After the dust settles

14 December 2023

Educational project

After the dust settles

This project investigated the civilian harm effects of the Dutch airstrike in Hawija (Iraq). It took four and a half years before Dutch investigative journalists were able to unearth that in fact the Netherlands was responsible for the attack. In the wake of this discovery, the project leader of The Intimacies of Remote Warfare research programme (IRW) at Utrecht University, dr. Lauren Gould teamed up with NGO PAX for Peace to create an International Community Engagement Learning (CEL) project. Herein, a team of interdisciplinary MA and BA Conflict Studies students sought to cut through the secrecy and distance surrounding the Hawija bombardment by examining social media discourses surrounding this attack to understand the narratives constructed and meanings given to this attack by those affected.


Hawija. The name of the Iraqi town that continues to cause controversy in Dutch public debates. On June 3, 2015, Dutch F-16s bombed an Islamic State ammunition factory in Hawija as part of the ongoing US led Coalition war against IS. The airstrike had immense consequences: over 18.000 kilograms of munition detonated, destroying nearly two entire neighborhoods, killing a suspected 70 civilians, and injuring hundreds more. In the wake of this destruction, however, nobody was allowed to know who carried out the attack and the Coalition did not publicly acknowledge the civilian harm done.

When investigated journalist discovered that the Netherlands carried out the attack on Hawija and was therefore responsible for one of the largest single civilian harm incidents under the ongoing war against IS, dr. Lauren Gould and dr. Nora Stel first studied the political reactions when civilian harm in remote interventions can no longer be kept under wraps.  In  their article ‘Strategic ignorance and the legitimation of remote warfare: The Hawija bombardments’ (Security Dialogue 2022),  dr. Gould and dr. Stel illustrate how the official Dutch government’s narrative “shifted from denial to secrecy to strategic ignorance” highlighting how offensive ignorance (‘you don’t get to know about civilian harm’) is legitimized through instances of not just denial (‘because it never happened’) and secrecy (‘because that would compromise security’), but also defensive ignorance (‘because we don’t know it and we can’t know it’). Gould & Stel conclude that denying not just the existence of civilian casualties but the ability to know about them effectively undermines institutional checks and balances and democratic accountability – in the realm of war but potentially also beyond.

Goals and project description

Informed by these insights, in 2020 IRW teamed up with Dutch NGO Pax for Peace and Iraqi NGO Al-Ghad to prove that one could investigate the reverberating civilian harm effects of the 2015 Dutch airstrike in Hawija. The researchers visited Hawija multiple times and interviewed 119 victims and 40 key respondents to define the direct and indirect consequences of the bombing. By doing so, they were the first to clearly define the direct and indirect civilian harm effects of the event, discovering that at least 85, not the presumed 70, civilians were killed. Their findings not only highlight the devasting and compounding impact of remote bombing in rebel-held urban centers but also shows how people give meaning to the harm that was done to them. Civilians in Hawija resent the Dutch government for ignoring the civilian harm they caused and demand an apology and individual compensation.

Simultaneously, IRW initiated an International Community Engagement Learning (CEL) project together with PAX. Lead by dr. Lauren Gould, a team of interdisciplinary MA and BA Conflict Studies students sought to cut through the secrecy and distance surrounding the Hawija bombardment by examining social media discourses surrounding this attack to understand the narratives constructed and meaning given to the attack by those affected. This CEL project set out to complement the data that PAX, IRW and Al-Ghad was collecting on the ground in Hawija with a social media analysis of over 400 posts about the event on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Ultimately, the students also helped IRW, and NGOs Pax and Al-Ghad code the 159 interviews returning from Hawija. They did so by collectively coding the interviews in the qualitative analysis programme NVIVO and discussing the patterns they found with IRW and Pax every week.


The above research culminated in the ICEL report After the Dust Settles’ (2021) and the IRW, PAX and Al-Ghad After the Strike’ (2022). The report and its findings were picked up widely across Dutch and international media, see here for an overview. A day after its release the Dutch MoD announced new civilian harm transparency policies, illustrating how much their research on Hawija put pressure on the MoD to improve its transparency records. We launched our joint report ‘After the Strike’, during a sold-out live event at De Balie, Amsterdam.

IRW and PAX are now turning the insights gained in both reports into academic articles. The knowledge gained also fed into dr. Lauren Gould co-editing the book Hawija: The Destructive Realities of our War against IS (Gould, Dort & Woudwijk, 2022)

Reflections: lessons learned

First and foremost, the students not only learned how to engage in interdisciplinary team science amongst each other, they also learnt how to collaborate with three stakeholders. Namely, with Dutch NGO Pax for Peace and Iraqi NGO Al-Ghad in conducting the research on Hawija and they were also allowed to sit in on the negotiations with the Dutch Ministry of Defence that led to a new transparency policy vis-à-vis civilian harm.

The combination of conducting both research on the different forms and interpretations of civilian harm on the one hand and sitting in on the negotiations with the MoD on the other, taught the students systems thinking and an understanding of interconnectedness as well as action-oriented and change agent skills. With time, the students became aware that the knowledge they were creating in their research on Hawija, put the right amount of pressure on the MoD to work on a new civilian harm transparency policy. Throughout, the students kept reflecting on the implications of their actions, while they had to navigate complex relationships across very different institutions (university, international and local NGOs and the MoD). This required emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills, and an understanding of the normative aspects of problems and potential solutions.

Finally, all of the above required the students to take a lot of responsibility throughout the ICEL project. They ran their social media research project nearly entirely on their own, while showing a huge amount of maturity and professionalism in their interactions with the societal stakeholders.

Take home message:

Try to create as much synergy between the research you are conducting, the CEL you run and the partners you work with.

Further reading


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