The Uncounted: U.S.-Led Airstrikes Against ISIS Are Killing Far More Iraqi Civilians Than Previously Believed

Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, The Uncounted: U.S.-Led Airstrikes Against ISIS Are Killing Far More Iraqi Civilians Than Previously Believed. The New York Times Magazine, 16 November 2017. “In the effort to expel ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the coalition has conducted more than 27,500 strikes to date, deploying everything from Vietnam-era B-52 bombers to modern Predator drones. That overwhelming air power has made it possible for local ground troops to overcome heavy resistance and retake cities throughout the region. ‘U.S. and coalition forces work very hard to be precise in airstrikes,’ Maj. Shane Huff, a spokesman for the Central Command, told us, and as a result ‘are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.’… American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint…. The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq…. Estimates from Airwars and other nongovernmental organizations suggest that the civilian death toll is much higher, but the coalition disputes such figures, arguing that they are based not on specific intelligence but local news reports and testimony gathered from afar. When the coalition notes a mission irregularity or receives an allegation, it conducts its own inquiry and publishes a sentence-long analysis of its findings. But no one knows how many Iraqis have simply gone uncounted. Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014. We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like Basim Razzo, remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.”

The Crimes of SEAL Team 6

Matthew Cole, The Crimes of SEAL Team 6. The Intercept, 10 January 2017. Officially known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, SEAL Team 6 is today the most celebrated of the U.S. military’s special mission units. But hidden behind the heroic narratives is a darker, more troubling story of “revenge ops,” unjustified killings, mutilations, and other atrocities — a pattern of criminal violence that emerged soon after the Afghan war began and was tolerated and covered up by the command’s leadership.

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Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart

Scott Anderson, Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart. The New York Times Magazine, 11 August 2016. “Beginning in April 2015, the photographer Paolo Pellegrin and I embarked on a series of extended trips to the Middle East. Separately and as a writer-photographer team, we had covered an array of conflicts in the region over the previous 20 years, and our hope on this new set of journeys was to gain a greater understanding of the so-called Arab Spring and its generally grim aftermath. As the situation continued to deteriorate through 2015 and 2016, our travels expanded: to those islands in Greece bearing the brunt of the migrant exodus from Iraq and Syria; to the front lines in northern Iraq where the battle against ISIS was being most vigorously waged.

We have presented the results of this 16-month project in the form of six individual narratives, which, woven within the larger strands of history, aim to provide a tapestry of an Arab World in revolt.”

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The Shadow Doctors: The underground race to spread medical knowledge as the Syrian regime erases it

Ben Taub, The Shadow Doctors: The underground race to spread medical knowledge as the Syrian regime erases it. The New Yorker, 27 June 2016. “In the past five years [2011-2016], the Syrian government has assassinated, bombed, and tortured to death almost seven hundred medical personnel, according to Physicians for Human Rights, an organization that documents attacks on medical care in war zones. (Non-state actors, including ISIS, have killed twenty-seven.) Recent headlines announced the death of the last pediatrician in Aleppo, the last cardiologist in Hama. A United Nations commission concluded that “government forces deliberately target medical personnel to gain military advantage,” denying treatment to wounded fighters and civilians “as a matter of policy.””

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Trafficking in Terror: How closely entwined are the drug trade and global terrorism?

Ginger Thompson, Trafficking in Terror: How closely entwined are the drug trade and global terrorism? The New Yorker, 7 December 2015. This piece is a collaboration between The New Yorker and ProPublia. The DEA warns that drugs are funding terror. An examination of cases raises questions about whether the agency is stopping threats or staging them.”

Joe Posner, How the DEA invented “narco-terrorism.” Vox video, 7 December 2015.

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The Drone Papers

Jeremy Scahill, Josh Begley, Cora Currier, Ryan Devereaux, Peter Maass, Ryan Gallagher, and Nick Turse, The Drone Papers. The Intercept, 15 October 2015. Eight-part series. “The Intercept has obtained a cache of secret documents detailing the inner workings of the U.S. military’s assassination program in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The documents, provided by a whistleblower, offer an unprecedented glimpse into Obama’s drone wars…. The articles in The Drone Papers were produced by a team of reporters and researchers from The Intercept that has spent months analyzing the documents. The series is intended to serve as a long-overdue public examination of the methods and outcomes of America’s assassination program. This campaign, carried out by two presidents through four presidential terms, has been shrouded in excessive secrecy. The public has a right to see these documents not only to engage in an informed debate about the future of U.S. wars, both overt and covert, but also to understand the circumstances under which the U.S. government arrogates to itself the right to sentence individuals to death without the established checks and balances of arrest, trial, and appeal.” Eight-part series. [Read more…]

How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa

Bryan Christy, How Killing Elephants Finances Terror in Africa. National Geographic, 12 August 2015. “…[T]he African elephant is under siege. A booming Chinese middle class with an insatiable taste for ivory, crippling poverty in Africa, weak and corrupt law enforcement, and more ways than ever to kill an elephant have created a perfect storm. The result: Some 30,000 African elephants are slaughtered every year, more than 100,000 between 2010 and 2012, and the pace of killing is not slowing. Most illegal ivory goes to China, where a pair of ivory chopsticks can bring more than a thousand dollars and carved tusks sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Update: Paul Steyn, African Elephant Numbers Plummet 30 Percent, Landmark Survey Finds. National Geographic, 31 August 2016. “An unprecedented census gives a sobering baseline for managing what’s left of Africa’s elephants.” The finding of the Great Elephant Census, a continent-wide wildlife survey, is worrying: “Africa now has 352,271 savanna elephants left in 93 percent of the species’ range. The aerial survey covered 18 African countries. In 15 of those, where information on previous populations existed, 144,000 elephants were lost to ivory poaching and habitat destruction in less than a decade. The current yearly loss—overwhelmingly from poaching—is estimated at 8 percent. That’s about 27,000 elephants slaughtered year after year…. The census was funded by Microsoft founder Paul G. Allen and took just under three years to complete. Led by the nonprofit Elephants Without Borders, which is based in Botswana, the survey involved a team of 90 scientists, six NGOs, and two advisory partners: the Kenya-based conservation organization Save the Elephants and the African Elephant Specialist Group, made up of experts who focus on the conservation and management of African elephants.”

Update: Edward Wong and Jeffrey Gettleman, China Bans Its Ivory Trade, Moving Against Elephant Poaching. The New York Times, 30 December 2016. China announced on Friday that it was banning all commerce in ivory by the end of 2017, a move that would shut down the world’s largest ivory market and could deal a critical blow to the practice of elephant poaching in Africa.”

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Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race

Caitlin Dickerson, Secret World War II Chemical Experiments Tested Troops By Race. NPR, 22 June 2015. Part 1 of a two-part investigation on mustard gas testing conducted by the U.S. military during World War II. “As a young U.S. Army soldier during World War II, Rollins Edwards knew better than to refuse an assignment. When officers led him and a dozen others into a wooden gas chamber and locked the door, he didn’t complain. None of them did. Then, a mixture of mustard gas and a similar agent called lewisite was piped inside. “It felt like you were on fire,” recalls Edwards, now 93 years old. “Guys started screaming and hollering and trying to break out. And then some of the guys fainted. And finally they opened the door and let us out, and the guys were just, they were in bad shape.”

Edwards was one of 60,000 enlisted men enrolled in a once-secret government program — formally declassified in 1993 — to test mustard gas and other chemical agents on American troops. But there was a specific reason he was chosen: Edwards is African-American. “They said we were being tested to see what effect these gases would have on black skins,” Edwards says. An NPR investigation has found evidence that Edwards’ experience was not unique. While the Pentagon admitted decades ago that it used American troops as test subjects in experiments with mustard gas, until now, officials have never spoken about the tests that grouped subjects by race. For the first time, NPR tracked down some of the men used in the race-based experiments. And it wasn’t just African-Americans. Japanese-Americans were used as test subjects, serving as proxies for the enemy so scientists could explore how mustard gas and other chemicals might affect Japanese troops. Puerto Rican soldiers were also singled out.”

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SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines

Mark Mazzetti, Nicholas Kulish, Christopher Drew, Serge F. Kovaleski, Sean D. Naylor and John Ismay, SEAL Team 6: A Secret History of Quiet Killings and Blurred Lines. The New York Times, 6 June 2015. “They have plotted deadly missions from secret bases in the badlands of Somalia. In Afghanistan, they have engaged in combat so intimate that they have emerged soaked in blood that was not their own. On clandestine raids in the dead of the night, their weapons of choice have ranged from customized carbines to primeval tomahawks. Around the world, they have run spying stations disguised as commercial boats, posed as civilian employees of front companies and operated undercover at embassies as male-female pairs, tracking those the United States wants to kill or capture.Those operations are part of the hidden history of the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, one of the nation’s most mythologized, most secretive and least scrutinized military organizations. Once a small group reserved for specialized but rare missions, the unit best known for killing Osama bin Laden has been transformed by more than a decade of combat into a global manhunting machine. That role reflects America’s new way of war, in which conflict is distinguished not by battlefield wins and losses, but by the relentless killing of suspected militants.”

Winner of the 2015 George Polk Award for Military Reporting.

 

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Ghosts of Iguala. Mexico: How 43 Students Disappeared in the Night

Ryan Devereaux, Ghosts of Iguala. Mexico: How 43 Students Disappeared in the Night. The Intercept, 4 May 2015. A two-part investigation by Ryan Devereaux and a photo essay by Keith Dannemiller. “The nightmare began just after sundown. At a dimly lit intersection in Iguala, police with automatic weapons surrounded three buses loaded with college students. The police opened fire. Screaming that they were unarmed, the students fled down darkened alleys, pounding on doors, desperate for shelter. Gunmen put the city on lockdown, stalking the streets in a drizzling rain.

By the time the gunfire finally stopped, two dozen people were wounded and six were dead at three locations, the youngest only 15 years old. One student was shot in the head, leaving him brain dead. A bullet ripped through the mouth of another. Two young men bled to death in the streets, left for hours without medical help. First light brought fresh horrors when the mutilated body of one of the students was discovered in the dirt.

Worse was yet to come. During the chaos, 43 students had been taken captive.

The crimes that began in Iguala on September 26, 2014 had reverberations throughout Mexico. Massive protests have roiled the country. Government buildings have been torched. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto was forced to launch what his administration called the largest investigation in recent memory.”

Update: Ryan Devereaux, Independent Investigators Leave Mexico Without Solving the Case of 43 Disappeared Students. The Intercept, 25 April 2016. “The…first report [of the international panel of experts] was published in September of last year. The 560-page document meticulously deconstructed the [Mexican] government’s account and presented the events that night for what they were: a hyper-violent, coordinated, multi-pronged ambush of unarmed civilians at multiple locations resulting in at least six people dead, 40 injured, and 43 disappeared, carried out with full knowledge, if not outright participation, of security forces at all levels, including federal police and the military.

The experts had come to Mexico at the government’s invitation. With the authority to conduct an independent investigation and promises that the state would aid in making the necessary evidence and witnesses available, their presence offered a glimmer of hope that the most shocking crime in recent Mexican history might actually get solved. That hope soon crumbled though.

Following their first report [in September 2015], the experts’ relationship to the government turned cold, according to an account members of the panel provided to the New York Times. The government refused to make key interviews possible, including interviews with members of the military potentially present on the night of the students’ disappearance. Meanwhile, the experts themselves were attacked in media outlets close to the state, and an individual who appointed them became the target of a dubious criminal inquiry. Despite a sense that their job was not done, the experts were not offered an extension of their mandate. They are expected to leave Mexico in the coming days [late April 2016].”

Update: Kirk Semple and Elisabeth Malkin, Inquiry Challenges Mexico’s Account of How 43 Students Vanished. The New York Times, 24 April 2016.

See also: Francisco Goldman’s series in The New Yorker on the missing students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in the state of Guerrero in Mexico.

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