The Secret History of US Drone Strikes in 2012 (Woods et al.)

write at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism:

Reported civilian deaths fell sharply in Pakistan in 2012, with Bureau data suggesting that a minimum of 2.5% of those reported killed were civilians – compared with more than 14% in 2011. This suggests the CIA is seeking to limit non-militant casualties, perhaps as a result of sustained criticism.

Drone strikes in Pakistan are now at their lowest level in five years, as Islamabad protests almost every attack. The CIA also appears to have abandoned ‘signature strikes’ on suspected militants fitting certain patterns of behaviour – at least for the present. Almost all attacks in recent months have been against named al Qaeda and other militant leaders.

As drone strikes fell in Pakistan they rose steeply in Yemen, as US forces aided a major military campaign to oust al Qaeda and other Islamists from southern cities. A parallel CIA targeted killing programme killed numerous alleged militants, many of them named individuals. Yet US officials took more than three months to confirm that American planes or drones had killed 12 civilians.

Little is still known about US drone strikes in Somalia, with only two credibly reported incidents in 2012. One of those killed was a British-Somali militant, Bilal al-Barjawi.

In 2012,the US also chose to loosen the bonds of secrecy on its 10-year-old drone targeted killing programme. A number of senior officials went on the record about aspects of the covert war. But details of those killed – still a highly contentious issue – remain classified.

The year also saw a number of significant legal challenges to the campaign, most of them ultimately unsuccessful. UN experts also announced a study into possible war crimes, partly in response to a Bureau/Sunday Times investigation.

A year of drones

President Obama became the first senior US official in eight years openly to discuss the covert drone programme in January, telling viewers of a Google Town Hall session that ‘a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area], and going after al Qaeda suspects.’

And he insisted that ‘actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties, for the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates.’

Days afterwards, the Bureau and the Sunday Times published evidence in February showing that the CIA has deliberately targeted rescuers and funeral-goers in Pakistan, leading to the reported deaths of civilians. The administration has yet to deny the claims – although one anonymous senior official appeared to claim that the Bureau was ‘helping al Qaeda.’

A major covert US military offensive in Yemen began in March. Its aim – in which it was successful – was to break al Qaeda’s grip on a number of towns and cities in the south of the country. By late spring, drone strikes were occurring more frequently in Yemen than in Pakistan.

One reason for a decline in Pakistani strikes may have been growing hostility. Some 74% of polled citizens said they viewed the US as an enemy, and uniquely Pakistan bucked a global trend to register as the only nation favouring Mitt Romney for president. In contrast, the American public appears to staunchly support covert drones – in one poll 83% of respondents were in favour of the strikes.

The British High Court was called on in April to look into US covert drone strikes and possible British co-operation, which some lawyers in the UK insist is illegal. Days before the end of the year the High Court declined to investigate. After years of inactivity, US and Pakistani courts also began to consider legal questions surrounding the campaign.

In one of the biggest news stories of the year, in May the New York Times revealed that President Obama was personally deciding whether to kill some individuals. The paper also revealed that the administration ‘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.’

As the Bureau noted at the time, ‘The revelation helps explain the wide variation between credible reports of civilian deaths in Pakistan by the Bureau and others, and the CIA’s claims that it had killed no ‘non-combatants’ between May 2010 and September 2011 – and possibly later.’

In June, Washington partially declassified aspects of the secret campaign, with officials openly acknowledging ‘direct action’ in Yemen and Pakistan. However the CIA’s parallel campaign remains classified – and Pentagon officials still refuse to release information relating to specific drone strikes.

CNN found itself in the firing line in July when it claimed there had been ‘zero civilian casualties’ from US drone strikes in Pakistan in the first six months of the year. The Atlantic was among a number of publications which attacked the broadcaster for relying on error-filled data.

One of Pakistan’s most senior diplomats told the Bureau and the Guardian in August that drone strikes were now undermining democracy. And in September, President Obama laid out the five rules he said need to be followed in covert US strikes, as it emerged that US ‘consent’ for strikes in Pakistan appears to rest on a monthly unanswered fax.

October saw the publication of a major academic report by Columbia Law School into the reporting of drone strike casualties. Noting the problems all casualty recorders face, the study concluded that only the Bureau appeared to be accurately reflecting reported civilian deaths. An earlier study by Stanford and New York universities reached similar conclusions.

The tenth anniversary of the first US covert drone strike in November received little US coverage, coming as it did days before the presidential elections. Both Obama and Mitt Romney had told voters that it would be business as usual if elected.

And days after the 300th Pakistan drone strike of Obama’s presidency, the Bureau exclusively reported in December on declassified data which showed 1,200 US and British conventional drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

Country by country

Pakistan: The drop in strikes from their 2010 peak continued, and proportionally civilian casualties plummeted. Of at least 246 people killed in 2012 only 7 were credibly reported as civilians. Last year 68 non-combatants were reported among a minimum of 473 dead.

Yemen: After al Qaeda took and held a swathe of land in southern Yemen, the US responded by massively increasing the rate of drone and air strikes. At least 185 people were killed. But up to two thirds of the strikes and casualties exist in a limbo of accountability.

Somalia: The US fight in the Horn of Africa is the most secretive in the covert war on terror. There were only two confirmed US strikes in Somalia this year despite evidence that operations are continuing unreported.


Pakistan strikes
Under President Bush the CIA launched 52 drone strikes. Since then the Agency has launched 306 attacks under President Obama.

The big story of 2012 was the steep fall in both the number of CIA strikes and casualties in Pakistan.

Attacks resumed on January 10 after a 54-day break, following a Nato airstrike which killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers. Throughout the year prolonged pauses between strikes indicated the vulnerability of the drone campaign to external events.

In April attacks again halted as Islamabad and Washington haggled over the reopening of supply lines into Afghanistan. There was no halt for the fast of Ramadan, the ‘month of peace’, as both the CIA and Pakistani Taliban continued their deadly operations.

Overall there was a significant fall in the number of CIA drone strikes in 2012 – down two thirds on their peak of 2010. Even more marked was the proportional fall in the numbers of reported civilians killed – down from an estimated 14% to 2.5% of those killed year-on-year. The majority of non-combatants killed this year were close relatives – often the wives – of named militants.

All CIA strikes in Pakistan 2012

Total strikes: 48
Total reported killed: 246-397
Civilians reported killed: 7-54
Children reported killed: 2
Total reported injured: 107-167

Pakistan: December 2012 actions

Total CIA strikes in December: 5
Total killed in strikes in December: 17-28, of whom 1-4 were reportedly civilians

All Pakistan actions 2004 – 2012

Total Obama strikes: 304
Total US strikes since 2004: 356
Total reported killed: 2,604-3,407
Civilians reported killed: 473-889
Children reported killed: 176
Total reported injured: 1,259-1,417

For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here.



Yemen strikes


US operations have escalated over Yemen in the last 12 months. However the Bureau cannot yet confirm responsibility for 127 strikes since 2010 which may have been the work of US aircraft.

Southern Yemen was gripped by a civil war in 2012 as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and allies established their ‘Islamic Emirates‘ in the south of the country, exploiting the chaos of a popular uprising to tighten their grip.

Once entrenched it proved too difficult for Yemen’s army alone to dislodge them. But in February President Ali Abdallah Saleh was overthrown and his replacement Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi invited the United States to help do the job for him.

In March the number of airstrikes rose steeply, and the following month the CIA was given permission to launch signature strikes in Yemen. US operations peaked in May. Even after militants were driven out the violence continued. A suicide bomber penetrated security in the capital to kill 100 Yemeni soldiers and injure at least 200 more, a bloody portent of AQAP’s return to guerilla tactics.

Following the ousting of AQAP from its southern stronghold US operations declined sharply. At present drone attacks are most frequently on named militants in moving vehicles, suggesting an effort by the US to limit the risk of civilian casualties.

US or Yemeni officials often claim responsibility when senior militants are killed. In contrast there are rarely admissions of responsibility when civilians die in US airstrikes, as between 18 and 58 did in 2012. Only in December – three months after a dozen civilians died in Rada’a – did anonymous US officials admit that an American drone or plane had carried out an attack.

Questions have also been asked about how effective US operations are. Analyst Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that AQAP membership had grown steeply since the US began targeting militants in 2009.

Minimum Yemen deaths


As reported US air strikes have increased in Yemen so too have reported casualties.

All Yemen actions in 2012

Total confirmed US operations: 32-39
Total confirmed US drone strikes: 29-36
Possible additional US operations: 127-149
Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 55-69
Total reported killed: 185-705
Total civilians killed: 18-58
Children killed: 3-9

Yemen: December 2012 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 0
Further reported/possible US strike events: 4-7
Total reported killed in US operations: 10-14
Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0

All Yemen actions 2002 – 2012*

Total confirmed US operations: 53-63
Total confirmed US drone strikes: 42-52
Possible additional US operations: 124-143
Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 66-79
Total reported killed: 362-1,059
Total civilians killed: 60-170
Children killed: 24-35
Click here for the full Yemen data.

* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.


US operations remained largely a mystery throughout 2012. One more confirmed strike was reported this year compared with last. However the Washington Post reported that armed US drones continue to fly sorties over Somalia from a US base in Djibouti.

And the Bureau learned that as much as 50% of US military and intelligence operations go unreported in Somalia. A UN study said that so many drones were operating over Somalia that several air traffic accidents were narrowly avoided.

Because of the dangers of reporting from Somalia – Reporters Without Borders says 18 journalists have been killed in Somalia this year – there are no trustworthy reports of strikes or casualties. Only Iranian broadcaster Press TV consistently reports alleged US strikes. But while the Bureau monitors Press TV’s coverage we do not consider these reports reliable, and do not count them in our data.

In September, Somalia’s first elected government for 20 years was finally installed in the capital, with new president Hassan Sheikh Mohamoud inaugurated. But days later, al Shabaab suicide bombers tried to assassinate him as he gave a press conference with the Kenyan foreign minister, indicating that the country remains in crisis.

AMISOM efforts in Somalia (Oct) 12 - Albany Associates/Flickr
Amisom peacekeepers made slow progress against al Shabaab. But in September they drove militants out of their southern stronghold of Kismayo. (Albany Associates/Flickr)

All Somalia actions in 2012

Total US operations: 4
Total US drone strikes: 2
Total reported killed: 11-14
Civilians reported killed: 0
Children reported killed: 0

Somalia December 2012 actions

Total reported US operations: 0

All Somalia actions 2007 – 2012

Total US operations: 10-23
Total US drone strikes: 3-9
Total reported killed: 58-170
Civilians reported killed: 11-57
Children reported killed: 1-3
Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia.


Mirrored from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Posted in Uncategorized | 16 Responses | Print |

16 Responses

  1. “As drone strikes fell in Pakistan they rose steeply in Yemen,”

    The shifting of emphasis on drone strikes from Pakistan to Yemen may well be a sign of their success. As many Al-Qaeda and other unlawful enemy combatant leaders have been killed in the FATA, their diminished numbers are not easily replaced. Yemen, on the other hand, has experienced a surge in AQAP leaders, primarily due to the lack of government control and the hostile geography that gives them cover. Thus, it makes perfect sense to refocus the drone campaign from the Pakistani FATA to Yemen.

    • This explanation assumes that “the drone campaign” is a single, coherent thing that is being ramped up in Yemen and ramped down in Pakistan. In reality, though, drones are just a tool, and they are being used for different purposes in different places. Whatever is driving the increase in strikes in Yemen, it probably has little to do with the decline in strikes in Pakistan, which looks to me to be driven by the winding down of the ground war in Afghanistan.

      • My explanation does not assume that the drone campaign is a single, coherent thing. And it certainly does not assume that the increase in the strikes in Yemen is being driven by the decline in strikes in the Pakistani FATA. This is something you conjured up.

        If read carefully, you will note that my comment suggested that the decline in strikes in Pakistan may well be due to their success in eliminating much of the Al-Qaeda and unlawful enemy combatant leadership. The increase in strikes in Yemen, however, is due to the surge in AQAP leadership in that country. Each is driven by its own dynamic. You appear to have mistaken my comment, illustrating an apparent correlation between the two campaigns, as suggesting causation, one driving the other. I made no such linkage.

  2. To explain the decrease in strikes in Pakistan, I would look at America policy in Afghanistan. The withdrawal has begun, and troop levels and operations have fallen across the board. The strikes in Pakistan have always fallen into two categories: strikes against militants who move back and forth across the border and engage in the ground war in Afghanistan, and strikes against senior leaders of terrorists groups. The “signature strikes” in Pakistan, as opposed to the named-target strikes, are entirely or almost entirely the former – that is, an extension of the war in Afghanistan. The decrease in these strikes, without a drop in the named-target strikes, suggests that the decrease is an expression of the U.S. winding down the “Af-Pak War,” while the war against al Qaeda continues.

    The paper also revealed that the administration ‘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.’

    Just a reminder that the NYT described this as a method used in bomb damage assessments after a strike, not as a standard used in targeting.

    • “Just a reminder that the NYT described this as a method used in bomb damage assessments after a strike, not as a standard used in targeting.”

      What point are u making here?

    • “Just a reminder that the NYT described this as a method used in bomb damage assessments after a strike, not as a standard used in targeting.”

      What exactly do you mean here?

      • That the US is using that method to come up with casualty estimates after a strike, not as a standard for determining whether to launch a strike against someone.

        • Right because if they used it for identifying targets, they’d never shoot because there are almost always non-targets in immediate vicinity. The determination of whether to strike has all the characteristics of an assassination and is ‘sold’ as a precision hit against specific militants, a/k/a the ‘kill list.’ But when it’s over, what does it become: an act within the war on terror with ‘collateral damage’. There are no rules to this game; the blowback will be severe.

  3. Like, uhhh, who cares? Sure good to see lots of input on this one, Professor.

    Question for the Exceptional Apologist Experienced Players:

    From this interesting little bit of text,

    But in February President Ali Abdallah Saleh was overthrown and his replacement Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi invited the United States to help do the job for him.


    does/do “the US,” or whatever the CIA and other Black Ops players and contractors are who glare that they are “in it to win it” (whatever “it” is), now have “legal cover” to be doing this combination of mercenary murder and imperial techattacking? “[H]elp do the job for him”? Sound at all like “our” relationships to a bunch of other Players who are so much more astute and experienced in the games of Empire and Byzantium than our Really Smart Players seem to be?

    And maybe one of you will take a shot at stating what “the national interest” or “US interests” is or are, that warrant this kind of shi_? Especially, though you will of course discount it as mere correlation, it appears that the Sneaky Petes and Compartmentalizationalists might actually be doing nothing useful (except guaranteeing that wonderful continuity of idiocy and wealth transfer that started at the 38th parallel and ran through a bunch of oops! not really dominoes after all and continues with the floating and bulging of the Imperial Blimp as it gets more and more swank and more and more remote from its nominal moorings in “America?”

    Because, say the writers up above,

    Questions have also been asked about how effective US operations are. Analyst Gregory Johnsen has pointed out that AQAP membership had grown steeply since the US began targeting militants in 2009.

    Just asking. Not that anything will ever change, until the last self-directed battle machine finally runs out of gas, or stored electrons…

    First comes this, link to,

    “And then I think to myself, what a wonderful world!” link to

    • Whittling through the loaded language and poetic flights of fancy, the answers to your questions are:

      1. The U.S. actions in Yemen have had the support of the Yemeni government all along, so there’s nothing novel in Saleh’s replacement giving them a green light. We had the same green light from Saleh.

      2. The national interest behind fighting al Qaeda and its affiliates is…far too obvious to justify even these few characters I’m wasting on this question.

      3. I can’t really tell what #3 is. You just put a question mark at the end of some word salad.

  4. Regarding Yemen, secessionists in the south, Shia rebels in the north, and al Queda all benefited from the upheaval that ousted Saleh. Al Queda has spread in the south despite the area’s legacy of socialism and secularism. Southern separatist leaders say al Queda would lose traction and be neutralized more easily in an independent south where resentment would no longer fester over what they call a corrupt, repressive, and tribally defined system run from the north. They say Aden could curb al Queda better than Sanaa.

  5. United States District Judge John Bates, a former U.S.Army officer that served in Vietnam, had dismissed the initial Anwar Awlaki suit in 2010 brought by his father, Nasser Awlaki, to get him off the “kill list”. Bates dismissed that case citing lack of standing by Nasser Awlaki and the “political question doctrine” – that the courts cannot constitutionally interfere with decisions of the executive branch due to the separation of powers of the three branches of the federal government.

    Since the actual killing by the U.S. of Anwar Awlaki in later drone strike along with that of his son, the representatives of the estates of both have a wrongful death suit pending in a U.S. District Court. The government asserts the additional “state secrets” doctrine as a defense. As long as the legal representatives are duly appointed by a court, the standing issue no longer exists.

    The ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights are prosecuting these civil actions claiming the decision-making processes in which the drone strikes occur are unconstitutionally vague and the manner in which they are carried out violate the 14th Amendment as they deprive the victims of life without due process of law.

    The U.S. has acknowledged that Awlaki’s teenage son was not targeted but that his death was accidental; they also do not contend there was proof he was complicit in acts of terror. The ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights have labeled the teen’s death as “reckless”.

    The case involving Awlaki’s son is unique thus far since it involves an accidental homicide of a United States citizen not implicated in any proscribed conduct – and a minor – by the CIA in a targeted killing of a different individual who was a suspect.

    In 1985 the City of Philadelphia killed minors who were innocent bystanders in attempting to evict MOVE activists from a rowhouse. The city paid millions to the estates of the decedent children.

    • In 1985 the City of Philadelphia killed minors who were innocent bystanders in attempting to evict MOVE activists from a rowhouse. The city paid millions to the estates of the decedent children.

      Of course, the legal standards are very different for a domestic law enforcement agency operating within the United States, and an arm of the military operating overseas.

  6. It doesn’t matter who’s president. The Pentagon-CIA cabal runs the show. If they (the presidents) give them any trouble they’ll get the Kennedy Nov. 1963 treatment.

    • “It doesn’t matter who’s president. The Pentagon-CIA cabal runs the show. If they (the presidents) give them any trouble they’ll get the Kennedy Nov. 1963 treatment.”

      Another conspiracy theorist of the Oliver Stone school (and just as devoid of supporting evidence).

    • “The Pentagon-CIA cabal.”

      Right. The Pentagon and CIA are on such wonderful terms. Are you sure it’s not a Pentagon-State Department-FBI-CIA cabal?

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