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Latest figures show RAF airstrikes targeted 4,369 militants in Iraq and Syria since 2014; MOD maintains claim only one civilian killed

Some 4,369 enemy combatants have been killed or wounded by British Royal Air Force (RAF) airstrikes in Iraq and Syria since September 2014, newly released data can reveal. This figure includes 4,066 killed (93% of total), with 303 more militants wounded (7%).

This total is based on a new Freedom of Information request released by the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) to Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) that shows that between January 2019 and January 2021, RAF airstrikes over Iraq and Syria killed some 67 enemy combatants and wounded a further four.

According to the released information, no allegations regarding incidents involving civilian casualties since January 2019 have been received. The MOD also stated that “for completeness, a number of allegations regarding civilian casualties have been raised since January 2019 relating to the overall campaign”. This means that these claims have been investigated and that no credible additional incidents of civilian casualties have been found.

The latest data, released by the Ministry of Defence under FOI adds to other releases received by AOAV in October 2016, February 2019, September 2019 and April 2021.

These new figures mean that, to date, some 3,036 enemy combatants were killed by airstrikes in Iraq, with a further 235 wounded. This suggests that Iraq witnessed the killing or injury of some 75% of the total numbers claimed harmed by the RAF. Some 1,030 fighters were killed in Syria, with a further 68 wounded.

The weapon systems used – Typhoon, Tornado and Reaper – were relatively evenly used in equal measure, the data revealed. Typhoons killed or wounded 37% of all combatants harmed (1,573 killed, 34 wounded); Tornados harmed 31% of all claimed targets (1,265 killed and 72 wounded) and the ‘unmanned’ Reaper drones were involved in one third – 33% – of all attacks that killed or wounded (1,229 killed and 197 wounded).

This means that in terms of wounding versus kill rate, Typhoons killed 98% of all those harmed in their attacks, Tornados killed 95%, and Reapers killed 86%. This might be accounted for by different payloads and different circumstances of use, but one cannot also discount the possibility that Reapers might have more capacity towards post-blast analysis. It is also of note that the last lethal use of GR4 Tornados by the RAF was in January 2019, when five militants were claimed killed in Iraq.

The most concerning element of the data, however, is the claim that between September 2014 and January 2021, with thousands of sorties and enemies reported killed or injured, there remains only one public acknowledgement of a civilian killed in such strikes.

In May 2018, the MOD admitted that a Reaper drone armed with a Hellfire missile fired at three suspected Islamic State fighters on 26 March. A civilian on a motorbike entered the target area and was killed too. The then defence secretary, Gavin Williamson, in a written statement to parliament described the fatality as “deeply regrettable”.

News reports, such as one in May 2018 from the BBC, have cast doubt on claims this was the only known death of a civilian, with a source inside the coalition fighting the Islamic State group telling the BBC’s Defence Correspondent Jonathan Beale that he believed more civilians had been killed as a result of RAF airstrikes. The source, who was not named to protect his identity, said it was “impossible” to conduct a bombing campaign in highly-populated areas, like Mosul, without killing civilians.

Such scepticism chimes with AOAV’s data that, when explosive weapons are used in populated areas, the data available shows consistently that 90% of those killed or injured will be civilians.

“For the MOD to maintain it’s claim that it has killed or injured almost 4,400 Islamist militants in Iraq and Syria, with only killing one civilian necessitate the suspension of disbelief,” said Action on Armed Violence’s Executive Director Iain Overton of the figures. “The problem is that the exact location of these strikes are not made public, and accessing such locations remains fraught with challenges – financial and safety – for independent researchers. Distanced warfare provides the State with the perfect cloak of deniability. Believe us, they say, or prove otherwise – all too often placing the burden of proof on those without power.”

Airstrikes analysed
Below is a series of graphs detailing the air-strike impacts of RAF missions over Iraq and Syria, broken down by nation and weapon type.