Tag Archives: Pakistan

The Double Tap Drone Strikes: attacking rescuers

FATA, image from wikipedia

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 casualtiesReports 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

United States, the Taliban, and the spin doctors

Days after deciding to blacklist an insurgent group linked to the Taliban and responsible for some of the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declined to say whether she also would brand the Taliban a foreign terrorist organization.  Asked in an interview yesterday with Bloomberg Radio if the Taliban — whose government gave sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terror network before the 2001 U.S. military actions — should be blacklisted, Clinton didn’t directly answer.

“You know, we do a very intensive analysis before we designate someone as a foreign terrorist organization,” she said. “We have reached that conclusion about the Haqqani Network, and we think it’s the right decision.”  Clinton’s decision on Sept. 7 to designate as a terrorist organization the Haqqani Network — a militant group with operations in Afghanistan and Pakistan that is closely affiliated with the Afghan branch of the Taliban [or simply another name for Taliban]– came after months of inter-agency debate.  One issue was the potential impact on already difficult relations with Pakistan. The Haqqanis operate from havens in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region with what U.S. officials have said are ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency.  Clinton said in the interview that blacklisting the Haqqanis wasn’t a message aimed at Pakistan.  “No, it is about squeezing” the Haqqanis, she said.  “It’s part of the continuing effort to try to send a message to them — not to anyone else, but to them — because of the really incredibly damaging attacks they have waged against us, against other targets inside Afghanistan, and it’s important that we use every tool at our disposal to go after them,” she said in the interview in Vladivostok, Russia, at the end of an 11-day trip through the Asia-Pacific.  The U.S. had already slapped the Haqqani group’s leaders with individual sanctions, and has long targeted them in military operations and clandestine drone strikes.Adding the Haqqanis to the group blacklist “gives us much greater reach into any financial assets or fundraising that they may engage in, it gives us better traction against assets that they might own,” Clinton said. “It’s important that we use every tool at our disposal to go after them.”

Though the Haqqanis were behind some of the highest-profile attacks on American and NATO interests in Afghanistan, including a day-long assault last year on the U.S. embassy in Kabul and an attack on NATO headquarters there, the debate on whether to blacklist them involved arguments that doing so might hinder U.S. policy goals.

The decision followed months of discussion within the White House, State Department, Pentagon, Treasury Department, Justice Department and the intelligence community over the merits and the timing of blacklisting the Haqqanis, according to officials from different agencies who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Opponents of blacklisting the Haqqanis had argued that slapping them with a label might hinder prospects for engaging them in reconciliation talks to take them off the battlefield. The same may be said of the Taliban…Another concern about blacklisting the Haqqanis — which can also be said of the Taliban — is that affixing a terror label to the group may affect U.S. relations with Pakistan. Some U.S. officials, including former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, have said Pakistani intelligence and security forces have aided the Haqqanis in order to wield influence in Afghanistan. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said Pakistan needs to do more to crack down on the group.  Pakistan also has ties with the Afghan Taliban, whose leadership is based in the Pakistani city of Quetta, according to U.S. intelligence officials.  The U.S. wants Pakistan to use its influence with the Taliban to engage them in serious peace talks with the Afghan government to help bring an end to the 11-year conflict.

Excerpts, Indira A.R. Lakshmanan, Clinton Doesn’t Say If Taliban Should Be on Terror List, BusinessWeek, Sept. 9, 2012

See also statement of Taliban in their website Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan

The Kill List and Drone Body Count

Just days after taking office, the president [Obamaa] got word that the first strike under his administration had killed a number of innocent Pakistanis. “The president was very sharp on the thing, and said, ‘I want to know how this happened,’ “ a top White House adviser recounted.  In response to his concern, the C.I.A. downsized its munitions for more pinpoint strikes. In addition, the president tightened standards, aides say: If the agency did not have a “near certainty” that a strike would result in zero civilian deaths, Mr. Obama wanted to decide personally whether to go ahead.

The president’s directive reinforced the need for caution, counterterrorism officials said, but did not significantly change the program. In part, that is because “the protection of innocent life was always a critical consideration,” said Michael V. Hayden, the last C.I.A. director under President George W. Bush.  It is also because Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.  Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good. “Al Qaeda is an insular, paranoid organization — innocent neighbors don’t hitchhike rides in the back of trucks headed for the border with guns and bombs,” said one official, who requested anonymity to speak about what is still a classified program.

This counting method may partly explain the official claims of extraordinarily low collateral deaths. In a speech last year Mr. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s trusted adviser, said that not a single noncombatant had been killed in a year of strikes. And in a recent interview, a senior administration official said that the number of civilians killed in drone strikes in Pakistan under Mr. Obama was in the “single digits” — and that independent counts of scores or hundreds of civilian deaths unwittingly draw on false propaganda claims by militants.

But in interviews, three former senior intelligence officials expressed disbelief that the number could be so low. The C.I.A. accounting has so troubled some administration officials outside the agency that they have brought their concerns to the White House. One called it “guilt by association” that has led to “deceptive” estimates of civilian casualties.  “It bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants,” the official said. “They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.”

Excerpt, JO BECKER and SCOTT SHANE, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, NY Times, May 29, 2012

Sovereigns or Unlawful Combatants? the US-Taliban Peace Talks

Taliban negotiators have begun holding preliminary talks with US officials in Qatar on plans for peace negotiations aimed at ending the decade-long war in Afghanistan, a former Taliban official said Sunday.”The actual peace talks have not yet begun — they are in the process of trust-building and obviously this will take some time,” Mawlavi Qalamuddin told AFP.  Qalamuddin, who once led the Taliban’s feared religious police when the hardline Islamists were in power, is now a member of the High Peace Council appointed by the government of President Hamid Karzai.  The Taliban, ousted from power by a US-led invasion in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, announced earlier this month that they planned to set up a political office in Qatar ahead of talks with Washington.  Qalamuddin said the delegation already in the Gulf state included Mohammad Tayeb Agha, a close ally and secretary of Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Shahabuddin Delawar, the Taliban’s former ambassador to Riyadh.  With them were Sher Mohammad Abaas Stanikzai, former deputy foreign minister in the Taliban government, and Aziz-Ul Rahman, a former Taliban diplomat in Dubai, said Qalamuddin.”At the moment the delegation is holding preliminary talks. It’s in its very early phases. You need to build some trust before starting talks.”  One of the trust-building measures demanded by the Taliban is the release of five of its members from Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, while Washington wants the insurgents to renounce violence…..In another effort to soothe Karzai’s doubts, a delegation from the Qatar government is expected to visit Kabul to explain its role in the talks, High Peace Council secretary Aminundin Muzaffari told AFP.”We are expecting a delegation from Qatar to come to Kabul to discuss with us the role of Afghans in peace talks and when and how peace talks in Qatar should happen and proceed.”

Excerpt, Sardar Ahmad, Taliban, US negotiators meet in Qatar, Agence France Presse, Jan. 29, 2012

The CIA Drone Program as a Violation of Human Rights

The Central Intelligence Agency’s drone program has come under attack by human-rights groups who say they are preparing a broad-based campaign that will include legal challenges in courts in Pakistan, Europe and the U.S.  WSJ’s Evan Perez has exclusive details of a British-based group taking legal action over an October drone mission that killed two youths in Pakistan.  The nascent effort is being modeled after the challenges brought by some of the same groups against the administration of President George W. Bush over detentions at the Guantanamo Bay military prison and in secret CIA “black sites,” say lawyers involved in the planning.

The British-based charity Reprieve and its Pakistani partners, in an initial step, sent a letter Dec. 2 to the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, asking about his role in authorizing a drone strike on Oct. 31 that the lawyers said killed two youths, age 12 and 16. The letter offers Mr. Munter a chance to “disavow what happened” before the group files suit.  U.S. officials deny any youths were killed, and identified the dead as al Qaeda facilitators. U.S. officials say that the drones are a centerpiece of the campaign against al Qaeda and that the CIA takes extraordinarily steps to target only wanted militants and minimize civilian casualties.

Reprieve says the aim of the campaign is to hold senior U.S. officials responsible for possible human-rights violations in the drone attacks.The Obama “administration needs to think about the potential international legal liability of their officials,” said John Bellinger, a former legal adviser for the State Department during the Bush administration who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re convinced they’re on the side of the angels and can’t believe someone might accuse them of war crimes.”

There is some precedent in recent years for using lawsuits and public campaigns to embarrass the U.S. and compel disclosures.  Legal actions filed in the U.S. and Europe helped expose details of clandestine CIA programs, prompting some governments to scale back their cooperation. These include the agency’s practice of extraordinary rendition, in which the U.S. moved prisoners to third countries for detention and questioning.

Mr. Munter and his spokesman didn’t respond to requests to comment. Lawyers said the planned lawsuit will accuse the ambassador of being a co-conspirator in the two deaths.  Reprieve Director Clive Stafford Smith said the group was also preparing to press European governments to detail their role in providing intelligence that allegedly has been used in the U.S. strikes. He said the group also intends to target European companies which help to build components used in the drone program.

While earlier legal campaigns produced few victories for human-rights groups, the attention they generated in some cases moved public opinion, resulting in policy changes.  A U.S. lawsuit against Boeing Co.’s Jeppessen unit, for its role as a CIA contractor in rendition flights, was turned back in 2009 by U.S. courts. But during its years under litigation, it brought attention and helped expose details about the CIA program.

In the U.S., the American Civil Liberties Union last year used a lawsuit on behalf of the father of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American cleric who the U.S. said was a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to force the U.S. for the first time to explain why Mr. Awlaki was being targeted for killing.  The ACLU failed in the father’s aim to stop Mr. Awlaki from being killed. “That said, the case has served a purpose—it has provoked a public debate,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU lawyer who argued the case. He said the case “ultimately compelled the Obama administration to at least explain the understanding of the law. And ultimately the case was important in forcing a conversation about transparency.”  The ACLU is in discussions with family members about follow-up legal action. That includes a suit over another drone strike in Yemen that inadvertently killed the young son of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Mr. Smith acknowledged the uncertainty of bringing a lawsuit in Pakistan targeting Mr. Munter because of the immunities typically afforded to diplomats.  The letter sent by Reprieve’s Pakistani partners, the Foundation for Fundamental Rights, to Mr. Munter says Tariq Aziz, 16, and Waheed Khan, 12, were killed in a drone strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area just days after participating in meetings in Islamabad organized by Reprieve, which gave cameras to Tariq and others to document drone strikes.  The Foundation’s letter to Mr. Munter says he may share in the liability for the deaths because, as ambassador, he is consulted before each strike, and can raise objections. The letter cites reports by The Wall Street Journal describing Mr. Munter’s role in the process.  U.S. officials deny that any innocent civilians, or children in particular, were killed in the Oct. 31 strike. The officials said the CIA is able to differentiate between adults and children and said they believe the individuals killed were adults who were involved in al-Qaeda’s activities.

ADAM ENTOUS,EVAN PEREZ and SIOBHAN GORMAN, Drone Program Attacked by Human-Rights Groups, Wall Street Journal, Dec. 9, 2011

US Spies against Pakistan Spies, drones and attacks

A US drone strike in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt on Friday[Sept. 23, 2011] killed at least six militants including four foreigners and destroyed a compound, security officials said. Two missiles fired by the unmanned aircraft hit a house in the village of Khushali Turikhel, 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Miranshah, the main town in the lawless North Waziristan tribal district, security officials told AFP.  “The US drone fired two missiles which hit a house. Two locals and four militants of central Asian origin have been killed,” a Pakistani security official said. The official based in Peshawar said militants were using the house as a compound, which was completely destroyed.  Two intelligence officials based in Miranshah confirmed the attack and the number of casualties, adding that three militants whose identities were not yet clear were wounded in the strike.  Although the United States does not publicly confirm drone attacks, its military and the CIA in Afghanistan are the only forces that deploy the unmanned Predator aircraft in the region.

North Waziristan is the headquarters of the Haqqani leadership and the main militant bastion in the semi-autonomous tribal belt.  The Haqqani network is considered the deadliest enemy of US troops in eastern Afghanistan. It was founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani and is run by his son, Sirajuddin, both designated “global terrorists” by Washington.  The United States blames it over some of the most spectacular attacks in Afghanistan, such as last week’s 19-hour siege in Kabul and the 2009 killing of seven CIA agents, and accuses Pakistani spies of having ties to the group.  In an unprecedented condemnation of Pakistan the US military’s top officer Admiral Mike Mullen said this week that the country’s main intelligence agency the ISI was actively supporting Haqqani network militants.  Pakistan has reacted angrily to the US allegations, saying they are “not acceptable” and warning that Washington stands to lose a vital ally.

Drone attacks are unpopular among many Pakistanis, who oppose the alliance with Washington and who are sensitive to perceived violations of sovereignty.   Around two dozen drone strikes have been reported in Pakistan since elite US forces killed Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a suburban home near Pakistan’s main military academy in Abbottabad, close to the capital, on May 2.  Pakistani-US relations sank to a new nadir after the unilateral American raid that killed bin Laden but in recent months had appeared to recover slightly.  Washington’s pressure on Islamabad to launch a decisive military campaign in North Waziristan, as Pakistan has conducted elsewhere in the tribal belt, has so far fallen on deaf ears.

US drone kills six militants in Pakistan: officials, Agence France Presse, Sept. 24, 2011

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