AOAV: all our reports

Explosive States- Monitoring explosive violence in 2014: Air-launched weapons

Air-launched explosive weapons

  • Air-launched explosive weapons killed and injured 5,868 civilians in 2014 (18% of all recorded).
  •  Civilian casualties from aerial explosive weapons in 2014 almost tripled from 2013 levels.
  • 17 countries and territories saw casualties in 2014. Almost half (43%, 2,504 people) of civilian casualties from air-launched explosive weapons were in Syria, and 35% were in Gaza.
  • AOAV recorded twice as many casualties from barrel bombs in 2014 as in 2013. Barrel bombs caused an average of 17 civilian casualties per incident.


Air-launched explosive weapons include a wide variety of ordnance, from bombs dropped out of planes or helicopters to missiles fired by unmanned drones.

There was a significant increase in the use and impact of aerial attacks with explosive weapons in 2014. AOAV recorded 5,868 civilian casualties (deaths and injuries) from 735 incidents where aircraft deployed explosive weapons.

This was a near three-fold increase in civilian casualties from 2013 (up 192%).[i]

Air-launched explosive weapons caused 18% of civilian casualties recorded in 2014, up from 6% in 2013.

AOAV recorded 9,638 total deaths and injuries from aerial explosive weapons in 2014. Civilians accounted for 61% of these casualties, a similar share to previous years.[ii]

When used in populated areas, the percentage of civilian casualties from weapons launched from the sky increased significantly in 2014. Civilians made up 84% of casualties when aerial explosive weapons were launched into populated areas. This compares to 20% in other areas.

Almost two-thirds of all incidents involving air-launched explosive weapons were reported in populated areas (63%). This is up notably from 2013 (45%), and from 2012 (47%) and is an important consideration in explaining the tripling of civilian casualties reported globally from aerial attacks with explosive weapons in the last year.


The majority of civilian casualties from air-launched explosive weapons in 2014 were recorded in Syria, Gaza, and Iraq respectively (see Figure 9). High-profile aerial campaigns were launched in the summer of 2014 by Israeli forces in Gaza, and by an international coalition of states, led by the US, against ISIS fighters in Iraq and later Syria.

In total AOAV recorded casualties from aerial explosive weapons in 17 countries and territories (14 of which saw civilian casualties).[iii] This is an increase from 2013, when AOAV recorded 13 affected countries (nine of which saw a civilian casualty). Despite the sharp increases in Gaza and Iraq in particular, the country with the most civilian casualties was Syria, where 43% of civilian casualties from air-launched explosive weapons were recorded.


Syria (46%), Israel (35%) and Iraq (8%) were the forces responsible for the most civilian casualties recorded from aerial explosive weapons in 2014.

One particularly notable trend in aerial explosive violence in 2014 was the conduct of airstrikes by state forces in territory outside of their own direct sovereignty.

Only in six of the 17 affected countries in 2014 was the governing state the sole recorded actor to have launched explosive weapons from aircraft.[iv]

In Iraq for example civilian casualties were reported from air strikes carried out by the Iraqi armed forces, Syrian jets and coalition actors as part of ‘Operation Inherent Resolve.’ Iran also reportedly bombed targets in the country.[v]

For the first time since AOAV’s monitor began in 2011, explosive weapons were deployed by aircraft not formally in the control of a state. Multiple groups carried out deadly air strikes in Libya in 2014, including militant groups and armed actors not-affiliated with an internationally-recognised government.[vi]

AOAV Air-launched (2014)

Barrel bombs

In 2014 AOAV recorded a sizeable increase in the use and impact of ‘barrel bombs’. These are improvised weapons comprised of containers filled with fuel, high explosive and chunks of jagged metal. They are usually dropped manually out of helicopters.[vii]

AOAV recorded 1,068 civilian casualties from barrel bombs in 2014. Civilian casualties increased by 87% from 2013 when 571 civilians were reportedly killed and injured.

While almost all barrel bomb attacks took place in Syria, the Iraq government was also reported to have used these weapons in 2014.[viii] On 11 September for example, hospital workers in the city of Fallujah claimed that 14 barrel bombs were dropped on the city. Twenty-two civilians were reportedly killed in the attack.[ix] AOAV recorded 126 civilian casualties during 2014 in Iraq from barrel bombs.

“It was something really extraordinary. The dust and the smoke. It looked like a nuclear bomb. We ran like hell.”
Abu Hammed, Fallujah resident who witnessed a barrel bomb strike, May 2014[x]

However, barrel bombs remain synonymous with Syrian state use, particularly in the northern city of Aleppo. Three-quarters of civilian casualties from barrel bombs in Syria took place in Aleppo governorate. AOAV data suggests an increasing reliance on barrel bombs by Syrian government forces. In 2014, 40% of all aerial attacks recorded in Syria involved reported use of barrel bombs. In 2013, that percentage stood at 20%.

Three-quarters of all civilian casualties from barrel bombs were fatalities (75%), compared to 51% of civilian casualties in other aerial bombing incidents.

On average, 17 civilians were killed and injured per barrel bombing strike. This again is higher than for other types of air-dropped bombs, which caused an average of seven civilian casualties per incident.

This reflects the wide-area impact of barrel bombs, which are often destructive and powerful weapons, which are completely unguided.[xi]

It also reflects the nature of the incidents themselves. Most barrel bombing attacks in 2014 (85%) took place in populated areas, and often involved a large number of bombs being dropped in a short period of time.

On 20 April for example, a Syrian government helicopter dropped four barrel bombs “in close sequence” on a civilian neighbourhood in Aleppo city. Many buildings collapsed and at least 40 people were killed.[xii]

“Barrel bombs are highly imprecise, with an extensive impact zone. Flying at high altitudes further reduces their accuracy. The use of barrel bombs in that manner is indiscriminate […] The use of barrel bombs [in densely populated areas] amounts to area bombardment, prohibited under international law as a tactic that spreads terror among the civilian population.”
UN Human Rights Council, 13 August 2014[xiii]


Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), were far more frequently reported in 2014 than in previous years. This is because of the extensive use of both armed and unarmed unmanned vehicles by Israeli forces in Gaza.[xiv]

Drones were reported in 43% of the aerial attacks that AOAV recorded in Gaza in 2014 (150 out of 347). These attacks were responsible for 29% of civilian casualties that AOAV documented from aerial attacks in Gaza.

On average four civilian casualties were reported per drone attack in Gaza. This was lower than the average for attacks where drones were not reported as responsible (seven). This suggests that the higher average impact of non-drone attacks in Gaza in 2014 was a result of the wider-area effects of the explosive weapons deployed by other types of aircraft.[xv]

Beyond Gaza, reported use of drones seemed to decrease in 2014 from 2013. In 2014 AOAV recorded 47 drone attacks in six countries (Afghanistan, Mali, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen).

This is a 30% drop in incidents from 2013 levels, when AOAV recorded 67 drone strikes. Casualty numbers fell by 29%, from 472 in 2013 to 335 in 2014, largely due to a five-month lull in strikes in Pakistan.[xvi]

As in previous years, the impact of drone strikes on civilians in 2014 was unclear. Just 6% of casualties from drone strikes outside of Gaza were reported to be civilians.

As drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen largely occur in remote locations where independent access is restricted, the full impact on civilians could be higher than is reported.

Operation Inherent Resolve: Air strikes in Syria and Iraq

Three multinational coalitions of states carried out air strikes in 2014. These were AMISOM (in Somalia), NATO ISAF (in Afghanistan), and ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’, a US-led campaign targeting ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.[xvii] At least 12 different states have carried out air strikes as part of this operation.[xviii]

The US launched its first air strike in Iraq in 2014 on 8 August.[xix]  A month later, on 22 September, the first coalition air strike was launched in Syria.[xx] By the end of 2014 a total of 5,886 weapons had been launched in 1,411 sorties.[xxi]

AOAV recorded only 26 casualty-causing air strikes resulting from coalition bombing in 2014. These resulted in 541 casualties, 88% (474) of which were fatalities. Civilians made up 19% of reported casualties from these air strikes (83 deaths and 20 injuries), 87% of which were documented in Syria.

In one incident, at least nine civilians, including women and children, were reportedly killed when coalition air strikes targeted militant compounds in Kfar Derian village in Idlib, Syria, on 23 September.[xxii] Seven militant deaths were also reported in the overnight attacks.[xxiii] The air strikes triggered secondary explosions, causing residential buildings nearby to collapse.[xxiv]

Fifteen percent of the incidents recorded by AOAV took place in populated areas.[xxv] While this may signify a marked effort by coalition forces to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, there were several contexts where this pattern did not bear out in 2014. In the northern flashpoint town of Kobani, on the Turkish border, more than 700 coalition air strikes reportedly destroyed almost 80% of the city’s buildings.[xxvi]

“Please, please tell them to focus their strikes on their [ISIS] bases, not to hit civilian areas.”
Syrian resident of Tal Abyad, September 2014[xxvii]

It is extremely difficult to draw effective assessments of the impacts of the international coalition’s use of explosive weapons on civilians in Syria and Iraq in 2014. Security conditions on the ground and a lack of access in areas outside of government control make it challenging for independent agencies to evaluate impact of air strikes.

Moreover while the number of individual attacks is publicly recorded by the coalition, there is a lack of transparency surrounding the impacts of these strikes in terms of casualty figures.[xxviii]

Public officials have only acknowledged civilian casualties from one air strike in 2014 to date, while simultaneously claiming that thousands of ISIS fighters have died.[xxix]

These claims are unconvincing without supporting evidence, and there is a duty for coalition actors to fully investigate and acknowledge any civilian harm that may arise from their campaign, and work towards the fulfilment of the rights of any such victims.

Users of explosive weapons should recognise their responsibility to collect and publish data on the impacts of their use on civilians. Accurate and disaggregated data is necessary in order to develop effective programs of redress for civilian harm.[xxx]

“It’s impossible for us to know definitively if civilians are killed in a strike. We do everything we can to investigate. We don’t do strikes if we think civilians could be there. But we can’t have a perfect picture on what’s going on.”
Anonymous U.S. Defense Official, January 2015[xxxi]

[i] In 2013, AOAV recorded 2,012 civilian casualties from air-launched explosive weapons.

[ii] In 2013 civilians made up 60% of casualties from air-launched explosive weapons.

[iii] Afghanistan, Egypt, Gaza, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen all saw civilian casualties in 2014. In addition Colombia, Mali and Philippines had armed actor casualties.

[iv] Colombia, Egypt, Nigeria, Philippines, Sudan and Ukraine.

[v] Akbar Shahid Ahmed, “Iran Bombing Islamic State in Iraq, U.S. Official Confirms, The Huffington Post, 2 December 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[vi] In May 2014 forces loyal to former army general Khalifa Haftar launched ‘Operation Dignity’ against militant groups in the eastern city of Benghazi. Haftar was later appointed army commander of Libya’s internationally-recognised government. Libya Dawn militias also reportedly carried out aerial bombing in Libya in December, while both Egypt and the UAE launched air strikes in the country in 2014. See respectively Andrew Engel, “Libya’s Growing Risk of Civil War,” The Washington Institute, 20 May 2014, (accessed 14 May 2015); “Libya Dawn conducts 1st airstrike on eastern oil zone,” Ansamed, 16 December 2014,  (accessed 14 May 2015); and “UAE and Egypt behind bombing raids against Libyan militias, say US officials,” The Guardian, 26 August 2014, (accessed 14 May 2015).

[vii] Barrel bombs are often cited by activists and witnesses but it is not always clear from these statements and from media reporting which incidents did involve the use of makeshift, as opposed to conventional, bombs.

[viii] Human Rights Watch, “Iraq: Civilian Toll of Government Airstrikes,” 23 July 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[ix] Lizzie Dearden, “Islamic State: Iraqi Government’s illegal barrel bombing of civilian areas ‘to be stopped,’” The Independent, 13 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[x] Ned Parker, Isra’ Al-Rubei-I and Raheem Salman, “Thousand flee Iraq government assault in Falluja,” Reuters, 16 May 2014, (accessed 20 May 2015).

[xi] Zach Schonfeld, “Are Syrian barrel bombs really worse than normal weaponry?,” Newsweek, posted by Action on Armed Violence, 13 February 2014, really-worse-normal-weaponry/ (accessed 20 May 2015).

[xii] “More barrel bombs hit Syria’s Aleppo,” Al Jazeera, 20 April 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015). “Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council, 13 August 2014, (p. 34).

[xiii] “Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic,” United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council, 13 August 2014,

[xiv] The use of drones for both surveillance and for missile strikes in Gaza means that it is unclear from media reporting which air strikes were in fact caused by drone attacks, and which were delivered by manned aircraft.  Testimonies gathered from IDF personnel by Israeli-NGO Breaking the Silence in 2014 indicated that drones were active throughout Israel’s operation in Gaza and assisted with almost all air strikes, including those carried out by manned fighter jets. See for example Testimony 94 in “This is How We Fought in Gaza: Soldiers’ testimonies and photographs from Operation ‘Protective Edge’ (2014),” Breaking the Silence, 2015, (accessed 18 May 2015).

[xv] While drones typically fire missiles, manned aircraft dropped heavy high-explosive aircraft bombs in Gaza that included the Mk-84. The Mk-84 weighs 2,000lb and is said to be able to kill anyone up to 400 yards from the point of detonation. For more information see Robert Perkins, “Under Fire: Israel’s artillery policies scrutinised,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), December 2014,, p. 15.

[xvi] Alice K Ross, “Drone strikes in Pakistan: CIA drone strikes resume in Pakistan after five-month pause,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 12 June 2014, (accessed 18 May 2015).

[xvii] U.S. Department of Defense, “Operation Inherent Resolve: Targeted Operations Against ISIL Terrorists,” (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xviii] The twelve states who have actively carried out air strikes as of 7 May 2015 include; US, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Jordan, the Netherlands and UK (Iraq), and US, Bahrain, Canada, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE (Syria). U.S. Department of Defense, “Airstrikes Destroy ISIL Infrastructure in Iraq, Syria,” 7 May 2015, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xix] “Iraq: US air strike on Islamic State militants in Iraq,” BBC, 8 August 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xx] U.S. Department of Defense, “DoD Official: Successful Syrian Strikes Only the Beginning,” 23 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxi] “Combined Forces Air Component Commander 2010-2015 Airpower Statistics,” Operation Inherent Resolve, As of 31 March 2015,  (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxii] Human Rights Watch, “US/Syria: Investigate Possible Unlawful US Strikes,” 28 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxiii] Moremi Amuta, “15 Killed in U.S Led Air Strikes in Syria,” Xinhua/NAN, 23 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxiv] Syrian Network for Human Rights, “Coalition Forces Airstrikes Killed Civilians in Idlib,” 24 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015). Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that the strikes also included the firing of massive Tomahawk cruise missiles from naval ships. Human Rights Watch, “US/Syria: Investigate Possible Unlawful US Strikes,” 28 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxv] AOAV has cautioned coalition actors not to use explosive weapons in populated areas during the campaign. See for example, Robert Perkins, “UK must not bomb civilian areas in Iraq,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), 26 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxvi] Handicap International, “Kobani: A city of rubble and unexploded devices,” May 2015, (accessed 29 May 2015).

[xxvii] Dominique Soguel, “From IS-controlled Raqqa, tales of the group’s resilience,” The Christian Science Monitor, 14 September 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxviii] As Chris Woods noted, “That term ‘airstrike’ can be misleading, however. U.S. defense officials concede that what they report as a single incident might involve the targeting of numerous locations.” Chris Woods, “Pentagon in Denial About Civilian Casualties of U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria,” Foreign Policy, 3 December 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxix] See, David Alexander, “U.S. admits two children killed in Islamic State campaign,” Reuters, 21 May 2015, (accessed 29 May 2015); Chris Woods, “Pentagon in Denial About Civilian Casualties of U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq and Syria,” Foreign Policy, 3 December 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015); Emma Glanfield, “Air strikes ‘have killed 6,000 ISIS fighters, including half of the top command’,” Daily Mail, 23 January 2015, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxx] For more information see Robert Perkins, “Air Power in Afghanistan: How NATO changed the rules, 2008-2014,” Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), December 2014, (accessed 15 May 2015).

[xxxi] Nancy A. Youssef, “U.S. Won’t Admit to Killing a Single Civilian in the ISIS War,” The Daily Beast, 24 January 2015, (accessed 15 May 2015).