The original Dutch article as it appeared in the Dutch newspaper NRC can be found here.
The Netherlands' Air Force killed at least seven civilians in a 2016 attack on a residential building in the Iraqi city of Mosul, an investigation by the Dutch newspaper NRC, public broadcaster NOS and current affairs program Nieuwsuur has found. The strike targeted a residential building just outside Mosul University housing academics and their families.
The Dutch ministry of Defence claims the building had been marked by the US-led coalition against ISIS as a 'headquarters' of the terrorist organisation. An assessment by the US Central Command (CENTOM) in 2017 falsely concluded the strike resulted in no civilian harm.
In response to the new findings by the Dutch media, Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren of the Netherlands this Thursday announced a government-led inquiry into the attack. In a letter to the Dutch Parliament, she also said the Netherlands will disclose previously classified information relating to over 600 air strikes using around 2,200 bombs carried out by the Dutch Air Force in Iraq and Syria between 2014 and 2018. Key data relating to the attacks, including coordinates of Dutch targets and the dates and times at which they were struck, will be made publicly accessible in an online database. This constitutes an unprecedented move by a European coalition partner towards providing more transparency into the air campaign against ISIS and its toll on civilians.
For many years the Dutch government has failed to provide such transparency, despite repeated calls from Dutch lawmakers to do so. The matter was hotly debated in Parliament after the NRC and NOS in 2019 reported that a 2016 Dutch air strike on the Iraqi city of Hawija had killed at least 70 civilians. At the time, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said it was up to US Central Command (CENTCOM) to determine what had happened. "They are the arbiter in such cases", Rutte told lawmakers in 2019. "They have all the knowledge and experience and can do this very authoritatively."
Yet in reality, the US-led assessments "tended to miss the presence of civilian casualties", says Larry Lewis, a former Pentagon and State Department adviser with twenty years of experience in civilian harm mitigation. "They were designed to be relatively rapid to allow them to move through literally thousands of these allegations", Lewis says, adding that these were "perhaps not even day-long processes." Due to a lack of ground forces, CENTCOM hardly ever spoke to eyewitnesses of attacks and instead tended to base its assessments almost exclusively on video footage of air strikes, Lewis says, a methodology with obvious shortcomings. "You may have drone footage and say, well, I don't see any bodies. That's because they're under the rubble."
The 2017 assessment of the 2016 Dutch strike close to Mosul University, too, contains multiple mistakes. Not only did it falsely conclude that no civilians had been killed or injured, it also claimed that "the target was guarded and only ISIS personnel were permitted to enter the building."
The investigation by NRC, NOS and Nieuwsuur refutes this. Reporters spoke to six relatives of the victims and over twenty local residents living around the site of the target. They all say the area was not guarded by ISIS and that civilians could enter the building freely. Many were present just moments before the Dutch attack, which struck at around noon on the 22th of March 2016. Local resident say coalition drones permanently surveilled the area and find it hard to imagine the civilian presence went unnoticed. Two academics and five of their family members were killed in the attack, including a three-year-old girl. Five children were orphaned.
While parts of the nearby university were indeed used by ISIS as a military base, the targeted building lay in a residential area and was visibly separated from the campus by a wall, satellite imagery shows. Nonetheless, local residents say ISIS fighters were active in the neighborhood and housed their wives and children in homes abandoned by fleeing residents. These so-called 'ISIS families' also occupied apartments in the targeted building, yet residents never detected any military activity in the building and strongly doubt it was an 'ISIS headquarters'. The intelligence that led the coalition to mark it as such, remains unknown. CENTCOM did not respond to requests for clarification.
The investigation by NRC, NOS and Nieuwsuur was made possible with the help of Airwars, a London-based NGO which keeps track of claims of civilian harm in airstrikes. Airwars estimates the total number of civilians killed by the US-led coalition in Iraq and Syria as between 8,197 and 13,254. The coalition itself acknowledges 1,437 civilian deaths.
The CENTCOM assessment of the 2016 Dutch strike was one of the hundreds of documents made public by the New York Times in late 2021 after the paper obtained over 1,300 of such files through Freedom of Information requests and subsequent lawsuits filed against the US Department of Defense and US Central Command. "The documents lay bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians, many of them children", the paper writes.
The New York Times' decision to share the files has been of great value not only to NRC, NOS and Nieuwsuur, but also to other outlets, including The Guardian, which earlier this month published an investigation into civilian deaths in British airstrikes in Iraq, disproving the UK's long-held claim that it fought a "perfect" war against ISIS in Iraq and did not kill a single civilian there. The Dutch government's decision to disclose previously classified information relating to its air campaign against ISIS is likely to further stimulate research into the topic.
While this may be an important step in terms of transparency, civilians at the receiving end of Dutch air strikes expect more than just that. What they demand, above all, is an end to impunity. "I consider this a crime, not a mistake", says Zeyad Thonnoon (56), who lost his wife, three-year-old daughter and three of his in-laws as a result of the 2016 Dutch attack on Mosul. "Those who prepared and carried out this attack should receive the worst punishment possible."
Nechirvan Mando contributed to NRC's reporting in Mosul.