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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Intervention Against ISIS

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the intervention against ISIS.

When did this conflict occur?

9th August, 2014^ — Present*

^ – Though Operation Shader, the British military contribution to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, began on the 9th of August, 2014, the immediate roots of the conflict dated back to June of 2014, when the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria launched its offensives against Iraqi security forces in Mosul and Tikrit. [1]

* – British servicemembers from all four branches of the armed forces remain present in Iraq and Syria today; however, major offensive operations against the Islamic State largely concluded with the fall of Baghuz, the group’s remaining territorial stronghold, in March of 2019. [2]

What is the political, economic, social or historical background to this conflict?

The roots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Daesh, stem from the remnants of al-Qaeda in Iraq, an offshoot of al-Qaeda formed by Jordanian Sunni Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which developed a reputation for extreme violence in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Though Zarqawi was killed in an American airstrike in 2006, AQI survived and redesignated itself as the Islamic State of Iraq, before territorial acquisition in the midst of the Syrian Civil War allowed the group to rename itself once more as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. [3] Having amassed a sufficient quantity of personnel and military equipment, ISIS, now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, spilled over the Syrian border in June of 2014 and launched a major offensive against the Iraqi province of Nineveh. One third of the Iraqi police and military forces tasked with the region’s defence collapsed, and, by late 2014, had captured one third of Syria and 40% of Iraq. [4] On the 29th of June, al-Baghdadi declared the formation of an Islamic Caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Diyala in central Iraq; less than two months later, however, an international coalition led by the United States announced the beginning of a military intervention against the Islamic State. [5] Coalition aircraft began striking targets in support of Iraqi ground forces on the 7th of August, with aerial bombardments soon shifting to incorporate Syria the following month. On the ground, small numbers of Coalition advisors and special operations troops embedded with Iraqi military and paramilitary forces, with country’s Counter-Terrorism Service, alongside the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga, spearheading relentless campaigns to retake key cities such as Mosul, Tikrit, and Ramadi. This joint, multinational offensive slowly degraded the Islamic State’s military, political, and economic capabilities, and, by the start of 2018, the group had lost 95% of its territory. [6] The Islamic State’s final conventional military defeat came in March of 2019, when elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces alongside US, UK, and other coalition forces captured the town of Baghuz in Eastern Syria. [7]

What role did British military forces play?

The British military contribution against the Islamic State began in the earliest stages of the international intervention in August of 2014. RAF fighter-bombers, alongside those of the United States, France, and other coalition partners, targeted ISIS personnel, equipment, and key command-and-control infrastructure in both Iraq and Syria, while MQ-9 Reaper drones based in Cyprus focused on conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance overflights in Syria. [8] In June of 2021, the British air component was further expanded by the arrival of the HMS Queen Elizabeth and her accompanying carrier strike group, with F-35B aircraft flying their first combat sorties from the vessel later that month. [9] Simultaneously, British ground forces undertook a major train, equip, and advise effort in support of Iraqi and Kurdish security forces; based out of three primary sites in Iraq, including the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil, British servicemembers have trained more than 120000 Iraqi troops in key skills including weapons maintenance, trauma management, IED search and disposal, and combat engineering tasks. This British ground presence in Iraq endures today, and elements of 1st Battalion, the Welsh Guards, recently deployed in November of 2021 as part of UK Mobility Company (Kurdistan). [10] Finally, British special operations forces, drawn largely from elements of the 22nd Special Air Service with support from other components of UKSF, have played active roles in the international military effort against the Islamic State. UKSF members were integrated in the US-led Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and conducted reconnaissance, terminal attack control, and unconventional warfare operations in territory occupied by the Islamic State. [11] Similarly in Syria, British special operations forces worked alongside their US and French counterparts and suffered Op Shader’s first loss in Syria in March of 2018, when Sergeant Matt Tonroe was killed by an explosion alongside an American servicemember in Manbij. [12]

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the military intervention against ISIS, there were 26 confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 25 civilian deaths, four British military personnel died in the conflict, with one of these deaths being due to hostile action. [13]

Are there any trends or particular incidents of note?

At least 26 civilians were killed in nine Royal Air Force strikes in Iraq and Syria between 2015 and 2018. This figure was established through a new analysis by Action on Armed Violence in collaboration with the London-based NGO, Airwars. Previously, the UK Ministry of Defence publicly acknowledged one civilian death as a result of British military action when, in May of 2018, a Reaper drone strike on three suspected ISIS fighters in Eastern Syria resulted in the death of a civilian on a motorbike who was caught in the blast. Though described by then-Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson as a “deeply regrettable” single instance, subsequent investigations have uncovered evidence indicating a greater number of noncombatant fatalities as a result of British military action against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. [14]

  • In one airstrike, on the 13th of August, 2017, as many as 12 civilians are thought to have been killed. RAF Typhoons, operating in the Islamic State’s capital in Raqqa, Syria, targeted three fighting positions which included heavy machine-gun and mortar emplacements located in a built-up area. The strike, though successful in eliminating the entrenched ISIS position, ultimately resulted in the deaths of up to 12 noncombatants in accordance with reports from the BBC and the US military.  [15]

Endnotes

[1] Timeline: the Rise, Spread, and Fall of the Islamic State, Wilson Center, 2019, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/timeline-the-rise-spread-and-fall-the-islamic-state

[2] Islamic State group defeated as final territory lost, US-backed forces say, BBC News, 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-47678157

[3] Fred Drews, “ISIS, ISIL, Islamic State? A terminology primer,” Brookings Institution, 2015, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/brookings-now/2015/09/15/isis-isil-islamic-state-a-terminology-primer/

[4] Michael Knights and Alex Mello, “The Best Thing America Built in Iraq: Iraq’s Counter-Terrorism Service and the Long War Against Militancy,” War on the Rocks, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/07/the-best-thing-america-built-in-iraq-iraqs-counter-terrorism-service-and-the-long-war-against-militancy/#:~:text=One%2Dthird%20of%20Iraqi%20army,%2C%20Ramadi%2C%20and%20eventually%20Mosul.

[5] Operation Inherent Resolve: Targeted Operations to Defeat ISIS, US Department of Defense, 2022, https://dod.defense.gov/OIR/

[6] Azevedo, Christian Vianna de, “ISIS Resurgence in Al Hawl Camp and Human Smuggling Enterprises in Syria: Crime and Terror Convergence?”, Perspectives on Terrorism 14, no. 4 (2020): 48. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26927663.

[7] The Islamic State, Stanford Center for International Security and Cooperation, 2022, https://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/mappingmilitants/profiles/islamic-state

[8] Operation Shader: All you need to know about Britain’s fight against IS, Forces, 2021, https://www.forces.net/news/three-years-op-shader-1500-airstrikes-against-islamic-state

[9] Stealth jets fight Daesh in first combat missions from HMS Queen Elizabeth, Royal Navy, 2021, https://www.royalnavy.mod.uk/news-and-latest-activity/news/2021/june/22/210622-hms-queen-elizabeth-op-shader

[10] UK Ministry of Defence, “In Pictures: Preparing for the Middle East,” Medium: Voices of the Armed Forces, 2021, https://medium.com/voices-of-the-armed-forces/in-pictures-preparing-for-the-middle-east-35bf152bd41e

[11] Knowles, Emily and Abigail Watson. All Quiet on the ISIS Front? British Secret Warfare in an Information Age (London: Remote Control, 2017): 20-21.

[12] UK soldier killed fighting IS in Syria named as Sgt Matt Tonroe, BBC News, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43606899

[13] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[14] Gavin Williamson, “Counter-Daesh Operations: Statement made on 2 May 2018,” UK Parliament, 2018, https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-statements/detail/2018-05-02/HCWS665

[15] Beale, Jonathan, “Islamic State: US military says RAF airstrikes may have killed civilians,” BBC News, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-51900898