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…]
The Daily Beast reports: Russia’s sort-of-but-not-really withdrawal from Syria passed without the world noticing that it featured aerial technology from a surprising source —Israel, which provided the high-tech surveillance drones that apparently help the Russian warplanes find and strike their targets on the ground.
The Russian air force acquired a number of 20-foot-long Searcher drones from Israel Aerospace Industries, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of unmanned aerial vehicles, starting in 2010.
Russia also acquired from IAI, which is wholly owned by the Israeli government, a license to make its own copies of the propeller-driven Searcher, a rough equivalent of the U.S. military’s own Predator drone. [Continue reading…]
David Cole writes: On March 4, the United States used drones and other aircraft to drop precision bombs on Somalia, a country with which we are not at war, reportedly killing about 150 al-Shabab militants who were said to be preparing for an imminent attack on American and African Union forces. The US government asserted that no civilians were killed, although neither that claim nor the allegation of an imminent attack could be verified. What do we really know about how American officials decide to launch such strikes?
In the last two weeks, the Obama administration has announced that it will for the first time make public a redacted version of the Presidential Policy Guidance outlining the standards for targeted killing and will also provide its own estimates of combatant and civilian deaths in drone attacks dating back to 2009. Yet much about these decisions remains opaque. In Eye in the Sky, a remarkably timely and important new film about a fictional drone strike against al-Shabab, South African director Gavin Hood offers a hypothetical window into such decision-making. The picture it paints is deeply disturbing, and raises fundamental questions about when, if ever, such attacks are justified. It may be the closest those of us on the outside ever get to the internal process behind the drone war.
In the film, Helen Mirren plays Katherine Powell, a steely British colonel charged with tracking terrorists in North Africa. The only travel Powell needs to do, however, is between her home in Surrey and her office in London, where she operates a top-secret drone program, in conjunction with American drone operators in Nevada and African agents in Kenya. As the film opens, Powell wakes to learn that a British woman, who has become a leader of al-Shabab, has been located in Nairobi along with her husband, an American citizen who is also an al-Shabab leader. What follows is a tense minute-by-minute depiction of one of the most daunting ethical and legal decisions a nation’s military and civilian leaders ever have to make—whether to kill a suspected enemy, even if innocent civilians may also die. Without taking sides, the film dramatically illustrates why technology, far from answering such questions, has only made them more difficult. [Continue reading…]
Jameel Jaffer and Brett Max Kaufman write: When Barack Obama took office as the reluctant heir to George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” he renounced some of his predecessor’s most extreme policies. There is one Bush-era policy, though, that President Obama made emphatically his own: the summary killing of suspected militants and terrorists, usually by drone.
In less than a year, the president will bequeath this policy, and the sweeping legal claims that underlie it, to someone who may see the world very differently from him. Before that happens, he should bring the drone campaign out of the shadows and do what he can to constrain the power he unleashed.
President Bush started the drone wars, but Mr. Obama vastly expanded them. Almost entirely on his watch, United States strikes have killed as many as 5,000 people, possibly 1,000 of them civilians. The president approved strikes in places far from combat zones. He authorized the C.I.A. to carry out “signature strikes” aimed at people whose identities the agency did not know but whose activities supposedly suggested militancy. He approved the deliberate killing of an American, Anwar al-Awlaki.
The president also oversaw an aggressive effort to control the public narrative about drone strikes. Even as senior officials selectively disclosed information to the news media, his administration resisted Freedom of Information Act lawsuits, arguing that national security would be harmed if the government confirmed drone strikes were taking place. [Continue reading…]
Ars Technica reports: In 2014, the former director of both the CIA and NSA proclaimed that “we kill people based on metadata.” Now, a new examination of previously published Snowden documents suggests that many of those people may have been innocent.
Last year, The Intercept published documents detailing the NSA’s SKYNET programme. According to the documents, SKYNET engages in mass surveillance of Pakistan’s mobile phone network, and then uses a machine learning algorithm on the cellular network metadata of 55 million people to try and rate each person’s likelihood of being a terrorist.
Patrick Ball — a data scientist and the director of research at the Human Rights Data Analysis Group — who has previously given expert testimony before war crimes tribunals, described the NSA’s methods as “ridiculously optimistic” and “completely bullshit.” A flaw in how the NSA trains SKYNET’s machine learning algorithm to analyse cellular metadata, Ball told Ars, makes the results scientifically unsound. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Faheem Qureshi’s uncles sat with their neighbors, chatting, cracking jokes and sipping tea, in their family’s lounge for male guests. Qureshi, almost 14, stood nearby, bored and restless, thinking about when he could go to the nearby playground where he and the other Ziraki village kids played badminton and cricket.
It had been a long day – Friday prayers, a food shopping errand at his mother’s behest, hosting – but also a happy occasion, as people stopped by to welcome an uncle home to North Waziristan, in tribal Pakistan, from a work excursion to the United Arab Emirates. Then he heard a sound like a plane taking off.
About two seconds later, the missile punched a hole through the lounge. Qureshi remembers feeling like his body was on fire. He ran outside, wanting to throw water on his face, but his priority was escape. The boy could not see.
This was the hidden civilian damage from the first drone strike Barack Obama ever ordered, on 23 January 2009, the inauguration of a counter-terrorism tactic likely to define Obama’s presidency in much of the Muslim world. It was the third day of his presidency. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: When Michael Haas, a former senior airman with the US air force, looks back on the missions he flew over Afghanistan and other conflict zones in a six-year career operating military drones, one of the things he remembers most vividly is the colorful language airmen would use to describe their targets. A team of three would be sitting, he recalls, in a ground control station in Creech air force base outside Las Vegas, staring at computer screens on to which images would be beamed back from high-powered sensors on Predator drones thousands of miles away.
The aim of the missions was to track, and when the conditions were deemed right, kill suspected insurgents. That’s not how they put it, though. They would talk about “cutting the grass before it grows out of control”, or “pulling the weeds before they overrun the lawn”.
And then there were the children. The airmen would be flying the Predators over a village in the tribal areas of Pakistan, say, when a series of smaller black shadows would appear across their screens – telling them that kids were at the scene.
They called them “fun-sized terrorists”.
Haas is one of four former air force drone operators and technicians who as a group have come forward to the Guardian to register their opposition to the ongoing reliance on the technology as the US military’s modern weaponry of choice. Between them, the four men clocked up more than 20 years of direct experience at the coalface of lethal drone programs and were credited with having assisted in the targeted killings of hundreds of people in conflict zones – many of them almost certainly civilians. [Continue reading…]
Musa al-Gharbi writes: The sweeping language in the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) has empowered both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to interpret their counterterrorism mandate broadly, to include targets ranging from the Taliban to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Boko Haram and other Al-Qaeda affiliates around the world.
The U.S. drone program, which aims to eliminate high-value targets from these organizations and disrupt imminent terrorist plots against the United States, has been a key component of their efforts.
However, critics have questioned the program’s effectiveness for some time. For example, U.S. officials didn’t always know whom they were killing or what group the targets belong to — let alone whether or not they committed any grievous crime or posed a meaningful threat to U.S. personnel or interests. Moreover, those killed in the drone strikes were generally not high-value targets, but low-level militants, a term denoting any military-aged male killed in the campaign. [Continue reading…]
This week, The Intercept published a series of articles on U.S. drone warfare, “The Drone Papers” — a title clearly intended to evoke memories of “The Pentagon Papers,” leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971.
Micah Zenko, a senior fellow with the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes:
Having read probably every major reported story about U.S. counterterrorism operations for the past dozen years, I am consistently disappointed that journalists leave out essential context, history, or directly relevant previous reporting by other journalists. Often, what is promoted as an “exclusive” or “breaking” story can only be described this way by omission. Whether that omission is done unconsciously, due to a lack of knowledge of others’ work, or mandated by space constraints for print editions, it misleads readers about the uniqueness of the story reported. Thankfully, the Intercept has taken the time to put its stories into context and explicitly name and link to the work of other journalists and even academics. This is a model that all national security journalists should emulate.
Nevertheless, Zenko reaches this conclusion:
as impressive and important as “The Drone Papers” are, I am sadly certain that this balanced reporting and its eye-opening disclosures will not compel any new concerns or investigations in Washington. Nor should we ever expect them under this president and this Congress.
For researchers and human rights activists, reporting of this kind is bound to be welcomed, yet it’s debatable whether it contains any significant eye-opening disclosures. Indeed, I have my doubts about whether any major piece of investigative journalism can be based on Powerpoint presentations.
Only 15 copies of the Pentagon Papers were officially made. How many analysts, contractors, and other officials have had access to the so-called Drone Papers? If we knew that, we would probably be able to infer more about the position of the source and likewise assess whether the documents contain any closely guarded secrets.
Even though the Obama administration has been seriously lacking in transparency when it comes to the mechanics and legal rationales it has applied during a period in which it has succeeded in normalizing assassination, the fact that most Americans support drone warfare does not seem to be the result of a lack of information.
The American public is famously ignorant — especially when it comes to foreign affairs — yet I don’t believe that those Americans who support drone strikes do so because they don’t know enough about how the government decides who can justifiably be assassinated.
If the target is a man with a dark skin, an Arabic name, he wears a beard and baggy clothing, he has been deemed dangerous enough to be called a terrorist and is located in Pakistan, Yemen, or Somalia, that in many Americans’ eyes is sufficient “due process” to incinerate him with a Hellfire missile.
The bureaucratic process leading up to such a missile strike is a legal and political structure built upon a broad social foundation.
That social foundation is what allowed President Obama to joke about drone strikes and what gave him the confidence to pursue a policy of assassination.
Prudence required the construction of necessary legal protections so that no one in the chain of command might later face prosecution, and yet what must have convinced Obama that he was entitled to claim the authority to sign death warrants was his well-founded belief that he was in alignment with the mood and values of the American public.
The permissive atmosphere that facilitated the implementation and expansion of drone warfare has always hinged on the assumptions that it takes place in parts of the world so forbidding that no American would want to be sent there and that those whose lives get snuffed out would never be welcome on these shores.
These are not political or legal considerations, but rather visceral sentiments about what it means to be an American and how little value is attached to the rest of the world and its inhabitants.
Moreover, drone warfare has been deemed acceptable not only because of who it targets and where it takes place, but also because it embodies the most popular conception of American justice.
The only so-called advanced nation on this planet that still applies the death penalty is one in which justice is primarily conceived in terms of retribution.
The legal process, rather than being seen as the method for administering justice, is just as often viewed as an impediment to the application of justice. From this perspective, drone warfare far from undermining the rule of law has instead, in the eyes of many Americans, made it more efficient.
Those American observers who choose to characterize drone warfare as an expression of the national security state gone wild, are also conveniently ignoring the culpability of fellow Americans. Blame the government and then everyone else remains innocent.
In reality, Obama was only able to sign off on drone strikes because he was getting a quiet nod from most Americans.
Jillian Schwedler writes: The narrative that the West, and especially the United States, fears the Muslim world is powerful and pervasive in the region. The U.S. intervenes regularly in regional politics and is a steadfast ally of Israel. It supports Saudi Arabia and numerous other authoritarian regimes that allow it to establish permanent U.S. military bases on Arab land. It cares more about oil and Israel than it does about the hundreds of millions in the region suffering under repressive regimes and lacking the most basic human securities. These ideas about the American role in Middle East affairs – many of them true – are among those in wide circulation in the region.
Al-Qaida has since 1998 advanced the argument that Muslims need to take up arms against the United States and its allied regimes in the region. Yet al-Qaida’s message largely fell on deaf ears in Yemen for many years. Yes, it did attract some followers, mostly those disappointed to have missed the chance to fight as mujahidin in Afghanistan. But al-Qaida’s narrative of attacking the foreign enemy at home did not resonate widely. The movement remained isolated for many years, garnering only limited sympathy from the local communities in which they sought refuge.
The dual effect of U.S. acceleration in drone strikes since 2010 and of their continued use during the “transitional” period that was intended to usher in more accountable governance has shown Yemenis how consistently their leaders will cede sovereignty and citizens’ security to the United States. While Yemenis may recognize that AQAP does target the United States, the hundreds of drone strikes are viewed as an excessive response. The weak sovereignty of the Yemeni state is then treated as the “problem” that has allowed AQAP to expand, even as state sovereignty has been directly undermined by U.S. policy – both under President Ali Abdullah Salih and during the transition. American “security” is placed above Yemeni security, with Yemeni sovereignty violated repeatedly in service of that cause. Regardless of what those in Washington view as valid and legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats, the reality for Yemenis is that the United States uses drone strikes regularly to run roughshod over Yemeni sovereignty in an effort to stop a handful of attacks — most of them failed — against U.S. targets. The fact that corrupt Yemeni leaders consent to the attacks makes little difference to public opinion. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: Unmanned RAF aerial drones armed with Hellfire missiles have been patrolling the skies over Syria for months seeking to target British jihadis on a “kill list” drawn up by senior ministers on the UK National Security Council shortly after the election.
As the defence secretary Michael Fallon said ministers would not hesitate to approve further strikes against jihadis who have their own kill list, Jeremy Corbyn led a cross-party group of MPs who raised doubts about the change in strategy.
Corbyn said: “There has to be a legal basis for what’s going on. This is war without parliamentary approval. And in fact parliament specifically said no to this war in September 2013.”
Senior Liberal Democrats suggested that the RAF drone strike, which led to the killing of two British Islamic State members on 21 August, went beyond anything that would have been approved when Nick Clegg sat on the NSC. “The hawks have been let loose and are trying to test the boundaries of what is possible,” one former Lib Dem coalition source said. [Continue reading…]
Simon Jenkins writes: It sounded good, but did it sound right? David Cameron’s Commons explanation of the execution of three Britons in Syria eerily recalled Tony Blair on the Iraq war, that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” that posed “an imminent threat” to British national security.
Blair killed stone dead the thesis that such assertions by ministers should be taken on trust. The suspicion has to be that British intelligence had a tag on the suspect Britons for some time and got lucky. British planes had been operating over Syria all summer, with orders to disregard parliament’s veto on military action if targets were of sufficient “value”.
As it stands, the visible evidence against them related to events that had already taken place peacefully. The threats appear mere bravado. If not, the more reason for explaining what exactly was the threat, other than “recruitment”.
Cameron’s lawyers were content that action was essential to prevent what international law recognises as an “occurring or imminent” Article-51 threat, notified to the United Nations. That law envisaged an army moving to cross a frontier, not a 21-year-old Cardiff terrorist. [Continue reading…]