2016 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom finalist

Civilian Deaths in Yemen: A Social Media Investigation


Malachy Browne, Andy Carvin


The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Small Newsroom


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About the Project

The war in Yemen is one of the most devastating conflicts in the world, but it hasn’t attracted the kind of attention it deserves. has sought to change that by covering Yemen extensively, with a particular focus on how the war is impacting civilians.

While civil strife in Yemen has gone on for years, the war didn’t begin in earnest until spring of 2015, when Saudi Arabia led a coalition of armed forces to target the rebel group known as Houthis, which had overrun much of the country. Saudi Arabia and the UAE began to bomb the country on a nightly basis, often targeting sites in large cities, inflicting both rebel and civilian casualties. As civilian casualties mounted, many communities began to suffer from horrifying side effects, including severe malnutrition, starvation and disease.

Utilizing our network of social media sources in Yemen and the Yemeni diaspora, began to investigate the war’s impact on civilians. Through these sources, we discovered that weapons manufactured in Europe were being used in civilian areas in Yemen.

Our reporting led to an exclusive investigation into the use of Italian-manufactured bombs in the conflict, potentially in contravention with Italian export laws and the the international laws of war regarding the attacking of civilians. Obtaining secret documents from social media sources in Yemen, we tracked manufactured bomb parts from Italy via the Suez Canal, including the shipping vessel’s movements and secret correspondence between Saudi Arabia and the UAE that allowed the bomb parts to travel through their ports. Ultimately, we were able to ID the same bomb parts, serial numbers and all, among the ruins of a destroyed building in Yemen, thanks to social media sources on the ground documenting the attacks. Our reporting also tracked scores of investment funds around the world that were profiting from the company that manufactured the bomb parts, from New York state’s pension fund to Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.

Following our report, we continued to investigate the story, collecting evidence of civilian casualties from social media sources within Yemen. Meanwhile, social media contacts in Europe serving as “plane spotters” alerted us to additional weapons shipments in real time. In conjunction with these contacts and online flight tracking tools, we were able to live-tweet the shipments from their European departure until they disappeared in Saudi airspace.

After months of collecting verified social media reports of civilian casualties, we developed an interactive map tracking the devastation using StoryMapJS. Town by town, city by city, the map captures a trail of civilian casualties across the country.

Much of’s coverage was published directly to our audience on social platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. We also made our investigations freely available for publishing by other news outlets, leading to them being picked up and republished by news organizations across Europe and elsewhere in half a dozen languages. Eventually, other newsrooms began their own investigations into Saudi weapons manufactured abroad, including in the UK and the US. Much of this would not have been possible without our social media sources in Yemen, as well as the dedication of our small team of reporters.