News & Investigations

News & Investigations

Published

December 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

Pioneering conflict monitor aims to raise at least £20,000 during holiday period

Airwars is launching its first public fundraising appeal in over two years as 2019 draws to a close – hoping to raise at least £20,000 during December for vital work tracking civilian harm in multiple wars.

Founded in 2014, Airwars is now monitoring civilian harm across six conflicts, and has recorded more than 51,000 locally alleged deaths. Admissions of more than 1,300 civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria by the US-led Coalition have been majorly driven by Airwars’ own findings. However resources remain a challenge – particularly since the organisation refuses funding from belligerents it is actively monitoring, like the US and UK.

Donations raised during December will be used for example to further investigate civilian harm claims from Russian, US-led Coalition, and Turkish strikes in Syria – and also to help launch upcoming Airwars public microsites on US counter terrorism actions and associated civilian harm in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen – three heavily under-reported conflicts.

“Our emphasis at Airwars is on what civilians themselves say is happening to them during war,” says Dmytro Chupryna, head of fundraising. “We’re internationally respected for our rigorous approach, and continue to provide a vital counter-narrative to military claims that modern warfare causes little civilian harm. Yet despite our significant impact, our budget remains tiny. Public donations are much needed to help continue our crucial work.”

Please donate today

Airwars has released a fundraising video as part of the December campaign

▲ Part of the Airwars team in the London office, December 2019

Published

November 11, 2019

Written by

Airwars Staff

More than 51,000 locally reported civilian deaths have been monitored by Airwars since 2014.

November 11th 2019 marks the fifth anniversary of Airwars – the international not for profit which monitors civilian harm on the battlefield, and seeks to reduce conflict casualty numbers.

November 11th is recognised globally, as Armistice Day, Remembrance Day and Veterans Day. It was also the date on which the name Airwars was registered by founders Chris Woods and Basile Simon in 2014, as part of a new approach to all-source local language monitoring of reported civilian harm in conflict countries.

Established originally to track the US-led war against so-called Islamic State in Iraq and then Syria, Airwars now monitors several dozen belligerents in six conflict-affected nations. At present the team is most focused on Turkish and Russian military actions in northern Syria; and on a bitter civil war in Libya which is increasingly drawing in foreign powers. More than 51,000 locally alleged civilian deaths have so far been tracked by the organisation – with tens of thousands more reports of injuries.

As well as monitoring local allegations of civilian harm, Airwars works where possible with militaries to help improve transparency and accountability – with the hope of reducing battlefield casualties. The organisation has been instrumental for example in securing the admission of more than 1,300 civilian deaths from Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria. Team members have additionally met with British, Dutch, Danish and NATO officials to seek transparency improvements. Airwars is also consulting with the Pentagon along with other NGOs, on a revised Department of Defense civilian casualty assessment process.

Airwars has also published many key investigations into civilian harm since its founding – working with news organisations including Foreign Policy, the Daily Beast, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Le Monde, RTL Netherlands, and De Morgen. Investigations have revealed for example the existence of 80 officially admitted non-US civilian deaths which to this day, no nation will admit to. In summer 2019, Airwars also published a major study into US media reporting of civilian harm in war.

Headquartered at Goldsmiths, University of London in the UK, Airwars also has a European office in Utrecht in the Netherlands. The organisation is mainly funded by philanthropic donations – while declining support from governments participating in the conflicts it monitors.

Staff, contractors and volunteers are presently based on four continents. Maysa Ishmael is the most recent London-based staff member, focused both on UK advocacy, and on assessing civilian harm from military actions in Syria and Iraq. Maysa works alongside Mohammed al-Jumaily, another recent addition to the London team who monitors local claims of civilian harm in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The latest conflicts to be included in Airwars monitoring are US counter terror operations in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen. More than 1,000 alleged drone strikes dating back to 2002 – which were originally tracked by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism – are being transitioned to Airwars standards. Somalia will be the first of these conflicts to go online, later in 2019.

“November 11th is always a sombre occasion, when we remember both our civilian and military dead. So it’s fitting that this also marks the date on which Airwars was founded,” says director Chris Woods. “It’s my immense privilege to work with such an exceptional team of staff and volunteers around the world, bearing witness to civilian harm and seeking to reduce conflict casualty numbers.”

▲ An NHK-Japan documentary team recently filming with Airwars in London.

Published

May 2, 2018

Written by

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

The Trump administration is considering overturning a key Obama-era policy which sought to make counter-terrorism operations more transparent, even as it ramps them up.

The announcement, given to the Bureau by the US National Security Council late on Tuesday night, offers one of the clearest indications yet of the administration’s differing stance of transparency in counter-terrorism (known in military jargon as CT).

In response to growing concerns about accountability and civilian harm in strikes in places like Pakistan and Yemen, the Obama administration issued an Executive Order in 2016 requiring the government to release an annual report on these operations and the casualties associated with them. The Executive Order stipulated that the release of each year’s figures should come no later than May 1 of the following year.

On May 1, the deadline passed without the release. A National Security Council spokesperson told the Bureau that the Executive Order (EO) was under review and could be modified or rescinded. While they remained committed to avoiding civilian casualties, the spokesperson said, “the previous administration’s EO requirement for the public report was based on Obama era CT policies, many of which were rescinded to allow the warfighter to better pursue the evolving terrorist threat”.

The figures previously released under Obama, though cautiously welcomed by civil society organisations, offered only limited accountability for the US drone wars. They were aggregate figures, not broken down by where or when the strikes took place. This made it difficult to interrogate the data and work out why it differed from other estimates of the drone war’s civilian death toll.

However, their release was seen as an important step towards greater transparency. This trend had already started to reverse under Trump by the end of 2017, when the Bureau stopped receiving monthly reports on airstrikes in Afghanistan.

The restricted flow of information about counterterrorism strikes comes at a time when they are increasing substantially. President Donald Trump launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office, according to the Bureau’s data, more than triple the number carried out the year before.

While the Trump administration did not release a report on counterterrorism operations as per the Executive Order, the NSC spokesperson did say that there had been no increase in the number of civilian casualties compared to the previous year. The Obama administration found one non-combatant had been killed in strikes outside of areas of active hostilities in 2016.

It is hard to evaluate the NSC spokesperson’s estimate of the 2017 civilian casaulty toll, because the Trump administration reportedly declared parts of Yemen and Somalia to be areas of active hostilities last year. Areas of active hostilities – conventional warzones like Iraq and Syria – are not included in the tally required by the Executive Order. When asked by the Bureau whether any parts of Yemen and Somalia were excluded from the latest estimate, the NSC spokesperson said they didn’t “have any further clarity to provide.”

The Bureau recorded at least three civilian deaths in Yemen and Somalia in 2017. However, both the Bureau’s and the administration’s figures could well be an underestimate. Information from remote parts of Yemen and Somalia is hard to come by, and CENTCOM, the US military command responsible for Yemen, told the Bureau it deemed civilian casualty allegations non-credible if there was not sufficient information about them.

The robustness of the US government’s own assessments of civilian casualty claims has long been a point of concern for civil society organisations. This is acknowledged in the Executive Order – now threatened with cancellation – which obliges the government to engage proactively with non-governmental organisations in compiling the civilian casualty estimate.

Hina Shamsi, director of the National Security Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, called the Trump administration’s decision not to comply with the “meagre” transparency requirements of the Executive Order “a dangerous low”.

“This increased secrecy about the costs and consequences of Trump’s killing policies prevents public oversight and accountability for wrongful deaths. The victims of our government’s lethal actions deserve better, as does the American public in whose name the Trump administration is secretly killing people,” Shamsi said.

“The Trump Administration’s backsliding on transparency continues with its failure to publicly report on civilian casualties yesterday,” said Alex Moorehead, an expert on counterterrorism and human rights at Columbia Law School.

“Increased secrecy makes effective Congressional oversight even more crucial. Congress should ask the Trump administration for details on US involvement in civilian casualties, what accountability there is for civilians killed and injured in US strikes, and demand that this information be made public,” Moorehead added.

The worst civilian casualty incident recorded by the Bureau in 2017 came from a ground operation, which would not have been included in the Executive Order-mandated tally even had it been released. On January 29 2017, US forces stormed the village of Yakla. A Bureau investigation found that 25 civilians died in this attack, including nine children under the age of 13.

President Trump called the raid “successful”, crediting with capturing key intelligence. But clips shared by US Central Command seized from a computer during the raid turned out to ten years old and readily available on the internet. Soon after, a US military investigation found that US forces killed between four and 12 civilians.

Main photo: Drone on patrol (US Air Force photo: Lt. Col Leslie Pratt)

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

January 19, 2018

Written by

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

President Donald Trump launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office, the Bureau’s latest figures show – more than triple the number carried out the year before.

This means there were over 100 times more strikes in Yemen and more than 30 times as many strikes in Somalia during President Trump’s first year in office than during his predecessor, Barack Obama’s.

Obama carried out a single strike in Yemen and one in Somalia during his first year as president. However, by the end of his two terms, Obama had embraced the US drone programme and carried out far more strikes than his predecessor President George W Bush. Strikes in Pakistan were in their hundreds, and yearly strike totals in Yemen and Somalia had reached double digits.

President Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from Obama. His administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous administration.

The vast majority of the 126 strikes that have hit Yemen since Trump’s inauguration followed reports in March 2017 of the Trump administration declaring parts of the country areas of “active hostilities”.

This effectively side-stepped measures introduced by Obama that meant 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. In Yemen, 30 strikes hit within a month of the declaration being reported – nearly as many as the whole of 2016.

Strikes in Yemen

In Somalia, the Obama administration officially designated the al Shabaab group as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November 2016, essentially widening who could be targeted. In March, it was also reported that parts of Somalia had been declared areas of “active hostilities”, but there was no increase in strikes until July 2017, with 33 of the 35 strikes carried under President Trump taking place since then.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge, despite combat operations officially ending in December 2014.

In November last year, US forces began hitting Taliban drugs labs in Helmand. General Nicholson, commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, said the strikes were carried out under new authorities provided under President Trump’s eagerly awaited South Asia strategy.

The Bureau counted five strikes confirmed in Pakistan during Trump’s first year in office. At least four air operations were also reported along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October and November, although it was unclear on what side of the border they fell.

At its height in 2010, the CIA drone programme hit 128 targets in Pakistan. Strikes fell with each passing year after that, falling to just three in 2016.

Country Strikes since Trump’s inauguration
Yemen 126
Somalia 35
Pakistan 5

To read more on what happened last year in the countries we cover, click here.

Main photo: President Trump on the South Asia strategy during a press conference on August 21 2017. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

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

January 20, 2017

Written by

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

The outgoing Obama administration said on Thursday the US had conducted 53 strikes outside areas of active hostilities in 2016, killing one non-combatant.

This contrasts slightly with reports collated by the Bureau – we recorded 49 counter-terrorism strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan in 2016, killing four to six civilians.

The White House began publishing casualty data on its counterterrorism operations last year amid calls for more transparency from civil society organisations including the Bureau.  The numbers are not broken down by country however, making it hard explain differences between official figures and our data.

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) statement did not specify where 2016’s strikes occurred, but said that areas of active hostilities included Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

One of the civilian deaths recorded by the Bureau took place in the restive Pakistani region of Balochistan. According to the victim’s family, a drone hit taxi driver Mohammed Azam while he transported Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, unaware of Mansour’s identity. Azam’s family launched a criminal case against the US demanding accountability for his death.

The Bureau also recorded reports of three civilians killed in an attack on what the US described as an al Shabaab camp in Somalia on April 11-12. Witnesses and local officials said the strikes actually hit a village under the control of the militants.

The Bureau put this version of events to a Pentagon spokesperson at the time but were told there were no reports of civilian casualties.

The DNI statement said that “no discrepancies” were identified between its post-strike assessments and credible reporting from non-governmental organisations about civilian deaths resulting from these strikes.

The Bureau recorded the deaths of 362-507 people, including the four to six civilians, as a result of US strikes outside areas of active hostilities last year. The US government put the figure of “combatants” killed in counterterrorism strikes at 431-441.

Follow the Bureau’s dedicated drone war Twitter feed: @dronereadsFollow the Bureau’s Twitter feed tracking each strike when it happens: @latest_strike

Photo of unmanned US predator aerial vehicle with a hellfire missile attached via US Air Force

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.”