For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes’ targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas.
In Terror Shift, Obama Took a Long Path
For now, officials said, ‘signature strikes’ targeting groups of unidentified armed men presumed to be extremists will continue in the Pakistani tribal areas.
In Terror Shift, Obama Took a Long Path
Signature strikes: in or out? Some suggest that the new rules put an end to controversial signature strikes, carried out based on patterns of behavior assumed to indicate militancy. The new rules do rebut reports (sourced originally to anonymous government officials) that ‘all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.’ Yet there is no clarity at all about what actual ‘signatures’ were used, or might still be in use. Nothing in the new rules requires that the government kill only named targets, and nothing in the rules prohibits behavior-based targeting. On the contrary, senior administration officials, hours before the President’s speech, suggested that signature strikes will continue but perhaps decrease ‘over time.’
What Obama’s New Killing Rules Don’t Tell You
On 17 March 2011, at approximately 10:45 a.m., a US drone fired at least two missiles at a jirga (meeting of elders) in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. The Daily Telegraph reported later that day, quoting anonymous ‘intelligence sources’, that ‘more than 38 suspected militants were killed’. There has never been an independent and impartial investigation or even official acknowledgment of the strike.
In Pakistan last October I spoke to some of the victims’ relatives. ‘The drones had been flying low all day,’ I was told by Sayed (not his real name), whose cousin, an 18-year-old student, was killed in the strike. After hearing the explosions from nine miles away he made the journey to the bombsite on foot. ‘It was a very scary sight because there were body parts all over the place,’ he said. ‘More than 42 people were gathered at that jirga. It was like pieces of meat lying everywhere and some people you couldn’t even recognise. But I was able to recognise my cousin and send his body home – one of his arms and one leg was missing.’ He said his cousin ‘was very dedicated to his studies and would help his mother after school’.
A few months after the strike, the New York Times quoted an anonymous US official:
There’s no question the Pakistani and US governments have different views on the outcome of this strike. The fact is that a large group of heavily armed men, some of whom were clearly connected to Al Qaeda and all of whom acted in a manner consistent with AQ-linked militants, were killed.
He didn’t elaborate on what ‘acting in a manner consistent with al-Qaida-linked militants’ might mean. According to Sayed, ‘there was no illegal activity, no planning against Americans or Nato, it was a domestic issue about a chromite mine. The people gathered were Tribal elders, traders and businessmen who worked with, and sold, chromite.’
In a speech on ‘The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy’ he gave in April last year, John Brennan, now the director of the CIA, talked about the ‘surgical precision’ and ‘laser-like focus’ of drones:
one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qa’ida terrorist and innocent civilians.
Sayed told me that it took a team of 12 people four hours to sort through the body parts, try to identify people and gather the dead bodies. ‘We were extremely afraid because three drones continued to fly above and we feared a secondary strike, because it has happened before, where they strike the rescue teams.’ US military slang for a secondary strike aimed at rescue teams, on the logic that first responders must be ‘up to no good’, is a ‘double tap’. When they kill someone, drone operators call it a ‘bugsplat’. For people who escape, the military slang is ‘squirters’ (because it’s assumed they involuntarily urinate in terror).
The White House Correspondents’ Dinner a few years ago erupted into laughter when President Obama joked about his approach to potential suitors for his daughters: ‘I have two words for you, Predator drones.’
‘There’s this perception somehow that we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly,’ Obama said in January 2012. ‘This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.’ But the Washington Post reported last month that
Most attacks now are “signature strikes,” in which targets are selected based on suspicious patterns of activity and the identities of those who could be killed is not known.
The US government skews the civilian casualty figures by considering all military-age males in a strike zone to be militants unless ‘they can be posthumously proved otherwise.’
Sayed says that for the past five or six years drones have been a constant presence in the sky. But the day or two before an attack they fly very low. ‘When this happens,’ he says, ‘everyone in the area is terrified and fears for their lives because they know that a strike is imminent.’ Living under Drones, a report published by Stanford and New York University law schools last autumn, tells a similar story.
There have been 365 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, 313 of them under Obama, killing as many as 3577 people, including 197 children. Drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia also continue. Sayed told me that day in Pakistan: ‘We just want the mass murder to stop.’
… According to the US military’s “signature strike” policy in Yemen, the operator piloting a drone—likely from a control center thousands of kilometers away—does not need actual intelligence information to unleash a strike.
In an area like Abyan, the operator is authorized to fire a missile based solely upon “suspicious behavior” of even one individual.
This policy, instituted by President Barack Obama, has allegedly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Yemenis, and unfortunately it does not differentiate among militants, ordinary Yemenis and US radio reporters.
Since the policy took effect, AQAP has been successful as never before. Those who have lost relatives to drone fire make up a whole new generation of AQAP recruits.
The drones have made it difficult, shameful and even dangerous to say “America can be befriended,” or “America is not an enemy.”
In 2008, when Mr. Obama was elected, my Yemeni friends and I celebrated more than my American friends. We were inspired by his story and by the change American values could bring to humanity, especially regarding minority rights. We were happier still when he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2012, we hoped that as Mr. Obama celebrated re-election he would for a while be too busy to sign off on any more drone strikes. But less than 24 hours after his second inauguration, a drone struck a district not even an hour from Sanaa.
Just as Americans wait for the postman to deliver the mail, children in Abyan, such as 12-year- old Mamoon, who survived a drone attack, wait for America to send them more messages from the sky. If this is the only thing America sends, what will they learn?
On Christmas day, while American children were opening presents from Santa, another Santa visited Yemeni kids; two strikes resulted in at least 10 killed and injured. The number of drone hits is increasing, and high-level US envoys don’t bother to suggest that Yemen is anything but a war zone.
The godfather and long-term defender of the drones program, John Brennan, has been named director of the CIA, which does not suggest an end to the drones is coming anytime soon.
As AQAP stabs Yemenis in the back, America stabs them in the face. Every time we think of ourselves as the new Tunisia, the US shows that it thinks of us as the new Afghanistan. [++]
The nomination of John Brennan to be CIA director has prompted intense debate on Capitol Hill and in the media about U.S. drone killings abroad. But the focus has been on the targeting of American citizens – a narrow issue that accounts for a miniscule proportion of the hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen in recent years.
The focus on American citizens overshadows a far more common, and less understood, type of strike: those that do not target American citizens, Al Qaeda leaders, or, in fact, any other specific individual.
In these attacks, known as “signature strikes,” drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious behavior or other “signatures.” According to anonymously sourced media reports, such attacks on unidentified targets account for many, or even most, drone strikes.
Despite that, the administration has never publicly spoken about signature strikes. Basic questions remain unanswered.
What is the legal justification for signature strikes? What qualifies as a “signature” that would prompt a deadly strike? Do those being targeted have to pose a threat to the United States? And how many civilians have been killed in such strikes?
The administration has rebuffed repeated requests from Congress to provide answers – even in secret.
“How, for example, does the Administration ensure that the targets are legitimate terrorist targets and not insurgents who have no dispute with the United States?” asked three senior Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee in a letter to Attorney General Holder last May.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., recently sent his own letter to Brennan asking several pointed questions on signature strikes.
“How do ‘signature strikes’ square with your statement that targeted killing operations are only approved when a targeted individual poses a ‘significant threat to U.S. interests?’” McCain asked, quoting a speech Brennan gave on drone strikes last April.
“How can the Administration be certain it is not killing civilians in areas, like many parts of Yemen and Pakistan, where virtually all men, including civilians, carry weapons?” the letter continued.
A McCain spokesman said the senator had not received a response. The White House declined to comment for this story.
When Obama administration officials publicly address drone strikes, they focus on thwarting imminent threats and targeting Al Qaeda leaders, including U.S. citizens.
Brennan, for example, said at his confirmation hearing that a lethal strike only occurs when “the intelligence base is so strong and the nature of the threat is so grave and serious, as well as imminent, that we have no recourse.” He was talking only about strikes targeting U.S. citizens, not signature strikes.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., is now threatening to filibuster Brennan’s nomination until he answers questions on the U.S. citizen issue. And the Justice Department “white paper” leaked to NBC this month outlines the legal rationale for drone strikes, but only in cases when they target U.S. citizens who are also Al Qaeda leaders.
“What about the people who aren’t U.S. citizens and who aren’t on a list?” asks Naureen Shah, a human rights and counterterrorism expert at Columbia Law School. Of the few thousand people killed, Shah notes, “it’s hard to believe all of these people are senior operational leaders of Al Qaeda.” [continue]
Late last August, a 40-year-old cleric named Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber stood up to deliver a speech denouncing Al Qaeda in a village mosque in far eastern Yemen. It was a brave gesture by a father of seven who commanded great respect in the community, and it did not go unnoticed. Two days later, three members of Al Qaeda came to the mosque in the tiny village of Khashamir after 9 p.m., saying they merely wanted to talk. Mr. Jaber agreed to meet them, bringing his cousin Waleed Abdullah, a police officer, for protection. As the five men stood arguing by a cluster of palm trees, a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all, along with a camel that was tied up nearby. The killing of Mr. Jaber, just the kind of leader most crucial to American efforts to eradicate Al Qaeda, was a reminder of the inherent hazards of the quasi-secret campaign of targeted killings that the United States is waging against suspected militants not just in Yemen but also in Pakistan and Somalia.
Sorry, we thought you were “up to no good”
Twelve suspected “militants” were killed in three separate American drone attacks in Pakistan’s South Waziristan on Saturday night, military and government sources told NBC News.
Pakistani military officials said the drones fired 10 missiles and pounded three different “militant compounds” in the Babar district. Twelve people died and six others were injured in the drone attacks, said the officials, who asked not to be named because they were not allowed to speak to the media.
… The “militants” targeted were led by Hakimullah Mehsud and had set up sanctuaries in the mountainous district, about 85 miles northeast of Wana, the capital of the South Waziristan tribal region.
The death toll could rise as dozens of “militants” were present in the compound during the drone strikes, NBC sources said.
… A top Pakistani Taliban commander, Maulvi Nazeer, was killed in a drone attack on Wednesday, along with his senior commanders and fighters in South Waziristan.
He was considered pro-government because he and his men had signed peace accord and pledged not to fight against Pakistani forces. He was affiliated with the Afghan Taliban and fought U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
On Saturday, an estimated 6,000 tribesmen demonstrated in Azam Warsak, which is about 10 miles from Wana, to protest the killing of Nazeer. They pledged to continue fighting alongside Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan.
* As part of the US “signature strike” policy, US and Pakistani officials label all military age male victims of drone strikes as “militants” unless they are proven innocent after their deaths. Western and Pakistani press dutifully report the deaths in the same way even though the “signature” policy has been public knowledge for quite some time.
Yes. How novel. Maybe it is time for congress to get involved in some way - as they are meant to.. Maybe (doubtfully) we’ll see a shift, since, as it is now, “the US Congress functions more as a booster for the drone industry than as a regulator” of their use.
Twenty-six members of Congress have called on President Barack Obama to provide a legal justification for so-called “signature” drone strikes that the CIA and special operations forces have been launching in Pakistan and Yemen.
Signature strikes are drone bombings that target individuals that the administration cannot identify. Decisions to kill a person or group of people in these countries can be based on “suspicious behavior,” a loosely-defined judgement that would give the administration carte blanche to kill whoever it pleases.
The request to provide legal justification is warranted, but is unlikely to be heeded by the administration. The technically covert nature of the drone program – even though everyone knows about it – has so far allowed them to dismiss court challenges for the legality of these strikes.
The United Nation human rights chief last week called for a UN investigation into U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, on the grounds that their legality is questionable and that they indiscriminately kill innocent civilians.
A recent New York Times article quoted administration officials describing how low the standards are for choosing targets. “Some State Department officials,” the Times reported, “have complained to the White House that the criteria used by the C.I.A. for identifying a terrorist ‘signature’ were too lax.”
The report added: “The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bombmakers — but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued.”
The House members, led by Reps. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), Ron Paul (R-TX) and Walter Jones (R-NC), warned in a non-binding letter to President Obama on Tuesday that the “signature strikes” can generate “powerful and enduring anti-American sentiment.”
“We are concerned that the use of such ‘signature’ strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States,” they wrote. “The implications of the use of drones for our national security are profound. They are faceless ambassadors that cause civilian deaths, and are frequently the only direct contact with Americans that the targeted communities have.”
In order to avoid dealing with the inevitable increase in civilian casualties inherent in employing signature strikes, the administration “embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties” that “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”
The House members are in accord with a growing chorus of experts and former U.S. officials in their concern that the overly broad drone war and its indiscriminate targeting procedures are creating more enemies than it is eliminating.
Robert Grenier, who headed the CIA’s counter-terrorism center from 2004 to 2006 and was previously a CIA station chief in Pakistan, said recently the drone program is too sweeping and may be creating terrorist safe havens.
“We have gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield. We are already there with regards to Pakistan and Afghanistan,” he said.
“If you strike them indiscriminately you are running the risk of creating a terrific amount of popular anger. They have tribes and clans and large families. Now all of a sudden you have a big problem … I am very concerned about the creation of a larger terrorist safe haven in Yemen,” Grenier said.
As Charles Schmitz, a Yemen expert at Towson University in Maryland, told the Los Angeles Times, “The more the U.S. applies its current policy, the stronger Al Qaeda seems to get.”
We are concerned that the use of such “signature” strikes could raise the risk of killing innocent civilians or individuals who may have no relationship to attacks on the United States. Our drone campaigns already have virtually no transparency, accountability or oversight. We are further concerned that the authority to target terrorist suspects whose identity does not need to be known goes further than what Congress authorized when it passed the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) after the attacks of September 11th (9/11). As you know, the AUMF only authorized the use of force against those responsible for the attacks of 9/11 and those who harbored them, not against individuals whose identity is unknown, but that merely fit a certain profile of suspected terrorist activity.
Dennis Kucinich and John Conyers write a letter to the President
[Steadily], progressively, but largely unremarked upon, the American political leadership is marching down a now-familiar path, with the latest Yemeni bomb plot apparently contributing as both private motivation and public justification. In recent weeks, the White House has announced a stepped-up drone campaign in Yemen, while for the first time publically acknowledging and trying to overtly build public support for their use. We are told in press reports that just as the US government has long since lowered the threshold employed for use of drone-launched missile attacks in Pakistan through resort to so-called “signature strikes”, missile operators in Yemen are being permitted to fire at targets engaged in activities deemed “suspicious”, even when the target personalities themselves are unknown.
A steady drumbeat of leaked intelligence analyses cites significant swaths of territory in Yemen allegedly falling under the control of al-Qaeda, as large-scale attacks against “hundreds” of supposed “al-Qaeda militants”, launched by Yemeni forces with US assistance, gain momentum. I do not claim deep knowledge of developments in Shabwa Privince, but when I hear significant numbers of tribal militants being referred to as al-Qaeda operatives, and AQAP, a small organisation dominated by non-Yemenis, being alleged to have political control of significant parts of Yemen, I react with some scepticism, and some suspicion.
One wonders how many Yemenis may be moved in future to violent extremism in reaction to carelessly targeted missile strikes, and how many Yemeni militants with strictly local agendas will become dedicated enemies of the West in response to US military actions against them. AQAP and those whom it trains and motivates to strike against civilian targets must continue to be resisted by the joint efforts of the civilised world. But the US would be wise to calibrate its actions in Yemen in such a way as to avoid making that obscure and relatively limited and containable threat into the Arabian equivalent of Waziristan. [++]
ABC reports that the UndieBomber 2.0 plot revealed yesterday in breathless fashion was exposed by a double agent that–given that he delivered the bomb to Saudi Arabia–was presumably being run by the Saudis just like all the other men the Saudis have infiltrated into AQAP.
In a stunning intelligence coup, a dangerous al Qaeda bomb cell in Yemen was successfully infiltrated by an inside source who secretly worked for the CIA and several other intelligence agencies, authorities revealed to ABC News.
The inside source is now “safely out of Yemen,” according to one international intelligence official, and was able to bring with him to Saudi Arabia the bomb al Qaeda thought was going to be detonated on a U.S.-bound aircraft.
So as happened when Jabir al-Fayfi revealed the toner cartridge plot, we can now celebrate the skill of our spooks without thinking too much about what it means that the Saudis are running this terror show. (Though at least we’ve reached the point where US outlets are reporting this, rather than just British outlets.) […]
I argued that the decision to use signature strikes in Yemen seems like a Saudi-driven demand rather than a well-considered US decision. We apparently made that decision around the same time the US reportedly learned of this “plot.” If the Saudis were–as I suspect–running this double agent like all the other double agents we’ve infiltrated into AQAP, then did they “tip” this plot as a way to convince us to make what on its face looks like a boneheaded decision?
It seems Petraeus and his allies in the current inter-agency debate do not want to be constrained by a list. They calculate if the U.S. slaughters a particular crowd of people at an al-Qaida funeral, they are sure to kill men plotting to attack the United States. The logic, if not the morality, is persuasive: If you kill the certainly innocent, you will also get some of the presumably guilty. This is also the logic of terrorism, which is one reason why the defenders of ‘signature strikes’ prefer that their names not be published in the Washington Post.
Jefferson Morley | Petraeus and the signature of U.S. terror