US Covert Drone War in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia – Jan. Update (Woods et al.)

Chris Woods, Jack Serle and Alice K Ross write at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Yemen was hit by the highest number of airstrikes in one month since June 2012, though none have been formally confirmed as US operations.

No US operations were reported in Somalia.

The United Nations also launched a major investigation into the legality and casualties of drone strikes by the United States, Britain and Israel.


January 2013 actions

Total CIA strikes in January: 6
Total killed in strikes in January: 27-54, of whom 0-2 were reportedly civilians . . .

The CIA began 2013 with six drone strikes in nine days – more in any single month since August 2012.

CIA drone strikes on Pakistan in January 2010, 2011, 2012 & 2013

With double the strikes hitting Pakistan this month compared with January last year, 2013 could see renewed intensity in the CIA drone programme.

The month’s first strike killed powerful Taliban commander Maulvi (or Mullah) Nazir, ‘perhaps the most prized feather in [the] cap’ of the drone programme to date, according to one commentator. Nazir co-ordinated attacks on Nato and Afghan forces in Afghanistan and had long been a target of the CIA.

However his group refrained from terrorist attacks within Pakistan, earning the label ’good’ Taliban. Brigadier Asad Munir, a retired commander of the ISI, told the Bureau his death could cause serious problems for Islamabad. He said peace with Nazir was essential since Pakistan’s army cannot simultaneously fight both Nazir’s militants and the TTP – the so-called ‘bad’ Taliban behind numerous lethal attacks in Pakistani cities.

Despite this, Pakistan’s response to the strikes in January was muted – notably so, according to Associated Press, as loud protestations had followed almost every strike in 2012.

This could indicate that relations between the allies have improved from their 2012 nadir. The CIA may also have tried to mollify Islamabad by killing senior TTP commander Wali Muhammad Mahsud and announcing that Maulana Fazlullah, commander of the Swat Taliban, is now high on its kill list. The Swat Taliban shot schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai and launches attacks on Pakistan from its bases in Afghanistan. Islamabad has repeatedly called on Nato and Afghan forces to crack down on the group.

A third high-value target death in January was of senior al Qaeda paramilitary commander Sheikh Yaseen al Kuwaiti, reportedly killed at home with his wife and daughter by eight missiles.


January 2013 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 0
Further reported/possible US strike events: 8
Total reported killed in US operations: 0-38
Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 0-7
Children reported killed in US strikes . . . 0-2

* 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.

Eight strikes hit Yemen in January, the most in a month since June 2012 when US attacks on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) began to slow from their May peak.

News reports named 12 alleged militants killed in the strikes. Up to two children also reportedly died when a wayward airstrike missed its intended target, hitting Abdu Mohammed al-Jarrah‘s house. This is the first credible report of child casualties since a US strike killed 12 civilians, three of them children, on September 2, 2012.

It remains unclear who is behind the recent strikes. September was the last time the Bureau noted a confirmed US operation in Yemen, although Yemen’s state media appears to have stopped claiming that the ‘barely functional‘ Yemen Air Force is responsible for every strike. Attacks are now officially described simply as airstrikes.

There were more allegations that the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) is striking AQAP. A report claimed the RSAF targeted an AQAP training camp on January 22, right on the Saudi-Yemeni border. But it was also reported that US drones launched the strike, with help from Saudi intelligence.

An anonymous US intelligence official told the Times that Saudi jets have been striking other targets in Yemen in support of US operations – an allegation promptly denied by the Saudis. The paper reported that Saudi jets may have carried out a botched strike on May 15 2012 that killed 12-26 civilians. There were also questions raised regarding a September 2 strike by an unidentified aircraft that killed 12 civilians – three of them children. However, it emerged on Christmas Day that US drones or jets had carried out that attack.

In a rare display of opposition to the drone programme, Yemeni human rights minister Hooria Mashhour told Reuters the country should change its counter-terrorism strategy. Without directly mentioning drones, she advocated moving away from air strikes to ground operations to target AQAP ‘without harming civilians and without leading to human rights violations’.

On January 28 Sanaa sent up to 7,000 troops with tanks to drive AQAP-linked militants out of the central province of al Bayda and to free hostages including two Finnish and one Austrian. AQAP countered, sending ‘several hundred’ reinforcements to the province. At least 2,500 civilians have reportedly been displaced.


January 2013 actions

Total reported US operations: 0

All actions 2007 – January 31 2013

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


January was the fifth consecutive month without a reported US strike. But al Shabaab showed it remains a threat to Mogadishu, launching a suicide attack on the presidential palace. The bomber was reportedly ‘an al Shabaab defector‘ with a gate pass and a National Security Force identity card. He detonated his suicide vest, killing two soldiers, after it was uncovered in a routine search.

The US provided ‘limited technical support‘ to a failed French attempt to rescue a spy held hostage by al Shabaab since 2009. Five French helicopters carried 50 commandos into Somalia. US Air Force jets entered Somali airspace in support, although they did not fire their weapons. The French operation was reportedly timed to coincide with the French air and ground offensive in northern Mali, though Paris denied the two operations were linked.

France said militants executed the captured secret service officer, known by his alias Denis Allex, during the assault. Seventeen alleged militants, including their commander Sheikh Ahmed were reportedly killed.

But in the course of the night assault, French commandos also reportedly killed eight civilians, including a child and both his parents. One French commando was also killed and another wounded. Al Shabaab said the injured soldier subsequently died of his wounds in their custody, and posted pictures on Twitter of the dead commando as proof.

After al Shabaab also tweeted an image of the dead French spy, and threatened to kill two Kenyan hostages its account was suspended.

UN investigation

UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC announced that the UN will investigate covert CIA and Pentagon strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia. He will also look at strikes by the UK and US in Afghanistan, and by Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Emmerson has assembled a team of experts to scrutinise some 25 strikes, examining the legal framework for targeted killings and claims of civilian deaths. One area they are expected to explore is the deliberate targeting of rescuers and funeral-goers by the CIA in Pakistan, a tactic revealed in an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times.

The UN’s Human Rights Council asked its special rapporteurs to investigate drone strikes after nations including Russia, China and Pakistan called for action last June. Emmerson will present his recommendations to the General Assembly in October.


Mirrored from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

10 Responses

  1. Oh, we hear, but the UN thinks this is all hunky-dory! and after all, AUMF!

    Here’s a fraction of an interesting article, discountable of course ‘cuz it comes from the Guardian, which has an “agenda,” about what the UN guys who will be looking into droning have to say, under the headline “Drone strikes threaten 50 years of international law, says UN rapporteur — US policy of using drone strikes to carry out targeted killings ‘may encourage other states to flout international law'”:

    Heyns ridiculed the US suggestion that targeted UAV strikes on al-Qaida or allied groups were a legitimate response to the 9/11 attacks. “It’s difficult to see how any killings carried out in 2012 can be justified as in response to [events] in 2001,” he said. “Some states seem to want to invent new laws to justify new practices.

    “The targeting is often operated by intelligence agencies which fall outside the scope of accountability. The term ‘targeted killing’ is wrong because it suggests little violence has occurred. The collateral damage may be less than aerial bombardment, but because they eliminate the risk to soldiers they can be used more often.”

    link to

    Of course, there’s a lot more that kind of undercuts the apologist arguments about how all this is, you know, LEGAL, in the linked article. Forgive me for re-posting it in this spot, but it bears some searching inquiry.

    But hurry up to point out that the “9-11” justification is, as they said in the Vietnam era, “no longer operative,” since of course the “al Quaeda” we define are, you know, doing stuff to US interests at this very moment!!!!” And SOMEthing just HAS to be done with all that technology, you know. Wack-a-Mole, with the added nice feature of, you know, Jobs!, and a seemingly perpetual motion machine that generates new Moles and new Holes and, mirabile dictu, Bigger Hammers and an ever-larger playing surface!

    • What a stupid argument. A declaration of war loses the force of law after a given amount of time? Even if hostilities are ongoing on both sides throughout the time period? I defy you to cite a single law or treaty that expresses that doctrine.

      Or you could do what you usually do: throw around some insults and hope nobody notices the difference.

      • AUMF references persons involved in planning and carrying out 9/11. I doubt those being killed in Waziristan were out of diapers then.

        • “AUMF references persons involved in planning and carrying out 9/11.”

          The actual text of the AUMF: Section 2 – Authorization For Use of United States Armed Forces
          (a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

          All member of that al Qaeda organization are covered by the authorization, regardless of when they joined, just as any member of the Japanese armed forces would be covered by the December 1941 war declaration, even if they joined in 1945.

          We are at war with al Qaeda, the organization.

  2. Another possible explanation for the Pakistani government’s relative quiet about those: this series of strikes may have been targeting al Qaeda figures, as opposed to cross-border fighters (or their commanders), who tend to have friends in the ISI.

    As the drawdown in Afghanistan continues, the ratio of counter-terror strikes to air support for the Af-Pak War is going to rise.

  3. Interestingly, one of the targets of a CIA Predator drone strike in 2002 was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former prime minister of Afghanistan who served in 1994. He and his followers had been supplied with armaments and training from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the CIA to fight the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul.

    The Hellfire missile missed and the warlord Hekmatyar later announced a bounty on U.S. soldiers and support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He has never been captured and remains at large in Afghanistan.

    The U.S. government rarely mentions his name, apparently because the inevitable question or comment from the media and public would be why we supported him in the first place and whether the attempted assasination of a former Afghan prime minister violates international law and President Ford’s executive order barring assassination of foriegn leaders.

    Israel initiated targeted killings largely because IDF soldiers were often shot at trying to make arrests in Gaza. The key problem is the level of “collateral damage” to innocent civilians as when the Israeli Air Force dropped a 1,000 lb. bomb on via F-16 jet on an apartment building killing 14 persons and injuring 63 to target one Hamas military leader, Salah Shihadeh.

    It is strange Britain is conducting drone attacks in that region when thay have freely admitted they cannot legally target the IRA for such assasinations as Israel does to Arabs in Gaza.

    Investigation and action by the UN is clearly needed.

    • “Investigation and action by the UN is clearly needed.”

      And what would that action be? I need not remind you that any significant action would require UN Security Council approval.

      • Excellent point.

        The 462-page Goldstone Commission Report was well-researched and thoroughly documented with respect to its findings of “credible evidence” of war crimes and crimes against humanity against the Israel Defense Forces.

        Almost nothing was done in response.

        The omnipresent U.S. veto or abstention to proposed Security Council resolutions always seem to immunize Israel from corrective action.

      • Yeah, we all know the Mightiest Nation on Earth Ever, that can’t seem to clobber into submission even a bunch of rock-dwelling tribespeople or paddy-farming rice eaters, has a combination Get Out Of Jail Free Card and Swiss Army knife full of Really Cool Blades…

        Too bad the cliques that rule us don’t have a penchant or knack for doing anything actually productive or positive that might prolong our species’ miserable tenure on the planet. And that’s not to say that any other set of ruling elites is any better at unproductive and unhealthy (except for the ones who rule and profit), of course. Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Battista and the Shah and even Saddam and a bunch of South and Central American and African dictators (which strange to say, often gained their positions thanks to US efforts, intended or otherwise — not Hitler — except IBM, and a few other sympathetic helpers — and Stalin, of course) were and are Not Nice People.

        The potential was there for us to do so much better… except “limbic system.”

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