Counting the dead and wounded: data journalism for increased military accountability

by Eline Westra

New technologies have enabled journalists to monitor military actions more closely, with smartphones and the internet now forming powerful "digital eyes" on the ground. And in the international air war against ISIL, these local sources reveal a much greater human cost from airstrikes than the military authorities themselves claim. An insight into the work of journalist-run monitoring group Airwars.

Military gear Airwars Dutch F-16s and munition at the base in Jordan. The Netherlands carried out about 500 airstrikes in Iraq and later also in Syria, from October 2014 to July 2016 (photo courtesy/source: Archive Dutch MoD/Ministerie van Defensie)

On 8 August 2014, the United States carried out its first airstrikes at the invitation of the Iraqi government, which faced a rapid ISIL (also: Daesh) advance in the north of the country. France followed suit in September of that year. Today, the US-led Coalition has grown into a 13-member group of international allies, all bombing now or having bombed earlier in Iraq, Syria or both. In Syria, the air forces of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Syria's Assad regime also carry out strikes, and the US also operates a separate unilateral campaign against alleged al Qaeda targets.

The Airwars NGO was founded to help make sense of this highly complex conflict, and to act on behalf of affected civilians. The transparency project aims to increase accountability for airstrikes, based on the belief that civilians, as an absolute minimum, deserve to know which nation is bombing them. With a small team of professional researchers and journalists (staff and volunteers), Airwars has now tracked over 3,500 civilian casualty incidents in which the Coalition or Russia are allegedly involved.

The team tracks, archives and analyses local and military sources, making effective use of the possibilities that modern technologies offer. These sources include local media reports; videos, imagery and text published on social media; and eyewitness accounts. Airwars has also carried out its own investigations: its researchers revealed the use of depleted uranium by the US in Syria, for example.

The civilian toll of the air campaign   

Airwars’s vast trove of war data, often including detailed reports with names and photos of victims, shows a different picture of the price civilians pay in the aerial conflict from that which most governments report. The monitoring group presently estimates that a minimum of 3,164 civilians have died as a result of Coalition actions. This number stands in sharp contrast to the 229 "more likely than not" civilian deaths that the Coalition has admitted to.

So far, none of the European allies (Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) have declared that their actions have killed civilians. This is highly implausible, after more than 3,028 European airstrikes in almost three years of war.

Indeed, local accounts suggest that civilians continue to be at extreme risk. Airwars’s recent overview of civilian deaths in March this year shows that the local population have suffered greatly from Coalition actions against ISIL. The researchers wrote:

March was the deadliest month ever recorded by Airwars during the Coalition’s campaign in Iraq and Syria. This coincided with the greatest number of munitions dropped by the allies so far in the war.”

On 17-18 March, more than 230 people reportedly died in a catastrophic incident in Al Jadida neighbourhood, in Mosul, Iraq. The Coalition has confirmed that it carried out airstrikes in the vicinity, and launched an investigation. Yet at present, it is unclear which nations launched bombs or artillery on the neighbourhood, and what role ISIL and the Iraqi military played. For civilians who lost family members or friends in the fatal attack, it might be a long and difficult road to recognition and compensation, if any. This goes for the thousands of incidents tracked by Airwars so far.

Mosul family 900X600 A father and his daughter at the scene of an incident in West Mosul, after airstrikes reportedly killed all of their family members (via Iraq News, 5 March 2017:

Why more military transparency is crucial   

In a recent transparency audit, Airwars researchers found that of 13 Coalition allies, only four report regularly and publicly about the locations, dates and weapon use of their airstrikes. The Netherlands and Belgium, along with Jordan, score particularly (and surprisingly) low on public accountability, and have effectively waged semi-secret campaigns. Civil society, media and parliament in these countries are still unable to check the actions of their military leaders.

Yet as the Airwars audit concluded, these have largely failed to properly count the civilian toll of the air war. Investigation processes have lacked common procedures among Coalition allies, have been opaque and ad hoc, and have heavily relied on internal imagery and analysis. External monitoring – and crucial information obtained through social media research - has not sufficiently been taken into account. This may very well explain the gap of about 90% between official military data and statistics revealed by independent monitors like Airwars.

Advocating for more transparency on behalf of civilians

Several military authorities, including those in the US, Canada and the UK, have come to acknowledge the importance of including external monitors in assessing civilian deaths. Airwars now maintains good relations with these and other Ministries of Defence, and exchanges its datasets on a regular basis to highlight uninvestigated incidents, and to check its own database against military reports.

At a recent hearing before the United States Congress, CENTCOM chief General Joseph Votel referenced co-operation with Airwars - something that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Data journalism in this form has proven to be a powerful tool in revealing local realities, enabling local voices and eyes to add essential evidence to civilian casualty investigations. So groups like Airwars have been able to prod the Coalition to expand the scope of information which it incorporates in its investigations.

Yet there is clearly still a gap in the transparency and accountability of nations carrying out air campaigns in Syria and Iraq. Some, like Russia - but also including a number of Western militaries - deny any civilian casualties or refuse to say where and when they bombed.

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Twitter: @Airwars

Monitoring and assessing civilian casualties from international airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Seeking transparency and accountability from belligerents, and advocating on behalf of affected civilians. Archiving open-source reports, and military claims by nations.

Airwars is entirely funded by philanthropic organisations, along with significant pro bono contributions from our volunteers.