Attacks by US drones have often been presented as forensic, yet only one in 25 victims in Pakistan were identifiably associated with al-Qaeda.
As the number of US drone strikes in Pakistan hits 400, following an 11 October attack in the Khyber region, research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism finds that only a minuscule proportion of those killed have been identified by available records as members of al-Qaeda. This calls into question the claim last year by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, that only “confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level” were fired at.
The bureau’s Naming the Dead project has gathered the names and, where possible, details of people killed by CIA drones in Pakistan since June 2004, drawing on a year of research within and outside Pakistan and a multitude of sources. The latter include Pakistani government records leaked to the bureau and hundreds of open-source reports in English, Pashtun and Urdu, as well as field investigations by bureau researchers and other organisations, including Amnesty International, Reprieve and the Centre for Civilians in Conflict.
Only 704 of the 2,379 dead have been identified and only 295 of these were reported to be members of some kind of armed group. Few corroborating details were available for those who were just described as “militants”. More than a third were not designated a rank and almost 30% were not even linked to a specific group. Only 84 were identified as members of al-Qaeda—less than 4% of the total killed. These findings “demonstrate the continuing complete lack of transparency surrounding US drone operations”, said Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International.
The US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden claimed that strikes were only carried out when there was “near-certainty” that no civilians would be killed. “The death of innocent civilians is something that the US government seeks to avoid if at all possible. In those rare instances in which it appears non-combatants may have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why, and to ensure that we are taking the most effective steps to minimise such risk to non-combatants in the future,” Hayden said.
The Obama administration’s stated legal justification for such strikes is based partly on the right to self-defence in response to an imminent threat. This has proved controversial, as leaked documents show the US believes determining if a terrorist is an imminent threat “does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future”.
The legal basis for the strikes also stems from the Authorisation for the Use of Military Force—a law signed by Congress three days after the 11 September 2001 attacks. It gives the president the right to use “all necessary and appropriate force” against those behind the attacks on the US, wherever they are. The text does not name any group. But the president, in a major foreign policy speech in May 2013, said this includes “al-Qaeda, the Taliban and its associated forces”.
“Judging by the sheer volume of strikes and the reliable estimates of total casualties, it is very unlikely that the majority of victims are senior commanders.”
It is not clear who is deemed to be “associated” with the Taliban. Hayden told the bureau that “an associated force is an organised armed group that has entered the fight alongside al-Qaeda and is a co-belligerent with al-Qaeda in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners”.
The Central Intelligence Agency itself does not seem to know the affiliation of everyone it kills. Secret CIA documents recording the identity, rank and affiliation of people targeted and killed in strikes in 2006-08 and 2010-11 were leaked to the McClatchy news agency in April last year. They identified hundreds of those killed as simply Afghan or Pakistani fighters, or as “unknown”.
Determining the affiliation even of those deemed to be “Taliban” is problematic. The movement has two branches: one, the Afghan Taliban, is fighting US and allied forces, and trying to re-establish the ousted Taliban government of Mullah Omar in Kabul. The other, the Pakistani Taliban or the TTP, is mainly focused on toppling the Pakistani state, putting an end to democracy and establishing a theocracy based on extreme ideology. Although the US did not designate the TTP as a foreign terrorist organisation until September 2010, the group and its precursors are known to have worked with the Afghan Taliban.
According to media reports, the choice of targets has not always reflected the priorities of the US alone. McClatchy reported that the US used its drones to kill militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas in exchange for Pakistani help in targeting al-Qaeda members. Three days before that April 2013 report, the New York Times revealed that the first known US drone strike in Pakistan, on 17 June 2004, had been part of a secret deal to gain access to Pakistani airspace. The CIA agreed to kill the target, Nek Mohammed, in exchange for permission for its drones to go after US enemies.
The “butcher of Swat”
Senior militants have been killed in the CIA’s 10-year drone campaign in Pakistan. But as the bureau’s work indicates it is far from clear that they comprise the only fatal victims or even the bulk of them. “Judging by the sheer volume of strikes and the reliable estimates of total casualties, it is very unlikely that the majority of victims are senior commanders,” said Qadri of Amnesty.
The bureau has only found 111 of those killed in Pakistan since 2004 described as a senior commander of any armed group—just 5% of the total. Research by the New America Foundation estimated the proportion of senior commanders to be even lower, at just 2%.
Among them are men linked to serious crimes, such as Ibne Amin, known as the “butcher of Swat“ for the barbaric treatment he and his men meted out to the residents of the Swat valley in 2008 and 2009. Others include Abu Khabab al Masri, an al-Qaeda chemical weapons expert. Drones also killed Hakimullah and Baitullah Mehsud, and Wali Ur Rehman, all senior leaders of the TTP.
There are 73 more people recorded in Naming the Dead who are described as mid-ranking members of armed groups. But someone’s rank is not necessarily a reliable guide to their importance in the organisation. “I think it really depends on what they are,” Rez Jan, a senior Pakistan analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told the bureau. “You can be a mid-level guy who is involved in [improvised explosive device] production or training in bomb-making or planting or combat techniques and have a fairly lethal impact in that manner.”
Rashid Rauf, a UK citizen killed in a November 2008 drone strike in Pakistan, is one al-Qaeda member who appears to have had an impact despite not rising to the organisation’s highest echelons.
He acted as a point of contact between the perpetrators of the 7 July 2005 attacks on the London Underground and their al-Qaeda controllers. He also filled a similar role linking al-Qaeda central with the men planning to bring down several airliners flying from London to the US in the 2006 “liquid bomb plot”.
The bureau has only been able to establish information about the alleged roles of 21 of those killed. Even this mostly consists of basic descriptions such as “logistician“ or “the equivalent of a colonel“.