A field investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Pakistan’s tribal areas appears to confirm that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year briefly revived the controversial tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers at the scene of a previous drone strike. The tactic has previously been labelled a possible war crime by two UN investigators. The Bureau’s new study focused mainly on strikes around a single village in North Waziristan – attacks that were aimed at one of al Qaeda’s few remaining senior figures, Yahya al-Libi. He was finally killed by a CIA drone strike on June 4 2012. The Bureau’s field researcher found five double-tap strikes took place in mid-2012, one of which also struck a mosque.
Congressional aides have previously been reported as describing to the Los Angeles Times reviewing a CIA video showing Yahya al-Libi alone being killed. But the Bureau’s field research appears to confirm what others reported at the time – that al-Libi’s death was part of a sequence of strikes on the same location that killed up to 16 people. If correct, that would indicate that Congressional aides were not shown crucial additional video material.
The CIA has robustly rejected the charge. Spokesman Edward Price told the Bureau: ‘The CIA takes its commitment to Congressional oversight with the utmost seriousness. The Agency provides accurate and timely information consistent with our obligation to the oversight Committees. Any accusation alleging otherwise is baseless.’
The Bureau first broke the story of the CIA’s deliberate targeting of rescuers in a February 2012 investigation for the Sunday Times. It found evidence of 11 attacks on rescuers – so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes – in Pakistan’s tribal areas between 2009 and 2011, along with a drone strike deliberately targeting a funeral, causing mass casualties. Reports of these controversial tactics ended by July 2011. But credible news reports emerged a year later indicating that double-tap strikes had been revived. International media including the BBC, CNN and news agency AFP variously reported that rescuers had been targeted on five occasions between May 24 and July 23 2012, with a mosque and prayers for the dead also reportedly bombed.
The Bureau commissioned a report into the alleged attacks from Mushtaq Yusufzai, a respected journalist based in Peshawar, who reports regularly for NBC and for local paper The News. Over a period of months, Yusufzai – who has extensive government, Taliban and civilian contacts throughout Waziristan – built up a detailed understanding of the attacks through his sources. His findings indicate that five double-tap strikes did indeed take place again in mid-2012, one of which also struck a mosque. In total 53 people were killed in these attacks with 57 injured, the report suggests. Yusufzai could find no evidence to support media claims that rescuers had been targeted on two further occasions. No confirmed civilian deaths were reported by local communities in any of the strikes. A woman and three children were reportedly injured in one of the attacks. Yusufzai says: ‘It is possible some civilians were killed, but we don’t know’.
However a parallel investigation by legal charity Reprieve reports that eight civilians died in a double-tap strike on July 6 2012 (see below), with the possibility of further civilian deaths in a July 23 attack. Islamabad-based lawyer Shahzad Akbar says Reprieve’s findings are based on interviews with villagers from affected areas…
The rescuer strikes examined by Yusufzai all appear to have been aimed at very senior militants – so-called High Value Targets. Under international humanitarian law, the greater the threat a target represents, and the more imminent that threat is deemed to be, the greater the leeway for targeting. The Bureau’s findings suggest that strikes on rescuers are still permitted in certain circumstances, such as in the pursuit of a high value target such as Yahya al-Libi….
Bureau field researcher Mushtaq Yusufzai notes that civilians now rarely appear to take part in rescue operations, and are often prevented from doing so by militants. They also fear further CIA attacks, he says.
Chris Woods,Bureau investigation finds fresh evidence of CIA drone strikes on rescuers, Aug. 1, 2013