Tag Archives: drones Yemen

2015 Leaked Documents on US Drone War

Fire Scout Image from wikpedia

The Obama administration has portrayed drones as an effective and efficient weapon in the ongoing war with al Qaeda and other radical groups. Yet classified Pentagon documents obtained by The Intercept reveal that the U.S. military has faced “critical shortfalls” in the technology and intelligence it uses to find and kill suspected terrorists in Yemen and Somalia.
Those shortfalls stem from the remote geography of Yemen and Somalia and the limited American presence there. As a result, the U.S. military has been overly reliant on signals intelligence from computers and cellphones, and the quality of those intercepts has been limited by constraints on surveillance flights in the region.

The documents are part of a study by a Pentagon Task Force on Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance. They provide details about how targets were tracked for lethal missions carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, in Yemen and Somalia between January 2011 and summer 2012. When the study was circulated in 2013, the Obama administration was publicly floating the idea of moving the bulk of its drone program to the Pentagon from the CIA, and the military was eager to make the case for more bases, more drones, higher video quality, and better eavesdropping equipment.

Yet by identifying the challenges and limitations facing the military’s “find, fix, finish” operations in Somalia and Yemen — the cycle of gathering intelligence, locating, and attacking a target — the conclusions of the ISR study would seem to undermine the Obama administration’s claims of a precise and effective campaign, and lend support to critics who have questioned the quality of intelligence used in drone strikes.

One of the most glaring problems identified in the ISR study was the U.S. military’s inability to carry out full-time surveillance of its targets in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Behind this problem lies the “tyranny of distance” — a reference to the great lengths that aircraft must fly to their targets from the main U.S. air base in Djibouti, the small East African nation that borders Somalia and sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen. Surveillance flights are limited by fuel — and, in the case of manned aircraft, the endurance of pilots. In contrast with Iraq, where more than 80 percent of “finishing operations” were conducted within 150 kilometers of an air base, the study notes that “most objectives in Yemen are ~ 500 km away” from Djibouti and “Somalia can be over 1,000 km.” The result is that drones and planes can spend half their air time in transit, and not enough time conducting actual surveillance….

Compounding the tyranny of distance, the ISR study complained, was the fact that JSOC had too few drones in the region to meet the requirements mandated for carrying out a finishing operation.  The “sparse” available resources meant that aircraft had to “cover more potential leads — stretching coverage and leading to [surveillance] ‘blinks.’” Because multiple aircraft needed to be “massed” over one target before a strike, surveillance of other targets temporarily ceased, thus breaking the military’s ideal of a “persistent stare” or the “unblinking eye” of around-the-clock tracking.

JSOC relied on manned spy planes to fill the orbit gap over Yemen. In June 2012 there were six U-28 spy planes in operation in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula,..Only in the summer of 2012, with the addition of contractor-operated drones based in Ethiopia and Fire Scout unmanned helicopters, did Somalia have the minimum number of drones commanders wanted. The number of Predator drones stationed in Djibouti doubled over the course of the study, and in 2013, the fleet was moved from the main U.S. air base, Camp Lemonnier, to another Djibouti airstrip because of overcrowding and a string of crashes.

Expanding the use of aircraft launched from ships.

JSOC already made use of Fire Scout helicopter drones and small Scan Eagle drones off the coast of Somalia, as well as “Armada Sweep,” which a 2011 document from the National Security Agency, provided by former contractor Edward Snowden, describes as a “ship-based collection system” for electronic communications data. (The NSA declined to comment on Armada Sweep.)…

The find, fix, finish cycle is known in the military as FFF, or F3. But just as critical are two other letters: E and A, for “exploit and analyze,” referring to the use of materials collected on the ground and in detainee interrogations..  F3EA became doctrine in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s…

[But] Assassinations are intelligence dead ends.  The ISR study shows that after a “kill operation” there is typically nobody on the ground to collect written material or laptops in the target’s house, or the phone on his body, or capture suspects and ask questions. Yet collection of on-the-ground intelligence of that sort — referred to as DOMEX, for “document and media exploitation,” and TIR, for “tactical interrogation report” — is invaluable for identifying future targets.,,,[Another issue is whether the US government can rely on foreign governments for intelligence]….In 2011, for example, U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal that they had killed a local governor because Yemeni officials didn’t tell them he was present at a gathering of al Qaeda figures. “We think we got played,” one official said. (The Yemeni government disputed the report.)…
With limited ability to conduct raids or seize materials from targeted individuals in Yemen and Somalia, JSOC relied overwhelmingly on monitoring electronic communications to discover and ultimately locate targets.  The documents state bluntly that SIGINT is an inferior form of intelligence. Yet signals accounted for more than half the intelligence collected on targets, with much of it coming from foreign partners. The rest originated with human intelligence, primarily obtained by the CIA. “These sources,” the study notes, “are neither as timely nor as focused as tactical intelligence” from interrogations or seized materials.  Making matters worse, the documents refer to “poor” and “limited”capabilities for collecting SIGINT, implying a double bind in which kill operations were reliant on sparse amounts of inferior intelligence.

The disparity with other areas of operation was stark, as a chart contrasting cell data makes clear: In Afghanistan there were 8,900 cell data reports each month, versus 50 for Yemen and 160 for Somalia. Despite that, another chart shows SIGINT comprised more than half the data sources that went into developing targets in Somalia and Yemen in 2012.  Cellphone data was critical for finding and identifying targets, yet a chart from a Pentagon study shows that the military had far less information in Yemen and Somalia than it was accustomed to having in Afghanistan….

After locating a target, usually by his cellphone or other electronics, analysts would study video feeds from surveillance aircraft “to build near-certainty via identification of distinguishing physical characteristics.”

A British intelligence document on targeted killing in Afghanistan, which was among the Snowden files, describes a similar process of “monitoring a fixed location, and tracking any persons moving away from that location, and identifying if a similar pattern is experienced through SIGINT collect.” The document explains that “other visual indicators may be used to aid the establishment of [positive identification]” including “description of clothing” or “gait.” After a shot, according to the British document and case studies in the Pentagon’s ISR report, drones would hover to determine if their target had been hit, collecting video and evidence of whether the cellphone had been eliminated...  Yet according to the ISR study, the military faced “critical shortfalls of capabilities” in the technologies enabling that kind of precise surveillance and post-strike assessment. At the time of the study, only some of the Reaper drones had high-definition video, and most of the aircraft over the region lacked the ability to collect “dial number recognition” data.

Excerpts from Firing Blind, Intercept, the Drone Papers, Oct. 2015

How Germany is Used in CIA Drone Strikes

US Military Base in Germany Ramstein, image from wikipedia

The case of three Yemenis whose relatives were killed in the attack in August 2012, will be heard on Wednesday by a court in Cologne, Germany. Lawyers for the victims say the German government shares responsibility for the death of civilians because the US military base of Ramstein, which allegedly played a key role in the attack, is on German soil. The government rejects the claim.

Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who lost his brother-in-law Salim, a preacher, and his nephew Waleed, a police officer, in the strike on the village of Khashamir on 29 August, 2012,…Bin Ali Jaber, whose extended family had travelled back to the eastern Yemeni village to celebrate a wedding, had been having supper when he felt the impact of five rockets hitting the ground. Speaking in Arabic through a translator, he recalled leaving his house with his wife. “We found scattered body parts and people picking them up. We picked them up as well. It (soon) became apparent that Salim and Walid were among the victims. The incident was a tragedy in every way, for all the residents of Khashamir and the surrounding villages.”

Ramstein, in the German state of Rheinland Pfalz, is used by the US military on condition nothing is done there that violates German law. The German government has been repeatedly accused of failing to confront Washington over Ramstein’s alleged role in the drone war.The case rests on the claim that Ramstein is central to the drone strikes because it relays crucial information via satellite that enables drone operators in Nevada to communicate with the aircraft in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere.  The geographical location of Ramstein is said to be vital to the transmission of the information, because, due to the curvature of the earth, a relay station is needed between the US and the Middle East.

Der Spiegel and the Intercept website reported in April 2015  that Ramstein is critical to the US drone strikes, quoting experts, but the US government has so far failed to confirm or deny the claim.  The potential loss of Ramstein as a strategically located relay station would present the US with the tough challenge of finding an alternative country willing to offer it a hub, amid global controversy and growing unease over drone strikes.

Excerpts from Kate Connolly ,German court to hear case brought by relatives of Yemen drone attack victims, Guardian, May 22, 2015

The CIA Drone War: the 2014 Deaths Update

Predator drone

US drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for every intended target, new Reprieve report reveals
US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in failed attempts to kill 41 named individuals, a report by human rights charity Reprieve has found.The report looks at deaths resulting from US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan between November 2002 and November 2014. It identifies 41 men who appeared to have been killed multiple times – drawing into question the Obama administration’s repeated claims that the covert drone programme is ‘precise.’

While the US drone programme is shrouded in secrecy, security sources regularly brief the media on the names of those suspected militants targeted or killed in the strikes. Frequently, those individuals are reported to have been targeted or killed on multiple occasions.

Reprieve’s assessment is the first to provide an estimate of the number of people – including in some cases children – who are killed each time the US apparently attempts to assassinate a ‘high value target.’ Due to the US Government’s refusal to publish any information relating to the programme, or the ‘Kill List’ said to determine its targets, the analysis is limited to existing, publicly-available data from media reports and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Key findings of the report include:

In Pakistan, 24 men were reported as killed or targeted multiple times. Missed strikes on these men killed 874 people, including 142 children.
In Yemen, 17 men were reported killed or targeted multiple times. Missile strikes on these men killed 273 others and accounted for almost half of all confirmed civilian casualties and 100% of all recorded child deaths.
In targeting Ayman al Zawahiri, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults. They failed twice, and Ayman al Zawahiri is reportedly still alive.
It took the US six attempts to kill Qari Hussain, a Pakistani target. During these attempts, 128 people were killed, including 13 children.

Each assassination target on the US government’s so-called Kill List ‘died’ on average more than three times before their actual death.

The US government’s drone programme has come under increasing scrutiny after a number of strikes that hit large numbers of civilians by mistake. It was recently revealed – as a result of investigations by Reprieve – that the US government compensates civilian victims of drone strikes in Yemen.

Excerpt from US drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for every intended target, new Reprieve report reveals, Nov. 25, 2014 (You never Die Twice pdf)

The Drone War that’s in Full Force

desert Saudi Arabia. image wikipedia

There were more drone strikes in Pakistan last month (July 2013) than any month since January 2013. Three missile strikes were carried out in Yemen in the last week alone. And after Secretary of State John Kerry told Pakistanis on Thursday that the United States was winding down the drone wars there, officials back in Washington quickly contradicted him.  More than two months after President Obama signaled a sharp shift in America’s targeted-killing operations, there is little public evidence of change in a strategy that has come to define the administration’s approach to combating terrorism.  Most elements of the drone program remain in place, including a base in the southern desert of Saudi Arabia that the Central Intelligence Agency continues to use to carry out drone strikes in Yemen. In late May, administration officials said that the bulk of drone operations would shift to the Pentagon from the C.I.A.

But the C.I.A. continues to run America’s secret air war in Pakistan, where Mr. Kerry’s comments underscored the administration’s haphazard approach to discussing these issues publicly. During a television interview in Pakistan on Thursday, Mr. Kerry said the United States had a “timeline” to end drone strikes in that country’s western mountains, adding, “We hope it’s going to be very, very soon.”

But the Obama administration is expected to carry out drone strikes in Pakistan well into the future. Hours after Mr. Kerry’s interview, the State Department issued a statement saying there was no definite timetable to end the targeted killing program in Pakistan, and a department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, said, “In no way would we ever deprive ourselves of a tool to fight a threat if it arises.”

Some of those operations originate from a C.I.A. drone base in the southern desert of Saudi Arabia — the continued existence of which encapsulates the hurdles to changing how the United States carries out targeted-killing operations.  The Saudi government allowed the C.I.A. to build the base on the condition that the Obama administration not acknowledge that it was in Saudi Arabia. The base was completed in 2011, and it was first used for the operation that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical preacher based in Yemen who was an American citizen.

By MARK MAZZETTI and MARK LANDLER,Despite Administration Promises, Few Signs of Change in Drone War, New York Times, Aug. 2, 2013

Drone Warfare is Mainstream: yes, we like it

occupy drone warfare.  Image from https://www.facebook.com/OccupyDroneWarfare

Rand Paul’s filibuster (March 2012) drew renewed attention to the U.S. government’s program of drone warfare. Paul’s focus — whether Obama believed that he could legally authorize a drone strike on a U.S. citizen on American soil — ultimately earned a direct response from Attorney General Eric Holder.

But  the main targets of drones have been mostly foreigners living in countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. The irony, given all the attention and some plaudits given to Paul’s filibuster, is that most Americans support the use of drones to fight terrorists abroad. While Paul inveighed against a hypothetical killing, the actual killings that do happen are not that controversial in the minds of most Americans. An open question, however, is whether their minds could be changed.

Only last month, the Pew Center asked a random sample of Americans whether they supported “the United States conducting missile strikes from pilotless aircraft called drones to target extremists in countries such as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia?” A majority, 56 percent, approved while 26 percent disapproved and 18 percent were not sure — numbers similar to two 2012 polls.

In fact, drone strikes attracted roughly similar amounts of support from across the partisan spectrum: 68 percent of Republicans approved, as did 58 percent of Democrats and 51 percent of independents. A pattern of relative bipartisanship is not all that common in public opinion today, but it is predictable in this case. When leaders in the two parties don’t really disagree on something, there is no reason for partisans in the public to disagree either. In John Zaller’s magisterial account of how public opinion is formed and evolves, he refers to a pattern of bipartisanship like this one as a “mainstream effect.” Like it or not, drone warfare has become so common that “mainstream” does not sound inapt.

Thus, there is little reason to expect public opinion about the drone program to change without concerted and prolonged dissent from political leaders. That does not seem to be forthcoming. Paul’s dissent — which didn’t even emphasize foreign targets of American drones — was met with harsh rebuttals from Lindsay Graham, John McCain and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. Democrats were not exactly rushing to stand with Paul either.

Would dissent from Capitol Hill make any difference? Actually, it might. Some evidence suggests public support for drone warfare is soft. The Pew survey provides hints of that. The main concern about drones — one that 53 percent of the public was “very concerned” about — was civilian casualties, which occur with some regularity…

Excerpts from Ezra Klein, Most Americans approve of foreign drone strikes, Washington Post. Mar. 8, 2013

The Yemen Drone War

A U.S.-backed military onslaught may have driven Islamist militants from towns in Yemen they seized last year, but many have regrouped into “sleeper cells” threatening anew the areas they vacated, security officials and analysts say.  The resilience of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), despite increased U.S. drone strikes to eliminate militants, is worrying for top oil exporter Saudi Arabia next door and the security of major shipping lanes in the seas off Yemen.

When a nationwide uprising against autocratic rule erupted last year, tying up security forces and causing a power vacuum, militants charged into the major south Yemen towns of Zinjibar, Jaar and Shuqra and set up Islamic “emirates”.  To broad their appeal, the militants renamed themselves Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), appointed spokesmen to deal with the media and put up signposts and flags. Poverty, unemployment and alienation from a central government seen as aloof and corrupt spurred some young men to join the cause.  Residents said the militants included Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Chechens and Somalis, hinting at the international scope of the jihadi threat to Saudi and Western interests.

After President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally bowed to popular revolt and stepped down in February, the U.S.-backed Yemeni military swept in and wrested back southern towns from the militants, sometimes after heavy fighting.  But the south, where resentment of tribal domination from the north has long run high and a separatist movement revived in 2007, has since become a more dangerous place, residents say…A rash of deadly violence in the major southern province of Abyan ensued, indicating that Ansar militants were still lurking in the vicinity of the towns they had once controlled.  Nine jihadis including the head of the Jaar “emirate” Nader al-Shaddadi were killed by a U.S. drone missile fired into a farmhouse where they were hiding just outside town on October 19.  Five of the militants were teenagers from Jaar itself who had quietly moved into the farmhouse as a typical sleeper cell, a Yemeni security source told Reuters.

The next day, militants ambushed an army base in Shuqra, killing 16 soldiers, after apparently slipping out of lairs in the barren rugged mountains rearing up above the town.  “Most people are concerned about sleeper cells. We’re aware of it and people have started to be more careful,” said Hasan Ali Hasan, 35, from the Mansoura district of Aden where security forces raided some suspected “safe houses” this month.

In June, the commander of the army’s southern division, a southerner who replaced a Saleh ally from north Yemen in March, was killed by a car bomb in a suburb of Aden, the sprawling main city and port in the south. Security forces subsequently uncovered numerous caches of suicide belts in the area.  There have been dozens of other attacks and kidnappings by undercover militants targeting security and military officials.

Yemeni security sources said the two leading figures in Ansar al-Sharia, Nader al-Shaddadi and Galal Bil-Eidy, are believed to be sheltering in mountains around Shuqra where they form the link between urban cells in Aden and AQAP commanders like Nasser al-Wuhayshi tucked away in mountains to the north.  They said such regional militant chieftains had activated sleeper cells to carry out assassinations of security officials in Aden and attacks like the one in Shuqra.

Formed in 2009, AQAP has carved out a reputation as al Qaeda’s most formidable regional wing with suicide attacks on tourists, diplomats and operations against neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, and U.S. targets abroad….

Excerpt, Andrew Hammond, Al Qaeda goes underground in Yemen against U.S.-driven crackdown, Reuters, Oct 23 2012

Covert Operations in Pakistan Yemen and Somalia

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