‘The process is truly flawed’: Reporters set the record straight on US airstrikes

For over a decade in Somalia, the Pentagon held that its operations against al-Shabaab, a group affiliated with al-Qaeda, had resulted in zero civilian casualties. But common knowledge on the ground said differently, according to Amanda Sperber, a freelance journalist who has reported from East Africa for the better part of five years. In the fall of 2018, Sperber traveled to Somalia to investigate for herself.

From Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, Sperber identified more than two dozen Somalis who had been displaced by airstrikes to the many crowded camps that surround the city and invited them for interviews. Their stories were often heartbreaking. A middle-aged woman told Sperber she had watched three young boys disappear in an explosion that also broke her hips and left her body covered in burns. A farmer, who lost his uncle and a brother in another strike, said he was questioned at the site of the blast by Somali soldiers and then, in turn, tortured by al-Shabaab fighters who accused him of being a government informant. “As an American, I just felt so apologetic,” Sperber says.

At the time, strikes in the country were on the rise. In March 2017, the Trump administration had declared parts of Somalia areas of “active hostilities,” a move that loosened restrictions on the military designed to prevent civilian harm. In 2018, US Africa Command (AFRICOM), which is responsible for all Department of Defense activities on the continent, reported 45 strikes in Somalia for the year, by comparison to 35 in 2017 and 14 in 2016. (According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the US conducted more strikes in Somalia in 2017 and 2018 than in the previous ten years combined.)

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During her reporting, Sperber received frequent pushback from AFRICOM officials. In one instance, when she approached them with the account of the man who had been tortured—a man whose wounds Sperber had seen herself—she was told bluntly that the account was not credible. “I’m given to understand that ‘not credible’ doesn’t mean his story is false but that AFRICOM didn’t have enough information to investigate or verify it themselves,” Sperber says. “It doesn’t mean he’s not a rational witness.” She offered to connect officials directly with sources, to pass along a phone number or a WhatsApp contact, but they always declined. In the end, after months of repeat interviews with survivors and discussions with dozens of US, Somali, and international officials, as well as aid workers and activists, Sperber found convincing evidence that not only had US strikes resulted in multiple incidents of civilian harm but that the US had also likely launched strikes not accounted for in the reports AFRICOM makes public on its website. Her findings were published in The Nation this February, in partnership with Type Investigations.

For many years in the global war on terror, with few exceptions, reporting on civilian casualties was conducted on the backs of studies and reports by NGOs and international outfits. In recent years, though, as strikes have spiked in certain countries, such as Somalia and Yemen, and as violence has receded in some locations, such as parts of Iraq, a spate of journalists has set out to bear witness to the human cost of the global war on terror. And according to Chris Woods, who heads the civilian watchdog group Airwars, their work is getting results. “There is no doubt that high-quality reporting on the ground has helped change our understanding of these conflicts,” Woods says. “The narrative for far too long was that this is a precision war and in precision wars civilians don’t die. I don’t think [the military] would claim that today.”

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Disclosure: Between 2013 and 2015, I deployed to parts of Afghanistan and East Africa as an officer in the US Navy.

The Uncounted,” by Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal in The New York Times Magazine, is an often-cited standard bearer of civilian casualty investigations. In Iraq, over 18 months between 2016 and 2017, Khan and Gopal toured the wreckage of nearly 150 strike locations on foot; recorded the GPS coordinates of the sites; took photos and 3D-mapped residential compounds using a commercial drone; and then painstakingly cross-checked their findings with pre and post-strike satellite imagery, local news sources, and government records and testimonies. Published in November 2017, their story demonstrated that, in the US-led war against ISIS (which began in 2014), one in five strikes had resulted in civilian deaths—a rate 31 times that of the military’s own estimates.

Khan and Gopal uncovered many discrepancies in the military’s documentation of strikes—for example, an instance in which multiple strikes were conducted over the course of an hour but only one was logged. “This is a huge deal,” Khan tells CJR. “If they can’t track their own airstrikes, if they’re only recording some coordinates, and if the number one reason for denying casualties is that they don’t have a record, that means the process is truly flawed.” The story prompted immediate calls for increased oversight and, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee later told Khan, ultimately helped win a new provision in Congress’s annual military spending bill that mandated the designation of a senior civilian official to supervise the military’s casualties assessment and reporting processes.

 

If they can’t track their own airstrikes, if they’re only recording some coordinates, and if the number one reason for denying casualties is that they don’t have a record, that means the process is truly flawed.

 

Similar coverage, by Mike Giglio for BuzzFeed News, has compelled the US-led coalition fighting ISIS to accept responsibility for 36 civilian deaths in strikes that occurred between 2016 and 2017. Work by the Associated Press, also from Iraq, has shown that over 9,000 civilians were killed in the months-long battle for Mosul; reporter Susannah George found that the coalition was likely responsible for 3,200 of those casualties—ten times what it claimed. In Yemen, Maggie Michael and Maas al-Zikrytwo of the AP reporters who last month were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reportingdiscovered that roughly a third of the people killed by US drone strikes in 2018 were either civilians or pro-government forces (meaning they were on the side backed by the US in the country’s ongoing conflict).

According to Woods of Airwars, this coverage fills a gap left by the military’s own casualty assessments, which Woods says are incomplete and insufficient. In particular, he says, the military relies largely on “observable” information to assess the presence of civilians, such as imagery from manned aircraft or drones—sometimes the ones that carry out the strikes in the first place. But casualties are often unobservable, Woods says, especially in urban environments where buildings and rubble might mask the presence of civilians. “I think the military would concede that its own systems just aren’t capable of properly understanding the levels of civilian harm caused by multiple warfighting techniques,” he says. As a military spokesperson told Khan in a 2016 email, citing the “extremely challenging” environment in Iraq and Syria, “Traditional investigative methods, such as interviewing witnesses and examining the site, are typically not available.”

For journalists, the task is no less daunting, and the particulars of each conflict and culture often complicate reporting efforts. In Somalia, for instance, many people use the Islamic or Somali calendars, Sperber explains, making it tough to easily match a strike reported by a source with one in military records. Similarly, the local names and spellings for settlements in Somalia regularly differ from what is written on maps, which tend to be incomplete or out-of-date anyway due to migratory lifestyles in parts of the country. Brian Castner, who has investigated civilian casualties for Amnesty International, describes the challenge of identifying locations with Somali sources: “We’ll ask, ‘Where you live, what’s the closest town?’ They tell us, ‘Awdheegle.’ Okay, great, we know where Awdheegle is. ‘So, if you were going to walk from Awdheegle to your house, how would you do it?’ And then we follow them down the road on our maps, all the turns along the way. Then we say, ‘Okay, you’ve arrived, and what is this place called?’ They tell us that the local name is ‘Farah Waeys.’ Okay, Farah Waeys appears on no maps, but in satellite imagery we can see there’s a migrant settlement there.”

In March, Amnesty released a lengthy report that examines five airstrikes in Somalia over the past two years, in which 14 civilians were killed and eight were wounded. It’s not journalism, per se, due to its express advocacy, Castner says, but it nevertheless stands on a great deal of reporting, including hundreds of interviews. “Our goal was not to look at all the airstrikes in Somalia that resulted in civilian casualties,” Castner, who is a former US Air Force officer, says. “It was to say, ‘You say, “Zero.” But the answer is not zero. It’s at least 14, and you should admit that.’”

In April, AFRICOM publicly admitted that it had mistakenly killed two civilians, a woman and a child, in an airstrike in April 2018. Amnesty was cited directly in the press release, though AFRICOM broadly disputed the findings in the group’s March report. Dan Mahanty, who directs the US program at the Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC), a nonprofit which liases regularly with the government, says it is common for officials to bristle at the framing in reports, or to suggest that they have intelligence which contradicts reporters’ findings to which those reporters are not privy. But privately, Mahanty says, officials have expressed appreciation for the thoroughness of journalists’ work. On the heels of “The Uncounted,” Mahanty says then–Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis met with CIVIC to discuss Khan and Gopal’s findings. “That meeting doesn’t happen without that piece,” Mahanty says. In the case of Sperber’s work, too, he adds, “There were a lot of specific details in that coverage that allowed me to go to AFRICOM behind the scenes and discuss, you know, ‘What is it that allows this to happen?’”

The Department of Defense did not respond to requests for comment from CJR. John D. Manley, a spokesperson for AFRICOM, says that on-the-ground reporting by journalists and NGOs plays “an integral role” in the command’s understanding of casualties. “We encourage and applaud their efforts, because this unfortunate reality of war deserves the scrutiny it receives,” Manley writes. Sperber, for her part, says she has seen a modest shift in tone from AFRICOM in recent months, as she has continued reporting from Somalia; while she was investigating a new casualty allegation for Foreign Policy, for example, officials asked her for contact information for the family of the individual who had been killed.

Recent developments are cause for optimism, Mahanty says. Some worry, though, that the extraordinary time investment and cost of supporting civilian casualty investigations—not to mention the challenge of keeping journalists safe in conflict zones—might threaten sustained attention by publications to the issue. Sperber relied on a grant to support her investigation for The Nation. And to begin work on “The Uncounted,” Khan left a job and cashed out her retirement. But Mahanty hopes newsrooms will not be deterred: “Journalists who are willing to stick it out, to gather those inscrutable details and to do the analysis, they’re the ones who are ultimately going to get DoD to change its public posture on this.”

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Correction: This article originally misstated Brian Castner’s former branch of service. He was in the Air Force, not the Navy. It was also updated to clarify the circumstances of Dan Mahanty’s meeting with the former Secretary of Defense.

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Andrew McCormick is an independent journalist and former CJR Delacorte Fellow. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the South China Morning Post, and more. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewMcCormck.