Cultural blind spots also left innocent civilians vulnerable to attack. The military judged, for example, that there was “no civilian presence” in a house where families were napping during the days of the Ramadan fast or sheltering from the heat or intense fighting.
Breakdowns in technology and surveillance
For all their promise of pinpoint accuracy, at times the American weapons simply missed. In 2016, the military reported that it had killed Neil Prakash, a notorious Australian ISIS recruiter, in a strike on a house in East Mosul. Four civilians died in the strike, according to the Pentagon. Months later, Mr. Prakash was arrested crossing from Syria into Turkey.
Poor or insufficient surveillance footage often contributed to deadly targeting failures. Afterward, it also hamstrung efforts to examine strikes. Of the 1,311 reports examined by The Times, the military had deemed 216 allegations “credible.” Reports of civilian casualties were often dismissed because video showed no bodies in the rubble, yet the footage was often too brief to make a reliable determination.
Sometimes, only seconds’ worth of footage was taken before a strike, hardly enough for investigators to assess civilians’ presence. In some other cases, there was no footage at all for review, which became the basis for rejecting the allegation. That was often because of “equipment error,” because no aircraft had “observed or recorded the strike,” or because the unit could not or would not find the footage or had not preserved it as required.
A failure to account for secondary explosions
A target like a weapons cache or power station came with the potential for secondary explosions, which often reached far beyond the expected blast radius. These accounted for nearly a third of all civilian casualties acknowledged by the military and half of all civilian deaths and injuries at the sites visited by The Times.
A June 2015 strike on a car-bomb factory in Hawija, Iraq, is among the deadliest examples. In plans for the nighttime attack, the nearest “collateral concern” was assessed to be a “shed.” But apartment buildings ringed the site, and dozens of displaced families, unable to afford rent, had also been squatting in abandoned buildings close by. According to the military investigation, as many as 70 civilians were killed that night.
In response to questions from The Times, Capt. Bill Urban, the spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, said that “even with the best technology in the world, mistakes do happen, whether based on incomplete information or misinterpretation of the information available. And we try to learn from those mistakes.” He added: “We work diligently to avoid such harm. We investigate each credible instance. And we regret each loss of innocent life.”