In the cold, final months of 2018 and early 2019, the U.S.-led coalition ramped up its bombing and artillery campaign in eastern Syria as part of a final effort to strip away from the Islamic State any land the group still controlled. The air campaign had two aims: Weaken the ISIS forces on the ground, and push the remaining fighters and civilians south along the Euphrates River. Kurdish fighters, the coalition’s allies, would then take control of the bombed-out villages.
The last ISIS fighters had finally been corralled in March 2019 in a small village called Baghuz, between the Euphrates and the Iraqi border. ISIS made its last stand there, the fighters mixed together with family members and civilians trapped by the conflict as the U.S.-led coalition pummeled the village from the air.
“It’s hard to imagine how anybody can survive,” said CBS News reporter Charlie D’Agata, who watched airstrikes from the ground near Baghuz in March 2019.
In an investigation published last weekend, the New York Times told the story of one those assaults. On March 18, 2019, the U.S. Air Force dropped a 500-pound bomb, followed by two 2,000-pound explosives, on a crowd of women and children near the river in Baghuz.
“Who dropped that?” a Defense Department analyst monitoring a drone typed in a secure chat, according to the Times story.
“We just dropped on 50 women and children,” another analyst responded.
The Times described the airstrike as “one of the largest civilian casualty incidents of the war against the Islamic State.” It came to light only after investigations, including by the independent inspector general and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, had been blocked or buried.
But this bombing of women and children was not a tragic accident in an otherwise controlled and closely monitored aerial campaign. The bombing was in fact one of the final strikes in a monthslong string of attacks that killed scores of civilians. I know this because I was in touch almost daily with an American who lived through these bombings until he was killed by an airstrike in Baghuz, likely just before the bombing the Times described.
Russell Dennison, who was among the first Americans to join ISIS as a fighter, secretly sent me more than 30 hours of recordings from August 2018 to February 2019. Dennison’s later recordings captured the roar of airstrikes he and his small family witnessed, and Dennison regularly sent me photographs of the aftermath. I tell Dennison’s story, including his descriptions of the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing campaign, in “American ISIS,” an eight-episode Audible Original documentary podcast released in July from The Intercept and Topic Studios.
While the specific bombing the Times described shows that Defense Department officials knew that they’d killed civilians and then made efforts to keep the bombing from public scrutiny, it was clear at the time that the coalition’s campaign was not sparing civilians. “But these bombings were not well covered by the international media at the time,” said Chris Woods, director of the London-based Airwars, which tracks civilian harm in war zones in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. The U.S.-led coalition disclosed earlier this year that it estimated at least 1,417 civilians had been killed in airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, though Airwars estimates that number could be more than 13,000.
Syria’s Deir el-Zour province, where Baghuz is located, is a remote part of the world, and ISIS’s control on the ground and the coalition bombs dropping from the air made access to the area nearly impossible for journalists and international monitors. As a result, the full extent of civilian death in the area may never be known.
Dennison may have been the only witness on the ground in Deir el-Zour who documented the bombing campaign in real time. He sent me recordings and pictures following each night’s attacks. What he described and photographed over months in Deir el-Zour suggested that the U.S.-led coalition must have been aware that civilians were perishing in large numbers.
As Dennison recorded one message to me during the bombing campaign, the deafening sounds of an exploding bomb consumed the audio. A few seconds later, Dennison can be heard, speaking into his phone.
“You hear this?” he said me. “You see, this is major American airstrikes.”
“They Were All Killed”
Dennison was a red-bearded, white convert to Islam who crossed into Syria in 2012. He joined ISIS shortly after the group split from Al Qaeda and its previous affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. Fighting under one of ISIS’s best-known commanders, Abu Yahya al-Iraqi, Dennison helped establish the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
After a sniper’s bullet to the leg hobbled him, Dennison moved to Raqqa, as the city attracted foreign fighters from around the world. In Raqqa, Dennison married a Syrian woman, with whom he had two daughters. In late 2017, Raqqa fell to the U.S.-led coalition, and Dennison and his wife and children followed other ISIS fighters and their families to Deir el-Zour. During a lull in the bombing campaign through much of 2018, Dennison worked for a secret ISIS unit — first revealed in “American ISIS” — that intercepted communications from militaries operating in the region. Dennison’s job was to listen to the Americans. But by December 2018, Dennison and his family were on the run again, shuffling back and forth between villages in Deir el-Zour as the coalition airstrikes intensified.
That month, Dennison told me that the coalition had intentionally bombed a hospital in Al Shafah. The bombing, according to Dennison, was similar to the one described by the Times: an initial strike followed by two more bombings. “The Americans destroyed this hospital, and they killed everybody inside it,” Dennison told me. “The second floor was full of women nurses who were responsible for the whole hospital, and they were all killed.”
At the time, the Defense Department confirmed to me that this hospital had been bombed, claiming that ISIS fighters were using the area as a staging ground. Dennison also told me that he’d seen hospitals bombed in two other villages, Sousa and Hajin, though the Defense Department would neither confirm nor deny that information at the time. (Rules of war established by the Geneva Conventions require civilian hospitals to be protected from targeting, but those same rules require the opposing force to separate civilian hospitals from military activity.)
In January 2019, as The Intercept reported at the time, the Defense Department abruptly stopped issuing detailed “strike releases” — periodic reports, which had been released since the start of the campaign against ISIS, that provided detailed information about specific bombings. They did so even as coalition bombings in Deir el-Zour increased.
As Dennison and his family moved from village to village, they shared space with other ISIS fighters and their families. In one village, he and his wife and daughters roomed with three other families. That was part of the coalition’s challenge in eastern Syria: ISIS wasn’t a traditional army. Many of the group’s fighters were married and had children, and their families traveled with them. Syrians unrelated to ISIS fighters were packed into the villages as well, leaving no delineation between combatants and civilians. Bombing ISIS fighters in Deir el-Zour meant bombing civilians. So-called collateral damage was guaranteed.
Bombing ISIS fighters in Deir el-Zour meant bombing civilians. So-called collateral damage was guaranteed.
In late 2018, Dennison and his family were trapped in Al Kashmah, a village north of Baghuz, as coalition airstrikes and artillery rained down. The recordings Dennison sent me from the night of December 31, 2018, New Year’s Eve, were filled with the sounds of bombings nearby. “There’s some crazy airstrikes tonight,” Dennison said. “So I hope that me and my family, we live through this night, you know. But this is our life.”
Dennison sent me photos of the destruction from Al Kashmah. The village had been leveled, with large buildings flattened to rubble in the sand. He and his family then headed south, but as the bombings continued, Dennison decided in January to put his wife and children on a bus headed out of ISIS-controlled Syria and to a displaced persons camp run by Kurdish forces.
One early morning, as Dennison and his family prepared to walk through the cold to a waiting bus in Sousa, the coalition bombed the village’s nearby roundabout, Dennison told me. “We could hear the debris and the shrapnel and the rocks and stones fly everywhere,” he recalled. “We were only about 200 meters from this circle.” Although the Defense Department had stopped issuing detailed strike releases by this time, it did acknowledge 645 strikes in Syria around the time of the attack Dennison said he witnessed in Sousa.
Dennison and his family walked past the roundabout to the bus, their weakly charged flashlight cutting through the darkness. As they passed, Dennison could hear a young boy screaming for help. He’d been buried beneath rubble following the airstrike.
Dennison later sent me a photo of the roundabout in Sousa. The buildings surrounding it had been destroyed, leaving piles of concrete, shorn support beams, and a large crater in the ground.
“Resurgence of a New Adversary”
The U.S.-led coalition knew that its bombing and artillery campaign in Deir el-Zour was killing civilians. In February 2019, around the same time that Dennison heard the boy screaming from beneath the rubble, a senior French officer wrote an article in a French military journal criticizing the coalition’s tactics.
Col. François-Régis Legrier, who had been in charge of French artillery in the region, wrote that the coalition relied too heavily on bombings and artillery because the U.S., British, and French militaries were not willing to put soldiers on the ground. “This refusal raises a question: why have an army that we don’t dare use?” Legrier asked in his article.
“Why have an army that we don’t dare use?”
The bombardment of the packed villages resulted in significant civilian casualties, Legrier alleged. “We have massively destroyed the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting image of what may be a Western-style liberation leaving behind the seeds of an imminent resurgence of a new adversary.”
Dennison never knew of Legrier or his article, but he told me something similar. He said that he likely wouldn’t survive and that ISIS might fail, but the children who lived through the bombing campaign would remember who was responsible. “People would be saddened to see the reality of what the U.S. is doing in the name of America and Western democratic freedoms and these other types of values,” Dennison told me.
My last communication with Dennison was in February 2019. He was trapped in Baghuz, the fighting all around him. In his final message to me, he described seeing a bus filled with women and children bombed as it tried to leave ISIS-controlled territory. “They don’t put two per seat. These people pack on everywhere in the Middle East, as many as they can,” Russell said. “So we’re talking 50 to 60 people.”
The women and children on the bus were trying to escape, Dennison told me. The ISIS caliphate was about to collapse under the coalition airstrikes. “This bus was targeted by U.S. warplanes and killed everybody inside, and I personally I saw this myself,” Dennison said.
I could not independently verify Dennison’s account of the bus being bombed, and for that reason, I did not include it in “American ISIS.” But Dennison’s story was similar to the bombing in Baghuz that the Times investigated.
Dennison died in an airstrike in Baghuz not long after sending me that recording about the bus. I don’t know exactly when he died, but it was likely in late February or early March, just before the U.S. dropped a bomb on a crowd of 50 women and children in Baghuz and an analyst monitoring the drone footage posed an urgent question: “Who dropped that?”
Correction: November 29, 2021
This article has been adjusted to clarify that the Pentagon has acknowledged at least 1,417 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria, while Airwars estimates that the number of deaths could be more than 13,000.