S. forces conducted a precision airstrike near Bani Walid, Libya, on June 6, killing four (4) ISIS-Libya militants, as previously released. Following reports alleging civilian casualties resulting from this operation, U.S. Africa Command performed a thorough review and determined the allegations of civilian casualties to be not credible. As with any allegation of civilian casualties, U.S. Africa Command reviewed all available relevant information concerning the incident. The command complies with the law of armed conflict and takes all feasible precautions to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.”

* AFRICOM has declined to provide locations and dates for the two reported civilian harm incidents in Libya cited here that it has investigated.

▲ Library image: Reaper drones conducted 60% of almost 500 US airstrikes on the Libyan city of Sirte in 2016, coordinated through AFRICOM (Image: US AIR Force)


June 5, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The US-led Coalition appears to have committed violations of international law during the battle for Raqqa, Amnesty International says, after an extensive investigation outlining several incidents in which the Coalition used disproportionate firepower – despite what it says should have been knowledge of the presence of civilians in the city.

“The cases provide prima facie evidence that several Coalition attacks which killed and injured civilians violated international humanitarian law,” said Amnesty in its report – published on the first anniversary of the US-dominated assault on Raqqa.

The heavily Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began their operations in the city on June 6th 2017, backed by substantial US-led strikes (95% of Coalition airstrikes and 100% of artillery actions during the battle for Raqqa were American). Five months later in mid-October, the city was retaken from so-called Islamic State. 

Estimates of the death toll in Raqqa vary, but local monitors credibly report that at least 2,000 civilians perished at the hands of all belligerents. Airwars researchers put the number likely killed by the Coalition at at least 1,400. But until now there had not been extensive ground investigation into the toll of strikes in the dense urban environment. That includes any efforts by the Coalition itself – which has discarded the great majority of civilian casualty allegations under review for Raqqa by its own investigators – all apparently without speaking to witnesses and victims. To date, the Coalition has admitted to just 26* civilian deaths during the fight for the city.

What I found in #Raqqa , in northern #Syria : Unimaginable destruction of lives, homes and livelihoods. Entire families killed when #USA -led Coalition bombed houses full of civilians. Demand investigations now. Victims deserve justice and reparation.

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) June 5, 2018

“It’s not hard to find airstrike sites to visit in Raqqa,” said Benjamin Walsby, one of the Amnesty researchers who traveled to the city. “There’s one on virtually ever street, and often more than one. We analyzed the scene of 42 strikes, and spoke to witnesses, survivors and relatives of the dead. The Coalition has not done the same.”

“The Coalition maintains a transparent process and has demonstrated its willingness to open new cases and even reopen old cases in light of new or compelling evidence,” a spokesperson for the alliance told Airwars. “We have not been approached by Amnesty but are willing to work with them.”

According to the United Nations, as much as 80 percent of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by fighting, and the local reconstruction committee recently told Airwars that most damage was caused by airstrikes. Adding to the suffering, hundreds of civilians – by some local accounts more than 1,000 – have been killed by ISIS mines and other explosive remnants since the end of fighting. 

Amnesty researchers spent two weeks in Raqqa during February 2018, visiting the 42 sites and interviewing a total of 112 survivors and witnesses. Amnesty has highlighted the cases of four families who lost dozens of members, illustrating the terrible ordeal Raqqawis faced as a result of ISIS’s criminal behavior – and the disproportionate and at times seemingly indiscriminate nature of Coalition strikes meant to vanquish the militants.

In each case, “Coalition forces launched air strikes on buildings full of civilians using precision munitions with a wide-area effect, which could be expected to destroy them entirely,” wrote investigators. “The civilians killed and injured in the attacks, many of whom were women and children, had been staying in buildings for long periods prior to the strikes. Coalition forces would have been aware of their presence had they conducted rigorous surveillance prior to the strikes.”

“Witnesses reported that there were no fighters in the vicinity at the time of the attacks,” said Amnesty. “Such attacks could be either direct attacks on civilians or civilian objects or indiscriminate attacks.

‘Shocking destruction’

The Coalition was well aware of the strategies ISIS would employ in Raqqa to purposefully endanger civilians, Amnesty investigators contend – including fighting in residential areas, and the use of non-combatants as human shields. The Coalition however did not modulate operations, instead escalating munition use and even turning down out of hand UN calls for a humanitarian pause. 

“The scale of destruction and loss of civilian lives I found in Raqqa is shocking,” Donatella Rovera, Senior Crisis Response Adviser, told Airwars. “It is imperative that the Coalition stop being in denial and carry out proper investigations to establish why so many civilians were killed as a result of its strikes, and that it make available information that is crucial to this endeavour. There is no security rationale for not doing so.”

The first Amnesty case involved the Aswad family. Eight members were, it says, killed in a Coalition strike on June 28th that hit a building owned by four brothers in the family – Jamal, Ammar, Mohammed and Khaled. In the days prior to the attack, neighbors had joined the family in the building’s cellar, attempting to shield themselves from fighting above ground between ISIS and the SDF. Amnesty found that while “IS fighters were in the area at the time” they were “not in the immediate vicinity of the Aswad building.”

Witnesses said that because the building hadn’t yet been finished, people would move across the road to the family’s existing home to “cook and use the toilet.” 

“We were sure that the warplanes would have photographed our street and would know our movements, as we went to and fro between the building and the old house across the street, and would have known that we were civilians, families with children,” Mohammed later told Amnesty. Nevertheless, on June 28th, the building was hit, pancaking upper floors and destroying the structure.

“Fragment of the motor of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile recovered among the ruins of the Aswad family building, destroyed in a Coalition strike which killed eight civilians on 28 June 2017.” via Amnesty report.

Mohammed survived. But his brother Jamal died, along with a neighbour named Mohammed Othman, his wife Fatima and five of their children, aged 8-17. Another brother, Ammar, later also died – reportedly due to a land mine planted by ISIS.

Amnesty investigators visited the site and found remnants of a US-made AGM-114 Hellfire missile, and a US-designed Joint Direct Attack Munition. Both the United States and the UK declared strikes in Raqqa on June 28th.

‘War of Annihilation’

The Hashish family meanwhile lost eight members from an IED explosion at Raqqa, before losing nine more people in a July airstrike. The remaining family members had been staying in a smaller home with five rooms. One morning the area experienced shelling, forcing the family to take shelter. “The strike occurred straight after we re-entered the house,” said Munira, a survivor. “My brothers Hussein and Mohammed and their kids and the neighbors were all killed.” Munira was also injured, along with her children. “My seven-year-old son, Ahmad, was the worst; he suffered severe wounds to his abdomen.”

Munira also described ISIS’s patterns of movement in the city, which put residents in danger. “It was impossible to know which house IS would be in from day-to-day as they used to move around. We heard that they had made openings in the walls of people’s houses so they could move without being seen on the street. Any house was their house if they so wished.”

But she said it was unclear why the house her family was in was targeted. “They [ISIS] did not come to our house; it was an Arabic house [one story], not a tall building, so it wasn’t useful for them.”

Unlike operations in Mosul, which took place over the course of two US administrations, the battle for Raqqa was overseen wholly by the Trump White House and US Defense Secretary James Mattis. Just over a week before fighting reached inside Raqqa, Mattis remarked that the fighting against ISIS was now a “war of annihilation.” By the summer of 2017 – after just six months of the Trump administration – likely Coalition civilian casualties monitored by Airwars had doubled. In Raqqa, the gloves were off, including for US Marine Corps artillery units which fired thousands – or possibly tens of thousands – of rounds into the city.

The worst case documented by Amnesty – almost unfathomably distressing – was that of the Badran family, which lost 39 members alongside 10 neighbours in a number of airstrikes during  the Raqqa assault.

“Members of the Badran family killed in three separate Coalition air strike on 18 July and 20 August 2017 in Raqqa”. via Amnesty report.

First, five family members were killed on July 18th in a reported airstrike on a house in Nazlet al-Shehade – an area to which ISIS had forced that family to move. Two other neighbors were killed, then four other family members died when a strike hit a car in which they were fleeing from Nazlet al-Shehade.

A month later, after moving through the city in search of medical care and fleeing ISIS fire, the extended family returned to a home in the Harat al-Sakhani area. One of the surviving family members, Rasha, explained what happened around August 18th:

“Two days later, we were bombed, both houses where we were staying got bombed. Almost everybody was killed. Only I, my husband and his brother and cousin survived…. We hid in the rubble until morning because the planes were circling overhead. In the morning we found Tulip’s body [her infant daughter]; our baby was dead. We buried her near there, by a tree.”

In total, 28 members of the extended family were killed in the strike, along with five people in a house across the street. “Nothing was left standing, there was only rubble,” said Rasha. “These were simple Arab houses, they were not sturdy. I don’t understand why they bombed us. Didn’t the surveillance planes see that we were civilian families?”

‘Undercounting civilian casualties’

The final case reported by Amnesty involved the Fayad family. Sixteen family members and neighbours were killed in reported airstrikes on October 12, 2017 in the Harat al-Badu area of Raqqa, where many civilians had become trapped in the final days of fighting. Though fighting had briefly paused earlier in the week as part of a truce, the Coalition and SDF then struck ISIS’s remaining strongholds on the night of October 11th and 12th. Among those who perished were multiple victims in the Fayad family. 

According to the Coalition’s own strike reports, its aircraft carried out aerial attacks in Raqqa on each date referenced in the four Amnesty cases.To date, the Coalition has admitted to only 21 civilian fatalities in Raqqa between June and October 2017. Of 225 allegations reviewed, the Coalition has only found 15 cases to be credible. Over 90 per cent of all cases reviewed during the battle have been found to be ‘non-credible’.  In its most recent report, the Coalition rejected 72 reported civilian harm events at Raqqa – while finding none to be credible.

“The low credibility count suggests that some, possibly many, allegations may be dismissed before all necessary efforts are deployed to investigate them,” wrote the Amnesty researchers. “Undercounting civilian casualties could result in underestimating potential harm to civilians in future Coalition operations, as civilian harm mitigation procedures require military units to learn from their civilian casualty assessments, and incorporate that learning into planning future operations.”

None of the more than 100 residents who Amnesty spoke with during their research said they had been approached by the Coalition. As Airwars reported in March, there were ample opportunities for such interaction, including at processing centers run by the SDF.

“Unexploded MK 82 bomb, dropped by the Coalition, in a street in the centre of Raqqa. Months after the recapture of Raqqa unexploded munitions still littered Raqqa, in places where they posed a threat to civilians and where they could have easily been removed.” Via Amnesty Report.

Bodies in Raqqa are still being dug out, seven months after the end of hostilities. In a May interview, a member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee told Airwars that remains hastily buried in mass graves during fighting are often too decomposed to be identified. Other bodies are still entombed in the rubble that litters the city. Recovering the dead risks encountering one of thousands of IEDs that ISIS left rigged in Raqqa’s homes and public areas.

“Many of these, as well as unexploded bombs dropped by Coalition forces, continue to contaminate the city, with the cleaning process set to continue for months, if not years,” wrote Amnesty in its report. Desperate for money, children are working as labourers to clear rubble for as little as $4 per day – a job that can prove deadly.

“Why were those who spent so much on a costly military campaign which destroyed the city not providing the relief so desperately needed,” asked one resident of the city.

“Amnesty’s detailed field investigation once again highlights the significant death and destruction visited upon Raqqa last year, primarily by US forces as they ousted so-called Islamic State,” said Airwars director Chris Woods. “There is little doubt that several thousand civilians were killed in the fighting – yet almost no interest from the US and its allies in understanding how and where they died.”

Airwars’ own monitoring has shown a clear correlation between the level of Coalition firepower deployed in Raqqa and likely civilian deaths. As its own report recently noted, “Before the assault on Raqqa had begun in June 2017, the US-led Coalition had been made aware of the high reported civilian toll at Mosul – with Airwars for example publicly highlighting rises and falls in reported civilian harm which were closely tracking munition use. Not only were these lessons not subsequently applied by the alliance – but the intensity of bombardment at Raqqa (given its relatively smaller size, and the shorter duration of the battle) actually worsened.”

Airwars graphic depicting the close correlation between intensity of Coalition bombardment and civilian deaths at Raqqa

*An earlier version of this article stated that the Coalition had admitted to 21 civilian deaths which took lace d the Battle for Raqqa (June-October 2017). As of the Coalition’s latest monthly civilian casualty report that figure is now 26.


May 30, 2018

Written by

Samual Oakford and Abdulwahab Tahhan

Three months after the capture of Raqqa from so-called Islamic State, the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (RCC) began the hard job of helping to resurrect the largely destroyed city, while recovering the remains of thousands killed in heavy fighting. RCC’s work is often dangerous. Since the end of hostilities in October 2017, hundreds of civilians have been wounded or killed by mines and IEDS left behind by ISIS. Still, the committee works daily to uncover the dead, seeking out mass graves and informal burial sites across the city. The mental and physical challenges faced by recovery crews are extraordinary. There is still little reprieve from death in this city.

In late May, Airwars spoke at length with a key member of the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee. For security reasons, they have asked to remain anonymous. The interview was originally conducted in Arabic and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Looking for his brother's body, daily and tirelessly ..never losing hope Alaa's sad story is one of hundreds the surfaced after the recent discovery of a mass grave in the center of Al Raqqa#Reconstruction_Committee#Raqqa_civil_Council#Initial_Response_team #RaqqaRC

— Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (@RaqqaRc) May 2, 2018

Airwars: Please tell us about the Raqqa Reconstruction Committee?

Raqqa Reconstruction Council: The reconstruction committee receives a lot of help through the Civil Council. We’re not sure where the money originates, but it’s all through the Council.

We started with the most important things to do after liberating the city. The civil defense duties were the most important. There were so many dead people – whether civilian or militant – so we made a team and called it the First Responding Team. It included Civil Defence duties such as the fire department and first aid.

We worked on getting people with relevant experience in these fields. Since we did not have forensic doctors, we had to bring [them in] from outside to supervise the process of collecting bodies. At first the team was made up of volunteers, and then we got financial support. We were asked by families – at the beginning we used unsophisticated tools and when we got funding we were able to buy better tools to dig, and a bulldozer, all the cars and bags and everything else we needed. And now we are expanding.

After attending to individual requests, we were faced with mass graves. We developed teams that would roam the city and make initial assessments. We had an initial evaluation of gardens, parks and empty lots and other related areas. We then made estimates about where there might be bodies. We started this on January 8th 2018.  

Airwars: You’ve said that there are thousands of open reports of bodies in Raqqa. How many bodies have been recovered and how many people do you think died in the city? RRC: Since we began working, we have recovered almost 700 bodies, but we don’t have an overall estimate of the number of people who died in the city. There are estimates on social media about Raqqa which put it at two, three or four thousand, but as a team we can’t tell how many civilians were killed overall. I can refer you to the UN, which mentioned that 80 percent of the city was destroyed as of April 1st. As a personal estimation, when I entered the city – I was among the first people to enter on October 21st, 2017 – I made the same assessment.

From the northern side it’s even worse, and could be 90 or 100 percent, but [the level of destruction] goes down when you move south and east, to 40 percent or 10 percent. But in the city generally, it’s 80 percent.

Airwars: Have you found mass graves?

RRC: There were buildings where we recovered 10 bodies and other buildings were we got 20 and 30, but we wouldn’t call it a mass grave. Mass graves are bodies buried by people, not under the rubble.

Some people came and told us they have someone buried in a specific park and asked if we could remove the body and rebury them. Then we asked why they were buried in the park, and they would tell us: during the final stages [of fighting] when there was heavy bombardment of cars, people couldn’t move the bodies in a normal fashion. They would gather all the bodies together and in the evening ISIS would bury them in the closest place.

Bodies would be put in bags and the ground was already dug so they would bring the bodies – they would put two, three, four bodies together and bury them in this ground. So it was due to initial assessments in the city and people’s testimonies and from working in the city. Once we started working on day one we started uncovering other places.

Airwars: The bodies in the mass graves, are they women, men, children, civilians, or fighters? How many are there?

RRC: The bodies belonged to women, children and men – for the latter we can’t tell if they were civilians or fighters. Some of them were militants but very few. The rest of the men, we can’t tell who’s a militant and who is a civilian.  It’s written on the bags [by whoever buried them] ‘a man, a woman, a child, a civilian.” Very, very few had written that this was a militant. But this does not mean that the rest are not militants.

We don’t have a final death toll of the number of women, men and children but we have so far recovered 150 bodies from Al-Rashid Stadium, and 27 bodies from  Hadika Baiyda [“White Garden” – a residential garden area of the city] where the second mass grave is.

Workers dig out bodies in a mass grave at the al-Rashid Stadium (Image courtesy of Raqqa Reconstruction Committee)

Airwars: Are bodies still being recovered from under the rubble?

RCC: We are still recovering them. Lately we’ve been busy with mass graves. We have more than one team – most of the team members are directed to the mass graves specifically, because it’s summer and the way they were buried was not 100% proper so sometimes there’s a smell. We try to allocate most of our efforts towards the mass graves but there is another team working on people under the rubble.

Airwars: How do you think people died in Raqqa? From airstrikes, artillery, from being shot?

RRC: Most likely, the majority died from aerial bombardment. Of course there were those who died from artillery but we could tell the difference with artillery. If there is partial destruction in the building then it’s artillery, but when it’s completely destroyed it is an airstrike. 

Airwars: Do you know how much artillery and how much airstrike destruction there was?

RRC: Probably 35% by artillery and the rest is airstrikes. It’s just an estimation.

Airwars: You told us that it’s summer, and that you want to recover the bodies. Could you please tell us more about the possible diseases you face from the heat and the decomposition of the bodies?

RRC: On the ground, until now we haven’t seen signs of diseases. But from initial assessments in the streets, there are areas where there’s a smell and other places there isn’t a smell but one thing that’s common is that the city is full of flies.

Airwars: What is the process when you recover bodies? When you have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium, what do you do to document those you have recovered?

RRC: When we recover multiple bodies [usually in bags], we put them near where they were recovered. With the presence of the forensic doctor, we open the body bag, and we try to identify the body. Then we write down what is written on the bag – whether it’s a number or a name. We identify the body if we can, as belonging to a woman, a child, a militant or a civilian; if the body is wrapped [in a Kafan] or wearing clothes.

We write the description of the clothes or the Kafan. Of course we haven’t seen a full body recovered. By that I mean that bodies have started to decompose even though they are in bags, but decomposed so you wouldn’t be able to tell what kind of injury the body had, whether it’s a head wound, or shrapnels or a cut. We write the condition of what we’ve seen. We place the remains in another bag which does not leak smells, and then transfer it to the cemetery and bury it properly.

To stop water wastingThe Water Sector in the reconstruction committee is on a mission to close all the open ends of the water pipes in abandoned buildings#Reconstruction_Committee #Raqqa_Civil_Council #RaqqaRC

— Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (@RaqqaRc) May 8, 2018

Airwars: How much of a problem are unexploded munitions in Raqqa?

RRC: This is a very important point. The war has ended but a new one has just started. If you follow what ISIS releases [electronically], ISIS sent a message to the SDF and the civilians in general – people in this area – that we have left this land but will fight you for years. This was a remark alluding to the explosives which were intentionally planted, and other unexploded munitions.

For example, a few days ago, a guy was driving a bulldozer to help build a new house. There was an explosion while he was on the bulldozer, and in a 300 meter perimeter — or even half the perimeter was 300 meters — we couldn’t find him.

The danger is huge. Civilians have suffered badly, especially in the beginning when they entered the city in the first two months, when people returned to their homes. Explosives and mines were left in ways you wouldn’t imagine. Like if you opened the fridge, or the house door, or a window, and sometimes even if you opened the water tap or turned the switch or the water meters in the buildings – these are places that wouldn’t occur to you.

They even put explosives wired to a loofah. There was a woman with her children. They left Ain Essa camp and went back to her house in the city. After almost a week, she needed to use the loofah, so she moved it and it exploded and she died with her children. This danger is there from the beginning and it’s still present in the city and even the countryside. We have plenty of water stations that we have to rebuild and make work again, also power cables, government and public buildings, streets and even barriers. We assume that mines are everywhere.

Airwars: What about unexploded bombs and missiles?

RRC: There’s not a lot, only a few. ISIS’s strategy was to leave ammunition which would explode. We have discovered more than one ammunition factory. There is also some unexploded ammunition still in some parks, though not as many as the mines. They could be from SDF or anyone. We can’t tell whose ammunition it is. 

Airwars: When you recover the bodies and bury them again, do people know the location of the new graves? Or if people want to know if you have recovered a body, can they find out? Is there anything online or names in the new cemetery?

RRC: They are buried in a part of the city’s cemetery designated for these new bodies. It’s east of the city in a place called Tal Al-Bai’ya. We bury them individually. We leave marks here; if we have names [from the bags] we write them down. If not, we write numbers and we have in our files that body number X was found in such and such an area, and buried in this new area. If someone gives us information about a specific person, we would check and see if we have a match.

Airwars: Has anyone been able to identify or claim bodies? For example has anybody come to you and told you about a family member, and then it was possibly to identify them subsequently?

RRC: People can sometimes identify bodies while we are retrieving them, particularly where we recover the dead after receiving a family request. So we’d give people an appointment, for example a Saturday, so they would come and we then recover the bodies.

[Conversely] the bodies we recover from the rubble, nobody can identify even family members. The bodies have been exposed to the air and have decomposed, with only a few pieces left which cannot be identified. Not even their parents can identify them.

As for the mass grave, if someone had left a mark — some families for example left a mark in front of a hole, saying that a person related to me died in this hole —  then they can guess which person it is from the exact spot. When we find documents then some people recognize the victims – or from their clothes or the personal items they have on them. But these situations are very rare and only for those under the rubble, not the mass graves. Nobody was able to identify any body [in the mass graves].

Recovery crews handle a previously buried body at the Al-Rashid Stadium (via RRC).

Airwars: You have recovered 150 bodies from the stadium and 27 from Hadika Baiyda. Were you able to identify anyone?

RRC: No, not at all. We ourselves couldn’t identify them but there were some individual cases, I mean, for example Al-Rashid Stadium is different from Hadika Baiyda (White Garden).

Al-Rashid Stadium burials were done by ISIS members, because it is very close to the National Hospital in Raqqa. but  Hadika Baiyda was among many residential buildings. This area was besieged and bombarded especially in the last phase [of the battle for Raqqa.] People here were buried individually but there were also mass burials as well. Due to the bombardment, people weren’t able to take them to the cemetery, but buried them in the garden temporarily and left a mark.

Those buried individually, most people know who they belong to. Some people came back and were able to recover the body of their family because they were buried individually by their families, so these graves are known. But the bodies which weren’t recovered, we think their families left Raqqa and left Syria and never came back. If they went back, they would have recovered these bodies and reburied them properly.  

However, Hadika Bayda burials were carried out by the families. Due to the bombardment, they couldn’t go to the cemetery, which is almost 3km from the city center. People couldn’t transport the dead bodies in cars, because the cars were targeted by aircraft thinking they belonged to ISIS.

So people started digging in the garden to bury their families, and the same applies for other gardens and parks. Many of these people who buried their family members and and left the city, or who managed to flee, later came back and recovered the body even before we had started our project, and sometimes they ask us to recover them and rebury them in the city cemetery.

However for those who went to Turkey or Lebanon or any other country and couldn’t come back, they couldn’t recover the body. While they of course know where they buried their relatives, that knowledge is lost to us in Raqqa.

Despite the High temperature during #Ramadan.. The initial response team is never reluctant to help people identifying their loved ones, the bodies exhuming process continues in (Al Rasheed) field mass grave #Reconstruction_Committee#Raqqa_Civil_council#Initial_Response_Team

— Raqqa Reconstruction Committee (@RaqqaRc) May 29, 2018

Airwars: Family members who come to ask you to recover their loved one’s bodies, do they tell you how they were killed?

RRC: Of the people coming to us, we don’t have statistics about how their loved ones died. But some have told us they were killed by ISIS snipers, when civilians tried to leave in the last days before the city was given to the SDF. Some said their relatives were killed by [air] bombardment, some by artillery. It seems to me the majority were killed by either air or artillery attacks. There are so many killed and under the buildings.

These graves – people used parks and stadiums due to air strikes. The bodies there definitely were not killed by ISIS because ISIS when they killed people, they had no manners. If you remember what they did in Shehaytat, in Deir Ezzor, they killed 750 people in cold blood, ISIS would show them in videos and on their media. But these people [in Raqqa] were killed in bombardments.

Airwars: You mentioned that the bodies in the stadium are not identified?

RRC: Yes, and I will tell you a story, A mother came looking for her son. He left the city when the SDF created a safe passage for civilians to leave. This guy took one of those passages, but he was shot by a sniper, that’s what his mother told us, so his friends who were with him took him to the National Hospital, but he died in the hospital and was buried at night in Al-Rashid Stadium.

His mother came to ask about him and gave us his name, but we didn’t have names. We showed her the documentations and marks of the bodies we found, a woman here, a child there, a man there, but there are no features, so she couldn’t tell where he was buried and even if she sees all the bodies, she wouldn’t be able to identify her son [due to the state of the remains]. If the body was not left with a mark from the person who was burying it, it is impossible to identify it at all. This was for Al-Rashid Stadium.

Airwars: You work with dead bodies on a daily basis. This must be very difficult for you due to the number of those killed, and the families who come to ask about their loved ones. How do you cope with this kind of work?

RRC: It’s such suffering. Working with dead bodies is still dangerous because you’re recovering bodies and you don’t know what’s buried inside. The mine removal teams are active in the city, but small things might put people in danger. We have recovered militants’ bodies and the explosive belts were still on them, and this puts the whole team in danger. Thank God, it still hasn’t happened [an explosion].

This job is difficult and dangerous. We’re still doing it and adapting, but working in the mass graves is highly dangerous both physically and mentally for team members. We have given days off to members of the team. We transfer them to another team to search for bodies under the rubble, and step away from the mass graves.

Working in mass graves creates a shock and leaves you in a state where you don’t want to eat or drink or even have a healthy life. So in order to adapt, we rotate the team members, some of them work in the mass graves, some search for bodies in the city, others recover bodies from under the rubble, and that allow us to keep a minimum effect mentally and physically on team members.


May 3, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

After nearly four years of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, the United Kingdom has admitted for the first time that its forces caused civilian harm during anti-ISIS operations, when a missile fired from a Reaper drone this March also killed one non-combatant in eastern Syria.

The May 2nd admission came just a day after an exclusive BBC report quoted a Coalition source who said the British had likely caused civilian casualties “on several occasions.” That source cited a January 9th 2017 strike in Mosul that they said “almost certainly” killed two civilians. The British MoD countered what appears to be its partners’ own findings, contending the dead were probably ISIS fighters.

However in a written statement to Parliament, the British Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson MP, conceded a separate and much more recent incident – far removed from the large-scale battles of Mosul and Raqqa. This occured on March 26th 2018, in an area of eastern Syria where ISIS fighters had yet to be defeated.

“During a strike to engage three Daesh fighters a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment and it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed,” said Williamson, using an Arabic term for the terror group. “We reached this conclusion after undertaking routine and detailed post-strike analysis of all available evidence.”

Failure to investigate on the ground

The question of non-US partner culpability has proved vexing. In May 2017, Airwars revealed that US officials had determined that partner nations had caused at least 80 civilian deaths. No Coalition member will publicly accept responsibility for any of the incidents, which were released in bulk without any identifying information.

Since then, Australia and the Netherlands have joined the United States in admitting to involvement in incidents where civilians were killed or injured. Far larger military contributors the UK and France had remained silent.

In the BBC investigation – for which defence correspondent Jonathan Beale again traveled to Mosul to see the damage wrought on the city by airstrikes – he reported that Britain’s Coalition partners have “highlighted or ‘flagged’, several incidents when UK airstrikes may have caused civilian harm” but “on each occasion the MoD says it saw no evidence it caused civilian casualties.”

The newly conceded British casualty incident was observable thanks to Coalition video taken from the air, according to the Defence Secretary’s statement. From the first Coalition admissions, investigators have shown a bias towards cases: out in the open, and where follow-up investigations – either involving travel to the location or interviews with locals – are not required.

The Coalition and partner allies do not as a matter of policy speak with locals, or visit allegation sites. Yet most civilian casualty incidents monitored by Airwars likely would be impossible to confirm solely based on aerial reconnaissance, occurring as they often do in dense urban environments such as those in Raqqa and Mosul. As former deputy RAF commander Air Marshal Greg Bagwell has recently noted, “you can’t see through rubble.”

Urban strikes

According to the former UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, Royal Air Force planes carried out strikes on more than 750 targets during the campaign to liberate Mosul – “second only the US.” As Airwars has previously reported, Coalition strikes in Mosul were more often carried out with little or no knowledge of who remained inside buildings – an issue that extends to any post-strike analysis.

There is no official civilian death count for the battle of Mosul, but an investigation by the Associated Press has placed the toll at between 9,000 and 11,000 killed by all parties from October 2016 to June 2017. In total, Airwars tracked between 6,000 and 9,000 non combatant deaths variously attributed to the Coalition by local sources, and estimated that a minimum of between 1,066 and 1,579 likely died due to Coalition air and artillery strikes. This almost certainly represents a significant undercount, due to confused reporting at the time. It is telling that Britain’s first civilian casualty admission came not from Mosul – where it launched more attacks than anywhere else in Iraq or Syria – but from the deserts of eastern Syria.

“While the UK’s concession of a civilian fatality from one of its airstrikes against ISIS is a welcome step towards greater accountability, we’re concerned that it has taken the MoD almost four years and 1,600 strikes before making any such admission,” said Airwars director Chris Woods.

“Thousands of civilians have credibly been reported killed in Coalition actions to defeat so-called Islamic State – and airstrikes remain the primary cause of death. We hope the UK will now properly investigate the hundreds of additional potential civilian harm events its aircraft have recently been implicated in.”

▲ RAF Tornado GR4's over Iraq on an armed reconnaissance mission in support of OP SHADER. Royal Air Force Tornado GR4 aircraft have been in action over Iraq as part of the international coalition’s operations to support the democratic Iraqi Government in the fight against ISIL.