January 14th 2017: Mosul locals remove the bodies of 11 members of the Mahmood family, a month after they were killed in a reported Coalition airstrike (Picture courtesy of family)

Missing in action: Hundreds of civilian deaths pass unremarked in Obama’s final days

Written by Samuel Oakford on January 20, 2017


In the last weeks of the Obama presidency, the US-led air war against so-called Islamic State intensified dramatically – leading to hundreds of likely civilian deaths. Yet in contrast to recent events at Aleppo, international press coverage has been largely absent.

Since the official start of operations to capture Mosul on October 17th, Airwars researchers have tracked 91 allegations of civilian casualties from Coalition airstrikes in and around the city. Of those, 35 claimed events are from just the first 17 days of 2017, as Iraqi forces sought to capture all of eastern Mosul.

So far four Coalition incidents in the battle for Iraq’s second city have been confirmed, taking the lives of at least 20 civilians. A further 35 incidents have been graded as “fair” by Airwars researchers – meaning there are two or more credible local reports and Coalition airstrikes reported in the near vicinity. Based on Airwars assessments, those additional alleged strikes likely claimed the lives of between 294 and 350 civilians in Mosul. 

In the same period – from October 17th onward – Airwars researchers have recorded 62 alleged civilian casualty incidents stemming from Coalition operations supporting US proxy ground forces in Raqqa governorate.  Two of those incidents have been confirmed by the Coalition, while a further 43 were rated “fair” by Airwars researchers. Based on Airwars monitoring, those incidents appear likely to have claimed the lives of another 154 to 229 civilians.

Reports from Mosul in January have seen daily allegations of civilian deaths. Airwars has learned of at least one incident – which reportedly claimed the lives of 11 civilians from one family – a full month after it occurred. It is likely that additional cases will be uncovered as journalists gain access to the liberated east of the city. And in Raqqa, several alleged Coalition strikes over the last month have claimed dozens of lives. 

Both cities are being hit heavily by foreign airpower, leaving many civilians dead amid siege-like conditions. But in the waning days of the Obama administration – and just after the much-covered fall of rebel-held Aleppo – media interest shifted. In total, 450 or more civilians appear to have been killed in intense Coalition actions across Iraq and Syria since October – yet their deaths have largely been ignored. 

“With reported fatalities from Coalition strikes at record levels we would have expected significant media engagement,” says Airwars Director Chris Woods. “Instead, anything beyond local reporting has been almost non-existent.”

U.S. Army soldiers prepare AH-64E Apache for operation in Erbil, Iraq on January 10, 2017. (Photo taken from U.S. Army video.)
Erbil, Iraq: US troops prepare AH-64E Apache attack helicopters for operations on January 10 2017 (Photo via US Army video.)

Heavy firepower

According to the United Nations, the assault on Mosul is the largest such military operation since World War Two. Despite an estimated 1.2 million civilians being trapped in the city at the start of the siege, the firepower unleashed has been formidable.

According to military officials, the Coalition has already released more than 9,500 munitions during 419 airstrikes in support of operations to capture Mosul. According to a spokesperson, those strikes have “destroyed 145 VBIEDs, [vehicle borne improvised explosive devices] 349 buildings/facilities, 845 craters/bridges, 132 tunnels, 335 vehicles, 377 bunkers, 23 AAA [anti-aircraft artillery], and 300 artillery/mortar systems.”

American Apache helicopters are also used regularly by the Coalition, and have fired more than 150 munitions according to officials. Airwars can also report that as of January 12th, more than 4,500 artillery shells and rockets had been fired by Coalition ground forces in the vicinity of Mosul since October 17th.

None of these totals count heavy weapons used by Iraqi Security Forces, or missiles and bombs dropped by the Iraqi Air Force. Though the UN recently claimed Iraqi forces have avoided artillery strikes inside Mosul in order to avoid civilian casualties, monitoring of social media accounts used by Iraqi forces show artillery and other ground-based munitions regularly being fired into the city. Iraq’s own air force of F-16s, armed Chinese drones and attack helicopters is also heavily engaged, and has reportedly been responsible for civilian deaths. 

Coalition commander Major General Martin tweets in support of Iraqi forces using rockets and artillery in the assault on Mosul, January 19th 2017

Counting the dead

Public estimates vary of civilians killed since the start of operations on October 17th to capture Mosul. The United Nations, which was recently pressured into no longer publishing tallies of Iraqi security forces killed in the battle, does not have an official estimate of civilian deaths – though one UN official has suggested it could be nearly half of all combat fatalities in Mosul. In a “normal conflict this would be around 15 to 20 percent,” another UN source told Airwars. “Here it is surely higher.”

For the first two months of the Mosul campaign, signs pointed to ISIL being responsible for the majority of civilian deaths. The militant group indiscriminately mortared captured neighbourhoods, and fired on non-combatants attempting to escape ISIL territory – claiming the lives of many civilians.

But there are also ominous signs, especially of late, that civilians are dying in increasing numbers as a result of intensified ground operations supported by Coalition air power. It is not always clear who is responsible for civilian deaths, but casualty numbers are moving upwards.

On January 12th for example, as many as 30 civilians were reportedly killed on the left (Western) side of the Tigris River, which has yet to see ground assaults by Iraqi security forces. According to The Guardian, witnesses described at least three missiles striking the al-Jadida district. The target may have been a senior ISIL leader named Harbi Abdel Qader. “He was not in the building at the time, but several members of his family died,” wrote the paper, citing a local resident. It was unclear whether the strike had been carried out by the Coalition or the Iraqi Air Force.

Airwars spoke to one Western journalist who has been covering operations in Mosul since October. He described significant early access to the battle, then far less as the fighting pushed into the city. Today, he is able to venture once more into liberated areas. But reporting has not kept pace with the civilian toll.

“By early December our access was basically completely cut off,” he said. “There hasn’t been a lot of reporting [on civilian casualties] in Mosul. I don’t think there is enough – the amount of reporting doesn’t reflect the reality.”

Airwars’ Iraq researcher has closely monitored civilian casualty claims in Mosul for the past two years. He says the firepower reportedly unleashed by Iraqi forces and the Coalition has increased since the end of December, as they pressed towards the Tigris from the east – capturing important districts and landmarks like the city’s University.

In many cases, ISIL fighters may be present in an area, darting in and out of buildings or firing sniper rounds from a roof. But they may also have gone by the time strikes are called in.

“According to locals, twenty minutes later American jets come and destroy those locations even if there is no ISIS,” says the researcher.

A family slain

Salam al Sultan, a Moslawi who now lives in Canada, told Airwars how eleven members of his family were killed in the early afternoon of December 13th by one such incident in east Mosul – after airstrikes tried to take out an ISIL sniper a few houses down. Their bodies could only be recovered from the rubble a month later.

Salam’s uncle, Ahmed Nather Mahmood, lived with his wife and two sons, Sehab and Amear and their families in al Sukur, a Mosul neighbourhood which has recently seen heavy fighting.  

Sometime around 1pm, a neighbour who had planned to flee the fighting arrived to see if the Mahmood family would leave with him. Fearful of the violence around them, Salam’s family had already packed to escape, but told the neighbour to linger just a bit longer.

“He came to them and said let us leave. They said let us finish our lunch, and we will leave together,” said Salam, speaking to Airwars by phone from Canada. “The neighbour said no I’m leaving.”

Minutes later, an airstrike obliterated the home. Salam, who had already lost one brother to an ISIS execution in 2015 and another to unknown assailants during violence in Mosul in 2008, now lost eleven more members of his family.

“They were going to leave… Hanan said ‘even my luggage was ready, my bag was ready,’” he said, referring to a female cousin who survived the attack, but whose whereabouts are now unclear. “They were just going to finish their lunch.”

For a month the bodies of Salam’s uncle, aunt, his brothers and their dead children lay under the shattered remnants of their home. Only on January 14th were other family members and neighbours able to start retrieving their corpses. The stench was overpowering.

Salam says his family was fearful of airstrikes, but considered them “more accurate” prior to the operation to retake the city, and especially of late. The Iraqi government, he said, was behind schedule – and now moved quickly with “massive firepower.”

Only after the attack did those who survived learn why the area may have been targeted: an ISIS sniper had apparently been spotted on a roof two houses down.“If there is a sniper how come they don’t use a small machine gun from a plane, how come they have to use a big rocket to destroy three or four houses?”

The house of Ahmed Nather Mahmood, where eleven family members died. Photograph courtesy of family.

‘Fear has me paralyzed’

In November Airwars spoke with Noora, a Moslawi now living in the United Kingdom. She described then how her young cousin and the girl’s mother were killed in airstrikes on Mosul during 2015. A year later, another relative was cut down by an airdropped munition.

Noora’s grandparents and aunt have remained in Mosul, communicating intermittently as they waited for security forces to reach their neighbourhood. In the summer of 2016, her grandmother had referred offhand to an airstrike as “nothing.” After reviewing the incident with Airwars, Noora learned that the attack likely left nearly a dozen civilians dead, and was extremely close to where her grandmother lived. It was certainly not “nothing.”

On January 10th 2017, Airwars spoke to Noora again. “They’re getting close to my family’s neighbourhood,” she wrote. “Fear has me paralyzed.” Days earlier, on January 6th, her aunt had been near to a deadly strike that killed several members of a family with which hers was close. Local reports indicated that some 20 civilians were killed when alleged Coalition planes bombed near the entrance of a mosque in the Ziraei district of eastern Mosul. Those local reports and social media posts included the names of Noora’s family’s friends.

During the bombing Noora’s aunt called her family, distraught. “There were so many strikes that day,” she said. Footage posted by an ISIL-linked outlet showed the destruction. An internal UN human rights assessment obtained by Airwars included the following account of the incident:

Airstrike reportedly kills 17 civilians and wounds 11 others in Mosul: During the morning of 6 January, sources alleged that airstrikes targeting an ISIL gathering in Ziraie neighbourhood of central Mosul killed 17 civilians, including seven women and four children, and wounded 11 others, including four women and two children.

On January 18th, Iraq’s government said it had gained complete control of eastern Mosul. Some 450,000 residents are now free of ISIL. But nearly double that number – around 750,000 people – remain to the west of the Tigris River according to UN figures. Already behind its stated schedule to retake the entire city, Iraqi armed forces will now turn their attention to the left bank. Numerous additional civilian casualties are likely.

Raqqa: the invisible campaign

While the assault on Mosul has been reasonably well reported, almost no international media coverage has been given to Coalition-supported actions to recapture Raqqa city from so-called islamic State.

In some of his final comments, outgoing US Defense Secretary Ash Carter noted that “our local partners continue to converge down on Raqqa and I’m also confident that they will soon have ISIL’s so-called capital isolated.” Yet Airwars tracking suggests the cost to civilians has been high – with at least 154 non-combatants recently alleged killed around the city.

The US’s preferred ground proxies the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – comprising mostly Kurdish irregulars – have captured a string of villages and towns in heavy fighting in recent weeks, supported by intense Coalition (mainly US) airstrikes. But the reported civilian death toll has been very high, with almost daily allegations of ‘massacres’ from key local monitors.

“In November we saw almost daily allegations and sometimes several a day – so that in that one month alone there were 35 incidents with more than 150 civilians claimed killed,” says Airwars’ senior Syria researcher Kinda Haddad. “This pattern continued into December – albeit somewhat reduced – with 14 alleged incidents causing over 90 civilian casualties.”

“This has been a consistent pattern we have seen over the course of the war,” adds Haddad. “Every time strikes are stepped up we see a notable rise in allegations of civilian casualties. As ever, this is because ISIL is based in civilian centres and not on an imaginary front line. They live among civilians and their offices are located on main streets and in residential and office buildings. So while individually they may be legitimate military targets, their location means they are in effect also civilian targets.”

Widah Abdallah (via Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently)
Widah Abdallah, a victim of a Nov 19th attack on Bia’as village. Te Coalition says the incident is now under investigation (via Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently)

Among the incidents tracked by Haddad and her colleagues was a series of attacks on Al Heisha village in Raqqa governorate on November 8th, which reportedly left as many as 24 civilians dead. In that case, both the Coalition and the SDF – were blamed. In daily reporting for November 7th-8th and November 8th-9th, the Coalition reported two strikes near “Ar Raqqah.”

On the same day – November 8th – between two and five civilians, possibly including two children, were reportedly killed in Al Kalta village.

On November 19th, between 8 and 11 civilians were killed in Bia’as village in an incident that the Coalition has confirmed to Airwars is now under investigation. Width Abdullah (pictured) was among the dead. A similar pattern of heavy casualties from reported airstrikes continued into the next month.

Fadel Abdul Ghani, director of the Syrian Network for Human Rights, points to an incident on December 9th, at a time when SDF forces were able to reach Ja’bar Castle near the city of al Tabaqa. “International forces launched raids to support the progress of the Syrian Democratic Forces and caused dozens of civilian casualties,” Mr Abdul Ghani told Airwars. “The most prominent incident was the bombing of the village of Ma’yezila in northern Raqqa, which is under the control of Daesh – killing 22 civilians, including six children and six women.”

Asked why he thought there was such a lack of international media coverage of the toll inflicted by the anti-ISIL campaign at Raqqa, Mr Abdul Ghani said: “The justification is always there – Daesh.”

In 2017, heavy Coalition strikes have continued. On January 6th, another raid northeast of Tabaqa reportedly claimed the lives of at least eight civilians. The Syrian Observatory for Human rights reported that “the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in a critical situation.”

“The Al-Swidiyyeh massacre is considered the first massacre against civilians carried out by warplanes of the coalition during the year 2017,” said the Observatory.

Donald Trump, inaugurated as US President on January 20th, has promised to “bomb the hell out of ISIS” – making defeat of the terror group a key goal. If the Trump campaign is to match or increase the intensity of the last months of the Obama administration, the civilian toll will only grow.