The global battlefield: America’s war and the special relationship

What exactly is the British government doing about the US drone war?

Sophia Akram
3 February 2014

Over the tail end of 2013, the UK received a series of the much awaited ‘Dirty Wars’, which cited some of the shocking revelations exposed by investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill and director Richard Rowley in their feature length documentary, ‘Dirty Wars’, as it screened at cinemas nationwide. Joined by a panel of experts in the field, the preview left a shell-shocked audience to contemplate and debate the role western Governments play in countries that are, apparently, breeding terrorists.

The film opens with the aftermath of a night raid in Afghanistan on an Afghan police chief, his consequent murder along with that of two pregnant women living in his household. A witness sees US forces dig the bullets out of the dead bodies and attempt to cover the incident up. The story then goes on to uncover the existence of JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command who became exposed after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, but Scahill’s film brings to light their preceding and on-going covert activities in countries all over the world including Yemen and Somalia. As he puts it, ‘the world is a battlefield’.

In Scahill’s book of the same name he talks about the emergence of JSOC after Operation Eagle Claw in 1980, the failed rescue mission of the US Embassy in Iran involving delta forces. There was a recognition that what was needed was a special ops force that contained intelligence, SEALs and delta force. They were incredibly secret and their missions could only be sanctioned by the President. They were used in many counter-insurgency missions and built up that expertise. However, Donald Rumsfeld, Defence Secretary between 2001 and 2006, felt there was a need to streamline their operability even further and wanted to be able to circumvent the President and liaise directly with command to ensure efficient action. JSOC soon became ‘the prized possession in an unaccountable global war’.

As well as secret night raids, JSOC’s activities extended to kill capture campaigns, unmanned drone strikes and targeted assassinations including those of American citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni American Imam, and the unfortunate incidental killing of his son, Abdulrahman. It is perhaps the opening of Scahill’s book that strikes a chord, where he describes how the 16 year-old boy’s charred body could only be identified by his attributable mop of curly hair; a boy who ran away from his grandparents in search of his father in hiding in Yemen. If it is not the condemnation and assassination of father Anwar, without fair trial or sentence, that casts doubt on the actions of JSOC, then it is certainly the drone that annihilated his son, an innocent enjoying a picnic with his cousins.

At the panel debate, Cori Crider, Strategic Director of Reprieve, spoke of the organisation’s representation of Faisal bin Ali Jaber. Faisal, an engineer in Yemen, lost his nephew Waleed and brother-in-law Salem, a local Imam strongly and vocally opposed to Al-Qaeda, in a drone strike on the 29th August 2013 after three men arrived to visit Salem after one of his sermons. However, the papers reported that five militants had been killed in the incident. Faisal is appealing to President Obama to pay regard to the innocent loss of life drone strikes cause but to date Faisal has not received an apology or acknowledgement of the death of his family members. The worrying strategy used by drones is the ‘pattern of life movements, particularly at night’ that make attacks unprecise, Cori says.

Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, also on the panel, recently launched a report on US Drones in Pakistan called ‘Will I Be Next?’. He says that from all of the meetings with US officials that he’s had since the release of the report, they insist that they would not kill people unless they were targeted. However, the evidence from Amnesty’s report suggests otherwise as they document nine detailed field investigations where innocent civilians have perished, including grandmother, Mamana Bibi, killed by a drone strike while collecting okra in the family fields. The reasons for the killing are unclear as, like Faisal’s relatives, no explanation, acknowledgement or apology has emerged from US authorities. There is no ability to even assess whether Mamana Bibi’s death was collateral damage or if she was mistaken for a Taliban fighter. If the latter, then why were the necessary precautions not taken to ensure the surgical precision that is claimed for the application of drone strikes? Mustafa says that the main aim of the report was to tell the stories of the victims, ‘They want acknowledgement that something wrong had happened’.

While it is easy to see the extrajudicial activities of the US as simply their global war on terror, the UK has its role. According to Tom Watson MP, chair of the UK All parliamentary Group on Drones, the US/UK special relationship is between GCHQ and the NSA and it’s this intelligence sharing that directly facilitates the US with its assassination policy. As well as American citizens like Anwar al-Awlaki, there are British citizens that are of interest to the US and who make it on to their kill list. This has prompted, in some cases, the Home Secretary to invoke a little known power available under the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006, to strip UK citizens with dual nationality of their UK citizenship if she is satisfied that it would be conducive to the public good. This has happened on at least four occasions (as reported by the Guardian in June 2013) when the individual has left the country. As well as this worrying trend, there is the issue of operability of the drones and there are 11 domestic state agencies that have permission to fly drones in the UK as stated in a recent blog post of the all party group. However, further information on this has not been attainable, even via Freedom of Information requests. Least of all however, the UK is culpable perhaps through its denials on drones and surveillance and lack of voice in holding the US to account for their actions. As stated in Amnesty’s report, ‘The USA has an obligation under international law to ensure prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations are conducted into the cases documented in this report and in all other strikes where there are reasonable grounds to indicate that unlawful killings have occurred.’ Neither the UK nor in fact the Pakistani government or any other government has called for accountability.

The panel are clear, as are indeed the filmmakers, that these actions, aimed to target potential terrorists and reduce the threat against national security, will in fact induce the opposite response and cause further outrage with ‘the war on terror turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy’ as Scahill declares at the end of the film. As one of the audience members earnestly asks, when so much can be justified for counter-insurgency, how can we do it better? The echoes of winning hearts and minds were projected, a game not likely to be won when those minds and hearts are being banked on as collateral.

For further information on the use of drones, the UK organisation, Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been collecting data on casualties and the All Party Parliamentary Group on drone produces a blog on UK activity. Remaining UK screenings of Dirty Wars, which has been shortlisted for the 2014 Oscars Documentary Feature category, can be found at and is available to download on iTunes. The book of the same name is available at selected retailers.

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