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'New York Times' Reporter On The Investigation Into U.S. Airstrikes In Iraq


The war in ISIS in Iraq and Syria is one that for the U.S. is mainly an air war. Officials say it's a very precise air war. But a recent investigation for The New York Times magazine finds it's not as precise as officials say. The report finds that 1 in 5 coalition airstrikes on ISIS targets in Iraq resulted in civilian deaths. That rate is 31 times higher than what the U.S. has acknowledged.


Azmat Khan and her colleague Anand Gopal spent 18 months investigating this, going door to door in the Iraqi city of Mosul. And they found that while some of the civilian deaths were because of a proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result of flawed or outdated intelligence. And the military is not keeping accurate logs of its actions. Azmat Khan told me about one Iraqi man named Basim Razzo and what happened to him on a night in 2015.

AZMAT KHAN: Basim wakes up in the middle of the night at around 1:45 a.m. in his house. And he realizes his bed is snapped in two. He feels this incredible pain. He can taste blood in his mouth. And he looks up, and he sees the stars over Mosul. He calls for his wife, and he calls for his daughter. And he doesn't get an answer. And he learns that his wife, Mayada, his daughter, Tuqa, his brother, Mohannad, and his nephew, Najib, have all been killed in an airstrike.

And not long after he leaves the hospital, a video is uploaded to the U.S.-led coalition's YouTube channel showing two airstrikes hitting two homes. And the video dubs this an ISIS VBIED facility, a car bomb factory. So Basim, who sees this video, later immediately recognizes these two homes as his and his brother's.

MCEVERS: And did the U.S. coalition count Basim's family as civilians - people who'd been killed as civilians?

KHAN: Not for a year and a half, and they very likely would not have counted them as civilians had we not pushed his case. He and his family members, the four members who died, were tallied as ISIS.

MCEVERS: You actually got a copy of the coalition's internal probe of this strike on Basim's home and his brother's home. What did it say?

KHAN: The main thing to know is that this report details, you know, what went on after they'd received this intelligence. They'd vetted it through different authorities. And then they surveilled the houses with an hour and 35 minutes of footage. And in the footage, they noticed that there were no women or children. And this footage was shot in 15-minute increments, usually in the afternoon.

And it's incredibly hot in Mosul, so a lot of people are not outside. You know, they noticed that there was a gate that sometimes men opened in order to bring a car in. And even though the report noted there was nothing out of the ordinary, they noted that ISIS doesn't obviously brandish weapons. So none of this made it appear to them that it conflicted with their intelligence.

MCEVERS: How many other people are there like Basim that you documented, people who had lost relatives, who are not classified as civilians?

KHAN: So in the 103 airstrikes that we found, there were 75 civilian deaths and none of them that - by any accounts we could tell matched with numbers that had been acknowledged by the coalition.

MCEVERS: Of those 75, how many had been reported as civilian deaths by the coalition?

KHAN: Zero.

MCEVERS: What does this tell us about, you know, the intelligence gathering abilities of this U.S.-led coalition?

KHAN: Right. It tells us that you can have the most precise munitions. You can have the most precise weaponry in the history of warfare. But if your intelligence is wrong and you have the wrong target, it doesn't matter. You can still kill civilians. It appears that intelligence problems - we found them over and over - are incredibly important and that in order to prevent them from happening again, the military needs to know they're happening. And this is when questions of how they investigate really come into play and to what extent they're on the ground figuring these things out because how else would you know unless you get that ground truth?

MCEVERS: So in the case of Basim, was his case investigated, and what were the conclusions?

KHAN: Well, it's very fascinating because Basim tried himself to report this case on multiple occasions.


KHAN: And he even had a cousin who was a professor at Yale who had written an op-ed in The New York Times about this airstrike. Basim is somebody who speaks fluent English. He lived in the United States for years. He has access to email. He could document his case really, really well with GPS coordinates. There was a video of the airstrike.

So here's somebody who's really acting in the best-case scenario. And in his case, it took him a year and a half to get the coalition to admit that these were civilians publicly. It took him a year and a half to do that. So what chance do these Iraqis who are much poorer, who don't speak English, who don't have access to these resources, who don't necessarily meet a Western...

MCEVERS: Right - have cousin at Yale University.

KHAN: Exactly. What chance do they have?

MCEVERS: Yeah. Azmat Khan, thank you so much.

KHAN: Thank you, Kelly - appreciate it.

MCEVERS: The report is called "The Uncounted." It is in The New York Times magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.