By Azmat Khan
On Nov. 16, The New York Times magazine published a powerful, exhaustively researched story by investigative reporter and Overseas Press Club Governor Azmat Khan and Anand Gopal, an assistant research professor at Arizona State University. Khan and Gopal spent months on the ground in Iraq, mostly in Mosul and its environs, examining the sites of air strikes against what the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS alleged were legitimate military targets. What Khan and Gopal found was, one, that the coalition grossly underestimated civilian casualties and, two, that it often denied targeting civilian houses and other facilities where Khan and Gopal uncovered clear evidence to the contrary. The main character in the story, Basim Razzo, survived an airstrike that killed four of his family members and was then accused of being an ISIS sympathizer. He spent more than a year trying to clear his name, to no avail, until Khan and Gopal stepped in as journalists and pleaded his case. Khan answered questions for Dateline about her massive investigative undertaking, which won her this year’s Ed Cunningham Award for best magazine story with an international theme.
YOU SPENT ALMOST TWO YEARS INVESTIGATING THIS STORY, VISITING THE SITES OF NEARLY 150 AIRSTRIKES IN IRAQ. WHAT WERE SOME OF YOUR BIGGEST FINDINGS?
Of the coalition airstrikes we found on the ground, one out of every five resulted in civilian deaths—a rate that’s 31 times higher than what the coalition’s own data claims. To put this in perspective, it’s helpful to know that our sample is very likely an undercount of civilian deaths because it didn’t include West Mosul, nor did it include any strikes conducted after a December 2016 rule change that allowed more ground commanders to call in strikes. And while you might think that the majority of civilian deaths are due just to proximity to an ISIS target, about half of all of the civilian deaths we documented appeared to be the result of outdated intelligence— for example, after ISIS had evacuated an area—or flawed intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. We also found that the coalition repeatedly failed to investigate allegations of civilian casualties properly, and sometimes couldn’t even properly identify the airstrikes it had carried out. Ultimately, we found that Iraqi civilians stand little chance of getting any kind of justice or clearing their names. We essentially uncovered a system that treats Iraqis as guilty until they are proved innocent, and the threshold for proving innocence is much higher than the threshold for the intelligence that can underpin an airstrike. In the case of Basim Razzo, whose wife and two children were killed, the U.S. military finally conceded that his and his brother’s houses had been misidentified and targeted, and offered a “condolence” payment of $15,000—whereas he estimates his material losses at more $500,000.
WHAT WAS THE TOUGHEST PART OF THE STORY?
There were many challenging pieces—for example, navigating these areas on the ground, melding the investigation with the narrative, adhering to a method of sampling that would meet the standards of social science. But the most difficult of all was getting information from the U.S. military. Reporting this story to the highest editorial standards required that we exhaust every effort to get and check information. The challenge wasn’t just secrecy; we faced an endless barrage of bureaucratic hurdles. Even getting permission to visit the U.S. airbase in Qatar, which coordinates the airstrikes, took months and involved a litany of bizarre requirements. The coalition repeatedly cited security to deny information— such as refusing to tell us even the kind of aircraft or weapon it used in an individual airstrike. Ultimately, the most critical goal was to get the coalition to confirm whether or not it conducted the airstrikes in the sample. At first, I was told that they would only be able to check four coordinates. I pushed back, repeatedly, even as very senior military officials wrote me lengthy scolding e-mails. Ultimately, the Air Force did check all 103 coordinates and provide responses, but the process was a long and difficult one. Getting what we needed required time and relentless follow-up. I can’t stress that enough. I’m still pushing for information I believe should be disclosed. For example, I’ve filed requests for records related to nearly 200 airstrikes the military concluded likely resulted in civilian casualties. For almost all of them, I was denied expedited processing, which means I may not receive responses for years. But I’ve been working to push back on that through the appeals process. Let’s see what happens.
HOW DID YOU KEEP SAFE WHILE REPORTING THIS STORY?
A large part of keeping safe is knowing local context and planning ahead. It’s also about carefully assessing the information others might give you about how to keep safe. For insurance purposes, news outlets are often required to hire a security contractor to support reporters’ work in conflict zones. I believe it’s important not to leave my safety solely in the hands of for-profit contractors, and so I’m always hyper-vigilant about making sure their methods really do make me safer. Security contractors are often staffed by ex-military personnel who employ strategies defense forces might use—armed guards, bulletproof vehicles, and the like. These are things that make you stand out. I tend to avoid anything that raises my profile and try to blend in as much as reasonably possible. Of course, I’ll work with a security team as required, but I also employ personal security measures of my own that are more rooted in local context. For example, before I went out to do the airstrike sample, I had already embedded with a key Shia militia group and had gotten an invitation letter from someone very senior that I kept with me when I traveled to do the sample, just in case. In addition to developing local contacts and lines of support, I have live location tracking. In addition to the security team tracking, I’ll set up a separate line of location monitoring with several people I trust and assign each of them a monitoring schedule. These are personal contacts in different time zones, some of them family members, some of them fellow reporters with exceptional ground knowledge. I’ll inform them as I approach or pass a checkpoint. Additionally, before any outing, I spend a lot of time studying updated satellite imagery and memorizing routes I can take or places I can hide in case something goes wrong. Ultimately, if there’s anything that doesn’t seem right, I’ll re-assess, and possibly bail on the plan. I know that’s a luxury—it requires having time to come back and try again, or a flexible deadline from your editor, or reporting expenses. All of these things are increasingly rare for journalists. Of course, digital security involves a host of other methods. One thing I would especially recommend, if you can afford it, is to invest in a second smartphone solely for use in the field, preferably one you’ve bought abroad, and keep it unaffiliated from your own email, phone number, Facebook account, wifi networks or other identifying logins. While this is by no means a failsafe measure, it’s one helpful step in a process to not only keep yourself safe but your sources safe as well.
YOU RECENTLY RETURNED FROM IRAQ, YOUR FIRST TIME BACK SINCE THE STORY WAS PUBLISHED. WHAT HAS CHANGED? ARE THERE UPDATES?
On this trip, I was able to go to two critical areas I’d been unable to sample previously: downtown Hawija and Western Mosul. Both were surreal. Hawija, which was instrumental in the rise of ISIS and bore a heavy brunt of airstrikes, is a ghost town today. It’s patrolled by militias and the Iraqi Army, and very few civilians have been allowed to come back. It’s just in shambles. I went to the site of one airstrike in Hawija that may have resulted in the deaths of dozens of civilians, most of them displaced from other areas of the Iraq fighting. They were poor, and lived wherever they could find space. They were bombed in an industrial district that ISIS was using to manufacture car bombs and other explosives. I had previously interviewed survivors of the strike who had managed to escape from Hawija, and they told me that it had leveled an entire neighborhood. On this trip, I was able to see it for myself: a vast expanse of rubble. Everything these survivors had described was true. While Hawija was a ghost town, West Mosul still has residents milling about. It’s much more densely packed, and so the rubble fills alleyways several feet high. To get to some homes, I had to climb over rubble for 20 to 30 minutes. Residents showed me makeshift graveyards where they buried the dead, several to a plot, during the height of the fight. Sometimes, family members would return later to dig up and bury the dead elsewhere, so you have these empty holes as well. One man described it like this: “When Mosul was destroyed, ISIS was finished. We were the sacrifice. We paid the price. We paid with our bodies.”