US military releases data on civilian harm in war on ISIL

Watchdog obtains US military specific coordinates for confirmed incidents resulting in civilian harm during the war.

Smoke rises from the Syrian city of Kobani, following an air raid by the US-led coalition [File: Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo]

For the first time since the US-led coalition launched a war against ISIL (ISIS) in 2014, the US military has exclusively released the geographic coordinates for nearly all confirmed instances of civilian harm and deaths in Iraq and Syria to Airwars, a UK-based non-profit organisation that works to track and assess military actions in conflict zones.

The data obtained by Airwars has allowed for the accurate locating of 341 incidents of civilian harm and roughly 1,400 civilian deaths from 2014 to 2019 that have been acknowledged by the US military.

Airwars estimates that the total number of civilians killed by US-led coalition forces during the war is somewhere in the range of 8,310 to 13,187.

The breakthrough provides insight into questions that have been looming for years. The data shows when and where a particular event took place, and simplifies the process of determining which individuals were affected by a specific attack. This new evidence could potentially open the door for formal apologies and restitution payments from the United States and its allies.

Former chief coalition spokesman Colonel Myles Caggins told Airwars that the primary reason behind the US military’s decision to release this data now was transparency.

“We take every allegation of civilian casualties with the utmost sincerity, concern, and diligence; we see the addition of the geolocations as a testament to transparency, and our commitment to working with agencies like Airwars to correctly identify civilian harm incidents.”

An aircraft lands after completing missions targeting the ISIL group in Iraq in August 2014 [File: Hasan Jamali/AP Photo]

Major breakthrough

In response to rapid territorial gains made by the ISIL group in 2014, the US-led coalition began efforts to combat the group in August of that year. The US military supplied Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga forces with weapons on the ground and launched intensive air raids against the group in Iraq and Syria.

Airwars notes that the release of specific coordinates “is believed to be the most comprehensive locational civilian casualty data ever released by the US military”. Most coordinates come within 100 metres of the incident location cited by the military, while certain coordinates come as close as one metre.

Of the 344 “credible” incidents of civilian harm on record, 341 have been confirmed through this data. The remaining three were excluded by the military for various reasons such as continuing investigations and the inclusion of sensitive information.

Many of these incidents have also been confirmed through firsthand accounts such as photos and videos posted to the internet by witnesses.

Properly locating events

The United States Central Command (CENTCOM) established its civilian casualty assessment team in 2016 and began publishing reports of confirmed civilian casualties stemming from the war against ISIL on a regular basis.

The US-led coalition forces took over these assessments in December 2016, and began publishing monthly summaries of actions resulting in civilian harm. While these steps provided greater insight and transparency into adverse impacts on civilian populations, there was little information linking these events to specific geographic locations.

This posed particular challenges in areas where heavy fighting had taken place.

For example, Airwars reported extremely heavy fighting in Mosul, Iraq for the month of March 2017. The non-profit tracked five separate claims of incidents resulting in civilian harm for the day of March 14 alone. Some days saw more than a dozen claims reported. Without the specific coordinates, there was no way of separating these events from one another.

In this July 11, 2017 photo, airstrikes target ISIL positions on the edge of the Old City in Iraq [File: Felipe Dana/AP Photo]

Moving forward

This location-specific data could pave a path forward for effected Iraqis and Syrians to obtain restitution from the US government and its coalition allies.

Citing a report from the Pentagon, Airwars noted that only six “ex gratia” payments were made to Iraqis in 2019, compared with over 600 payments in Afghanistan. An inability to prove the exact attack or location of an event that resulted in civilian harm posed a major obstacle to affected Iraqis and Syrians seeking to pursue claims. With the release of more specific geographic data, more claims could potentially be filed.

Source: Al Jazeera