Civilian deaths mounted as secret unit pounded Islamic State group

A single top-secret American strike cell launched tens of thousands of bombs and missiles against the Islamic State group in Syria, but in the process of hammering a vicious enemy, the shadowy force sidestepped safeguards and repeatedly killed civilians, according to multiple current and former military and intelligence officials.

>>Dave Philipps, Eric Schmitt and Mark MazzettiThe New York Times
Published : 12 Dec 2021, 08:27 AM
Updated : 12 Dec 2021, 08:27 AM

The unit, called Talon Anvil, worked in three shifts around the clock between 2014 and 2019, pinpointing targets for the United States’ formidable air power to hit: convoys, car bombs, command centres and squads of enemy fighters.

But people who worked with the strike cell say in the rush to destroy enemies, it circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants, and alarmed its partners in the military and the CIA by killing people who had no role in the conflict: farmers trying to harvest, children in the street, families fleeing fighting and villagers sheltering in buildings.

Talon Anvil was small — at times fewer than 20 people operating from anonymous rooms cluttered with flat screens — but it played an outsize role in the 112,000 bombs and missiles launched against the Islamic State group, in part because it embraced a loose interpretation of the military’s rules of engagement.

“They were ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs,” said a former Air Force intelligence officer who worked on hundreds of classified Talon Anvil missions from 2016 to 2018. “But they also made a lot of bad strikes.”

The military billed the air war against the Islamic State group as the most precise and humane in military history, and said strict rules and oversight by top leaders kept civilian deaths to a minimum despite a ferocious pace of bombing. In reality, four current and former military officials say, the majority of strikes were ordered not by top leaders but by relatively low-ranking US Army Delta Force commandos in Talon Anvil.

The New York Times reported last month that a Special Operations bombing run in 2019 killed dozens of women and children, and that the aftermath was concealed from the public and top military leaders. In November, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a high-level investigation into the strike, which was carried out by Talon Anvil.

But people who saw the task force operate firsthand say the 2019 strike was part of a pattern of reckless strikes that started years earlier.

When presented with the Times’ findings, several current and former senior Special Operations officers denied any widespread pattern of reckless airstrikes by the strike cell and disregard for limiting civilian casualties. Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesperson for the military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in Syria, declined to comment.

As bad strikes mounted, the four military officials said, Talon Anvil’s partners sounded the alarm. Pilots over Syria at times refused to drop bombs because Talon Anvil wanted to hit questionable targets in densely populated areas. Senior CIA officers complained to Special Operations leaders about the disturbing pattern of strikes. Air Force teams doing intelligence work argued with Talon Anvil over a secure phone known as the red line. And even within Talon Anvil, some members at times refused to participate in strikes targeting people who did not seem to be in the fight.

The four officials worked in different parts of the war effort, but all interacted directly with Talon Anvil on hundreds of strikes and soon grew concerned with its way of operating. They reported what they were seeing to immediate superiors and the command overseeing the air war, but say they were ignored.

The former Air Force intelligence officer, who worked almost daily on missions from 2016 to 2018, said he notified the main Air Force operations centre in the region about civilian casualties several times, including after a March 2017 strike when Talon Anvil dropped a 500-pound bomb on a building where about 50 people were sheltering. But he said leaders seemed reluctant to scrutinize a strike cell that was driving the offensive on the battlefield.

Every year that the strike cell operated, the civilian casualty rate in Syria increased significantly, according to Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department adviser who was one of the authors of a 2018 Defence Department report on civilian harm. Lewis, who has viewed the Pentagon’s classified civilian casualty data for Syria, said the rate was 10 times that of similar operations he tracked in Afghanistan.

“It was much higher than I would have expected from a US unit,” Lewis said. “The fact that it increased dramatically and steadily over a period of years shocked me.”

Lewis said commanders enabled the tactics by failing to emphasize the importance of reducing civilian casualties, and that Gen Stephen Townsend, who commanded the offensive against the Islamic State group in 2016 and 2017, was dismissive of widespread reports from news media and human rights organisations describing the mounting toll.

In a telephone interview, Townsend, who now heads the military’s Africa Command, said outside organisations that tracked civilian harm claims often did not vet allegations rigorously enough. But he strongly denied that he didn’t take civilian casualties seriously.

“There’s nothing further from the truth,” said Townsend, who added that as commander he ordered monthly civilian casualty reports in Iraq and Syria be made public. He blamed any civilian casualties on “the misfortunes of war” and not because “we didn’t care.”

With few Americans on the ground, it was difficult to get reliable counts of civilian deaths, according to Gen Joseph Votel, head of the military’s Central Command at the time and Townsend’s boss.

“Our ability to get out and look after a strike was extraordinarily limited — it was an imperfect system,” Votel said in a telephone interview. “But I believe we always took this seriously and tried to do our best.”

TIPS, INTERCEPTS AND STRIKES

Officially, Talon Anvil never existed. Nearly everything it did was highly classified. The strike cell’s actions in Syria were gleaned from descriptions of top-secret reports and interviews with current and former military personnel who interacted with the group and who discussed it on the condition that they not be named.

The strike cell was run by a classified Special Operations unit called Task Force 9 that oversaw the ground offensive in Syria. The task force had multiple missions. Army Green Berets trained allied Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces. Small groups of Delta Force operators embedded with ground forces, and an assault team of Delta commandos were on call to launch ground raids on high-value targets, including the Islamic State group leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Most of the firepower, though, was run by Talon Anvil. It worked out of bland office spaces, first in Irbil, Iraq, and then, as the war progressed, in Syria, at a shuttered cement plant in the north, and at Green Village, a housing complex near the Iraqi border, former task force members said.

The cell used tips from allied ground forces, secret electronic intercepts, drone cameras and other information to find enemy targets, then hit them with munitions from drones or called in strikes from other coalition aircraft. It also coordinated air support for allied Kurdish and Arab forces fighting on the ground.

Outwardly, the operators showed few signs that they were military, said a former task force member who worked with the strike cell during the height of the war in 2017. They used first names and no rank or uniforms, and many had bushy beards and went to work in shorts and footwear that included Crocs and Birkenstocks. But from their strike room, they controlled a fleet of Predator and Reaper drones that bristled with precision Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs.

The task force had a second strike cell that worked with the CIA to hunt high-value Islamic State group leaders. It used similar tools, but often tracked a target for days or weeks, and accounted for a fraction of the strikes.

Both cells were created in 2014 when the Islamic State group had overrun large parts of Iraq and Syria. Within a few years, the self-declared caliphate was attacking allies in the Middle East and launching terrorist attacks in Europe. The United States was desperate for a force that could identify enemy targets, and put Delta Force in charge.

Early in the American-led offensive, known as Operation Inherent Resolve, the military struggled to function at “the speed of war,” as only high-ranking generals from outside Delta could approve strikes, according to a Rand Corp. report on the air war. Seventy-four percent of sorties returned without dropping any weapons, and the offensive began to stall.

Tactics changed late in 2016 when Townsend took command and, in an attempt to keep pace with a rapidly expanding offensive, moved the authority to approve strikes down to the level of on-scene commanders.

Within Task Force 9, that authority was effectively pushed even lower, a senior official with extensive experience in Iraq and Syria said, to the senior enlisted Delta operator on shift in the strike room — usually a sergeant first class or master sergeant.

Under the new rules, the strike cell was still required to follow a process of intelligence gathering and risk mitigation to limit harm to civilians before launching a strike. That often meant flying drones over targets for hours to make sure the cell could positively identify enemies and determine whether civilians were in the area.

But the Delta operators were under enormous pressure to protect allied ground troops and move the offensive forward, the former task force member said, and felt hobbled by the safeguards. So in early 2017, they found a way to strike more quickly: self-defence.

Most of Operation Inherent Resolve’s restrictions applied only to offensive strikes. There were far fewer restrictions for defensive strikes that were meant to protect allied forces under imminent threat of harm. So Talon Anvil began claiming that nearly every strike was in self-defence, which enabled them to move quickly with little second-guessing or oversight, even if their targets were miles from any fighting, two former task force members said.

The classified rules of engagement warned that self-defence strikes should not be used to circumvent the more restrictive rules for offensive strikes, two officers with knowledge of the rules said. But for Talon Anvil, there was a tenuous logic to the tactic, one of the former task force members said. If defence rules allowed Talon Anvil to attack an enemy target on the front lines, then why not the same type of target 10 or even 100 miles away that might one day be on the front lines? Soon, Talon Anvil was justifying nearly every strike as defensive.

“It’s more expedient to resort to self-defence,” said Lewis, the former Pentagon adviser. “It’s easier to get approved.”

But speeding up strikes meant less time to gather intelligence and sort enemy fighters from civilians, and the four former military personnel who worked with Talon Anvil said that, too often, the cell relied on flimsy intelligence from Kurdish and Arab ground forces or rushed to attack with little regard to who might be nearby.

A former task force member said the vast majority of Talon Anvil’s strikes killed only enemy fighters, but that the Delta operators in the strike cell were biased toward hitting and often decided something was an enemy target when there was scant supporting evidence. Part of the problem, he said, was that operators, who rotated through roughly every four months, were trained as elite commandos but had little experience running a strike cell. It addition, he said, the daily demands of overseeing strike after strike seemed to erode operators’ perspective and fray their humanity.

The former Air Force intelligence officer said he saw so many civilian deaths as a result of Talon Anvil’s tactics citing self-defence that he eventually grew jaded and accepted them as part of the job.

Even still, some attacks stood out.

In one, he said, Talon Anvil followed three men, all with canvas bags, working in an olive grove near the city of Manbij in the fall of 2016. The men had no weapons, and were not near any fighting, but the strike cell insisted they must be enemy fighters and killed them with a missile.

In another, as civilians were trying to flee fighting in the city of Raqqa in June 2017, scores of people boarded makeshift ferries to cross the Euphrates River. He said the task force claimed the ferries were carrying enemy fighters, and he watched on high-definition video as it hit multiple boats, killing at least 30 civilians, whose bodies drifted away in the green water.

A senior military official with direct knowledge of the task force said that what counted as an “imminent threat” was extremely subjective and Talon Anvil’s senior Delta operators were given broad authority to launch defensive strikes. At times, the official acknowledged, that led to bad strikes, and those who showed poor judgment were removed. But the official emphasized these instances were rare.

FIGHTERS OR CHILDREN?

As airstrikes escalated in 2017, a broad array of US partners working with the strike cell grew troubled by its tactics.

The CIA had officers embedded in Task Force 9 to supply intelligence on Islamic State group leaders and coordinate strikes. The agency was pursuing high-value individuals and often tracked them for days using multiple drones, waiting to strike when civilian deaths could be minimized.

The task force did not always like to wait, two former CIA officers said. CIA personnel were shocked when they repeatedly saw the group strike with little regard for civilians. Officers reported their concerns to the Department of Defence’s inspector general, and the agency’s leadership discussed the issue with top officers at the Joint Special Operations Command, a former CIA officer said.

The officer said he never saw evidence that these concerns were taken seriously.

A CIA spokesperson declined to comment.

Talon Anvil clashed at times with the Air Force intelligence teams based in the United States that helped to analyse the torrent of footage from drones. The Delta operators would push analysts to say they saw evidence such as weapons that could legally justify a strike, even when there was none, the former Air Force intelligence officer said. If one analyst did not see what Delta wanted, Delta would ask for a different one.

Delta Force and analysts sometimes argued over whether figures in the sights of a drone were fighters or children, one of the former task force members said.

All of the footage from the strikes is stored by the military. In an apparent attempt to blunt criticism and undercut potential investigations, Talon Anvil started directing drone cameras away from targets shortly before a strike hit, preventing the collection of video evidence, the former Air Force intelligence officer and a former task force member said.

Another Air Force officer, who reviewed dozens of task force strikes where civilians were reportedly killed, said drone crews were trained to keep cameras on targets so the military could assess damage. Yet he frequently saw cameras jerk away at key moments, as if hit by a wind gust. It was only after seeing the pattern over and over, he said, that he began to believe it was done on purpose.

A HUNT FOR TARGETS

One morning before dawn in early March 2017, Talon Anvil sent a Predator drone over a Syrian farming town called Karama to cripple enemy positions in the area in preparation for an offensive by allies a week later.

For the former Air Force intelligence officer, the mission stands out as an example of Talon Anvil’s flawed way of operating, and how military leaders seemed to look the other way.

At about 4 a.m., he said, the drone arrived over the town’s flat-roofed houses. His Air Force intelligence team was watching from a secure operations centre in the United States. A Talon Anvil operator typed a message into the chat room that the cell shared with intelligence analysts: All civilians have fled the area. Anyone left is an enemy fighter. Find lots of targets for us today because we want to go Winchester.

Going Winchester meant expending all of the drone’s missiles and 500-pound bombs.

As the drone circled, the town appeared to be asleep, the former officer said. Even with infrared sensors, the team did not see movement. Talon Anvil focused in on a building and typed in the chat that a tip from ground forces indicated that the building was an enemy training centre. Sensors suggested an enemy cellphone or radio might be in the neighbourhood but was unable to pinpoint it to a single block, let alone a single building.

Talon Anvil did not wait for confirmation, and ordered a self-defence strike, the former officer said. The Predator dropped a 500-pound bomb through the roof.

As the smoke cleared, the former officer said, his team stared at their screens in dismay. The infrared cameras showed women and children staggering out of the partly collapsed building, some missing limbs, some dragging the dead.

The intelligence analysts began taking screen shots and tallying the casualties. They sent an initial battle damage assessment to Talon Anvil: 23 dead or severely wounded, 30 lightly wounded, very likely civilians. Talon Anvil paused only long enough to acknowledge the message, the former officer said, then pressed on to the next target.

The former Air Force officer said he immediately reported the civilian casualties to Operation Inherent Resolve’s operations centre, then called the centre’s liaison officer on the red line. He said he never heard back and saw no evidence that any action was ever taken.

Operation Inherent Resolve made a commitment to investigate and report every case of civilian casualties publicly, but nothing in its reports matches the incident. The true toll of the strike in Karama remains uncertain.

During a five-day window in early March, Operation Inherent Resolve acknowledged that it launched 47 strikes in the region. Satellite images from the time show extensive damage to at least a dozen buildings, including the building that the former officer said he saw bombed. Local media reported that airstrikes in Karama on March 8 and 9 killed between seven and 14 people and wounded 18.

For two years after the strikes, Operation Inherent Resolve said it could not confirm any civilian casualties in the town. Then, in 2019, it acknowledged that one man had been wounded when the coalition struck an enemy fighting position. It gave coordinates a block from the building the former Air Force intelligence officer said he saw destroyed.

In response to questions from the Times this month, a Special Operations official acknowledged its strike cell had hit targets in the town on March 8 and killed 16 fighters, but denied that any civilians had died.

No outside group has ever investigated the secret strike, and it is unclear what steps the military took to determine what happened. The former officer said no military investigators ever contacted him.

The evidence from the strike — the chat-room records, bombing coordinates and video — is stored on government servers, the former officer said. But because of the secrecy surrounding Talon Anvil, all of it is classified.

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