Missiles being loaded onto a military Reaper drone in Afghanistan.
The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals, an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times has revealed.
The findings are published just days after President Obama claimed that the drone campaign in Pakistan was a ‘targeted, focused effort’ that ‘has not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.’
Speaking publicly for the first time on the controversial CIA drone strikes, Obama claimed last week they are used strictly to target terrorists, rejecting what he called ‘this perception we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly’.
‘Drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties’, he told a questioner at an on-line forum. ‘This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists trying to go in and harm Americans’.
But research by the Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children. A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.
Although the drone attacks were started under the Bush administration in 2004, they have been stepped up enormously under Obama.
There have been 260 attacks by unmanned Predators or Reapers in Pakistan by Obama’s administration – averaging one every four days. Because the attacks are carried out by the CIA, no information is given on the numbers killed.
Administration officials insist that these covert attacks are legal. John Brennan, the president’s top counterterrorism adviser, argues that the US has the right to unilaterally strike terrorists anywhere in the world, not just what he called ‘hot battlefields’.
‘Because we are engaged in an armed conflict with al- Qaeda, the United States takes the legal position that, in accordance with international law, we have the authority to take action against al-Qaeda and its associated forces,’ he told a conference at Harvard Law School last year. ‘The United States does not view our authority to use military force against al-Qaeda as being restricted solely to”hot” battlefields like Afghanistan.’
State-sanctioned extra-judicial executions
But some international law specialists fiercely disagree, arguing that the strikes amount to little more than state-sanctioned extra-judicial executions and questioning how the US government would react if another state such as China or Russia started taking such action against those they declare as enemies.
Related article: A question of legality
The first confirmed attack on rescuers took place in North Waziristan on May 16 2009. According to Mushtaq Yusufzai, a local journalist, Taliban militants had gathered in the village of Khaisor. After praying at the local mosque, they were preparing to cross the nearby border into Afghanistan to launch an attack on US forces. But the US struck first.
A CIA drone fired its missiles into the Taliban group, killing at least a dozen people. Villagers joined surviving Taliban as they tried to retrieve the dead and injured.
But as rescuers clambered through the demolished house the drones struck again. Two missiles slammed into the rubble, killing many more. At least 29 people died in total.
‘We lost very trained and sincere friends‘, a local Taliban commander told The News, a Pakistani newspaper. ‘Some of them were very senior Taliban commanders and had taken part in successful actions in Afghanistan. Bodies of most of them were beyond recognition.’
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For the Americans the attack was a success. A surprise tactic had resulted in the deaths of many Taliban. But locals say that six ordinary villagers also died that day, identified by Bureau field researchers as Sabir, Ikram, Mohib, Zahid, Mashal and Syed Noor (most people in the area use only one name).
Yusufzai, who reported on the attack, says those killed in the follow-up strike ‘were trying to pull out the bodies, to help clear the rubble, and take people to hospital.’ The impact of drone attacks on rescuers has been to scare people off, he says: ‘They’ve learnt that something will happen. No one wants to go close to these damaged building anymore.’
The legal view
Naz Modirzadeh, Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research (HPCR) at Harvard University, said killing people at a rescue site may have no legal justification.
‘Not to mince words here, if it is not in a situation of armed conflict, unless it falls into the very narrow area of imminent threat then it is an extra-judicial execution’, she said. ‘We don’t even need to get to the nuance of who’s who, and are people there for rescue or not. Because each death is illegal. Each death is a murder in that case.’
Waziristan residents hold up missile fragments from drone strikes in October 2010 / Noor Behram
The Khaisoor incident was not a one-off. Between May 2009 and June 2011, at least fifteen attacks on rescuers were reported by credible news media, including the New York Times, CNN, Associated Press, ABC News and Al Jazeera.
It is notoriously difficult for the media to operate safely in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Both militants and the military routinely threaten journalists. Yet for three months a team of local researchers has been seeking independent confirmation of these strikes.
The researchers have found credible, independently sourced evidence of civilians killed in ten of the reported attacks on rescuers. In five other reported attacks, the researchers found no evidence of any rescuers – civilians or otherwise – killed.
The researchers were told by villagers that strikes on rescuers began as early as March 2008, although no media carried reports at the time. The Bureau is seeking testimony relating to nine additional incidents.
Often when the US attacks militants in Pakistan, the Taliban seals off the site and retrieves the dead. But an examination of thousands of credible reports relating to CIA drone strikes also shows frequent references to civilian rescuers. Mosques often exhort villagers to come forward and help, for example – particularly following attacks that mistakenly kill civilians.
Other tactics are also raising concerns. On June 23 2009 the CIA killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud, a mid-ranking Pakistan Taliban commander. They planned to use his body as bait to hook a larger fish – Baitullah Mehsud, then the notorious leader of the Pakistan Taliban.
‘A plan was quickly hatched to strike Baitullah Mehsud when he attended the man’s funeral,’ according to Washington Post national security correspondent Joby Warrick, in his recent book The Triple Agent. ‘True, the commander… happened to be very much alive as the plan took shape. But he would not be for long.’
The CIA duly killed Khwaz Wali Mehsud in a drone strike that killed at least five others. Speaking with the Bureau, Pulitzer Prize-winner Warrick confirmed what his US intelligence sources had told him: ‘The initial target was no doubt a target anyway, as it was described to me, as someone that they were interested in. And as they were planning this attack, a possible windfall from that is that it would shake Mehsud himself out of his hiding place.’
Up to 5,000 people attended Khwaz Wali Mehsud’s funeral that afternoon, including not only Taliban fighters but many civilians. US drones struck again, killing up to 83 people. As many as 45 were civilians, among them reportedly ten children and four tribal leaders. Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud escaped unharmed, dying six weeks later along with his wife in a fresh CIA attack.
A funeral for victims of a US drone strike.
Clive Stafford-Smith, the lawyer who heads the Anglo-US legal charity Reprieve, believes that such strikes ‘are like attacking the Red Cross on the battlefield. It’s not legitimate to attack anyone who is not a combatant.’
Christof Heyns, a South African law professor who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extra- judicial Executions, agrees. ‘Allegations of repeat strikes coming back after half an hour when medical personnel are on the ground are very worrying’, he said. ‘To target civilians would be crimes of war.’ Heyns is calling for an investigation into the Bureau’s findings.
One of the most devastating attacks took place on March 17 last year, the day after Pakistan had released American CIA contractor Raymond Davis, jailed for shooting dead two men in Lahore. Davis had been held for two months and was released after the payment of blood money said to be around $2.3m.
A case of retaliation?
The Agency was said to be furious at the affair. The following day when a massive drone strike killed up to 42 people gathered at a meeting in North Waziristan, Pakistani officials believed it to be retaliation.
The commander of Pakistan forces in the area at the time was Brigadier Abdullah Dogar. He admits that in drone attacks in general ‘people invariably get reported as innocent bystanders’. But in that case he has no doubt. ‘I was sitting there where our friends say they were targeting terrorists and I know they were innocent people’, he said.
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The mountains in the area contain chromite mines and the ownership was disputed between two tribes, so a Jirga or tribal meeting had been called to resolve the issue.
‘We in the Pakistan military knew about the meeting’, he said, ‘we’d got the request ten days earlier.’
‘It was held in broad daylight, people were sitting out in Nomada bus depot when the missile strikes came. Maybe there were one or two Taliban at that Jirga – they have their people attending – but does that justify a drone strike which kills 42 mostly innocent people?’
‘Drones may make tactical gains but I don’t see how there’s any strategic advantage’, he added. ‘When innocent people die, then you’re creating a whole lot more people with an issue.’
Drone attacks have long been a source of tension between the US and Pakistan despite the fact that the Pakistan government gave tacit agreement, even allowing them to fly from Shamsi airbase in the western province of Baluchistan, while publicly denouncing the attacks.
In return the US made sure that some of the terrorists killed were those targeting Pakistan.
However the relationship has been stretched to breaking point, first with the raid to kill Osama bin Laden in May and subsequent US accusations of Pakistani complicity, then the NATO bombing of a Pakistani post in November, killing 24 soldiers. In December Pakistan ordered the CIA to vacate the Shamsi base. For a while drone attacks stopped but they resumed two weeks ago.
The US claims the drones are a vital tool that have helped them almost wipe out the leadership of al Qaeda in Pakistan. But others point out they have stoked enormous anti-American sentiment in a country with an arsenal of 200 nuclear weapons.
Peter Singer, director of the 21st Century Initiative at the Brookings Institution, points out the operation has never been debated in Congress which has to approve sending US forces to war.
So dramatic is the switch to unmanned war that he says the US now has 7,000 drones operating and 12,000 more on the ground, while not a single new manned combat aircraft is under research or development at any western aerospace company.
After a remarkable lack of debate, there is starting to be unease in the US at the lack of transparency and accountability in the use of drones particularly as the campaign has expanded to hit targets in Libya, Yemen and Somalia and until recently to patrol the skies in Iraq.
Three US citizens were killed by missiles fired from drones in Yemen last September. Anwar al Awlaqi, an alleged al Qaeda operative, was deliberately targeted in what some have described as the US government’s first ever execution of one of its own citizens without trial. His colleague and fellow citizen Samir Khan also died in the attack. Two weeks later Awlaqi’s 16 year old son Abdulrahman died in a strike on alleged al Qaeda militants.
Such unmanned war is a politician’s dream, avoiding the inconvenience of sending someone’s son or daughter, mother or father, into harm’s way.
The fact that the operations are carried out by the CIA rather than the US military enables the administration to evade questions. The Agency press office responds to media inquiries on the subject with no comment and refusal to give names of those killed or who are on the target list.
Until Obama’s comments last week, the White House would not even confirm the programme existed.
‘We don’t discuss classified programs or comment on alleged strikes’, said a senior administration official in response to the findings presented by the Sunday Times.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit last week demanding the Obama administration release legal and intelligence records on the killing of the three US citizens in in Yemen.
Privately some senior US military officers say they are extremely uncomfortable at the way the administration is carrying out these operations using the CIA which is not covered by laws of war or the Geneva Convention.
The use of drones outside a declared war zone is seen by many legal experts as setting a dangerous precedent. Aside from allies such as Israel, Britain and France, other countries have drone technology including China, Russia and Pakistan. Iran recently captured a downed US drone.
Heyns, the UN rapporteur, said an international legal framework is urgently needed to govern their use.
‘Our concern is how far does it go – will the whole world be a theatre of war?’ he asked. ‘Drones in principle allow collateral damage to be minimised but because they can be used without danger to a country’s own troops they tend to be used more widely. One doesn’t want to use the term ticking bomb but it’s extremely seductive.’
Additional reporting by Rahimullah Yusufzai in Peshawar, Pakistan
Christina Lamb is the Washington Bureau Chief of the Sunday Times