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June 19, 2012

Written by

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

Revelations that President Barack Obama presides over key aspects of secret kill-list machinery that has sentenced thousands to death by drone have disturbed many. Torture and extraordinary rendition under Bush, it turns out, have been replaced with industrial-scale extrajudicial execution by his successor.

Today, CIA and Pentagon armed drones range at will over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, seeking out alleged terrorists. These wars are ‘secret’ only in that they are removed from true accountability. White House and CIA officials brag in selective leaks of effectiveness, even as they use the courts to block real scrutiny. Lawyers and journalists seeking to expose the truth have been smeared. Mounting evidence of hundreds of civilian casualties is pushed aside. And a compliant US media has, until now, barely raised a whisper.

No wonder Obama’s re-election team seeks to present him as the Warrior President, the decapitator of Al Qaeda. Domestic US opinion polls have shown 83% support for the covert drone war – those unmanned killing machines may actually help put Obama back in the White House. Yet like Guantanamo, the cost to the international reputation of the United States may prove devastating.

Defining Weapon

The armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, is the defining weapon of America’s seemingly endless Global War on Terror, just as the tank once symbolised an earlier conflict. Weaponless drones were used by the CIA during the Balkans Wars. But there were big concerns at the implications of slinging missiles under their wings.

Only in summer 2001 did the Agency practice bombing a mock-up of Osama bin Laden’s farm out in the Nevada desert. And just days before 9-11, the CIA and the Pentagon were still bickering over who should control the drones programme. Neither wanted the responsibility for extrajudicial killings. And no wonder, with Bush’s State Department bluntly telling Israel the previous week that ‘We remain opposed to targeted killings. We think Israel needs to understand that targeted killings of Palestinians don’t end the violence.’

The armed drone is the defining weapon of America’s seemingly endless Global War on Terror

That principle, with many others, was soon ditched. The first weaponised Predator took to the skies above Afghanistan just days after the atrocities of September 2011. The first US extrajudicial killing by drone took place in Yemen the following year. Since then more than 3,000 people have died in some 400 covert US drone strikes.

The bulk of drone strikes take place within conventional warfare. Hundreds of armed US UAVs – and a handful of British ones – now patrol the skies above Afghanistan. Satellite control direct from the United States is near-instant, as pilot and navigator sit in air-conditioned comfort at an ever-expanding collection of Air Force bases. More US pilots are now being trained to fly drones than for conventional fighters and bombers. Little wonder that Tony Scott’s Top Gun sequel is likely to be set on a drone base, a world where ‘kids play war games by day… and party by night.’

Kamikaze Drone

Until recently only one company made lethal drones for the United States, the privately-owned General Atomics. It’s unknown quite how many billions of dollars the US has spent on the Predator drone and its bigger, faster successor the Reaper. The company’s accounts are not publicly available. We do know that General Atomics’ San Diego production lines work day and night to churn out these ungainly killers. The only approved rival is in the form of a tiny hand-launched drone that has been ‘trialled’ by US Special Forces in Afghanistan. Aerovironment’s Switchblade is better known as the Kamikaze Drone, since it can be flown into a crowd of opponents and detonated.

A promotional film for the US military’s new Switchblade drone

Great claims are made about the effectiveness of Predator and Reaper, regularly touted by US officials as ‘the most precise weapon in the history of warfare.’ NATO’s aerial campaign in Libya last year saw hundreds of drone strikes among 9,700 air sorties. A proud NATO secretary general later told the world, ‘We have carried out this operation very carefully, without confirmed civilian casualties.’ That claim was later exposed as bogus, with Human Rights Watch chronicling at least 72 civilians killed – among them 24 children and 20 women. Drones had a hand in those deaths. Yet NATO chose not to investigate reports of civilians killed, claiming that it had no mandate to gather information on the ground. It had never asked for permission to do so.

Armed drones do appear to bring greater accuracy to the battlefield. Able to loiter over an area, they can examine a target with multiple sensors before attacking. Women and children in the firing line? A drone can wait for minutes, even hours, for a cleaner shot. Early Predator strikes saw far higher death counts as Hellfire missiles designed for destroying armoured tanks were used on houses built of mud bricks. Over time the explosive content of the missiles has been lowered at least twice. ‘Collateral damage’ has declined. But still civilians die. In Afghanistan that can lead to investigation, remorse and compensation. When drones cross the border to conduct attacks in the other, supposedly secret war, all such accountability stops.

CIA-controlled Predators and Reapers have been bombing Pakistan’s tribal areas since June 2004. According to the Bureau, 330 US drone strikes (278 of them under Obama) have so far killed at least 2,500 people in Pakistan. At least 482 civilians are credibly reported among the dead. Al Qaeda has certainly suffered in this campaign. With the death of Abu Yahya al-Libi on June 4 the terrorist group is reduced to almost nothing, stripped of its leadership by US air raids and earlier joint counter-terrorism operations with Pakistan. There’s little doubt that for years Islamabad tacitly approved most of the US strikes on its soil. But any co-operation has been progressively withdrawn over the past 18 months. Now Pakistan condemns every attack as being ‘in total contravention of international law’. The US simply ignores its ‘ally.’

‘Single digits’ claim a lie

US officials routinely claim that no more than 50 or 60 civilians have died in eight years of bombing in Pakistan. Only recently, a senior US official claimed that the number of civilians killed by Barack Obama in Pakistan is in ‘the single digits.’ This is a lie. With his feet barely under the Oval Office table, President Obama authorised two drone strikes on January 23 2009. Both missed their intended targets. At least 15 civilians reportedly died on that day alone, and Obama knew about those civilian casualties within hours. ‘You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man,’ as one observer puts it.

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan can lead to investigation, remorse and compensation. When drones cross the border to conduct attacks in the other, supposedly secret war, all such accountability stops.’

In fact at least 300 civilians have been credibly reported killed (63 of them children) among at least 2,000 drone fatalities during Obama’s Pakistan campaign. Some particularly vicious tactics have also emerged. On June 23 2009 the CIA attacked a public funeral attended by thousands, in an effort to kill a senior Taliban commander. Between 18 and 45 civilians were among 83 killed. The leader was unharmed.

On numerous other occasions, US drones have deliberately targeted rescuers trying to retrieve the dead and injured from previous drone strikes, as a major Bureau investigation with the Sunday Times showed. In the last few days, those odious tactics appear to have returned to Pakistan, with credible reports of US attacks on funeral prayers and a mosque.

Despite US denials of their deaths, we often know a great deal about ‘non-combatant’ victims. It’s often claimed that Waziristan is ‘inaccessible’ and that establishing facts is ‘impossible. In fact persistent efforts by lawyers, academics, NGOs and journalists have uncovered extensive details about many of those who died. Based on this information and its own field investigations, the Bureau has so far been able to put names to more than 310 civilians killed in Pakistan. Only 170 or so militants have so far been identified.

On January 8 2010, for example, we know that high school teacher Akbar Zaman and his friends Mir Qalam, Saad Wali Khan and Muhammad Fayyaz all died when Zaman’s house was hit. Next door, three year old Ayeesha was also killed by missile shrapnel. That case is currently before the UN Human Rights Council with Commissioner Navi Pillay calling last week for an urgent inquiry into civilian casualties in Pakistan.

Mealy-mouthed response

Even when the facts are well-known, the US persists in its denials. In March 2011, the CIA hit a tribal meeting, or jirga, attended by dozens of civic leaders from North Waziristan. Up to 42 civilians died that day in Miranshah, leading to loud protests from Pakistan’s president, prime minister and army chief. In a mealy-mouthed response, an anonymous US official told the New York Times: ‘The fact is that a large group of heavily armed men, some of whom were clearly connected to Al Qaeda and all of whom acted in a manner consistent with A.Q.-linked militants, were killed.’ A current High Court case in London, led by legal charity Reprieve and based on multiple affidavits of survivors, has failed to convince the CIA that it killed anyone but ‘terrorists’ that day.

Pakistani barrister Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who represents a number of families of civilians killed in strikes (and who’s been smeared by US intelligence officials as an ISI agent), once noted that ‘since every man in Waziristan has a turban and a gun, every one of them is a likely CIA target’. Perversely we now know this to be the case. Recent revelations show that combatants are defined by the US in Waziristan as ‘all military-age males in a strike zone.’

As if to reassure us, we’re told that the dead can be ‘reclassified posthumously as civilians if explicit evidence proves them innocent’. Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has struggled to hold the Obama administration to account on the legality of its covert drone strikes, is blunt. ‘Direct targeting of noncombatants is a war crime,’ he wrote in The Guardian last week. ‘A “shoot first, ask questions later” policy is entirely inconsistent with international law, not to mention morally grotesque.’

A London High Court case based on multiple survivor affidavits has failed to convince the CIA that it killed anyone but ‘terrorists’

Obama has radically expanded the covert drone war, drawing in ever more countries. In Yemen, more than 90 Pentagon and CIA drone strikes may have taken place in the last year. In Somalia, drones began killing in 2011. There are credible reports of one US strike in the Philippines. And CNN reports that covert (and possibly armed) US drones have just taken to Libya’s skies, after fears of rising militancy.

The absence of effective scrutiny for all of this is startling. Despite repeated US claims that its covert drone strikes are in accordance with international law, no US court has ever ruled on the matter. The CIA routinely claims ‘state secrets privilege’ to strike down legal challenges – the same system the British government is presently flirting with introducing here. Democrat Diane Feinstein recently revealed that the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee she chairs ‘questions every aspect of the program including legality, effectiveness, precision, foreign policy implications and the care taken to minimize noncombatant casualties.’

‘Kill this bomb-maker’

But don’t expect Feinstein to examine the morality of these strikes. Discussing an alleged Al Qaeda bomber recently, she told Fox News” ‘I am hopeful that we will be able to, candidly, kill this bomb maker and kill some of these other associates.’ Her opposite number Mike Rogers in the House of Representatives is equally onside. Discussing the expanding secret US drone war in Yemen he recently described them as ‘bringing folks to justice.’

Given such dysfunctional oversight, the US media could have played a stronger role in holding Obama to account. But with honourable exceptions it has too often failed. Beginning in January 2011, anonymous US officials began briefing US journalists that CIA drones had reached a point of perfection – they were no longer killing any civilians in Pakistan. For seven months those claims went unchallenged by any news organisation. It took a Bureau investigation to identify at least 45 civilians – and likely many more – killed in the defined period. For that – and for its other work exposing the civilian cost of the US drones campaign – TBIJ has been labelled by US officials as an al-Qaeda-helping patsy of Pakistani intelligence.

Armed drones used conventionally are simply another innovative weapons platform. But used covertly, they risk lowering the threshold at which wars are fought – and undermining the laws of war themselves. Former senior US intelligence officials are warning that any strategic success may be undermined as new generations of Yemenis, Somalis and Pakistanis are radicalised by American tactics.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who introduced covert drone strikes in Pakistan back in 2004, said recently that ‘democracies do not make war on the basis of legal memos locked in a DoJ [Department of Justice] safe.’ For eight long years US covert drone strikes have been conducted without proper scrutiny or accountability. That needs to change.

A version of this article appeared as the lead feature in the New Statesman’s special drones issue. Republished here with kind permission.

You can follow chrisjwoods on Twitter.


June 16, 2012

Written by

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

Out of the shadows? President Obama in the Oval Office (Official White House/ Pete Souza)

In what is being viewed by some as a significant move towards greater transparency, President Obama has officially acknowledged for the first time previously secret US military combat operations in Yemen and Somalia.

The US military has been mounting aggressive combat operations in both countries for some years. Attacks began in Somalia in January 2007, and in Yemen in December 2009. The Bureau monitors operations in both nations, and its data suggests that as many as 180 combat strikes may have taken place in both countries. Until now the US would not even admit that such attacks occurred.

News of the surprise acknowledgment came in a letter from President Obama to Congress on the evening of June 15 – a six monthly obligation under the War Powers Resolution passed in 1973, in which he is required to inform politicians about US military actions abroad. Obama openly described ‘direct action’ – military operations – in both Yemen and Somalia.

The U.S. military has also been working closely with the Yemeni government to operationally dismantle and ultimately eliminate the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most active and dangerous affiliate of al-Qa’ida today. Our joint efforts have resulted in direct action against a limited number of AQAP operatives and senior leaders in that country who posed a terrorist threat to the United States and our interests.

There were similar references to operations in Somalia, with the President noting that in ‘a limited number of cases, the US military has taken direct action in Somalia against members of al-Qa’ida, including those who are also members of al-Shabaab, who are engaged in efforts to carry out terrorist attacks against the United States and our interests.’

Previously any such details were reported only in a confidential annex to the reports, with US officials refusing to confirm or deny even the existence of military strikes – an increasingly bizarre stance given the widespread reporting of such operations.

The Wall Street Journal noted that much of the impetus for the partial disclosure came from General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

His spokesman told the paper: ‘When U.S. military forces are involved in combat anywhere in the world, and information about those operations does not compromise national or operational security, Gen. Dempsey believes the American public should be kept appropriately informed.’

However the Pentagon soon made clear that the announcement would make little practical difference. Spokesman Lt Colonel James Gregory told the Bureau: ‘While we acknowledge that we continue to assist and advise the Yemeni military as they confront the AQ [Al Qaeda] threat, we will still not speak to the particulars of CT ops.’

Continued confusion

The Bureau is one of the few bodies to monitor secret US combat activity in the two countries. In Somalia, between 10 and 21 US strike operations have killed up to 169 people.  And in Yemen, the Bureau has recorded 44 confirmed US attacks  – with as many as 106 additional strikes. Total Yemen casualties are between 317 and 879 people killed. That range is necessarily broad because the Pentagon will presently not clarify whether attacks are the work of US or Yemeni forces.

Until now US officials refused to confirm or deny even the existence of military strikes in Somalia and Yemen

The US military has variously used airstrikes, naval bombardments and cruise missile strikes in the two troubled nations. US military drone attacks only began in 2011. The CIA also operates its own drone fleet in Yemen – and those operations remain classified.

The unexpected move by Obama is the latest in a series of transparency moves by the administration. It came three days after 26 members of the US Congress wrote to the president raising serious concerns about the covert drone strike programme. The politicians – including two Republicans – wrote:

The implications of the use of drones for our national security are profound. They are faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths, and are frequently the only direct contact with Americans that the targeted communities have.  They can generate powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment.

The American Civil Liberties Union, while welcoming Obama’s partial declassification of military strikes in Yemen and Somalia, called for further disclosure: ‘The public is entitled to more information about the legal standards that apply, the process by which they add names to the kill list, and the facts they rely on in order to justify targeted killings.’

Steve Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists told the New York Times: ‘While any voluntary disclosure is welcome, this is not much of a breakthrough. The age of secret wars is over. They were never a secret to those on the receiving end.’

Follow @chrisjwoods on Twitter


June 14, 2012

Written by

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

As reports of ‘kill lists’ have emerged and murmurs of increasing use of surveillance drones over US soil – not to mention the London Olympics – have grown louder in recent months, drones have leapt onto the news agenda and into public debate. In a special report this week’s New Statesman special looks in detail at the expansion of drones both in warfare and in civilian airspace.

The Bureau’s drone team leader Chris Woods writes the cover story, which details how a collapse in accountability in Washington has enabled President Obama to carry out drone strikes on an industrial scale with no legislative scrutiny and, for the most part, little public debate. Examining the eight-year campaign of strikes on Pakistan – which is carried out by the CIA and was only publicly acknowledged for the first time by Obama earlier this year – Woods explains how the CIA has been able to avoid legal challenges by claiming the campaign is a ‘state secret’.

This lack of accountability extends to the CIA simply refusing to account for how many people it has killed with drones, and who they might be. Despite US claims that ‘only’ 50 or 60 civilians have been killed in a campaign that has killed at least 2,000 people, the Bureau has identified by name over 310 civilians killed.

See the Bureau’s full drones research here.

Chillingly, it was recently reported that according to the US definitions, ‘all military-age males in a strike zone’ are regarded as militants, and will only be counted as civilians where ‘explicit evidence proves them innocent’ – a lethal inversion of the fundamental legal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.

For many years, these attacks were carried out with the complicity of the Pakistani authorities, who protested the strikes in public while secretly condoning them. In a startlingly frank interview, former president Pervez Musharraf tells Jemima Khan the strikes are ‘a breach of sovereignty’ but says the Pakistani government is ‘double-crossing the people of Pakistan’ with its contradictory public and private attitudes.

Musharraf is, Khan says, ‘plotting his return to Pakistani politics’, and like fellow political hopeful Imran Khan he talks a hard line on drones – although he falls short of Imran Khan’s pledge to shoot them from the sky, instead saying he would prefer to request that the US gives Pakistan the drones so they can launch the attacks.

This level of co-operation with the US is nothing new to Musharraf: one of the most lethal strikes took place on his watch and killed up to 81 people including 69 children in October 2006. The Pakistani army claimed responsibility for the attack – covering for the CIA. Musharraf says the reported counts of the dead – and particularly the number of children – are ‘absolutely wrong’, adding: ‘There may have been some collateral damage of some children but they were not children at all, they were all militants doing training.’

In ‘Trial by fury’, rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC analyses the legality of Obama’s covert war, examining the legal landscape of a war that is fought against a loose international network of ideologues, rather than an opposing army. ‘War law’, Robertson says, does not apply in this case – yet for over a decade the US has behaved as though it does.

Human rights are ‘less relevant’ under war law, and there is no ability for relatives to challenge the grounds on which ‘kill’ decisions were made. There is no publicly available guidance for what merits inclusion on the ‘kill list’: ‘is it enough to be sympathetic to terrorism, married to a terrorist, or anti-American?’ asks Robertson. ‘To provide shelter or give funds to terrorist groups? What is the required degree of proof?’

International legal systems have completely failed to rise to the challenges of asymmetric warfare, Robertson says: the challenge is ‘to find a way back, to reasonable force and proportionality’ – as well as a return to ‘the right to life, the presumption of innocence, and a fair trial’.

And just to bring things home, the special report includes a guide to the incredible variety of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) coming soon to a sky near you, from the $300 toy you can control with your iPhone to surveillance flights during the London Olympics. While in the US it is envisaged drones will be used for ‘crowd control’, science writer Michael Brooks says, in London ‘they will be used for surveillance only’. In the UK in general, ‘very few’ police forces have bought drones, and those that have have barely used them – so far.

If the special report illustrates one thing, it’s that this is a new force that is in its infancy – and which has a long way to grow.

The New Statesman is out today.


June 1, 2012

Written by

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

A summary of US actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia in the secret war on terror.

The Bureau’s Covert War project tracks drone strikes and other US military and paramilitary actions in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. Here we summarise our key work and findings for May.


May 2012 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 5

Further reported/ possible US strike events: 18

Alleged militants reported killed in US operations: 23 – 171

Civilians reported killed in US strikes: 1 – 31


All Actions 2002 – 2012*

Total confirmed US operations: 44 – 54

Total confirmed US drone strikes: 31 – 41

Possible additional US operations: 86 – 95

Of which possible additional US drone strikes: 48 – 54

Total reported killed: 317 – 814

Total civilians killed: 58 – 138

Children killed: 24Click here for the full Yemen data


As in April, intense fighting meant that Yemen again dominated the Bureau’s reporting. Five US drone strikes were confirmed by US or Yemeni officials.

However, an additional 18 possible US strikes were also reported, allegedly involving not only drones but US naval vessels and aircraft. Among these were up to four attacks by warships on militant positions. It was also confirmed that American F-15 Strike Eagles are now based at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti, adding weight to claims of US air sorties over Yemen.

With few confirmed operations it was difficult to pin down precise casualty figures. The Bureau’s data shows that between 23 and 171 people died in US operations in May, including a number of named senior militants such as Fahd al-Quso. However, among the dead were up to 31 civilians. Between 8 and 26 civilians died in just one incident in Jaar on May 15, though this may have been the work of the Yemen Air Force.

US troops were also reported to be just 40 miles from the front lines, helping to direct a Yemeni military offensive aimed at driving Islamist insurgents from cities in the south. Saying that its actions were in retaliation, Ansar al Sharia killed more than 100 soldiers in a suicide bomb attack on Sanaa.

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


May 2012 actions

Total CIA strikes in May: 6

Total killed in US strikes in May: 32 – 45, of whom 3 – 18 were reportedly civilians


All Actions 2004 – 2012

Total Obama strikes: 275

Total US strikes since 2004: 327

Total reported killed: 2,464 – 3,148

Civilians reported killed: 482 – 830

Children reported killed: 175

Total reported injured: 1,181 – 1,294For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here


Six CIA strikes hit North Waziristan in May, up from just one the previous month, even as Pakistan bluntly and publicly protested the attacks. Washington and Islamabad also continued to seek a resolution to their ongoing dispute over NATO supply routes, the deaths of 24 Pakistani soldiers last November, and the drone strikes themselves.

On May 5 the CIA killed up to ten people, including possibly civilians, in a strike the Pakistan government called ‘illegal’ and ‘totally counter-productive.’

CIA drone strikes in Pakistan

After a further 18-day pause there was a barrage of five strikes in six days. Between 24 and 32 people died – three to eight reportedly civilians. Nine others were reported injured. Among the locations hit by the CIA were a mosque and a bakery. On one occasion, drones returned after a pause of some 20 minutes to strike again, a tactic last seen in summer 2011.

Details also emerged that Barack Obama had not only been aware of civilian deaths in Pakistan drone strikes since the start of his presidency, but that he had also authorised the widening of the definition of ‘combatant’ to incorporate all adult military-aged males killed.


May 2012 actions

Total US operations: 0

Total EU operations: 1

Total casualties from US operations: 0


All Actions 2007 – 2012

Total US operations: 10 – 21

Total US drone strikes: 3 – 9

Total reported killed: 58 – 169

Civilians reported killed: 11 – 57

Children reported killed: 1 – 3Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia


There were no reported US military actions in May.

Separately, on May 22 the European Union launched its first known strike against a land-based pirate operation, destroying nine speedboats, an arms dump and fuel supplies.

Previously restricted to intercepting pirates at sea, on March 23 the EU had expanded Navfor’s mandate to allow for strikes on pirate supplies and infrastructure. The EU agreement stipulated that individuals cannot be targeted and soldiers cannot land on Somali soil.

Significant elements of the operation remain unclear. Navfor said its strike was carried out using helicopters ‘organic’ to the flotilla’s ships, though would not identify which nations had carried out the strike.

Following the Bureau report that the French amphibious assault ship Dixmude and its contingent of Tigre attack helicopters had not taken part in the attack, an anonymous intelligence officer told Defence Report that the destruction of the pirates’ boats could only have been achieved with the aid of a ground assault. If so, it was unclear which nation’s troops would have carried out such an attack.

A boy was reportedly left in a critical condition on May 29 after two Kenyan warships shelled Kismayo, an al Shabaab controlled port in the south of Somalia. The Kenyan navy claimed al Shabaab fired on the vessels first. The residents of the town and the militant group contradicted this, saying the shelling was unprovoked.

Related articles:

Yemen: US ground forces help direct an escalating clandestine war against al Qaeda and its allies, despite official denials. Read more here.

Pakistan: Ignoring Islamabad’s repeated high-level protests CIA strikes rise to six in May. Civilians are reportedly among 32-45 killed. Read more here.

Somalia: Although no US activity is recorded the EU attacks pirates onshore for the first time in a possible ground-based military action. Read more here.

To sign up for monthly updates from the Bureau’s Covert War project click here.


May 29, 2012

Written by

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

President Obama with his Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Two US reports published today provide significant insights into President Obama’s personal and controversial role in the escalating covert US drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

In a major extract from Daniel Klaidman’s forthcoming book Kill Or Capture, the author reveals extensive details of how secret US drone strikes have evolved under Obama – and how the president knew of civilian casualties from his earliest days in office.

The New York Times has also published a key investigation exploring how the Obama Administration runs its secret ‘Kill List’ – the names of those chosen for execution by CIA and Pentagon drones outside the conventional battlefield.

The Times’ report also reveals that President Obama personally endorsed a redefining of the term ‘civilian’, which has helped to limit any public controversy over ‘non-combatant’ deaths.

Civilian Deaths from Day ThreeAs the Bureau’s own data on Pakistan makes clear, the very first covert drone strikes of the Obama presidency, just three days after he took office, resulted in civilian deaths in Pakistan. As many as 19 civilians – including four children – died in two error-filled attacks.

The Bureau’s Chris Woods talks with NPR’s On the Media about civilian casualties

Until now it had been thought that Obama was initially unaware of the civilian deaths. Bob Woodward has reported that the president was only told by CIA chief Michael Hayden that the strikes had missed their High Value Target but had killed ‘five al Qaeda militants.’

Now Newsweek correspondent Daniel Klaidman reveals that Obama knew about the civilian deaths within hours. He reports an anonymous participant at a subsequent meeting with the President: ‘You could tell from his body language that he was not a happy man.’ Obama is described aggressively questioning the tactics used.

Until now it had been thought that President Obama was initially unaware of the civilian deaths.

Yet despite the errors, the president ultimately chose to keep in place the CIA’s controversial policy of using ‘signature strikes’ against unknown militants.That tactic has just been extended to Yemen.

On another notorious occasion, the article reveals that US officials were aware at the earliest stage that civilians – including ‘dozens of women and children’ – had died in Obama’s first ordered strike in Yemen in December 2009. The Bureau recently named all 44 civilians killed in that attack by cruise missiles.

No US officials have ever spoken publicly about the strike, although secret diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks proved that the US was responsible. Now Klaidman reveals that Jeh Johnson, one of the State Department’s senior lawyers, watched the strike take place with others on a video screen:

Johnson returned to his Georgetown home around midnight that evening, drained and exhausted. Later there were reports from human-rights groups that dozens of women and children had been killed in the attacks, reports that a military source involved in the operation termed “persuasive.” Johnson would confide to others, “If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.”

Aggressive tactics

Klaidman describes a world in which the CIA and Pentagon constantly push for significant attacks on the US’s enemies. In March 2009, for example. then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen reportedly called for the bombing of an entire training camp in southern Somalia in order to kill one militant leader.

One dissenter at the meeting is said to have described the tactic as ‘carpet-bombing a country.’ The attack did not go ahead.

Obama is generally described as attempting to rein back both the CIA and the Pentagon. But in the case of Anwar al-Awlaki – ‘Obama’s Threat Number One’ – different rules applied.

If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession.’

State Department lawyer Jeh Johnson on reported civilian deaths in Yemen

According to Klaidman Obama let it be known that he would consider allowing civilian deaths if it meant killing the US-Yemeni cleric. ‘Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,’ an aide recalls him saying. No civilians died that day, as it turned out.

Redefining ‘civilian’

In its own major investigation, the New York Times examines the secret US ‘Kill List’ – the names of those chosen for death at the hands of US drones. The report is based on interviews with more than 36 key individuals with knowledge of the scheme.

The newspaper also accuses Obama of  ‘presidential acquiescence in a formula for counting civilian deaths that some officials think is skewed to produce low numbers,’ and of having a ‘Whack-A-Mole approach to counter-terrorism,’ according to one former senior official.

It is often been reported that President Obama has urged officials to avoid wherever possible the deaths of civilians in covert US actions in Pakistan and elsewhere. But reporters Jo Becker and Scott Shane reveal that Obama ’embraced’ a formula understood to have been devised by the Bush administration.

Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

So concerned have some officials been by this ‘false accounting’ that they have taken their concerns direct to the White House, according to the New York Times.

So concerned have some officials been by this ‘false accounting’ that they have taken their concerns direct to the White House, says the New York Times.

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

The investigation also reveals that more than 100 US officials take part in a weekly ‘death list’ video conference run by the Pentagon, at which it is decided who will be added to the US military’s kill/ capture lists. ‘A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the CIA focuses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes,’ the paper reports.

But according to at least one former senior administration official, Obama’s obsession with targeted killings is ‘dangerously seductive.’ Retired admiral Dennis Blair, the former US Director of National Intelligence, told the paper that the campaign was:

The politically advantageous thing to do — low cost, no US casualties, gives the appearance of toughness. It plays well domestically, and it is unpopular only in other countries. Any damage it does to the national interest only shows up over the long term.

An earlier version of this report attributed the redefining of ‘civilian’ to the Obama administration. The Bureau now understands that it instead embraced a pre-existing policy introduced under George W Bush. We apologise for the error.


May 24, 2012

Written by

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

Medea Benjamin: ‘US peace movement is a fragment of what it was under Bush’

Walk into any US bookstore and the stacks are crowded with hundreds of books on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet more than a decade in, its hard to find anything on the escalating use of armed drones by the United States.

Now Medea Benjamin, co-founder of the US women-led peace movement Code Pink, is seeking to balance the shelves. Her new book Drone Warfare has just been published. Benjamin, along with Reprieve and the Center for Constitutional Rights, also recently organised the first major international conference on drones in Washington DC.

The gathering coincided with the first anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s killing by US Special Forces. And just a day later, President Obama’s chief counter terrorism official John Brennan gave the most detailed insight yet into the ‘secret’ US drones programme. Benjamin was the sole protestor to disrupt the speech, as the press corps looked on.

In a candid interview with the Bureau following the conference, Medea Benjamin speaks about why the US peace movement has collapsed under Obama;  of the challenges of taking on the drone war in a US election year, and of the message that US campaigners plan to take to Pakistan in a forthcoming trip.

Medea Benjamin disrupts Brennan’s big speech on drones

Q: You’ve been involved in peace activism for a long time, and were heavily involved in the Bush years. In some respects the wars go on but the peace movement doesn’t. How difficult is it to engage on drones with a Democratic administration in the White House, and how is this going to play out in an election year?

Medea Benjamin (MB): It’s terrible. The vast majority of people who were part of the peace movement under Bush have disappeared. Whether they’ve left because they want to leave it to Obama, and that they’re happy that he for the most part withdrew the troops from Iraq and they’re hoping he will do that shortly in Afghanistan, and think that the drones are an alternative to a broader war. Or it’s people who are excited about the Occupy movement and want to put their efforts into the first chance that they feel they’ve had in a long time to make some changes on the domestic front. Or they have been so financially devastated by the economic crisis that they really don’t have time to commit to these issues.

For all sorts of reasons our movement is a tiny portion of what it was under the Bush years. And that makes it very hard. And the fact that during this election campaign you don’t have a voice from the Left, you don’t have a Dennis Kucinich,  you don’t have a Ralph Nader, and you don’t even have a Ron Paul, a libertarian Republican who is speaking out against the wars and the empire and the drone strikes.

So there’s going to be little debate on foreign policy during this election, and if anything, it’s going to be Mitt Romney saying ‘Don’t put a date for pulling the troops out of Afghanistan’. And I don’t think he’s going to criticise Obama at all on these drone strikes, if anything he’s totally gung-ho for it. So it’s going to be pretty miserable in terms of trying to insert this message into the elections.

There’s going to be little debate on foreign policy during this election.‘

We will try as much as we can, going out to events and being there with our model drones, and getting on the inside when we can, saying ‘Stop the killer drones!’ And we’ll be going to the conventions, will have contingents who’ll be marching against drones, against the killing of civilians, against the continued war in Afghanistan. But to be realistic, we are not a very strong force at the moment.

And I think we recognise that and we realise that we are starting from almost nothing at this point. When you see a devastating poll that says that 8 out of 10 Americans think it’s OK to kill terrorist suspects, and that it’s even OK to kill Americans with drones, we’ve got a lot of educating to do. So I think it’s going to take us a couple of years even to turn those polls around and then get onto the job of stopping the use of drones. So it’s not going to be easy.

Q: It seems a particularly testosterone-driven period at the moment, with the recent anniversary of bin Laden’s killing. US TV screens are full of a certain sort of swaggering male perspective. Code Pink is very much a women-driven organisation. How difficult is it to engage with that attitude?

MB: It’s very difficult to engage with that swagger, especially when that’s now coupled with a technology that people seem to just drool over. They love these drones, they love the hi-tech, there’s a fascination with it. It’s boys’ toys that get exhibited everywhere.

As we were meeting in our drone summit, there was a science fair going on in the Convention Center across the street from us, where they were simulating drones overhead in Washington DC for the kids. And the kids just loved it. So yes it’s swagger, it’s testosterone coupled with boys’ toys. Which makes it even more difficult.

So we women are up for the challenge [laughs] and we recognise that this is a moment when, just like after 9-11, women’s voices were needed more than ever. There’s the joking about drone strikes and the lies and the sense of statesmanship given to people who say that we don’t kill civilians with drones, who just out-and-out lie about it.

We’ve got to use the Code Pink tactics of interrupting these people, of direct action, of civil disobedience, of being out there with our pink handcuffs to try and arrest them and hold them accountable for war crimes. But let me just reiterate: in an election period, when our natural allies would be independents and Democrats, we’ll lose all the Democrats. People on the left, the progressives, will be very reluctant to criticise Obama.

Summit-goers outside the US Supreme Court express their views on drones

Q: How do you think the recent Washington drones summit went? And why has it taken 11 years of bombing to get a conference like this in Washington?

MB: It’s a good question, and I would say a criticism of the entire anti-war movement here in the United States. I looked around and I thought, ‘It’s pathetic, why have we taken so long to get together on this?’ Sure we’ve had a lot of meetings and outside conferences and endless protests about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We’ve got to use the Code Pink tactics of interrupting these people, of direct action, of civil disobedience, of being out there with our pink handcuffs to try and arrest them and hold them accountable for war crimes.’

But we’ve kind of ignored the fact that our government is way ahead of us and while we’re focusing on the covert wars and the boots on the ground, our soldiers dying, they’re transforming the way they’re waging war and taking it out of the public view, spilling over into Pakistan and Yemen and Somalia, and building up drone bases in Kuwait and Qatar and Ethiopia and Seychelles and Australia and Turkey, and on and on. So they’re not just one step ahead of us, they’re 1,000 steps ahead of us. And we should have had this conference a long time ago.

The only thing that we’re a bit ahead of the curve on is on the proliferation of drones here at home. That since the regulations haven’t yet been written by the Federal Aviation Administration, we have a chance to influence those. So that’s the one thing I feel somewhat good about.

But it’s terrible that it’s taken us so long to organise this. On the other hand people think of drones as just a piece of technology, so why would you organise around a piece of technology? You want to organise around the wars themselves.

Q: And what’s your answer to that? Isn’t it just another piece of technology? What’s different about drones?

MB: The difference with drones is that drones make these wars possible. From being able to wage them without even having to go to Congress, because according to the Administration’s definition of war, war is when you put your own soldiers’ lives at risk. And since we’re not doing that with drones, it’s not war, it doesn’t have to be agreed in Congress. It doesn’t even have to be open to the American people. It can be carried out in total secrecy.

And as some people said in the conference, drones are the only way to wage some of these battles because of the issue of national sovereignty. You could never get away with the boots on the ground. And because, for example with the terrain in Yemen, you wouldn’t be able to do it any other way than with drones.

So I think that drones are a special piece of technology that make extending these – I wouldn’t call them wars, they’re violent interventions – make them possible to do. So we do have to focus on the technology, but within the context of war.

According to the Administration, war is when you put your own soldiers’ lives at risk. And since we’re not doing that with drones, it’s not war, it doesn’t have to be agreed in Congress. It doesn’t even have to be open to the American people.’

Q: You’re now planning for a group trip to Pakistan. A critic at the recent conference said that people in the room were ‘naïve’, that their understanding of Pakistan was over-simplified and that there were far bigger issues there that were more important.

MB: I think there’s a certain truth to the fact that most of the people in the room were very unaware of the complexity of the situation in Pakistan. And so their own agenda is a pretty simple one.  ‘I don’t want my government killing people without due process, whether Americans or people in other parts of the world. And I don’t think that makes me safer at home. I don’t think it makes the world a safer place.’

Pakistanis have their own complex internal situation, but they’re going to have to deal with it and our interference is not helping. So as Americans, to go in there with a simple message and say, ‘We don’t want our government violating your sovereignty, it is up to you to decide how to deal with your issues of Taliban and al Qaeda and terrorism and fundamentalism, and it’s up to us to make our government obey international law.’

So I think we stick to a pretty simple message. And say we don’t want to get involved in your internal affairs, they’re far too complex for us to even think that we can comprehend them… We just want to step aside and let you figure it out.

This is an edited version of a longer interview.

Follow @chrisjwoods and @medeabenjamin on Twitter



May 10, 2012

Written by

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

Drone victim funeral December 29 2010 – two named civilians are known to have died that day. (AP)

Sunday’s death of Fahd al-Quso in a CIA drone strike was a significant US success. The admitted al Qaeda bomber had long been sought for his role in the deadly attack on the US navy ship the  USS Cole back in 2000.

At the Bureau we logged al-Quso’s name – along with his nephew Fahed Salem al-Akdam – in our Yemen database. Another two names added to the many hundreds we’ve now recorded for the US covert war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

The Bureau has so far identified by name 317 civilians killed in US attacks in Pakistan. Between 170 and 500 further civilians have yet to be identified.

A day earlier, a CIA strike in Pakistan also killed around ten people. Here the information was less clear, with reports vague about who had died. While most claimed that a militant training camp had been struck, a single source claimed those killed were ‘local tribesmen.’ This clearly needs further investigation.

Although we’re not alone in recording US covert drone strikes, the Bureau also tries to identify by name all of those killed – both civilian and militants. And those names – which the Bureau recently presented at a Washington DC drone summit – reveal some startling truths about the US drone campaign.

To date in Pakistan, we have been able to identify 170 named militants killed by the CIA in more than 300 drone strikes. Among them are many senior figures, including Baitullah Mehsud, leader of the Pakistan Taliban; Ilyas Kashmiri, an al-Qaeda linked strategist; and Nek Mohammed, once a militant thorn in Pakistan’s side.

Certainly these drone strikes have severely affected the ability of militants to operate openly in Pakistan’s tribal areas. The recently-declassified ‘bin Laden papers’ talk of the impact of the CIA’s attacks, with the Taliban ‘frankly exhausted from the enemy’s air bombardments.’

Yet there’s a darker side to this coin. The Bureau has also been able to name 317 civilians killed in US attacks in Pakistan. Between 170 and 500 further civilians have yet to be identified.

On October 30 2011, for example, we know that the CIA killed four chromite miners in Waziristan – foreman Saeedur Rahman, and miners Khastar Gul, Mamrud Khan and Noorzal Khan. And on July 12 last year, field researchers working for the Bureau found that drones returned to attack rescuers, killing four Taliban and four civilians we named as Shabbir, Kalam, Waqas and Bashir.

US Lists

We’re not alone in keeping lists of the covert war dead. Just a few days ago, the Washington Post reported that ‘U.S. officials have said that more than 2,000 militants and civilians have been killed in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere since Obama took office in 2009.’

The Bureau’s data indicates that between 2,300 and 3,290 people have died in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia strikes under Obama.

Given that the Bureau’s base estimate for the total killed in Pakistan drone strikes is close to the CIA’s own, what clearly irks the US intelligence community is the light we continue to shine on civilians reported killed.

Since we began publishing our reports on civilian deaths from drone strikes, the US intelligence community has aggressively sought to attack our findings. Our media partners have been leaned on. The CIA claimed that we were getting our information from a ‘Pakistani spy’ (a barrister representing drone strike victims). And when we definitively showed, with the Sunday Times, that the CIA had been bombing rescuers and funeral-goers, it was suggested that we were ‘helping al Qaeda.’

What clearly irks the US intelligence community is the light we continue to shine on civilians reported killed.

Redefining ‘civilian’At stake may be the very definition of a ‘civilian’ in the modern battlefield. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos recently pressed US chief counter terrorism adviser John Brennan on his remarkable claim in June 2011 that the CIA had not killed ‘a single non-combatant in almost a year.’

In reply, Brennan said that ‘over a period of time before my public remarks [that] we had no information about a single civilian, a noncombatant being killed.’

Even a cursory examination of credible media reports between June 1st 2010 and June 29 2011 (when Brennan made his original claim) shows that dozens of civilians were reported killed in that period. Among those who died were more than 40 tribal elders and villagers in a single disastrous CIA strike in March 2011. That attack led to public protests from Pakistan’s president, prime minister and army chief.

Perhaps the CIA’s own human intelligence-gathering abilities are so poor in Pakistan that it can no longer identify civilians killed on the ground. Perhaps the Agency has been misleading Congress and the President about the true extent of civilian deaths. Alternatively, the very definition of civilian may have been radically changed. If the latter is true – and it seems the most likely scenario – then this has worrying implications.

New phase

The covert drone war appears to be entering a new phase. Until recently, strikes were carried out with the tacit co-operation of host governments. But now Islamabad is saying no. Recent CIA strikes in Pakistan have been publicly condemned by the government as being ‘in total contravention of international law.’ The strikes are carrying on regardless.

Yemen’s new president appears more pliant. Yet in a little-reported comment, the nation’s prime minister Muhammad Salem Basindwa recently told a local newspaper: ‘The government has never asked the US to carry out drone attacks on the Yemeni soil because there should not be external meddling in Yemen’s own affairs.’

Part of the justification for the US carrying out drone strikes without consent is their reported success. And naming those militants killed is key to that process. Al Qaeda bomber Fahd al-Quso’s death was widely celebrated.

Yet how many newspapers also registered the death of Mohamed Saleh Al-Suna,  a civilian caught up and killed in a US strike in Yemen on March 30?

By showing only one side of the coin, we risk presenting a distorted picture of this new form of warfare. There is an obligation to identify all of those killed – not just the bad guys.

Follow @chrisjwoods on Twitter


February 22, 2012

Written by

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

BackgroundSomalia has been without a functional government since 1991.  This was when socialist president Siad Barre was overthrown by a coalition of armed opposition groups and rebels, led by warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid and his group, the United Somali Congress (USC).

The north-west region of Somalia split off, declaring itself the independent Republic of Somaliland. Somaliland has enjoyed relative stability, but Somalia has plunged into a raging civil war involving rival warlords and Islamist militants.  The more than two decades of violence that have ensued have devastated the country and caused the deaths of up to a million people.

The UN entered Somalia in July 1992 to provide humanitarian relief amid escalating violence. By December 1993, with the situation deteriorating, the UN asked member states for assistance. The US obliged, sending troops into Mogadishu.

But during a disastrous 15-hour battle with militiamen in August 1993, two US Black Hawk helicopters were brought down. Eighteen American soldiers died in related operations.  In the book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War it is estimated that more than 700 Somali militiamen and civilians died in the battle.


This ‘failed state’ recently experienced the worst humanitarian crisis in Africa’s history, with those needing UN assistance increasing from an estimated two million at the start of 2011 to four million by September 2011. The Somalia Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit declared a state of famine in six areas in southern Somalia in 2011.

Somalia’s acting government, the Transitional Federal Government (TFG), was created to try and impose some sort of stability and coherence. Set up by peace talks held in Kenya between 2002 and 2004, the TFG was, and continues to be, recognised by the UN and the international community.

See the Bureau’s full data on Somalia’s hidden war 

But in its early days the TFG had little success. It was ousted in early 2006, when a conflict between clan-based militias came to an ‘uneasy truce… with the rise to power of the militia-backed Islamic Courts Union’, explained Human Rights Watch.

The ICU mirrored aspects of the Taliban. As Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal reported, ‘Over the course of the summer and fall of 2006, The Islamic Courts consolidated its power in central and southern Somalia. It began to impose a strict version of sharia, or Islamic law, and shut down movie theaters, viewing centers for soccer matches and co-ed events such as sports. Cigarettes, alcohol and khat, the popular leafy narcotic chewed by Somalis, were banned.’

As the ICU marched into Mogadishu, thousands of civilians fled the capital. By mid-2006, the ICU had taken over Mogadishu, as well as much of south and central Somalia.

Abandoned tank in Somalia Sept 2007 (Carl Montgomery/Flickr)

Ethiopia invades

But the ICU’s rule did not last. In December 2006, the TFG, supported by the Ethiopian army, began a lengthy battle which would eventually defeat the ICU. At the time Human Rights Watch reported, ‘outside powers such as Ethiopia, the United States, and the European Union feared that the ICU and its radical armed youth wing, al-Shabaab, would create an Islamist bastion in Somalia’.

‘The Islamic Courts began to impose a strict version of sharia and shut down movie theaters, viewing centers for soccer matches and co-ed events such as sports. Cigarettes, alcohol and khat, the popular leafy narcotic chewed by Somalis, were banned‘ – Long War Journal 

For two years, Ethiopia fought ICU militias and the emerging al Shabaab. It was joined in January 2007 by a UN-created peace force comprising African Union troops – AMISOM (see below).

As mentioned in the Bureau’s Somalia timeline, several sources report that Ethiopia received extensive backing from the US during its invasion, with the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill calling the invasion ‘a classic [US] proxy war’.

And as 10,000 troops crossed the border, they received airborne reconnaissance support and ‘other intelligence’ from the US, the Washington Post reported.

But diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks reveal a different story, with US officials seemingly urging caution. A December 6 2007 cable recorded US Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto warning Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi the invasion could ‘prove more difficult for Ethiopia than many now imagine’.

When the ICU was defeated and Ethiopia withdrew in 2009, some Somalis turned against the foreign invaders. Despite its harsh rule, the ICU had brought an element of stability to Somalia, having defeated the warlords and imposed Islamic religious laws.

‘It’s not just that people miss those days,’ a Somali humanitarian worker told the Chicago Tribune. ‘They resent the Ethiopians and Americans tearing it all up, using Somalia as their battlefield against global terrorism. It’s like the Cold War all over again. Somalis aren’t in control.’

The emergence of al ShabaabThe TFG had regained an element of control. But to the south of the capital, another Islamic faction was growing: al Shabaab, also known as the Harakat Al-Shabaab al-Mujahidin. Originally the ICU’s militant wing, al-Shabaab forged its own identity. Its aim is to dismantle the TFG, to ‘mount sustained attacks against the transitional federal institutions and their security forces, as well as AMISOM, and to threaten the political process’, commented the 2011 UN Monitoring Group on Somalia’s report. In 2007, al Shabaab’s leaders claimed affiliation with al-Qaeda (the group formally announced this union on February 9 2012).

‘Al-Shabaab admits to the recruitment of children, who are represented among many recent deaths and defections in their forces’ – Human Rights Watch

In February 2008 the US designated al Shabaab a terrorist organisation. Al Shabaab has committed widespread human rights abuses, reported Human Rights Watch, ‘including punishments such as beheadings, amputations, stoning and beatings, restrictions on dress and freedom of movement, enforced contributions, and forcible recruitment into the militia.’ In addition, HRW says,’Al-Shabaab admits to the recruitment of children, who are represented among many recent deaths and defections in their forces’.

A representative of GarGar Foundation for Development, a charity for Somali women, told the Bureau that under Shabaab, ‘there is a lack of education, lack of health services, and there are often reports of women getting raped’.

Kenya follows Ethiopia’s leadOn October 16 2011, Kenya invaded Somalia. The invasion, codenamed Operation Linda Nchi, was ostensibly a response to three separate kidnappings of westerners by al Shabaab militants in the preceding weeks, all on Kenyan soil.

But Alfred Mutua, the Kenyan government’s chief spokesman, told the New York Times the kidnappings were more a ‘good launchpad’ than the sole reason for invasion. ‘An operation of this magnitude is not planned in a week,’ Mutua said. ‘It’s been in the pipeline for a while.’

Speaking to the Financial Times, Matua said while the Kenyan forces wanted to locate the kidnappers, their mission went far deeper: to ‘track down and dismantle the al-Shabaab’.

While cooperation with US forces was mooted by the media at the start of Kenya’s invasion, several US officials have ‘explicitly denied coordination with the Kenyan military or any contribution of direct military support,’ said Dr Micah Zenko, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writing in the Atlantic. On October 25, the US stated that it was emphatically not participating in the invasion.

The invasion has not only appeared in the news, it has also been prominent in social media, with the Kenyan army and al Shabaab taking the battle onto Twitter.

As of February 22 2012, the Kenyan incursion is ongoing. The TFG’s mandate is set to expire in August 2012.

A malnourished child awaits AMISOM medical help in the 2011 drought (UN/Flickr)

Who are the non-Somali military players?

JSOCJoint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, is the elite Special Forces division that runs most US operations in Somalia.

Formed in 1980 in the wake of a disastrous attempt to free US hostages in Iran, JSOC’s role is to co-ordinate elite Special Forces personnel in the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.  Its goals sound innocuous enough:

To study special operations requirements and techniques, ensure interoperability and equipment standardization, plan and conduct special operations exercises and training, and develop joint special operations tactics.

Yet since the September 11 attacks, JSOC has become a critical element of the US’s global ‘war on terror’. Its forces hunted down and killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and captured Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In May last year Navy Seal Team 6, part of JSOC, killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. JSOC also worked with the CIA in Yemen in September 2011 to kill Anwar al-Awlaki.

It has also been involved in more controversial actions, for example in a number of ground incursions into Pakistan which resulted in civilian deaths. 

As the Bureau’s database shows, US Special Forces were active in Somalia just weeks after the September 11 attacks. Operations initially focused on surveillance and renditions. However from 2007 onwards JSOC has carried out a number of airstrikes, drone strikes and cruise missile attacks resulting in the deaths of a number of militants. Civilians have also been reportedly killed in the attacks.


The African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) is a peacekeeping force operating with the approval of the United Nations to try to stabilise the country and oust al Shabaab. It was created in February 2007 with a six-month mandate. Five years later, Amisom forces remain in Somalia. In March the European Union pledged $92m (£58m) in new funding, while the US is set to provide military equipment worth $45m to Amisom troops.

The Amisom mission has three components: police, military and civilian. The military section is by far the largest, with around 9,500 troops mainly from Uganda and Burundi. The UN has demanded that this number ‘urgently increase’ to 12,000 by October 2012. From 2009, Amisom was tasked with ensuring security in areas from which Ethiopian troops had withdrawn.

While Amisom insists its forces adhere to strict international standards, in August 2011 Human Rights Watch reported that ‘All forces involved in the recent fighting in Mogadishu… including the African Union peacekeeping mission, AMISOM—have been responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law (the laws of war). These abuses include indiscriminate attacks, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests and detention, and unlawful forced recruitment.’

CJTF-Horn of AfricaThe Combined Joint Task Force – Horn of Africa (CJTF-HOA) was created to help accomplish the objectives of Operation Enduring Freedom – Horn of Africa, a US-led initiative aimed at combating terrorism and piracy in the Horn of Africa following 9/11.

Based at Camp Lemmonier in Djibouti, CJTF-HOA consists of around 2,000 personnel from US and coalition armed forces, alongside around 1,200 private contractors. It conducts civil and military operations in East Africa under the command of United States Africa Command (Africom).

The Horn of Africa was widely thought to be an ideal safe haven due to ongoing border tensions, insurgencies, corruption, poverty, lawlessness, and large ungoverned spaces. The task force’s initial aim was to detect and destroy potential terrorist hideouts, to target individuals, to break logistical lines, and to directly attack groups connected to al Qaeda: essentially a ‘capture and kill’ mission.

Camp Lemmonier is not only a forward operating base for CJTF troops, it also provides a launchpad for missiles, and for unarmed and armed drones operated by the CIA and the elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

By 2008, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Ted R. Bates, commented: ‘as the CJTF-HOA mission progressed it soon became clear that the Afghanistan invasion did not produce the high volume of fleeing terrorists to the Horn of Africa region that CENTCOM [Central Command] had anticipated. In fact, the Horn of Africa region contained less terrorist activity than originally feared.’

As a result, the taskforce increasingly expanded to undertake civil affairs missions, in addition to training counter-terrorism forces. However, by early 2011 the US military re-engaged heavily in Somalia. The Arab Spring uprising in Yemen also led to a significant number of US military personnel being reassigned to Djibouti.

Combined Task Force 150Created to counter terrorism, prevent smuggling, and develop security on the seas, Combined Task Force 150 has been boarding vessels off the coast of Somalia since 2007 in search of terrorist suspects.

One of three naval task forces operated by Combined Maritime Forces (CMF), participating nations have included the UK, France, Canada, Germany, Pakistan, Australia, Denmark and the US. CTF-150 operates in a two million square mile stretch covering the Gulf of Aden, Gulf of Oman, the Arabian Sea, Red Sea, and the northern Indian Ocean.

‘Visit, Board, Search, and Seizure’ (VBSS) missions are performed on fishing boats (dhows) and oil tankers passing near the Somali coast. The aim is to ‘deter individuals with links to al Qaeda and other terrorist organisations the use of the sea as a potential escape route’, according to the US Department of Defense.