In recent decades, the United States has fundamentally transformed its approach to war, replacing American troops on the ground with an arsenal of aircraft directed by controllers sitting at computers, often thousands of miles away. This transformation reached full force in the final years of the Obama administration, amid the deepening unpopularity of the forever wars that had claimed the lives of more than 6,000 American service members. Fewer American troops on the ground meant fewer American deaths, which meant fewer congressional hearings about the progress of the wars, or lack thereof. It also meant fewer reporters paying attention to the impacts of the war effort on the local civilian population. If America could precisely target and kill the right people while taking the greatest possible care not to harm the wrong ones, then those on the home front would have little cause for concern.
From Iraq and Syria to Somalia and Afghanistan, air power allowed coalition forces to take territory from ISIS and the Taliban, and drone strikes provided a means to engage Al Qaeda, Al Shabab and Boko Haram in areas not declared as official battlefields. Military officials touted the precision of these campaigns, based on meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. By April 2016, the Pentagon was reporting that American airstrikes in Iraq and Syria had killed 25,000 ISIS fighters, while resulting in the deaths of just 21 civilians. “With our extraordinary technology,” President Barack Obama said that year, “we’re conducting the most precise air campaign in history.”
At the time, I had just finished an investigation into the U.S. government’s claims about the schools it had built in Afghanistan, and I knew that there was often a divergence between what officials say and the reality on the ground. The numbers of civilian casualties given by the coalition seemed hard to believe. So I decided to travel to the sites of some airstrikes and see what I could find out.
In August 2016, coalition forces hit Qaiyara, a suburb about 45 miles south of Mosul, with multiple strikes, freeing it from ISIS control, and in the immediate aftermath, the Pentagon did not acknowledge a single civilian death. I arrived in Qaiyara a little over a month after the strikes had stopped. The air around the town was still thick with black smoke — ISIS fighters had set some oil wells ablaze before retreating north toward Mosul. In the center of Qaiyara, the destruction was absolute. Almost every major building or significant piece of city infrastructure had been hit — the bridges, the water sanitation plant, the railway station, the furniture market, the bazaar. At the remains of Qaiyara’s sloping soccer stadium, I saw children use metal sheets as sleds. The residential area was also devastated: On each block, one or two structures had been reduced to rubble.
I stopped to talk to some local people in front of a destroyed home. They knew the family who used to live there. This was the residence of Ali Khalaf al-Wardi and his family, they told me, as they explained what happened. When the Iraqi Army was advancing toward Qaiyara, fleeing ISIS fighters left explosives caches around the city; Ali, believing that one of those caches was in the house next door, immediately began packing up his family to leave. But they didn’t move quickly enough. A coalition airstrike hit the neighbor’s house, bringing down the Wardi family home. Six civilians were killed, including Ali; his 5-year-old son, Qutada; his 14-year-old daughter, Enaas; and his 18-year-old daughter, Ghofran.
After this, I went to the sites of nine other airstrikes in Qaiyara. All were in residential areas. Locals told me that the airstrikes had rained down daily, particularly in the center of the town. These strikes were so continuous that families frequently slept in shifts in case there was a bombing. At least five of the sites I visited had involved civilian casualties, with at least 29 people killed. In many cases ISIS had already evacuated the homes nearby that were the targets.
It was clear from just one reporting trip that there was something very wrong with the coalition’s air war. I teamed up with Anand Gopal, a journalist with a background in statistical research, and together we mapped out a plan to conduct a systematic ground investigation of airstrikes in Qaiyara. In the coming months, I returned again and again, verifying what I had learned. I broadened my research area to include the town of Shura and the Aden district of East Mosul. I identified impact sites, learned how to distinguish airstrikes from other attacks, interviewed loved ones and survivors, collected names and photographs of the dead, analyzed satellite imagery and scoured social media. Our survey grew to include 103 strike sites, and what we found was sobering: One in five of the bombings resulted in a civilian death, a rate 31 times higher than what the coalition was claiming at the time. What’s more, in about half the strikes that killed civilians, we found no discernible ISIS target nearby. The strikes appeared to have been based on poor or outdated intelligence. It’s true that at that point, we were limited in what we could know about the intended target of a strike. I had military sources, and in some cases I was able to interview local informants on the ground. But my ability to discern pre-strike intelligence was constrained by what these sources would tell me.
Soon, however, I gained deeper insight into the targeting process. On one of my trips, I met an Iraqi man named Basim Razzo, who survived a 2015 strike on his East Mosul home that killed his wife, his daughter, his brother and his nephew. U.S. intelligence had identified the Razzo home as a car-bomb factory. Razzo desperately wanted to know why his family had been targeted so precisely, and to clear his name. After learning about his case, I filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for the civilian casualty assessment related to this strike. To expedite the process, which can sometimes take years, I argued in my request that there was risk of imminent harm to Razzo, because survivors of U.S. bombings can fall under suspicion of ties to enemy groups. Within months, I had a dozen partly redacted pages.