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November 21, 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.

As US under-secretary of defense in the early 1990s, Major General Kenneth Israel was one of the first to see the potential of combat drones. Now a vice-president of arms manufacturer Lockheed Martin, he was in London recently to chair a conference on UAVs, where he spoke to the Bureau. 

How did armed drones come about?

This is the tenth year anniversary of putting weapons on unmanned systems. That was not a serendipitous decision, it was there because we have tried to change the paradigm in terms of separating operations and intelligence and make them seamless. So now we don’t talk about ops and intelligence, we talk about the ops, intel symphony, of having them working together. And it’s hard to tell where intelligence begins and ends and then where operations begin and end. I’ll give you an example [of how it used to be] – Zarqawi, killed in 2006. We had 600 hours of ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] looking exactly at what all the indicators were in terms of his patterns of life, where he visited, basically what his behaviour profile was. But the actual killing was not done by a UAV, it was done by two F16s dropping a JDAM [‘Bunker Buster’ bomb].

HVTs [high value targets] were beginning to understand that there was a gap, a lapse, they had about 5 to 10 minutes when they could do something and move out of the area because there was no weapon system. But now we’ve changed that, by coupling a weapons system with an ISR asset, so that now every sensor should be a shooter, and every shooter should be a sensor. So what we have now done is change the dynamic in our favour. And when I say in our favour, in the Coalition’s favour, in terms of basically being able to respond immediately to a lethal intention with a lethal response, if and when it is required.

You’re described as one of the fathers of the modern drone – does it surprise you how ubiquitous they’ve become?

Our country, our ally countries, will never go back to a pre-911 condition in terms of how we respond to extremis threats. Evil is real – your ability to respond to real evil is part of every individual nation’s response. To me, if your tactic is to wait until the vulnerability period of time and then at the moment of weakness to execute your decision to kill, to strike, to do some damage, we’ve taken that away, there’s no place to hide. And the fact that we now have persistence, which UAVs provide, that we can keep airborne assets up 24 hours a day and the fact that they are now armed with Hellfire, JBU-12 and -38 bombs, we can even drop them by GPS capability or with lasers. We now can very precisely aspire to any kind of spur of the moment attack at all times of the day or night. There is no place to hide and there is no time for anybody to take a cheap shot. We have to be on guard 100% of the time. The adversaries only have to get it right once. So what we’re trying to do is say, ‘The cost of getting it right once is so high now, that it would discourage anybody trying to do so.’

Will there come a point when everyone has armed UAVs – including our traditional and non-traditional enemies?

At some point in time we will have UAV-on-UAV warfare. It is not something I fear….

The bottom line is networked forces will always outfight non-networked forces, and so if we see a renegade or a low tech adversary get their hands on a UAV, what are they going to do with it? I mean there are things you can do to neutralise that and I can tell you we are continuing to advance the state of the art. Yes it’s something I think most modern countries are preparing to deal with. So that is not an area of concern – we’re prepared for it and we’re going to stay ahead of any potential adversary fielding that kind of capability.

And I will trade a printed circuit board for the life of a British soldier, an American soldier, Italian soldier, [and in] any other NATO country using UAVs with weapons today, for an extremist like Awlaki, Zarqawi

It’s argued that there is no risk in the platform, no risk to the pilots versus those on the battlefield – even that drones are cowardly.

I would not say it’s a strong argument, I would say it’s an old argument that has resurfaced. Tell me the morality that was involved in Dresden. The Germans had zero air defence capability. And we went ahead and bombed Dresden. Take a look at the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, we still did that…. So when we say that everything has to be reduced to a knife fight before there can be an element of morality, that’s not the issue at all. The issue is, let’s try to reduce all the countries with drones to a lowest common denominator, because what is the morality in an IED? Is there any difference in indiscriminately using an IED in terms of giving someone who’s about to be blown up by an IED indications and warning? A fair fight? Is the implementation of an IED a morality issue? I have not heard one, there has not been one article written about the morality of IEDs. And the reason there hasn’t been one article is because nobody wants to raise it as an issue. I raise it as an issue to say that the unmanned system with a weapon is as moral as an IED being implemented in an area where you know civilians are going to be innocently, asked to give their lives.

What of the concern that technology is running ahead of our ability to manage it? That drones are defining modern war, for example with the recent killing of Awlaki, or of labelling civilians as combatants? Are you pushing too far ahead?

When you talk about the element of surprise in warfare, typically you want to prevent the element of surprise in warfare because whoever has that, typically gets the upper hand.… Does technology mean… there’s an unfair advantage in warfare? Yeah, there is! If we had not dropped the atomic bomb would it have been worth, there are various estimates but the loss of 500,000 US lives to go in and take over the homeland of Japan? It was a very courageous decision made by President Truman and the National Security Adviser. The fact that there was, the Germans used V1 and V2 weapons starting June 6 1944 lasted a year, 10,000 innocently killed Brits, no defences. And that isn’t brought up either in terms of a moral outrage.

So to me, this is kind of like, here’s an opportunity to say what we can’t win on the battlefield, let’s see if we can’t win it in the court of public opinion and in the legal argument, what we cannot do…

So I don’t see how a few should be allowed to use any argument they can to try to shift what the element of surprise is and what they’re focused on right now because it seems to have a certain, I didn’t want to say sympathy but awareness that if we just focus on this technology, maybe it will force America, which uses UAVs with weapons more than any other country, to rethink or to not be allowed to continue to use it.

But I would say this, I am very much in favour of the continuation of using unmanned systems with precision weapons to fight the asymmetrical threat that we’re fighting today because it’s the perfect weapon. We have people that are unreasonable, we have people that do not follow the laws of armed conflict, and since you are in that kind of a conflict you might as well have a weapon system that if you lose it, you do not lose a life, you are losing a printed circuit board. And I will trade a printed circuit board for the life of a British soldier, an American soldier, Italian soldier, [and in] any other NATO country using UAVs with weapons today, for an extremist like Awlaki, Zarqawi, Gadaffi, because in his 25-vehicle convoy the very first vehicle that was taken out, was taken out by a UAV, so it stopped the convoy. And how about Osama bin Laden? They were there and part of it.

Go back to the Nuremberg Trials. It wasn’t a country that was the problem, it was the leadership, and so what we’re attacking is the leadership of some extremists and trying to neutralise them and they have an option to stop what they’re doing and reform and get back to the norms of a civilised world and society.

This is an edited interview


November 21, 2011

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.

Chris Cole is an activist and campaigner, pushing for accountability on armed drones. He writes the respected blog Drone Wars UK, which earlier this year uncovered details of the first civilian deaths caused by UK drones. Along with others he demonstrated outside the Unmanned Aircraft Systems conference held in London last week. 

The conference appears to be mostly benign. Inside right now, NASA is talking about scientific applications for drones, there’s very little military kit on show. Why the demonstration?

We’re here because we want to challenge the growing use of armed drones around the world. There’s almost a drone strike, not every week but every day. And it’s happening outside the public arena, there’s very little public awareness of it, and very little public accountability for it. And it’s almost as though it’s acceptable and normal, and we want to come here today to say no, the public are against drones. One of the sessions here is to ‘overcome the public hysteria surrounding drones’. And the MoD has said they need to challenge the ‘perception issue’ of drones, because there’s an instinctive reaction among the public against drones, I think…. We don’t accept this idea of remote risk-free warfare as the drone industry likes to call it. It isn’t risk free. There are hundreds if not thousands of civilian casualties of drones. The worry is drones will make war more likely in the future. We’ve seen the US this year use drones in six countries, six different conflicts simultaneously, and many military experts say that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the use of drones. But the fear is, if there is no risk, if there is no cost through using unmanned systems, then their use will only increase and we’ll see a lot more warfare in the future.

Chris Cole of Drone Wars UK – photo by Chris Woods

Why has the armed drone become so widespread?

The rise of the drone – really it’s for a number of reasons. Technological, with their ability to condense and transmit huge amounts of data wirelessly, and the availability of military satellites. Economic reasons – drones are much cheaper than traditional manned or piloted aircraft. Drones cost about $10m or $11m – Reaper drones – a traditional fast jet would be about $60m. Political reasons – ever since the Vietnam war the public is even more reluctant to go to war when they see body bags and coffins come back. There’s been a real push to make undertaking war and launching attacks risk-free. These are the claims that these guys in [the conference] are using about drones – risk-free warfare. And we of course know that that’s simply not true. Risk free to those who are operating drones, but there are many many victims of drone strikes – hundreds, maybe thousands, of victims of drone strikes.

It’s important to realise that drones are used in three different ways. The first way is just the same way as manned aircraft. If you’re about to launch an attack or come under attack, you use drones or manned aircraft as cover.

It’s the second two ways, the other two ways that drones are being used, that are really causing civilian casualties and eroding human rights and civil rights. The first is through persistent presence, as they call it. The eyes in the sky where drones are loitering over an area or a compound or a town for days or even weeks, looking for what they call ‘targets of opportunity’. Looking at suspicious behaviour. And of course, what constitutes suspicious behaviour?

We’ve seen the US this year use drones in six countries, six different conflicts simultaneously, and many military experts say that simply wouldn’t have been possible without the use of drones. But the fear is, if there is no risk, if there is no cost through using unmanned systems, then their use will only increase and we’ll see a lot more warfare in the future.

Just this week it was great to see a protest – very brave people came out in the Yemeni capital Sana’a to protest against drone strikes and remember the young 16-year-old, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike two weeks ago, the son of Anwar Al-Awlaki, who was targeted for assassination.

There are constant protests in Pakistan, there are protests in the United States just this week, or two weeks ago, 38 people went on trial for undertaking civil disobedience at Hancock air force base…And here in the UK protests are growing. So the task is to resist this future of drone wars. By being here today we’re doing this, and we must continue to resist the rise of the drone.

But British soldiers are asking for more drones, our military feels safer, more secure with a drone overhead.

The best way to secure our troops is not to have them engaged in battle. When we’re bringing this technology in, if there’s more warfare it’s not going to make our soldiers more safe. Drones aren’t a solution. They’re billed as this new tool to bring security and safety, not only to our troops but to the public. And the reality is that drones aren’t what they claim to be. We’ve already seen a huge backlash in Pakistan to the drones. And we”ll see that elsewhere. Rather than bringing more security to the world, drones will bring more instability.

Some 50 countries now have drones, there are 800 models on the market – isn’t the genie out of the bottle?

Yes – the legality, the ethics of this are lagging far, far behind. Nobody in the UK seems to be willing to take responsibility for this, certainly nobody globally does except the UN special rapporteur. They put out pleas for discussion and debate on this, yet nothing is done about it. The UK MOD put out their own report looking at the moral and legal and ethical aspect, they too said there needs to be a proper debate and our parliamentarians really need to take this on board. But they just seem to be too frightened to get involved in this issue. They seem to see it as too complicated. And that’s a real worry, when the technology and the military strategy is outpacing the morality and the ethics.

The best way to secure our troops is not to have them engaged in battle. Drones aren’t a solution.

The conference chair General Israel says that it is the nature of warfare for events to run ahead of policy. And that the military will always seek military advantage. Doesn’t he have a point? 

I think it’s our responsibility to say no, to say that we have to gain control of this, because we are already seeing, you can’t just blithely say that’s the way things are when hundreds, maybe thousands of civilians are being killed, as we’re risking more and more warfare. We can’t just accept that’s the nature of the beast. We have to really challenge this if we want to make the world a more secure place. And that’s what we’re trying to do here, to bring peace and security to the world. And if the military and industry are saying ‘That’s not possible, we’ve got to seek military advantage, that’s the way things will always be’, then no. We have to do better than that.


November 18, 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.

Two British nationals are believed to have been killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan, family and friends of the men have told the Press Association.

According to PA, Ibrahim Adam and Mohammed Azmir were killed in Waziristan three months or more ago. Their deaths were confirmed to PA by other sources.

According to the Bureau’s own data at least six British nationals have been killed since 2008 in CIA strikes. Among them is Azmir’s brother, Abdul Jabbar, killed in a US drone strike on October 4 2010.

Britons known to have died in CIA strikes in Pakistan

Nov 22 2008

Rashid Rauf,a British Al Qaeda-linked operative and a suspect in a 2006 plane-bombing plot, reported killed

Oct 4 2010 British ‘Taliban supporter’ Abdul Jabbar, brother of Mohammed Azmir, killed with nine others
Dec 10 2010 Two British Muslim converts, known only as Mr Stephen, aka Abu Bakr and Mr Dearsmith known as Mansoor Ahmed, killed in an attack on a car
Unknown – Sept 2011

Ibrahim Adam and Mohammed Azmir killed in an attack somewhere in Waziristan, according to families

Source: Bureau data

Ibrahim Adam’s father has reportedly confirmed that his 24-year old son was killed. He absconded from a control order in May 2007, and the family had not heard from him in a long time, according to reports.

Azmir, aged 37, was the subject of a UK Treasury order freezing his assets in February 2010. PA reported a close friend of Azmir’s family as saying: ‘They have taken it very badly – this is the second son who has been killed in a drone strike.’


November 9, 2011

Written by

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

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

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

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

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


The interview transcript follows:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


October 28, 2011

Written by

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

Al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia

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

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

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

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

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

To read the article in full click here.

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


August 10, 2011

Written by

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

In a recent edition of The Times a correspondent writes: ‘In a war in which information and perception play as important a role as tanks and jets, the images of wooden coffins on the shoulders of grieving men will make uncomfortable viewing in London and Paris.’

The journalist, Deborah Haynes, is reporting from a frontline town in Libya. But she could, if you ignore the comment about wooden coffins, be writing about any recent war the West has embroiled itself in. Bosnia, Somalia, Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan. All subject to fierce media scrutiny.

This scrutiny is a problem for any developed nation pursuing war. Keeping the public on the government’s side is as important, in many respects, as supplying the troops on the ground. To this end, governments maintain powerful PR operations during wartime and beyond.

Wars today are won and lost as much in the battle for information as they are in numbers killed. The drone war is largely secretive and our study shows that there are some serious questions to be asked. Numbers have to be collated in such an age.

Journalists are embedded and vetted. Press conferences carefully regulated. There are very few photos of US body bags coming home. War is presented, where possible, as one where the enemy is quickly routed and ‘our’ troops are kept alive, healthy and well-fed.

So ideal is this image that warfare itself is being molded to adhere to it. And drone warfare has rapidly become the poster child for this type of fighting.

Drone strikes are largely not televised, as they happen in areas no film crew given western ‘credibility’ operates. No US soldiers are killed. It is ‘clean, precise and targeted’. And, compared to having actual soldiers on the ground, it is comparatively cheap too. Ideal, really.

So ideal that the President of the US can even use drones in a joke about defending the honour of his daughter.

But it is too easy to accept this idealised image. The Bureau’s research, the result of many months of persistent analysis, lays bare the reality of the drone war.

Drone strikes are not discriminating. They kill children. They injure civilians. And they are on the increase.

White House correspondent’s dinner 2010/Flickr-US State Department 

This warfare is not clean. It is not precise. 

Naturally, the evidence we have gathered will attract criticism as well as coverage. The PR machine of government might dismiss it or ignore it completely. When detractors engage, they will likely say one of three things. That our facts are reported elsewhere; they aren’t ‘new’. That our methodology is flawed. And that we act as biased apologists for militants in Pakistan.

In one sense, this data is not new. It is taken from a wide range of credible and existing sources. What is new is that we have taken it from a much wider range than some of the existing organisations that seek to cover this area. And we have done it with considerable resources.  We have followed up stories to see if figures rise or fall over time. We have recorded also civilians amongst the numbers.  And we have listed the numbers of injured. The other two major organisations that look at drone attacks have failed to do these things.

No US soldiers are killed. It is ‘clean, precise and targeted’. And, compared to having actual soldiers on the ground, it is comparatively cheap too. Ideal, really.

Our transparent methodological approach, open to peer review, is based on the same used by the widely-quoted organization Iraq Body Count. To dismiss ours is to dismiss the approach of many others.

Finally, any criticism that we are somehow working ‘for the other side’ does not bear up to scrutiny. On occasion we have been more conservative on the number of civilian dead in single attacks, despite the international press reporting otherwise. We have also identified individuals previously reported as being civilians as actually having been militants.  And we have offered an open invitation to the US security forces to engage with us if they see something significantly wrong in our study. If they satisfactorily prove their case, we will amend our data.

Pakistani villagers at funeral of drone victim – December 29 2010- AP

Most of all, though, we may well get the quotidian response – ‘Didn’t we know this already?’

This sort of reaction to our story is dangerous. Wars today are won and lost as much in the battle for information as they are in numbers killed. The drone war is largely secretive and our study shows unequivocally that there are some serious questions to be asked. Numbers have to be collated in such an age.

Clearly civilians and children are being killed. As such, one has to ask whether these drone attacks are radicalising those who have lost loved ones as much as they are ‘taking out’ militants.

We show that they are not discriminating. As such, those forces involved in their use may well be in breach of the Geneva Conventions.

And, importantly, we are providing an unbiased, independent and journalistic examination of a war.  A war that has hitherto been manipulated by governments, spun by thinktanks and often ignored by a media that– without pictures – finds it hard to report on the horrors of what is really unfolding in Pakistan.

Addendum: Since publishing our data, an online survey found that 100% of those who responded said that the drone war in Pakistan by the CIA is not working. 

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June 30, 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.

US Special Forces can call on Navy assets in the region. Photo,US Department of Defense

A military drone operated by elite US Special Forces has targeted al Qaeda-linked militants in Somalia, killing several people. The attack marks the first confirmed hostile use of drones in the east African country.

Bureau research suggests unmanned surveillance craft have been used over Somalia for some time as part of a broader military campaign. In October 2009 a US drone was reportedly shot down over the south of the country. On previous occasions the US has allegedly flown combat missions against Somali targets from a base in eastern Ethiopia.

According to the Washington Post a drone has struck at two leaders of the al-Shabab militant group, declared a terrorist organisation by the US and others. The 23 June attack in Kismayo, southern Somalia – originally reported as a helicopter strike – also killed ‘many’ foreign fighters.

The unnamed leaders are said to have ‘direct ties’ to US-born militant cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Now based in Yemen, Awlaki has been linked to that country’s al Qaeda movement and to a number of terrorist plots against the US and its allies.

Recent US military actions in Somalia*

January 7 2007 – US gunship attacks militant convoy killing 10

January 22 2007 – Reported JSOC airstrike against militants

June 1 2007 – US cruise missile strike kills up to 10 alleged militants, including reportedly from Eritrea, Yemen, UK, Sweden and US

March 3 2008 – Cruise missile attack from US ships. Six die, though not apparent target.

May 2008 – US naval-launched cruise missiles kill Aden Hashi Ayro, head of Al Shabab

September 14 2009 – US Special Forces launch helicopter raid into Somalia, killing Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, wanted in connection with Mombassa attacks

October 19 2009 – US drone reported shot down over southern Somalia

April 6 2011 – Airstrike kills an al-Shabab commander

June 23 2011 – Drone strike kills “many”, wounds two al-Shabab leaders

* The Bureau’s analysis is based on credible reports. However, given the covert nature of US operations this should be viewed as a partial list.

JSOC campaign extends to Somalia

As in Yemen, US military operations against al-Shabab and other militant groups in Somalia are carried out by the Joint Special Operations Command. JSOC is made up of ultra-elite, so-called Tier One Special Forces units that were also responsible for the recent killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

JSOC has its own helicopter and drone fleets. It also has access to US Navy assets in the region. Analysis by the Bureau shows that in recent years JSOC has employed cruise missiles, AC-130 gunships and helicopter assaults in Somalia against al-Qaeda linked targets.

In September 2009, for example, a helicopter-borne JSOC raid reportedly killed a senior militant. After a lull of 18 months JSOC activity appears again to be on the rise. In April an airstrike reportedly killed a local al-Shabab commander.

Last week’s strike is further indicator of a significant escalation in US actions in the region. The Bureau recently reported on a major surge in JSOC drone strikes against militants in Yemen. Somalia becomes the sixth recorded nation to be at the receiving end of US drone strikes – after Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan and Libya.