Chris Woods and Christina Lamb
February 7, 2012
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.’
Related article: Witnesses speak out
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.’
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.