Seeing War’s Victims: The New York Times Investigation of Civilian Casualties in Iraq and Syria
by John Whitehead
The New York Times recently published the results of an in-depth investigation into American bombing and its consequences. The Times articles, which came out in late December 2021, focused on the American bombing campaign in Iraq and Syria against ISIS. Drawing on internal Defense Department documents and extensive interviews, including with those affected by the bombings, the investigation concludes that “the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting.” While the US military officially claims that the air war against ISIS has killed 1,417 civilians, the Times’ findings point to higher numbers.
Records of Killing
The Defense Department documents analyzed by the Times were “credibility assessments”: a report on bombing incidents (apparently carried out mainly by missile-armed drones) in which civilians were allegedly harmed. Experts within the military assess the information on these incidents to determine if the reports are credible. Incidents are generally judged non-credible if the evidence is vague or insufficient or if no record exists of an airstrike at that time in that place.
The Times obtained, through Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits, 1,311 credibility assessments related to US bombing in Syria and Iraq between September 2014 and January 2018 (these documents are apparently only part of a much larger number of assessments). Of the assessments analyzed by the Times, only 216 deemed the reports of civilian harm “credible.”
While the credibility assessments alone don’t provide an adequate record of the air war’s toll, Times’ analysis of the 216 “credible” incidents contains notable findings. Civilians were killed and injured variously because they were misidentified as enemy fighters; they weren’t detected in the vicinity of the air strike; air strikes were based on flawed intelligence; surveillance video failed to capture crucial information about the area; civilians entered the vicinity of the strike at the last moment, after a weapon had been launched; or striking certain targets, such as weapons caches, caused additional explosions.
Some incidents suggest that US military personnel carrying out the air strikes was interpreting on-the-ground evidence to fit what they were looking for, with terrible consequences. US operatives searching for an ISIS bomb-making center in a Syrian village identified a walled compound that was the hub of suspicious traffic as the desired target. “White bags” within the compound were identified as materials for making explosives. The US military then bombed multiple buildings on November 20, 2016.
A subsequent military investigation showed no traces of the alleged explosive ingredients and concluded the compound had probably been a center for making cotton, not bombs. American officials said two civilians may have been killed; other reports said nine civilians had been killed.
In another incident, US forces operating in Mosul, Iraq, were looking for a dark-colored, heavily armored car allegedly armed with a bomb. This led to the United States bombing a dark colored car on February 25, 2017. However, far from being a car bomb, the vehicle carried a family. Also, the personnel carrying out the air strike made the truly strange choice to bomb the car at a busy intersection. The credibility assessment concluded five civilians had been killed or injured; an independent Times investigation in the area concluded seven people had been killed.
In some cases, the surveillance conducted prior to an air strike to determine the presence of civilians was very limited, sometimes consisting of only a few seconds of video footage. Lack of sufficient surveillance drones to survey areas was a problem.
Further, the Times investigation found US military procedures for investigating alleged civilian casualties, holding those responsible accountable, and learning lessons were lacking. The military unit that carried out an airstrike often ended up investigating the strike. Of the 1,311 credibility assessments, in only one assessment did investigators visit the strike’s site and in only two did they interview people present during the strike. Only a quarter of the documented cases reviewed by the Times included recommendations for further action. Fewer than a dozen condolence payments have been made to those affected by the bombing.
Death on the Ground
Given the inadequacies of the US military’s self-investigation, the Times carried out its own investigations of US airstrikes. Between late 2016 and June 2021, Times investigators visited, in Iraq and Syria, the sites of 60 incidents in which the US military deemed reports of civilian casualties credible and the site of 36 “non-credible” or as-yet-unassessed incidents.
Sources outside US military assessments unsurprisingly point to more civilian casualties than acknowledged by military sources. In many cases, the Times found civilian casualties to be almost double the military estimates. The Times reporting also found more children being killed or injured than in the military documents.
One dramatic incident was the bombing of the Syrian village of Tokhar. The US military bombed, on July 19, 2016, what they thought were ISIS forces located in an area without civilians. The bombing supposedly killed 85 ISIS fighters. A subsequent investigation, prompted by reports of civilian deaths, concluded that between 7 and 24 civilians “intermixed with the fighters” might have been killed.
When the Times interviewed Tokhar residents in 2018, their account of the incident was that large numbers of villagers had sought shelter from fighting between ISIS and anti-ISIS forces in four homes. Those homes were then bombed. No ISIS fighters were known to be in the area. From the interviews and other sources, the Times concluded that more than 120 people had been killed. The United States never made any condolence payments to those affected by the incident.
Precise numbers aside, every death in war is tragic and devastating to the loved ones of those killed. Ali Younes Muhammad Sultan lost his daughter, Sawsan, along with other members of his extended family in a 2016 US bombing in Mosul that killed 21 people. He described finding Sawsan’s remains in the aftermath of the air strike:
If it weren’t for her clothes, I wouldn’t have even known it was her…She was just pieces of meat. I recognized her only because she was wearing the purple dress that I bought for her a few days before. It’s indescribable. I can’t put it into words…We’re still in denial and disbelief. To this day, we cannot believe what happened. That day changed everything for us.
The victims of war all too often die and suffer unnoticed by the larger world. The Times investigation draws attention to their suffering and reminds us powerfully of war’s horrifying results.
For similar posts from John Whitehead, see: