Satellite photos show aftermath of devastating 'mother of all bombs' strike in Afghanistan

There has been intense media coverage of the US Military’s Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) strike last week in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. Despite estimates of Daesh fatalities, the wider effect of the strike has not yet been reported as access on the ground to the actual strike location has been restricted by the US Military. Now, using high resolution satellite imagery captured 15 hours after the strike, we can begin making assessments of the strike’s impact.

Moab aftermathImage copyright Digital GlobePost-strike image of the MOAB impact area.

David Mansfield and Alcis have been studying this remote, troubled valley in Eastern Afghanistan since 2005. Over the coming weeks, we will release a series of reports covering this MOAB strike and the wider context within which this strike has taken place.

Just after 7.30pm local time, on the 13th April 2017, the United States Military dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb ever used in combat, known as the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB). Post-strike high resolution satellite imagery shows that although the blast did not create a significant crater on the ground, the destruction was absolute of approximately 20 compounds and trees, 650 metres to the southwest of the centre of the village of Asadkhel and close to the villages of Tangai and Lansai Ahmad and 3 kms from Shadal Bazaar.

These villages sit at the entrance to the Mahmand Valley, in Achin District in Nangarhar, Afghanistan. There are signs of destruction to agriculture and trees in the immediate vicinity of the blast. Damage to compounds and buildings can be observed further from the blast site but it is not clear whether this damage was caused by this particular attack. Damage to buildings and infrastructure within Shadal Bazaar, as reported by the media, is unlikely to have been caused by this blast.

Achin district, Nangarhar afghanistanALCISMap showing location of MOAB strike within Achin district, Nangarhar province.

It is understood that the MOAB weapon explodes approximately six feet above the ground and propels its flame and shock waves horizontally, rather than vertically. The effect is to knock over trees, buildings and other infrastructure, collapse cave entrances and underground facilities and kill, maim or demoralise enemy combatants. Reports indicate that the blast has an effective range of approximately 1 km.

The aim of last week’s strike was to destroy tunnels and caves currently being used by Daesh militants operating in the area. On the 15th April, Afghanistan’s defence ministry reported the death of 94 militants including 4 major commanders and that no civilians had been killed in the strike [i].

This strike has received significant media attention. However with no access to the site other than US Military [ii], there is currently very little understanding of the actual impact of the strike. High resolution satellite imagery collected before and after the strike provides immediate insight. Pre-strike imagery is dated 3rd September 2016, just over 7 months before the strike. Post-strike imagery, as shown below, is dated 14th April 2017, the day after the strike. The red box in the image below is 1.5 x 1.5 kms and the white cross within Area 1 represents the estimated impact point, based on the aerial footage of the strike [iii].

The overall picture of destruction is varied. In the immediate area around the impact point, Area 1, no buildings or structures remain standing and many of the trees and vegetation are destroyed. Analysis of the point of impact can determine little in the way of a crater, despite some media reports suggesting that the crater left by the blast would be more than 300 meters wide [iv].

Areas 2, 3 and 4 in the image above exhibit signs of destruction to buildings, with some roofs destroyed, but large numbers of buildings remain apparently undamaged. Whilst the damage to compounds in area 1 can be ascribed to the MOAB strike, it is less clear whether the damage to buildings in Areas 2, 3 and 4 were caused by the MOAB strike. Damage in these areas may well have been caused by other aspects of the conflict that has been ongoing in this area between Daesh, the Taliban and subsequently the Afghan government security forces dating back to mid-2015.

Further afield and 3 km from the point of impact, sits Shadal Bazaar. Given that little damage can be observed in the imagery of buildings within Asadkhel, the village that lies between the point of impact and Shadal Bazaar, it is likely that media reporting of significant damage to Shadal bazar as a consequence of the MAOB strike, are significantly over stated[v]. It is likely the damage at Shadal Bazaar seen in the ground photographs from media reporting pre-date this strike and are a consequence of the conflict that has been ongoing in the area for some time.

Area 1.

Most man-made structures observed in the pre-strike image are seen to be destroyed in the post strike image. Trees and scrub appear to be burnt or destroyed in the post the strike image. The distance across each of these images is approximately 375 meters.

Area 2.

The approximate distance from the MOAB point of impact to the centre of Area 2 is 500 meters. Some buildings within compounds appear to be destroyed, whilst walls and other structures remain standing. There appears less impact on vegetation compared to Area 1. Note: Given the nature of the remaining buildings, the destruction of the buildings in this area may not necessarily be due to the MOAB strike.

Area 3.

The approximate distance from the MOAB point of impact to the centre of Area 3 is 450 meters. Some limited destruction of buildings is visible, less so than Area 2 above and some vegetation shows signs of damage. Note: Given the nature of the remaining buildings, the destruction of the buildings in this area may not necessarily be due to the MOAB strike.

Area 4.

The approximate distance from the MOAB point of impact to the centre of Area 4 is 570 meters. Patchy destruction of buildings can be observed, with several showing the loss of roofs. Some damage to trees is evident. Note: Given the nature of the remaining buildings, the destruction of the buildings in this area may not necessarily be due to the MOAB strike.

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