The US military employed an Israeli technique, albeit unsuccessfully, of warning civilians prior to an airstrike, known as “roof-knocking,” in the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul, Iraq, a senior American air force officer told reporters Tuesday.
The technique has been used extensively by Israel in its operations in the Gaza Strip over the years in an attempt to minimize civilian casualties in a densely populated urban area, but only debuted on April 5 in an American operation, Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten said via video link from Baghdad.
In the “knock on the roof” technique, as its known, pilots drop a non-explosive device on a building, which warns the occupants of an imminent bombing and allows them to escape unharmed. However, this tactic is not perfect, and some Gaza residents have been killed by the initial blast or in the following airstrike, if they were unable or unwilling to exit the building.
It has thus far only been employed once by US troops and, unfortunately, the American attempt to copy this tactic was ultimately unsuccessful, but Gersten indicated it was part of a renewed effort by the US military to minimize civilian casualties.
In addition, he said, the also-Israeli tactic of dropping warning leaflets has also been adopted by US troops in Iraq and Syria.
Earlier this month, coalition forces tracked a local leader of the Islamic State to a building in Mosul, where fighters would regularly meet to receive some of the approximately $150 million stored in the facility.
This was part of an ongoing coalition effort to bomb and deplete IS cash reserves. Thus far some $800 million has been destroyed, Gersten told reporters.
However, they also spotted “a female and her children” entering and exiting the building, according to Gersten, Deputy Commander of Operations and Intelligence in the campaign against IS, known in America as Operation Inherent Resolve.
The US troops dedicated reconnaissance and surveillance efforts to create a “pattern-of-life study,” in order to track the non-combatants in the facility, the general said in a US Department of Defense briefing.
“We formulated a plan to ensure that those women and children and the non-combatants were clear of that objective,” he said.
In order to warn the civilians, the pilot “put a Hellfire (missile) on top of the building and air burst it ” — detonated the explosive above the target — “so it wouldn’t destroy the building, simply knock on the roof, to ensure that she and the children were out of the building,” Gersten said.
“We did see the woman and child leave,” he said.
However, after the pilot fired the first Hellfire missile as a warning, the woman “ran back into the building” and was killed in the full explosive airstrike.
“It ultimately ended in a civilian casualty,” Gersten said. “We watched; it was very difficult for us. It was within the final seconds of the impact.”
Video of the attempt was not immediately available, but Gersten told reporters in the Pentagon it would be forthcoming.
This technique was first conceived and employed by the Israeli Air Force, and Gersten admitted “that is exactly where we took the procedure from,” but US coalition forces did not consult with Israel in order to learn how to carry out the “knock on the roof” technique.
“We didn’t work with them, but we have watched and observed their procedure,” Gersten said.
Though many have praised Israel for employing this technique and others to limit civilian casualties, others — including the UN and Amnesty International — say it is ultimately ineffective at preventing the deaths of non-combatants.
Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British troops in Afghanistan, defended the technique in a report on Israel’s 2014 war with Gaza, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge, saying tactics like it are unparalleled in the world’s militaries.
“That threshold isn’t something other nations could handle,” Kemp said.
The United Nation’s report on the 2014 Gaza conflict said the practice does not deliver a clear enough warning to civilians of what’s to come.
“In an area with buildings all around, how can the recipient of such a ‘roof-knock’ know which building he or she should avoid if this is not specified in the message?” the report asked.
Gersten did not indicate whether or not this “roof-knocking” technique would become standard operating procedure before future coalition airstrikes, but said that upon thorough review, despite its failure in this case, commanders did not find any issues with the tactic itself.