December 3, 2014

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

For this week’s Drone News, Abigail Fielding-Smith went to Copenhagen to interview the maker of a new documentary on drone warfare, Tonje Hessen Schei.

The documentary, Drone, draws on interviews from Washington DC to Waziristan. The director explains that she is alarmed at the direction the technology is going in.

Listen to this week’s episode.

“This is just the beginning of this new kind of warfare,” she told Drone News. “What is coming we can only guess.”

Fielding-Smith also met a former US Airforce drone sensor operator who appears in the film, Brandon Bryant. Sensor operators work alongside pilots ensuring the drone’s cameras and, when necessary, targeting lasers, are focused.  Bryant talked about the stress of watching and helping to end peoples’ lives from afar.

“My imagination would give these people personalities, I’d give them personalities, I’d give them lives, wondering what they were talking about, what they were thinking about, give them real personal depth.  It might have been false personal depth but it made them more human to me,” he said. “It didn’t coincide with my military training too well.”

Follow our drones team Jack Serle and Abigail Fielding-Smith on Twitter.

Sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project, subscribe to our podcast Drone News, and follow Drone Reads on Twitter to see what our team is reading.


September 5, 2014

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

Nato is building its surveillance capacity with a new drone system (Anguskirk/Flickr)

Bureau journalists discuss the use of drones in Iraq as part of the US military response to the brutality of Islamic State (ISIS) in the latest drones podcast.

The US has been attacking ISIS positions in Iraq since August 8. It has launched more strikes with jets and drones in Iraq in August this year than were carried out in 2009 and 2010 combined, according to open source data collected by freelance journalist Chris Woods.

Download the podcast.

The Bureau’s Jack Serle explains why it is likely that the US is using both drones and manned aircraft to hit targets.

The latest episode of the podcast Drone News also covers other events that have involved drones throughout August.

Victoria Parsons reports on the first US drone attack in Somalia in seven months that may have killed Abdi Ahmed Godane, leader the al Shabaab group.

This episode also features news of Nato developing and operating an integrated surveillance drone system from Italy. And Google has successfully tested its new delivery drone in Australia

Follow Jack Serle, Victoria Parsons and Owen Bennett-Jones on Twitter. Sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project, subscribe to our podcast, Drone News from the Bureau, and follow Drone Reads on Twitter to see what the team is reading.


November 15, 2013

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

The Bureau is launching a podcast that will provide regular comment and interviews on the covert drone war.

We will be producing a podcast every fortnight as part of our extensive coverage of the US’s secret drone campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Each package will include a report from Alice Ross, who leads the Bureau’s investigation into drone warfare, with analysis on recent drone-related news and events. There will also be interviews.

In the first of these podcasts Alice Ross talks about the Bureau’s investigations into the covert drone war, including the Naming the Dead project.

Jack Serle, who runs the Bureau’s extensive drones databases, discusses how the Bureau goes about assembling its data.

The Bureau has been covering the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia for more than two years. Data collected by the team forms a public record of every reported drone strike in these regions along with the numbers of reported casualties of such attacks.

The drones team was awarded the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism this year, with the head of the judges John Pilger praising the project as ‘pioneering’ and ‘truly extraordinary’.

Related story: Get the data – Drone wars

In September the Bureau launched Naming the Dead, in an attempt to increase the public understanding of how drones are being used in the remote tribal areas of Pakistan, by naming people who have been killed in strikes in this area.

All the Bureau’s work on the covert drone war can be viewed on the Covert Drone War project site.

You can subscribe to the Bureau’s podcast through iTunes. Or you can stream it or download from here.

To keep up-to-date with our work subscribe to our drones investigation mailing list or follow us on Twitter at @tbij, @aliceross and @jackserle.


October 25, 2012

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

London-based UN expert says Geneva unit will investigate civilian drone deaths

The United Nations plans to set up a special investigation unit examining claims of civilian deaths in individual US covert drone strikes.

UN investigators have been critical of US ‘extrajudicial executions’ since they began in 2002. The new Geneva-based unit will also look at the legality of the programme.

The latest announcement, by UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson QC, was made in a speech on October 25 at Harvard law school. Emmerson, who monitors counter-terrorism for the UN, previously called in August for the US to hand over video of each covert drone attack.

The London-based lawyer became the second senior UN official in recent months to label the tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers and funeral-goers with drones ‘a war crime’.  That practice was first exposed by the Bureau for the Sunday Times in February 2012.

‘The Bureau has alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. Christof Heyns … has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view,’ said Emmerson.

‘Last resort’

Both Heyns and Emmerson have become increasingly vocal in recent months, even as the United States attempts to put its targeted killings scheme on a more formal footing.

‘If the relevant states are not willing to establish effective independent monitoring mechanisms… then it may in the last resort be necessary for the UN to act. Together with my colleague Christof Heyns, [the UN special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings], I will be launching an investigation unit within the special procedures of the [UN] Human Rights Council to inquire into individual drone attacks,’ Emmerson said in his speech.

The unit will also look at ‘other forms of targeted killing conducted in counter-terrorism operations, in which it is alleged that civilian casualties have been inflicted, and to seek explanations from the states using this technology and the states on whose territory it is used. [It] will begin its work early next year and will be based in Geneva.

‘The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US,’ he added. ‘The first-term Obama administration initially retreated from this approach, but over the past 18 months it has begun to rear its head once again, in briefings by administration officials seeking to provide a legal justification for the drone programme of targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.’

Emmerson singled out both President Obama and the Republican challenger Mitt Romney for criticism. ‘It is perhaps surprising that the position of the two candidates on this issue has not even featured during their presidential elections campaigns, and got no mention at all in Monday night’s foreign policy debate. We now know that the two candidates are in agreement on the use of drones.’

The UN expert made clear in his speech that pressure for action is now coming from member states – including two permanent members of the Security Council: ‘During the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in June many states, including Russia and China called for an investigation into the use of drone strikes as a means of targeted killing.  One of the States that made that call was Pakistan,’ he noted.


November 9, 2011

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

On Monday October 31, 16-year-old Tariq Aziz was killed in a US drone strike near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Three days earlier, Bureau reporter Pratap Chatterjee met the teenager at a conference in Islamabad, where local people came together to discuss the impact of U.S. drone strikes in their communities.

Related article: Bureau reporter meets 16-year-old three days before US drone kills him.

In this interview, Chatterjee speaks to independent non-profit US program Democracy Now about how he came to meet Aziz, and the Bureau’s major investigation into the CIA-led US covert drone war.


The interview transcript follows:

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to look at the secret U.S. drone war in Pakistan. Late last month, a group of Pakistanis met in Islamabad to discuss the impact of U.S. drone strikes in their communities. One of the attendees was a boy named Tariq Aziz, who had volunteered to learn photography to begin documenting drone strikes near his home. Within 72 hours of the meeting, Tariq Aziz himself was killed in a U.S. drone strike. He was 16 years old. His 12-year-old cousin was also killed.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Pratap Chatterjee, a reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, director of CorpWatch. He was in Pakistan this month and went to the news conference, where Tariq Aziz was just days before he was killed. Pratap is back now in London.

Pratap, tell us what took place in Islamabad, how you came to meet Tariq Aziz, and then what happened.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Amy, a group here in London called Reprieve, which is a legal charity, and a group in Islamabad by the name of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights worked with Waziristan elders to create a Waziristan Grand Jirga, in which they brought together elders and families of those that had been killed in the drone strikes over the last five years in northern Pakistan. So they met at the Margala Hotel, and this jirga was held on Friday the 28th.

And there were probably 35 people, who were families, relatives of people who were killed, including—among them was Tariq Aziz, whom I met briefly, who was 16. And he had lost his cousin 18 months ago. His cousin’s name is Aswar Ullah, who was killed when he was riding a motorbike near their home village of Norak.

So, at that meeting, the elders, as is typical in a jirga, met to discuss what had happened. They adopted a resolution condemning the strikes and then went to a rally organized by Imran Khan. And Tariq Aziz traveled with all of us to the rally. There were lawyers. There were reporters. It was an open meeting, an open rally in front of the parliament in Islamabad.

After that, Tariq Aziz and the other attendees returned to their homes. And 72 hours later, when Tariq was traveling with his 12-year-old cousin to go pick up his aunt on Monday morning, he was killed in a drone strike.

AMY GOODMAN: He had expressed concern, at the news conference, of going home?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, Amy, he was not at the news conference, but at the jirga. I think every one of the people there were very aware of the situation that they were in, because in every village around Mir Ali, Miranshah, there are drones, often 24 hours a day. So people were aware of the threat to them. Yet they volunteered—Tariq, in particular, because he, at his age in that remote community, was familiar with computers, was excited about the idea of being able to document the civilian casualties. There’s a photographer who’s been doing that for three years—Noor Behram is his name—and he’s been doing a lot of documentation. Tariq was one of the young men who had volunteered to help him out and to be able to document, you know, the devastation that had happened in their own family.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Pratap, he is now one of about 175 children that have been killed in these drone strikes in recent years in Pakistan? And what about the rest of civilian casualties?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Exactly, Juan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, where I work, has created a database of everybody that has been killed since these drone strikes began a number of years ago under Bush. Eighty-five percent of them have taken place under Barack Obama. And we have used the most conservative counting methodology that we can. We only record a death if it is confirmed by multiple sources. So if it’s reported by AP and then re-reported by the New York Times, we don’t count it. It has to be reported by multiple sources. And using that methodology, we have counted over 2,300 people that have been killed, and as many as 3,000. And when we have found an individual below the age of 18—a child, in other words—we have identified them separately. And we have documented at least 175 children, together with the number of women that have been killed in these strikes, that have been casualties of this secret war in Afghanistan. So, Waheed Khan, age 12, and Tariq Aziz, age 16, were the 174th and 175th documented child casualties in this war.

One of the things that John Brennan and many people in the administration are fond of saying is, “These are all militants.” Well, I question how a 12-year-old could be a militant in this war. But more than that, the very fact that I personally was able to meet them in an open, public meeting in Islamabad, I question as to whether the CIA is really attempting to identify people before they kill them, because if this person was a militant, they could well have met them in Islamabad, as did hundreds of other people. And at the press conference, there were—I counted 23 cameras. At the jirga, there were a dozen cameras. There are thousands of people in the streets of Islamabad. It would have been so easy for the CIA, the ISI, to come question these kids, to have taken them aside, even put them in jail or interrogated them, send them to Guantánamo. But instead they chose to kill them. This, to my mind, suggests that these—their information is erroneous, that there is collateral damage. And these are children that they are killing.

AMY GOODMAN: Pratap, I’m looking at Clive Stafford Smith’s piece, who heads up Reprieve, that gathered that group together. He said, “I told the elders [that] the only way to convince the American people of their suffering was to accumulate physical proof that civilians had been killed… Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm. We told him to think about it some more before moving forward.” I ask about the importance of documenting evidence. That was Clive Stafford Smith talking about the 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, who then went home to do that documentation and was killed with his 12-year-old cousin.

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Amy, one of the problems here is that because Waziristan is inaccessible to Western reporters, and indeed even Pakistani reporters from the cities, when the CIA or the Pakistani government, Pakistani military, says they have killed militants, high-level targets, there is no way to prove otherwise. So the only way that’s possible is to gather physical evidence. At last week in Islamabad, in fact continuing as we speak, there is an exhibit of seven fragments of Hellfire missiles that I have seen and photographed myself, with serial numbers on them, that local villagers have picked up and can date to the dates of these attacks. So there’s physical evidence that those missiles, with those serial numbers, have hit communities in Waziristan.

They have—Noor Behram has been very meticulous in taking photographs, as soon as a drone strike takes place, of individuals that have been killed. But these strikes take place over a very large area. And the only way to be able to prove that the CIA is killing innocent people is to muster as many people as possible, give them cameras, and try and arrange to prove that the CIA is wrong. And that is what Tariq Aziz was trying to do, that is what a number of people have been trying to do, because nobody believes people from Waziristan. All they believe, all the information they get, is from the CIA. And that information is clearly wrong, as I have experienced myself.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Pratap, what is the reaction, if any, of the Pakistani government to these continued killings of civilians in their country?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, the Pakistani government speaks, like the U.S. government, with many voices. By and large, they are silent. They sometimes claim that the U.S. government is doing this without their own permission. But there are also military officials in Pakistan who have claimed that every person that has been killed has been a militant. And this is part of the problem, is that even though, you know, the government supposedly is not involved in this, there is a nod and wink going on, where they are working with the CIA, they are working with the White House, in order to be able to ensure that, you know, there is no culpability.

Here’s the thing. In Pakistan, if somebody is killed, just as in the U.S., we would—the state would intervene and investigate the murder. In Pakistan, the family can sue. A blood money can be paid. And in fact, the U.S. government, in many countries, has done this. It’s called solatia payments. In Afghanistan, in Iraq, the U.S. has compensated people that they have killed by accident. In Pakistan, that does not take place. The Pakistani government, the U.S. government, the local courts have not intervened.

And so, Shahzad Akbar, who’s a lawyer with the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in Pakistan, is trying to bring justice to these communities. He has worked with a journalist by the name of Kareem Khan—and Kareem, in fact, has lost his son and his brother in drone strikes—and he brought a lawsuit last December against the CIA. He named Jonathan Banks, the head of the CIA, who then fled the country. Today Shahzad is working to try and bring these kinds of lawsuits against the Pakistani government, against the CIA, to try and get compensation for these communities, because the Pakistani government is not stepping up to the plate. There is one politician today, Imran Khan, who is trying to change this. And he has said that he is going to, if he is elected, to try and bring justice and to deny the U.S. government permission to kill innocent people in Pakistan.

AMY GOODMAN: He is the famous cricketer who conceivably will run for president, is that right, of Pakistan? And people can go to our website at to see the different interviews that we’ve done with him as he has come to the United States. Pratap?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Imran Khan is running for the 2013 elections. Until recently, he was actually considered kind of a marginal player. But interestingly, the day the rally that Tariq Aziz attended, perhaps 2,000 people went to that Imran Khan rally. Nawaz Sharif had 35,000 people. But the following day in Lahore, Imran Khan had over 100,000 people, some believe as many as 500,000 people, attending. This is very significant. People are fed up with the drone strikes. They’re fed up with the corruption in Pakistan. And the young people are rallying behind Imran Khan, because they see him as somebody who’s not part of the establishment. Whether or not he can change what the U.S. government does in Pakistan is a question we will only be able to answer if he is elected. But there is certainly widespread dissatisfaction among the young communities. There is a tremendous surge of support for Imran Khan in Waziristan, where, you know, people are fed up with the politicians that they have elected and have sent to Islamabad.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Pratap, for being with us. Pratap Chatterjee, a reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and director of CorpWatch, an NGO that tracks corporate malfeasance. Pratap Chatterjee, speaking to us from London.


October 28, 2011

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

Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia

The Bureau Recommends an article in the Washington Post, which reveals that the US Air Force has been secretly flying armed Reaper drones from a remote airbase in Ethiopia.

According to the report, millions of dollars have been spent on upgrading the airfield in Arba Minch, which now houses a fleet of drones that can be equipped with deadly Hellfire missiles. The base is located 300 miles south of Addis Ababa and 600 miles east of the border with Somalia.

Details of this Ethiopian base follow revelations by the Washington Post last month that the US is building a ‘constellation of secret drone bases’ in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It is understood that the Reapers began flying missions over Somalia earlier this year, targeting the al-Shabaab militant group who are linked to al-Qaeda.

Related article: Analysis: Has CIA changed its strategy in Pakistan drone war?

Confirming the operations from Arba Minch, Master Sgt. James Fisher of the 17th Air Force said on Thursday  that the aim was ‘to provide operation and technical support for our security assistance programs’ and that drone flights ‘will continue as long as the government of Ethiopia welcomes our cooperation on the varied security programs’.

To read the article in full click here.

The Bureau is conducting an ongoing investigation into all CIA drone activity. Click here to read the Covert Drone War study. For regular updates on drones and all our other stories, sign up to our newsletter, here.