The US military killed at least 23 civilians in 2020, according to a new report from the Department of Defense, a steep decline from previous years as offensive operations were significantly reduced during the pandemic. Another 10 civilians were likely injured, the department said.
In 2017, by contrast, the US military said it had killed nearly 500 civilians.
But independent observers said the actual number of civilian casualties is once again likely far higher than the US is willing to admit. The monitoring group Airwars, for example, estimates that a minimum of 102 civilians were killed by US operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
Chris Woods, director of the group, said he welcomed the report, which is mandated by Congress and released annually.
“We remain concerned, however, that DoD estimates of civilian harm once again fall well below credible public estimates, and call on officials to review why such undercounts remain so common,” Woods said in a statement. “Civilians surely deserve better.”
The report itself, which the department releases annually, acknowledges that there are many more claims of innocent people killed than the military itself deems credible.
In Afghanistan, according to the report, the US military received 165 reports of civilian casualties related to operations in 2020. Of those, seven were deemed legitimate, resulting in approximately 20 civilian deaths and five injuries.
Airwars, by contrast, estimates that at least 89 civilians were killed and another 31 injured.
It often takes years for the US to admit civilian casualties occurred.
In November 2020, a spokesperson for US Central Command told Insider that an internal review found two civilians had indeed been injured from an airstrike in Yemen that took place some three years earlier.
In Somalia, the US also admitted last year to killing two civilians in a February 2019 airstrike after insisting for months that the victims were “terrorists.”
The latest report itself notes that an additional 65 civilians were killed between 2017 and 2019, with another 22 injured, beyond the numbers previously reported.
Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, accused the Biden administration of obscuring the full toll of US military operations.
“The grossly inadequate official accounting for the costs and consequences of the United States’ lethal actions abroad prevents meaningful public oversight and accountability for wrongful deaths and perpetual war policies,” Shamsi said. “Civilian victims, their families, and the American public deserve far better than this.”
The organization’s global diffusion recently led a group of leading terrorism experts to describe ISIS as an “adhocracy,” better understood as a group of “structurally fluid organizations in which ‘interacting project teams’ work towards a shared purpose and/or identity.”
By maintaining this structure, the group’s leaders seek to harness the benefits of a transnational network spanning multiple regions and continents.
“All politics is local,” as the famous saying goes. But in the 21st century, all conflict is global, and organizations like ISIS are well-positioned to leverage the capabilities of its affiliates worldwide.
Another way to think about the Islamic State is as a venture capital firm. It is the investor that provides much-needed resources to the affiliates – or “provinces,” in the organization’s lingo – with the best potential for a high rate of return.
ISIS then gains an “equity stake” and can tout the success and momentum of its new startups. Armed groups that are sponsored by ISIS central in this way reap the benefits its operational and organizational capabilities, including financing, training, weapons, propaganda support and strategic direction.
Nowhere has this venture capitalist approach been more successful than in sub-Saharan Africa. A United Nations report from last year identified the Islamic State’s affiliate in Somalia as the “command center” for a “triad” of jihadist organization in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, thereby linking its operations in East, Southern and Central Africa.
At the same time, ISIS involvement inevitably transforms the character and nature of affiliates, as evidenced by the beheadings committed by the Islamic State’s Central Africa Province, which mirror ISIS core’s brutal calling card.
Sub-Saharan Africa has long been in the crosshairs of groups waging global jihad. And with other areas of the world receiving the lion’s share of attention from Western counterterrorism forces, both al-Qaida and ISIS have taken advantage of the opportunity to grow their presence in the region.
Jacob Zenn, a scholar of African jihadist groups, has highlighted the importance of sub-Saharan Africa as a region where ISIS can achieve “breakout capacity,” or the ability to generate and maintain a high operational tempo of attacks.
ISIS provinces in West Africa and Central Africa respectively have the potential to conquer and hold territory in the Sahel and along the continent’s southeastern Swahili coast, in a manner similar to what ISIS core was able to achieve in Iraq and Syria during its peak.
The Islamic State’s shifting attention to sub-Saharan Africa should be seen as part of a deliberate strategy in a region where it is far easier to work across borders than in other parts of the world.
Throughout this process, what were once perhaps purely local groups can take on a transnational dimension to varying degrees. Even as they remain primarily driven by parochial concerns and grievances, ISIS affiliates can evolve to become more global in nature.
Several African jihadist groups have noticeably changed the way they fight after becoming ISIS affiliates, in some cases involving both tactical improvement and strategic evolution. These groups are now capable of launching more complex operations and are featured more prominently in ISIS propaganda.
The devastating attack on the town of Palma in March, which killed dozens of people, had some of the hallmarks of classic ISIS attacks, included the beheading of foreigners and the targeting of Western economic interests. It forced the suspension of French oil giant Total’s $20 billion liquefied natural gas project and related offshore exploration activities near Palma.
With a war chest possibly consisting of upward of $100 million, ISIS will maintain the ability to consistently seed new ventures and enhance existing ones, particularly those displaying progress.
The international community will need to pay close attention to see where the Islamic State is funding new affiliates, and where already existing branches or provinces are displaying improved skills and capabilities in an effort to blunt the impact of what has been, at least to date, a highly effective approach to keeping the “caliphate” alive.
Colin P. Clarke, PhD, is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, a global intelligence and security consultancy headquartered in New York City.
There has been a steep drop in reported drone strikes since President Joe Biden took office, as Insider reported last month. Now The New York Times is reporting why: the new administration is conducting a major policy review that began the day it came into power.
The last administration unleashed the CIA and Pentagon, scrapping rules meant to protect innocent men, women, and children from being killed by unmanned aerial vehicles. It also spent its last few weeks in office escalating in Somalia, conducting a half-dozen attacks in the first half of January alone.
There have been no strikes there since January 20, however.
The Times reported that Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan imposed strict new controls on the use of drones outside of active war zones, requiring the White House to sign off on any such attack.
The new administration is using the pause to review how the military and its intelligence agencies conduct extrajudicial killings. Among considerations: whether or not restore Obama-era rules that limited drone strikes to targets considered an active threat – not just members of a designated terrorist organization – and only when there is “near certainty” that no women or children will be killed.
That is just the sort of review that critics of US foreign policy hoped for when Insider first reported on the apparent lull in drone strikes.
“If there is a pause in air strikes overall, we hope it’s due to a reassessment of the United States’ strategy and a recognition that past strikes have not succeeded in ending attacks by armed groups, but have instead killed and injured thousands of civilians,” Daphne Eviatar, director of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, said at the time.
It is extremely unlikely, however, that the Biden administration will stop using drones altogether. It is not even certain that it will return to limits on their use that former President Barack Obama imposed in his second term amid an outcry over civilian deaths in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere.
As The Times reported, the chief concern is rolling back the Trump-era expansion of the rules of engagement, with Biden officials discovering that ostensible safeguards for civilians “were sometimes stronger on paper than in reality.”
That resulted in a record-breaking pace of US airstrikes. For example, according to monitoring groups, the US may have bombed Yemen more often during Donald Trump’s four years in office than under all previous US presidents combined.
“I totally changed the rules of engagement,” the last president boasted.