How Airwars found the hidden casualties of Britain’s war against IS

Summary: the UK government and the MoD say only one civilian has been killed by an airstrike it carried out during the campaign against the Islamic State, a claim that Airwars has shown to be demonstrably wrong. Despite that the UK continues to hold to the claim.

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2 thoughts on “How Airwars found the hidden casualties of Britain’s war against IS”

  1. MoD’s claim may rest on how they define a “civilian”. The US have a similar issue with the credibility of their statistics:

    “It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

    “Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

    “This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

    “But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.

    “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”


  2. Further to our newsletter today Airwars have issued the following press release:

    Airwars is to challenge the Ministry of Defence and the Information Commissioner at a tribunal over the refusal to release basic information about the sole civilian the UK accepts killing in the war against the Islamic State, it announced Tuesday.

    During the eight years of the UK’s contribution to the Anti-ISIS Coalition in Iraq and Syria, British aircrafts dropped more than 4,300 munitions, and the Ministry of Defence claims to have killed more than 4,000 ISIS militants. Yet the strike on March 26, 2018 remains the only time the UK government has officially accepted harming civilians.

    Then Minister of Defence Gavin Williamson told parliament in May 2018 that “during a strike to engage three Daesh fighters, a civilian motorbike crossed into the strike area at the last moment and it is assessed that one civilian was unintentionally killed.”

    But an Airwars investigation with The Guardian yesterday revealed major questions about the Ministry of Defence’s version of events. It concluded:

    The civilian casualty unit of the US-led Coalition reviewed the details of the same strike and concluded that there was no civilian harm from a strike in the location reported.
    British government logs of all RAF airstrikes that killed militants, released under Freedom of Information laws, show no British strike on the day in question.
    Multiple Syrian rights groups that track civilian harm found no evidence of any civilians killed by airstrikes in that region that day.
    Last month a related Airwars investigation with The Guardian revealed British links to strikes that the coalition accepted killed 32 civilians. These investigations have laid bare how the UK’s deeply flawed civilian harm monitoring mechanisms and shown the importance of transparency about their policies.

    After years of refusal by the Ministry of Defence to discuss the March 2018 incident, in 2021 Airwars’ head of investigations Joe Dyke filed a Freedom of Information request seeking details about the location of the strike and documents outlining how the determination that the victim was a civilian was reached.

    The MoD has rejected dozens of other well-documented allegations of civilian harm caused by its airstrikes – including three in which the coalition concluded civilians were killed. It has repeatedly refused to reveal details of the mechanism by which it decides whether its strikes killed civilians.

    For two years the MoD has employed lawyers to fight the release of the information requested, arguing that it could jeopardise national security, relations with friendly nations, and put the security of individual staff at risk. Much of the evidence it uses to justify this claim is secret.

    The MoD’s position is difficult to understand in light of the release by the United States of 1,300 documents of the exact kind requested. These were given to Azmat Khan of The New York Times after a freedom of information request. Many offer granular details of strikes – including the desired target and even chat logs between drone pilots.

    The Dutch government has also made significant steps towards transparency and last week released the geo-coordinates of more than 600 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.

    “These are vital questions both for the British public, and for the civilians in Iraq and Syria who have been affected by British actions,” Emily Tripp, Airwars’ director, said.

    “While most comparable militaries, including the UK’s closest allies the United States, are moving towards more transparency and accountability for the unintended civilian impact of their actions, the UK is going the other way.

    “The Ministry of Defence remains a black box.”

    The Tribunal appeal is due to come to a head later this year, when a panel will be asked to decide whether the British public has the right to know anything more about the assessment processes relevant to the case of the one civilian the UK accepted killing in nine years of war.

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