29 July 2023
Introduction & Details
The use of human shields has been utilized in conflicts ranging from the American Civil War to World War II to the Vietcong in Vietnam. This tactic involves the utilization of civilians to shield military targets from attacks. Though considered a war crime, they have risen to prominence in modern conflicts, especially those non-international in nature. There are both voluntary and involuntary human shields. This tactic can be a double edged sword though, as “the use of human shields
confronts opponents with a dilemma: both attacking and refraining from attacking the shielded military objective has negative consequences” (1).
Past Uses & Renowned Cases
Human shields are a common tactic of contemporary Jihadi terror and insurgent groups. In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State uses women and children as human shields. During the battle to retake Mosul, ISIS abducted civilians and planted them in strategic locations. United Nations (UN) human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein asserted, “ISIL's depraved, cowardly strategy is to attempt to use the presence of civilians to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations, effectively using tens of thousands of women, men and children as human shields” (2). In January 2022, a Syrian prison break quickly turned into a hostage situation where ISIS fighters held over 700 boys as human shields. ISIS quickly took over the prison, attempting to free jailed fighters. They barricaded themselves inside and threatened to start killing the boys if the coalition fighters continued to attack (3).
Al-Shabaab has reportedly captured children and forced them to marry fighters, become suicide bombers, or become human shields (4). These militants will send young boys to the front lines to be first to die. Al-Shabaab has additionally taken over and used schools to fire at AMISOM counterinsurgency forces. During clashes with Israel, Hamas has also used children as human shields in Gaza (5). This claim has potentially been dramatized due to the contentious nature of the Israel-Palestine conflict. However, the group has military installations near mosques, schools, and neighborhoods. Hamas has also fired mortars, artillery, and rockets from or very close to both heavily civilian populated areas and spots that should be protected under the Geneva Convention such as schools, hospitals, and places of worship.
Prior to the fall of Afghanistan, Taliban fighters used human shields while clashing with Afghan and NATO forces. During the summer of 2007, the Taliban took over several villages in the Kandahar Province while in the middle of a battle with US forces. The fighters forced villagers to house and feed them. When US troops were on the ground, the Taliban shot at them from civilian homes. One farmer recounts, “The Taliban came to my village and forced us to stay close to them. The Taliban then came into my house and forced me and my family to stay with them. They then started firing their weapons at the Americans. The Americans then bombed my village. People in my village were getting killed because the Taliban would not let us leave” (6).
Purpose of Use & Details
Human shields create a legal and ethical dilemma. Unlike in conventional warfare, modern, often population-centric counterinsurgency campaigns prioritizes protecting the civilian populace over neutralizing the enemy forces. This leads to counterinsurgency forces assuming greater risk (7). Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. Some states prioritize the eradication of insurgents over the life and safety of civilians. This can be exemplified by countries in the Sahel region of Africa utilizing the Wagner Group for counterterrorism efforts (8). However, most states recognize the ethical importance of civilian lives and the strategic importance of civilian support.
Human shields can sometimes be categorized as lawfare, or the use of law as a weapon of war (9). Lawfare comes in the same vein of Sun Tzu’s aim of “subduing the enemy without fighting” (10). If the counterinsurgency forces kill the human shields to reach the enemy, they open themselves up to the possibility of being in violation of international law. Violating the population-centric counterinsurgency principle of prioritizing death of the adversary over life of the innocent can lead to a decrease in local popular support, resulting in the citizenry sympathizing with the insurgents. This can be seen with the United States and NATO’s efforts in Afghanistan (11). US drone and airstrikes caused a significant amount of collateral damage during the Global War on Terror resulting in thousands of civilian deaths. In part because of this, many Afghans did not view Americans, coalition forces, or the government they supported in a positive light.
In Summer 2021, Afghanistan quickly fell to the Taliban with many citizens defecting to the side of the insurgents. Additionally, using innocents as shields is an effective act of terror. There is a possibility that the citizenry will grow frustrated at being exploited at the hands of insurgents and rise up or support counterinsurgent efforts. However, it also reiterates to the civilian population that they are never safe and can easily be used as a pawn during conflict which creates a feeling of powerlessness.
The use of human shields is a classic example of guerilla warfare. Guerilla warfare is often referred to as the “War of the Flea”, referring to the way a flea attacks a dog (12). A flea is much smaller than a dog, so it must slowly yet aggressively break the dog’s will. Insurgents generally have less traction and fewer means than their adversary. Thus, they must utilize asymmetrical warfare to break down the enemy. Though guerilla warfare is commonly practiced in rural areas such as the jungles of Vietnam or the mountains of Afghanistan, most cases involving human shields are in urban or suburban settings. This can be noted in the examples section with the cases of Mosul, the Syrian prison, and Gaza.
Conventionally, the use of human shields is not the act of a soldier quite literally holding a human being in front of them. More often, it is the strategic location of military installations in close proximity to civilians. For example, Hamas has placed military tunnels by a mosque, several schools, including a Kindergarten, a popular hotel, and a hospital (13). The origin of these tunnels began during the Palestine-Israel conflict of 2014. More sophisticated than the tunnels used by the Vietcong to move into South Vietnam, these tunnels are similar to the tunnels formerly used to move from Palestine to Egypt. They are dug anywhere from 18-25 meters underground. They have concrete roofs and walls, as well as electricity. Many citizens sympathize with Hamas and allow them to dig these tunnels in close proximity to civilian infrastructure. Taking out these strategically positioned tunnels would hurt the image of the IDF and State of Israel on the international stage.
Insurgents will also shelter in civilian buildings. The Taliban often sheltered in civilian homes to avoid detection by coalition forces (14). Both the Taliban and ISIS have additionally sheltered in hospitals (15). Attacking these buildings creates a massive liability for state actors due to the potential for civilian casualties.
Countermeasures against human shields can be either preventative or tactical. Preventative measures include strengthening both the legal framework and enforcement of said framework criminalizing this tactic. Such a framework can include both national and international level litigation. One starting point would be a way to internationally prosecute armed non-state actors. States must also strictly enforce existing laws against human rights violations in order to deter insurgents from considering this tactic. Additionally, strategic communication by governing bodies such as the United Nations can place the blame on those using civilians as human shields. The intent of communication is to reach civilians, especially those voluntarily shielding insurgents. For example, some Palestinian citizens knowingly allow Hamas to operate from or in proximity to civilian areas. Shifting the narrative from citizens doing their patriotic duty of helping freedom fighters to being exploited by terrorists who do not care if their children live or die can sway the hearts and minds of those who are voluntarily shielding or complicit.
Tactically, counterinsurgents can deploy weapons such as bombs without explosives to reduce collateral damage. This can deter or harm an enemy without the risk of collateral damage that traditional explosives bring about. Additionally, they can warn before attacks to get the attention of civilians who may not be aware they are being used as shields. However, this can also be counterproductive, given the enemy also hears the warnings and has a chance to gather more civilians. Delaying or suspending an attack can often be the only viable solution if civilians are in an area of military interest and are being used as human shields.
Open-Source Intelligence & Field Examples
These aerial photos depict a neighborhood in Gaza. The shaded blue areas indicate civilian structures. The red dots indicate sites where rockets are launched. This visual depicts rocket launch sites on or bordering civilian areas including a playground, cemetery, hospital, and mosque. If the IDF were to attack these sites, they would open themselves up to the liability of killing innocents.
Works Cited (Chicago-style) & Endnotes
(1) - “Addressing the Use of Human Shields.” GCSP, 16 Dec. 2019, www.gcsp.ch/publications/addressing-use-human-shields.
(2) - “Battle for Mosul: ISIL Forces Thousands of Civilians from Their Homes and Executes Hundreds.” OHCHR, 28 Oct. 2016, www.ohchr.org/en/2016/10/battle-mosul-isil-forces-thousands-civilians-their-homes-and-executes-hundreds?LangID=E&NewsID=20783.
(3) - “U.S. Troops Join Assault on Prison Where ISIS Holds Hostage Hundreds of Boys.” The New York Times, 24 Jan. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/01/24/world/middleeast/syria-prison-isis-hasaka.html.
(4) - Turbiville, Graham, et al. Countering the Al-Shabaab Insurgency in Somalia: Lessons for U.S. Special Operations Forces Report 14-1. The JSOU Press, 2014.
(5) - “Hamas’s Use of Human Shields in Gaza.” Nato Stratcom , stratcomcoe.org/cuploads/pfiles/hamas_human_shields.pdf.
(6) - “Iv. Taliban Shielding and Airstrikes.” “Troops in Contact”: Airstrikes and Civlian Deaths in Afghanistan: IV. Taliban Shielding and Airstrikes, www.hrw.org/reports/2008/afghanistan0908/4.htm. Accessed 29 May 2023.
(7) - The U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Silver Rock Publishing, 2015.
(8) - Broderick McDonald, Guy Fiennes. “The Wagner Group’s Growing Shadow in the Sahel: What Does It Mean for Counterterrorism in the Region?” Modern War Institute, 2 Mar. 2023, mwi.usma.edu/the-wagner-groups-growing-shadow-in-the-sahel-what-does-it-mean-for-counterterrorism-in-the-region/.
(9) - “The Meaning of Lawfare.” Lawfare, www.lawfareblog.com/topic/meaning-lawfare. Accessed 20 May 2023.
(10) - TZU, SUN. Art of War. GLOBAL PUBLISHERS, 2023.
(11) - Sabic-El-Rayess, Amra. “The US Did More to Radicalise Afghanistan than Osama Bin Laden.” Religion | Al Jazeera, 2 Nov. 2021, www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/11/2/the-us-did-more-to-radicalise-afghanistan-than-bin-laden.
(12) - Taber, Robert. War of the Flea: The Classic Study of Guerrilla Warfare. Bookmart Pub., 2008.
(13) - Ackerman, Daniel. “Hold Hamas Accountable for Human-Shields Use during the May 2021 Gaza War.” FDD, 23 June 2021, www.fdd.org/analysis/2021/06/23/hold-hamas-accountable-for-human-shields-use-during-the-may-2021-gaza-war/.
(14) - Afghanistan 2020 Human Rights Report - Af.Usembassy.Gov, af.usembassy.gov/wp-content/uploads/sites/268/AFGHANISTAN-2020-HUMAN-RIGHTS-REPORT.pdf. Accessed 22 May 2023.
(15) - Neve Gordon, Nicola Perugini. “Military Attacks on ‘Hospitals Shields’: The Law Itself Is Partly to Blame.” Just Security, 27 June 2018,