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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 started volunteering for Bellingcat in 2014 and has been on staff since 2015. He currently heads up Bellingcat's training efforts and its Eastern Europe/Eurasia research.

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41 Comments

  1. Edward Horgan

    Thank you for this information so far. Its vital that the truth on this atrocity be made public.

    Reply
  2. Darrin

    Why do US have to have an investigation into this incident when it’s clear from the start they launched the attack,as usual MSM will cover this.up.

    Reply
    • Aric Toler

      Darrin,
      The U.S. military has already admitted that it conducted the airstrike, and the mainstream media has reported heavily on it. Footage of the airstrike’s aftermath ran continuously on CNN and MSNBC today (but not Fox News). The only question–which the ‘mainstream media’ will likely dance around–is assigning responsibility to the United States, instead of Afghan forces, for targeting the hospital. As you have likely seen, today the U.S. military shifted blame to the Afghan forces for targeting the hospital. That question does need a proper investigation. If the investigation will be truly independent, however, is a very valid concern that the MSF has hit on heavily.

      Reply
  3. Stephen K

    Beautiful work as always.

    Question: Why was the hospital not marked, and was it possible the air crew did not know what the building was when they were ordered to engage?

    Reply
    • Andrea

      It was the early morning… i don’t know what they can see by night (even with infrared)

      Reply
  4. boggled

    I imagine some Afghan warlord who supplied the intelligence is running for his life right now, and the USA intelligence gathering asset is going to have something happen to him that makes Gitmo look like Summer Camp.

    One of the bad things about acting on intelligence that your 80 percent sure of.
    Which BHO and his State Department are somewhat famous for.

    Aric, maybe you can clear up a few things.
    The witnesses talked about bombs, does the AC130 carry bombs or missiles of any sort other then the howitzer?

    Another thing, this seems a very strange weapon to use all by itself in an attack mission inside a city to me, does it to you?
    .
    I could see in the jungles or desert or mountains were birds of a feather flock together, but in a city?
    Do you know if the USA ground troops there carried out any missions in sync with it?

    Something just does not seem right about what is being portrayed.

    This is a 4 prop plane that would have gotten noticed, its guns are on the sides so it has to bank to shoot at the ground.
    Good for strafing runs, I guess and air drops of personnel and equipment, battlefield monitoring and management.
    But for a solo attack mission inside a city of with groups of Taliban with MANPADs and other shoulder fired weapons?
    Nah, I do not buy that.

    These guns are not that accurate, and the plane is too vulnerable for it to be used solo.

    My guess is the plane was flying overhead conducting surveillance and the Taliban used DNR techniques of shooting artillery and RPGs into a vulnerable area (schools and hospitals) while they knew the plane was overhead and then blaming the other group (USA).

    Fare thee well

    Reply
    • boggled

      If this was a helicopter gunship attack and the USA was blamed, I could see it going in solo or with one other, and I could see this as probably being factual.

      Not this big bulky thing.
      Strafing runs to protect retreating troops or medivacs or DMZs or LZs, strafing tuns on small naval boats, and battlefield management subservient to an AWACS craft. with just enough firepower to destroy a light armored vehicle.
      That is what this plane is made for.
      Attack runs? nah.

      Something is wrong with this whole story.

      Reply
      • boggled

        Article about the AC130 if your interested.
        It does say on one version it carries precision guided air to surface munitions.
        And looking at what it carries and is capable of by itself, if it wanted, that compound would be completely leveled.

        One of the precision munitions can be fired from ‘dozens of miles away’.
        Which leads one to ask, why wasn’t that used and the plane never seen or in danger?
        I just do not see this as a city or urban fighter attack aircraft, unless you were leveling a city that only had light machine gun fire firing back.

        Something smells big time here.

        Either Afghan or Taliban troops attacked the building while the airplane was overhead, I think.
        (there has been a long dispute about this building because they treat every civilian, they do not ask if your OBL or the vase seller from the corner, and they have treated a lot of Taliban insurgents and the Afghan’s special forces would rather the Taliban just go off in a field and get eating by goats.)

        So either an attack by the Taliban at that moment and they are attempting to blame the USA and then the USA actual did attack that Taliban group firing into the building.

        OR the Afghani’s attacked while USA was overhead acting on intelligence that high value Taliban target was inside getting a colonoscopy.

        Hopefully a full disclosure will be forthcoming shortly.

        Fare thee well

        Reply
    • Tony

      That’s it. The claim seems to be it was a 130H Spectre, which doesn’t have GPS and only guns. No GPS, so not exactly sure of their position, and obviously no way of knowing the GPS of the hospital. So tragic accident.

      Except: they are called in by US Special Forces, and it’s their job to verify the target, they have all sorts of kit and briefings. And that version was retired in May. And MSF repeatedly say it was bombs. They work often enough in war zones to know the difference between bombs and guns.

      Special Forces were only deployed a few days ago, they usually use a 130W, to insert and extricate them, and it has bombs and missiles, and it has GPS. So they had the capability, and it seems more likely, since there isn’t a lot of US assets there like before. It’s a small deployment, so why two types of 130 one of which has been retired?

      So that then is a problem that needs explaining. The place is a burning shell, so it’s not a Gatling gun or AP, it’s explosive of some sort in all probability.

      Campbell’s statement that a few civilians were hit – wtf? 22 dead, building destroyed. They’ve already changed story 3 times.

      Reply
  5. Karl

    Why isn’t there a red cross/crescent/diamond protective insignia visible on the roof of the hospital in the satellite photos?

    Reply
    • boggled

      Or a medivac helicopter landing pad on the roof or the grounds of the very large compound?
      Don’t hospitals at least have one of those big searchlights going around to say aircraft avoid crash landing here and for medivac helicopters to know where the hospital is in the city?
      Something just is not right about this story.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
      • Tony

        This is a barebones NGO, the only trauma unit in the entire north east of the country. It’s been a war zone for 14 years. There are no medevac helicopters, probably no red paint or time to do it. They have people links, give GPS coordinates to both sides, and evidently have a number to phone but still the attack went on for another 30 minutes.

        Reply
        • boggled

          Tony, you see the size of the compound, and this area has been under Afghan control for a while.
          They had some time to put up identification markers and a heliport.
          Even Afghan funded.

          Fare thee well

          Reply
  6. le_nen

    MSF gave the GPS coordinates of their facilities to all parties some days in advance, they write on their website. Obviously, this information did not get through to the decision makers. And there seems no automated system in place to issue warnings to the aircraft crew members about friendly positions, or it was not fed with the info.

    The point with the red cross is good one.

    Reply
  7. Mad Dog

    Hard to tell what happened at the moment. Not a deliberate targeting as far as can be seen at the moment. US and Afghan forces were under fire and they called in Spooky. Spooky can be very precision and is used not just for strafing runs, but also for hitting armor as well….hence a bit of inherent precision. MANPADS are probably not a problem as they have defensive systems on board to take care of that. Spooky’s generally fly in a circle when firing to give the best angle to the weapons. If the US wanted to obliterate the hospital, Spooky would not be used. Instead we would see something like the Russians use in Syria.

    Reply
    • boggled

      Thanks for your insightful comment Mad Dog.
      As far as MANPADS, if you get hit at 1000-2000 feet there is not a lot of time for ECM to react.
      Of course I see circling or strafing runs attacking a target as the main method of operation.
      And attacking light to moderate armored vehicles.
      All and all a weapon I could see pounding a military base outside of town or training camp or surgical strikes on fighter jets hidden under bridges or vehicles in a Depot Yard.
      I just do not see it as a close support vehicle, a combat helicopter would make sense.
      A command center? Protection for retreating troops? of course that is what it is designed for.
      Not a typical vehicle for the job but yes, could do it.
      With all the sensors they have, they would know a lot to make the decision to fire on the hospital if they had to.

      Circling around where Apartments and other building interrupt the firing of the guns in a city just does not seem the expected use in a planned attack.

      It sounds like it was a support situation where it was called in, while it was monitoring Afghan Special forces.

      But it was not a specific planned attack on the hospital..
      Could people have been firing from inside the compound at the Afghan Special forces?
      The command center had a view from above with FLIR and other night vision monitoring, they should know.

      Maybe we will learn more at the 9:30 am briefing to Senate on CSPAN today. Oct 6.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
  8. Mad Dog

    Boggled, from the damage to the area, I don’t think there was much of a problem with targeting, everything being a bit low in the surrounding area. Hard to tell what happened, but the US has said it was a mistake, the why and wherefore being unclear to me at the moment. Probably a fire fight right nearby, mix up in commo between Afghanis and US forces, etc., but if the hospital was the intended target, there would be nothing much left of it. As for MANPADS at 2000 or 3000 feet, I think the current batch of ECM is pretty reactive in such situations. Details at 7….Though this is an interesting contrast with the RF MOD and their honesty…..!

    Reply
    • boggled

      Hopefully some hard details will come out as the investigation moves along.

      You are right about America as opposed to RF MoD.
      America can admit their messups, even when not caught by the media or politicians like Tom Coburn, who I consider a credible and valid source of information for good or bad on whichever party or administration or military.
      I hope someone takes up his shoes and does as good a job, there are not many in the Senate I would trust with that job.

      Beslan, 15 years later and still a lot of open questions about Russian military and administration actions there.
      And those silly loudmouthed Kremlin defenders keep yelling about Odessa, they are silent when it comes to Beslan.

      You are also right about the ECM, I just think a attack copter would have been in reserve and utilized, and this thing would have been just a command and communication center.
      If they utilized it, it just means all the others were busy, or they had to take action or a lot of troops would have been massacred before the attack copter got there.

      It will be interesting to find out how many Taliban were in the compound with automatic weapons, and other things like RPGs, firing on Afghan Special Forces, if any.

      Fare thee well

      Reply
  9. snoopy

    please be exact in your otherwise outstanding article: it is not an “american” AC-130U. america is north, middle and south america. the correct term is United States Air Force Special Operations or short US AFSOC.

    Reply

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