Tag Archives: Federally Administered Tribal Areas

Drone Strikes: How to Deal with Surgically Implanted Explosive Devices

Menwith Hill  a Royal Air Force station near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, England has been described as the largest electronic monitoring station in the world.

The documents, provided to the Guardian by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and reported in partnership with the New York Times, discuss how a joint US, UK and Australian programme codenamed Overhead supported the strike in Yemen in 2012….

British officials and ministers follow a strict policy of refusing to confirm or deny any support to the targeted killing programme, and evidence has been so scant that legal challenges have been launched on the basis of single paragraphs in news stories.

The new documents include a regular series of newsletters – titled Comet News – which are used to update GCHQ personnel on the work of Overhead, an operation based on satellite, radio and some phone collection of intelligence. Overhead began as a US operation but has operated for decades as a partnership with GCHQ and, more recently, Australian intelligence.

The GCHQ memos, which span a two-year period, set out how Yemen became a surveillance priority for Overhead in 2010, in part at the urging of the NSA, shortly after the failed 2009 Christmas Day bomb plot in which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden in his underpants on a transatlantic flight.  Ten months later a sophisticated plot to smuggle explosives on to aircraft concealed in printer cartridges was foiled at East Midlands airport. Both plots were the work of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based al-Qaida offshoot.

One Comet News update reveals how Overhead’s surveillance networks supported an air strike in Yemen that killed two men on 30 March 2012. The men are both described as AQAP members.  In the memo, one of the dead men is identified as Khalid Usama – who has never before been publicly named – a “doctor who pioneered using surgically implanted explosives”. The other is not identified…

US officials confirmed to Reuters in 2012 that there had been a single drone strike in Yemen on 30 March of that year. According to a database of drone strikes maintained by the not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the only incident in Yemen on that date targeted AQAP militants, causing between six and nine civilian casualties, including six children wounded by shrapnel.  Asked whether the strike described in the GCHQ documents was the same one as recorded in the Bureau’s database, GCHQ declined to comment.

The incident is one of more than 500 covert drone strikes and other attacks launched by the CIA and US special forces since 2002 in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – which are not internationally recognised battlefields.  The GCHQ documents also suggest the UK was working to build similar location-tracking capabilities in Pakistan, the country that has seen the majority of covert strikes, to support military operations “in-theatre”.

A June 2009 document indicates that GCHQ appeared to accept the expanded US definition of combat zones, referring to the agency’s ability to provide “tactical and strategic SIGINT [signals intelligence] support to military operations in-theatre, notably Iraq and Afghanistan, but increasingly Pakistan”. The document adds that in Pakistan, “new requirements are yet to be confirmed, but are both imminent and high priority”….

By this point NSA and GCHQ staff working within the UK had already prioritised surveillance of Pakistan’s tribal areas, where the majority of US covert drone strikes have been carried out. A 2008 memo lists surveillance of two specific sites and an overview of satellite-phone communications of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in which nearly all Pakistan drone strikes have taken place, among its key projects.

British intelligence-gathering in Pakistan is likely to have taken place for a number of reasons, not least because UK troops in Afghanistan were based in Helmand, on the Pakistani border.One of the teams involved in the geo-location of surveillance targets was codenamed “Widowmaker”, whose task was to “discover communications intelligence gaps in support of the global war on terror”, a note explains.

Illustrating the close links between the UK, US and Australian intelligence services, Widowmaker personnel are based at Menwith Hill RAF base in Yorkshire, in the north of England, in Denver, Colorado, and in Alice Springs in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Other Snowden documents discuss the difficult legal issues raised by intelligence sharing with the US….The UK has faced previous legal challenges over the issue. In 2012, the family of a tribal elder killed in Pakistan, Noor Khan, launched a court case in England in which barristers claimed GCHQ agents who shared targeting intelligence for covert strikes could be “accessory to murder”. Judges twice refused to rule on the issue on the grounds it could harm the UK’s international relations.

Excerpts from Alice Ross and James Ball,  GCHQ documents raise fresh questions over UK complicity in US drone strikes,  Guardian, June 24, 2015

The Drone War in Pakistan and have-nothing-to-lose Attitude

Expressing both public and private frustration with Pakistan, the Obama administration has unleashed the CIA to resume an aggressive campaign of drone strikes in Pakistani territory over the last few weeks, approving strikes that might have been vetoed in the past for fear of angering Islamabad.   Now, said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity in discussing sensitive issues, the administration’s attitude is, “What do we have to lose?”

Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made clear the deteriorating relations with Islamabad on Thursday, saying the United States is “reaching the limits of our patience” because Pakistan has not cracked down on local insurgents who carry out deadly attacks on U.S. troops and others in neighboring Afghanistan.  “It is difficult to achieve peace in Afghanistan as long as there is safe haven for terrorists in Pakistan,” Panetta told reporters here on the last stop of his nine-day swing through Asia. He made it clear that the drone strikes will continue.  The CIA has launched eight Predator drone attacks since Pakistan’s president, Asif Ali Zardari, was invited to attend the May 20-21 NATO summit in Chicago but refused to make a deal to reopen crucial routes used to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan, as the White House had hoped.

The CIA had logged 14 remotely piloted strikes on targets in Pakistan’s rugged tribal belt in the previous 5 1/2 months, according to the New America Foundation, a U.S. think tank that tracks reported attacks.  Obviously, something changed after Chicago,” said a senior congressional aide in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity in discussing a classified program. “I am only getting the official story, but even within the official story there is an acknowledgment that something has changed.”  Another congressional official said the surge in drone attacks stemmed in part from success in tracking down militants on the CIA’s target list, although only one has been publicly identified. It’s unclear who else has been targeted.

Pakistanis view the drone strikes as an attempt to intimidate their civilian and military leaders into giving in to U.S. demands. If that’s the strategy, it won’t work, said experts and analysts in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.  “They are trying to send a message: ‘If you don’t come around, we will continue with our plan, the way we want to do it,’ ” said Javed Ashraf Qazi, a retired Pakistani intelligence chief and former senator. It’s “superpower arrogance being shown to a smaller state…. But this will only increase the feeling among Pakistanis that the Americans are bent on having their way through force and not negotiation.”

A White House official said no political or foreign policy considerations would have prevented the CIA from taking action when it found Abu Yahya al Libi, Al Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, who was killed by a drone-fired missile in Pakistan on Monday.

Pakistan blocked truck convoys hauling North Atlantic Treaty Organization war supplies from the port city of Karachi after a clash near the Afghan border in November led to errors andU.S. military helicopters accidentally killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers.  As part of the fallout, Pakistan ordered the U.S. to leave an air base in the country’s southwest that the CIA had used to launch drone flights bound for targets in the tribal areas. Since then, the aircraft reportedly have flown from across the border in Afghanistan.  The U.S. initially halted all drone strikes for two months to ease Pakistani sensitivities, and the attacks resumed only sporadically after mid-January. By May, Pakistani officials were signaling a willingness to reopen the supply route to resurrect relations.

But talks deadlocked over Pakistan’s demands for sharply higher transit fees just before the NATO conference, and President Obama appeared to give Zardari a cold shoulder in Chicago. Pentagon officials will visit Islamabad this week for a new round of talks.  After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, Pakistan allowed NATO supplies to transit through its territory at no charge. It later levied a token $250 charge per truck. Islamabad now wants more than $5,000 per truck to reopen the road, a toll U.S. officials refuse to pay.  As an alternative to Pakistan, Washington concluded a deal this week to haul military gear out of landlocked Afghanistan through three Central Asian nations — Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan — as NATO coalition troops withdraw.

The senior U.S. official said the Obama administration and members of Congress were angered when a Pakistani court sentenced Shakeel Afridi, a doctor who helped the CIA search for Osama bin Laden, to 33 years in prison. Navy SEALs killed Bin Laden in May 2011 in the Pakistani garrison city of Abbottabad.  But Panetta chiefly stressed his dissatisfaction with Pakistan’s inability or unwillingness to clamp down on sanctuaries used by the Haqqani network, a militant group that has been blamed for numerous deadly attacks in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials say Haqqani fighters, including some wearing suicide vests, most recently were involved in an assault last week on Forward Operating Base Salerno, a U.S. base in southeastern Afghanistan. U.S. troops killed 14 insurgents and suffered no casualties, officials said.  Panetta’s complaint isn’t new, but his language was unusually bellicose.  He told a think tank audience in New Delhi on Wednesday that “we are at war in the FATA,” referring to the federally administered tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan where the Haqqani fighters and other insurgents have concentrated.  He later confirmed that the U.S. is targeting not just remaining Al Qaeda leaders but suspected militants from the Haqqani network and other Taliban-linked groups responsible for cross-border attacks. U.S. officials noted that Panetta leveled his charges in the capital of India, Pakistan’s archfoe.  “The tensions with Pakistan are clearly going up, not down,” said the second congressional official. “The fact that Panetta was talking about Pakistan in India tells you how frustrated people are.”

“If the U.S. feels it is doing very well in the war against Al Qaeda, OK,” said Riaz Khokhar, a former Pakistani foreign secretary. “But people in Pakistan don’t know who Al Libi is and don’t care who he is. What people care about is that Pakistani sovereignty is being violated repeatedly by drones.”….”We have made it very clear that we are going to continue to defend ourselves,” Panetta said in New Delhi. “This is about our sovereignty as well.”

David S. Cloud and Alex Rodriguez, CIA gets nod to step up drone strikes in Pakistan, Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2012

How to Kill a CEO: drones

The reported death of al-Qaida’s No. 2 leader has brought new attention to America’s reliance on unpiloted drone strike missiles as an effective way to go after terrorists, but also new animosity between the United States and its tenuous ally, Pakistan, over their use.  In addition, some groups are asserting that the drones are causing high numbers of civilian casualties in Pakistan.

Al-Qaida’s second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, was killed Aug. 22 in Waziristan, in northwestern Pakistan, according to U.S. officials. Rahman took over as second-in-command after Osama Bin Laden’s death and the subsequent promotion of Ayman al-Zawahiri.  Noman Benotman, formerly a commander in an Islamist militant group and associate of al-Qaida and now an analyst with Quilliam, a self-described counterextremism think tank, described Rahman as al-Qaida’s “CEO,” calling him “the one man al-Qaida could not afford to lose.”

The U.S. drone strike which killed Rahman is the latest in a series of strikes spanning several years. The attacks, centered in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, have targeted and disrupted al-Qaida militants and their allies. They also have inspired al-Qaida retaliation.

Reports vary regarding the precision of the strikes and number of militants killed as a result. The New York Times reported that CIA officers believe the drones have killed more than 600 militants and zero noncombatants since May 2010. President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, John Brennan, said that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.”

American assertions regarding noncombatant deaths have recently been subjected to scrutiny. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism examined Brennan’s statement of there not being “a single collateral death,” and reported that since August 2010 there have been “at least 10 individual attacks in which 45 or more civilians appear to have died.”  In a separate investigation, the Bureau reported that in the past seven years, a “minimum figure of 385 civilians [have been] reported killed” by the strikes, 168 of them children.

Chris Woods, lead drone researcher for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, told the NewsHour that an area of concern is that the CIA does not distinctly distinguish between legitimate targets and civilian noncombatants. “The question that really needs asking is who is a noncombatant? If the CIA is defining noncombatants in a certain way, then that is something that we need to understand.”

C. Christine Fair, a Georgetown University professor and expert on Pakistan, told the New York Times that drone strikes are “the least indiscriminate, least inhumane tool we have” to fight al-Qaida, but that there should be greater transparency surrounding the strikes “to the benefit of the drone program.” Fair told the NewsHour that the current covert nature of the program fuels suspicion and anti-American propaganda. “This is not secret, so treating it like one makes the policy unsustainable.”…..

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, while visiting Afghanistan last month, asserted that the demise of al-Qaida is imminent, depending on whether the U.S. kills or captures around 20 remaining leading figures in the organization.”Now is the moment, following what happened with bin Laden, to put maximum pressure on them,” Panetta said.

By: Douglas Johnson, U.S. Drone Attacks on Suspected Terrorists Stir Controversy, PBS, Aug. 29, 2011