U.S. Has Nothing to Say About 10-Year-Old Killed in Drone Strike
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Researchers agree that the number of drone strikes and civilian deaths have dropped during the past year. (Before Obama’s speech, an administration official attributed this partly to the new heightened standards.) The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which generally has the highest tally of civilian dead, has found there were between three and 16 civilians reportedly killed in about 30 drone or other airstrikes in Yemen and Pakistan so far this year. No strikes have been reported in Somalia.
“Official” statistics might not be much help without knowing more about how they were compiled, said Sarah Holewinski, head of the advocacy group Center for Civilians in Conflict.
That’s because it’s still not clear how the U.S. distinguishes between civilians and “militants,” or “combatants.”
In so-called signature strikes, operators sometimes fire on groups of people who appear to be engaged in militant activity without necessarily knowing their identities. The newly instituted drone rules reportedly roll back the military’s ability to use signature strikes, but the CIA can keep firing in Pakistan under the old rules at least through the end of the year.
An administration official told ProPublica last year that when a strike is made, “if a group of fighting-age males are in a home where we know they are constructing explosives or plotting an attack, it's assumed that all of them are in on that effort.”
The new White House fact sheet contradicts that, stating: “It is not the case that all military-aged males in the vicinity of a target are deemed to be combatants.”
From the outside, in a strike like the recent one in Yemen, it’s impossible to know how these things were determined. McClatchy reported that the target, Saleh Hassan Huraydan, had “largely unquestioned” ties to al Qaida. Yemeni officials said he arranged to bring money and fighters from Saudi Arabia to Yemen.
As for Huraydan’s young brother, “They may not have realized who was in the car. Or they may have realized it and decided collateral damage was okay,” Holewinski says.
The same questions dog the death of another boy that the administration has acknowledged: the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric tied to terror attacks. Awlaki and his son were killed in separate strikes in Yemen in the fall of 2011. The boy, Attorney General Eric Holder has said, was “not specifically targeted.”