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.
The unit, called Talon Anvil, worked in three shifts around the clock between 2014-19, pinpointing targets for the United States' formidable air power to hit: convoys, car bombs, command centers 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.
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 2016-18. "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 U.S. 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 the aftermath was concealed from the public and top military leaders.
In November, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered a high-level investigation into the strike 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 claim they were ignored.
The former Air Force intelligence officer, who worked almost daily on missions from 2016-18, said he notified the main Air Force operations center in the region about civilian casualties several times. But he said leaders seemed reluctant to scrutinize a strike cell that was driving the offensive on the battlefield.
Every year 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 Defense Department report on civilian harm. The rate was 10 times that of similar operations he tracked in Afghanistan, he said.
"It was much higher than I would have expected from a U.S. unit," said Lewis, who has viewed the Pentagon's classified civilian casualty data for Syria. "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 Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commanded the offensive against the Islamic State group in 2016-17, was dismissive of widespread reports from news media and human rights organizations describing the mounting toll.
In a telephone interview, Townsend, who now heads the military's Africa Command, said outside organizations 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."
TIPS, INTERCEPTS AND STRIKES
Talon Anvil'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.
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, IS was attacking allies in the Middle East and launching terrorist attacks in Europe. The U.S. was desperate for a force that could identify enemy targets and put Delta Force in charge.
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.
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-defense.
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-defense, 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.
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.
FIGHTERS OR CHILDREN?
Talon Anvil clashed at times with the Air Force intelligence teams based in the United States that helped to analyze 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.