The aerial campaign in eastern Syria dislodged the terrorist team from the final patch the land that controlled however cost one untold number of lives.

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Russell Dennison, who was among the first Americans to sign up with ISIS as a fighter, covertly sent me an ext than 30 hours of recordings from august 2018 come February 2019. Dennison’s later recordings captured the roar that airstrikes he and his small family witnessed, and also Dennison regularly sent me photographs the the aftermath. Ns tell Dennison’s story, including his explanation of the U.S.-led coalition’s bombing campaign, in “American ISIS,” an eight-episode Audible initial documentary podcast exit in July from The Intercept and Topic Studios.

While the details bombing the Times explained shows the Defense room officials knew the they’d killed civilians and then made efforts to store the bombing from public scrutiny, it to be clear at the time that the coalition’s campaign was not sparing civilians. “But these bombings were not well spanned by the worldwide media in ~ the time,” stated Chris Woods, manager of the London-based Airwars, which tracks civilian injury in war zones in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Airwars cases to have evidenced 1,417 civilian deaths indigenous coalition airstrikes in Syria and also Iraq, though the group approximates that number might be more than 13,000.

Syria’s Deir el-Zour province, wherein Baghuz is located, is a remote component of the world, and ISIS’s control on the ground and also the coalition bombs dropping from the waiting made accessibility to the area virtually impossible because that journalists and also international monitors. Together a result, the full level of civilian fatality in the area might never it is in known.

Dennison may have been the only witness on the ground in Deir el-Zour who recorded the battle campaign in actual time. He sent me recordings and pictures following each night’s attacks. What he described and also photographed end months in Deir el-Zour said that the U.S.-led coalition must have actually been conscious that civilians to be perishing in large numbers.

As Dennison recorded one message to me throughout the battle campaign, the deafening sounds of an exploding bomb consumed the audio. A few seconds later, Dennison deserve to be heard, speaking right into his phone.

“You listen this?” he claimed me. “You see, this is major American airstrikes.”


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A take self of Russell Dennison in Syria in 2017.

Photo: acquired by The Intercept


“They Were every Killed”

Dennison to be a red-bearded, white convert to Islam who crossed into Syria in 2012. He join ISIS shortly after the group break-up from Al Qaeda and also its ahead affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front. Fighting under one of ISIS’s best-known commanders, Abu Yahya al-Iraqi, Dennison helped create the so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq.

After a sniper’s cartridge to the leg hobbled him, Dennison moved to Raqqa, as the city attracted foreign fighters from about the world. In Raqqa, Dennison married a Syrian woman, through whom he had two daughters. In late 2017, Raqqa dropped to the U.S.-led coalition, and also 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 functioned for a an enig ISIS unit — an initial revealed in “American ISIS” — the intercepted interactions from militaries operating in the region. Dennison’s project was to hear to the Americans. However by December 2018, Dennison and his family were ~ above the run again, shuffling earlier and forth between villages in Deir el-Zour together the coalition airstrikes intensified.


That month, Dennison told me that the coalition had actually intentionally bombed a hospital in Al Shafah. The bombing, follow to Dennison, was comparable 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 to be responsible because that the entirety hospital, and they were every killed.”

At the time, the Defense Department evidenced to me that this hospital had been bombed, claiming the ISIS fighters were utilizing the area together a staging ground. Dennison also told me the he’d checked out hospitals bombed in two various other villages, Sousa and Hajin, though the Defense room would neither confirm nor deny that info at the time. (Rules the war created by the Geneva Conventions require civilian hospitals come be protected from targeting, however those very same rules call for the opposing pressure to separate civilian hospitals from military activity.)

In January 2019, as The Intercept reported at the time, the Defense department abruptly stopped issuing comprehensive “strike releases” — routine reports, which had been released due to the fact that the start of the campaign versus ISIS, that noted detailed info about details bombings. They go so even as coalition bombings in Deir el-Zour increased.

As Dennison and also his household moved from town to village, castle shared an are with other ISIS fighters and their families. In one village, he and his wife and also daughters roomed v three other families. That was component of the coalition’s an obstacle in eastern Syria: ISIS wasn’t a traditional army. Many of the group’s fighters to be married and had children, and also their families traveled with them. Syrians unrelated to ISIS fighters were packed into the villages as well, leaving no delineation in between combatants and civilians. Bombing ISIS fighters in Deir el-Zour meant battle civilians. So-called collateral damage was guaranteed.


Bombing ISIS fighters in Deir el-Zour meant bombing civilians. So-called collateral damages was guaranteed.

In late 2018, Dennison and also his household were trapped in Al Kashmah, a village north that Baghuz, together coalition airstrikes and also artillery rained down. The recordings Dennison sent me from the night of December 31, 2018, new Year’s Eve, to be filled v the sounds of bombings nearby. “There’s some crazy airstrikes tonight,” Dennison said. “So ns hope that me and also my family, us live through this night, friend know. Yet this is our life.”

Dennison sent me photos of the destruction from Al Kashmah. The village had been leveled, with big buildings planarization to rubble in the sand. He and his family then headed south, yet as the bombings continued, Dennison made decision in January to placed his wife and also children top top a bus headed the end of ISIS-controlled Syria and also to a displaced people camp run by Kurdish forces.

One at an early stage morning, together Dennison and also his household prepared to walk with the cold come a wait bus in Sousa, the coalition bombed the village’s adjacent roundabout, Dennison told me. “We can hear the debris and also the shrapnel and the rocks and also stones fly everywhere,” he recalled. “We to be only about 200 meters from this circle.” back the Defense Department had actually stopped issuing thorough strike releases by this time, the did recognize 645 strikes in Syria approximately the time the the strike Dennison stated he saw in Sousa.

Dennison and also his family walked previous the roundabout come the bus, their weakly charged flashlight cutting v the darkness. As they passed, Dennison could hear a young young screaming for help. He’d been hidden beneath rubble complying with the airstrike.

Dennison later sent me a photo of the roundabout in Sousa. The buildings surrounding it had actually been destroyed, leave piles that concrete, shorn assistance beams, and also a big crater in the ground.


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The U.S.-led coalition to reduce leaflets ~ above ISIS-controlled villages encouraging fighters to surrender.“The Syrian autonomous Forces are coming,” this leaflet reads in Arabic.

Photo: obtained by the Intercept


“Resurgence of a new Adversary”

The U.S.-led coalition knew the its bombing and also artillery campaign in Deir el-Zour to be killing civilians. In February 2019, around the very same time that Dennison heard the young screaming from beneath the rubble, a senior French officer wrote an write-up in a French armed forces journal criticizing the coalition’s tactics.

Col. François-Régis Legrier, that had remained in charge of French artillery in the region, wrote that the coalition relied too greatly on bombings and also artillery since the U.S., British, and French militaries were not willing to put soldiers on the ground. “This refusal raises a question: why have an military that we don’t challenge use?” Legrier request in his article.


“Why have an military that us don’t challenge use?”

The bombardment of the packed villages resulted in far-reaching civilian casualties, Legrier alleged. “We have massively ruined the infrastructure and given the population a disgusting photo of what might be a Western-style liberation leaving behind the seed of an unavoidable resurgence of a brand-new adversary.”

Dennison never ever knew the Legrier or his article, but he called me something similar. He said that he likely wouldn’t survive and also that ISIS could fail, but the kids who lived with the bombing campaign would remember that was responsible. “People would be saddened to check out the fact of what the U.S. Is doing in the surname of America and also Western democratic freedoms and also these other varieties of values,” Dennison told me.

My last interaction with Dennison was in February 2019. He was trapped in Baghuz, the fighting all roughly him. In his final message to me, he described seeing a bus filled through women and also children bombed together it do the efforts to leave ISIS-controlled territory. “They don’t placed two per seat. These world pack on almost everywhere in the middle East, as numerous as they can,” Russell said. “So we’re talk 50 to 60 people.”

The women and also children on the bus to be trying to escape, Dennison said me. The ISIS caliphate was around to collapse under the coalition airstrikes. “This bus to be targeted through U.S. Warplanes and killed everybody inside, and I personally I witnessed this myself,” Dennison said.

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I could not individually verify Dennison’s account that the bus gift bombed, and also for that reason, i did not encompass it in “American ISIS.” but Dennison’s story was similar to the battle in Baghuz the the time investigated.

Dennison died in one airstrike in Baghuz not lengthy after sending out me the recording around the bus. I don’t know specifically when he died, however it was likely in late February or beforehand March, just before the U.S. To reduce a bomb ~ above a group of 50 women and also children in Baghuz and an analyst security the drone clip posed an urgent question: “Who to reduce that?”


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