Numbers Game

ISIS Fighters Are Killing Faster than Statisticians Can Count

The jihadists’ advance has prompted a murder spree so massive that some groups have stopped publishing their death counts for fear of misleading the public.

12.05.14 10:45 AM ET

ERBIL, Iraq — In any war, it’s the wanton acts of barbarism that grab the headlines and reel in the news teams. But when it comes to showcasing the true measure of a conflict’s horror, there are few statistics starker than a sky-high civilian death toll.

In Iraq, where hostilities have raged in fits and starts for over a decade since the US-led invasion of 2003, non-combatants have been particularly hard hit by the violence. Many were caught up in the “Shock and Awe” aerial campaign that marked the beginning of the war, some succumbed to disease as the country’s infrastructure collapsed, and still others died in the brutal bouts of tribal in-fighting that marred the years following the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

Through it all, an eclectic band of organizations, ranging from a multinational team of anti-war activists to the UN’s local office, maintained scrupulous records of the dead. They logged every incident and released depressing day-by-day accounts of the carnage.

The emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS or ISIS or ISIL) jihadist group has, however, plunged Iraq into a period of turbulence so debilitating that, for the first time, these death counts can no longer keep up with the killing.

“We just can’t handle this thing that we started a few years ago,” said Jean-Marc Mojon, AFP’s Iraq Bureau Chief.

“When we were counting the number [killed by] car bombs in Baghdad, it was easier. But right now, if we were to put out an aggregated tally for 2014, it would be way off the mark. With our sourcing criteria, the numbers would just be very low as we’re not able to confirm those deaths,” he said.

He and his colleagues have (alone among wire services) built up a detailed spreadsheet total of civilian and combatant casualties, but faced with the near impossibility of verifying multiple daily reports of massacres in provinces rendered inaccessible since the early weeks of ISIS’s June offensive, they now largely restrict its use for internal purposes.

Officials in UN’s Iraq mission (UNAMI) are similarly downbeat about the accuracy of their records.

“Since the armed conflict escalated, I would say that our figures are significantly under reported,” said Francesco Motta, Director of UNAMI’s human rights office.

“We are getting hundreds of reports in addition to those we verify that we are just simply not able to verify owing to our limited access to areas where incidents are taking place,” he added.

It’s the sheer magnitude of the slaughter that’s overstretching these groups’ resources, but ISIS’s murderous approach to the media has compounded the problem. On top of the much publicized recent beheadings of two American journalists, ISIS also has killed dozens of Syrian and Iraqi reporters. Body counts rely heavily on local news articles for coverage of incidents in towns and rural pockets far from Baghdad, and the jihadists’ seizure of up to a third of Iraq has complicated attempts to report within their areas of control.

There’s no convenient moment for a system to break down, but this timing could scarcely be more unfortunate.

The Iraqi government and ISIS’s social media propagandists have both been bandying around wild claims about the number of foes their forces have dispatched in battle, but with fewer on-the-ground sources, independent experts now find themselves poorly placed to refute many of these assertions.

In one particularly egregious instance this summer, beleaguered Iraqi authorities declared that their army had killed a highly improbable 5,000 jihadists in June and July. ISIS, in turn, laid claim to countless mostly exaggerated mass killings, including the alleged execution of 1,700 soldiers near Tikrit. (Rights groups feel it was likely about a tenth of that.)

Interestingly, and seemingly counter intuitively; it’s the length of the coalition occupation that looks to have contributed to the comprehensiveness of these tallies in the first place. The massive Western media presence that accompanied the troops, and the huge demand for Arabic-speaking staff as the violence dragged on led to the extensive training of local reporters. Many of them continue diligently to document their country’s plight, and statisticians have taken full advantage.

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“It’s not like the UK, but it’s still quite a vibrant press in terms of the kind of reporting we’re looking at,” said Hamit Dardagan, a co-founder of Iraq Body Count (IBC). For more than 11 years now, his group of mostly Britain-based volunteers has combed through Iraqi news stories, run them through Google Translate, and built up what is probably the most expansive online database of Iraq’s civilian dead—all without setting foot in the war-torn state.

Dardagan and his peers are the first to admit that local media reports often are speculative in the extreme. Identifying and excising faulty accounts takes up more and more of their time as the country splinters again. But they’ve had plenty of opportunity to hone their procedures to separate fact from fiction.

AFP, for its part, aims to get three witnesses or reports for every incident. If they’re seen as trustworthy sources, they’ll make do with two, and if, in exceptional circumstances, the news has come from a big-name person— “someone who would be held accountable if their information was wrong,” Mojon says—they’d run with a single source. When faced with multiple casualty reports, AFP usually adopts the lower number.

The UN methodology affords its team a little more flexibility. “I need [my team] to triangulate as many sources as possible and we then accept the most credible,” Francesco Motta said. If they’re unimpressed by their sources, they’ll withhold opinion in the hope of receiving additional information, and if that’s not forthcoming and they remain unconvinced, the incident will go unreported.

Until this summer’s uptick in violence, AFP, UNAMI and IBC’s figures were running pretty much on par with ballpark assessments of Iraq’s total civilian dead since 2003 in the 110,000-150,000 range. Since then, however, IBC’s yearly count has roared ahead, with 15,883 recorded killings until the end of November, in comparison to the UN’s statistic of a little over 9500 (AFP were a bit over 7000 when they stopped adding to their spreadsheet at the end of September).

IBC’s differing methodology has a lot to do with this. They reason—likely correctly—that amid the rash of daily bombings and firefights many incidents are going unreported by all but lone local journalists, and so they no longer require corroborating sources.

By their reckoning, there’s no real incentive to manufacture deaths at the low end of the scale, and little possibility of successfully engineering massive frauds without holes appearing in the story. “You’d be suspicious if someone said 20 people had died in car bomb and only one news report appeared,” said Peter Bagnall, who, like most of his colleagues, joined IBC due to his opposition to the Iraq war and belief that the UK’s involvement endowed him with a responsibility to document the dead.

But IBC is also a fair bit more inclusive in its definition of war casualties. It includes victims of honor killings and celebratory gunfire in its tallies (given Saddam’s strong prohibition of both practices), and some commentators claimed early in the war that the group’s ideological underpinnings had affected its judgment.

“Early on, we were criticized a lot,” said Dardagan. “But just because we’re anti-war doesn’t mean we can’t count.” He says IBC’s database has never been challenged successfully.

Whatever its potential pitfalls, IBC’s model looks more and more like the future of information gathering in Middle Eastern conflict zones. The UN ceased counting in Syria in January with the death tally hovering around 140,000, while the world body also relied heavily on on-the-ground journalist sources in Gaza as it conducted its assessment of casualties during this summer’s bloody shootout with Israel.

NGOs and foreign journalists largely stay away from most of Syria, dumping the burden of reporting exclusively on the shoulders of the local inhabitants who remain.

Meanwhile, in Iraq, the daily readouts of civilian dead continue to pour in without fail: 24 were killed on the 28th November, 29 on the 29th , 17 a day later, 31 on 1st December…