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An Anatomy of an Airstrike: Global

“I was ashamed when I heard the name. A mother gives life and this one gives death, and we call this device a mother. What is happening?”
-Pope Francis on the ‘Mother of All Bombs’ dropped by the US on suspected ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan.

“Air Force provides critical CAS during Operation Hammer Down II” by DVIDSHUB is licensed with CC BY 2.0. 

Air-dropped bombs are extremely powerful, with a large destructive capacity when used in populated areas. In general, most air-dropped bombs cause a supersonic over-pressurisation shock wave that can blow apart buildings and kill and injure people hundreds of metres from the point of detonation. The fragmentation pattern and range is difficult to predict, but it is generally said that a 2,000lb Mk 84 bomb  has a ‘lethal radius’ (i.e. the distance in which it is likely to kill people in the vicinity) of up to 360m.

Recorded Data

There were a total of 6,157 airstrikes recorded by AOAV’s Explosive Violence Monitor from 2011 to 2020, over 28 different countries. In total, these caused 83,964 casualties. 56% of these (46,888) were civilians. 26,755 of the civilian casualties were fatal – 57% – meaning if a civilian was hurt by an airstrike they were more likely to die than survive.

Of all recorded victims (armed actors and civilians combined), 25,499 were injured, and 58,462 were killed. This is likely to be an underestimation as casualties, particularly non-fatal ones, often go unrecorded. 

Airstrikes are a high casualty method of explosive violence. On average, there were 13.6 casualties per airstrike and an average of 7.6 civilian casualties per strike and 4.3 civilians killed per strike. 

Populated areas

A majority (51% or 3,120) of airstrikes occurred within populated areas. 46,561 total casualties resulted from these strikes. Of these, 90% (41,978) were civilians.

398 incidents were listed as not in populated areas, resulting in 8,087 casualties. From these, just 2% (149) were civilians.

There were 2,640 incidents when it was unclear whether the area bombed was populated or not. Of the casualties caused by these, 16 % (4,761 of 29,316) were civilians. These were most likely non-populated. 

Hotspots

The worst affected country over the decade from airstrikes has been Syria. It has suffered 2,536 attacks, 41% of the global total. Afghanistan is second with 1,322 incidents – 21% of the global total.

Similarly, in terms of total civilian casualties from airstrikes, Syria is the worst affected (26,485 casualties). Despite suffering fewer individual strikes than Afghanistan, both Yemen and Iraq have higher casualty counts – 9,209 and 5,236 respectively. 

Of the five countries that have received the most airstrikes over the decade: Yemen has seen the highest rate of civilian deaths per strike (6.9), followed by Syria (6.4), then Iraq (4.1). 

Airstrikes have been used in 28 countries since 2011. 

Who?

The perpetrator responsible for the most civilian casualties is the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Their airstrikes have caused 8,918 civilian casualties, 49% (4,344) of these were fatal. 

Next is the Syrian state forces, responsible for 7,488 casualties, 51% (3,816) of which were lethal. 

However, when combined, US-led or NATO airstrikes, bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen actually killed more civilians (5,263) but had a lower overall civilian casualty count (7,393). This means American airstrikes are, on average, far more deadly, with a 71% fatality rate for civilians. 

Report continues:

Chapter 2: Case Study – Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan, 27th November 2018
Chapter 3: SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Chapter 4: SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities
Chapter 5: SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-Being
Chapter 6: SDG 4 – Quality Education
Chapter 7: Other Considerations
Conclusion and Recommendations

More in this series: An Anatomy of an Explosive Weapon Attack