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Late on the evening of Sept. 20, 2015, Basim Razzo sat in the study of his home on the eastern side of Mosul, his face lit up by a computer screen. His wife, Mayada, was already upstairs in bed, but Basim could lose hours clicking through car reviews on YouTube: the BMW Alpina B7, the Audi Q7. Almost every night went like this. Basim had long harbored a taste for fast rides, but around ISIS-occupied Mosul, the auto showrooms sat dark, and the family car in his garage — a 1991 BMW — had barely been used in a year. There simply was nowhere to go.
The Razzos lived in the Woods, a bucolic neighborhood on the banks of the Tigris, where marble and stucco villas sprawled amid forests of eucalyptus, chinar and pine. Cafes and restaurants lined the riverbanks, but ever since the city fell to ISIS the previous year, Basim and Mayada had preferred to entertain at home. They would set up chairs poolside and put kebabs on the grill, and Mayada would serve pizza or Chinese fried rice, all in an effort to maintain life as they’d always known it. Their son, Yahya, had abandoned his studies at Mosul University and fled for Erbil, and they had not seen him since; those who left when ISIS took over could re-enter the caliphate, but once there, they could not leave — an impasse that stranded people wherever they found themselves. Birthdays, weddings and graduations came and went, the celebrations stockpiled for that impossibly distant moment: liberation.
Next door to Basim’s home stood the nearly identical home belonging to his brother, Mohannad, and his wife, Azza. They were almost certainly asleep at that hour, but Basim guessed that their 18-year-old son, Najib, was still up. A few months earlier, he was arrested by the ISIS religious police for wearing jeans and a T-shirt with English writing. They gave him 10 lashes and, as a further measure of humiliation, clipped his hair into a buzz cut. Now he spent most of his time indoors, usually on Facebook. “Someday it’ll all be over,” Najib had posted just a few days earlier. “Until that day, I’ll hold on with all my strength.”
Sometimes, after his parents locked up for the night, Najib would fish the key out of the cupboard and steal over to his uncle’s house. Basim had the uncanny ability to make his nephew forget the darkness of their situation. He had a glass-half-full exuberance, grounded in the belief that every human life — every setback and success, every heartbreak and triumph — is written by the 40th day in the womb. Basim was not a particularly religious man, but that small article of faith underpinned what seemed to him an ineluctable truth, even in wartime Iraq: Everything happens for a reason. It was an assurance he offered everyone; Yahya had lost a year’s worth of education, but in exile he had met, and proposed to, the love of his life. “You see?” Basim would tell Mayada. “You see? That’s fate.”
Basim had felt this way for as long as he could remember. A 56-year-old account manager at Huawei, the Chinese multinational telecommunications company, he studied engineering in the 1980s at Western Michigan University. He and Mayada lived in Portage, Mich., in a tiny one-bedroom apartment that Mayada also used as the headquarters for her work as an Avon representative; she started small, offering makeup and skin cream to neighbors, but soon expanded sales to Kalamazoo and Comstock. Within a year, she’d saved up enough to buy Basim a $700 Minolta camera. Basim came to rely on her ability to impose order on the strange and the mundane, to master effortlessly everything from Yahya’s chemistry homework to the alien repartee of faculty picnics and Rotary clubs. It was fate. They had been married now for 33 years.
Around midnight, Basim heard a thump from the second floor. He peeked out of his office and saw a sliver of light under the door to the bedroom of his daughter, Tuqa. He called out for her to go to bed. At 21, Tuqa would often stay up late, and though Basim knew that he wasn’t a good example himself and that the current conditions afforded little reason to be up early, he believed in the calming power of an early-to-bed, early-to-rise routine. He waited at the foot of the stairs, called out again, and the sliver went dark.
It was 1 a.m. when Basim finally shut down the computer and headed upstairs to bed. He settled in next to Mayada, who was fast asleep.
Some time later, he snapped awake. His shirt was drenched, and there was a strange taste — blood? — on his tongue. The air was thick and acrid. He looked up. He was in the bedroom, but the roof was nearly gone. He could see the night sky, the stars over Mosul. Basim reached out and found his legs pressed just inches from his face by what remained of his bed. He began to panic. He turned to his left, and there was a heap of rubble. “Mayada!” he screamed. “Mayada!” It was then that he noticed the silence. “Mayada!” he shouted. “Tuqa!” The bedroom walls were missing, leaving only the bare supports. He could see the dark outlines of treetops. He began to hear the faraway, unmistakable sound of a woman’s voice. He cried out, and the voice shouted back, “Where are you?” It was Azza, his sister-in-law, somewhere outside.
“Mayada’s gone!” he shouted.
“No, no, I’ll find her!”
“No, no, no, she’s gone,” he cried back. “They’re all gone!”
LATER THAT SAME day, the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria uploaded a video to its YouTube channel. The clip, titled “Coalition Airstrike Destroys Daesh VBIED Facility Near Mosul, Iraq 20 Sept 2015,” shows spectral black-and-white night-vision footage of two sprawling compounds, filmed by an aircraft slowly rotating above. There is no sound. Within seconds, the structures disappear in bursts of black smoke. The target, according to the caption, was a car-bomb factory, a hub in a network of “multiple facilities spread across Mosul used to produce VBIEDs for ISIL’s terrorist activities,” posing “a direct threat to both civilians and Iraqi security forces.” Later, when he found the video, Basim could watch only the first few frames. He knew immediately that the buildings were his and his brother’s houses.
The clip is one of hundreds the coalition has released since the American-led war against the Islamic State began in August 2014. Also posted to Defense Department websites, they are presented as evidence of a military campaign unlike any other — precise, transparent and unyielding. In the effort to expel ISIS from Iraq and Syria, the coalition has conducted more than 27,500 strikes to date, deploying everything from Vietnam-era B-52 bombers to modern Predator drones. That overwhelming air power has made it possible for local ground troops to overcome heavy resistance and retake cities throughout the region. “U.S. and coalition forces work very hard to be precise in airstrikes,” Maj. Shane Huff, a spokesman for the Central Command, told us, and as a result “are conducting one of the most precise air campaigns in military history.”
American military planners go to great lengths to distinguish today’s precision strikes from the air raids of earlier wars, which were carried out with little or no regard for civilian casualties. They describe a target-selection process grounded in meticulously gathered intelligence, technological wizardry, carefully designed bureaucratic hurdles and extraordinary restraint. Intelligence analysts pass along proposed targets to “targeteers,” who study 3-D computer models as they calibrate the angle of attack. A team of lawyers evaluates the plan, and — if all goes well — the process concludes with a strike so precise that it can, in some cases, destroy a room full of enemy fighters and leave the rest of the house intact.
The coalition usually announces an airstrike within a few days of its completion. It also publishes a monthly report assessing allegations of civilian casualties. Those it deems credible are generally explained as unavoidable accidents — a civilian vehicle drives into the target area moments after a bomb is dropped, for example. The coalition reports that since August 2014, it has killed tens of thousands of ISIS fighters and, according to our tally of its monthly summaries, 466 civilians in Iraq.
Yet until we raised his case, Basim’s family was not among those counted. Mayada, Tuqa, Mohannad and Najib were four of an unknown number of Iraqi civilians whose deaths the coalition has placed in the “ISIS” column. Estimates from Airwars and other nongovernmental organizations suggest that the civilian death toll is much higher, but the coalition disputes such figures, arguing that they are based not on specific intelligence but local news reports and testimony gathered from afar. When the coalition notes a mission irregularity or receives an allegation, it conducts its own inquiry and publishes a sentence-long analysis of its findings. But no one knows how many Iraqis have simply gone uncounted.
Our own reporting, conducted over 18 months, shows that the air war has been significantly less precise than the coalition claims. Between April 2016 and June 2017, we visited the sites of nearly 150 airstrikes across northern Iraq, not long after ISIS was evicted from them. We toured the wreckage; we interviewed hundreds of witnesses, survivors, family members, intelligence informants and local officials; we photographed bomb fragments, scoured local news sources, identified ISIS targets in the vicinity and mapped the destruction through satellite imagery. We also visited the American air base in Qatar where the coalition directs the air campaign. There, we were given access to the main operations floor and interviewed senior commanders, intelligence officials, legal advisers and civilian-casualty assessment experts. We provided their analysts with the coordinates and date ranges of every airstrike — 103 in all — in three ISIS-controlled areas and examined their responses. The result is the first systematic, ground-based sample of airstrikes in Iraq since this latest military action began in 2014.
We found that one in five of the coalition strikes we identified resulted in civilian death, a rate more than 31 times that acknowledged by the coalition. It is at such a distance from official claims that, in terms of civilian deaths, this may be the least transparent war in recent American history. Our reporting, moreover, revealed a consistent failure by the coalition to investigate claims properly or to keep records that make it possible to investigate the claims at all. While some of the civilian deaths we documented were a result of proximity to a legitimate ISIS target, many others appear to be the result simply of flawed or outdated intelligence that conflated civilians with combatants. In this system, Iraqis are considered guilty until proved innocent. Those who survive the strikes, people like Basim Razzo, remain marked as possible ISIS sympathizers, with no discernible path to clear their names.
BASIM WOKE UP in a ward at Mosul General Hospital, heavy with bandages. He was disoriented, but he remembered being pried loose from the rubble, the neighbors’ hands all over his body, the backhoe serving him down to the earth, the flashing lights of an ambulance waiting in the distance. The rescuers worked quickly. Everyone knew it had been an airstrike; the planes could return at any minute to finish the job.
In the hospital, Basim was hazily aware of nurses and orderlies, but it was not until morning that he saw a familiar face. Mayada’s brother placed a hand on his shoulder. When Basim asked who in his home survived, he was told: nobody. The blast killed Mayada and Tuqa instantly. A second strike hit next door, and Mohannad and Najib were also dead. Only Azza, Najib’s mother, was alive, because the explosion had flung her through a second-story window.
With his hip shattered, his pubic bone broken and his back and the sole of his left foot studded with shrapnel, Basim would need major surgery. But no hospital in Mosul, or anywhere in the caliphate, had the personnel or equipment to carry it out. The only hope was to apply for permission to temporarily leave ISIS territory, which required approval from the surprisingly complex ISIS bureaucracy. A friend put in the paperwork, but the ISIS representative denied the request. “Let him die,” he told Basim’s friend. “There were four martyrs. Let him be the fifth.”
Basim was moved to his parents’ home on the city’s southern side. For two days, close friends and family members streamed in, but he hardly registered their presence. On the third day, he found himself able to sit up, and he began flipping through the pictures on his phone. One of the last was taken the evening before the attack: Tuqa grinning in the kitchen, clutching a sparkler. For the first time, he began to sob. Then he gathered himself and opened Facebook. “In the middle of the night,” he wrote, “coalition airplanes targeted two houses occupied by innocent civilians. Is this technology? This barbarian attack cost me the lives of my wife, daughter, brother and nephew.”
Suddenly, it was as if the whole city knew, and messages poured in. Word filtered to local sheikhs, imams and businessmen. Basim’s own fate was discussed. Favors were called in, and a few weeks later, ISIS granted Basim permission to leave the caliphate. There was one condition: He must put up the deed to some of his family’s property, which would be seized if he did not return. Basim feared traveling to Baghdad; whoever targeted his home might still believe him to be part of ISIS. Turkey seemed like his only option, and the only way to get there was to cross the breadth of Islamic State lands, through Syria.
For Basim, the next few days passed in a haze. A hired driver lowered him into a GMC Suburban, its rear seats removed to accommodate the mattress on which he reclined. They drove through the Islamic State countryside, past shabby villages and streams strewn with trash. In the afternoon, they reached Mount Sinjar, where a year earlier, Yazidi women were carted off by ISIS and sold into slavery. “I’m sorry, I have to go fast now,” the driver said, revving up the engine until they were tearing through at 100 m.p.h. Yazidi guerrillas were now taking refuge in the highlands and were known to take aim at the traffic down below.
The country opened up into miles and miles of featureless desert. Basim could not distinguish the small Syrian towns they passed but was aware of reaching Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate, and being lifted by a team of pedestrians and moved to a second vehicle. Soon a new driver was rushing Basim along darkened fields of wheat and cotton on narrow, bone-jarring roads. At times, the pain in his hip was unbearable. They stopped to spend the night, but he did not know where. At dawn, they set out again. After a while, the driver reached under his seat and produced a pack of cigarettes, forbidden in the caliphate. Basim was alarmed, but the driver began to laugh. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re now in Free Syrian Army territory.”
Before long, the traffic slowed, and they were weaving through streets crowded with refugees and homeless children and Syrian rebels. Basim was pushed across the border on a wheelchair. Waiting on the Turkish side, standing by an ambulance, was his son. Weeping, Yahya bent down to embrace his father. They had not seen each other in a year.
Basim spent the next two months in and out of a bed at the Special Orthopedic Hospital in Adana, Turkey. In the long hours between operations, when the painkillers afforded moments of lucidity, he tried to avoid ruminating on his loss. He refused to look at photos of his house, but occasionally at first, and then obsessively, he began replaying his and Mayada’s actions in the days and weeks before the attack, searching for an explanation. Why was his family targeted? Some friends assumed that an ISIS convoy had been nearby, but the video showed nothing moving in the vicinity. What it did show was two direct hits. “O.K., this is my house, and this is Mohannad’s house,” he recalled. “One rocket here, and one rocket there. It was not a mistake.”
Basim’s shock and grief were turning to anger. He knew the Americans; he had lived among them. He had always felt he understood them. He desperately wanted to understand why his family was taken from him. “I decided,” he said, “to get justice.”
Basim belongs to one of Mosul’s grand old families, among the dozens descended — the story goes — from 40 prophets who settled the baking hot banks of the Tigris, opposite the ancient Assyrian metropolis of Nineveh. Though the city they founded has since acquired a reputation for conservatism, Basim could remember a time of cosmopolitan flair. When he was growing up, domed Yazidi shrines and arched Syriac Orthodox churches stood nearly side by side with mosques and minarets; cafes in the evenings filled with hookah smoke and students steeped in Iraq’s burgeoning free-verse poetry movement. On Thursdays, visitors could find bars, clubs and raucous all-night parties or head to the Station Hotel, built in the central railway depot, where travelers liked to congregate for a drink (and where, to her eternal amusement, Agatha Christie once met the manager, a Syrian Christian named Satan). The wealthy tended to sympathize with the old monarchy or nationalist causes, but the working-class neighborhoods, particularly the Kurdish and Christian quarters, were bastions of Communist support. Islamic fundamentalism was nearly unheard-of, a bizarre doctrine of the fringe.
In the 1970s, as Saddam Hussein consolidated power, Mosul’s pluralism began to erode, but Basim would not be around long enough to witness its disappearance. He left for England in 1979 and soon made his way to the United States. Settling into Michigan life was easy. Basim bought a Mustang, figured out health insurance, barbecued, went to cocktail parties and dated a woman he met in England. This development alarmed his parents, who began to pester him to settle down and suggested that he marry his cousin Mayada. He resisted at first, but the allure of making a life with someone from back home proved too great. He married Mayada in 1982, in a small ceremony at his uncle’s home in Ann Arbor, Mich., in front of a dozen people.
As the oldest son, Basim felt increasingly concerned about his aging parents, so in 1988, he and Mayada made the difficult decision to move back home permanently. The city they returned to had undergone a shocking transformation. The Iran-Iraq war was winding down, but at a cost of as many as half a million dead Iraqis. The political alternatives of Basim’s youth were gone: Communism had long since been crushed, and Arab nationalism had lost its luster under Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship.
Instead, people increasingly described their suffering in the language of faith. The culture was transforming before Basim’s eyes; for the first time, Mayada wrapped herself in a head scarf. Not long after, small networks of religious fundamentalists began appearing in Mosul, preaching to communities devastated by war and United Nations sanctions.
Then, in 2003, the United States invaded. One night just a few months afterward, the Americans showed up at the Woods and took over a huge abandoned military barracks across the street from Basim’s property. The next morning, they started cutting down trees. “They said, ‘This is for our security,’ ” Basim recalled. “I said, ‘Your security doesn’t mean destruction of the forest.’ ” Walls of concrete and concertina wire started to appear amid the pine and chinar stands. The barracks became a Joint Coordination Center, or J.C.C., where American troops worked with local security forces. Basim came to know some of the Americans; once, before the center acquired internet access, he helped a soldier send email to his mother back home. Sometimes he would serve as an impromptu translator.
Across Iraq, the American invasion had plunged the country into chaos and spawned a nationalist resistance — and amid the social collapse, the zealots seized the pulpit. Al Qaeda in Iraq recruited from Mosul’s shanty towns and outlying villages and from nearby provincial cities like Tal Afar. By 2007, sections of Mosul were in rebellion. By then, the Americans had expanded the mission of the J.C.C., adding a center where Iraqis could file compensation claims for the injury or death of a loved one at the hands of American forces.
When the Americans withdrew in 2011, Basim felt as if almost everyone he knew harbored grievances toward the occupation. That same year, on one of his customary rambles around the internet, Basim came upon a TEDx Talk called “A Radical Experiment in Empathy” by Sam Richards, a sociology professor at Penn State. Richards was asking the audience to imagine that China had invaded the United States, plundered its coal and propped up a kleptocratic government. Then he asked the audience to put themselves in the shoes of “an ordinary Arab Muslim living in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq.” He paced across the stage, scenes from the Iraq conflict playing behind him. “Can you feel their anger, their fear, their rage at what has happened to their country?”