Tag Archives: civilian populations

The Drone War in Yemen; surgical strikes or a relentless signature campaign?

The CIA is seeking authority to expand its covert drone campaign in Yemen by launching strikes against terrorism suspects even when it does not know the identities of those who could be killed, U.S. officials said.   Securing permission to use these “signature strikes” would allow the agency to hit targets based solely on intelligence indicating patterns of suspicious behavior, such as imagery showing militants gathering at known al-Qaeda compounds or unloading explosives.

The practice has been a core element of the CIA’s drone program in Pakistan for several years. CIA Director David H. Petraeus has requested permission to use the tactic against the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, which has emerged as the most pressing terrorism threat to the United States, officials said.  If approved, the change would probably accelerate a campaign of U.S. airstrikes in Yemen that is already on a record pace, with at least eight attacks in the past four months.  For President Obama, an endorsement of signature strikes would mean a significant, and potentially risky, policy shift. The administration has placed tight limits on drone operations in Yemen to avoid being drawn into an often murky regional conflict and risk turning militants with local agendas into al-Qaeda recruits.  A senior administration official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal deliberations, declined to talk about what he described as U.S. “tactics” in Yemen, but he said that “there is still a very firm emphasis on being surgical and targeting only those who have a direct interest in attacking the United States.”  U.S. officials acknowledge that the standard has not always been upheld. Last year, a U.S. drone strike inadvertently killed the American son of al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki. The teenager had never been accused of terrorist activity and was killed in a strike aimed at other militants.  Some U.S. officials have voiced concern that such incidents could become more frequent if the CIA is given the authority to use signature strikes.  “How discriminating can they be?” asked a senior U.S. official familiar with the proposal. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen “is joined at the hip” with a local insurgency whose main goal is to oust the country’s government, the official said. “I think there is the potential that we would be perceived as taking sides in a civil war.”  U.S. officials said that the CIA proposal has been presented to the National Security Council and that no decision has been reached. Officials from the White House and the CIA declined to comment.

Proponents of the plan said improvements in U.S. intelligence collection in Yemen have made it possible to expand the drone campaign — and use signature strikes — while minimizing the risk of civilian casualties.  They also pointed to the CIA’s experience in Pakistan. U.S. officials said the agency killed more senior al-Qaeda operatives there with signature strikes than with those in which it had identified and located someone on its kill list.  In Pakistan, the CIA “killed most of their ‘list people’ when they didn’t know they were there,” said a former senior U.S. military official familiar with drone operations.  The agency has cited the Pakistan experience to administration officials in arguing, perhaps counterintuitively, that it can be more effective against al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate if it doesn’t have to identify its targets before an attack. Obama, however, ruled out a similar push for such authority more than a year ago.

The CIA, the National Security Agency and other spy services have deployed more officers and resources to Yemen over the past several years to augment counterterrorism operations that were previously handled almost exclusively by the U.S. Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

The CIA began flying armed drones over Yemen last year after opening a secret base on the Arabian Peninsula. The agency also has worked with the Saudi and Yemeni intelligence services to build networks of informants — much the way it did in Pakistan before ramping up drone strikes there.

The agency’s strategy in Pakistan was centered on mounting a drone campaign so relentless that it allowed no time between attacks for al-Qaeda operatives to regroup. The use of signature strikes came to be seen as critical to achieving that pace.  The approach involved assembling threads of intelligence from multiple sources to develop telltale “signatures” of al-Qaeda activity based on operatives’ vehicles, facilities, communications equipment and patterns of behavior.  A former senior U.S. intelligence official said the CIA became so adept at this that it could tell what was happening inside an al-Qaeda compound — whether a leader was visiting or explosives were being assembled, for example — based on the location and number of security operatives surrounding the site.  The agency might be able to replicate that success in Yemen, the former intelligence official said. But he expressed skepticism that White House officials, including counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan, will approve the CIA’s request.  The situation in Pakistan’s tribal territory “is far less ambiguous than in Yemen,” the former official said. “Brennan has been deliberate in making sure targets we hit in Yemen are terrorist targets and not insurgents.”  As a result, the CIA has been limited to “personality” strikes in Yemen, meaning it can fire only in cases where it has clear evidence that someone on its target list is in a drone’s crosshairs.  Often, that requires information from multiple sources, including imagery, cellphone intercepts and informants on the ground….

Which U.S. entity is responsible for each strike remains unclear. In Pakistan, the CIA carries out every drone strike. But in Yemen, the United States has relied on a mix of capabilities, including drones flown by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, as well as conventional military aircraft and warships parked off the coast.  The JSOC has broader authority than the CIA to pursue militants in Yemen and is not seeking permission to use signature strikes, U.S. officials said.

Excerpts, Greg Miller,CIA seeks new authority to expand Yemen drone campaign, Wasthington Post, April 18

See also

Who is the Boss? the CIA or JSOC

The Drone War in Yemen

The CIA Drone Program as a Violation of Human Rights

UK to Blame for the CIA Drone War?

A human rights group and a law firm took legal action Monday (March 12, 2012) against the British government, accusing it of passing on intelligence to assist U.S. covert drone attacks in Pakistan.  The London-based charity Reprieve and the law firm Leigh Day & Co. are filing papers to the High Court claiming that civilian staff at Britain’s electronic listening agency, GCHQ, could be liable as “secondary parties to murder” for providing “locational intelligence” to the CIA in directing its drone attack program.

The two are acting on behalf of Noor Khan, 27, a Pakistani whose father was killed by a drone strike in northwest Pakistan in March 2011 while attending a gathering of elders. More than 40 other people were killed in that attack, they said.

Reprieve, which helps death row prisoners and Guantanamo Bay inmates, urged the British government to be more transparent about its role — if any — in the drone program.  “What has the government got to hide? If they’re not supplying information as part of the CIA’s illegal drone war, why not tell us?” Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith said.

British officials have never commented publicly on the drones. The Foreign Office and GCHQ declined comment on the legal action Monday, saying they could not speak about ongoing legal proceedings or and intelligence matters.

Since 2004, CIA drones have targeted suspected militants with missile strikes in the Pakistani tribal regions, killing hundreds of people. The program is controversial because of questions about its legality, the number of civilians it has killed, and its impact on Pakistan’s sovereignty.  U.S. officials do not publicly acknowledge the covert drone program but they have said privately that the strikes harm very few innocents and are key to weakening Al Qaeda and other militant groups.

Leigh Day & Co. did not detail what evidence the firm has regarding Britain’s alleged role in the drone program, but it cited media reports that quoted an anonymous GCHQ source as saying that the assistance it gave to the U.S. authorities was in ‘strict accordance’ with the law.  The law firm disputed that, saying GCHQ staff may be guilty of war crimes by passing along detailed intelligence to a drone program that violates international humanitarian law.

UK government sued for helping US drone strikes, Associated Press, March 12, 2012

Cluster Bombs Ban Blocked by US, China and Russia

Four years of bargaining over cluster munitions have failed—despite a drive by America, backed by Russia and China, to promote a deal that would have curbed but not banned the devices.  Cluster weapons are a prime target for arms-control campaigners because of their indiscriminate effect. Such bombs or shells typically scatter hundreds of smaller submunitions over an area the size of a football pitch. When they work, they blast the enemy from the battlefield. But not every bomblet explodes. Those that remain menace civilians for decades, maiming, killing and blighting livelihoods. Children suffer most. Yet for most of the past decade, the big users and producers, the self-styled “key states”, have refused to consider any curb on their freedom to use the weapon. For years that stymied attempts to add a protocol on cluster munitions to the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW).

A turning point came in 2006 amid outrage over Israel’s use of cluster weapons in Lebanon. Frustration over the paralysis of the UN process prompted Norway, backed by campaigners, to launch talks on a separate treaty to ban the weapons. By 2008, some 94 countries, including most NATO members, had signed a convention in Oslo that comprehensively banned the production, use, stockpiling or sale and transfer of all cluster munitions. Since then the number of signatories has climbed to 109.

That progress set the wheels turning in the UN talks. The big users and producers made what would once have counted as big concessions: one was a ban on use of the cruder cluster munitions made before 1980. These are the most likely to fail, leaving deadly unexploded bomblets. In another gesture, the big states backed new rules on reporting the size of stockpiles. Their draft would at least have regulated the cluster munitions held by countries never likely to sign the Oslo agreement—in other words more than 85% of world stocks. It would also have led to the destruction of far more devices than the Oslo deal ever could. To counter the contention that its proposal was a step backwards, America inserted language that allowed for the possibility of higher standards being imposed in future.

But those arguments did not impress. The 50-plus countries that opposed the draft protocol, and the campaigners who egged them on, complained that the text still allowed the use of cluster munitions known to cause unacceptable harm. The International Committee of the Red Cross said the American proposal would simply stimulate the development of devices that met the new standards but might still be lethally unreliable; and backsliding from the Oslo rules would set a bad precedent.

The big countries were cross. America (which has argued that a total ban on cluster munitions would make life impossible for NATO) expressed “deep disappointment”. Russia grumbled that opponents were “irrational” and China said they would bear indirect responsibility for future cluster-bomb casualties. Whatever their public stance, some smaller countries that rather like cluster munitions may be privately rejoicing over the talks’ failure.

The failure also exemplifies the declining clout of the big powers. Delegates in Geneva stressed that in multilateral talks, every country has a vote: mighty states must not count on cajoling weaker ones. And all sides said the process was complicated by the scrutiny of do-gooding outfits. Startled delegates found their interventions relayed to the world by Twitter even before they had finished speaking. Such transparency, some warn, reduces the room for diplomatic manoeuvre. In talks where the best is often the enemy of the good, this lack of flexibility can cause harm.

Few see much prospect of the CCW returning to cluster bombs in the foreseeable future. Before that happens, the chances are that stray bomblets will ruin or end a lot more innocent lives.

Arms control: Dead munitions, Economist, Dec. 3, 2011, at 74

Massacres of Civilians during the Sri Lankan Civil War: government’s complicity

A U.N. panel has called for an independent investigation of “credible” allegations that tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war two years ago.  The fatality estimate used by the three-member expert panel is significantly higher than the 7,000 civilian deaths cited by the United Nations near the end of the last four months of the bloody conflict, although it’s unlikely that an exact figure will ever be established.

The panel, led by former Indonesian Atty. Gen. Marzuki Darusman, called on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to set up an independent investigation of allegations that both sides committed human rights violations, a move the government of the Indian Ocean island nation has strongly resisted.  Much of the report, to be released this week, was leaked to Sri Lanka’s Island newspaper, which published extracts Saturday. It comes down hard on the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, accusing it of deliberately shelling civilians, aid agencies and hospitals.  It also accuses the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as the Tamil Tigers, of forcibly recruiting ethnic Tamil citizens to fill the rebel group’s declining ranks of fighters.  The report said the group killed other Tamils who tried to flee as the Sri Lankan army surrounded them in a remote area of northeastern Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka, which has been highly critical of the U.N. and international scrutiny, condemned the 196-page report. Copies were given to Ban and the Sri Lankan government Tuesday.  “The government finds this report fundamentally flawed in many respects,” the External Affairs Ministry said in a statement, adding that it opposed an oversight panel from the start. “Among other deficiencies, the report is based on patently biased material which is presented without any verification.”  The report was hampered by the government’s unwillingness to cooperate. Panel members weren’t allowed to travel to Sri Lankan sites, interview officials or have access to official documents. Instead, the report’s authors relied on photos, video and testimony.  The Sri Lankan government also blocked journalists and international observers from going to the remote northeast during the conflict.  The panel said in its report that the government systematically shelled hospitals on the front lines, including all hospitals in the Vanni region, even though the government was well aware of their location.  “The government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering,” it said. “To this end, it purposely underestimated the number of civilians who remained in the conflict zone.”  The Tigers also used brutal tactics in the course of their unsuccessful quarter-century battle for a Tamil homeland, frequently using civilians as hostages and as a human buffer to separate themselves from the advancing Sri Lankan army. The Tamils finally acknowledged defeat in May 2009.  The rebel group “forced civilians to dig trenches for its own defenses, thereby contributing to blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians and exposing civilians to additional harm,” the report said. “Many civilians were sacrificed on the altar of the [Tamil Tiger] cause and its efforts to preserve its senior leadership.”

Mark Magnier,-