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…]
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…]