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Published

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

 

Published

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

Published

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.

Famine

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.

Amisom

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.

Published

February 22, 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.

UK military board a suspect boat off the coast of Somalia (Ministry of Defence/Flickr)

A new Bureau study of western military operations in Somalia reveals that up to six UK citizens have died in attacks carried out by the US and its allies.

The findings appear to support rising UK concerns about the security situation in the east African nation.

With indications that the UK may be seeking to move beyond its current anti-piracy operations in Somalia, any deeper engagement risks drawing Britain into a complex web of shifting enemies, proxy wars and secretive Special Forces operations.

The present UK role contrasts sharply with the United States, which the Bureau reveals has launched up to 20 strikes aganst terrorist suspects over the past five years. Between 46 and 162 people – mostly alleged militants – are reported killed in those attacks.

Political willAs world leaders gather in London on Thursday to hear Britain’s vision of a new deal for war-torn Somalia, the emphasis is on rebuilding a shattered nation.

Yet at a preparatory conference in early February, Foreign Secretary William Hague also hinted at increased British military involvement

, stating: ‘We must make it harder for terrorists to operate in and out of Somalia.’

The Guardian has also revealed that the UK has drawn up contingency plans for possible airstrikes on pirates and terrorists.

One source told the paper: ‘There was no political will on this to begin with, but that has been changing. We know where the camps are, where they set up and where they launch from.’

Related story: Get the data – Somalia’s hidden war

Direct threatSo is there a risk that Britain will be drawn deeper into Somalia’s decades-long conflict? And how involved are we already?

So far, the Bureau’s study shows, Britain’s role has mainly focused on countering Somali pirates. The UK’s naval assets – part of Coalition Task Force 150 – are widely used in board and search operations.

‘We must make it harder for terrorists to operate in and out of Somalia. The Conference should agree the areas we need to develop to disrupt terrorism across the region, including stopping the movement of terrorists to and from Somalia, disrupting the flow of their finances, and delivering effective intelligence gathering, investigation, criminal prosecution and detention against them‘

William Hague, February 2012

On January 13 this year for example, Royal Marine commandos captured 13 Somali pirates.

British military trainers have also helped instruct other African armies for a role in Amisom, the African peace-keeping force in Somalia.

Yet since 2011 UK’s forces are increasingly being engaged on the ground in Somalia. This may reflect a growing fear that Somali militants represent a direct threat to UK interests.

In June 2011 the Special Boat Squadron reportedly finished an eight-week programme mapping the ports used by Somali pirates.

And on July 9 2011, a Royal Navy ship the RFA Cardigan Bay docked in the Somali port of Berbera. Royal Marines reportedly disembarked in armoured vehicles, pushing some miles inland to rendezvous with a tribal leader and bring him to a meeting with UK officials.

Related story: Somalia – a bullet-riddled history

British militantsAlthough British efforts have predominantly focused on tackling piracy, the UK’s National Security Council recently classified Somalia as ‘a priority country.’

The UK has been ‘war gaming’ possible airstrikes against militant al-Shabaab bases in Somalia, according to the Guardian.

And dozens of British volunteers have already been drawn to militant groups in the war-torn nation, recent reports have suggested.

The Bureau has found as many as six British citizens have been killed in attacks by the US and its allies.

In March 2007, a single source claims that British SAS troops, working with members of US Delta Force, entered Somalia and took DNA samples relating to four Britons killed in an American strike that took place in January of that year.

On June 1 2007, at least one British militant was reported killed in a US naval bombardment.

And on January 21 2012 British-Lebanese militant Bilal al-Barjawi was killed in a US drone strike near Mogadishu.

A movement by the UK towards attacks on al Shabaab in Somalia might indicate that US and UK counter-terrorism interests may be coinciding, according to Dr Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations:

‘The US emphasis is now on disrupting active plots in Somalia against the US homeland. And where you see such plots, you often see attacks planned against the UK and other US allies,’ he told the Bureau this week.

Key British Anti-Piracy Operations

June 2011

Britain’s Special Boat Squadron, in conjunction with French special forces, reportedly finished an eight-week programme mapping ports used by Somali pirates. According to a UK defence source, ‘There are countless ports where hijacked ships are docked. SBS troops built up a security picture.’

Type of action: Naval and ground operationsLocation: Southern SomaliaReference: The Sun

July 9 2011British Royal Marines reportedly landed at Berbera in northern Somalia to liaise with and transport a Somali tribal elder to talks. The troops, from 539 Assault Squadron attached to Exercise Somalialand Cougar, reportedly landed with Viking armoured vehicles and met with the elder some miles inland. He was then ferried to ‘a very important meeting‘ with MI6 and Foreign Office representatives.

Type of action: Ground operation

Location: SomalialandReferences: Daily Mail, Somaliland Times, BBC

October 11 2011US and British naval and marine units freed the hijacked crew of the Italian ship Montecristo and captured 11 Somali pirates. British defence secretary Liam Fox said of the operation:

Such was the show of strength displayed by RFA [Royal Fleet Auxilliary] Fort Victoria, alongside a US navy frigate, that the operation was conducted without a shot being fired.

Type of action: Naval operation

Location: Indian Ocean off SomaliaReferences: The Guardian, Associated Press, British Ministry of Defence

January 13 2012

British naval forces captured 13 Somali pirates. The operation involved Royal Marine snipers in Lynx helicopters, and Royal Naval and Royal Marine commandos in speedboats. Speaking about the operation, defence secretary Philip Hammond said:

This operation off the coast of Somalia is a clear demonstration of Britain’s ability to tackle piracy that threatens our interests. The Royal Navy and Royal Marines are playing a crucial role in securing and protecting international sea lanes that are vital to global trade.

Type of action: Naval operation

Location: Indian Ocean off SomaliaReference: British Ministry of Defence

Additional reporting by Emma Slater, Alice Ross and David Pegg

Follow Chris Woods on Twitter @chrisjwoods

Published

February 22, 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.

US Navy Seals in training (US Navy/Specialist 2nd Class John Scorza/Flickr)

As many as 21 US military strikes in Somalia since 2007 have killed up to 169 people, new research by the Bureau indicates. Of those killed, between 11 and 59 people are reported to be civilians.

US military intervention in war-torn Somalia is shown to be on a far lower scale than in Yemen or Pakistan. However, US attacks escalated sharply against al Shabaab targets in 2011.

The Bureau has carried out a detailed examination of reports of western military activity in Somalia spanning over more than a decade. These are drawn from credible media, from academic research, from US and UK military and diplomatic records and from other reputable sources.

The research team has sought to untangle often conflicting original reports, and to confirm where possible all incidents. Although over 70 US strikes have been reported since 2007, for example, the Bureau believes that fewer than a third of such claims appear credible.

The findings reveal a complex web of shifting enemies, of invasions and proxy wars, and secretive and deadly US Special Forces attacks.

Strikes

The Bureau’s database, released today, chronicles more than 50 documented events dating from 2001. These range from surveillance and counter-piracy operations in Somalia, to heavy airstrikes and drone attacks on alleged Islamic militants.

Somalia is one of the most challenging areas of the world… And it is an area that al Qaeda has tried regularly to exploit’– John Brennan

The research reveals that between nine and 21 US counter-terrorism attacks have taken place in Somalia between 2007 and 2012. Between 51 and 169 people are reported killed in these events, mostly alleged militants.

However between 11 and 59 of those killed were reported to have been civilians.

The total number of casualties may be higher.  Some reports simply state ‘many killed’, and other attacks may be unrecorded.

The Bureau’s findings in briefAlthough US Special Forces have been active in Somalia since the September 11 attacks, the Bureau’s investigation indicates that US attacks only began in January 2007. Although more than 70 claims of US military strikes have been reported since then, only a smaller number can be fully substantiated.

    Nine attacks have been directly confirmed by US spokespeople or unnamed US officials. Between 51 and 67 people are reported killed in these attacks, of whom between 11 and 13 are reported as civilians. A further four strikes are reported by multiple credible media sources, though they have not been verified by the US military. These reportedly killed a further 13-45 people of whom between 4 and 31 were reportedly civilians. Eight strikes are single-source only, via generally credible media. These account for a further 22-57 deaths, of whom 15 were reported to be civilians.

The US Department of Defense declined to provide corrections and clarification on strikes where original reporting is confused.

During its investigation, the Bureau also examined 56 ‘US drone strikes’ reported by Iranian broadcaster Press TV, which it claimed had killed more than 1,370 people. No corroborative evidence could be found to support these claims, which are reported separately here.

Covert surveillance

The Bureau’s study shows distinct phases in western military intervention. Just weeks after the terrorist atrocities of September 11 2001, US Special Forces became active in Somalia. There were fears the failed nation might become another Afghanistan, supporting al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist organisations.

Between 2001 and December 2006, that US engagement consisted mainly of a number of covert surveillance operations. In March 2003, for example, US commandos planted a dozen concealed cameras on the Somali coast to monitor militant activity.

The US also carried out extraordinary renditions of an estimated eight terror suspects during this period. The Bureau has so far identified two of the men as Suleiman Abdallah, taken in March 2003; and Mohammed Ali Isse, seized in June 2004.

Related story: Somalia – a bullet-riddled history

Airstrikes

December 2006 triggered a new phase of US involvement. The Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) took advantage of Ethiopia’s invasion of Somalia to launch a series of air, naval and ground attacks against alleged al Qaeda militants.

In this second phase, according to Dr Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations, such strikes ‘weren’t about shaping Somalia but about going after particular individuals tied to specific terrorist plots, who happened to be there.’

In January 2007, US Special Forces AC-130 gunships struck militant camps up to four times. Between 26 and 61 people died in the attacks – including between 6 and 35 civilians. And in June 2007 the USS Chafee carried out a rare naval bombardment on Islamic militants in northern Somalia, killing a dozen.

US AC-130 gunships have been primary platform for attack in Somalia (Lockheed Martin/ Flickr)

In the third and present phase, which began in late spring 2011, the US began targeting al Shabaab directly, with the militant organisation now perceived as a key threat to US homeland security. As President Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan spelled out last October:

Al-Qaida traditionally has taken advantage of areas that are wracked by conflict, turmoil and lack of government, it is a safe haven they see to launch attacks… Somalia is one of the most challenging areas of the world because it has this internal conflict, it has such a devastating famine, and it is an area that al-Qaida has tried regularly to exploit.

Drone strikes: 2011 to presentThe Bureau’s research shows that, after a reporting gap of 18 months, the US definitively returned to the offensive in Somalia with its first drone strike on June 23 2011. The strike was aimed at senior al Shabaab leaders, though it remains unclear how many – if any – died.

The Special Forces drones – independent from the CIA’s fleet – operate from bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia and possibly the Seychelles. By February 2012 between four and 12 drone strikes had reportedly taken place.

Though the Bureau has striven to untangle confused reporting of western military activity in Somalia, much remains opaque – something the US seems keen to see continue.

‘We cannot provide specific operational details,’ senior Pentagon spokesman Lt Col James Gregory recently told the Bureau. ‘Regarding Somalia, we are supportive of the African Union Mission there and the Transitional Federal Government efforts as they continue to fight terrorism.’

The Somalia data compares with some 316 CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004 which have killed between 2,400 and 3,000 people, according to the Bureau’s data.

Additional reporting by Emma Slater, Alice Ross and David Pegg

Follow Chris Woods on Twitter @chrisjwoods

This article was last amended February 25 2012 after US officials confirmed a drone strike on February 24

Published

January 20, 2012

Written by

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

Press TV, the news channel backed by the Iranian government, is to be taken off the air in Britain, regulator Ofcom ruled today.

The station was fined £100,000 by Ofcom in December 2011, after the station hid the fact that a 2009 ‘interviewee’ was being forcibly detained in Iran. However, the station did not meet its January deadline to pay the fine.

Ofcom also requested that Press TV name on its licence the person, or body who controls its UK-based operations.

But Ofcom says Press TV failed to accede to either request. As a result, the channel will be taken off its UK platform – Sky television – today.

Rhys Hurd, press spokesman at Ofcom, told the Bureau:

‘We are revoking Press TV’s licence because editorial control does not sit with the UK licencee. We have given the broadcaster a number of opportunities to bring themselves into line, indeed we have bent over backwards to accommodate them, but they have failed to do so.’

Hurd added: ‘We have very simple ground rules. Ofcom licences around 1000 stations and the vast majority stay within those rules.’

Press TV called the decision ‘scandalous’, with CEO Mohammad Sarafraz claiming that the decision is ‘an act of aggression by the British monarchy’ which ‘will prevent the British from learning the truth’.

In an October 2011 an opinion poll on the station’s website, Press TV reported that 52% of respondents viewed Ofcom’s decision as ‘an instance of intellectual terrorism.’

In December 2011, an investigation by the Bureau, published in the Guardian, highlighted how Press TV appeared to have faked dozens of accounts of US drone strikes in Somalia which it claimed had killed hundreds of civilians.

The Bureau found no evidence of the alleged 1,370 fatalities, stemming from 56 claimed drone strikes.

Following the Bureau’s revelations, Press TV’s reporting of alleged strikes ceased for over a month, until January 6 2012.

Published

December 14, 2011

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.

Press TV alleged that 749 Somalis were killed in US drone attacks in November alone.

Earlier this month the Bureau published an investigation into how alleged US drone strikes in Somalia were being reported by Iranian broadcaster Press TV.

In 56 reports between July and December this year, the station claimed that at least 1,370 people had been killed by US drone strikes. The state-backed station alleged that, in November alone, 749 Somalis were killed in 28 alleged US drone attacks, and at least 643 people were injured.

Now, the Bureau can reveal that since our report was published on the evening of December 2, 2011, Press TV appears to have ceased reporting drone strikes in Somalia altogether.

Research by the Bureau, published in the Guardian, found no independent evidence to verify the reports, with a senior UN official commenting:

‘Press TV is not a reliable source. It exaggerates and openly fabricates reports.’

Since the investigation was published 12 days ago, Press TV have not released a single report alleging a US drone strike in Somalia – contrasting hugely with the ‘coverage’ before Bureau publication.

In addition, the station seems to have retreated from its earlier claims of ‘hundreds’ of civilian fatalities. A Press TV article on December 5 stated that only ‘several’ civilians had been killed by US drone strikes in Somalia.

The article has now been revised to read: ‘Washington claims the airstrikes target militants, though civilians constitute the majority of the victims of such attacks.’

However, Mr Barvasad, a senior Producer at Press TV’s Iranian headquarters who heads the Somalia newsroom, denied that the discontinuation of the channel’s questionable reporting has any connection with the Bureau’s investigation.

‘It wasn’t because of your article,’ he told the Bureau. ‘There was nothing reported to us [about drone strikes]. So we didn’t cover them. If there’s anything reported to us we will cover them again.

‘I think it’s a coincidence that there are no reports over the past 12 days. The reporters haven’t been sending us any reports about attacks,’ he maintained.

The graph below shows Press TV’s reporting of US drone ‘fatalities’, and alleged numbers of people injured, in Somalia over the last 28 days.

The data shows a clear drop-off on the date of publication – this could be coincidental, as Press TV insists, or the two could be linked.

Press TV reporting of claimed Somali fatalities/injuries by alleged US drone strikes

Published

December 5, 2011

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.

A WFP food distribution centre for displace people near Mogadishu 

Revelations by the Bureau at the weekend that Iranian broadcaster Press TV is most likely fabricating multiple reports of alleged US ‘drone strikes’ in Somalia will do little to bolster the channel’s already tattered reputation. And its actions could impede those trying to hold the US genuinely to account for its covert war on terror.

According to Press TV’s own publicity its ‘global Tehran-based headquarters is staffed with outstanding Iranian and foreign media professionals.’ But some accuse the station of being little more than a propaganda outlet for elements of the Iranian regime.

Fined by Ofcom

Last week the British media regulator Ofcom fined the station £100,000 after Press TV hid from UK viewers the fact that an ‘interview’ it carried was with a journalist being held against his will in Tehran, who was forced to read from a prepared statement.

Now Press TV’s reporting in Somalia is under scrutiny.  The station claims there have been at least 56 strikes by ‘US assassination drones’ since September, which have killed more than 1,370 people – hundreds of them civilians. Yet a major study led by the Bureau’s Emma Slater has found no supportive evidence.

We’ve spoken with the UN, with the transitional Somali government, with aid agencies on the ground, with journalists, with US diplomats and with the Pentagon. Not a single source can independently confirm any single attack. As far as we can tell, Press TV’s reports of drone strikes are false. In the words of one senior United Nations official: ‘Press TV is not a reliable source. It exaggerates and openly fabricates reports.’

By November, the TV station had become so complacent that it began cutting and pasting village names and casualty numbers into pre-prepared copy. At least four reports state identically, apart from casualty numbers and location, that:

‘Somali tribal elders, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Press TV that the remote-controlled aerial vehicles fired several missiles at X village…’

Certainly many people are dying in Somalia as a result of ongoing chaos. It may be that some or even most of the reported casualties in Press TV’s reports have died violent deaths. But US drones do not appear to have been the cause.

Why does this matter?Well, the US does carry out drone strikes in Somalia. And there is credible evidence of US Special Forces operating inside Somalia for the past eight years. Multiple US attacks (for example using airstrikes, cruise missiles or ground operations) have killed alleged militants. And from June 2011, the US added armed drones to its regional arsenal – with a small number of lethal strikes so far identified.

‘Press TV is not a reliable source. It exaggerates and openly fabricates reports.’

Senior United Nations official

The US target is militant organisation al-Shabab, which controls much of the centre and south of the country. According to the Pentagon, the group is increasingly collaborating with Al Qaeda in nearby Yemen. Both countries have seen a marked rise in US covert attacks in recent months.

President Obama is moving away from the recent US model of tens of thousands of occupying troops on the ground. Instead elite Special Forces and the CIA – backed by an ever-growing fleet of lethal drones – will project US force.

Yet these covert operations are still officially denied. There is no public accountability – and precious little evidence of private accountability either. When NATO forces bombed two Pakistani military posts recently an inquiry was ordered. We will learn at least something of the truth.

But when a CIA or Special Forces drone strike kills civilians, as does happen, we hear nothing. No compensation has ever been paid to victims. No inquiry has ever been held that we are aware of.

Credible journalism is crucial if we are to hold those fighting the covert war to account. Every time Press TV issues another untenable claim of ‘dozens killed by a US assassination drone’, it reduces accountability by further obscuring the evidence.