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A funeral of tribal elders killed in a drone strike March 2011. Photo Noor Behram/ Reprieve.
A team of journalists led by Chris Woods has scrutinised reports and data relating to 116 US drone strikes on Pakistan, as part of an ongoing Bureau investigation into the US covert war on terror. These attacks occurred between August 23 2010 and June 29 2011.
Why these dates?
Anonymous US intelligence sources have been claiming for some time that no civilians have been killed in any Pakistan drone strike since last August. On June 29 President Obama’s senior adviser on counter-terrorism, John Brennan, stated that no civilians had been killed for nearly a year. He was the first senior official to go on the record with the claim.
The CIA attacks take place in Waziristan and other semi-autonomous tribal areas of western Pakistan, regions that are notoriously hard to report from. Nevertheless, attacks are covered by local and sometimes international media. Villagers, Pakistani intelligence officers, medical, military and militant sources all provide valuable – if sometimes contradictory – information.
As well as reviewing all available media reports, the Bureau has worked with lawyers and researchers representing civilians reportedly killed in attacks. And we have employed our own researchers in Waziristan to corroborate evidence relating to particular strikes.
From our investigation we believe that while hundreds of militants and Taliban have been killed in the drone attacks, there are 25 strikes where civilians deaths have – or are highly likely to have – happened.
It is of course very difficult to get a completely accurate picture about anything happening in Waziristan. Drone strikes, Pakistani military activity and militant attacks make this a dangerous region for journalists to operate in.
But while we cannot always be categorical, in at least 10 of the 25 cases we have identified, we understand that civilians were killed. The evidence shows that at least 45 civilians died in these strikes. Six of them were children under 16 years old.
How are we so sure?
As part of our drone investigation we have read thousands of reports relating to over 280 strikes within Pakistan over seven years. Initial reports of ‘suspected militants’ killed might later be modified. The Bureau has tried wherever possible to locate credible reports about particular strikes written days, even months after the original event. In doing so, we and others have sometimes identified casualties that were not immediately notified.
Although there are reports of civilian deaths in up to one in five cases, this may actually be a conservative estimate.
Pakistan expert Professor Anatol Lieven told the Bureau: ‘To be honest with you, I’m surprised it’s not higher. These people live in compounds with families. Now it may be that precisely because of the drone strikes the commanders are now actually living separately from the women and children, but the whole point of guerrillas is they live among the population.’
We have also been given photographs gathered by human rights lawyers working with Reprieve. These images have been sourced by Pakistani journalist Noor Behram, working in Waziristan. We have included the photos and evidence gathered by him when they back up reports that we had already identified.
However, we have been unable to fully corroborate the photos. Dates and times that are usually attached to digital pictures are not present on some of the images we have received and some were taken on a non-digital camera. We include them because, like the reports themselves, they raise questions about the particular strikes that the US administration claims killed only militants.
The Bureau presented a summary of its findings to the White House and to John Brennan’s office on Friday July 15, offering them the opportunity to comment. Both declined.
Below are details of 10 strikes that are likely to have killed at least 45 civilians. There are also details of a further 15 strikes that raise significant questions. In these cases at least 65 civilian deaths have also been reported but are contested, or are reported by a single source only.
Ten strikes indicating civilian deaths
September 8 2010
Just 16 days after the CIA adopted its ‘No kill’ policy towards civilians, four children died in a drone strike in Danda Darpakhel. Din Mohammad, an Afghan refugee, survived the attack, but as our researchers have found:
His son, nephew and two daughters were killed. His son was a student of the Waziristan Cadet School in Miram Shah. The other children were below school-going age. Villagers in Danda Darpakhel insist Din Mohammad wasn’t a Taliban militant. His house was adjacent to a compound that served as hideout of the Haqqani Network fighters. Six militants in that compound were killed, but the missile strike also hit Din Mohammad’s house and killed the young children.
October 18 2010
10-year-old Naeem Ullah one hour before his death. Photo by Noor Behram/ Reprieve.
At the time, this strike on Sanzali, North Waziristan was hailed as a success by some local Pakistani intelligence officers. Up to seven alleged militants were killed and another six injured. Now we know that 10-year-old Naeem Ullah was also killed (pictured here an hour before his death in Miram Shah hospital) as a result of the strike. Naeem was in the next-door house, and was hit by a piece of flying shrapnel. Our researchers report that his death caused ‘outrage’ in his village. Pakistani lawyer Mirza Shahzad Akbar, who uncovered the case, told the Bureau:
‘Finding cases such as Naeem’s, which was not initially picked up by media, is always troubling. It suggests there may be many more civilian deaths than reports indicate.’
November 26 2010
Karrulah Jan is one of a number of relatives trying to sue the CIA after his 17-year-old twin brother Sanaullah and three others were killed in a drone strike on a car last November. At the time, most media reports described the young men as ‘Taliban fighters’. Only later did it emerge that Sanaullah was an engineering student at the Government Degree College in Mir Ali. Family and friends insist that he had no interest in the Taliban. His car was so destroyed that little remained of Sanaullah but his burnt student ID card (pictured below). Our researchers in Waziristan report that:
The information is sketchy and sometimes contradictory about the three others killed in the drone strike. Their names couldn’t be ascertained, perhaps because they weren’t from Pir Killay village – the location of the attack.
December 6 2010
A missile fired from a CIA drone hit a vehicle as it passed through the village of Khushali in North Waziristan. Two alleged militants died, though at least one escaped into a nearby shop. As CNN and others reported at the time, the drone then fired into the shop, killing the suspect and two civilians – the shopkeepers. More were injured by the blast. Some later reports claimed that all those inside the shop were militants.
December 17 2010
Multiple US drone strikes pummelled various alleged militant camps in the Khyber Agency. Pakistani newspaper The News reported that among up to 34 alleged militants killed in the strikes are at least two civilians, including one who was being held prisoner by the rebels. Our researchers in the tribal areas report:
Two non-militant civilians were also killed, but only one was a prisoner. He belonged to the Kukikhel sub-tribe of the Afridi, but he remained unidentified as his body was mutilated. The other civilian killed by the missiles was Raza Khan, a 50-year old man from the Sepah sub-tribe of the Afridi tribe who had come to the Lashkar-i-Islam headquarters in Sandana to request Commander Mangal Bagh to release one of his relatives being held by him. Another prisoner was wounded in the attack and several other prisoners escaped from the private prison, set up in a cave, due to the confusion in the aftermath of the drone strike. Almost all of them were subsequently re-arrested and their fate remains unknown.
March 11 2011
After initially destroying a moving vehicle and killing suspected militants in Khesoor village, North Waziristan, CIA drones returned to fire on rescuers, killing a further five. Although some Pakistan intelligence sources claimed the rescuers were also militants, locals stated that all the dead rescuers were civilians from the village. Our researchers in Waziristan report:
Those killed in the first strike were suspected militants, but the second attack took the lives of mostly civilians. The five confirmed civilians who were killed were identified as Jamal, Noor Azam, Farman, Jalal and another Farman. All five belonged to the Toorikhel Wazir tribe.
March 17 2011
Coming just two days after the release of CIA contractor Raymond Davis from a Lahore jail after he killed two locals, this disastrous US drone strike brought relations between the two nations to a new low. Uniquely Pakistan’s president, prime minister and army chief all publicly condemned this attack. US missiles struck a tribal council meeting or loy jirga in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. Although 11 Taliban were reported by some killed in the attack, between 19 and 30 civilians also died, including tribal elders and local policemen. Our researchers in Waziristan told us:
Several members of the government-managed and armed Khassadar force were present at the jirga because the government had got involved in resolving a dispute between two contractors who mined chromite in the nearby hills. One of the contractors, Malik Daud, aged 45, was killed in the drone attack along with members of his family. Among the civilians slain were: Malik Daud; Gul Akbar; Mohammad Sheen; Lewanai; Mir Zaman; Din Mohammad; Malik Tareen; Noor Ali; Zare Jan; Sadiq; Mustaqeem; Khangai; Gulnaware; Faenda Khan; and Dindar Khan, Umark Khan, Wali Khan, Sadar and Bakhtar, all five from the Khassadar police force.
April 22 2011
A pre-dawn attack in Spinwan, North Waziristan by two drones on a house and guesthouse killed an estimated 25 people, including reports of at least three women and four or five children, as the BBC and many others reported. In an unprecedented move, an unknown ‘US official’ told CNN at the time: ‘There is no evidence to support that claim [of civilian casualties] whatsoever.’ Our own researchers in Waziristan report:
Five suspected militants, all locals from North Waziristan, were killed in this attack. Though it was reported initially that some women were killed in this strike, later it was confirmed that no women had been killed. But one 12-year-old boy named Arif was killed in the attack. So the death toll was six including five militants and one civilian.
May 6 2011
In the first strike following Osama bin Laden’s death, an attack on a religious school (and suspected militant hideout) in Datta Khel, North Waziristan also hit a nearby unrelated roadside restaurant and a house. Many were killed in the attack. Our researchers in Waziristan report:
The total number of people killed was 18. Six were civilians while the rest were stated to be militants. The civilians were identified as Samad, Jamshed, Daraz, Iqbal, Noor Nawaz and Yousaf.
June 15 2011
Just two weeks after this strike killed four civilians, John Brennan claimed in his speech that none were dying in Pakistan drone strikes. Despite initial claims that up to eight Taliban died, different facts soon emerged. Our researchers in Waziristan report:
Four civilians belonging to the Zangbar family of the Toorikhel Wazir tribe were killed. Those killed included Shahzada, who was a student and was the grandson of a tribal elder Malik Shahzada, the 50-year-old head of the Toorikhel Wazir tribe. Malik Shahzada has shifted to Peshawar with his family due to fear of the local Taliban. How could he or his slain grandson be Taliban when the family had to leave their ancestral village and shift to Peshawar to avoid harm at the hand of the Taliban? The other innocent civilians killed in this attack were Akram Shah, the driver, Umar Khan who owned a car spare parts shop, and Tariq who ran the medical store. The four civilian deaths caused so much anger that in Miram Shah a big protest was held against the US drone attacks and many people demanded jihad against America.
Fifteen strikes requiring further investigation
September 15 2010
Villagers flee in panic as multiple drones attack two housing compounds before dawn, killing at least 14, including civilian rescuers, according to at least one local official. Darga Mandi, North Waziristan.
September 19 2010
A vehicle was destroyed and four suspected Haqqani militants killed. Five local welfare workers were also reported dead when a separate van was hit. Deegan, Datta Khel, North Waziristan.
September 20 2010
An attack killed two or three alleged militants on a motorbike, and then killed two others retrieving the bodies. Darazinda, North Waziristan. Reports vary on whether the rescuers were militants or civilians.
October 4 2010
An attack in Mir Ali killed eight German and one British alleged militants. Al Jazeera’s Kamal Hyder (who has previously worked with CNN and Time magazine) reported that three women and children also died. He later told the Bureau:
‘I have spent the past six years covering this region and travelled into the area on numerous occasions. As such I have developed excellent links with the locals. They have proved to be an invaluable source of information. The locals know their area well and whenever an attack takes place most people know which place has been hit and who are the victims… To date our sources have proven their worth and their information has been quite accurate.’
November 13 2010
A car was destroyed in an attack on alleged militants in Miram Shah, North Waziristan. Four people were killed. Geo TV and Long War Journal reported that all of the dead may have been civilians.
November 16 2010
Up to 20 alleged militants were killed in an attack on a car and a housing compound in Ghulam Khan, North Waziristan. Al Jazeera reported that ‘women and children’ were killed.
November 21 2010
Abdur Rehman’s house in Khaddi, North Waziristan was attacked along with a car. Six to nine people were reported killed, including three local tribesmen (possibly civilians).
December 14 2010
Four alleged Afghan militants or village residents (depending on reports) were killed in Spalaga, North Waziristan. A car was destroyed.
December 28 2010
Following a previous strike on a truck, locals attempted to retrieve the dead. Then drones attacked again, killing between four and 12 people. Officials said civilians were among the dead (ABC News).
January 1 2011
After waiting some time, rescuers attempted to retrieve the dead and injured at a destroyed house in Mandi Khel, but were attacked. Four to six people were killed.
January 7 2011
A house and a motorbike were attacked in Ghar Laley, North Waziristan. Between four and six alleged militants were killed. The Pakistan Observer reported that villagers described all of the dead as civilians.
February 21 2011
Eight to 11 civilians or alleged militants were reported killed and 10 injured in strike on a house and car in Malik Ashdar, North Waziristan. Earlier in the day locals had fired on up to a dozen drones operating in the area.
March 8 2011
An attack in Landidog, South Waziristan killed at least five people when the house of Fazal Karim was destroyed. According to locals all the dead were civilians – though some local Pakistani intelligence sources contested that claim.
June 6 2011
Linked attacks on a seminary and compound in Wana, South Waziristan killed up to 19 people. CNN and others reported that seven civilians may have been among the dead.
June 20 2011
Five suspected militants initially died in Noor Alam, Kurram Agency when a car was destroyed. As locals attempted to give aid, drones killed a further two.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is resident editor of the Pakistani English daily The News International, a senior analyst for GeoTV, and a correspondent with the BBC World Service. He has been covering the Afghan conflict since 1978 and is based in Peshawr.
Additional reporting by David Pegg and Alice Ross.
The Bureau’s data used to power new visualisation.
No information is available on what group most alleged “militants” belonged to.
Two academics examine the current trends in covert drone wars.