When the US Army planned an airstrike on an Islamic State bomb factory in Iraq, it did not sufficiently consider the possibility of secondary explosions of ammunition stored there, according to military documents hidden in plain sight for several months . The bomb factory in the city of Hawija is believed to have contained more than 18,000 kilograms of explosive material – and secondary explosions from the 2015 airstrike killed dozens of Iraqis and damaged or destroyed thousands of homes. One of the survivors later told an interviewer from the Iraqi NGO Al-Ghad League for Woman and Child Care: “I thought it was a nuclear bomb.”
Following the carnage, the US Central Command targets chief insisted in an email, included in a detailed follow-up assessment of the attack by military investigators, that the strike was carried out according to the rules, including the pre-attack. “collateral damage estimate” or CDE. “My targets actually spent hours working and re-working this target just to make the CDE ‘executable,'” he wrote in the email. “It was a perfectly accurate CDE call“, he insisted, pointing out in another e-mail that “the CDE methodology does not take into account secondary explosions”.
The emails and other investigative documents are included in 73 pages of post-strike assessments of the Hawija attack which are part of a 5,400 page archive confidential Pentagon reviews of alleged civilian casualties resulting from US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. The archives were published in December by The New York Times, which obtained the documents through the Freedom of Information Act. The documents, which are part of The Times’s prime “Civilian Casualty Filesoffer a stark glimpse into the misinformation and inaccurate targeting that led to the deaths of thousands of non-combatants. They also offer insight into little-known policies and procedures, such as the failure to factor secondary explosions into estimates of potential collateral damage from an attack on a bomb-making plant.
Photo: Courtesy of Ayman al-Amiri/PAX
“It’s amazing that secondary explosions aren’t factored into the collateral damage estimate – especially in this case, where the target was an explosives factory,” said Annie Shiel, senior policy adviser and American advocacy at the Center for Civilians in Conflict. “It also illustrates the broader ways in which the United States and its partners have failed to address not only direct civilian deaths and injuries, but also the wide range of reverberating damage that is devastating communities for years to come. , as civilians in Hawija have experienced first-hand – things like loss of livelihoods and essential services, displacement, public health crises, food insecurity and long-term psychological trauma.
The US-sanctioned attack on the Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device, or VBIED, factory in Hawija was contracted to two Dutch F-16s which struck the site on the night of 2-3 June 2015. The attack and secondary explosions killed at least 85 civilians, reportedly injured 500 or more people, and damaged 1,200 businesses and 6,000 homes, according to a new report by researchers from Al-Ghad, PAX (a Dutch civil protection organization) and Utrecht University.
“Overnight I lost my soul, my body, my family, everything,” Abdullah Rashid Saleh, whose five children and two wives were killed in the strike, recalled in a 2021 interview with the research team included in the report. “I want to meet the person who killed my family and ask him why did he do this?”
VBIED factory targeting has been approved by Lieutenant General James Terrythe commander of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, according to an August 2015 Army investigation, which was also published in The Times’ “Civilian Casualty Files.”
Collateral damage estimates use complex modeling to predict anticipated civilian damage from a strike, but the Hawija documents demonstrate that CDEs can be deeply flawed. While estimates take into account potential chemical, biological or radiological plumes, the bombing of an “active ISIL VBIED and IED factory and weapons cache” did not raise any red flags beyond concern for a hangar that the U.S. military considered “the only collateral structure…estimated to be affected by one of the weapons.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted the magnitude of the explosion and its effects in the surrounding neighborhood,” wrote the chief of the targets, whose name is redacted from the documents. “Side effects are impossible to estimate with any level of precision.”
“A single airstrike can cause adverse effects on civilians that last for years or even generations.”
But in 2020, the UK-based airstrike monitoring group Air Wars reported that an email from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 2015 stated an estimate of “probably over 18,060 kilos of stored explosives, making it the largest IED plant in the Islamic State to this day”. Last year, when the US Navy detonated roughly the same amount of explosives – 40,000 pounds – near its new aircraft carrier to test the ship’s survivability in combat, it recorded magnitude 3.9the equivalent of a small earthquake.
“It may not be possible to determine the effects of a secondary explosion,” said Sarah Holewinski Yager, former senior human rights adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and today Washington director at Human Rights Watch, “but it’s clearly possible to understand that explosives are present and even the general magnitude of what an explosion might look like.
Nearly seven years after the attack, Hawija has never recovered, according to the new report. “The airstrike killed breadwinners and destroyed many workplaces and thus cost many people their livelihoods; because people’s houses had become uninhabitable, they moved; damage to the electricity grid has reduced civilian access to clean (and therefore safe) drinking water,” he says. “It shows how a single airstrike can cause reverberating civilian damage that lasts for years, even generations.”
After Dutch media exposed responsibility of the Netherlands in the Hawija strike, lawmakers created a fund to help rebuild the town. But the 4.4 million euros allocated are not spent in consultation with local authorities, according to the report, and are insufficient to meet current needs. Neither the Dutch government nor the US government has ever issued an apology to the survivors or individual compensation, which is not unique. “There are thousands of civilians injured by US military operations who have never even received recognition for the harm they have suffered,” Yager told The Intercept. “Those involved in Hawija absolutely deserve fines.”
Central Command and Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve told The Intercept they were unable to answer questions prior to publication. Earlier this week, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s 2023 budget, Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-California, asked if the Department of Defense plans to review civil injury cases, including those appearing in the Times’ “Civilian Casualty Files”. ” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin replied: “At this stage, we have no intention of restarting business.