The Appallingly High Number of Unidentified People Killed in America's Drone War
In September 2009, a Pakistan daily newspaper reported that the commander of an al Qaeda-linked terrorist group had been killed in a U.S. drone strike. U.S. government officials claimed that the operation resulted in “huge loss for the militants fighting against the foreign forces in Afghanistan.”
In fact, the actual victims of the strike were a Pakistani family gathering around the dinner table during the holy month of Ramadan. The attack’s likely the intended target, Ilyas Kashmiri, was not killed. And he would reportedly die at least three more times, according to a recently published report by the human rights group Reprieve.
The study identified 41 men who appear to have achieved the impossible: “to have ‘died,’ in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again.”
The Obama administration is extremely secretive about its overseas drone program as well as the names on the so-called Kill List, which identifies the “high-value” targets for assassination. However, the White House maintains that in order to carry out a targeted killing in a foreign country, there must be near certainty that the target is present and that non-combatants will not be injured or killed in the operation.
However, the Reprieve report reveals how inaccurate U.S. intelligence can be. And frequently, innocent civilians pay for those mistakes.
The study compared media reports, often sourced to government officials, with confirmed air strikes that took place in Yemen and Pakistan between November 2002 and August 2014. On average, these “high-value targets” died three times and at least one individual was targeted by seven drone strikes before missiles finally hit their intended mark. Meanwhile, as many as 1,147 unarmed men, women and children (a quarter of all drone strike casualties in Pakistan and Yemen) have died in the attempts. The report concludes that U.S. drone strikes kill 28 unidentified people for every intended target.
“This raises a stark question,” states the report. “With each failed attempt to assassinate a man on the Kill List, who filled the body bag in his place? In fact, it is more accurate to say ‘body bags’: many other lives are sacrificed in the effort to erase a name from the Kill List.”
Indeed, a man can be killed only once. So who are the people who unwittingly take the place of an intended target and are instantly destroyed without warning and often without acknowledgement by the U.S. government?
In the fall of 2012, two hellfire missiles struck a small town in Pakistan’s tribal region, near the border with Afghanistan. Nibila ur Rehman, who was 8 years old at the time, was outside watching her grandmother picking okra in the garden. It was a clear blue day. Then her grandmother was gone.
“Then I saw in the sky the drone and I heard a ‘dum dum’ noise. Everything was dark and I couldn’t see anything, but I heard a scream. I don’t know if it was my grandmother, but I couldn’t see her. I was very scared and all I could think of doing was just run. I kept running but I felt something in my hand. And I looked at my hand. There was blood. I tried to bandage my hand but the blood kept coming,” she told lawmakers and reporters in Washington when her family was invited last year to testify before a special Congressional hearing.
Soon after the first missile struck and killed Rehman’s grandmother, other children ran outside to investigate, at which point a second missile struck the location and injured nine of the children, a Reprieve lawyer reported at the time.
Early news reports claimed that at least four militants were killed in the strike. However, Amnesty International found no justification for the attack when it released a report that investigated 45 U.S. drone strikes in the area between January and August 2012.
In an interview with The Guardian, Amnesty International researcher Mustafa Qadri said that his investigation revealed that the missile physically struck Rehman’s grandmother, suggesting that she had been targeted for the strike.
"She's literally hit flush and is blown to smithereens,” he said. "They meant to kill this person."
How could a 67-year-old woman picking vegetables in a garden be mistaken for a high value target on the President’s Kill List? And what does it mean that so many innocent civilians are the unintended victims of America's targeted assassinations?
A 2013 poll conducted by The Huffington Post and YouGov measured American’s support for drone strikes. When respondents were asked if they approve or disapprove of using drones to kill “high-level” terrorist suspects overseas, 54 percent of participants said they approved. However, the numbers reversed dramatically when asked if drones could be used to kill “high-level” terrorists if innocent civilians might also be killed. For that question, Only 29 percent approved drone strikes while 42 percent disapproved and 29 percent said they were not sure.
In Pakistan and Yemen alone, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that there have been 486 drone strikes, killing as many as 4,400 people. However, considering the secrecy of the drone program and that most operations are never acknowledged, this figure is considered very conservative.
In two failed attempts to kill Ayman al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s current leader, the Reprieve report found that the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults. Zawahiri is reportedly still at large. In pursuit of a senior Taliban commander, the report found that the U.S. made six attempts, which took the lives of 128 people, before the target was finally killed.
The responsibility for the civilian casualties is not limited to the U.S. government. Reprieve is currently involved in a lawsuit in Germany on behalf of Yemeni drone strike victims. It’s been revealed that all information from drones operating in Yemen are relayed from the Ramstein Air Base in Germany to drone operators in the United States. The lawsuit alleges that Germany’s involvement in the drone program violates the country’s constitution by disregarding the victim’s right to life.