One recent morning in the countryside beyond London, Kinda Haddad dropped her two children off at school, came home and began scanning her computer for the day’s first reports of Syrian civilians killed by American bombs.
Outside her living room window, a willow tree was swaying in the breeze. Inside, Haddad was staring at a computer screen full of ghostly images of dead children, dusty and bloodied corpses, and pile after pile of rubble. She kept the volume low.
“I try not to listen because it makes the images more disturbing,” she said.
This is her second year of doing this, an almost daily routine since Haddad, 45, became one of the first analysts for Airwars, an eight-person nonprofit group started with a simple question: Exactly how many civilians were being killed in the American-led air campaigns in Iraq and Syria?
Was it even possible to know?
The usual sources of such information — reporters, the United Nations and human rights groups that traditionally monitor civilian deaths — have been largely absent from the battlefields, especially after a series of kidnappings and beheadings of journalists and aid workers in Syria.
And so Airwars — which is to say Haddad in her living room and seven others in London, Jordan, Turkey and Baghdad — began quite literally piecing together the answer — a painstaking process that involves sifting through tens of thousands of shakily filmed videos, photos, Facebook postings, U.S. military accounts and other fragments of information from a war that often feels remote to everyone except the Syrians and Iraqis trying desperately to document their own destruction.
Haddad focused on Syria.
She at first doubted there would be enough information to even begin her work. But she soon realized the problem was the opposite: “There isn’t too little information. It is almost too much.”
The result so far: In more than 1,000 days of bombing, Airwars estimates that the United States and its allies have killed at least 3,200 civilians — more than nine times the 352 deaths acknowledged by the U.S. military, which has nonetheless come to see Airwars as a partner, even as it often disputes the group’s numbers.
“We kind of consider them part of the team,” said Navy Lt. Michael Grimes, who leads the military’s two-person unit charged with doing an initial assessment of civilian casualty allegations in Iraq and Syria. “A lot of the allegations we get can be very vague. It makes the job extremely difficult when we don’t have specific information.”
Haddad tries to get to the specifics. At the moment, they were all over her computer screen.
“I just open a few sources at a time,” she said, clicking open Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, Voice of the East, the Raqqa Truth and the Euphrates Post — sites that secretly report from Islamic State territory.
Many had started as Facebook pages or Twitter accounts focused on documenting the brutal excesses of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government or the bloody deprivations of the Islamic State. As the fighting ground on and the combatants multiplied, the missions of such sources broadened to relaying all of the chaos and suffering that afflicted Syria.
Haddad skimmed reports of regime raids in Damascus, medicine shortages in Daraa and the destruction of an Islamic State tank in Raqqa by U.S. forces. Soon she found her first account of possible civilian casualties. According to the Euphrates Post, U.S. planes had struck a field hospital in Tabaqa, about 30 miles from Raqqa, killing a doctor and wounding a nurse and several patients.
That brief account led her to others. Smart News Agency, a news source with an editor in Germany and correspondents in Raqqa, was reporting that the attack on the field hospital had taken place in the city’s second district and had killed a doctor and several patients. An official U.S. military report for the same day said it had struck three targets in Tabaqa, which had been the site of fighting between the Islamic State and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces.
Haddad translated the Arabic posts into English and pasted them into a shared document that she and her colleagues could add to and analyze over the course of the day.
Some allegations, such as the Tabaqa strike, yield scarce details, while others result in massive entries that take days to assemble and include names of the dead, photos and videos. In more than two years of work, Haddad and the other Airwars researchers have collected the names of more than 1,300 victims in Iraq and Syria.
“These are not the anonymous victims of past wars,” said Chris Woods, an investigative journalist who founded Airwars in fall 2014.
The biggest challenge for the Airwars analysts has been determining with certainty whether the United States or some other combatant dropped the bomb in a given incident.
In March, Airwars analysts, overwhelmed by the accelerating pace of the war in Iraq and Syria, temporarily stopped doing detailed assessments of Russian airstrikes. The group doesn’t track Syrian government attacks. Nor does it track artillery barrages, which sometimes can be mistaken for aerial strikes.
Airwars estimated that the United States and its allies killed more than 320 civilians in Syria in March — almost seven times the death toll compiled for February. To Woods, the spike demonstrated that the Trump administration had loosened protections that had shielded civilians.
“When we are getting these huge numbers of reports saying civilians are dying, we should be listening,” he said.
Haddad focused on the gritty specifics. Two days earlier, Haddad and Abdulwahab Tahhan, Airwars’ other Syria researcher, had spent a full day documenting the aftermath of a series of airstrikes in Bukamal, a village in eastern Syria.
Haddad dipped back into the now 30-page report and noticed that her colleague had added a video from the scene that she had somehow missed in her initial search. “I was probably being blind,” she messaged him by way of apology and then clicked on the video, which opened in darkness with flashlight beams dancing over rubble. She eased up the volume on her computer.
“God help us,” a man screamed as rescue workers swirled around him.
“Move! Move! Move!” other voices yelled.
The shaky cellphone footage cut suddenly to a makeshift morgue where hands in surgical gloves were cradling the faces of dead children who had been pulled from the rubble.
“The problem with a war like this one is that people just report the numbers,” she said. “At first three deaths is shocking, and then 20 —” she said, trailing off.
It was soon after she started with Airwars that Haddad, alone in her house, decided that the images on her screen were easier to take if she kept the volume low, shutting out the screams.
She had clicked on a video from Ber Mahli in northern Syria, which had been the site of a sustained American aerial assault in spring 2015. The scene opened on a pickup truck filled with mangled children’s bodies. An older man, heartbroken and full of fury, picked up the body of a headless child and thrust it toward the sky where the American planes had been.
“Is this Islamic State? Is this Islamic State?” he bellowed.
Such graphic images often disappeared from YouTube or Facebook, so it fell to Haddad and her colleagues to archive them. Back then, she imagined that the United Nations, the media or human rights groups would be interested in the information.
Lately, though, one of the most eager consumers of Airwars’ work has been the U.S. military. Last fall, Airwars officials offered to share all of the data it had amassed on civilian casualty allegations. “We had this huge public database, and they weren’t using it,” Woods said of the Pentagon. “It was kind of laid out on a platter for them.”
Since then, the U.S. military has reviewed nearly 350 Airwars allegations dating to November and determined that close to 80 of them require a fuller assessment. In the other instances, military officials said they could not find records of “potentially corroborating strikes in the area” at the time of the allegation.
Now Airwars sends the military more allegations to review each month. Military officials, in some instances, have given Airwars precise bomb geo-coordinates to ensure they aren’t double-counting attacks.
“I guess it is unusual, but I don’t think it is odd,” Col. Joe Scrocca, a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, said of the partnership. “We admit that there is probably evidence in these cases that we don’t have. We’re not able to interview every single victim out there or their families. We don’t have people on the ground for that.”
Despite the cooperation, the relationship remains tense. Even as military officials concede that their civilian casualty figures are “probably low,” they insist that the Airwars estimates are too high and sometimes built on unreliable evidence. Airwars doesn’t have access to classified surveillance video and U.S. military strike logs that are critical to determining the credibility of an allegation. “They are taking allegations at face value,” Scrocca said.
Airwars workers, such as Haddad, counter that the military is too quick to dismiss on-the-scene evidence from Iraqis and Syrians that contradicts their grainy surveillance video.
“They only trust what their cameras show,” she said, “and quite frankly, that’s insane.”
Hanging over Haddad’s desk is an image from another Syria. In the 1970s-era black-and-white photo, Haddad and her sister sit between her Syrian father and her Armenian-Dutch mother.
“My mom wanted us to move before we grew up, married and stayed there,” Haddad said of the country where she spent her childhood and teenage years. “She didn’t want us living in a dictatorship.” She asked The Washington Post not to identify the English village where she lives for security reasons.
Haddad last visited Syria in 2011 to see her father, who had retired and moved home after many years abroad. Only a few days into their vacation, the uprising against the Assad regime began in their home town of Latakia. “You couldn’t leave the house,” she said. “The kids were small, so I thought, what’s the point?” She left three days into the trip.
Several months later, her father died. Haddad’s husband urged her not to make the dangerous trip back for the funeral, and she reluctantly agreed. It’s a decision she now regrets.
“I should have just put my foot down and gone,” she said.
Since then, she has experienced Syria almost entirely through the often-confusing fragments she sees online.
Two years ago, she was researching the death of a man in his 20s who was reported killed in a U.S. airstrike near Idlib. It was a small incident — just one civilian death in a war that seemed to be growing more cruel with each passing day. Haddad plugged his name into a few online search engines and discovered a video from February 2013 of the man, clad in a gray sweatshirt that said “New York,” singing resistance songs. “Muslims and Christians, they are all cursing Bashar,” he sang in the short cellphone video that received only 163 views. “We won’t give up on our revolution until the butcher is condemned to death.”
In a video made 18 months later, the man has a full beard and is singing a plaintive ballad in praise of Islamic State martyrs. Haddad wondered how she should classify him: Was he a civilian or a combatant? A victim or a terrorist?
Now she sees him as something of an omen. “The videos show how the revolution began and where it has gone,” she said. “It shows where Syria has gone.”
Haddad spent the last part of her day, before her children returned from school, searching online for Amaq, the Islamic State affiliated news agency. Much of the site is devoted to Islamic State propaganda, but it can also be an important source of information, photos and video on civilian casualties in places, such as Raqqa, where the Islamic State’s brutal clampdown has made it exceedingly dangerous for Syrians to communicate with the outside world.
“Amazingly, they don’t exaggerate civilian casualties,” she said. “In fact, you get some higher numbers elsewhere. Maybe they don’t want people to think they’re losing? Maybe they want to project strength?”
Lately, though, Amaq has been hard for her to find. Anti-Islamic State activists will break the site’s links, taking it off the Internet for several days before it emerges under a new Web address.
Haddad’s search for the site led her to a group focused on keeping it offline. “If you find an #ISIS site let us know and we will SMASH it!!!” the group boasted on Twitter.
“Oh, this is annoying,” she complained. “I need to tell whoever is pulling it down that it is quite useful.”
She was still looking for Amaq 30 minutes later when her children came home from school and flipped on cartoons in the next room.
“Did you feed the cat?” her daughter asked. Haddad told her to open some canned food and returned to her computer.
“I often think that’s it. I can’t do it anymore,” she said of her job with Airwars. “Then it gets busy and I think that I can’t stop.”
She glanced at the clock on her computer screen and realized it was time for her daughter’s ballet lesson.
“Coats, coats,” she called out as she herded her children toward the door. A few minutes later they were buckled into the family station wagon, hurtling through the English countryside.