Targeting Terrorists and Near Certainty

The American Civil Liberties Union had a successful FOIA request that yielded a document explaining how the Obama Administration approves actions to kill suspected terrorists.  I learned about the release from this good article.

What follows are just my personal angles, not a comprehensive treatment of the document.

First, I don’t know why these policies haven’t been in the public domain from the get go.  And given that they were kept secret in the first place I don’t know why the Administration fought this in court rather than just coughing up the document when the FOIA arrived.  There is some blacked out material in the document but nothing in the actual release needs to be secret.

Second, this document is commonly described as the “drone playbook” and this is probably a reasonable way to think of it but, so far as I can tell, the policies apply generally to anti-terrorist actions, not only to drone strikes.

Third, I’m really struck by the constant use of the term “near certainty” which appears eight times in eighteen pages.  For example, two prerequisites for green-lighting an attack are near certainty that the target is there and “near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed.”

Despite the legalistic nature of the document I don’t see a definition of “near certainty.”  To me it would imply that air attacks should rarely fail to hit their intended targets and civilian casualties should also be rare – maybe in one strike out of a hundred there could be civilian casualties or the target could turn out to be somewhere else.

To be honest, I’m not sure I’d even describe ninety-nine in a hundred as “near certainty”.  Before crossing the street I expect near certainty that I won’t get struck by a car. If I had only 99% certainty of crossing safely then I’d get hurt within a matter of weeks.

I am skeptical that there are many, if any, air strikes that are conducted under conditions of near certainty.  I can seriously entertain the possibility that US planners of air attacks are surprised in cases when the target is not there or when civilians are harmed.  But are these planners dumbfounded every time a drone strike goes awry as would be implied by the “near certainty” standard?  I doubt it.


Indeed, Chris Woods of Airwars just wrote this in the New York Times:

Official White House data on counterterrorism actions in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere show civilians dying on average once every seven airstrikes.

I believe that Chris’ claim comes from here.  This official document says there have been 473 air strikes against terrorists and between 64 and 116 civilian deaths in these strikes. This averages out at one death per 7 airstrikes or one death per 4 airstrikes depending on whether you take the minimum or the maximum number of officially acknowledged civilian deaths (and Chris says there have been many unacknowledged civilian deaths as well).  Plus there must have been many civilian injuries.

This really doesn’t sound to me like near certainty that there will be no civilian casualties in antiterrorist air strikes.

Fourth, the document giving the official numbers on antiterrorist air strikes seems to have another inconsistency with the document spelling out the policies governing these strikes.  The policy document brings to mind a room filled with lawyers and policy experts deliberating on the individuals “nominated” to be targeted.  (Are they really terrorists?  Is it possible to capture them rather than killing them?  Is waiting a viable option?). But the numbers documents says that 2,372 to 2,581 combatants were killed in the 473 strikes.  Did the experts really know who all these people were and deliberate carefully on each one of them?  I doubt it.

I could only speculate on who is fooling whom here so I won’t do it.  But I don’t feel like the Obama Administration has really been following its stated guidelines on actions against terrorist targets.

New B’Tselem Report on Operation Protective Edge…and a Critic who Fires Blanks at B’Tselem

B’Tselem is one of the finest casualty recording organisations in the world so the recent publication of its report on Operation Protective Edge (July 8 – August 26, 2014) is an important moment for the field.  The report is simultaneously very good and very brief so I urge everyone to have a look.

There is a well-organised interactive page that lists each person killed (Palestinians and Israelis) by name, age and gender.  This page also provides the date, location and circumstance of each death.

A special feature of the report is that victims are classified according to whether or not they participated in hostilities (with this category sometimes left empty).  To make these calls B’Tselem looks for evidence that a victim either belonged to a combat organisation or was fighting when he/she was killed.  (See the methodology page for details).

B’Tselem clearly puts considerable effort into making and explaining their useful “participation in hostilities” classifications.  It is, therefore, frustrating to see Ben-Dror Yemini dismiss all this hard work and declare that of the 1,394 people killed while not participating in hostilities (according to B’Tselem) “the vast majority of those killed are fighters.”

How does Yemini back up his strong claim?

To see just how farfetched the NGO’s claims are, one need only look at the very data it provides, including the gender and age of each fatality. Let’s leave for a moment the group of 808 fatalities that even B’Tselem graciously admits were terrorists. We’re left with 1,394. If they were indeed all innocents, killed as a result of indiscriminate or random fire, the age distribution would be identical, or at the very least close, to the age distribution in the Gaza Strip.

But lo and behold, it turns out that the real statistics are quite different. Among those defined as innocents between the ages of 18-32, 275 are men and 127 are women. Among all fatalities aged 18-59, 1,296 are men and 247 are women. Five times(!) more men than women. Such high numbers of fighting-aged men, compared to such small numbers of women from the same age group do not point toward randomness. Such a discrepancy could not have occurred if indisriminate fire towards population centers had actually taken place.

Oh dear…..we’ve been here before.  I’m a bit embarrassed to even take this seriously but such misconceptions appear to be common so they can’t be overlooked.

From this 9/11 page we learn that:

The victims were overwhelmingly male (about 75 percent), young (many under 40, most under 50),…

Aha – on 9/11 Al-Qaeda mainly attacked fighters!  There can be no benign reason why the Twin Towers were so packed full of young males.

Indeed, in this paper we found that about 80% of the people killed by suicide bombs in Iraq were adult males (at least out of the ones for which we could find victim demographics).  It appears that Iraqi open-air markets are also packed full of legitimate targets.

OK, it’s obvious why Twin-Tower demographics didn’t match those of America as a whole but what about open-air markets in Iraq?   The answer is almost surely that women and children are generally kept away from such places since they are potential targets for suicide bombers and other attacks.

Let me by crystal clear so as to avoid misinterpretations.  I do not think that the Twin Towers were filled with fighters.  I do not think that open air markets in Iraq are filled with fighters.  And I do not think that most adult males in Gaza are fighters.  Moreover, when B’Tselem investigates and finds that a particular victim did not participate in hostilities I will not overturn this judgement just because that person was an adult male.

I’m hoping that people will pay attention to this post and stop making such wrong headed claims about adult males as a whole…at least until I reach my 60th birthday.



The New US Policy on Civilian Casualties in Military Operations

I posted recently on the expected announcement from the Obama administration about civilians killed in US air attacks.  You can read a brief summary of this release here.  The best in-depth analysis I’ve seen is this article by Jack Serle.

I’m still happy with my original post now that the announcement is out .  However, I wish I had drawn attention to the work on casualty recording in drone attacks done by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) which is equal in quality to that of Airwars and at least as relevant since the BIJ covers the countries for which the Obama administration just released (very coarse) new information.

More importantly, Chris Woods of Airwars wrote in following my first post pointing out that there was a crucial new development that I hadn’t anticipated:

I think the most interesting thing to come out of today is not the (too low) civcas estimates, but Obama’s Executive Order on the reduction of – and monitoring of – civcas from US military actions (including covert) going forward.

There are some very positive things indeed here, which chime eg with some of EveryCasualty’s work – and also oblige the Pentagon and other US agencies to engage with NGO monitors

I just read the executive order and, indeed, it looks good.  Implementation is now the key  as argued by The Center for Civilians in Conflict, an organization which, I suspect, influenced Obama’s executive order.  And, of course, implementation will depend mostly on Obama’s successor.

Here are a few choice quotes from the order:

In addition to the responsibilities above, relevant agencies shall also, as appropriate and consistent with mission objectives and applicable law, including the law of armed conflict:

(i) review or investigate incidents involving civilian casualties, including by considering relevant and credible information from all available sources, such as other agencies, partner governments, and nongovernmental organizations, and take measures to mitigate the likelihood of future incidents of civilian casualties;

(ii) acknowledge U.S. Government responsibility for civilian casualties and offer condolences, including ex gratia payments, to civilians who are injured or to the families of civilians who are killed;

(iii) engage with foreign partners to share and learn best practices for reducing the likelihood of and responding to civilian casualties, including through appropriate training and assistance; and

(iv) maintain channels for engagement with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other nongovernmental organizations that operate in conflict zones and encourage such organizations to assist in efforts to distinguish between military objectives and civilians, including by appropriately marking protected facilities, vehicles, and personnel, and by providing updated information on the locations of such facilities and personnel.


Sec. 3. Report on Strikes Undertaken by the U.S. Government Against Terrorist Targets Outside Areas of Active Hostilities. (a) The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), or such other official as the President may designate, shall obtain from relevant agencies information about the number of strikes undertaken by the U.S. Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities from January 1, 2016, through December 31, 2016, as well as assessments of combatant and non-combatant deaths resulting from those strikes, and publicly release an unclassified summary of such information no later than May 1, 2017. By May 1 of each subsequent year, as consistent with the need to protect sources and methods, the DNI shall publicly release a report with the same information for the preceding calendar year.

It’s worth reading the whole thing.

Civilians versus Combatant Watch: Ewen MacAskill edition

Here is a decent article by Ewen MacAskill reporting on a plan by Jeremy Corbyn to apologize to the Iraqi and British people over the Iraq war if he becomes Labour leader next month.


Unfortunately, the article also provides a perfect example of the shoddy practice, discussed just a few weeks ago on the blog, of blurring the distinction between  combatants and civilians.

The Iraq Body Count project puts the civilian death toll at 219,000 since the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, though others put it much higher. The number of British personnel killed in the war was 179 and the US 4,425.  (Note: the quote is of MacAskill, not Corbyn.)

Dear Readers, please google “Iraq Body Count” and look in the upper left-hand corner.  You will find this:

Documented civilian deaths from violence

142,939 – 162,177

Total violent deaths including combatants


In short, MacAskill presents the IBC number for civilians plus combatants as a civilians-only number.

As a side point, notice that IBC’s civilian range is for documented civilian deaths so the true number is surely higher, as the above quote implies.  Still, there is no actual measurement of violent deaths of civilians only that comes out higher than the IBC number.  The higher estimates are always of civilians plus combatants.

Is Everyone a Civilian or is it just Everyone who’s not a Military-Aged Male?

I’m already organizing my “Economics of Warfare” course for 2015-16 so I had another look at this incisive 13 minutes on drones from John Oliver.

The bit around minute 5:00 triggered a few bad memories that I would like to ….errr….share with my loyal readers. It shows Scott Shane of the New York Times decrying a CIA practice of presumptively classifying as militants all able bodied males the CIA kills in drone strikes.

That’s one way to make sure you hardly ever kill civilians.

In a similar vein, Michael Ballaban descends perilously close to the CIA’s moral universe in this article which manages to be simultaneously  offensive and useful.  Ballaban hopes to get a handle on the number of civilians killed by the Israelis in Operation Protective Edge.  Fine, but all he ends up doing is counting up the number of military-aged males killed.

To be fair, Ballaban does issue an appropriate caveat (albeit undercut in his next breadth):

In addition, one of the few things I can definitively say about the conclusions we draw is that being both male, and of military age, does not a fighter make. Just as well, Hamas fighters often are completely non-uniformed, battling in civilian clothing. And many of the fighters may not even be strict members of the Hamas hierarchy.

I agree with everything in the quote.  However, I regard the first point as terminal for the whole exercise.  The rest of the quote is largely irrelevant to the question of whether or not it’s OK to treat all dead military aged males as combatants..

Ballaban then paints his  exaggerated count as a conservative undercount:

Again, it is imperfect. Not all fighters in Gaza are males, nor are they all of military fighting age….

There is probably some truth here as well but I doubt these considerations come very close to offsetting the initial misclassification.

To be clear, gender and age breakdowns on people killed are welcome and useful. But these breakdowns do not help us figure out who is a combatant and who is a civilian.

In contrast to the above tendency to see combatants almost everywhere, the literature on the epidemiology of war often seems to pretend that everyone is a civilian.

Take this paper (Roberts et al.) and this paper (Burnham et al.).  (These are both bad papers, especially the second one, but for now I’m only interested in how they handle the concept of “civilian”.)  Feel free to pop open the links and search for the term “civilian”.

Both papers are based on sample surveys aimed at estimating the number of people killed in the Iraq war.  Neither survey attempts to separate civilians from combatants so the estimates are of  deaths of civilians plus combatants.

There is nothing wrong with mixing together civilians with combatants in an estimate. But it is a cardinal sin to interpret such an estimate as a civilians-only  one.

It would be fair to say that the Roberts et al. article pretty much commits the sin although the researchers allow themselves some degree of plausible deniability.  For example, the conclusion states:

This survey shows that with modest funds, 4 weeks and seven Iraqi team members willing to risk their lives a useful measure of civilian deaths could be obtained.

I suppose that, if pushed, the Roberts et al. team could say that, although they did not obtain a useful measure of civilian deaths themselves, they have demonstrated that it is possible to get one (for a team similarly able to bypass university IRB’s?).   Yet the much more reasonable interpretation is that they do claim to have estimated civilian deaths only.

The press office of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is totally direct about this.  For them it’s civilians, civilians, civilians, civilians all the way.

The Burnham et al. paper talks a fair amount about civilians but does not say that their estimate applies only to civilians.  Indeed, a publicity article in the Johns Hopkins magazine complains that:

Misleading headlines appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, and The Times of London. The latter also reported that the deaths were civilian, though the Lancet article [i.e., Burnham et al.] makes clear the surveyors did not attempt to ascertain if the dead had been civilians or combatants.

OK, careful researchers, sloppy journalists (at least on the civilians question).

But what about this article by Burkle and Garfield (It’s free but you have to register on the Lancet site to get to it.)  Entitled “Civilian mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq”  (my emphasis), it strongly pushes the Burnham et al. and Roberts et al. surveys but never says that they mix together civilians with combatants.

Burkle and Garfield also maintain some level of plausible deniability; for example they only use the word “civilian” in their central table when describing studies that really do measure civilian deaths.  But the concluding paragraph gives the game away:

Arguably, although passive surveillance [they mean IBC] has great immediate usefulness in war, active surveillance [they mean Roberts et al. and Burnham et al.] must prevail if we are to have more complete information. In truth, because of the politicisation and perceived weaknesses of the methods of the Iraq studies [again, Roberts et al. and Burnham et al.], all the studies of civilian death have been discounted or dismissed, yet if half a million civilians have perished, that information should be known.

This looks like a clear claim that the two surveys distinguish civilians from combatants.  In fact, I’d wager that almost all readers of  “Civilian mortality after the 2003 invasion of Iraq” walked away thinking that the article was all about civilian deaths.

I can certainly understand the impulse to claim that you are measuring civilian deaths even if this is….well….false.  It feels good.  It builds self esteem.  People might like you more if they think you’re helping civilians.

But we’re talking about historical truth here so it is no more acceptable to pretend that everyone is a civilian than it is to pretend that all military-aged males are combatants.

Addendum: An alert reader sends in this editorial by Lancet editor Richard Horton very directly and repeatedly making the false claim that the Roberts et al. estimate was for civilians only.

Addendum 1a: Even though I do a lot of proof reading of these posts it seems that every time I put something up some other alert readers finds a few typos.  I fix these quietly.  When I make substantive errors (which I will definitely do in the future) I will flag the corrections very clearly.