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Eyes On the Sky: Striving For Accountability In the War On Terror

AIRWARS is fighting to keep a tally of the civilian victims of the war being waged on the Islamic State from above.

by Bruno Bayley
21 June 2016, 12:00am

Chris Woods portrait by Jonnie Craig

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

Former BBC Panorama producer and investigative journalist, Chris Woods, is the author of Sudden Justice, an examination of the development of drones and their use in combat, secretive assassinations, and covert strikes since 9/11. He also ran the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Covert Drone War Project which helped expose the shadowy world of drone warfare. In 2014 he set up Airwars.org, a collective of journalists and researchers across the Middle East and Europe dedicated to tracking air strikes against Islamic State, attempting to keep tabs on civilian casualties, and pressing for transparency and accountability in the war on terror. [Figures are accurate as of time of press - 20th May, 2016]

VICE: For those unfamiliar – what does AIRWARS do?
Chris Woods: We track allegations of civilian casualties from international airstrikes targeting Islamic State (IS) and asses them, where we can. We have become concerned over recent years by the West's narrative – that our airstrikes are now so perfect that they don't kill civilians. Between the Russians and the coalition now we have more than a thousand alleged incidents where strikes have killed civilians. It's a colossal number.

What sources are you using for this?
Ninety five percent of our sourcing is Arabic language – all of our researchers are Syrian, Iraqi or Lebanese. Traditional media in Iraq and Syria has pretty much disintegrated, but it doesn't mean the information has disappeared. We take in everything – from activists, NGOs, even IS' own propaganda regarding airstrikes – assemble it, link to it all, include photos, names of the dead and make our own assessments. But we leave it to others to draw their own conclusions. As for official sources, coalition members put out press releases which vary from reasonable – the British and Canadians have been particularly good – to unbelievably, shockingly bad.

Screengrab via airwars.org

Where are we at present with the air campaign against IS and civilian deaths?There have been more than 44,000 bombs and missiles used, 12,000 coalition airstrikes. Only the US has admitted to killing any civilians. The other 12 coalition members say they haven't even injured a civilian, which is where we start to get into the realms of fantasy.

I have to say that the coalition is taking extreme care not to kill civilians. They put out a statement the other week saying that they think they have killed 25,000 IS fighters now. So that puts civilian casualties at about 4 percent by our reckoning. Most military analysts will tell you 4 percent is a very good number for an air campaign. The coalition is taking huge care not to kill civilians, but in our view it is not enough care. Claims that there are no civilian casualties are a military fantasy.

This crosses over with your work on drones – this dangerous idea of military technology being clean, combined with a lack of accountability?
There is no doubt that drones – air power in general – are far more precise than ever. But all the precision means is that the bomb gets where it's meant to go, it doesn't tell us anything about what it does when it gets there. We are dropping bombs, sometimes bloody big bombs – up to 2000lbs of explosives – on towns where large numbers of civilians are held captive by IS. Even if your weapon is the most precise ever invented, it doesn't let it off the hook for killing civilians. I think our politicians have confused precision with effect – they are different things.

Screengrab via airwars.org

What else about your AIRWARS work crosses over with your work on drones?
Drones are still part of what I do, they are being used to huge effect in Iraq and Syria – 40 percent of British airstrikes in Iraq are by drone. Drones are just another weapon platform. I suppose the thing that links these two areas is that they are two air-only responses by the West to a terrorist problem. That's the more fundamental issue that we haven't sorted out here: what is it that creates and sustains terrorists? And is our response to these terrorists making things better of worse? There's a disconnect between cause and effect in the West.

Do you see the work you have done on drones, and your continuing work on AIRWARS as more of an effort to defend civilians, or a means of changing the way our governments work? Or is it impossible to separate those two aims for you?
I have been a journalist for over 25 years now. I suppose, like all journalists, I came in to it expecting to change the world. The reality is that that happens very, very rarely. I remember doing a report for the BBC on an atrocity in Israel, and it was pretty much ignored. It made me rather upset at the time, but a producer of mine at the time said, "sometimes all we can do is bear witness". Just record it and report it and at least then its there on the record and maybe one day someone will go back and look at it. I think that a lot of what we do with tracking these airstrikes and civilian casualties is at least marking them, even if governments and militaries ignore all our reports, they can't say that the information wasn't there for them to see and make judgments on.

Assuming that the West is not going to stop bombing its enemies imminently, what changes are you hoping to bring about?
For us it's about honesty. The UK is a war-like country, part of the reason we go to war so often is that war is something we visit on other people, it's not something we have visited on us. And our politicians have got used to insinuating that our bombs only kill bad people. If we could change people's understanding of the reality of war, perhaps we would be a little less inclined to reach for it as a first option. I have covered multiple wars, and everyone one tears a nation apart. There's no such thing as a clean war. I was there for the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and I went back every year until 2009, and I saw it unfold. Everyone knew what would happen, and it did... Al Qaeda emerged in Iraq because of our intervention, Islamic State is a byproduct of that intervention and the fact that we left. We see this time and time again, it's action without consequence for the West. We are talking about going back into Libya again, after Obama called it his worst foreign policy error.

Screengrab via airwars.org

People in the West need to understand that there's a cost to war, a blood cost paid by civilians. Those civilians or their families may feel that's a price worth paying to defeat say, IS, but we have to be honest about it. We aren't the only ones playing this denial game – Russia says its bombs don't kill civilians. Assad, the murderous Assad, says his bombs don't. It's absurd.

How hopeful are you about an increasing level of transparency about air strikes and civilian casualties?
Just when you think things couldn't get less transparent, they do. The Dutch recently extended their air strikes from Iraq to Syria. Presently they don't even demark between the two. They send out press releases effectively saying "this week we dropped some bombs somewhere in Iraq or Syria". That's not accountability. It's appalling. The Dutch were for a time ranked bottom of our transparency table, below Saudi Arabia. So, our team is optimistic, but it depends which military you are talking about. Really the pressure for change has to come from the public. They have to challenge their MPs, militaries, presidents and prime ministers. And next time our leaders say "we have killed no civilians in this war", just think about that claim.

This article appeared in the June issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.