More than 15,000 civilians were killed by explosive weapons in 2017, a report has claimed.
The survey by London-based charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) partly attributes the rise—42 percent from 2016—to multinational offensives against the Islamic State terrorist organization and the war in Yemen. US-led coalitions recaptured the ISIS strongholds in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, last year.
“Of the total civilian deaths recorded (15,399), 58 percent were caused by airstrikes, mainly in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” according to the survey, which the organization compiled by analyzing English reports of individual incidents.
“Civilian deaths from airstrikes in this 11-month period [January-November 2017] rose by 82 percent, compared to the same period in 2016 when 4,902 civilians were killed, or 1,169 percent compared to 2011, when 704 died.”
The U.S. admitted that its airstrikes have resulted in the death of at least 800 civilians in Syria and Iraq since the campaign began in 2014. On the other side, the U.K.’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) maintains that there is no credible evidence that its RAF airstrikes have resulted in civilian deaths.
But Iain Overton, AOAV Executive Director, said the report dismissed claims that precision-guided air weapons do not cause civilian casualties.
“When explosive weapons are used in towns and cities, the results are inevitable: innocent children, women and men will die. States need to ensure that their rules of engagement when using such weapons over populated areas are proportionate and are monitored with extreme care,” he said.
“We urge States to come together to discuss how to prevent such harm from increasing. We support the political commitment being formulated that should encourage States to refrain from using explosive weapons over populated areas.”
Experts believe that collateral damage, deaths and injuries inflicted on unintended targets, is almost impossible to avoid during air attacks.
“Unintended casualties against innocent civilians are almost impossible to avoid,” counter-terrorism expert David Otto told Newsweek.
“Coalition airstrikes are almost indiscriminate, and the intelligence is always insufficient and mostly rushed.”
Major General Chip Chapman, the former head of counter-terrorism at MoD, also believes that it is almost impossible to avoid civilian casualties at all times. However, he added, several missions are aborted in the “targeting process”.
“The aborting of mission is as prevalent as mission strikes,” Chapman told Newsweek.
“To avoid civilian casualties is both a legal and a moral imperative. It is impossible to [always] do that, however, and partly because of the tactics employed by ISIS. For example in Mosul, they were smuggling civilians into buildings.”
Chapman added the AOAV report should be taken with a pinch of salt as the findings come from the reading of English language media reports, while “the U.S. produces monthly casualty assessments to the press based on credible and non-credible allegations. These are two completely different things.”
Chapman also believes that the MoD’s position on civilian casualties in Syria and Iraq may well be true, given the small amount of U.K. airstrikes conducted during operations.
“Just on on a mere statistical basis, they are probably correct on that for the main reasons that if you look at the number of strikes conducted, about 95 percent are conducted by the Americans and 5 percent by the rest of the coalition,” he said.
The AOAV report came months after the United Nations claimed that airstrikes by the US-led coalition in Raqqa was causing a “staggering loss of life”. A few months later, suspicions that a U.S. drone strike could have killed British militant Sally Jones and her 12-year-old-son in Syria sparked questions about its legality and whether it broke international laws protecting children.
Airstrikes from a Saudi Arabia-led colalition have also caused dozens of civilian deaths in war-torn Yemen. The U.N. said in December that air strikes by the coalition had killed at least 136 civilians and non-combatants in about two weeks.
Terror groups are also behind civilian deaths. Several organizations, including Somalia-based Al-Shabaab and the Nigerian Boko Haram are known for using improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in their attacks.
AOAV said that the worst explosive weapon incident of 2017 was the Mogadishu truck bomb attack in October 2017. More than 500 people were killed when a truck laden with explosive blew up in the Somalian capital.
Otto believes that terrorist organizations have increased these types of attacks in recent years as a “revenge tactic” against airstrikes. He also believes that terrorist use outrage following civilian deaths to radicalize more people.
“One key reason why most terrorist group’s like ISIS , Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram continue to grow in ranks is because these so-called ‘precision airstrikes’ act as a recruiting agent for these groups when they target leaders who chose to shield in civilian communities,” he explained.
“An asymmetric warfare cannot be successful with a 21st century conventional strategy as long as airstrikes continue to kill one and [result] in the recruitment of five more. The focus is on winning the hearts and minds of civilians, so that terrorists will be isolated and will not be able to hide among innocent populations.”
David Otto Institutional Representative of SECINDEF (Security Intelligence and Defense) Israel-USA International Consulting Counterterrorism in the United Kingdom and collaborating analyst of OCATRY (Observatory against the Terrorist Threat and the Jihadist Radicalization) David Otto is the Director of TGS Intelligence Consultants Ltd and the Preventing Radicalisation and Violent Extremism Programme – Step In Step Out (SISO) – based in the United Kingdom. He is also Senior Counter Terrorism Advisor for Global Risk International.