The US drone campaign in Afghanistan last year dwarfed Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia (Tech Sgt Robert Cloys/US Air Force)
Covert drone strikes by the CIA in Pakistan fell to their lowest level for eight years in 2015, according to new research by the Bureau, with a sharp reduction not only in attacks but also in the number of people reported killed.
The drones hit Pakistan’s tribal areas 13 times last year, killing between 60 and 85 people – almost half the 25 strikes in 2014 and 10 times fewer than the campaign’s peak of 128 in 2010.
But while the attacks in Pakistan have now fallen to their lowest level since five hit in 2007, the number of strikes in Somalia surged to unprecedented highs during 2015, the Bureau found.
The 11 attacks reported there against al Shabaab dwarfed the three from 2014 – hitherto the most in Somalia in a year. Until 2015, there had been seven reported strikes in the history of the drone war in Somalia.
The figures come from the Bureau’s annual drone report for 2015, which also found that for Pakistan – the main theatre of the CIA’s covert counter-terror war – there have now been seven times more CIA strikes under President Obama (370) than there were under George W Bush.
The reduction in CIA operations in Pakistan last year could be down to a number of factors, including outrage over a catastrophic strike on January 15 that accidentally killed an Italian and an American, both al Qaeda hostages. It could also be down to stretched drone resources with greater needs in other theatres such as Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.
US drone strikes in 2015
|Total people killed||60-85||75-103||20-93|
2015 was also the year the US was meant to scale back its operations in Afghanistan, leaving a relatively small number of troops and advisers for training and support, plus a small counter-terrorism force. The aim was to cut troop levels from 9,800 at the end of 2014 to 5,500 a year later.
This move to a counter-terrorism focus, similar to US operations in Yemen, prompted the Bureau to start recording data on US air strikes in the country.
But in October the President decided to keep nearly 10,000 soldiers there beyond 2016. He also said he would leave 5,500 soldiers in the country beyond the end of his administration in 2017, rather than a small group of advisers based at the US embassy. The President said he changed policy because, “in key areas of the country, the security situation is still very fragile” and “Afghan forces are still not as strong as they need to be”.
Determining which strikes in Afghanistan are from drones or from jets is difficult, although the UN’s mission there says most are carried out by unmanned planes. The attacks are generally reported by Afghan officials who have been briefed by the US. However it is not clear what specific information they have been passed by the Americans.
The US does not publicly disclose what type of aircraft are used in the air attacks, merely describing each as a “precision strike”.
As to the number of strikes, the US Air Force jets and drones hit targets in Afghanistan at a considerable rate last year. Most months averaged at least one strike every other day, while in August they fired nearly three times a day.
In total there were 411 drone and air strikes by the US Air Force in Afghanistan in 2015. The Bureau has identified details and casualties of 185 of these.
The annual report is split below by country and includes data for the year itself and also from the beginning of drone operations. It also includes a brief commentary for events in each country.
The Bureau began monitoring US drone strikes outside the active war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq in early 2011. The decision was made because reports of civilian deaths from Pakistan were contradicting assertions by unnamed US officials that drones were not killing civilians. The Bureau’s first database of strikes in Pakistan was published in August 2011. Data on attacks in Yemen and Somalia was added in 2012.
The first recorded drone strike outside Afghanistan was in Yemen in November 2002. For the 13 years since then, the Bureau has now recorded a total of 547 drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. They have killed between 3,023 and 4,844 people. Of those, at least 488 have been reported as civilians – 180 of them children.
Of the 547 drone strikes across all three countries, 52 were carried out under Bush, while 495 have been under Obama.
Pakistan: CIA drone strikes
|All strikes, December 2015||All strikes, 2015||All strikes, 2004 to date|
|CIA drone strikes||0||13||421|
|Total reported killed||0||60-85||2,489-3,989|
|Civilians reported killed||0||2-5||423-965|
|Children reported killed||0||0||172-207|
|Total reported injured||0||25-32||1,158-1,738|
Notes on the data: All the strikes in the table above were carried out by the CIA using Predator or Reaper drones. The Pakistan Air Force has also carried out air strikes in the same region as the CIA, using jets and its own armed drone – the Burraq.
The year 2015 began in Pakistan with catastrophe for the US drone programme. A signature strike by CIA drones accidentally killed a US and an Italian citizen who were being held hostage by al Qaeda.
Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein had been kidnapped in Pakistan and were being held in the basement of a house in the remote Shawal region near the Afghan border. They were held underground which meant the drone’s infra-red camera could not pick out their heat signatures.
Two more US citizens – both of them al Qaeda operatives – were also killed by CIA drones in January. Ahmed Farouq died in the same strike as Lo Porto and Weinstein, Adam Gadahn was killed in a subsequent attack. The US said the men were not “specifically targeted“. The deaths of the four men brought the total number of westerners killed by US drones to 38, an investigation by the Bureau found.
Though not the first time a drone strike in Pakistan had accidentally killed prisoners of an armed group, news of the death of Lo Porto and Weinstein provoked widespread outcry in the US. The news emerged on April 23 after President Obama ordered the details of the strikes be declassified.
When the death of Weinstein was announced in April, the CIA had already carried out seven strikes in 2015. Over the next eight months of 2015, just six were authorised. The drop-off could be attributed to the intense scrutiny the agency came under.
But fluctuations in the tempo of drone strikes in Pakistan are not unusual and there is rarely a clear single cause.
Another explanation could be that the Pakistani military’s 18 month-long ground offensive in the tribal regions forced militants to relocate to neighbouring Afghanistan, and US drones simply ran out of targets in Pakistan.
The decline in strikes does not mean the drone programme is over. The attacks paused for nearly six months from December 2013 to June 2014 while the Pakistan government tried and failed to negotiate a peace accord with the Taliban. When the talks broke down, the CIA carried out 25 strikes.
Afghanistan Bureau data: US drone and air strikes
|Total reported killed||19||783-1,205|
|Civilians reported killed||0||56-115|
|Children reported killed||0||3-21|
|Total reported injured||2||134-139|
Notes on the data: The US Air Force has a variety of aircraft carrying out missions over Afghanistan, including jets, drones and AC-130 gunships. The UN reported in August 2015 that most US strikes were by unmanned aerial vehicles. This matches the Bureau’s records that show most US air attacks since January were by drones. However in the absence of US authorities revealing which type of aircraft carried out which attack, it remains unclear which of the attacks recorded were by manned or unmanned aircraft.
The Bureau’s data on strikes in Afghanistan is not exhaustive. The ongoing war creates barriers to reporting and the Bureau’s data is an accumulation of what publicly available information exists on specific strikes and casualties. The US government publishes monthly aggregates of air operations in Afghanistan, minus information on casualties.
US Air Force data: Afghanistan in 2015
|Total Close Air Support (CAS) sorties with at least one weapon release||411|
|Total CAS sorties||4,676|
|Total weapons released||947|
US combat missions in Afghanistan officially ended at the end of 2014, and although air and drone strikes continued throughout the next 12 months, they were at a lower pace than in previous years. However, more strikes were carried out in 2015 alone than have been reported in the previous 11 years in Pakistan.
The frequency of strikes can be calculated thanks to the US Air Force’s monthly data summaries. Uncovering information about individual strikes has proved harder. The Bureau has been able to garner details on less than half of the strikes reported by the Air Force.
Even when the Bureau has been able to confirm through open source data that a strike occurred, details of what happened are usually scarce. One notable exception is the October 3 airstrike on an MSF-run hospital in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan. At least 42 staff and patients were killed, sparking international outrage.
The Bureau is investigating other incidents.
Throughout the year, US special forces, drones and jets killed senior figures from al Qaeda, the Taliban and a group of fighters who have pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State.
The US also reportedly launched as many as 63 air strikes over the course of a week on an apparently vast network of al Qaeda training camps in the southern province of Kandahar.
US air strikes appeared to have increased in frequency in response to the failure of Afghan forces to contain a confident insurgency. The pattern of air attacks in 2015 (with bursts concentrated on areas of intense ground fighting such as Kandahar and Helmand) suggests US aircraft have been effectively acting as air support for Afghan ground forces.
Yemen: all confirmed US drone strikes
|December 2015||2015||2002 to date*|
|Total reported killed||4||75-103||496-729|
|Civilians reported killed||0||1-7||65-101|
|Children reported killed||0||1-2||8-9|
|Total reported injured||0||8||94-223|
* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range we have recorded in US drone strikes and covert operations reflects this.
2015 saw Yemen being driven to the brink of famine by an ongoing civil war and a military intervention by a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia.
The conflict is between the Houthi militia, allied to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and forces loyal to the exiled government of Abdu Rabbo Mansour Hadi, who are backed by the the Saudi coalition. Accusations of war crimes have been levelled at all parties.
The Saudi coalition has sent ground forces into the country in a bid to oust the Houthis from the capital, Sanaa. Men from multiple countries have fought and died in the ongoing campaign, including Colombians as part of a UAE-financed mercenary force.
The instability has allowed al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to expand. It took control of the port city of Mukalla in eastern Hadramout, establishing a local government to rule over the city and surrounding area. Fighters loyal to Islamic State have also emerged as a force: four of the group’s suicide bombers killed 142 at a mosque in Sanaa in March.
Amid all this, the US managed to carry out more drone strikes in 2015 than it did in 2014. Twelve of 21 strikes in the year hit in and around the port city of Mukalla, the capital of the eastern Hadramout province.
Mukalla became a target-rich environment for US drones when AQAP took control there in April. The terrorist group brushed aside government forces, taking advantage of the chaos caused by the Houthis taking control of Sanaa.
The strikes successfully targeted several leading AQAP figures, taking out an older generation of AQAP commanders. Their deaths opened the door to a younger generation. Yemen expert and independent journalist Iona Craig told the Bureau in July that this could turn the group into a much more brutal entity.
The US successes may have contributed to a halt in strikes from September until the end of December.
Although there were 21 strikes in 2015, there was only one confirmed civilian casualty. An adolescent boy, Mohammed Taeiman al Jahmi was killed in a car on January 26. His father and one of his brothers had been killed in a drone strike in October 2011.
There was some initial confusion over his exact status, with several sources including an AQAP member, reportedly saying al Jahmi was a member of the group. However when pushed the AQAP source said al Jahmi was an al Qaeda supporter but not an operative.
He told the Yemen Times: “Be logical… how can a 12-year-old be a member of al Qaeda? Our aim was to convince him to join us in the future, especially considering that his father was killed in a drone strike.”
Somalia: US drone strikes
|December 2015||2015||2011 to date|
|Total reported killed||5||20-93||38-126|
|Civilians reported killed||0||0-4||0-7|
|Children reported killed||0||0||0-2|
|Total reported injured||0||0-4||2-8|
In contrast to its policy in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, the US military confirmed it carried out 10 of the 11 drone strikes reported in Somalia in 2015.
Some of the strikes were targeted killings aimed at specific individuals, and some were designed to provide African Union, US and Somali ground forces with air support. The Pentagon would not explain why the number of attacks increased in 2015.
Five of the strikes were reported to have targeted and killed specific senior al Shabaab commanders. The other six were in support of forces on the ground, according to Pentagon officials speaking shortly after each strike.
Five of the strikes carried out in support of forces on the ground hit southern Somalia in the space of a few days in mid July. They were carried out “in defense of [African Union peacekeepers] under imminent threat of attack”. The sixth was described as “a self-defense airstrike against al Shabaab”, presumably in support of forces on the ground.
US officials refused to go into details about each operation, but denied that strikes in support of forces on the ground constituted a policy of providing close air support.
“The circumstances surrounding the strikes were unique to each action,” one official said. It has been reported that American special forces are operating out of bases in Somalia, including the port of Kismayo where they reportedly share a barracks with Kenyan troops.
Pentagon briefings have implied that US forces are working side-by-side with Somali and Amisom (African Union Mission in Somalia) troops. However the Pentagon would not tell the Bureau whether US soldiers in Somalia are in a combat role or there to train and advise.
“We routinely maintain US forces in the region to monitor terrorist activities and to support Amisom as it seeks to bring stability to Somalia and the region,” a spokesperson told the Bureau.
The increase in strike frequency in Somalia came as al Shabaab continued to kill civilians with impunity in the supposedly secure centre of Mogadishu. In neighbouring Kenya, the group murdered nearly 150 students in an assault on a university in the north of the country.
In December it emerged the US had closed its drone base at Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia. It was thought the Reapers were re-located to satisfy high demand drones elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. The US continues to fly drones from Djibouti.