News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

April 16, 2018

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

This is an extract from the Bureau’s report, Naming The Dead, published in April 2018, written by Jack Serle

The phenomenal assassination tool that is the attack drone was born of frustration – the inability of the US to kill Osama bin Laden.

The CIA and its Afghan militia allies were pretty sure they knew where he was, training would-be suicide bombers in his Afghan hideout. Whenever they did get a read on his location, albeit briefly, it was thanks to the CIA’s small fleet of surveillance Predator drones. They could fly high and for more than 12 hours on end, constantly filming the scene below them and sending the footage back to the US. But the CIA could never pin down his location long enough for bombers or cruise missiles to be called in to do anything about it. The solution? Add anti-tank missiles to the remotely piloted drones. By arming its drones, the US could get a fix on a target, show the video feed to lawyers in real time so they could assess if it was lawful, and wait to take the shot when there were no bystanders around to get hurt. The Predator drones and their more advanced successors, the Reapers, have been used hundreds of times for such “targeted killing”, in particular in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been tracking these strikes for more than seven years, monitoring and recording the date, time and location; and importantly, those killed. We have been doing this because there has been next to no official transparency about the US drone war. Individual strikes are usually reported in the newspapers and on social media but for the majority of drone strikes, there has been no official word on the attack.

The armed drone has the undoubted potential for being one of the most discriminating weapons ever devised. Yet the Bureau’s work shows that it doesn’t always work out this way.  Among the more controversial tactics adopted by the CIA was the signature strike. This is when drones are used to kill people based on their behaviour, not identity. Intelligence gathered over many days or weeks provides a pattern-of-life-analysis which is used to determine someone’s guilt or likelihood of being a terrorist. These strikes have been used to kill a handful of people or even large crowds. There are multiple examples of a type of signature strike, so-called “double-taps”, where CIA drones carry out a strike and wait for people to come and pick through the wreckage before striking again. These attacks have killed plenty of Taliban fighters but they have also killed scores of civilians, according to field investigations by the Bureau. The Obama administration did, through the course of his Presidency, bring in rules to govern the use of armed drones. This included putting the military in charge of the lethal end of drone operations and limiting the CIA to providing intelligence. However, the Trump administration has put the CIA back in charge, which has had an impact on transparency. The CIA has provided some information to the media, briefing reporters on successful strikes. It has also hidden behind anonymity to attack the Bureau and our findings, or issued the standard response: “feel free to say the CIA declined to comment.” The US military, in contrast, has become more forthcoming with information about its use of armed drones. Before 2013 both US Central Command (Centcom) and US Africa Command, which are responsible for US strikes in Yemen and Somalia respectively, would have little if anything to say publicly about their strikes. Now they give details in press releases, when security and diplomatic interests allow, they say. For the rest they will only confirm they happened if someone asks them directly.

While a step forward, the amount of information they are willing to give remains limited. At most they will confirm the date, the general location of the strike, a standard rationale for taking the strike, and occasionally a casualty estimate. As often as not the US and the Bureau numbers don’t tally. 

US Air Force / Jonathan Snyder

In March 2017, I sat at the back of a Senate hearing room, watching General Joseph Votel, the man in charge of Centcom, testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He said with evident sincerity that he was apologising for the killing of between four and 12 civilians in a botched special operations raid and drone attack in Yemen in January 2017.

Seven months later it turned out he got the numbers wrong. An investigation by NBC News revealed internal US estimates showed at least 16 civilians died. Centcom told me that Votel spoke “with the best information he had at the time”. Yet both figures are lower than the 25 civilian deaths uncovered by researchers working with the Bureau, who visited the scene of the strike. Despite advances in transparency, it can be hard to understand how the US comes to its own estimates.

In the summer of 2016 the Obama White House released its own figures of those killed in counter-terrorism strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya – operations that were outside the declared battlefields of Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – between 2009 and 2015. This was a big step forward for transparency advocates. Unfortunately, the White House published total figures for strikes and casualties for all six years in the three countries, rather than broken down by year or country. This made it impossible to examine where the US records differed from the Bureau’s data.

The figures were supposed to be published every May thereafter. Then in late January 2017, with Donald Trump just days away from moving into the White House, the Obama administration put out its estimate for the 2016 figures.

Clearly, any effort towards greater transparency is only as strong as the will of the current administration. Current guidance, although not an official instruction, is that the Pentagon doesn’t want to release information that would give the enemy an advantage. This means that it is much harder to find out details such as the date and location of strikes.

With the Trump administration clamping down on transparency around US air wars in Afghanistan and Yemen, it seems highly unlikely it will turn the data release into an annual event. This only serves to underline the importance of the Bureau’s work.

The use of drones in counter-terrorism operations has no end in sight. So far thousands have been killed, both terrorists and civilians. Continuing to investigate how the US and its allies pursue the never-ending war on terror has never been more vital.

Header image: US Air Force / Erik Gudmundson

Read the full report:

Published

December 19, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The number of US air strikes jumped in Yemen and Somalia in 2017, pointing to an escalation of the global war on terror.

President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen.

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Strikes in Somalia since 2007 via the Bureau

“We should keep a close eye on the increase in strike volume, as it does suggest a more aggressive approach, but it’s not yet clear to me that it represents a truly gloves off approach,” said Luke Hartig, a former counterterrorism advisor in the Obama administration and now a fellow at the New America Foundation, a US thinktank.

Hartig told the Bureau he was concerned that there had not been any significant public explanation of what the US government was now trying to achieve: “we don’t have any real basis to assess, for example, why strikes have doubled in Somalia, or if any of these operations are being conducted in direct support of partner forces on the ground rather than as unilateral actions against the threats we face as a nation.”

The Trump administration paved the way for the dramatic increase in the number of strikes in Yemen and Somalia when, in March this year, it was reported that parts of both countries had been exempted from targeting rules brought in by Obama to prevent civilian casualties. 

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. 

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

General Thomas Waldhauser, the man in charge of US military operations throughout Africa, told journalists in April 2017 that though he now had leeway to order strikes without clearing them with the White House, he would be retaining the criteria introduced by Obama that a strike could only happen if there was a near-certainty that no civilians would be harmed.

In Somalia, the Obama administration had officially designating the al Shabaab group as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November 2016, essentially widening who could be targeted. But there was no increase in strikes until July 2017, with all but 2 of this year’s 32 strikes carried out since then. 

In Yemen, 30 strikes hit within a month of the declaration being reported – nearly as many as the whole of 2016. 

In August, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy. The new plan deepened America’s commitment in Afghanistan, with additional troops deployed and an increase in strikes.

US strikes accounted for 177 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, up from 97 in the same period the previous year, the UN mission in Afghanistan found.

But as air operations in Afghanistan have intensified, and with indications civilian casualties are on the up, US transparency appears to have decreased. In September 2016, Resolute Support, the Nato mission through which the US conducts its operations in Afghanistan, started providing us with monthly data on strikes. However the flow of this crucial information has stopped as of October 2017.  

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Trump’s speech announcing the new Afghan strategy prompted further speculation that drones would return to the skies of Pakistan. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe haven for terrorist organisations,” he said. At its height in 2010, the CIA drone programme hit 128 targets. Strikes fell with each passing year after that, falling to just three in 2016.

The Bureau counted fives strikes in Pakistan in 2017. At least four air operations were reported along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October and November, although it was unclear on what side of the border they fell.

US operations in Yemen since 2002 via the Bureau

In March Trump gave the US military’s Africa Command (Africom) greater freedom to carry out strikes without having to run them by the White House first. However, this did not presage an immediate surge in strikes as expected – most strikes this year came after the end of June.

While Africom will not say how many ground operations it has carried out in Somalia, details of some have emerged. One operation ended with a US fatality after American and Somali troops were ambushed on their way to their target. 

Another operation left 10 civilians dead. There is substantial evidence indicating they were killed by American troops who had been told they were al Shabaab fighters, the insurgent group linked to al Qaeda. 

Most US operations this year have focused on al Shabaab, which the US has been targeting since January 2007. The US also carried out five airstrikes against a band of fighters from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland who split from al Shabaab in 2015 and announced it was now loyal to the Islamic State group.

Al Shabaab marginalised the IS loyalists to a mountain range in Puntland, successfully suppressing any major schism. The IS-supporting faction has managed to flourish nonetheless. Recruiting scores of fighters, it has grown from approximately 24 fighters in 2016 to as many as 200 by the summer of 2017, according to a UN monitoring body.

More US strikes hit Yemen this year than the past four years combined.

Most of the 125 strikes in 2017 hit in central Yemen, where the US military’s Central Command (Centcom) vigorously pursued fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In March 2017 the US designated parts of Yemen as an “area of active hostilities”, covering several unspecified Yemeni provinces in the country’s centre, essentially laying out the ground for anunprecedented aerial bombardment.

The US also started targeting fighters loyal to Islamic State – Centcom reported it carried out at least nine strikes targeting the group.

US Special Forces carried out two ground raids this year as well, the first such operations in Yemen to be publicly reported since December 2014. Both operations targeted what the US believed were AQAP positions. Both resulted in civilian casualties.

On 29 January 2017 American Navy commandos with UAE troops in support attacked a village in the central province of Bayda. The US initially claimed no civilians had been killed in the raid, but the Bureau found nine children under the age of 13 had died. NBC News later reported that the Pentagon did not dispute our numbers. 

The second raid, in May, targeted an “AQAP associated compound” in Marib province. The raid was the “deepest the military has gone into Yemen to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula”, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. The operation left seven AQAP fighters dead, Centcom said, but five civilian tribesmen were also killed, according to the journalist, Iona Craig.

Strikes doubled in Afghanistan in 2017 compared to the year before. 

This trend looks set to continue. President Trump announced in August 2017 that the US commitment in Afghanistan would deepen. General John Nicholson, the top general in Afghanistan, confirmed that this would include a ramping up of air support.

As part of this strategy, US forces in Afghanistan were given new authority to target the Taliban’s revenue streams. These did not come to light until November 20 2017 , when General Nicholson announced a number of strikes on Taliban drugs labs in southern Helmand.

For the Bureau, Trump’s August speech confirmed what our data had already showed. For months, we had been tracking a high number of strikes. This was made possible by key data provided to us by Resolute Support, the Nato mission in Afghanistan. We began getting monthly strike totals in September 2016. In July and August, we also received a breakdown of US strikes in Afghanistan by province.

However, the provincial data has since stopped with Resolute Support citing “capacity” issues. In October and November this year Resolute Support also failed to provide the monthly strike figures to the Bureau. It is unclear whether the US will continue to withhold this information next year. 

Despite the increasing strikes, the Taliban continued to put pressure on the Afghan security forces in 2017. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s branch of Islamic State has proved difficult to dislodge from its eastern stronghold, despite a concerted air campaign against the group.

As strikes have risen, so have civilian casualties. The UN mission in Afghanistan has found a nearly 50 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed and injured by US strikes in the first nine months of 2017 compared to the year before.

This year we continued our Naming the Dead project, collecting the names of over 150 casualties in Afghanistan in 2017.

Strikes resumed in Pakistan in March 2017, nearly two months after President Trump came into office, following a nine-month hiatus. Strikes since then have been sporadic, and none of them have been acknowledged officially by the US.  

Tensions between Washington and Islamabad escalated this year, following reports that the US administration was exploring ways to harden its approach to Pakistan, with drone strikes one of the measures being considered. In June 2017, a rare strike hit outside Pakistan’s tribal regions – only the third in 429 strikes since 2004 – angering Pakistan’s military chief. The Pakistan military has historically stayed tightlipped about such operations.

In August 2017, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy, which further angered Islamabad. In his speech, the president accused Pakistan of sheltering terrorists and threatened tougher action. This only fuelled concerns that drones would return to Pakistan’s skies.

However, only one strike has been confirmed since the President Trump’s speech. A glut of strikes were reported along the border, but it was unclear whether they hit on Pakistan or Afghan soil. 

Photo of Donald Trump greeting reporters in the spin room following a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan, by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

https://vimeo.com/247810752247810752

Stories from the Drones team in 2017

Published

December 12, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

US strikes in Somalia shot up in November, with American planes carrying out five times as many strikes as they did in the previous month.

Nearly half of these strikes targeted Islamic State, with the US hitting the group in Somalia for the first time at the beginning of the month.

A band of fighters from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland pledged loyalty to the Islamic State group in 2015, breaking their ties to al Shabaab. Last year the group numbered just a few dozen fighters but has since grown to as many as 200, according to a UN monitoring body.

The fact that the US now has two targets in Somalia could mean a rise in US air operations. A record 31 strikes have hit Somalia this year, with a third of these taking place solely in November.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had already escalated strikes in Somalia to 14 in 2016, reflecting the growing number of attacks by al Shabaab insurgents.

However, since Trump came to office the rate of drone strikes in the East African country has doubled.

This partly reflects new rules introduced by the Trump administration in March 2017 which exempted swathes of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”. This has given commanders a freer hand to launch strikes.

Main photo: An MQ-9 Reaper (John Bainter/US Air Force)

Published

November 19, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last week’s US air operation in Somalia took the total number of strikes carried out in 2017 to a record 29, raising the possibility of an expansion in military operations outside of conventional battlefields under President Donald Trump.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had already escalated strikes in Somalia to 14 a year, reflecting the growing number of attacks by al Shabaab insurgents.

However, since Trump came to office the rate of drone strikes in the East African country has doubled. This partly reflects new rules introduced by the Trump administration in March 2017 which exempted swathes of Somalia from restrictions on targeting procedures introduced by Obama in response to concerns about civilian casualties. 

In 2013, Obama brought in measures that meant that strikes in areas that were not active warzones – places like Pakistan and Yemen – had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. 

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed seen here with commander US Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser earlier this year via Africom

This does not necessarily mean that Obama-era measures designed to protect civilians from harm have been thrown out of the window.

General Thomas Waldhauser, the man in charge of US military operations throughout Africa, told journalists at the time that though he now had leeway to order strikes without clearing it with the White House, he would be retaining the criteria introduced by Obama that a strike could only happen if there was a near-certainty that no civilians would be harmed.

But the change of rules does seem to have paved the way for greater US military activity in Somalia, the consequences of which are unclear.

The US’s counterterrorism activities in Africa have traditionally been a fraction of those in other parts of the world. Even the record number of strikes launched in Somalia this year amounts to less than a quarter of the number to hit Yemen.

But the US’s involvement appears to be gradually deepening, and not just through air strikes.

The US has around 500 soldiers stationed in Somalia, including special forces advisers that accompany Somali troops and Amisom – the African Union mission in Somalia – on operations. On several occasions this year, the US has been compelled to provide them with close air support when they have come under attack from al Shabaab insurgents.

There is also a coordination cell in Mogadishu staffed by American officers who coordinate operations with Somali and Amisom commanders. US drones and jets are based in Djibouti to the north of Somalia, where Africom runs its operations across East Africa.

It is hard to say how extensive the US’s operational activity on the ground is and whether or not it is increasing. Officials won’t say how often US forces have carried out “partnered ground operations” this year, though will confirm US involvement when questioned about individual incidents. In addition to the four partnered ground operations that needed air support, three others have come to light in 2017. Two proved controversial: they caused either American or civilian casualties.

On 25 August 10 civilians were reportedly killed in a US-Somali operation in Bariire, southern Somalia. Villagers had spotted they were under surveillance had told the Somali military that they were civilians and there was no Shabaab there, fearing an assault.

On 5 May a US Navy Seal died in an operation against al Shabaab. The SEALs and their SNA partners were flown in by helicopter, but came under fire “in the early phase of the mission” after landing near an al Shabaab compound, the target of the mission. Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken was killed in the ambush.

The increased US military activity in Somalia of course does not occur in a vacuum – al Shabaab have launched bold and ruthless attacks over the course of the year. 10 of this year’s 29 strikes have been carried out since 14 October when an al Shabaab bomber detonated a truck bomb on at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, killing more than 350 people and wounding as many more.

Somali officials have connected the increase in air attacks with the October suicide bombing, though the US command in Africa would not confirm this.

Main picture, of a Reaper drone, courtesy of USAF.

Published

September 25, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Bureau has decided to change how it presents its data on Yemen and Somalia to make our datasets more user-friendly.

Our database records all reported US counter-terrorism operations in the two countries, dating back to November 2001 in Yemen and January 2007 in Somalia.

Many of these were reported as drone strikes, whilst others are more ambiguously described merely as “strikes”. The US has also carried out several ground raids with special forces and at least two attacks with cruise missiles. In Somalia, a US gunboat also bombarded al Shabaab fighters on the shoreline.

We had been pulling all air strikes reported to have been carried out by drones into their own year-by-year summaries in the datasets for the two countries. All other strikes would then fall into the category of “other US operations”.

However, events this year have made it evident that our method could be tweaked to give a clearer picture of the air war in these countries.

For example, during the massive US bombardment in Yemen in March and April, the US announced how many strikes it had carried out, but did not specify whether they had used a drone in most of these cases. This means that 95 per cent of the strikes were presented as operations in our year-by-year summaries, giving the casual viewer the impression we had omitted them from our tally entirely.

Because of this, we have decided to re-organise how we aggregate the individual strike figures. We are now pulling all air strikes, including those reported to have been carried out by a drone, into the same tally.

We have also added another year-by-year summary into the Somalia dataset, which pulls in all possible strikes. Prior to this, we had a single summary which included confirmed strikes as the minimum number of strikes and possible strikes included in the maximum.   

The “other US operations” category will now tally ground operations, such as special forces raids, and the naval bombardment and the cruise missile attacks.

Published

September 6, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US military is investigating allegations that two separate operations involving American troops killed at least 22 civilians in the space of a week. 

The US military has confirmed it supported a Somali operation during which 10 civilians, including three young children, were reportedly shot dead. Reports suggest the raid targeted a farm in Bariire in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region on August 25. The extent of the US role is not yet clear. 

The UN mission in Afghanistan has found strikes killed at least 13 civilians and injured 12 others – all women and children – in Logar province, south of Kabul, on August 30. The US has launched an official investigation into the incident. Reports suggest possible US strikes targeted Taliban insurgents using a civilian compound to attack an aircraft.

The allegations come at a time when the US is increasing operations in both countries. Analysts fear that as the number of strikes and raids rise, so will civilian casualties. 

In Afghanistan, additional US troops are already arriving, with more to follow over the next few months. The further escalation of the war announced by US President Donald Trump will also include a continued ramping up of air strikes. In August, there were 387 strikes, US data shows, a steep increase from the 80 carried out in the same month last year.

Meanwhile, strikes in Somalia have also been on the up. In March, President Trump approved a Pentagon proposal to declare certain parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities”, freeing up commanders to carry out strikes and raids without going through the White House bureaucracy.

Despite the new authorities, there were no strikes in Somalia until June. With each passing month since then, strikes have however increased. The March authorities may expire at the end of September, meaning the uptick could be short-lived. 

Photo: F-16 Fighting Falcons at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Aug 31 2017. 

Published

January 19, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy is often discussed in terms of things he didn’t do: intervene in Syria, reset with Russia, get out of Afghanistan.

In one area however, Obama developed and expanded a defining policy architecture which his successor Donald Trump now inherits: the ability to kill suspected terrorists anywhere without US personnel having to leave their bases.

While his administration lauded the drone programme for being so “surgical and precise” it could take out the enemy without putting “innocent men, women and children in danger”, human rights groups lambasted it for doing just that – hundreds of civilians were reported killed outside active battlefields during Obama’s eight years in power.

As his presidency progressed, Obama put restraints in place aimed at reducing civilian casualties – but experts are now worried those limitations will be swept away by Trump in favour of an “anything goes to get the bad guys” approach.

Armed drones were first used under George W Bush. But it was Obama who dramatically increased their use. Responding to evolving militant threats and the greater availability of remote piloting technology, Obama ordered ten times more counter-terror strikes than his predecessor over the course of his term.

These operations have resulted in the deaths of senior terrorists such as Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, and Nasser al Wuhayshi, the commander of the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda. But they have also killed civilians, stoked resentment, and helped establish what civil liberties advocates say is the template for an unaccountable forever war.

Demand for drones has been so high under Obama that the Air Force has struggled to train enough new pilots to keep up with the burnout rate. This year it introduced $35,000 a year retention bonuses to try to persuade more drone pilots to stay on, working long hours in windowless rooms.

Secret operations

It is not just that Obama has put more of a certain type of aircraft in the skies. The low-footprint nature of drone strikes – which can be carried out without having personnel in the country being hit – made it politically easier for the US to mount operations in countries with which it was not technically at war.

The Bureau has recorded 546 strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan since Obama took office.

These operations have been run by highly secretive organisations – the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command – and have been much less accountable to public scrutiny than conventional military operations. In Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon releases data on most of the strikes it carries out. But the US would neither confirm nor deny the existence of operations in Pakistan until a drone accidentally killed an American civilian in Pakistan in 2015.

The legal justification for these operations comes from one sentence in the piece of legislation passed in the wake of 9/11, which authorised action against the perpetrators and those who helped them. The president was authorised “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against the nations, organisations and people who planned and abetted the attacks, “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States,” the resolution stated.

In the following 15 years that authorisation was stretched to justify US action as far afield as Libya and Somalia. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) national security programme, says that the drone campaign has “no meaningful temporal or geographical limits”.

The drone programme has consistently enjoyed popular support among broad swathes of US society. Its advocates say it has saved American lives and reduced the need for messy ground operations like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Outrage over civilians deaths

But it has also caused outrage. Drones have hit hundreds of ordinary civilians going about their everyday life. Towards the peak of the covert drone war, the Bureau found reports of at least 100 civilians killed during Obama’s first year in power in Pakistan alone. Across his eight years in power the Bureau has recorded between 384 and 807 civilians killed by drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. (The Obama administration insists the drone war civilian death toll is substantially lower than that recorded by the Bureau and other civil society organisations.)

Experts warned the civilian casualties could have a radicalising effect on the very societies US drones are trying to eliminate extremists from, and human rights organisations lambasted the targeted killing programme for its “clear violations of international humanitarian law.”

Following such criticisms, drone strike procedures seem to have changed. In 2013, Obama announced that he had signed a piece of Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG), formal policy governing kill or capture missions outside declared battlefields, including drone strikes.

It was the product of four years work, the president said in his 2013 announcement, applying a framework of “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability” to the drone war. This was lacking during the early years of his presidency, Obama said in April last year, when the US drone campaign in Pakistan peaked and the attacks were increasing in frequency in Yemen.

“Continuing imminent threat” rule applied

According to these guidelines, parts of which were published in 2016 after years of legal pressure from the American Civil Liberties Council, strikes were only approved when it had been determined that the targeted individual constituted a “continuing imminent threat”, that there was no way of capturing them, and there was near-certainty that no civilians would be killed.

Reports of civilian casualties in Pakistan plummeted from 52 in 2011 to zero by 2013, suggesting the rules Obama officially announced that year had gradually been adopted in the preceding years.

Ongoing civilian casualties in Yemen suggest the new procedures were not always robustly applied in practice. But they were cautiously welcomed by civil liberties groups as being better than no restrictions at all.

In a further bid to embed policies preventing civilian casualties before leaving office, Obama also issued an Executive Order in 2016. The order called for transparent reporting of civilian casualties in US military operations, including those outside of declared battlefields. White House insiders said the move was a direct response to continued pressure by the Bureau and other organisations which collect and publish data on drone war deaths.

The problem, as Hina Shamsi points out, is that the constraints on the drone programme instituted by Obama are “recognised as a matter of policy not of law.” This means they could be overturned by the Trump administration.

Constraints could be dismantled

Luke Hartig, formerly senior director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council and now a fellow at the New America Foundation, identified two elements of the PPG as specifically vulnerable.

One is “the continuing, imminent threat” standard, an overarching principle that stipulates a terrorist can only be targeted if their activities pose a real and immediate danger to US citizens.

It could be scrapped because “it speaks to what some critics would say is a legalistic approach from the Obama administration,” Hartig said.

He suggested that the “near-certainty” standard might also be changed – a rule whereby a terrorist can only be taken out if there is near certainty no non-combatants will be killed or injured (except in extraordinary circumstances).

“If you’re in the Trump administration and you’re saying you’re going to be tough on terrorism, some of these standards could be perceived as tying your own hands,” Hartig said.

Hartig stressed however that the PPGs were not the only constraints on drone strikes.

“The PPG also reflects pragmatic realities about civilian casualties, the diplomatic realities surrounding the use of force, and what our operators know based on 15 years of fighting terrorist and insurgent networks,” he said.

“If you loosen the standard on civilian casualties, you may see an increase in such incidents, but it won’t be off the charts because our operators have become so good at preventing collateral damage.”

This caveat was echoed by Christopher Kolenda, a former US military commander in Afghanistan and co-author of a June paper for the Open Society Foundation on civilian casualties in the country.

“I frankly don’t see a doomsday scenario in the near term,” he told the Bureau. “This generation of senior leaders has all experienced Iraq and Afghanistan, and have all experienced the consequences of civilian harm that occurs within laws of armed conflict.

“I can’t see them taking a different approach than what they know to be right.”

Kolenda is worried about the long term however. People retire or move on and “if you don’t have things institutionalised as doctrine some of those lessons are at risk.”

What Trump is planning is anyone’s guess

No-one knows exactly what Donald Trump’s intentions are for the drone programme.

He has selected as National Security Advisor a retired general who has said the religion of Islam is a “cancer”. Michael Flynn was at the heart of the US counter-terrorism campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan that saw widespread use of drones. However he was also one of the voices warning that careless drone strikes only served to radicalise populations.

The President-Elect himself has made inflammatory statements while campaigning that could indicate how he will act. He told ecstatic crowds of thousands at his rallies that he would “bomb the shit” out of Islamic State.

In an interview with the Daily Mail last May he suggested he would continue the covert drone war.

“As far as drones are concerned, yes. To take out terrorists,” he said. “The only thing is, I want them to get it right. But to take out terrorists, yes, I would think that that is something I would continue to do.”

What this means in practice however remains unclear.

“I don’t want to talk about it because I do want to be unpredictable in a sense,” said Trump. “I don’t want the enemy to know exactly where I’m coming from.”

Published

January 17, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

There were ten times more air strikes in the covert war on terror during President Barack Obama’s presidency than under his predecessor, George W. Bush.

Obama embraced the US drone programme, overseeing more strikes in his first year than Bush carried out during his entire presidency. A total of 563 strikes, largely by drones, targeted Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen during Obama’s two terms, compared to 57 strikes under Bush. Between 384 and 807 civilians were killed in those countries, according to reports logged by the Bureau.

The use of drones aligned with Obama’s ambition to keep up the war against al Qaeda while extricating the US military from intractable, costly ground wars in the Middle East and Asia. But the targeted killing programme has drawn much criticism.

The Obama administration has insisted that drone strikes are so “exceptionally surgical and precise” that they pluck off terror suspects while not putting “innocent men, women and children in danger”. This claim has been contested by numerous human rights groups, however, and the Bureau’s figures on civilian casualties also demonstrate that this is often not the case.

The White House released long-awaited figures last July on the number of people killed in drone strikes between January 2009 and the end of 2015, an announcement which insiders said was a direct response to pressure from the Bureau and other organisations that collect data. However the US’s estimate of the number of civilians killed – between 64 and 116 – contrasted strongly with the number recorded by the Bureau, which at 380 to 801 was six times higher.

That figure does not include deaths in active battlefields including Afghanistan – where US air attacks have shot up since Obama withdrew the majority of his troops at the end of 2014. The country has since come under frequent US bombardment, in an unreported war that saw 1,337 weapons dropped last year alone – a 40% rise on 2015.

Afghan civilian casualties have been high, with the United Nations (UN) reporting at least 85 deaths in 2016. The Bureau recorded 65 to 105 civilian deaths during this period. We did not start collecting data on Afghanistan until 2015.

Pakistan was the hub of drone operations during Obama’s first term. The pace of attacks had accelerated in the second half of 2008 at the end of Bush’s term, after four years pocked by occasional strikes. However in the year after taking office, Obama ordered more drone strikes than Bush did during his entire presidency. The 54 strikes in 2009 all took place in Pakistan.

Strikes in the country peaked in 2010, with 128 CIA drone attacks and at least 89 civilians killed, at the same time US troop numbers surged in Afghanistan. Pakistan strikes have since fallen with just three conducted in the country last year.

Obama also began an air campaign targeting Yemen. His first strike was a catastrophe: commanders thought they were targeting al Qaeda but instead hit a tribe with cluster munitions, killing 55 people. Twenty-one were children – 10 of them under five. Twelve were women, five of them pregnant.

Through 2010 and the first half of 2011 US strikes in Yemen continued sporadically. The air campaign then began in earnest, with the US using its drones and jets to help Yemeni ground forces oust al Qaeda forces who had taken advantage of the country’s Arab Spring to seize a swath of territory in the south of the country.

In Somalia, US Special Operations Forces and gunships had been fighting al Qaeda and its al Shabaab allies since January 2007. The US sent drones to Djibouti in 2010 to support American operations in Yemen, but did not start striking in Somalia until 2011.

The number of civilian casualties increased alongside the rise in strikes. However reported civilian casualties began to fall as Obama’s first term progressed, both in real terms and as a rate of civilians reported killed per strike.

In Yemen, where there has been a minimum of 65 civilian deaths since 2002, the Bureau recorded no instances of civilian casualties last year. There were three non-combatants reportedly killed in 2016 in Somalia, where the US Air Force has been given broader authority to target al Shabaab – in previous years there were no confirmed civilian deaths.

Strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia have always been dwarfed by the frequency of air attacks on battlefields such as Afghanistan.

December 2014 saw the end of Nato combat operations there, and the frequency of air attacks plummeted in 2015. Strikes are now increasing again, with a 40% rise in 2016, though numbers remain below the 2011 peak.

The number of countries being simultaneously bombed by the US increased to seven last year as a new front opened up in the fight against Islamic State (IS). The US has been leading a coalition of countries in the fight against IS in Iraq and Syria since August 2014, conducting a total of 13,501 strikes across both countries, according to monitoring group Airwars.

In August US warplanes started hitting the group hard in Libya. The US declared 495 strikes in the country between August 1 and December 5 as part of efforts to stop IS gaining more ground, Airwars data shows.

In the final days of Obama’s time in the White House, the Bureau has broken down his covert war on terror in numbers. Our annual 2016 report provides figures on the number of US strikes and related casualties last year, as well as collating the total across Obama’s eight years in power:

Total US drone and air strikes in 2016 Pakistan Yemen Somalia Afghanistan
Strikes 3 38 14 1071
Total people reported killed 11-12 147-203 204-292 1389-1597
Civilians reported killed 1 0 3-5 65-101

Notes on the data: The Bureau is not logging strikes in active battlefields except Afghanistan; strikes in Syria, Iraq and Libya are not included in this data. To see data for those countries, visit Airwars.org.

Somalia: confirmed US strikes December 2016 2016 2009 to 2016
US strikes 0 14 32-39
Total people reported killed 0 204-292 242-454
Civilians reported killed 0 3-5 3-12
Children reported killed 0 0 0-2
Total people reported injured 0 3-16 5-26

Notes on the data: in the final column, strikes carried out between Jan 1 and Jan 19 2009 are not included. The figure refers to the number of strikes that took place from Jan 20, 2009, onwards – the data Obama’s presidency began. This applies to all the tables in this report.

The US officially designated Somali militant group al Shabaab as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November amid a rising number of US strikes in the country last year.

One week after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Congress passed the Authorisation for Use of Military Force law allowing the president to go after those responsible and “associated forces”.

The US has used this law, which predates the formation of al Shabaab, to target individual members of the group deemed to have al Qaeda links. The military has also hit the group in defence of partner forces. The group is now deemed an “associated force”, meaning all members are legitimate terrorist targets.

The US has been aggressively pursuing al Shabaab. At least 204 people were killed in US strikes in Somalia last year – ten times higher than the number recorded for any other year. The vast majority of those killed were reported as belonging to al Shabaab.

An attack on an al Shabaab training camp in the Hiran region on March 5 accounts for 150 of these deaths. This is the highest death toll from a single US strike ever recorded by the Bureau, overtaking the previous highest of 81 people killed in Pakistan in 2006.

One of the more controversial of last year’s strikes occurred on September 28. Somali forces were disrupting a bomb-making network when they came under attack from a group of al Shabaab fighters. The US launched an air strike to “neutralize the threat”.

Local officials said 22 local soldiers and civilians were killed. In the city of Galkayo, where the strike took place, citizens protested in the streets.

US Africa Command told the Bureau the reports of non-combatant deaths were wrong. However the US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced the next day that the Pentagon would investigate the strike. The investigation found the strike had not killed members of al Shabaab. It instead killed ten members of a local militia reportedly allied with the Americans, US Africa Command concluded.

Afghanistan: Bureau data on US drone strikes and other airstrikes December 2016 2016 2015-2016
US strikes 8 1071 1306-1307
Total people reported killed 24-26 1389-1597 2371-3031
Civilians reported killed 0 65-105 125-182
Children reported killed 0 3-7 6-23
Total people reported injured 12 196-243 338-390

Notes on the data: The US Air Force has a variety of aircraft carrying out missions over Afghanistan, including jets, drones and AC-130 gunships. The UN reported in August 2015 that most US strikes were by unmanned aerial vehicles. This matches the Bureau’s records that show most US air attacks since January were by drones. However in the absence of US authorities revealing which type of aircraft carried out which attack, it remains unclear which of the attacks recorded were by manned or unmanned aircraft.

The Bureau’s data on strikes in Afghanistan is not exhaustive. The ongoing war creates barriers to reporting and the Bureau’s data is an accumulation of what publicly available information exists on specific strikes and casualties. The US government publishes monthly aggregates of air operations in Afghanistan, minus information on casualties.

US Air Force data: Afghanistan in 2016
Total Close Air Support (CAS) sorties with at least one weapon release 615
Total CAS sorties 5162
Total weapons released 1337

US warplanes dropped 1,337 weapons over the country last year, a 40% rise on 2015, according to data released by the US Air Force.

The increase follows President Barack Obama’s decision in June to give US commanders more leeway to target the Taliban, amid the Afghan army’s struggle to keep strategic cities from falling into the insurgents’ hands.

Strikes conducted under this authority, referred to by the military as “strategic effects” strikes, have increased in frequency since the new rules came into force.

The continuing rise in attacks against the Taliban demonstrates the battle against the insurgents is far from over, despite combat operations targeting the group officially ending almost two years ago. Since then, Taliban violence has increased and Afghanistan’s branch of Islamic State has been trying to carve out territory in the east of the country.

IS emerged in Afghanistan in late 2014, growing as a force through 2015. The US responded by allowing the military to specifically target the group in a bid to stop it gaining strength.

As strikes have risen, so have reports of civilian casualties, with some significant incidents taking place in the second half of 2016.

The UN’s biannual report on civilian casualties released in July detailed the deaths of 38 civilians in US strikes. Since then, the UN has highlighted two US strikes that took the lives of a further 47 civilians.

One of the more controversial strikes hit a house in Nangarhar province on September 28. While the US has maintained that members of Islamic State were killed in the attack, the UN, with uncharacteristic speed, released a report saying the victims were civilians. In subsequent reporting, the Bureau was able to confirm this and identify the victims.

This particular strike caused a rift between the UN and US. In an unusual step, the US commander in charge of the Afghanistan operations General Nicholson reportedly considered banning or restricting UN access to a military base in Kabul as a result of its assertion.

There could be more civilian casualties than the two incidents highlighted. These may be documented in the UN’s annual report due for release in February. The Bureau recorded the deaths of up to 105 civilians in Afghanistan as a result of US strikes in 2016.

Not included in these figures were instances of “friendly fire” attacks. The Bureau published an investigation into one of the three such incidents in 2016 when a US strike on a Taliban prison killed Afghan police officers being held captive.

Yemen: confirmed US strikes December 2016 2016 2009 to 2016
US strikes 1 38 158-178
Total people reported killed 2 147-203 777-1075
Civilians reported killed 0 0 124-161
Children reported killed 0 0 32-34
Total people reported injured 0 34-41 143-287

Last year American air operations in Yemen reached their second highest level since 2002, when the US conducted its first ever lethal drone strike in the country.

At least 38 US strikes hit the country in 2016, targeting operatives belonging to terrorist group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) amid Yemen’s civil war.

The conflict ignited when the Houthi militant group stormed the capital of Sanaa in September 2014. Allied to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, the rebels pushed the internationally-recognised government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi into exile.

On October 12, the military launched cruise missile strikes at three rebel targets in Houthi-controlled territory following failed missile attacks on a US Navy ship. This is the first and only time the US has directly targeted Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Last year, a Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes against the rebels, which has led to widescale destruction. One of these strikes hit a funeral ceremony, killing 140 people. The munition used was identified by Human Rights Watch as a US-manufactured air-dropped GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb.

Pakistan: confirmed US strikes December 2016 2016 2009-2016
US strikes 0 3 373
Total people reported killed 0 11 2089-3406
Civilians reported killed 0 1 257-634
Children reported killed 0 0 66-78
Total people reported injured 0 3-6 986-1467

Drone strikes in Pakistan last year fell to their lowest level in a decade, with only three strikes conducted in the country.

The most recent attack targeted Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban. Mansour was killed on May 21 while being driven through Balochistan, a restive region home to a separatist movement as well as the Afghan Taliban’s leadership. His civilian taxi driver, Mohammed Azam, was also killed in the strike.

It was the first ever US strike to hit Balochistan and only the sixth to hit a location outside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It was also the first to be carried out by the US military in Pakistan. The CIA has carried out strikes since the drone program began in Pakistan in 2004.

The Pakistan government summoned the US ambassador in protest following the strike. Sartaj Aziz, foreign affairs special adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister, also claimed that killing Mansour had dented efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

US drone strikes in Pakistan peaked in 2010, during which at least 755 people were killed. It is unclear what has led to the steep drop in strikes since then. The Pakistani military conducted an 18-month ground offensive in the tribal regions flushing out many militants and pushing them into Afghanistan. It is possible that the US ran out of targets.

This does not mean that the drone programme in Pakistan has come to end. Strikes paused for a six-month period at the end of December 2013 while the Pakistani government unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a peace accord with the Taliban. It is possible attacks will resume with the change in presidency in January.

Main photo by Pete Marovich/Bloomberg via Getty Images