At least 36 declared strikes during Biden's second year in power
In the second year of President Joe Biden’s administration, the number of US airstrikes fell to an historic low as some military engagements appeared to take a different form — with the redeployment of US forces to Somalia and a shift towards targeted raids on Islamic State figures in Syria.
The overall number of declared US airstrikes across all monitored military theatres fell from 441 in 2021 to a minimum of 36 in 2022 – mostly due to the 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. This is the lowest number of strikes the US has declared annually since the 9/11 terrorist atrocities in 2001 and subsequent launch of the so-called ‘War on Terror’.
This drastic drop was also indicative of another shift – while airstrikes seemed to occur with less frequency in all military theatres except Somalia, the number of more loosely defined military operations increased in some, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
2022 saw intense focus on US civilian harm policy – with the launch of the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan (CHM-RAP). The proposals are supposed to reduce the number of civilians killed in future conflicts and improve the civilian harm review process. It came after years of work organisations like Airwars and journalists documenting how the US military’s process for assessing, reviewing and investigating civilian harm was unfit for purpose.
During the year the Biden Administration also altered US policy on engaging militants outside of recognised conflicts by issuing a Presidential Policy Memorandum to Congress – but not to the public. Airwars joined over 50 civil society organisations in calling on the White House to release the new lethal force policy.
Iraq and Syria
There was a noticeable shift in the kind of operations the US carried out in Iraq and Syria in 2022, and this was reflected in changing language from CENTCOM – the military command responsible for the Middle East and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, the US officially ended its combat role at the end of 2021 – formally transitioning to advising, assisting and enabling the Iraqi Security Forces. However, there are still around 2,500 US troops in the country and it remains unclear what the exact definition and limits of ‘assistance’ entails.
In Syria, the US has yet to make an equivalent official declaration – partly as its estimated 900 troops in the country are there without the support of the Damascus regime. However the pattern of behaviour is similar to Iraq – with most activities in partnership with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), primarily in the north and east of the country.
Based on official reporting, Airwars estimates that the US conducted a minimum of 20 airstrikes in Syria in 2022. This is by far the lowest figure since 2014, when the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State was formed.
CENTCOM’s end of year review stated that US forces carried out a total of 313 operations in Iraq and Syria during 2022, with 686 militants allegedly killed. In Iraq, US forces conducted 191 partnered operations, with at least 220 operatives killed and 159 ISIS operatives detained. In Syria, they conducted 108 partnered operations and 14 unilateral operations – with 466 ISIS operatives killed and 215 detained. CENTCOM does not define what an ‘operation’ is – making it difficult to understand the discrepancy between these figures and those in press releases throughout the year.
The 2022 report by CENTCOM also doesn’t mention civilian casualties. However, Airwars recorded 13 incidents where harm to civilians allegedly occurred from the actions of the US-led Coalition.
In 10 of these incidents, the Coalition was reported as the only belligerent responsible. In those incidents between seven and 13 civilians were reported killed. In the other three incidents, it was unclear from local sources whether the civilian harm was caused by the US-led Coalition, their SDF allies or ISIS militants. In total these incidents could account for up to 15 additional deaths, excluding the casualty toll of a complex ISIS prison breakout that began on January 20th.
That incident was the largest reported US action during the year and came as ISIS militants led a daring raid at al-Sinaa prison, a detention facility where thousands of alleged former fighters were detained. CENTCOM provided aerial and ground-based support and carried out airstrikes throughout the ten days of battle. A year on, limited definitive information exists as to how many civilians and militants were killed by the different military forces and militants involved. The exact number of US strikes conducted also remains unclear – with the US-led Coalition referring only to a “series of strikes.” Airwars monitored a minimum of 13 strikes during ten days of fighting though this is likely an underestimate, with other monitoring organisations estimating the figure to be several dozen. A joint Airwars and VICE News investigation examined the failures that led up to the prison break.
In early February 2022, US Special Operations Forces conducted a raid that resulted in the death of ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, as well as his wife and children – with up to thirteen civilians killed, including six children and four women. Local reporting was conflicted as to whether the civilian casualties were caused by US forces or by Qurayshi detonating a suicide device.
Airwars also tracked an incident where a civilian was reportedly killed when he was run over by a vehicle allegedly belonging to the Coalition on November 14, 2022 in Deir Ezzor, Syria.
It is unclear whether the US-led Coalition in Iraq and Syria, known as Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), is still actively assessing civilian harm allegations. OIR last released a civilian casualty report in March 2022, which indicated that it still had 37 reports of civilian casualties still under review.
US direct involvement in Somalia increased in 2022.
US troops were officially withdrawn from the country in January 2021; shortly before President Biden assumed power. Between then and May 2022, rotating groups of American special operations units provided training and assistance to Somali and African Union forces. The then head of AFRICOM – the US military command for Africa – General Stephen Townsend, complained this structure was “not effective.”
In May 2022, Biden approved a plan to deploy several hundred ground forces to the country.
On August 9th 2022, a new head of AFRICOM – General Michael Langley – was instated, while the new Somali administration has requested the US loosen its restrictions on drone strikes.
US strikes have since increased – in total AFRICOM declared 15 strikes in Somalia in 2022, up from 11 in 2021. Airwars tracked a further five strikes that local sources attributed to US forces but were not declared by AFRICOM.
In the 15 declared strikes, AFRICOM claimed 107 alleged al-Shabaab militants were killed, while local reporting or statements by the Somali government put casualties significantly higher. To date it has released only two quarterly civilian casualty assessments which referenced strikes in 2022 (covering the period from January 1-June 30), but did not acknowledge any civilian harm was caused by its actions.
Airwars tracked two allegations of civilian harm in 2022 where local sources pointed to US forces’ involvement. One of these occurred on September 9, when up to ten civilians were reportedly killed in an airstrike south of the capital Mogadishu. The Somali government initially released a statement acknowledging the strike but other sources pointed out that the attack allegedly involved a drone – a capability Somali forces were not believed to have until their recent reported acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar drones. To date no belligerent has accepted responsibility.
Less than a month later, the US declared an airstrike on an al-Shabaab leader, Abudullahi Yare. Local sources alleged that Ibrahim Hassan Dahir was also killed – some referred to him as a civilian and a farmer, while others said that he was the son of a former extremist leader who is under house arrest.
Information gathered from areas under the control of the militant group al-Shabaab is notoriously limited, making determinations of civilian status in Somalia a significant challenge. Multiple sources have called into question the status of those that the US alleges are militants. In a recent report examining the impact of US airstrikes on Jubbaland, a part of Somalia controlled by al-Shabaab, Dutch organisation Pax and journalist Amanda Sperber explained:
“The interviews for this report do raise serious questions about the ability of the US to consistently distinguish between armed men who are not involved with Al-Shabaab, armed pastoralist community members who are forced to work for Al-Shabaab and actual Al-Shabaab fighters. Al Shabaab is thoroughly ingrained in Jubbaland society, which complicates external observations about who is and is not Al Shabaab and can thus hamper proper application of the principle of distinction.”
The US officially withdrew its support from the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen in 2021, in one of Biden’s major first foreign policy announcements. A ceasefire came into effect in the country in April 2022, which was later extended until October.
In 2022, CENTCOM did not declare any airstrikes or operations in Yemen. Airwars tracked two incidents allegedly conducted by US forces, in which civilians were killed and injured. The first was a February 6 drone strike that killed three al-Qaeda militants but also reportedly injured and killed civilians who were nearby – though the exact number was not reported by local sources.
The second alleged strike, on November 30, reportedly targeted the home of a member of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, causing secondary explosions which killed up to three civilians and injured up to five others.
Since 2017, Airwars has tracked a minimum of 78 deaths and 28 injuries to civilians resulting from US actions in Yemen. However, CENTCOM has only admitted to causing the deaths of 13 civilians, and injuring a further three. The CIA has carried out sporadic strikes throughout the period, but none of them have been officially recognised.
Yemeni organisations such as Mwatana for Human Rights continue to seek accountability from the Department of Defense, with questions around specific civilian casualty incidents unanswered or inadequately resolved. One victim of a 2018 drone strike, Adel al Manthari, resorted to a GoFundMe campaign in 2022 to pay for his insurance and medical bills.
Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan
When the US officially withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, Biden said he retained the right to conduct ‘over the horizon’ strikes from nearby countries. The only acknowledged US airstrike in 2022 was the July drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul. This was allegedly conducted by the CIA and did not result in any allegations of civilian casualties.
Airwars does not monitor US involvement in Afghanistan, but UNAMA – the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan– tracked civilian casualties in the country for years. Since the US withdrawal, UNAMA has stopped publishing regular updates.
There were no reports of US airstrikes in Libya or Pakistan during 2022.
Methodology note – counting US airstrikes
Iraq and Syria:
Until 2022, Airwars would review AFCENT reporting, press releases published by CJTF-OIR, and other official CENTCOM reports. No AFCENT reports were released in 2022, with only sporadic reporting from CENTCOM and CJTF-OIR throughout the year on strike reporting. To reach estimates of airstrikes in 2022, the following information methodology was applied – see table below for details:
Where plurals of ‘strikes’ were referenced, Airwars chose a minimum estimate of two airstrikes.
However, regarding the Al-Sinaa prison break in Syria, during which CJTF-OIR declared “a series of strikes,” Airwars monitoring of local sources recorded at least 13 incidents where alleged US-led Coalition strikes were reportedly conducted. These incidents allegedly occurred between January 21st and January 28th 2022. Other Syrian-focussed monitoring organisations had estimates of several dozen strikes.
When references were only made in official reporting to ‘operations’, without explicit mention to strikes conducted, no strikes were counted. Airwars local monitoring indicates that operations mainly refer to ground actions.
|Source||Date||Language used in official reporting||Country||Airwars’s estimated number of declared strikes*|
|CJTF-OIR||Jan 4 2022||“four suspects captured”||Syria||0|
|CJTF-OIR||Jan 30 2022||“Coalition forces conducted (…) a series of strikes throughout the days-long operation”||Syria||13|
|CJTF-OIR||Jun 16 2022||“counterterrorism operation”||Syria||0|
|CENTCOM||Jun 27 2022||“CENTCOM Forces conducted a kinetic strike”||Syria||1|
|CENTCOM||Jul 12 2022||“U.S. Central Command Forces conducted a UAS strike”||Syria||1|
|CENTCOM||Aug 23 2022||“U.S. military forces conducted precision airstrikes”||Syria||2|
|CENTCOM||Aug 25 2022||“CENTCOM forces struck at Iran-affiliated militants in the area with AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, AC-130 gunships, and M777 artillery”||Syria||3|
|CENTCOM||Dec 11 2022||“Helicopter raid”||Syria||0|
|CENTCOM||Dec 16 2022||“6 partnered operations”||Syria||0|
|CENTCOM||Dec 20 2022||“three helicopter raids” “partnered operations”||Syria||0|
|CENTCOM||Dec 29 2022||“CENTCOM conducted 313 total operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria”||Syria/Iraq||0|
|Estimated Total Strikes||20|
* according to US sources and Airwars Local Monitoring
Reporting from AFRICOM for Somalia was consistent with previous years; in 2022, exact numbers of airstrikes were released routinely throughout the year. In Yemen, CENTCOM press releases were used to monitor declared airstrikes – of which there were none in 2022. In Afghanistan, Airwars formerly monitored AFCENT reporting – the only reported strike in 2022 was released by the State Department.
It should be noted that the term ‘airstrike’ is also not used consistently across different military forces, and between military commands – see our overview on this here.
For any questions or clarifications on our methodology, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.