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Interview with Chris Woods of Airwars

Professor Spagat interviews Chris Woods of Airwars about casualty recording in air strikes, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
Hello again. I’m here with Chris Woods, who is a co-founder of Airwars. Chris, can you tell me why did you start Airwars in the first place? What were your motivations? We began tracking what were initially just American airstrikes against so-called Islamic State in Iraq right from the beginning really in anticipation of an expected problem. So in recent conflicts involving the United States and its allies, there had been this clear problem of admitting civilian harm. Civilian harm had clearly been occurring on the ground as a result of airstrikes. But the US and its allies seemed to have a rather systemic challenge in actually admitting or even seeing that harm.
The best example of that had been Libya in 2011, a very heavy bombing campaign. And at the end of that war, the head of NATO– Rasmussen– had actually given a public press conference where he had boasted of the fact that NATO hadn’t harmed a single civilian. Well, in fact there were four separate inquiries on the ground in Libya that found otherwise, including the official UN report into that war. So our monitoring really began in anticipation of a problem. And I suppose we began by assuming we were outsiders. But actually over time, and then with our engagement with the Americans and other militaries, it actually turned into a dialogue.
And it has been a dialogue over several years, which has led us into some quite interesting territory. Your work is confined to Iraq and Syria. Is that correct? Well, it initially began in Iraq for the US. Then when the allies joined, it became the coalition. Then it spread to Syria. And when Russia started bombing in Syria, we started tracking Russia. Now we track Turkey, Israel, basically all international powers in those two theatres. And we’ve recently begun a similar project in Libya where we’re tracking international and in fact domestic airstrikes in Libya to understand the implications for civilian harm and broader security in that conflict as well.
So we’ve taken what we’ve learned in Iraq and Syria and transferred that to Libya now. OK. So now let’s go back to your work in Iraq and Syria. What types of events are you actually recording? We’re monitors for civilian harm. So our Iraqi, our Syrian, our Libyan researchers every day spend their time scouring local and hyperlocal media– and crucially, social media– sources for what Iraqis and Syrians themselves are reporting out about civilian harm. They’re gathering often vast amounts of information along with videos, photographs, names, testimonies. All of that’s then pulled into a private archive, which we then permanently archive and protect. So you mentioned at the beginning of this your relationship with military organisations.
I want to return to that now to start things off. Presumably you have deeper relations with some military organisations than others. I guess we initially began as an outsider organisation. I don’t think we’d assumed that we would end up in the place we did find ourselves, which was with some quite extensive backwards and forwards, particularly with the coalition and with the US military, but also others like the British, the Danes, the Canadians– who have been very engaged with us as well at times.
And I think there were some progressive characters, particularly in the American military, who understood that there was a– we were putting out casualty estimates which were 10, 15 times higher than the American estimates, were actually many times higher initially because the coalition wasn’t admitting any civilian harm early on. Rather than just be defensive about that, some senior US defence officials did start to grapple with why there was this difference and whether it might be possible to reconcile military monitoring of harm– which is often within very prescriptive boundaries– and this reporting out of public harm from the battlefield from the perspective of civilians themselves, which we were now doing quite comprehensively. So we first began working with CENTCOM.
I was– CENTCOM being? CENTCOM is the biggest American military command, and it’s the one that fights conflicts in places like the Middle East and Afghanistan. So we reached out to CENTCOM and they reached back, which was fascinating. So I was invited over to the CENTCOM headquarters about two years ago and had a sit down with a lot of senior staff. They walked me through their processes and we walked them through our concerns. And it began a process of dialogue and information exchange, actually. Off the back of that, we began sharing quite comprehensive data with CENTCOM at regular intervals. We also– When you say share, are you giving them any data that you haven’t placed into the public domain?
So our casualty estimates are all drawn from the public records that we keep. We are a transparency organisation, so everything that we have is there in public. But we run data engines and data sheets that we don’t necessarily make public. But journalists, academics, researchers approach us, we make that accessible all the time. So it’s semi public, if you like. But we saw value in giving CENTCOM– and later, the coalition– access to the same data because it turned out they just didn’t know where most of these allegations were. They weren’t using site properly, or even in some senses at all. They simply didn’t know how to tackle this issue of civilian harm.
They hadn’t fought a big war like this in a long time, and certainly a war where there’d been so many allegations of civilian harm. And I think a key shift for CENTCOM was President Obama’s executive order on civilian harm that was published in July of 2016. That was absolutely key, because Obama basically created this doctrine which said that civilian harm mitigation should be built into American war fighting. What about the British military? Well, the British are an interesting one. So, second only to the United States in terms of airstrikes. So the British conducted a minimum of 1600 airstrikes against so-called Islamic State across both Iraq and Syria, and many of those strikes in those same heavily-populated areas.
So at the end of the battle for Mosul, the then British Defence Secretary puts out a public statement boasting of the fact that Britain targeted 750 locations during the battle for Mosul. The problem we have with the British is they are actually the most transparent of all the coalition members. They tell us more about where, when, and what they bomb than any other ally. And we think that’s a very positive thing. In terms of accountability, it’s a very different story. The British, like 11 of the other allies in the US-led coalition, under the mistaken belief that they’re somehow using magic bombs and missiles that cannot harm civilians.
So the British, the French, the Dutch, the Canadians, the Saudis all claim that the thousands of airstrikes they conducted between them didn’t harm a single civilian in Iraq and Syria. And of course from where we’re sitting, and our wars where we’re monitoring how that real harm from the ground, 25,000 alleged fatalities from coalition actions according to Iraqis and Syrians themselves. This is pretty problematic. Thank you very much for coming in. It’s been an interesting discussion. Thanks for having me.

In this video I interview Chris Woods of Airwars, a project, which monitors civilian harm from international military actions in theatres such as Iraq, Syria and Libya. A conflict specialist, he previously worked for the BBC’s Newsnight and Panorama as a senior field producer. Chris also set up and ran the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s award-winning Drones Project. His book, Sudden Justice charts the history of armed drone use in Iraq and elsewhere since 9/11.

Shortly after Chris did this interview the UK Ministry of Defence made its first ever admission that the UK may have killed a civilian in an air strike against the Islamic State.


  1. Consider the significance of this news story in light of Chris’ interview
  2. Is this an important development even though it only concerns a single person?

Please think through these issues and post your thoughts, ideas and questions in the comments area. It would be great if you can also read and respond to the comments of your fellow learners, as always in a respectful manner.

Also, you might want to bookmark some of your thoughts for possible redeployment for the discussion activity at the end of this Casualty Recording activity.

Upon my request Chris provided the following bio:

Chris Woods leads Airwars, a project, which monitors civilian harm from international military actions in theatres such as Iraq, Syria and Libya. A conflict specialist, he previously worked for the BBC’s Newsnight and Panorama as a senior field producer. Chris also set up and ran the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s award-winning Drones Project. His book, Sudden Justice charts the history of armed drone use in Iraq and elsewhere since 9/11.

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