Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Nafeez Ahmed examines the direct and indirect deaths of the post 9/11 era, as a new kind of state-sanctioned mass violence became globalised and normalised

Twenty years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, compelling statistical data has emerged suggesting that the true death toll of the ‘War on Terror’ could be as high as six million people – and that this colossal figure is itself likely to be conservative.


The Costs of War Project

Earlier this month, Brown University’s Costs of War project updated its rolling analysis of the number of people killed in direct violence due to the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’.

It found that just under a million people – between 897,000 and 929,000 – were killed directly due to violence across five theatres of war involving significant US and Western military involvement: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. 

These numbers have been widely reported as proving that around one million people have been killed in post-9/11 wars. Yet, they are extremely conservative figures.

The real death toll is far, far higher – a fact that has not been properly reported in media reports.

“The deaths we tallied are likely a vast under-count of the true toll these wars have taken on human life,” said the co-author of the Costs of War project report Professor Neta Crawford – noting that the tally does not incorporate indirect deaths due to the consequences of war through the destruction of civilian infrastructure.

The new figures therefore do not account for the many indirect deaths the War on Terror has caused by way of disease, displacement and loss of access to food or clean drinking water, she acknowledged.

The Geneva Declaration report concludes that we are safe to assume on average four indirect deaths to every direct death in contemporary conflicts


An Invisible Death Toll

The most accurate way to calculate the scale of total deaths would be through epidemiological surveys to determine ‘excess deaths’ by comparing pre-war and post-war mortality rates, which would encompass both direct and indirect deaths.

However, in many of these countries, the infrastructure to monitor and collect the relevant data does not exist or is very hard to obtain, which is why such surveys are rare. 

In the absence of epidemiological analysis, it is still possible to develop a clear sense of the minimum likely scale of indirect deaths.

Last September, when commenting on an earlier version of the project’s findings, Costs of War report co-author Professor Catherine Lutz pointed out that “one has to multiply that direct death number… by an estimated two to four times to get to the total number of people – in the millions – who are dead today who would not have been dead had the wars not been fought”. But even this approach is likely to produce an under-count.

According to a landmark report by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development – signed by 113 governments – in “the majority of conflicts since the early 1990s, for which good data is available, the burden of indirect deaths was between three and 15 times the number of direct deaths”. 

The report found that, due to the impact of conflicts on public services and infrastructure, vastly greater numbers of people end up dying indirectly from the consequences of violence compared to the number that die directly from conflict.

The range varies based on different factors such as the levels of economic development in a country before a war, the duration of fighting, the intensity of combat, the population’s access to basic care and services, and the success of humanitarian relief efforts. 

The more intense the fighting and the more degraded the level of infrastructure, the higher the number of indirect deaths. 

The report concluded that “a reasonable average estimate would be a ratio of four indirect deaths to one direct death in contemporary conflicts”.

However, it should be noted that this ratio is a minimum average that is likely to be extremely conservative in relation to the impact of Western-backed military interventions. For instance, six months after the bombing campaign in Afghanistan in 2001, data assessed by the Guardian revealed that, although between 1,300 and 1,800 Afghans were killed directly, as many as 20,000 and possibly as high as 49,600 people had died due to the indirect consequences of the military intervention. In this case, the total number of indirect deaths was at least 15 times higher than direct deaths.

If that higher, empirically-substantiated ratio was applied to the Costs of War direct death figures in Afghanistan since 9/11 (176,000 people), it would imply 2,640,000 indirect deaths in that country to date, which would suggest that in just one country a total of about 2.8 million Afghans have been killed due to the War on Terror.

This scale of violence has been corroborated by one other assessment of avoidable mortality in Afghanistan by retired La Trobe University biochemist Dr Gideon Polya. His book, Body Count: Global Avoidable Mortality Since 1950, put total excess deaths of Afghans since 2001 at three million.

The very dynamics of mass violence have become globalised and normalised, precisely because our political and cultural institutions are incapable of acknowledging that such state-sanctioned terrorism even exists

While the Geneva Declaration approach cannot be used to produce precise figures, it can provide an accurate insight into the likely order of magnitude of total deaths in a way that simple direct death figures cannot.

Applying its methodology to the Costs of War project figures suggests that the overall number of indirect deaths from 20 years of the War on Terror is between at least 3,588,000 and 3,716,000 people. This indicates that Brown University’s one million figure is extremely conservative and that the total death toll is actually at least between 4,485,000 and 4,645,000 people. 

Once again, these cannot be taken as specific figures, but rather as an indication of the real magnitude of deaths – likely to be a minimum of 4.5 million people. Even this estimate is highly likely to be too low, given that the real ratio could be larger than 4:1, and in Afghanistan, for instance, was 15:1 at the height of the 2001 bombing campaign.


Syria and Libya

In 2019, I was commissioned by the Hub Foundation in California to examine the available data on deaths in Muslim-majority regions as a consequence of post-9/11 conflicts. The data from that exercise suggest that some of Brown University’s figures for direct deaths are almost certainly too low. 

In particular, the project’s estimate of the Syrian death toll is only 266,000, based on death tallies for after US intervention in 2014. The authors acknowledge that many of these deaths would also have been caused by other parties. 

But as I have documented for the International State Crime Initiative at Queen Mary University of London, US and Western intervention in Syria began much earlier – as early as 2011 – and took a range of covert and overt forms which played a crucial role in igniting and prolonging the conflict in various ways.

While this does not lessen the responsibility of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his backers – Russia and Iran – in the violence, it does show that it is arbitrary to begin the death count in 2014 as if that is the pivotal date of US involvement. This means that the actual direct death toll in Syria is far higher – around some 511,000 people (according to groups both opposed to and sympathetic to Assad) – a figure which itself is probably conservative. 

In addition to the five theatres of war examined by Brown University, I had also incorporated data from the NATO intervention in Libya, including some 27,361 direct deaths. When the Geneva Declaration 4:1 average ratio is applied to these figures, the numbers are sobering. My original analysis in 2019 had incorporated Brown University’s older data compiled that year, but the new report shows the figures are now higher. 

Below, I have incorporated Brown University’s new figures to update my original analysis, along with the more accurate figures for Syria, and taking into account Libya, to develop a range of plausible estimates of indirect deaths that should be recognised as probably conservative. 


More than 5.8 million Total Deaths

Rather than applying the Geneva Declaration approach wholesale to the overall direct death figures, I have applied it case-by-case for each theatre of war to produce a likely order of magnitude figure for indirect deaths.

These final figures are then totalled to generate an overall cumulative death toll for each conflict zone, which in turn is used to calculate an overall estimate for the total number of deaths across all these theatres of war. As these are not precise figures, they have been rounded to the nearest thousand.

Direct deathsProbable indirect deathsTotal cumulative death toll including direct and indirect deaths
Yemen112,092448,368560,460
Syria511,0002,044,0002,555,000
Libya27,361109,444136,805
Iraq275,087- 306,495 1,100,348 – 1,225,9801375,435 – 1,532,475
Afghanistan176,000 704,000880,000
Pakistan67,000268,000335,000
1,168,540 – 1,199,948 
(1,169,000 – 1,200,000 rounded to the nearest thousand)
4,203,404 – 4,589,916
(4,203,000 – 4,590,000 rounded to the nearest thousand)
5,842,700 – 5,999,740
(5,843,000 – 6000,000 rounded to the nearest thousand)

This analysis shows that the total number of direct deaths during the War on Terror in major war zones with significant involvement of Western governments amounts to around 1.2 million people. 

In addition to this figure, applying the Geneva Declaration methodology suggests that between 4.2 and 4.6 million is the range encompassing the minimum number of people who are likely to have died as an indirect consequence of these post-9/11 wars. 

When the number of direct and indirect deaths in each major war zone is then totalled, it reveals that at least 5.8 to 6 million people are likely to have died overall due to the War on Terror – a staggering number which is still probably very conservative.

These estimates cannot be assumed to hold with precision, but they demonstrate the real scale of the consequences of the violence inflicted.

While it is obviously not possible to attribute these deaths specifically to a particular party in the way that has been attempted with direct death tallies, these deaths are causally related to the chain of events that began with post-9/11 military policies implemented by the US, UK and other Western states.

Without that chain of events, these wars and their devastating outcomes simply would not have happened.


The Nature of War

To the extent that the Costs of War project’s conservative direct death tallies are widely reported and cited as a reliable indicator of the scale of violence in the War on Terror, there is a risk that the true, far higher but largely invisible, scale of death remains suppressed from public consciousness. 

On 9/11, nearly 3,000 innocent Americans were killed on US soil. In the ensuing 20 years, just over one million people were directly killed in the series of wars that followed as a result. But that is only a part of the story because the one million figure is a vast under-count of the true total death toll.

In reality, it is likely that at least six million people have been killed in the course of the War on Terror, and that the vast majority of those killed are of Muslim origin.

Yet, it is in the very nature of how these wars have been conducted that we can never be truly certain of the full scale of the deaths they have caused both directly and indirectly. 

The true scale of the destruction caused by the War on Terror remains largely taboo, unreported and unexplored by most media commentators and academic experts, let alone policy-makers.

To even contemplate that such a huge number of people might have been killed as a result of decisions by US, British and European leaders – in the name of fighting terrorism – strays too far outside the framework of what is culturally acceptable and intellectually palatable. Such a scale of death is not what ‘we’ do. We are not ‘terrorists’.

However if the true consequences of these wars are examined, we might begin to recognise how the nature of conflict and violence has transformed through the 20th and 21st Centuries. It has become imperceptible, embedded in far-flung institutions of power, upheld through short-sighted military operations with structures and ethics designed in such a way that they systematically maximise the deaths of invisible ‘others’ in the name of protecting ‘our’ more important bodies and interests.

The very dynamics of mass violence have become globalised and normalised, precisely because our political and cultural institutions are incapable of acknowledging that such state-sanctioned terrorism even exists. 

Twenty years after 9/11, the shocking fact is that, due to our lack of interest as a civilisation, no one really knows for sure how many people have died as a result of the War on Terror. Now the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has added insult to injury, providing proof that the projection of extreme force only ever empowers more extremists.

As the Taliban stocks up its new Government with designated terrorists and as al-Qaeda accelerates its capacity to regroup, there is no longer any excuse. We need to fundamentally rethink our entire approach to what we call ‘security’ and re-evaluate how we have allowed ourselves to reach this point of devastation and delusion. If we don’t, the return of the Taliban is merely the beginning of an untimely end.

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