Reports released Tuesday by two human rights groups conclude that U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are responsible for dozens of civilian deaths that officials in the United States have failed to acknowledge. The reports indicate that top Barack Obama Administration officials are responsible for strikes that have resulted in unlawful killings, which may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.
A report compiled by Amnesty International, titled “Will I Be Next?,” examines nine of the 45 drone strikes reported between January 2012 and August 2013 in North Waziristan, where the U.S. drone campaign has been most active.
According to the report, no fewer than 29 civilians were killed in the strikes it examined. Many of the civilian casualties detailed in the report are detailed by interviews with victims of and witnesses to the U.S. strikes.
The report tells of 68-year-old Mamana Bibi, who was killed by a drone strike in the region as she tended her crops last October:
“She was standing in our family fields gathering okra to cook that evening,” recalled Zubair Rehman, one of Mamana Bibi’s grandsons, who was about 119ft away also working in the fields at the time. Mamana Bibi’s three granddaughters: Nabeela (aged eight), Asma (aged seven) and Naeema (aged five) were also in the field, around 115 and 92ft away from their grandmother to the north and south respectively. Around 92ft to the south, another of Mamana Bibi’s grandsons, 15-year-old Rehman Saeed, was walking home from school with his friend, Shahidullah, also aged 15.
Accustomed to seeing drones overhead, Mamana Bibi and her grandchildren continued their daily routine. “The drone planes were flying over our village all day and night, flying in pairs sometimes three together. We had grown used to them flying over our village all the time,” Zubair Rehman continued. “I was watering our animals and my brother was harvesting maize crop,” said Nabeela.
Then, before her family’s eyes, Mamana Bibi was blown into pieces by at least two Hellfire missiles fired concurrently from a US drone aircraft.
“There was a very bad smell and the area was full of smoke and dust. I couldn’t breathe properly for several minutes,” said Zubair. “The explosion was very close to us. It was very strong, it took me into the air and pushed me onto the ground,” added Nabeela. She later ventured to where her grandmother had been picking vegetables earlier in the day. “I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards,” recalled Nabeela. “It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected as many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.”
The report goes on to note that “it is not possible for Amnesty International to fully assess the reasons behind the killing of Mamana Bibi without further information from the US authorities.” There is some speculation from Pakistani intelligence sources that the area was targeted after a Taliban fighter used a satellite phone nearby, though reports indicate that the nearest roads — where the insurgent would have been — are almost 1,000 feet away from where Bibi was killed. Furthermore, just more than a year before that particular strike, current CIA Director John Brennan had proclaimed that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death [in drone strikes] because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities that we’ve been able to develop.”
Human Rights Watch’s 106-page report, “Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen,” examines six U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, one from 2009 and the rest from 2012-2013. The report charges that two of the drone strikes examined killed civilians indiscriminately in clear violation of the laws of war. The other strikes, according to the report, targeted people who were not legitimate military targets and caused avoidable civilian deaths. The Human Rights Watch report also provides grisly details and firsthand accounts of botched U.S. drone operations in the region in which it says at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians. One 2009 attack noted in the report claimed the lives of 41 civilians.
Letta Tayler, senior terrorism and counterterrorism researcher at Human Rights Watch and the author of the report, said in releasing her findings, “Yemenis told us that these strikes make them fear the U.S. as much as they fear Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.”
Similarly, the Amnesty International report reads, “The ultimate tragedy is that the drone aircraft the US deploys over Pakistan now instill the same kind of fear in the people of the Tribal Areas that was once associated only with al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”
The result, both groups agree, is not the surgical elimination of possible terror threats to the United States, claiming that the U.S.’s disregard for civilians in the drone-targeted regions is actually breeding anti-American sentiment and creating more extremists with a hatred of the West.
The Federal government only rarely acknowledges the details of its targeted drone killings, except to tout them as a powerful anti-terror asset, and has been even further reluctant to acknowledge civilian casualties resulting from the drone program.
In May, Obama provided legal rationale for the U.S. drone program and assured an audience assembled at the National Defense University that every precaution is taken to limit civilian casualties.
“We act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people,” he said. “Before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”
But Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International both lament that the President’s words simply don’t match the U.S. government’s action.
“… US government interpretation appeared to allow the killing of an individual in the absence of any intelligence about a specific planned attack, or the individual’s personal involvement in planning or carrying out a specific attack,” the Amnesty International report charges. “It stretched the concept of imminence well beyond its ordinary meaning and established interpretations under the existing international law on the right of states to self-defense.”
Both human rights groups contend that the Administration should take immediate steps to increase transparency surrounding the drone program to provide a proper accounting of civilian casualties and proper human rights oversight.
“The US must explain why these people have been killed — people who are clearly civilians. It must provide justice to these people, compensation and it must investigate those responsible for those killings,” said Mustafa Qadri, the researcher who wrote the Amnesty International report.
Recent rhetoric from Obama hints that the Administration is planning to slowly shift counterterrorism efforts away from drone strikes in favor of other tactics in coming years — mostly due to the President’s unwillingness to commit to new legal guidelines limiting the government’s drone usage.
But, even if the a government shift away from its heavy reliance on drones is coming, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International are jointly calling on Congress to fully investigate the cases documented in the reports, as well as other potentially unlawful strikes, and to disclose its findings to the public. The result of such an investigation could have major implications for top U.S. officials, as many human rights observers are convinced that major war crimes would come to light.