The US government released official data on “counterterrorism strikes outside areas of active hostilities,” including the number of strikes, and combatant and civilian casualties. The information, which only covers operations during the Obama administration’s tenure, is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to provide “as much information as possible to the American people” on the controversial issue of counterterrorism strikes against jihadist groups.
The data was released today by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) and covers counterterrorism operations, such as drone and manned airstrikes and special operations raids in areas outside of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, which are considered “areas of active hostilities” where the US military is directly engaged in fighting against groups such as al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State. The countries where the raids took place are not specified, however, but likely include Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.
There have been 473 counterterrorism strikes since President Obama took office on Jan. 20, 2009 up until Dec. 31, 2015, according to the ODNI. Data for 2016 was not disclosed.
US intelligence estimates that between 2,372 and 2,581 combatants and between 64 and 116 civilians were killed in these strikes, according to the ODNI.
The ODNI report did not provide data on strikes conducted during the Bush administration. The reason for this omission was not disclosed.
The Long War Journal has tracked US counterterrorism operations in Pakistan and Yemen using press reports and other means since the first recorded strike in Pakistan in 2004. LWJ has not attempted to track strikes in Somalia and Libya due to the uncertainty of information. The numbers provided by ODNI are similar, however there are discrepancies.
LWJ has recorded 471 strikes in Pakistan and Yemen combined from Jan. 20, 2009 to Dec. 31, 2015 (343 strikes in Pakistan, 126 in Yemen). An estimated 207 civilians have been killed during that timeframe (100 killed in Pakistan, 107 in Yemen).
ODNI noted that it is difficult to assess combatant and civilian casualties after the strikes, as “there are inherent limitations … particularly when operating in non-permissive environments.”
Much of the ODNI report focused on “discrepancies between US government and non-governmental assessments” from “non-governmental organizations.” The “non-governmental organizations” referred to in the report are The Long War Journal, The New America Foundation, and the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, the three groups that track the counterterrorism strikes.
ODNI notes that the reporting of civilian casualties by the non-governmental organizations is “significantly higher” that the numbers provided by the government, which “uses post-strike methodologies that have been refined and honed over the years and that use information that is generally unavailable” to the three groups.
LWJ has maintained that reporting on counterterrorism operations is an extremely difficult endeavor as these counterterrorism operations nearly always take place in areas outside of the writ of governments dominated by jihadist groups with their own agendas. Terrorists often operate embedded within the civilian population to mask their activities and provide a civilian shield to discourage airstrikes. Intelligence officials have the unenviable task of attempting to determine if a target location has civilians present, and then must assess the aftermath of a strike in areas that are considered no-go zones. Without intelligence assets on or near the location in real time, it is difficult to assess information gained from sensors.
The US government’s estimates of civilian casualties may be low compared to the three groups tracking the strikes, but the estimate is not outside of the realm of possibility. It is also possible that the high estimate for civilian casualties may be correct.
ODNI did not provide data on a strike-by-strike basis, so it is difficult to reconcile the discrepancies between our data and that provided by US government. Without examining each strike on an individual basis, it is impossible to close the information gap.