David Cole writes: On March 5, the United States used unmanned drones and manned aircraft to drop bombs on a group of what it described as al-Shabab militants at a camp about 120 miles north of Mogadishu, Somalia, killing approximately 150 of them. The administration claimed that the militants presented an imminent threat to African Union troops in the region with whom US advisers have been working, although it produced no evidence to support the claim. The news that the United States had killed 150 unnamed individuals in a country halfway around the world with which it is not at war generated barely a ripple of attention, much less any protest, here at home. Remote killing outside of war zones, it seems, has become business as usual.
This is a remarkable development, all the more noteworthy in that it has emerged under Barack Obama, who came to office as an antiwar president, so much so that he may be the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize based on wishful thinking. Our Peace Prize president has now been at war longer than any other American president, and has overseen the use of military force in seven countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. In the latter four countries, virtually all the force has come in the form of unmanned drones executing suspected terrorists said to be linked to al-Qaeda or its “associated forces.”
That an antiwar president has found the drone so tempting ought to be a warning sign. [Continue reading…]
Politico reports: President Barack Obama has to personally approve the killing of a U.S. citizen targeted for a lethal drone strike outside combat areas, according to a policy Obama adopted in 2013.
The president also is called upon to approve drone strikes against permanent residents of the U.S. and when “there is a lack of consensus” among agency chiefs about whom to target, but in other cases he is simply “apprised” of the targeting decision, the newly-disclosed document shows.
The presidential policy guidance on drone strikes, often called the drone “playbook,” was disclosed in an edited form Friday night in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.
When Obama approved the guidance in May 2013, the White House issued a fact sheet about the policy, but declined to release the document itself — even in a redacted form.
However, a series of decisions from a federal appeals court in New York and from lower court judges have made it more difficult for the government to withhold legal and policy documents when many of the details in them have been disclosed elsewhere, such as in speeches or press releases. [Continue reading…]
White House opts for distraction of holiday weekend when disclosing dubious count on civilian death toll from drone strikes
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports: The US government today claimed it has killed between 64 and 116 “non-combatants” in 473 counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya between January 2009 and the end of 2015.
This is a fraction of the 380 to 801 civilian casualty range recorded by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports by local and international journalists, NGO investigators, leaked government documents, court papers and the result of field investigations.
While the number of civilian casualties recorded by the Bureau is six times higher than the US Government’s figure, the assessments of the minimum total number of people killed were strikingly similar. The White House put this figure at 2,436, whilst the Bureau has recorded 2,753.
Since becoming president in 2009, Barack Obama has significantly extended the use of drones in the War on Terror. Operating outside declared battlefields, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, this air war has been largely fought in Pakistan and Yemen.
The White House’s announcement today is long-awaited. It comes three years after the White House first said it planned to publish casualty figures, and four months after President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, Lisa Monaco, said the data would be released.
The figures released do not include civilians killed in drones strikes that happened under George W Bush, who instigated the use of counter-terrorism strikes outside declared war zones and in 58 strikes killed 174 reported civilians. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: In a seeming acknowledgment that the long-anticipated disclosure would be greeted with skepticism by critics of the drone program, the administration issued the numbers on a Friday afternoon before a holiday weekend. The use of a range of estimated civilian deaths underscored the fact that the government often does not know for sure the affiliations of those killed.
“They’re guessing, too,” said Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, who has tracked civilian deaths for more than a decade. “Theirs may be a little more educated than my guesses. But they cannot be completely accurate.”
The disclosure about civilian deaths and the executive order, the subject of months of bureaucratic deliberations, carried broader significance. Issued about seven months before Mr. Obama leaves office, the order further institutionalized and normalized airstrikes outside conventional war zones as a routine part of 21st-century national security policy. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Two whistleblowers on the US drone programme have joined campaigners in Brussels ahead of a European parliament hearing on the use of armed drones.
Former military technicians Cian Westmoreland and Lisa Ling both worked on the high-tech infrastructure on which the drones flying in Afghanistan rely. They have now come forward as critics of the US drone programme.
At an event this week, they spoke about strategic flaws in the drone programme and the risks of civilian casualties in drone warfare. On Thursday, they attended the parliamentary hearing where campaigners spoke of the impact of drones on civilian populations and the lack of compensation or recognition of their losses for the families of those killed and wounded.
Britain is currently the only European nation to use armed drones, but the European parliament believes this is on course to change, and has tabled a resolution calling on states to make sure that their drone operations are lawful and transparent.
Unmanned warfare is an especially thorny issue in Germany, where Ramstein US air force base is believed to serve as a key node in the US’s international drone infrastructure, including for controversial strikes taking place in countries where the US is not officially at war, such as Yemen. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: President Barack Obama secretly ordered the strike on Mullah Mansour after first trying to bring him to the negotiating table. Initially, there was hope in Washington that Mullah Mansour would be more open to negotiations than his predecessor, Mullah Mohammad Omar.
Obama administration officials were divided over whether the Pakistanis were capable or willing to deliver Mullah Mansour for the negotiations.
U.S. officials said the Pakistanis tried and grew frustrated in February by Mullah Mansour’s refusal to send representatives to meet with the Afghan government.
Around the same time, people who maintain contacts with the Taliban began to report that Mullah Mansour had left Pakistan and was spending time in Iran.
U.S. intelligence agencies received information that allowed them to track Mullah Mansour’s movements, including details about devices he used for communications, U.S. officials said.
That allowed the spy agencies to present policy makers with a choice: If and when Mullah Mansour were located in Pakistan, should the U.S. strike?
Mullah Mansour’s travels made it easier to find him. In contrast, the Central Intelligence Agency spent years looking in vain for an opportunity to kill the reclusive cleric he replaced, Mullah Omar.
An April 19 Taliban attack in Kabul targeted Afghanistan’s secret service, killing more than 60 people and underlining for the Americans the extent to which Mullah Mansour had chosen a military course. A decision was made that he should “face the consequences” of his refusal to negotiate, a senior administration official said. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: U.S. President Barack Obama approved the drone strike that killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour because the Taliban leader was overseeing plans for new attacks on American targets in Kabul, the Afghan capital, U.S. officials said on Monday. [Continue reading…]
Drone strikes are always carried out in the name of necessity. From the president on down, everyone wants to be able to claim that the decision to launch a deadly attack was driven by an imminent threat, there being no legal basis for indiscriminate killing or vengeance.
In the case of the assassination of the Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in Pakistan over the weekend, Obama’s comments on the killing suggest that this actually had less to do with preventing an imminent attack, than it was a kind of experiment.
No one knows what the consequence of killing Mansour will be, but Obama apparently thought that the potential benefits outweighed the risks.
An otherwise risk-averse president always seems confident about the bets he places when they involve Hellfire missiles.
The Wall Street Journal reports: Mr. Obama, speaking Monday during a visit to Hanoi, said the drone strike against Mr. Mansour did not constitute a “shift” in the U.S. mission. “We are not re-entering the day-to-day combat operations that are currently being conducted by Afghan forces,” he said.
He stressed Saturday’s airstrike was an opportunity for the Taliban to shift direction in favor of reconciliation talks, because Mr. Mansour for months has been against those talks.
Whether Mr. Mansour’s death changes things remains to be seen, according to those who track the group. Some believe his death could lead to a power struggle, accelerating the Taliban’s breakup. A main breakaway group already is being funded by the Afghan government as part of an effort to splinter the movement, The Wall Street Journal reported.
It was disclosed last year that the former Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, had died two years earlier.
However, the infighting is unlikely to encourage the group to negotiate with the Afghan government, according to those familiar with its operations. Mr. Mansour’s death actually may make it difficult for moderates among the Taliban to negotiate. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The Qaeda bomb-making instructor carefully demonstrated for his student how to mix the chemicals to make a volatile powder, then supervised a test explosion and added a sinister final tip: tape bolts around the homemade bomb to produce lethal shrapnel.
The explosive expert’s identity, revealed by a Qaeda operative facing sentencing next week, came as a surprise: He was Anwar al-Awlaki, the American imam who had joined Al Qaeda in Yemen and become the terrorist network’s leading English-language propagandist.
Mr. Awlaki had long been known for public oratory on behalf of Al Qaeda before he was killed in a drone strike in 2011 on President Obama’s orders, making him the first American citizen killed without criminal charges or trial in the campaign against terrorism.
But new court filings in New York offer the most detailed account yet of a hidden side of Mr. Awlaki’s work inside Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen — as a hands-on trainer who taught recruits how to make bombs, gave them money for missions and offered suggestions about how to carry out suicide attacks.
The papers, part of a sentencing memorandum submitted by the government, were filed Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan in the case of Mr. Awlaki’s former bomb-making student, Minh Quang Pham, a Vietnamese-British convert to Islam. He has pleaded guilty to three terrorism-related counts and is to be sentenced Monday.
In their papers, federal prosecutors suggested that 50 years would be an appropriate sentence for Mr. Pham, who is in his early 30s and traveled secretly to Yemen in 2010, where he swore allegiance to Al Qaeda’s affiliate there and worked on the group’s online propaganda publication, Inspire.
The court papers make it clear that Mr. Pham admired Mr. Awlaki. He “visibly teared up” when discussing Mr. Awlaki, and he repeatedly referred to Mr. Awlaki with the honorific title “sheikh,” prosecutors wrote. [Continue reading…]
James Downie writes: Father Daniel Berrigan died Saturday at 94. The longtime peace activist gained national attention in 1968 when he and eight others, including his brother Philip (also a priest), burned draft records taken from a Selective Service office in Maryland. Decades later, he remains a powerful example of a man who never wavered in his beliefs, standing up time and again for the poor and oppressed. In his last years, Berrigan no longer had the energy to protest as frequently. But if he had been a few generations younger, can there be any doubt that he would have been at forefront of those protesting the expansion of the drone war under President Obama?
There have long been policy, constitutional and moral questions about the drone program — all made more difficult to answer by the Obama administration’s refusal to even acknowledge the program until 2013. As Obama’s presidency comes to an end, we have stunning new details about how the program works — first released in October on the Intercept website, now updated and collected in the book “The Assassination Complex” by Jeremy Scahill and Intercept staffers. “The Assassination Complex” is in large part built around the revelations of an anonymous whistleblower who leaked documents about U.S. use of drones in Somalia, Libya and Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. What he or she reveals further confirms the practical, legal and moral failings of Obama’s expanded drone war.
For starters, although drones may be quite good at killing people (even if not always the intended targets), it’s not clear that they are an effective tool in the war on terrorism. Obama’s embrace of drones has led to a preference for killing rather than capturing terrorists. The documents include a study from the Defense Department’s Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Task Force, which concluded that “kill operations significantly reduce the intelligence available from detainees and captured material.” And as retired Gen. Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said last year, “When you drop a bomb from a drone . . . you are going to cause more damage than you are going to cause good,” including more radicalized terrorists. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Because US drone strikes are cloaked in secrecy, occur in remote or dangerous locales and target people presumed to be terrorists, Americans rarely hear from survivors or their relatives. But a theme emerges in interviews the Guardian has conducted with more than half a dozen drone survivors: the pain from the strike never ends, as the apparatus of secrecy renders closure unobtainable.
According to six people in Pakistan and Yemen who have lost their brothers, sons and grandparents to drone strikes, the strike lasts a moment and the consequences last a lifetime. Most of them have never told their stories to an American reporter. Some of them have theories about whom the US was targeting, while others are left guessing. The interviews were facilitated by the human rights group Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights and conducted in translation.
The people are left impoverished, anguished and infuriated. Justice, let alone apologies, never arrive, even as a modest amount of blood money flows from the local governments. The United States, which styles itself a force for justice in the world, is to them the remote force that introduced death into their lives and treats them like they are subhuman, fit only to be targeted. At any moment, they fear, another drone could come for them.
The White House has said it will soon release of a tally of drone deaths. Relatives of the dead and survivors of the attacks expect little of it to include the truth, and doubt it will lead to the public apologies they desire – particularly since a senior aide to Barack Obama recently told the Atlantic that the president “has not had a second thought about drones”.
The CIA would not comment for this piece. An Obama administration official said: “It is certainly not the case that lives of a certain nationality are more valuable to us than those of any other. What is true, however, is that the president has said … that the American people need information to hold their government accountable. That is in part why we have been especially transparent when it comes to the deaths of US citizens.”
Nabila’s father, and Mamana’s son, Rafiq ur-Rehman, took a different view. “If America kills any westerner, one of their own, white people, they apologize and compensate. But if it’s Pakistanis like us, they don’t care. In my opinion, America treats us worse than animals.” [Continue reading…]
In our part of the world, it’s not often that potential “collateral damage” speaks, but it happened last week. A Pakistani tribal leader, Malik Jalal, flew to England to plead in a newspaper piece he wrote and in media interviews to be taken off the Obama White House’s “kill list.” (“I am in England this week because I decided that if Westerners wanted to kill me without bothering to come to speak with me first, perhaps I should come to speak to them instead.”) Jalal, who lives in Pakistan’s tribal borderlands, is a local leader and part of a peace committee sanctioned by the Pakistani government that is trying to tamp down the violence in the region. He believes that he’s been targeted for assassination by Washington. (Four drone missiles, he claims, have just missed him or his car.) His family, he says, is traumatized by the drones. “I don’t want to end up a ‘Bugsplat’ — the ugly word that is used for what remains of a human being after being blown up by a Hellfire missile fired from a Predator drone,” he writes. “More importantly, I don’t want my family to become victims, or even to live with the droning engines overhead, knowing that at any moment they could be vaporized.”
Normally, what “they” do to us, or our European counterparts (think: Brussels, Paris, or San Bernardino), preoccupies us 24/7. What we do to “them” — and them turns out to be far more than groups of terrorists — seldom touches our world at all. As TomDispatch readers know, this website has paid careful attention to the almost 300 wedding celebrants killed by U.S. air power between late 2001 and the end of 2013 — eight wedding parties eviscerated in three countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen). These are deaths that, unlike the 14 Americans murdered in San Bernardino, the 32 Belgians and others killed in Brussels, and the 130 French and others slaughtered in Paris, have caused not even a ripple here (though imagine for a second the reaction if even a single wedding, no less eight of them and hundreds of revelers, had been wiped out by a terror attack in the U.S. in these years).
Any sense of sadness or regret for Washington’s actions, when it comes to the many killed, wounded, or traumatized in its never-ending, implacable, and remarkably unsuccessful war on terror, is notable mainly for its absence from our world. So it’s an extraordinary moment when any Americans — no less a group that has been deeply involved in prosecuting the drone war on terror — publicly expresses empathy for the “collateral damage” inflicted in that ongoing conflict. That’s why TomDispatch regular Pratap Chatterjee brings genuine news today from the heart of America’s drone wars, from those who should best be able to assess the grim reality of just what Washington has been doing in our name. Tom Engelhardt
Drone whistleblowers step out of the shadows
In Washington’s drone wars, collateral damage comes home
By Pratap Chatterjee
In a trio of recent action-packed movies, good guys watch terrorists mingling with innocent women and children via real-time video feeds from halfway across the world. A clock ticks and we, the audience, are let in on the secret that mayhem is going to break loose. After much agonized soul-searching about possible collateral damage, the good guys call in a missile strike from a U.S. drone to try to save the day by taking out a set of terrorists.
Such is the premise of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill, and Rick Rosenthal’s Drones. In reality, in Washington’s drone wars neither the “good guys” nor the helpless, endangered villagers under those robotic aircraft actually survive the not-so secret drone war that the Obama administration has been waging relentlessly across the Greater Middle East — not, at least, without some kind of collateral damage. In addition to those they kill, Washington’s drones turn out to wound (in ways both physical and psychological) their own operators and the populations who live under their constant surveillance. They leave behind very real victims with all-too-real damage, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder on opposite sides of the globe.
“Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode,” an Afghan man says, speaking directly into the camera. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content. But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.” The speaker is an unnamed victim of a February 2010 drone strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, but he could just as easily be an Iraqi, a Pakistani, a Somali, or a Yemeni. He appears in National Bird, a haunting new documentary film by Sonia Kennebeck about the unexpected and largely unrecorded devastation Washington’s drone wars leave in their wake. In it, the audience hears directly from both drone personnel and their victims.
Vice News reports: In a rural valley in southern Yemen lies Wadi Rafad, a collection of farms 50 miles from the provincial capital of Ataq. Amid an arid landscape dotted with lemon orchards and cornfields, villagers were used to the peace being disturbed by the buzzing of US drones flying overhead. But on the afternoon of May 6, 2012, something changed.
Around 4.30pm an aircraft came into view, its white fuselage clearly visible against the stark blue sky. Rather than overfly the valley, the CIA drone fired Hellfire missiles straight at Fahd al-Quso, who was working his land. He was killed instantly — but shrapnel from the blast also engulfed Nasser Salim Lakdim, a 19-year-old student who had just returned home to tend his family’s plantation. Nasser’s father came rushing back to the farm to find his son in pieces. “It was horrifying, I can barely describe it,” he told VICE News.
The strike was among the foremost successes of the US counterterrorism effort in Yemen. Al-Quso, its target, was a senior field commander in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He had participated in the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 and had threatened to attack American embassies.
It was also an example of successful cooperation between British and American intelligence agencies. The US had hunted al-Quso for half a decade, and the intelligence that led to this strike came from a British agent working for the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) — commonly known as MI6 — who had infiltrated AQAP.
Far from being a one-off tip, a VICE News investigation can exclusively reveal that this was a high point in systemic collaboration between SIS and the CIA to degrade AQAP through a combination of special forces operations and drone strikes.
A former senior CIA official responsible for operations in Yemen told VICE News that “the most important contribution” to the intelligence for the strike came from “a very important British capability.” The UK agent provided the CIA with al-Quso’s position, allowing a drone to track his car. “That was quite unique,” the former official explained, “it was something we didn’t have.”
The use of drones in Yemen has long been characterized as a unilateral US policy. In response to a 2014 parliamentary question on Britain’s role in the US drone program, UK Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Hugh Robertson said: “Drone strikes against terrorist targets in Yemen are a matter for the Yemeni and US governments.”
However, following interviews with more than two dozen current and former British, American, and Yemeni officials, VICE News can reveal that the UK played a crucial and sustained role with the CIA in finding and fixing targets, assessing the effect of strikes, and training Yemeni intelligence agencies to locate and identify targets for the US drone program. The US-led covert war in Yemen, now in its 15th year, has killed up to 1,651 people, including up to 261 civilians, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. [Continue reading…]
Vice News reports: “I was on my way to play football with my friends when the airstrike hit,” Amin Ali al-Wisabi told VICE News, recounting the day when a CIA drone struck his hometown of Azzan in Yemen. “We had stopped to sit down and plan the match when all of a sudden an explosion hit a passing al-Qaeda car.”
Recovering from his shock, 13-year-old Amin realized he had been hit by shrapnel. “Blood was pouring from my leg.”
Next to Amin, his friend Hamza Khaled Baziyad lay unconscious. In total, five children aged between 10 and 14 were injured as they gathered close to the local mosque.
Though the number of people injured in covert US strikes is not officially recorded, they play a crucial role in the struggle for hearts and minds across Yemen’s southern hinterland. Bystanders and family rushed the children to a local clinic, where Hamza awoke while shrapnel was extracted from his chest. All of the children survived. [Continue reading…]