the home of online investigations

U.S. Airstrike on Kunduz Hospital: An Open Source Overview

October 5, 2015

By Aric Toler

In the early hours of Saturday, October 3, the main building of the Kunduz Trauma Center, operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), was hit by a series of airstrikes that last for approximately an hour. By latest counts, 22 people, including multiple children, were killed by the attack carried out by United States/Coalition forces.

There is not a wealth of open source information available relating to this attack, but this article will attempt to gather the available information to corroborate the MSF account of the airstrike. The first part of this article will attempt to establish the type of weapon used in the attack from an evaluation of available open source information and witness testimonies. In the second part, a widely shared video from the Associated Press of the aftermath of the attack will be verified by geolocating the path of the cameraman through the video and the corroborating evidence of two additional photographs.

Weapon Type and Witness Accounts

The MSF account details how the aerial attack lasted for just over an hour:

From 2:08 AM until 3:15 AM local time today, MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz was hit by a series of aerial bombing raids at approximately 15 minute intervals.

U.S. officials have not yet confirmed the details of the attack, but the Washington Post received information from a reliable source an American AC-130 gunship was used:

Update: The U.S. military has confirmed initial reports that an AC-130 gunship was responsible for the airstrike, but did not specify the variant used

On October 1st, Mustafa Kazema reported that the U.S. military did deploy one AC-130 to Kunduz in response to the Taliban takeover of the city:

Since the attack took place, many have speculated that the AC-130H Spectre model was used (see here, here, and here for examples); however, this does not seem to be the case. The United States retired the AC-130H Spectre gunship in May 2015 (see here and here), moving to newer models. It is more likely that a new model, such as the AC-130U Spooky gunship or the AC-130W Stinger II was responsible for the attack on the hospital and the resulting 22 civilian deaths. All three of these models are still in use, unlike the AC-130H.

This graphic from The Washington Post shows the various weapon systems on the AC-130U gunship, including a 105mm howitzer:

wapo

A 105mm howitzer and possibly a 40mm gun were likely used in the airstrike, judging by the patterns of damage. The two videos below show the attack pattern of the gunship, depicting events fairly close to the attack pattern described by MSF witnesses:

Additionally, some damage on the building’s exterior resembles the result of a 40mm gun; however,it may not be possible to conclusively determine this from only open source data.

kud_damage kun_40mm

The witness testimonies provided by the MSF reinforce this hypothesis. Witness testimonies attest that a single plane carried out the attack, and was heard circling above Kunduz:

“The bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round,” said Heman Nagarathnam, MSF Head of Programmes in northern Afghanistan.

“There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again. When I made it out from the office, the main hospital building was engulfed in flames.

Afghan officials initially claimed that “helicopter gunships had returned fire from Taliban fighters hiding in the compound,” but there has been no evidence that a helicopter fired on the hospital. Telling the difference between a howitzer shell and a smart bomb may be difficult for an eye witness, but to mistake a helicopter for a single plane seems very unlikely.

Verifying Video Evidence

The morning after the bombing, one video was shown on nearly every international news organization. This video shows the devastation at the main building of the trauma center. We will verify this video by geolocating the path of the cameraman, along with juxtaposing the scenes from the video with additional photographs from immediately after the bombing and the following morning.

First, we must find the actual location of the trauma center in Kunduz. The facilities at the trauma center are spread throughout a large area in central Kunduz, with a central main building and numerous smaller buildings on the south grounds (some photos of these facilities can be found in this 2013 blog post). These smaller buildings were not hit directly by the airstrike, but the main building was devastated, indicating that the main building was likely specifically targeted by the American AC-130U.

The trauma center is located at coordinates 36.7185477, 68.8619614, in between the Kunduz Regional (Provincial) Hospital and Traffic Square, the city’s main square. If you search for this location on Wikimapia, it is labeled as the District Hospital of Kunduz—the trauma center likely took over operation of this hospital building in 2011.

The most recent Google Earth and Bing Maps satellite imagery for the site is outdated, as it does not show numerous constructed facilities to the south of the main building. The New York Times used imagery from Bing Maps (provided by DigitalGlobe), which is about a year old and still shows facilities under construction:

nyt

With TerraServer, we can find the latest satellite imagery for April 2015. In this image, we can see all of the constructed buildings to the south of the main facility. However, for the purposes of this article, the main building is the only structure of importance, so a snapshot of Bing map imagery will be referenced.

In the video, the cameraman starts off pointing his camera east, while located to the southwest of the main building:

kun_se

In the screenshot below, the cameraman is facing the south side of the west part of the facility. The scene captured is in the same location as an image released by the MSF/AFP/Getty Images, while the building was still on fire in the early hours of October 3.

kun_three

The cameraman then walks around the west part of the building. In this shot, he is facing south, as a vehicle drives by. Like with the white and yellow arrows in the previous images, the red arrow on the map indicates the cameraman’s point of view:

kun_west

Turning the corner, the cameraman is now facing east, moving towards the north entrance to the facility. The perspective is now the same as a widely published photograph distributed by the MSF/AFP/Getty Images, showing the damaged main entrance to the facility. The area can be recognized by the central garden area at the front entrance, along with two bright green-painted structures along the walkways to the entrance. The overhanging roof of the entrance—which was been destroyed by the blast—is visible on the satellite imagery, most notably by the long shadow cast.

kun_east

Finally, at the end of the clip, the cameraman walks northwards towards the entrance gate of the facility, before looking back at the scene. The path of the cameraman is indicated below, with the yellow arrow marking the point of view of the photographer in the night photograph.

kun_total

The veracity of this video has not been widely questioned, as it was distributed by the Associated Press, and there are no red flags indicating that the video was misrepresented. However, it is still important to verify all available witness accounts and photographic/video evidence. To that end, everything checks out—this video was shot outside the Kunduz Trauma Center, and the depicted scene has been corroborated by credible witness accounts and two additional photographs released by the MSF/AFP/Getty Images.

Further open source investigation would be useful for determining if Taliban fighters were truly operating in the hospital, as Afghan officials have alleged. The MSF, which has shown no reason to be considered untrustworthy in its account of the airstrike, has steadfastly denied the Afghan claim, saying that on October 3, the “gates of the hospital were closed all night so no one that is not staff, a patient or a caretaker was inside the hospital when the bombing happened.”

Many thanks to Bellingcat contributors Veli-Pekka Kivimäki and Klement Anders for their invaluable assistance with this article

Update: Information added about AC-130W to first part of article, introducing the possibility that this AC-130 variant were used (not, as a commenter aptly pointed out, the AC-130J, as it will not be deployed until 2017). Additionally, confirmation from the U.S. military that an AC-130 gunship was used in the airstrike was added.

Aric Toler

Aric Toler has been an employee at Bellingcat since 2015. Some of his focuses are in verification of Russian media, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Russian influence in the American/European far-right, and the ongoing investigation into MH17. Have a question, want to bounce a story idea, or want to write for Bellingcat? Email me at arictoler@bellingcat.com

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.

41 Comments

  1. Josh Brolin

    The question is: Who was killed? In an airstrike the object is to kill people. I suggest there was a bigwig in that hospital who is now dead. The situation might hinge on incompetence of the air controller but let’s first look at the actual consequences and then determine if it we should look further into the idea it was an accidental event.

    Reply
  2. Mad Dog

    A muddled situation like a firefight in the middle of the night is hard to decipher. Was there firing going on and were US troops involved. It would seem some one had contact with the Spooky as that is a tactical asset not freely used on a whim. My guess is some SOF guys were there as liaisons and got ambushed. Spooky is great asset when used properly as it is pretty accurate and can bring a variety of fires onto a target, even in residential areas. The platform has better night sighting capabilities than a Cobra or Apache and also greater on-site time. A lot of decisions to be investigated, but so sad to see the results and for MSF to leave.

    Reply
  3. Mad Dog

    John, it would seem your idea would be a no go from the beginning. Getting at a big whig while destroying a hospital is a nightmare. It would be much easier to send in and assassination team than to risk the wholesale condemnation that would come from hitting the hospital like that. Your scenario just doesn’t make sense, IMHO.

    Reply
  4. Rod Templer

    Typically Bellingcat refuses to condemn the attack, instead being open to the idea MSF are lying about Taliban being not present in the hospital

    Why can’t Bellingcat condemn this crime?

    Reply
    • boggled

      Should you be open to all possibilities Rod?
      BC or Aric makes no statement about this.
      They just present evidence and strong evidence quickly.

      It can be used by MSF or US military for explanation.

      Aric wrote – The MSF, which has shown no reason to be considered untrustworthy in its account of the airstrike

      Does that sound like he is saying, MSF harbored Taliban in building?

      No, it doesn’t.
      Everyone condemn the lose of life of Doctors and volunteer medics.
      There is another side to the story and you should explore that before you express antiUSA hatred if it is not justified.
      And right now, there is doubt because Taliban were in the buildings and MSF admit this.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
      • Edward Horgan

        MSF are committed to treat all injured in conflicts including soldiers and combatants from both sides. It is most likely that there were wounded Taliban combatants being treated in the hospital, and MSF was fully justified in treating those wounded people from all sides. If this is being used as an excuse by either the Afghan government or the U.S. military for the bombing of the MSF hospital emergency ward, then this indicated that the airstrikes were not accidental but deliberate targeting of wounded Taliban combatants in a hospital, and this is a clear war crime.

        Reply
        • boggled

          True Edward, and I believe you are correct and support what you say and as MSF says.

          BUT if those Taliban were armed and shooting outside the ‘fortress’ (not hospital because it was not marked as that on the exterior by any internationally recognized Hospital trademark) from behind, inside, or near buildings behind the walls of the fortress at Afghani special forces that were cleaning Kunduz of Taliban scum,

          OR the security forces of the fortress initiated an attack on Afghani Special Forces,

          Then that eliminates any Geneva protections the MSF had.

          There are other things they could have done that would have voided their status as non combatants as well.
          So I am not taking USA statements at face value or the MSF.

          It sounds like you are taking MSF at face value and I encourage you to look deeper.
          There is a good article in today’s Washington Post.

          We are not at the bottom of this, but more facts are coming out, and it does not look so good for MSF’s claims of war crime.
          But still possible.

          Fare thee well

          Reply
          • jc

            Boggled, you are mistaken. Those scenarios you describe do not “eliminate Geneva protections” for anyone. The Conventions still require a proportionate and measured response under such a situation, and also require the responding party to notify the hospital in advance of any attack. And under NO circumstances do the Conventions allow bombing a civilian medical treatment structure as a response to small arms fire.

          • Pat

            In response to JC – that’s absolutely not true. If the hospital was being used as a sanctuary to fire on Afghan or Coalition troops, then it looses any and all protections it previously enjoyed under Geneva. Geneva also stipulates medical facilities should be clearly marked. There is no “H”, red cross or red crecent clearly visible on the MSF hospital that would have alerted aircrew about its function. The facility also looks large enough that it is entirely possible Taliban forces were using a portion of the building as a fighting position without the knowledge of MSF staff.

      • Dennis

        “Should you be open to all possibilities ?”
        Generally Yes. But that would be inconsistent with Bellings ‘best practices’.

        Reply
        • boggled

          Dennis do you have something in particular?
          Bellingcat seem quite open and many possibilities are thrown up and discussed in the comment boards here.

          I am sorry you might still think the SU25 attack on MH17 is a possibility, there are people that still think the Earth is flat and there is a twin Earth hiding behind the sun.
          They are wrong with the evidence we have at hand.

          IF you can prove there is a camouflaging method that is hiding a planet behind the sun, share it, we would love to be among the first to know and to work with proving or disproving it.

          If you have some FACTUAL evidence that says a SU25 was shadowing MH17. present it, even though the DSB report said there were NO aircraft, military or otherwise, withing 30 km.

          You are welcome to present opinions but if they are BS and repeatedly shot down but still getting presented, eventually the person(s) that repeats that comment is considered a troll and probably will get banned by the moderators.
          Same thing happens on RT comment boards and others..

          Even at this point after the DSB report, I am open to the possibility a faction inside Ukraine covertly may have shot down MH17.
          I doubt it, but there is a slim chance a smoking gun would be produced.

          It is not looking too good for Ukraine with the coincidence of Ukrainian airport primary and military radars being offline and down for maintenance, to me.
          BUT there may be factual evidence and a valid reason and it is true.

          And I am not sure who rifled through the pilots bodies looking for shrapnel.
          A person in Kharkov loyal to the UA government, a trophy hunter, or some DNR flunky trying to cover up the crime.

          Regardless, you are welcome to present arguments and comments from what I have seen, but when you abuse that privilege, the moderators of Bellingcat have a job to do.
          IF the only type of comments your going to make are negative ones repeatedly, like the one above, I would support Bellingcat’s moderators in banning you.

          Robert Parry’s moderators would ban me if every comment I made was to bash Parry and expose his connections to the Kremlin, and that is there right and I am sure you would see it as fair for them to do that.
          Same with RT if my only comments were to bash on vova and Baghdad Bob Lavrov repeatedly.

          Fare thee well

          Reply
  5. Gao

    The who is indisputable, the why is the real question. First, the US military willingness to target an hospital is improbably, it is a too messy outcome to compensate any tactical advantage. Second, we know that the Afghan army asked for the strike but according to MSF, the absence of evidence, and of any witnesses the Talibans were not present in the hospital at any time. So the real question is: What was the relation between the local Afghan commander and the Hospital management? Not only the MSF hospital accept wounded talibans, but also a hospital carries a lot of wealth in medicines and medical appliances. It is easy to imagine that this bizarre even was the result of a disagreement between a local Afghan commander and the MSF hospital, the Commander using the US army as a proxy for retaliation (and the US army bombing without the proper verification). Any witnesses speaking about the relation Afghan Army and the Hospital?

    Reply
    • boggled

      I wonder if those who were so quick to condemn USA military on this tragedy are also flooding RT right now screaming about Russia bombing Syrian hospitals.
      I read the total now is 9 hospitals completely destroyed by the Kremlin bombing campaign to keep ASSad in power.

      How many expose’ has Parry done on that?
      Aric, have you seen many reports on Russia mass media sites?
      I haven’t.
      Is Palestine, Hamas, Hezbollah, Doctors without Borders, MSF, etc screaming for petitions for war crime investigation in Syria?
      Has there been an outcry at the UN?
      9 well labeled hospitals and clinics.
      Not to mention also the school and religious institutions.
      I have heard Kremlin has bombed 4 Mosques and leveled them already.

      This double standard is outrageous to me.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
      • Gao

        This is an analysis of a single event, not of the entire Syria/Iraq conflict. We know who technically did it, but we still don’t know why and how. If this is a war crime we need to know how it was possible and make the distinction between the persons who maybe have made a mistake and those who may have made a murder.

        Reply
        • boggled

          9 hospitals Gao, nine.
          This is about one that was not clearly marked, and may have been used as a sniper location or a main command and communications hub directing Taliban attacks at Afghani Special Forces.
          I do not think all 9 of the Syrian hospitals were used as command bunkers for various terrorist groups attacking ASSad or Russians troops.
          All I am saying is where is the outcry from liberal media and from even Russian media for that matter?
          Where is the outcry from the POTUS?
          How about other UN groups that are so vocal when there is just a hint of Israel or USA coalition forces hitting a target that MIGHT have hurt civilians (although usually the Palestinians and others are just using the civilians as human shields to shoot from behind or hide missiles in UN sponsored schools)?
          The outrage against the Kremlin should be loud and clear, but it is silent in many arenas of human rights groups.

          Fare thee well

          Reply
          • boggled

            Do not get the impression that I want the USA to cover up the investigation or HRW groups to stop what they are doing.
            I think keeping a watchful eye on governments is a noble cause and a correct one.

            It is just that I see them never waste an opportunity with the USA, (do the demand extortion money to shut up from the USA but know the Kremlin (Palestine or your choice of group) will never pay ?), but when the Kremlin goes into a country and begins dropping bombs and throwing around cruise missiles haphazardly against civilian targets they are quietly twiddling their thumbs.

            Liberal media is so quick to judge in many instances and proclaims it loudly, but when the underdogs they politically support are actually doing very bad things, they ignore it or get defensive about it when others bring daylight to the matter.

            Just today, I see all these articles on yahoo about how Russia is winning in Syria(hitting hospitals?), how Russia has these great weapons (4 cruise missiles crashed), how Russia is offering to negotiate peace agreements and support elections (now that much of the opposition has fled as refugees and IDP’s will not be giving voting rights) and that the Kremlin is offering to target areas the FSA wants (really just wanting to know where the FSA is so they can bomb them) that seems like fairy tails to give vova and the civilian butcher of Syria ‘freepasses’ to Disneyland for them.
            As opposed to calling a mass murderer what he is, both of them.

            Fare thee well

  6. Gao

    Should you have information about the nine hospitals bombed by the Russian, as the places, the date, the name etc.. I will be happy to discuss and help with the investigation. I don’t know what are your “liberal media” but this site is about debunking official disinformation, finding the truth and extract facts from rumors used to provoke emotional reactions for the benefit of the cause supported by the “informant”, a bit what you are doing.
    For you information, even if it is not related to the current subject, I am a strong supported of the right to Israel to exist, I put the international policies of the US, Russian, or China in the same vomit bag, and I am deeply shocked by the bias of the UN Human Right Committee (lead today by Saudi Arabia, one of the worst dictatorship regime).

    Reply
    • boggled

      Not trying to excuse Saudi Arabia of anything, it is just a figurehead position.
      In reality the ‘head chair’ has the same vote and say as the others in the committee.
      I agree with you that they have a horrendous HR history, but they are changing.
      Maybe, I hope and pray.
      They still have their issues as many nations do.
      No, I would have not have put them in a head role, that is poor PR.
      But they are making some strides in changing and if they donate to the UN and agree to be bound by the rules there, then they should have some say in some positions.
      There are many countries that are far behind in their ‘membership’ dues.

      http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-hospitals-hit-by-russian-airstrikes-says-medical-group-1445610055

      http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/11/syria-doctors.html

      To me I see a double standard with many of the Anti West HR groups or the AntiWar groups.
      They will go out of their way to condemn the USA or Israel, before most of the facts are out, and when it comes to authoritarian leaders doing a more extreme case of HR abuses they seem to be muted or silent.
      There is some press, but not the large outcry that happens when it is thought DC did wrong.

      Even MSF’s own site has NOTHING about it and they work there.
      Last article about it in September describes the proASSad areas as under siege, those bad rebels, and nothing about Butcher of Damascus ASSad’s war on civilians and people that do not want him in power and no more fake elections.

      Just an observation and pet peeve of mine, sorry to dwell on the subject.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
  7. مصطفی آزاده'سایت مصطفی آزاده'سایت مصطفی ازاده'عربی کنکور'عربی ونوس'تخفیف دی وی دی عربی ونوس'خرید دی وی دی,عربی کنکور'خرید دی وی دی مصطفی آ

    وبسایت رسمی استاد مصطفی آزاده فروش محصولات عربی ونوس با تخفیف همیشگلی و دائمی و مشاوره و جزوات منحصر بفرد فقط مخصوص خیداران از این سایت

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)