Naming Those Killed in US Drone Strikes

by Kevin Gosztola 

When drone strikes kill people, rarely do news media bother to name those dead from the attack if they are not alleged by some official to be an al Qaeda leader. The others who are killed in addition to the al Qaeda leader that is believed to be dead are reported as “militants.” Any more information than that is unlikely.

For example, CNN reported yesterday “eight militants in southern Yemen” were killed in a US drone strike. On May 5, the Associated Press reported a US drone strike killed “up to nine suspected militants,” when a “volley” of missiles were fired into a house near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. Reuters reported on April 29 that a US drone strike killed “four suspected militants in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal region near the Afghan border.” The strike hit an “abandoned girls’ high school” that was believed to be in use by the “militants.”

In all three reports, there are no specifics on who was killed exactly. One report says the “militants” were part of the Ansar al-Sharia network, a group that the US  government considers to be an affiliate of al Qaeda. The other reports do not even claim any leaders of al Qaeda were killed. Unlike the recent drone strike that killed Fahd al-Quso in Yemen, who was on the FBI’s most wanted list for his involvement in the USS Cole bombing, there are no senior operatives in al Qaeda named. (Quso’s nephew Fahed Salem al-Akdam was killed too.)

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), based in the United Kingdom, has made it a priority to keep track of those killed by the US covert drone program. They have valiantly worked to put a name to each individual that is killed, especially those that are not reported dead by the media. They have managed to put forward an estimate on the total of civilians killed that is close to the CIA’s own estimate. And, they have, as TBIJ’s Chris Woods writes today, irked the US intelligence community by shining a light on civilians reportedly killed in drone attacks.

As Woods notes:

…the US intelligence community has aggressively sought to attack our findings. Our media partners have been leaned on. The CIA claimed that we were getting our information from a ‘Pakistani spy’ (a barrister representing drone strike victims). And when we definitively showed, with the Sunday Times, that the CIA had been bombing rescuers and funeral-goers, it was suggested that we were ‘helping al Qaeda.’…

John Hanrahan for Nieman Watchdog covered how the New York Times enables US officials, who wish to smear outfits like the Bureau that bring out the truth around the US drone program. Journalist Scott Shane thinks anonymous quotes are necessary to provide  ”‘some voice from the other side’ — that is, the government — in articles reporting allegations of civilian deaths.” Hanrahan appropriately qualifies this suggestion by explaining, the problem with the “US government as the anonymous ‘voice from the other side,’ is that the real unrepresented ‘voice from the other side’ in the mainstream news media is that of the civilian victims. Their voices and names seldom appear in the mainstream media.”

The Obama administration, Woods finds, is seeking to redefine the definition of “civilian.” This is inevitable, given the fact that the administration is redefining “due process” too.

In June 2011, counterterrorism chief John Brennan claimed that no civilians had been killed by US drones. George Stephanopoulos, host of “This Week” on ABC, pressed Brennan recently on the idea that no single civilian had been killed. He replied, “What I said was that over a period of time before my public remarks that we had no information about a single civilian, a noncombatant being killed.”

The language can be explained by highlighting the reality that those supportive of the drone program in the Obama administration see people in countries like Pakisan, Somalia or Yemen, which are constantly experiencing strikes, as combatants or non-combatants. Any non-combatants, who are associating with or are nearby enemy combatants, including family members, are not likely to be considered “innocent” civilians.

Additionally, terrorists or civilians are legal terms that are meaningless. The administration operates under the mendacious theory that the Authorized Use for Military Force (AUMF) gives the US authority to kill any person that may pose a “threat.” The term “civilian” presumes that citizens of Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen have legal rights to not be subject to extrajudicial assassination if the US decides they are a “threat.” The administration has no respect for the due process rights of citizens, which they might have in their country. The administration responds to concerns about sovereignty and civil liberties with the callow remark that citizens can either face “targeted” or “surgical” drone strikes or a full-blown US military occupation. It is the administration’s position that citizens in these foreign countries should be grateful there exists technology that does not make it necessary for the US to have a greater presence in their country.

The US wants people to think only “militants” or enemy combatants like Quso are killed. They don’t wish to confirm to news media that others, who are not al Qaeda, are killed. The continuation of the drone program depends on people believing drones do not kill a large number of innocent civilians and can efficiently kill members of al Qaeda and its affiliates. This is why the Bureau estimates “between 170 and 500″ civilians killed have yet to be identified.

It is why, until activists in the US pushed back, the State Department intended to block Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar, who had sued the US government for drone strikes in Pakistan, from entering the US to attend an international Drone Summit in Washington, DC. He has represented drone victims in Pakistan and sought to name them, share with the world who they are and force the world to not ignore their deaths.

Akbar recently submitted constitutional petitions to the High Court in Peshawar, Pakistan, on behalf of drone victims and sued the Pakistan government. The petitions relate to an attack that occurred on March 17, 2011, and killed Malik Daud Khan, head of the Tribal Jirga [assembly] in North Waziristan. Tribal elders had gathered to resolve a “Chromite mine dispute among two sub tribes.” The dispute had caused a “long feud” and posed a “threat to public peace.” On the day the Jirga met, the CIA targeted the tribal leaders and killed fifty people.

Son of Malik Daud Khan, Noor Khan, filed one petition, calling on the Pakistan government to end its failure to protect the Pakistani people from drone attacks. A second petition was filed on behalf of the forty-nine other victims. The second petition names some of the victims.

The names and descriptions of those killed definitely cuts through the narrative that the US likes to promote:

Din Mohammad aged 25 approx. hailed from Manzar Khel, North Waziristan Agency and was a driver by profession and was also dealing in sale and purchase of chromite. On March 17th 2011, he was in attendance at the Jirga and was killed at the spot by the drone strike. He was buried according to Islamic and Pashtun rituals at his ancestral graveyard. He has left two widows and two small children…

Khanay Khan resident of Miramshah, North Waziristan Agency, aged 40 years approx. was participating at the Jirga as representative of his people. He was the sole bread earner of his family as well. On March 17th 2011, he was in attendance at the Jirga and was killed at spot by the drone strike. His body in pieces was brought back to Miramshah by his sons and buried there…

Mohammad Noor aged 27 resident of Khar Tangi, North Waziristan Agency was in attendance at the Jirga on March 17th 2011 along with his slain Uncle Gull Mohammad and Cousin Mohammad Ismail when around 1100 hrs US operated drone struck the Jirga with hellfire missiles killing dozens at the spot including his Uncle and Cousin. Mohammad Noor was severally injured. His lower body was damaged scarring his legs for life. He was hospitalized and both of his legs were fractured and doctors had to insert a metal rod to act as bones in his legs to enable him to stand and walk with clutches….

Not naming the dead reinforces the unethical, illegal and inhumane aspects of the US drone program. It is no surprise that news outlets in the US rarely publish accounts on the victims. However, it must be noted that, especially in Pakistan, even if one wanted to go report on who was killed, those who run to rescue victims can easily become targets. The CIA and Pakistani military also cordon the area around Waziristan making it impossible for journalists to get in and document those killed and what was damaged in the attacks.

The US cannot have journalists going into areas to do reporting that brings transparency to the nature of the program. This is why President Obama ordered former Yemen president Ali Abdullah Saleh to not pardon and release Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye from prison. Shaye was effective at covering the aftermath of drone attacks. He interviewed victims in the al-Majalah massacre and helped human rights groups uncover the fact that the bombs were not from Yemen but rather the US.

It is also why Tariq Aziz likely became a target. Aziz was 16-years-old. He wanted to photograph drone victims to raise awareness. The UK-based human rights group Reprieve decided to provide cameras to children in Pakistan. He attended a drone conference in October 27, 2011, in Islamabad. He received some training that he could use to cover and report on drone strikes. Days later, he was targeted and killed in a drone strike while driving his mother to the hospital in Waziristan.

*Here is part of Shahzad Akbar’s presentation, which he gave at the Drone Summit. He talks about Aziz and other victims of drone strikes in Pakistan.