The promise was a war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs. The documents show flawed intelligence, faulty targeting, years of civilian deaths — and scant accountability.
This is the first part of a series. Part 2 will examine the air war’s human toll.
Shortly before 3 a.m. on July 19, 2016, American Special Operations forces bombed what they believed were three ISIS “staging areas” on the outskirts of Tokhar, a riverside hamlet in northern Syria. They reported 85 fighters killed. In fact, they hit houses far from the front line, where farmers, their families and other local people sought nighttime sanctuary from bombing and gunfire. More than 120 villagers were killed.
In early 2017 in Iraq, an American war plane struck a dark-colored vehicle, believed to be a car bomb, stopped at an intersection in the Wadi Hajar neighborhood of West Mosul. Actually, the car had been bearing not a bomb but a man named Majid Mahmoud Ahmed, his wife and their two children, who were fleeing the fighting nearby. They and three other civilians were killed.
In November 2015, after observing a man dragging an “unknown heavy object” into an ISIS “defensive fighting position,” American forces struck a building in Ramadi, Iraq. A military review found that the object was actually “a person of small stature” — a child — who died in the strike.
None of these deadly failures resulted in a finding of wrongdoing.
These cases are drawn from a hidden Pentagon archive of the American air war in the Middle East since 2014.
The trove of documents — the military’s own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties, obtained by The New York Times — lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.
The documents show, too, that despite the Pentagon’s highly codified system for examining civilian casualties, pledges of transparency and accountability have given way to opacity and impunity. In only a handful of cases were the assessments made public. Not a single record provided includes a finding of wrongdoing or disciplinary action. Fewer than a dozen condolence payments were made, even though many survivors were left with disabilities requiring expensive medical care. Documented efforts to identify root causes or lessons learned are rare.
The air campaign represents a fundamental transformation of warfare that took shape in the final years of the Obama administration, amid the deepening unpopularity of the forever wars that had claimed more than 6,000 American service members. The United States traded many of its boots on the ground for an arsenal of aircraft directed by controllers sitting at computers, often thousands of miles away. President Barack Obama called it “the most precise air campaign in history.”
This was the promise: America’s “extraordinary technology” would allow the military to kill the right people while taking the greatest possible care not to harm the wrong ones.
The ISIS caliphate ultimately crumbled under the weight of American bombing. For years, American air power was crucial to the beleaguered Afghan government’s survival. And as U.S. combat deaths dwindled, the faraway wars, and their civilian tolls, receded from most Americans’ sights and minds.
On occasion, stunning revelations have pierced the silence. A Times investigation found that a Kabul drone strike in August, which American officials said had destroyed a vehicle laden with bombs, had instead killed 10 members of one Afghan family. The Times recently reported that dozens of civilians had been killed in a 2019 bombing in Syria that the military had hidden from public view. That strike was ordered by a top-secret strike cell called Talon Anvil that, according to people who worked with it, frequently sidestepped procedures meant to protect civilians. Talon Anvil executed a significant portion of the air war against ISIS in Syria.
The Pentagon regularly publishes bare-bones summaries of civilian casualty incidents, and it recently ordered a new, high-level investigation of the 2019 Syria airstrike. But in the rare cases where failings are publicly acknowledged, they tend to be characterized as unfortunate, unavoidable and uncommon.
In response to questions from The Times, Capt. Bill Urban, the spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said that “even with the best technology in the world, mistakes do happen, whether based on incomplete information or misinterpretation of the information available. And we try to learn from those mistakes.” He added: “We work diligently to avoid such harm. We investigate each credible instance. And we regret each loss of innocent life.”
Read the military’s full responses to questions from The Times.
He described minimizing the risk of harm to civilians as “a strategic necessity as well as a legal and moral imperative,” driven by the way these casualties are used “to feed the ideological hatred espoused by our enemies in the post 9/11 conflicts and supercharge the recruiting of the next generation of violent extremists.”
Yet what the hidden documents show is that civilians have become the regular collateral casualties of a way of war gone badly wrong.
To understand how this happened, The Times did what military officials admit they have not done: analyzed the casualty assessments in aggregate to discern patterns of failed intelligence, decision-making and execution. It also visited more than 100 casualty sites and interviewed scores of surviving residents and current and former American officials. In the coming days, the second part of this series will trace those journeys through the war zones of Iraq and Syria.
Taken together, the reporting offers the most sweeping, and also the most granular, portrait of how the air war was prosecuted and investigated — and of its civilian toll.
There is no way to determine that full toll, but one thing is certain: It is far higher than the Pentagon has acknowledged. According to the military’s count, 1,417 civilians have died in airstrikes in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria; since 2018 in Afghanistan, U.S. air operations have killed at least 188 civilians. But The Times’s analysis of the documents found that many allegations of civilian casualties had been summarily discounted, with scant evaluation. And the on-the-ground reporting — involving a sampling of cases dismissed, cases deemed “credible” and, in Afghanistan, cases not included in the trove of Pentagon documents — found hundreds of deaths uncounted.
The war of precision did not promise that civilians would not die. But before a strike is approved, the military must undertake elaborate protocols to estimate and avoid civilian harm; any expected civilian casualties must be proportional to the military advantage gained. And America’s precision bombs are indeed precise: They hit their targets with near-unerring accuracy.
The Civilian Casualty Files What to Know About the Airstrikes Investigation Read the Trove of Pentagon Documents
The documents, along with The Times’s ground reporting, illustrate the many, often disastrous ways the military’s predictions of the peril to civilians turn out to be wrong. Their lessons rarely learned, these breakdowns of intelligence and surveillance occur again and again.
Repeatedly the documents point to the psychological phenomenon of “confirmation bias” — the tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms a pre-existing belief. People streaming toward a fresh bombing site were assumed to be ISIS fighters, not civilian rescuers.
Men on motorcycles moving “in formation,” displaying the “signature” of an imminent attack, were just men on motorcycles.
Often, the danger to civilians is lost in the cultural gulf separating American soldiers and the local populace. “No civilian presence” was detected when, in fact, families were sleeping through the days of the Ramadan fast, sheltering inside against the midsummer swelter or gathering in a single house for protection when the fighting intensified.
In many cases, civilians were visible in surveillance footage, but their presence was either not observed by analysts or was not noted in the communications before a strike. In chat logs accompanying some assessments, soldiers can sound as if they are playing video games, in one case expressing glee over getting to fire in an area ostensibly “poppin” with ISIS fighters — without spotting the children in their midst.
The military spokesman, Captain Urban, pointed out that, “In many combat situations, where targeteers face credible threat streams and do not have the luxury of time, the fog of war can lead to decisions that tragically result in civilian harm.”
Indeed, the Pentagon records detail how in Mosul in 2016, three civilians were killed when a bomb aimed at one car instead struck three — in part because the military official approving the strike had decided to save more-precise weapons for other, imminent strikes. Yet The Times’s analysis of the documents and ground reporting showed that civilians were frequently killed in airstrikes planned well in advance.
Military officials often speak of their “over the horizon” long-range surveillance capabilities. But the documents repeatedly identify deficiencies in the quality and quantity of the video footage guiding intelligence.
Sometimes, only seconds’ worth of footage was taken before a strike, hardly enough to assess civilians’ presence. Often video shot from the air does not show people inside buildings, people under foliage, people under the aluminum or tarpaulin covers known as “quamaria” that shield cars and market stalls from the sun.
In more than half of the cases deemed credible by the military, one or two civilians were killed entering the target area after a weapon was fired. Officials often describe these as awful but inescapable accidents. But while many might have been averted through additional precautions — widening the surveillance camera’s field of view or deploying additional drones — the phenomenon continued unabated, amid the intense pace of battle and a shortage of surveillance aircraft.
Hassan Aleiwi Muhammad Sultan, now 16 and in a wheelchair, was hit by an April 29, 2016, strike in East Mosul, Iraq, aimed at an ISIS recruiter.Ivor Prickett for The New York Times
And sometimes, for reasons redacted in the documents, the weapons simply miss. In April 2016 the military reported that it had killed a notorious Australian ISIS recruiter, Neil Prakash, in a strike on a house in East Mosul. Months later, very much alive, he was arrested crossing from Syria into Turkey. Four civilians died in the strike, according to the Pentagon.
Yet despite this unrelenting toll, the military’s system for examining civilian casualties rarely functions as a tool to teach or assess blame.
Not only do the records contain no findings of wrongdoing or disciplinary action, but in only one instance is there is a “possible violation” of the rules of engagement. That stemmed from a breach in the procedure for identifying a target. Full investigations were recommended in fewer than 12 percent of the credible cases.
In many cases, the command that approved a strike was responsible for examining it, too. And those examinations were often based on incorrect or incomplete evidence. Military officials interviewed survivors or witnesses in only two cases. Civilian-casualty reports were regularly dismissed because video showed no bodies in the rubble, yet the footage was often too brief to make a true determination.
In his response to The Times, Captain Urban said, “An honest mistake, on a strike taken with the best available information and in keeping with mission requirements that results in civilian casualties, is not, in and of itself, a cause for disciplinary actions as set forth in the law of armed conflict.”
American officials had an opportunity to mine the documents for root causes and patterns of error in 2018, when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Defense University undertook a study of civilian deaths. But one of the researchers who sought to analyze the documents in aggregate told The Times that almost all of his findings had been cut from the report. Another high-level study of the air campaign has never been made public.
In the end, what emerges from the more than 5,400 pages of records is an institutional acceptance of an inevitable collateral toll. In the logic of the military, a strike, however deadly to civilians, is acceptable as long as it has been properly decided and approved — the proportionality of military gain to civilian danger weighed — in accordance with the chain of command.
Lawrence Lewis, the former Pentagon and State Department adviser whose analysis for the 2018 study was quashed, said in an interview that the military’s technological prowess, and the highly bureaucratized system for assessing how it is employed, may actually serve an unspoken purpose: to create greater legal and moral space for greater risk.
“Now we can take strikes in city streets, because we have Hellfire missiles, and we have fancy things with blades,” he said. “We develop all these capabilities, but we don’t use them to buy down risk for civilians. We just use them so we can make attacks that maybe we couldn’t do before.”
The Promise of Precision
The new way of war came to fruition in the wake of the 2009 surge of American troops into Afghanistan, which brought some stability but never turned the war around.
By the end of 2014, with NATO’s mission also ending, President Obama declared America’s ground war essentially done. Henceforth, the United States would primarily provide air support and advice for Afghan forces battling the Taliban.
At roughly the same time, as Islamic State fighters swept through Mosul and massacred thousands of Yazidi Kurds at Mount Sinjar, Mr. Obama authorized a campaign of airstrikes against ISIS targets and in support of allied forces in Iraq and Syria.
The weaponry was hardly untested. This high-tech arsenal, increasingly sophisticated, had been critical to success in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, in NATO’s 1999 campaign in the Balkans, and more recently in Yemen and Somalia. By the time of the wars in the Middle East, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, outfitted with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, had become the surveillance and attack vehicle of choice.
At an ever-quickening pace over the next five years, and as the administration of Mr. Obama gave way to that of Donald J. Trump, American forces would execute more than 50,000 airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, in accordance with a rigorous approval process that prized being “discriminate,” “proportional” and in compliance with the law of armed conflict. Not only would this be the most precise air campaign ever; it would be the most transparent.
The only official accounting of that promise is the hidden Pentagon documents.
They were obtained through Freedom of Information requests beginning in March 2017 and lawsuits filed against the Defense Department and U.S. Central Command. To date, The Times has received 1,311 out of at least 2,866 reports — known as credibility assessments — examining airstrikes in Iraq and Syria between September 2014 and January 2018. Requests for records from Afghanistan are the subject of a new lawsuit.
Each report is the fruit of a review process that begins when a potential civilian-casualty incident is identified by the military or, more frequently, alleged by an outside source — a nongovernmental organization, a news outlet or social media.
Assessment experts classify allegations into two categories. A case is “credible” if it is deemed “more likely than not” that the airstrike caused civilian casualties. In the reports examined by The Times, 216 cases were deemed credible. “Noncredible” cases fail to meet that standard — often because there is no record of a strike at the place and time in question, or because the available evidence is considered insufficiently specific or simply weak.
Until now, fewer than 20 of these assessments dating to late 2014 have been made public.
To assess the military’s assessments, between late 2016 and this past June, The Times visited the sites of 60 incidents deemed credible in Iraq and Syria, as well as three dozen others deemed noncredible or not yet assessed. (It also visited dozens of strike sites in Afghanistan.) In 35 credible cases, it was possible to locate the precise impact area and find survivors and witnesses on the ground. Then the reporting included touring wreckage; collecting photo and video evidence; and verifying casualties through death certificates, government IDs and hospital records.
Frequently the reporting closely matched basic information from the documents. But the detailed accounts that ultimately emerged from the rubbled ground were often in stark contrast to what had been assessed from the air.
this area is poppin
It was Jan. 13, 2017, and the battle for East Mosul would soon reach the neighborhood of al-Faisaliya. Iraqi forces were 120 meters away; farther back, an American ground team was helping coordinate air support.
In Erbil and in Doha, Qatar, a ground controller and aircrew members typed out messages, helping fulfill the array of combat directives and rules of the strike process:
adm in kp 9 has his rifle leaning against wall
An adult male leaned against a rooftop wall, his rifle beside him, then was seen firing south before two men joined him.
The ground controller asked how much longer the crew had in the target area. The response was redacted.
bldg slant redacted
The “slant” — the number of men, women and children observed — was typed into the chat. (Four men, one woman and three children in a building would be “bldg slant 4/1/3.”) This slant is redacted.
The coordinates were entered for what was now assessed as a building used by ISIS.
Clearance to attack was granted, and the weapon — the exact kind is redacted — fired.
Two “squirters” — people fleeing a bomb site — were observed: one running from the building, the other heading back inside. The drone followed the men, firing on one but overshooting. It fired again, then turned to four others.
The action continued — a series of attacks on men darting through the area, until the drone returned to the building and struck again.
JAN. 13, 2017 — MOSUL, IRAQ
Messages between the ground controller and aircrew as they targeted a building assessed as harboring ISIS fighters. Inside were three families. Eight civilians were killed.
READ REPORT | SEE ALL DOCUMENTS
The war against ISIS heralded the dawn of “strike cells” — remote operations centers from which most airstrikes were directed and controlled. These war rooms synergized the myriad players — pilots, sensor operators, intelligence experts, ground forces, weaponeering specialists, civilian-casualty-mitigation analysts, lawyers, even weather officers. Strike cells boasted at times that, with their video feeds and surveillance aircraft, they could understand what was happening on the battlefield as well as if they were there themselves.
As the war intensified and ground commanders won greater authority to call in strikes, the cells expanded, with a small number of Americans embedded with allies on the battlefield. The cells were seen as so successful that they made their way to Afghanistan, too. And as the Trump administration sought to pressure the Taliban into a deal, decision-making authority for airstrikes was often pushed further down the chain of command.
The cells conducted “dynamic strikes” — identified and executed within minutes or hours in the flow of war, accounting for an overwhelming majority of the air campaign. “Deliberate” strikes, which were preplanned — extensively vetted, often filmed over weeks or months and analyzed by several working groups — decreased over time.
In both scenarios, the targeting process essentially boiled down to two questions: Could the presumed enemy target be positively identified? And would any harm to civilians be proportional, in line with the law of armed conflict — or would it exceed the “expected military advantage gained”?
For positive identification, the officer designated with strike approval needed “reasonable certainty” that the target performed a function for the adversary. That could be relatively straightforward, as when the target was a fighter firing directly on friendly forces. But a more ambiguous target, like a suspected ISIS headquarters, might require further surveillance.
To determine proportionality, analysts evaluated whether the target was used exclusively by the enemy or might also be used by civilians, then assessed civilians’ “pattern of life.” Ultimately, they would calculate how many civilians were likely to be killed or wounded.
For deliberate strikes, this generally entailed an exhaustive “collateral damage estimate,” a computer calculation of the expected civilian casualty count, based on a mix of factors: the pattern of life, the population density, the specific weapon being used, the kind of structure being targeted — a concrete building, an aluminum shed, a mud hut. The officer approving the strike would weigh that estimate with other factors, such as the potential for secondary blasts from explosive materials nearby.
For dynamic strikes, the process could be vastly compressed. Especially if there was a threat to friendly forces or some other urgency, strike cells were more likely to rely on an impromptu assessment of a video feed.
Either way, based on that calculation, the military was required to take “feasible precautions” to mitigate civilian harm. The greater the likelihood of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the more precautions taken — say, by deploying more-precise weaponry to limit the blast radius or by attacking when the fewest civilians were predicted to be present.
The military does not provide a precise definition of what is proportional. Essentially, the expected civilian toll was proportional if the officer making that determination reasonably believed it to be so, and if it did not exceed a “noncombatant cutoff value.” Otherwise, officials say, the target would be discarded.
The final official step was a legal review. But efforts to protect civilians could continue until moments before a weapon was fired. From the cockpit, pilots could select how a weapon detonated — upon impact or with a delayed fuse. Or they could call an “abort,” if, for example, a civilian was spotted walking into the target area.
Under the right circumstances, this process could result in a strike so precise that it would destroy the section of a house filled with enemy fighters and leave the rest of the building intact.
Children playing where the school sheltering Qusay Saad’s family stood before Jan. 13, 2017, when a strike hit it.Ali Al-Baroodi for The New York Times
As Iraqi forces approached Qusay Saad’s home in East Mosul on Jan. 12, 2017, ISIS forced his family to move to an area still under its control. They found refuge in his brother’s abandoned house in al-Faisaliya.
Through a night of gunfire and explosions, Mr. Saad and his wife, Zuhour, comforted their three children and prayed that Iraqi forces would reach them. Then ISIS ordered them to move again, into an abandoned school next door with two other families. That was the building observed in the chat on Jan. 13, 2017.
The first airstrike hit as the Saad family sat down to breakfast. Mr. Saad recalls concrete blocks pressing down on his head, and his wife screaming. A man from one of the other families lifted away the blocks, and he quickly wrested his 14-month-old daughter, Aisha, from the rubble and handed her to his wife.
The second strike came just as he turned to free his 7-year-old son, Muhammad.
“The strike was unbelievable,” he said. “An entire three-story house was just crushed.”
Three members of another family escaped. Mr. Saad could not find his wife, their 4-year-old son, Abdulrahman, or Aisha. But Muhammad was alive, his thigh split open. Bleeding from the head, Mr. Saad picked up the boy and fled.
It would be two months before he could recover the bodies. The Iraqi government offered no help. So the family paid to excavate the site. Mr. Saad watched as his wife and two youngest children were lifted out. Aisha’s head was missing, but her little body was in her mother’s arms.
Mr. Saad’s son Abdulrahman was killed, along with his wife and young daughter.Azmat Khan
They were buried not far from their home, which Mr. Saad has kept as it was when they all lived there. Sometimes, his brother said, he spends whole nights at the graveyard.
Last month, The Times told him of the findings of the military’s assessment. It offers this account:
The target was a building assessed as harboring four ISIS fighters. A review of the imagery revealed that after the first strike, which because of a “weapon malfunction” only partly collapsed the building, four adults and four children could be seen moving in its center. The building was hit again and fully collapsed. Later, three people emerged. The strike team did not report any civilians in the vicinity, and because of the drone’s angle, a view of the eight people in the building after the first strike “was obscured.”
The allegation was deemed credible, with eight civilians killed, but no further investigation was ordered. Eight “enemies” were also killed, the document said.
JAN. 13, 2017 — MOSUL, IRAQ The redacted FMV clearly shows eight unarmed individuals some of whom are assessed to be children moving in the rubble after the first munition detonated on the target building.
READ FULL REPORT
When told of the Army’s findings, Mr. Saad could not understand how a military with such a wealth of information could have failed to see them — or how the pursuit of fighters he never saw could justify leveling a building full of families. If the Americans would show him the video, he said, he would show them Mosul.
“They have to come here and see with their own eyes,” he said, adding, “What happened wasn’t liberation. It was the destruction of humanity.”
How Deadly Failures Happen
Last May, the Pentagon’s inspector general completed a classified report evaluating the policies for ensuring that “only valid military targets are struck,” and that “damage to property and loss of civilian life is mitigated to the maximum extent possible.”
A redacted version, echoing similar studies by other agencies in recent years, declares the targeting process to be sound.
The Pentagon’s own assessments tell a far richer story.
The documents often do not articulate precise causes, and in many cases, several factors coalesced into a deadly failure. But The Times’s analysis of the 216 cases deemed credible, together with its reporting on the ground, reveals several distinct patterns of failure.
Positive identification of the enemy is one of the pillars of the targeting process, yet ordinary citizens were routinely mistaken for combatants.
In a dissenting footnote to the 2018 Joint Chiefs’ study, Mr. Lewis and a colleague cited research showing that misidentification was one of the two leading causes of civilian casualties in American military operations. With few troops on the ground, they wrote, “it is reasonable to expect a systematic undercounting of misidentifications in U.S. military reports.”
Indeed, according to the Pentagon records, misidentification was involved in only 4 percent of cases. At the casualty sites visited by The Times, misidentification was a major factor in 17 percent of incidents, but accounted for nearly a third of civilian deaths and injuries.
At times, the error involved quicksilver intelligence of an imminent threat. In The Times’s ground sample, though, misidentification occurred just as frequently in strikes planned far in advance — as in a January 2017 strike on an ISIS “foreign fighter headquarters” in East Mosul that killed 16 people in what turned out to be three civilian homes. Three ISIS buildings down the street were untouched.
Yet in case after case, the misidentification appears to be less a matter of confusion than of confirmation bias.
That was what happened on Nov. 20, 2016, after a Special Operations task force received a report of an ISIS explosives factory in a Syrian village north of Raqqa. In a walled compound, operators spotted “white bags,” assessed to be ammonium nitrate. Two trucks with a dozen men departed, stopped at various ISIS checkpoints, drove to a building “associated with previous ISIS activity,” then returned to the compound. The first strike targeted one truck, which caused “secondary explosions.” On the evidence of those blasts and the “white bags,” operators received approval to strike three buildings. After impact, two “squirters” fled the westernmost building. That building and another were struck again.
The findings of the military’s review, begun after online reports that a strike in the same area had killed nine civilians and injured more than a dozen, contradicted nearly all of the original intelligence.
NOV. 20, 2016 — RAQQA, SYRIA
A military review showed that a target believed to be an ISIS explosives factory was actually a cotton gin. Nine civilians were killed. Further investigation was not recommended.
READ REPORT | SEE ALL DOCUMENTS
Examining scans of the compound, analysts detected no ammonium nitrate. The presumed secondary explosions were actually reflections from a nearby building, and one of the “squirters” was a child. Finally, a six-month time lapse of imagery showed that the compound was “more likely a cotton gin than a factory” for explosives. Two civilians were killed, the report said. (The task force continued to call the gin a legitimate target, citing a news report that ISIS controlled three-quarters of Syria’s cotton production.)
Several months later, in Iraq, American forces received intelligence about a suspected car bomb — a dark-colored, heavily armored vehicle moving through the Wadi Hajar neighborhood of West Mosul.
Scanning a surveillance feed, an air-support coordinator quickly homed in on a possible match: a green vehicle whose windows appeared to be covered over. He did not see any signs of reinforced armor, but positively identified both the green car and a closely trailing white vehicle as car bombs.
Both vehicles traveled away from the front line and stopped at an intersection where several people were gathered on a covered section of sidewalk. The driver of the first car got out and joined the group. The target authority approved the strike.
The targeted vehicle “sustained a direct hit,” according to the military assessment. The group on the sidewalk “sustained weapons effects.”
But the review of the footage found no evidence that the vehicle was a car bomb. There was no telltale secondary explosion. Nor was the car heavily armored. And though the people on the sidewalk were visible in the footage, they were never mentioned in the pre-strike chat.
FEB. 25, 2017 — MOSUL, IRAQ Based on a review of all available information, the CIVCAS allegation is credible. Full motion video (FMV) shows that five individuals near the target vehicle were killed or injured by the strike, and there is no information to indicate that those individuals had been or could be positively identified as combatants.
READ FULL REPORT
The full picture, which the targeting team involved in the strike failed to see, emerged when The Times visited Wadi Hajar earlier this year.
Ordered by ISIS to leave the neighborhood, Majid Mahmoud Ahmed, his wife and two children had piled into their blue — not green — Opel Astra station wagon. Following close behind in a white car were his brother, Firas, and his family. At an intersection where other fleeing residents had gathered, Mr. Ahmed spotted his friend Muhammad Jamaal Muhammad waving and got out to say hello. As another neighbor approached, the airstrike hit.
Abdul Hakeem Abdullah Hamash Al Aqidi, a bystander, lost an eye and had a plate implanted in his left leg.Azmat Khan
“I remember there was a big explosion, and I fainted,” recalled Abdul Hakeem Abdullah Hamash Al Aqidi, an elderly man who had been standing by his door at the intersection. He lost an eye and had to have a plate implanted in his injured left leg. His son’s left leg had to be amputated.
In all, seven local people — including the four members of the Ahmed family — were killed. Mr. Mohamed, who had waved to Mr. Ahmed, cannot banish from his mind the image of his friend’s wife, Hiba Bashir, burned into the seat, still holding her infant son in her lap.
The military spokesman, Captain Urban, acknowledged that “confirmation bias is a real concern,” citing the Kabul airstrike in August that killed the 10 members of a family. “There is more work to do on this,” he said.
Failing to Detect Civilians
If the military often mistook civilians for enemy fighters, frequently it simply failed to see or understand that they were there. That was a factor in a fifth of the cases in the Pentagon documents, and a slightly smaller fraction of the casualties. However, it accounted for 37 percent of credible cases, and nearly three-fourths of the total civilian deaths and injuries at the sites visited by The Times.
Captain Urban said the targeting process had been vastly complicated by enemies who “plan, resource and base themselves in and among local populace.”
“They do not present themselves in large formations,” he added, “do not fight coalition forces with conventional tactics, and use geography and terrain in ways not conducive in every way to easy targeting solutions. Moreover, they often and deliberately use civilians as human shields, and they do not subscribe to anything remotely like the law of armed conflict to which we subscribe.”
Even so, the documents show that frequently, instead of extended surveillance, analysts relied on brief “collateral scans” — as little as 11 seconds long — in determining that civilians were not in the area. The footage was often limited by shortages of surveillance drones, particularly during the battles to retake Mosul and Raqqa.
In a number of cases, targets that had been placed on “no-strike lists” because attacking them would violate laws of war — a school, a bakery, a civilian hospital — were removed after the military mistakenly judged that they were now used exclusively by the enemy.
In Mosul in February 2017, a hospital was taken off the list after the military concluded that civilians had left the area, and that the building was being used only as an ISIS headquarters and propaganda center. The week before the strike, according to the report, analysts had examined still images of children “interacting” with the hospital but had determined that striking at night would “alleviate collateral concerns.” Four civilians were killed and six injured.
For the military’s analysts, studying the “pattern of life” is a crucial step in predicting collateral damage. But to examine the documents and interview local people is to understand how often unseen civilians might have been seen, or their presence at least suspected, had the military had a more intimate knowledge of the war-torn fabric of everyday life.
In some documents, as evidence of no civilian presence, military officials state that people would leave their homes at the sound of approaching aircraft. The reality is starkly different: Neighbors would huddle together, seeking communal sanctuary in a house or group of houses, invisible to surveillance drones.
Many of the deadliest airstrikes happened this way. Among them was the strike at the Syrian hamlet of Tokhar.
In July 2016, a Special Operations task force identified a large group of ISIS fighters two kilometers from where U.S.-backed forces were fighting ISIS. They observed the fighters traveling in pickups known as “bongo trucks” to three “staging areas” where no civilians were present. The fighters, they concluded, were assembling for a counterattack. Shortly before 3 a.m., they bombed the three staging sites and five vehicles, confident of killing 85 ISIS fighters.