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Published

September 10, 2018

Written by

Samuel Oakford

The government of Bashar al Assad stands poised to recapture the last part of Syria held by rebels, with millions of civilians also under threat. Yet just three years ago the capital Damascus appeared likely to fall, and with it Assad himself. That dynamic changed with the aggressive intervention of Russia in Syria’s turbid civil war. Airwars reports on Moscow’s most ambitious foreign military intervention in decades, A version of this feature is also published by Foreign Policy. 

When the Assad government moved on rebel-held areas of southwest Syria in late June, events followed a troublingly familiar route. As with the Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta and Aleppo city before it, pro-government forces turned to Russia for blistering and deadly aerial support. Moscow ordered attacks in and around the provincial capital of Dara’a, unleashing a barrage of strikes over a matter of days. In the last week of June alone, Russian forces were implicated in at least 150 alleged civilian deaths, according to Airwars tracking.

Just as in Ghouta and Aleppo, Airwars also monitored multiple reports claiming the consistent targeting of civilian infrastructure, including clinics and other medical facilities in Dara’a, as well as residential areas and shelters where fleeing civilians had sought refuge. On June 28th, at least 20 civilians were killed after alleged Russian strikes reportedly hit several shelters in Al-Massifra. Photographs also showed a hospital in the town in ruins from the bombing.

Compared to other urban campaigns in Syria, the Russian onslaught on Dara’a was short lived. Airstrikes were overwhelming, and by the second week of July the government flag was already being hoisted.

While US Coalition strikes against ISIS remnants are now largely relegated to narrow parts of eastern Syria, the Russian campaign is gearing up again for what may be the deadliest – and effectively final – battle of the war. On September 4th, local monitors began reporting heavy Russian and regime strikes in the northern province of Idlib, the last substantial redoubt of opposition forces including dominant jihadist factions.

The UN has warned that some three million civilians, many displaced from elsewhere in the country, are penned inside Idlib – trapped between encroaching regime forces and the closed Turkish border. Already facing humanitarian catastrophe,this all makes them more vulnerable to airstrikes, which have already claimed thousands of lives in the province.

From verge of collapse to near victory

When Russia began bombing Syria in support of the government three years ago, large swathes of the country had been lost by the regime. ISIS controlled much of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor and Hassaka governorates – while rebel and extremist islamist groups such as Al Qaeda affiliate the al Nusra Front had seized territory across much of northern and southern Syria – and even parts of the capital. As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov asserted in a September 5th interview, “If you remember, we started assisting Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, when ISIS militants had almost reached Damascus, and the al-Assad Government was on the verge of collapse.”

Since then the regime – backed by intense and deadly Russian airpower, and Iranian and other proxies – has captured large urban centers in the center and north of the country, and eventually pushed opposition groups from the outskirts of the capital itself. Advances by US-backed SDF forces meanwhile droves ISIS from nearly all of northeast Syria. Tens of thousands have been reported killed during these parallel air campaigns.

Yet there have been significant differences between these two campaigns. Although Russia recently declared conducting 39,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2015, those strikes have stopped and started – undulating with political developments. Victory for the US-led alliance has always been focused on the military defeat of ISIS, a goal that the campaign has bulldozed towards at all times. Yet Russia’s goals in Syria have always been wider, with airstrikes and other military support focused primarily on helping the Assad government to secure control over all of Syria.

“The military strategy here depends entirely on the political,” said Yury Barmin, a Moscow-based Middle East analyst. “They don’t carry out airstrikes because they need to eliminate this or that group, but they carry out airstrikes because they need to implement political goals.”

In Idlib, those dynamics still hold out some hope for a political solution. For the last year, the province has been under a partial ceasefire involving Turkey, Iran and Russia. These same powers, pulling at the myriad anti-government forces on the ground, could still reach some sort of agreement, though given the finality of any Idlib offensive for the war, it would likely be far more complicated than anything previously brokered.

Russia has at times halted strikes following local and national ceasefires.  It has ignored other cessations entirely, or observed them only to later escalate ferociously to bring about desired results. Moscow has shown little regard, either in its actions or words, for civilian life – so much so that civilian harm has appeared not just unpreventable but calculated.  Russian strikes in this way can be extremely punitive, said Matti Suomenaro, a researcher at the Institute for the Study of War, a conservative think tank in Washington DC that tracks the Russian campaign.

“A good example of this is after mid-September of last year, when there was an opposition offensive launched in Idlib province,” said Suomenaro. “Russia specifically increased its targeting of almost all medical facilities in southern Idlib, almost as punishment.”

Diplomatically, Russia has also maneuvered cannily with power-players in the region. In southwest Quinetra, Moscow recently refrained from bombing, apparently due to the area’s proximity to Israel. When Turkey shot down a Russian plane and Russia’s ambassador was later assassinated in Istanbul, it led only to more productive relations between the two increasingly illiberal nations.

While the US-led Coalition’s sole aim has been the military defeat of ISIS, Moscow’s campaign has broader aims – with strikes modulating to reflect broader political issues.

‘A counter terror operation’

Though Syrians are by now familiar with Russia’s bombings in their own country, clues to what remains in store for civilians trapped in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold – can be found in both Russia and the Soviet Union’s military past.

Officially, Moscow’s campaign in Syria has been explained as a counterterror operation, key to the national security interests of Russia and carried out at the express invitation of a despotic but technically recognized government. “All of this military activity is a manifestation and kind of support of the concept of sovereignty,” said Timur Makhmutov, deputy program director at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a think tank based in Moscow.

“We certainly are not going to plunge head-on into this conflict,” said President Vladimir Putin in a televised address announcing the campaign in September 2015. “We will be supporting the Syrian army purely in its legitimate fight with terrorist groups.” In Syria, Russia would provide airpower in support of regime and other ground forces including the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Iranian troops.

An early example of Russia’s approach came halfway through the first year of the Russian campaign. From 99 alleged Russian-linked civilian casualty incidents tracked by Airwars in Syria during October 2015, reports rose steadily, hitting an early peak of 182 in February 2016. Then, after a ceasefire was agreed, allegations fell dramatically, to 39 claimed events by May.

“I think there are some failures and these failures should be recognized on the ground but Russia is trying to make ceasefires to let people who are under the attacks and [in] these crisis situations out,” said Ruslan Mamedov, a colleague of Makhmutov’s at RIAC in Moscow. Russia, he noted, engaged Turkey, which he said helped bring about effective surrenders and evacuations among groups over which they held influence . “These kinds of approaches helped to save lives,” said Mamedov.

Ceasefires in Syria have rarely held. In November 2016, Airwars tracked 215 separate events that included allegations of over 1,000 civilian deaths at the hands of Russia – about two-thirds of which were in Aleppo, which was now under direct attack. By December, all hospitals in eastern Aleppo were reportedly wrecked from regime and Russian bombings – attacks that the UN Commission of Inquiry found to “strongly suggest the deliberate and systematic targeting of medical infrastructure as part of a strategy to compel surrender.” That tactic was a war crime, said the Commission.

“We see that now when the Russians wanted to have a softer approach with the opposition they would stop bombing for a while, introduce short periods of calm,” said analyst Yuri Barmin. “When they see that the opposition isn’t cooperative, then they ramp up the bombing.”

This brutal strategy worked – at enormous cost. Russia, the Assad government and those opposition fighters that remained did reach a deal in mid December that saw at least 34,000 people evacuated from Aleppo to neighboring Idlib governorate. Thereafter, Airwars monitored a significant drop in civilian casualty events tied to Russia in Syria.

Targeting ISIS

When it first militarily intervened in Syria, Moscow claimed to be doing so in order to fight the so-called Islamic State. That assertion has been controversial ever since. Well into 2017, Russia and the regime stood accused by Western adversaries of bombing ISIS lightly, or not at all. It was certainly the case that in the early days of its campaign Russia primarily focused on rebel and extremist groups in the west of Syria, rather than on ISIS.

Yet Russia did later shift its firepower eastward – towards Palmyra and then beyond – in what was viewed in part as a counter to US influence in the area. Soon pro-government forces were racing against the US’s proxy fighters in Syria, the SDF, to reach the Euphrates River Valley area along the border with Iraq. Beginning in September 2017, monitors began reporting significant death tolls from suspected pro-government strikes in eastern Deir Ezzor governorate.

On February 24, 2018, amid the carnage in Eastern Ghouta, UN Security Council diplomats passed a nationwide cessation of hostilities (leaving out ISIS and al Qaeda-linked groups) that was immediately ignored. In the lead up, Amnesty International insisted that Russian and Syrian government forces “deliberately and systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities.” Those attacks amounted to war crimes, said the group.

Air strikes, shelling and ground incursions all increased after the resolution. In the month that followed, the UN monitored some 1,700 deaths in Eastern Ghouta, caused in particular by airstrikes. UN investigators recorded 29 separate attacks on health facilities in the enclave.

According to Airwars monitoring, in one seven day period Russia faced allegations of responsibility for over 300 deaths. Doctors Without Borders separately reported a death toll of 1,000 in just two weeks.” Russian officials called the reports “disinformation.” The Siege of Eastern Ghouta was over by April, with much of it in ruin. (By comparison, more than two-thirds of Raqqa was rendered uninhabitable by the US-led campaign there.)

Despite tens of thousands of Russian airstrikes and three years of war, Moscow has yet to concede a single civilian fatality from its Syria campaign. Nor is Airwars aware of any Russian civilian harm monitoring process comparable with that of the US-led Coalition – which by contrast has admitted to more than 1,000 civilian deaths across Iraq and Syria.

“I’m not aware of any serious discussions within the military about who is a civilian and who is a legitimate target,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre, and a former analyst with the International Crisis Group. “I don’t think for them this is generally a point of concern.”

Both the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Russian Mission to the UN in New York did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

A suspected Russian airstrike on a Daraa suburb on June 30th killed seven civilians according to local reports (Image via White Helmets)

Urban destruction

Recent figures released by Russia’s Ministry of Defense show the staggering scale of Moscow’s deployment in support of the Assad regime. Along with 39,000 airstrikes with more than 86,000 “militants” claimed killed, a total of 63,000 Russian personnel have so far been deployed to Syria.

Deaths among Russian personnel have nevertheless been relatively light – not unexpected given that Russia, just like the US-led Coalition, is primarily focused on remote airstrikes. Most aircrew have died as a result of crashes, though a small number of aircraft have been shot down.

Yet these official combat deaths in Syria appear to be significantly outweighed by those of Russian contractors. In February 2018, at least dozens and possibly hundreds of Russian mercenaries were killed when pro-regime fighters reportedly attacked an SDF base in eastern Syria where American troops were also based.

The roots of Moscow’s intent to minimize official casualties (which can also be seen in the current Ukraine conflict) may be found in another intervention more than three decades ago: the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. By the time they were driven out nearly a decade later, some 15,000 Soviet soldiers had been killed, and the communist bloc was close to collapsing.

“What we call Afghan syndrome – the memories of the Afghan war – are still very strong in this society,” said Katya Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “The Afghan war in public consciousness is associated with a very protracted war with many casualties among the Russian conscripts which was inconclusive and damaging for the Soviet Union.”

If the approach to keeping its own forces out of harm’s way came from Afghanistan, Sokirianskaia looks to Chechnya for insight into how Russia fights in urban settings. During two wars in the Muslim-majority region in 1990s and early 2000s, urban areas – specifically the capital of Grozny – were levelled.

“I’ve been working on armed conflicts involving Russia for the last 17 years and what we’ve seen is these campaigns have often been indiscriminate,” she said. “Chechnya is a good example – Syria on a smaller scale. In Grozny, with a half million civilians inside, hardly a single building was spared.”

Images of the destruction in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta drew comparisons to infamous pictures showing Grozny’s shattered skyline. (Russia gleefully trolled those on social media, making the comparison itself.) Thousands of Russian soldiers – and countless more civilians – were killed in fighting for the Chechen city. “The Russian lesson from Grozny was don’t do urban warfare with your own people,” said Michael Kofman, a senior research scientist at CNA.

Yet the wars in Chechnya were not viewed as failures, despite the intense civilian harm they caused.. “Chechnya works fine as far as Russia is concerned because it is [now] peaceful, it is subdued, it has arrived at a method of government which resolves the problem,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia Programme. “For Russia, civilian suffering is a tool to be exploited to win the war.”

Syrian civil society and and monitors have made extensive years-long efforts to track the civilian toll of the war in Syria, including from Russian strikes. But do these reports make it back to Russia? How many Russians are even aware of the thousands of civilians killed by their military? The answer – as with most citizens of Coalition member nations like the US – is that very few likely are.

“An average Russian who doesn’t have independent information on Foreign Policy and relies on the state media for their knowledge of international relations trusts the official narrative on who is committing violations,” said Sokirianskaia, the director at the Conflict Analysis and Prevention Centre. “In the end both the media and the Russian citizens prefer to not to really focus on the humanitarian disaster, just to distance themselves from this issue. Everyone knows it is a bloodbath in Syria, but we working to restore peace and are fighting terrorists.”

In response to questions stating that Russian and government forces have killed untold thousands, Vladimir Putin told Fox News in July 2018 that recent US actions also carried a heavy price: “A huge proportion of the civilian population of Raqqa died. It was erased from the face of the earth. It reminds me of Stalingrad from World War II, and there is nothing good about it.”

The Russian president’s point appeared to be that such destruction and mass civilian casualties is an inevitability of urban warfare – whoever the belligerent.

The final blow?

After weeks of protracted and apparently failed negotiations, Syrians are poised once more for the regime – and the Russian Air Force – to turn their firepower upon Idlib. Civilians there have reason to be terrified. According to the United Nations more than three million people are at risk. Most have nowhere left to run.

There is still hope that diplomacy may prevail: after all, Russia’s airstrikes act as a means to an end. Airstrikes in Idlib fell considerably during August, as hope still held that a diplomatic solution from talks in Astana might perhaps peel off some less hardline groups in the province. During the final full week of the month, Airwars monitors didn’t track a single casualty event in Syria that was blamed Russia. That ended on September 4th when reports began trickling in of civilian deaths from Russian airstrikes — all in Idlib.

“We have seen a pattern where the number of airstrikes usually drops before big battles,” said Airwars’ Syria researcher Abdulwahab Tahhan. “If or when this campaign on Idlib starts, the consequences on civilians would be catastrophic. The Syria-Turkish borders are closed and there does not seem any other place they can go to in order to be safe from the airstrikes.”

Any casualties at Idlib will join a lengthy list. In the three years since Moscow entered the war in September 30th 2015, Airwars has monitored over 18,485 alleged civilian deaths tied to Russian actions in Syria. At least 5,917 of those reported killed have been named in local outlets, on social media or by casualty recorders. Though Airwars is still working to vet all the nearly 18,000 deaths alleged against Russia, other casualty recorders such as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, have put the figure at more than 7,800 civilians killed through the end of June 2018.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently implied that some measures will be taken to protect “compliant” civilians in Idlib – just as he claims occurred at Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta: “We always set up humanitarian corridors and always did our best to sign a local ceasefire agreement with the compliant opposition. They were pardoned by the Syrian government, laid down their weapons and rejoined peaceful life in Syria.”

Yet for military planners, any concerns over the safety of civilians will take a back seat to Moscow’s ultimate goal: the complete triumph of Bashar al Assad’s regime.

Published

September 6, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

The fresh crisis was triggered after the Libyan capital was attacked by the 7th Brigade – a militia previously confined to the nearby city of of Tarhuna, and which is led by a 33 year old field commander.

The UN, the EU and the P3+1 group for Libya consisting of France, Italy, the UK and the US have all condemned recent events in and around Tripoli. According to OCHA, the United Nations agency, a total of 61 people were killed with another 159 injured and over 2,000 families forced to flee their homes in the first week of fighting.

According to a UN statement UN Secretary General António Guterres reminded “all parties that the indiscriminate use of force is a violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. He urges all parties to grant humanitarian relief for those in need, particularly those who are trapped by the fighting.”

A UN-brokered ceasefire appears to be holding for the moment.

Facts and numbers on the clashes provided by OCHA

New armed actor

The fresh wave of violence in Tripoli began on August 27th, and was triggered by the 7th Brigade, a militia which had previously been based at Tarhuna, 50 km south of Tripoli. It consists of 5,000 members and is fronted by Major General al-Said al-Jedi al-Tarhuni. Also known as the Kaniyat or Kani Brigade, the name was derived from the Kani family which established the Brigade in 2013.

Five Kani brothers still dominate the brigade today: Abdul Khaliq Khalifa Al Kani, who is currently a political and tribal leader, and Mohammed Khalifa Ali Kani, head of the military council of Tarhuna, reportedly come from a Salafist background. Muammar Khalifa al-Kani is responsible for the ‘Ministry of Finance’, banks and municipalities in the city, and Abdulrahim Khalifa Al-Kani, a merchant, supervises security in Tarhuna. The fifth brother is Muhsin Khalifa al-Kani, 33, who is in effective command of the 7th Brigade at Tripoli.

After seizing heavy weaponry in 2013, the 7th Brigade managed to take control of Tarhuna in the following years, providing some sort of stability in the city by reducing crime and kidnappings.

For its operation in Tripoli the 7th Brigade teamed up with other militias from Zintan, Tajoura and Misurata and remnants of groups that were ousted from Tripoli upon the arrival of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in early 2016.

According to a spokesperson for the 7th Brigade, the aim of the present operation is to ‘cleanse’ the capital of the corruption that the Tripoli militias are constantly being accused of. It has denied any affiliation with the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) controlling other areas of the country, or with any other major actors in Libya.

Prior to the assault by the 7th Brigade and its allies, Tripoli was controlled by five separate militias:

–  The Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade (TRB) was first established in Benghazi in 2011 and is presently led by Haitham al-Taj Tajuri. It is now known as the First Security Division of the Central General Security Administration.

–  The Special Deterrence Force (SDF) is led by Abd al-Raouf Kara, a Salafist from Tripoli, who runs a detention centre in Mitiga airport, (where up to 500 suspected ISIS members are held.) In 2013 the General National Congress (GNC) legitimized the force by bringing it under nominal Ministry of Interior authority.

–  The Ghanewa Brigade – also known as the Central Security Authority in Abu Sleem – is led by Abd al-Ghani al-Kikli from Kikla in the western mountains.

–  The Central Security Force for North Tripoli, also known as the Nawasi Brigade, has a Salafist background and is led by Mustafa Kaddour.

–  The 301 Brigade is made up of Misrata forces which are based in southern Tripoli and which was established by a decree from former prime minister Khalifa al Ghwell.

These militias initially appeared to provide some stability in Tripoli, which experienced upheaval at the beginning of the second Libyan civil war in 2014. They were also supposed to protect the GNA during its early days in 2016 – but then became its only foothold in the city after the supposed national government failed to establish a proper military presence in Tripoli, or to exercise effective governance outside or inside the capital.

The resulting power vacuum resulted in reported major political influence by the militias over the GNA, with the five armed groups awarded further legitimacy when they were fully acknowledged under the umbrella of the Government of National Accord (GNA).

Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Al Sarraj said in a statement that he had already dissolved the 7th Brigade in April and condemned it for still keeping its weapons arsenal. He further said: “We will not allow the repetition of the destruction and burning of state installations, and we will bear the responsibility of all the Libyans.”

Ceasefire talks

Initial efforts to de-escalate the clashes and reach a ceasefire failed due to the intensity of fighting, which included the use of tanks, artillery and continued random shelling which have so far killed up to 19 civilians.

Airwars has so far tracked five events in which civilians were harmed as a result of artillery shelling, resulting in up to ten deaths and 21 injuries. More information can be found on the Airwars Libya microsite.

On August 29th there were two claimed airstrikes targeting the 7th Brigade and its allied forces. One was reportedly in South Tripoli and the other a claimed strike inside a 7th Brigade military camp in Tarhuna city which killed three members of the brigade. The militia accused both the GNA and Italy of conducting that attack.

The escalation of violence also led to the closure of Tripoli Mitiga airport on August 31st, and as many as 400 inmates escaped from Ain Zara prison in the chaos. There were also reports of hijacking and looting of government institutions in both the south and west of Tripoli.

On September 4th all parties involved in the fighting agreed on a ceasefire brokered by UNSMIL. However, past events have shown that such agreements between militias in Libya can be highly unstable and the coming days will show if the situation around the capital remains peaceful.

UNSMIL Statement on the Facilitation of a Ceasefire Agreement to end Fighting in #Tripoli

Agreement: https://t.co/Nu4fvd9pSPPhotos: https://t.co/v0AyvqdNXX pic.twitter.com/ZhfFxsVTXp

— UNSMIL (@UNSMILibya) September 4, 2018

▲ Destruction following an airtstrike on a Tawergha refugee camp in Tripoli (via Afrigate News)

Published

August 8, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof

The fourth anniversary of the international war against so-called Islamic State sees the terror group nearly ousted as a territorial entity from both Iraq and Syria, according to US-led Coalition forces and local monitors. The removal of the group has helped lead to significant recovery in some areas, particularly in Iraq. However the cost for civilians of ISIS’s defeat has also been high.

The conflict – which has drawn 14 international powers into a major fighting alliance since August 8th 2014 – has seen almost 30,000 Coalition air and artillery strikes and more than 108,000 munitions dropped from the air on ISIS forces. Those combat partners known to be still active are the United States, the UK, France and the Netherlands.

International airpower has played a huge role in defeating ISIS. The first US airstrike took place near Erbil in Iraq, on August 8th 2014. Exactly 1,462 days of war later, and Washington’s intervention has now lasted longer than the American Civil War, and the US’s participation in both the First and Second World Wars.

The present best estimate by Airwars is that between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians have likely been killed in Coalition actions in four years of fighting – with the alliance itself presently conceding more than 1,000 non-combatants deaths from its air and artillery strikes.

The last public costings for the war, published 13 months ago, declared that the US had already spent $14bn in its fight against ISIS. More than 70,000 ISIS fighters have been alleged killed by the US-led campaign according to anonymous officials – though recently the Coalition has been more tight lipped in estimating the number of enemy fighters killed.

At its height, ISIS had held much of northern and central Iraq, and swathes of Syria. Yet today, only a hard core of about 1,500 ISIS fighters is thought to remain around Hajin in the Euphrates Valley near the Syrian-Iraqi border, among them senior figures possibly including leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. Other fighters have been driven into more remote desert areas on both the Syrian and Iraqi sides of the border.

In Iraq itself ISIS is now defeated as a territorial entity – with only a limited number of Coalition airstrikes since the capture of Mosul in July 2017. However there are troubling signs of an emerging insurgency, with police and army units recently targeted.

“The coalition of 77 nations and international organizations remains committed to achieving the lasting defeat of #ISIS and its pervasive and negative ideology” – GEN Votel @CJTFOIR #Syria #Iraqhttps://t.co/8aRKJ40mMe

— U.S. Central Command (@CENTCOM) July 21, 2018

The civilian toll

While ISIS has paid a high price in the war, civilians in Iraq and Syria have also suffered. The terror group murdered many thousands – for example committing acts of genocide against the Yazidis of Northern Iraq – and also held captive the populations of major urban areas including Mosul, Ramallah, and Raqqa. Many cities and towns in Iraq and Syria have been almost entirely destroyed in the fighting, with millions forced to flee.

The war has routinely been dubbed “the most precise war in history” by the Coalition due to its heavy use of GPS- and laser-guided bombs and missiles: munitions that were meant to save civilian lives despite the heavy fighting. It took the Coalition nine months and over 4,000 munitions dropped to admit civilian harm for the first time, in May 2015. By July 2018  when the Coalition published its latest civilian casualty report, the alliance had conceded at least 1,059 deaths from its actions.

Yet according to Airwars estimates, a minimum of between 6,500 and 10,000 civilians have likely lost their lives in Coalition bombings since 2014. Overall, more than 26,000 civilian fatalities have been alleged locally from Coalition actions, in more than 2,650 alleged events. Thousands more civilians have died as a result of anti-ISIS actions by Iraqi and Syrian government forces; and in interventions by Russia, Iran and Turkey against the terror group.

A war of parts

The beginnings of Operation Inherent Resolve, as it quickly became known, saw relatively low numbers of reported civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. These early stages of the war were mainly defensive – ensuring that ISIS did not expand its territory further. The Coalition also needed to buy time to help train up local armies and proxy forces.

Between August and December 2014, a minimum of 148 civilians were likely killed in Coalition airstrikes according to Airwars monitoring of local sources. That number rose to at least 692 likely civilian deaths killed in 2015. Despite shattering the military narrative of zero civilian harm, these relatively low numbers indicated that significant caution was being taken to reduce harm to civilians, given the intense nature of the conflict.

In 2016, the war against ISIS shifted to offensive mode – while front lines increasingly shifted to more densely populated areas. Between 1,261 and 1,923 civilians were reported killed that year according to Airwars – an 82% increase on 2015. Civilian casualties were significantly up in Iraq for example, with the Anbar offensive in May and June, as well as the beginning of the Battle for Mosul in late 2016.

The tough fights for Raqqa and Mosul – the respective strongholds of ISIS in Syria and Iraq – also marked the beginning of the deadliest period for civilians. In 2017 the number of likely civilian casualties spiked significantly, to at least 4,008 to 6,269 killed. This can be explained by intensified warfare – with the Battle for Mosul taking longer than that for Stalingrad in the Second World War, for example – and less caution appearing to be taken to preserve civilian life.

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The Trump Effect

Prior to his election, Donald Trump had lambasted Barack Obama for what he viewed as an overcautious approach to the war. Once in office, President Trump boasted that he had changed US rules of engagement to make it easier to bomb ISIS – while his officials began publicly referring to a War of Annihilation.

The intensification of fighting under Trump led to significant civilian harm and levels of destruction in urban areas, comparable at times to the Second World War. What is less clear is whether similar levels of destruction would have occurred anyway under a Hillary Clinton presidency, given the war’s focus on urban areas in 2017.

Even today Raqqa is considered “unfit for human habitation” by the UN, having been 70% destroyed. West Mosul experienced similar devastation with 80% of the Old City now in ruins. Reportedly more civilians than combatants lost their lives during the Battle for Mosul because of Iraqi, Coalition and ISIS actions. To this day, bodies are still being pulled from the rubble, while in Raqqa recovery teams are even now still discovering mass graves.

So intense were US-led military actions in 2017 that Coalition-linked civilian casualties far outnumbering those attributed to Russia over the year. Two of the worst military failures of the war happened during this period due to American actions. On March 17th 2017 in the Jadida neighbourhood of Mosul, between 105 and 141 civilians were confirmed killed in an American airstrike on a house. The event is the biggest confirmed incident of civilian casualties in the entire war so far.

Just days later at Al Mansoura near Raqqa, a former school was hit by an American airstrike, killing between 40 and 150 internally displaced people who were seeking refuge in the building. Faulty intelligence for the strike reportedly came in part from Germany, which helps provide reconnaissance for the alliance.

.@CJTFOIR dismissed @amnesty's report re civilians killed by #USA-led Coalition's bombardments in #Raqqa ; said we are naive & misinformed, but now admits responsibility for the cases we reported. But there are many more victims. Coalition must come clean https://t.co/dU6WM1EHUj pic.twitter.com/oKzPZH5Grr

— Donatella Rovera (@DRovera) August 7, 2018

Airwars impact

Founded in 2014 as a voluntary project to track Coalition airstrikes and civilian harm, Airwars has grown to become the primary monitor of civilian harm from international military actions in both Iraq and Syria. A significant part of its work is now focused on engaging with militaries to help them better understand civilian harm on the modern battlefield, in an effort to reduce casualties and seek accountability.

The Coalition itself has also evolved, having assessed more than 2,000 alleged civilian harm events in recent years, and so far admitting to more than 240 incidents. Even so, only 9% of alleged civilian casualty cases tracked by Airwars have so far been confirmed. Only the US, the UK, Australia and the Netherlands have individually admitted civilian harm from their actions to date – while all ten other belligerents (France, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, UAE and Bahrain) still claim that their bombings are flawless, just as Russia asserts in Syria.

While 27 out of the 245 cases confirmed by the Coalition to July 2018 were referrals by Airwars, the US-led alliance mostly relies on self-reporting – with 112 incidents coming from their own reports. Media field investigations such as those by Buzzfeed and the New York Times have led to at least 19 events being conceded. Recently, investigations from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have led to a rise in NGO reports leading to civilian harm admissions.

Sources of reporting for Coalition-declared Credible incidents Incidents Proportion of incidents
Self-report 112 46%
Airwars 27 11%
Social media 11 4%
Other 1 0%
Web report 1 0%
Media 19 8%
NGO report 7 3%
Unknown 67 27%
All sources 245 100%

So why is there still such a large disparity between local, on the ground reports of civilian harm and the Coalition’s own admissions? In the absence of any ground investigations by the Coalition – and a bias towards self-reported events – military assessments remain heavily reliant on what is observable from the air when determining civilian harm below. Yet as the recently retired RAF Air Marshall Greg Bagwell said when challenging official UK claims at the time to have caused no civilian harm, “you can’t see through rubble”.

There is also a political dimension. Much of the initial impetus to improve US civilian harm reporting in the war against ISIS came as a result of President Obama’s 2016 executive order which in part sought to mitigate civilian harm on the battlefield. That order remains in effect under President Trump. Other nations such as France, Jordan and Turkey have shown no public interest in tackling the issue of civilian casualty mitigation on the modern battlefield.

“Over the course of four years of war against so-called Islamic State, Airwars has seen significant improvements in the US-led Coalition’s assessment of civilian harm claims,” says Airwars director Chris Woods. “Even so a major gulf remains between public and military estimates of civilian harm – with most individual Coalition allies still claiming that their strikes have only killed ISIS fighters. The reality for ordinary Iraqis and Syrians has been very different – with many thousands killed and injured in the battles to free them from ISIS. Proper public transparency and accountability from the Coalition allies is a vital step in helping heal the wounds of this brutal conflict.”

Reconstruction continues in Old Mosul. People of Mosul are tirelessly trying to restore the city.Thanks to @undpiniraq @IOMIraq and all the international supporters who try to help us to restore our city. pic.twitter.com/x1kfo9jfo6

— Mosul Eye عين الموصل (@MosulEye) August 7, 2018

Published

July 27, 2018

Written by

Oliver Imhof and Osama Mansour

So-called Islamic State was ousted from the Libyan city of Sirte in late 2016 by joint US and Government of National Accord forces. Using materials uncovered as part of a major new project tracking airstrikes and civilian harm in Libya, Airwars recounts the rise and fall of the terror organization through the eyes of local citizens, journalists and fighters. A version of this feature also appeared in the Daily Beast.

During its short occupation of Sirte, ISIS was often keen to film and then propagandise its actions.

In one video released on the terror group’s Telegram channel, heavily armed Al Hisbah ‘enforcers’ stalk through a Sirte marketplace, demanding that local people stop trading after the call to prayer. The ISIS police then check vendors for banned items – on the lookout for books about the devil, sex and desire.

In the next scene, ISIS fighters can be seen gleefully destroying their discoveries – smashing shisha pipes with hammers; and destroying cigarette cartons, and even a drum kit. All were forbidden at Sirte in this extreme interpretation of Islam – one in which Al Hisbah actively persecuted the local population.

ISIS members destroying shisha pipes in Sirte, Libya

Sirte had been the hometown of Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gadhafi, the once-feared leader ousted and slain in a bloody 2011 uprising. The power vacuum left by Gadhafi’s death – later described by Barack Obama as the greatest foreign policy mistake of his presidency – proved ripe territory for an expansive Islamic State, which by 2015 already controlled great swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Videos like those from 2015 and 2016, when ISIS ruled Sirte, depict how it established totalitarian rule in the city within a short period of time. Before then, a loose alliance between the rebel Libyan National Army (LNA), the militant group Libya Dawn and the Al Qaeda affiliated Ansar Al-Sharia had controlled the city between them. Yet their forces were quickly overrun by ISIS – in part due to the political turmoil which engulfed Libya following the collapse of the provisional government in late 2014.

“We forced the hijab on women and we caught the smugglers,” ISIS officials can be seen explaining to a small crowd of people. “We’re providing courses about Islam for prisoners and the people”. Religious education became mandatory in Sirte under ISIS rule.

Foreign fighters

Radical Islamism did not have a particularly strong tradition in Libya prior to NATO’s intervention, with the country deciding on a secular government in 2012. That meant ISIS had to supplement its local support by recruiting members from other countries, in order to consolidate Sirte as its Libyan stronghold. People from Tunisia, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Egypt, Algeria or Syria were offered what they believed to be the ideal environment to practice an extreme version of Islam.

ISIS members parading Sirte’s streets after successly capturing the city (Source: propaganda video)

Once it had seized the city, ISIS quickly established its own police force – introducing gender segregation at schools; banning alcohol; and introducing Draconian punishments such as cutting off limbs and beheading people. In its propaganda videos, the terror group proudly depicts crucifixions and the beheading of Christians. These savage punishments were usually followed by interviews with young ISIS members who described their motivations.

“This is a message to fight to all the Muslims in Libya – to fight the Jews and Crusaders. ISIS scares them by controlling more and more cities, and applying Sharia law”, a masked fighter brags in one video. His call to extremism is followed by footage of a tribunal against an alleged thief, which ends with the accused having his hand cut off.

Sometimes it appears no detail is too small to warrant the attention of ISIS’s thought police. Videos posted to the terror group’s Telegram account show Al Hisbah patrols obsessing over Western-made products in a local supermarket, including a bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo.

Al Hisbah checking for Western-made products in a supermarket

Libya stronghold

ISIS had for a while had also established footholds in the Libyan cities of Sabratha and Derna. But airstrikes – and ground assaults from the more moderate Derna Shura Mujahideen Council – soon saw the terror group concentrated in just one city: Sirte.

At their peak, between 3,000 and 5,000 ISIS members reportedly controlled the city. Similar to its big brother in the Levant, ISIS’s presence in Libya sparked both local and international fear – this time of the jihadists spreading throughout Libya and then across North Africa. The internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) of Libya reacted in May 2016 with the formation of the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous operation (in Arabic, ‘Impenetrable Wall’), which immediately advanced on the city.

However after some initial success in gaining control over outer neighbourhoods of Sirte (reportedly with British special forces support), Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous struggled to break through ISIS’s inner line of defence – which heavily employed snipers and suicide attacks. This in turn prompted the GNA to request air support from the United States, which officially joined the battle on August 1st 2016.

With US air support the GNA was now able to advance more quickly, launching its Macmadas operation on August 12th. By the end of that month the troops had captured additionally neighbourhoods from ISIS – though the operation was briefly halted because of reported concerns for civilian lives.

ISIS suffered heavy losses in the attacks, including senior figures. Waleed al-Farjani, a senior judge of the Islamic court in Sirte was killed together with the Egyptian Abu Omar al-Muhajir on August 15th, for example.

Waleed al-Farjani in 2015 – killed a year later in a likely US airstrike (Image: Amaq via Al Marsad)

ISIS continued to lose its senior members in Sirte right up to the end. Fayez Al-Bidi, an imam from Benghazi, was reportedly killed in an airstrike around December 4th. Al-Bidi, a former leader of the Al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia, had fled from military operations against his previous organisation to Sirte – where he became a senior ISIS figure and was reportedly in charge of the terror group’s main prison.

Fayez Al-Bidi (Image: alzoberalzober on Twitter)

Civilians at risk

While there is no doubt that much of Sirte was destroyed in the subsequent fighting – and that trapped civilians were harmed – there are still no reliable numbers on how many died.

Reporting on the military operation and on civilian harm was difficult for locals and journalists for various reasons. The Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces cut off communication channels, so that people trapped in the city could not reach the outside world. And only a small number of journalists had access to the battleground, which made critical reporting almost impossible.

Nonetheless, some people on both sides sides were able to capture aspects of the battle for Sirte – in doing so creating accounts of life in a city which would be almost completely destroyed in the expanding fight against ISIS.

The first known report of likely civilian harm from US strikes was published on August 12th 2016. Various sources claimed that a teenager named Mohammed al-Qadhafi [a variant spelling of Gaddafi] died as a result of an airstrike on his family home, near the Gulf Challenge School.

With the battle for the city now fully underway, Alsharq Al-Awsat reported on September 8th 2016 that civilians had become trapped in Sirte’s ‘600’ neighbourhood – and that ISIS was using them as human shields. The GNA’s forces brought a temporary halt to their operation – though the Libya Herald claimed that the interruption was due not to the risk of civilian harm, but because ISIS fighters had managed to get behind the GNA frontline.

Video of an airstrike on Sirte posted by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces

ISIS desperately tried to fight off the advancing enemy during the campaign. It even reportedly used female snipers – a highly unusual move for the otherwise ultra- conservative terror group. Later Al Jazeera reported that the group was employing female suicide bombers as well.

Another credible report of possible civilian harm from the US-backed GNA assault came from Twitter on October 12th 2016. Majdi Alshrif and Hameda MK posted images of dead and injured children, which they claimed had been taken in the rubble of a collapsed house. On that same day the US self-reported ten airstrikes in Sirte, while local sources also described artillery shelling by Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous in the 600 neighbourhood.

A child reportedly injured in airstrikes in Sirte (Image: Amaq via Hamida mk)

Throughout the month of October there were repeated reports of civilians being trapped in besieged areas due to the lack of a safe passage. On October 21st, Ahmed El Sharkawy claimed on Facebook that women and children were trapped under rubble in the city. A week later, the assault had to be halted again, as ISIS was once more said to be using civilians as human shields according to GNA spokesperson Rida Issa.

In November, the fight for the remaining neighbourhoods of Sirte still under ISIS control intensified further – with the jihadists refusing to give up despite now being fully encircled by GNA troops. The besiegers in turn not only faced continued suicide attacks, booby traps and mines; but also had to avoid civilian casualties – including ISIS hostages and human shields. Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Rida Issa as saying that “[…] GNA troops could hear ‘the cries of civilians every time a strike is carried out’ but he did not know their number, only that ISIS had entrapped them.”

Women and children were among the victims – many of them family members of ISIS fighters. Al Aan TV interviewed Tasnim Alkhudry, a radicalised woman detained in a Sirte prison who gave a frank account of events in the besieged areas: “I was convinced by their ideology, so I moved to this city as my sister was living there. After living among them and losing our husbands, we discovered that ISIS members have engaged in hugely unacceptable behaviour.

“Apparently the Islamic State was not a genuine Islamic state that can protect vulnerable people like kids and women. The State was crossing the boundaries of fair behaviour. Therefore, when the war started in Sirte we were able to observe breaches of the rules of Islam – and the use of children and women as human shields.”

Al Aan TV interview with Tasnim Alkhudry

ISIS defeated

By December 6th 2016, ISIS was finally defeated at Sirte. It now became easier for journalists and investigators to gain access – with the significant damage to the city aloso now visible to all.

During the final days of the campaign and its immediate aftermath, the Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces reported saving hundreds of people from the rubble, including many children. Libya’s Channel published troubling footage of a small child wandering slowly out of a destroyed home, for example. Al Jazeera also showed powerful images of injured children receiving medical aid, and the many destroyed neighbourhoods of Sirte.

On December 16th, Elkul reported that the Misurata Central Hospital had received 47 injured children and 16 injured women during the whole campaign. And a few days later MC Doualiya published an article saying that “dozens of bodies are still under the rubble, the smell is very foul and it is feared that it will cause diseases such as plague,”. They quote a local citizen talking about unrecovered bodies: “There are terrorists, but also women and children who died of hunger and thirst under the rubble.”

Even so, there is still no official casualty count for those innocents caught up in the fighting at Sirte. AFRICOM ran the US air campaign which resulted in almost 500 strikes in 2016. When questioned about specific alleged civilian harm events during the battle, a spokesman 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.”

Privately however, one senior US military official indicated to Airwars that civilian casualties from US actions may indeed have occurred at Sirte – but that no estimates could presently be reached based on the available evidence.

Libya’s Channel shows Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous forces rescuing families

The battle for Sirte again makes clear why tracking harm from the perspective of affected civilians themselves is so important. Local reporting clearly suggests that non-combatants weren’t just trapped in the city, but were actively held hostage in besieged neighbourhoods by ISIS. Even so, the US still conducted 495 airstrikes at Sirte, while its ground allies the GNA also conducted airstrikes as well as intense artillery shelling during the siege.

By Airwars estimates at least 37 civilians were killed and 69 more injured as a result of airstrikes during the campaign. To date, none of the belligerents have been willing to concede any civilian harm from any of their actions.

Media sources also reported around 2,500 ISIS fighters slain. Around 700 GNA fighters were also reported killed, and between 3,200 and 4,000 injured.

More than 18 months after the end of the Sirte campaign, some unclaimed bodies are still kept in refrigerated containers near Misurata. Families are often reluctant to be associated with relatives who fought with ISIS. Al Aan TV filmed the containers and said there were still hundreds of unidentified corpses within – some of them women and children.

Additionally, many children were reportedly left orphaned by the battle, with their parents said to have fought and died with ISIS. The scars left by ISIS’s brief occupation of Sirte – and the brutal assault to free the city – may be borne for generations to come.

Children orphaned by the fighting at Sirte were the subjects of an Al Jazeera report

▲ ISIS religious enforcers smash a drum kit during their brief occupation of the Libyan city of Sirte (Screen grab via propaganda video)

Published

July 5, 2018

Written by

Airwars Staff

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).

Published

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.”

Published

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.”

Monitoring

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 pic.twitter.com/Mj200CX67C

— 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.

Published

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) pic.twitter.com/vVPIAgP557

— 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)