A former US drone operator on the latest episode of the Bureau’s drones podcast
On Monday October 31, 16-year-old Tariq Aziz was killed in a US drone strike near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Three days earlier, Bureau reporter Pratap Chatterjee met the teenager at a conference in Islamabad, where local people came together to discuss the impact of U.S. drone strikes in their communities.
In this interview, Chatterjee speaks to independent non-profit US program Democracy Now about how he came to meet Aziz, and the Bureau’s major investigation into the CIA-led US covert drone war.
The interview transcript follows:
JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to look at the secret U.S. drone war in Pakistan. Late last month, a group of Pakistanis met in Islamabad to discuss the impact of U.S. drone strikes in their communities. One of the attendees was a boy named Tariq Aziz, who had volunteered to learn photography to begin documenting drone strikes near his home. Within 72 hours of the meeting, Tariq Aziz himself was killed in a U.S. drone strike. He was 16 years old. His 12-year-old cousin was also killed.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by Pratap Chatterjee, a reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, director of CorpWatch. He was in Pakistan this month and went to the news conference, where Tariq Aziz was just days before he was killed. Pratap is back now in London.
Pratap, tell us what took place in Islamabad, how you came to meet Tariq Aziz, and then what happened.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Amy, a group here in London called Reprieve, which is a legal charity, and a group in Islamabad by the name of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights worked with Waziristan elders to create a Waziristan Grand Jirga, in which they brought together elders and families of those that had been killed in the drone strikes over the last five years in northern Pakistan. So they met at the Margala Hotel, and this jirga was held on Friday the 28th.
And there were probably 35 people, who were families, relatives of people who were killed, including—among them was Tariq Aziz, whom I met briefly, who was 16. And he had lost his cousin 18 months ago. His cousin’s name is Aswar Ullah, who was killed when he was riding a motorbike near their home village of Norak.
So, at that meeting, the elders, as is typical in a jirga, met to discuss what had happened. They adopted a resolution condemning the strikes and then went to a rally organized by Imran Khan. And Tariq Aziz traveled with all of us to the rally. There were lawyers. There were reporters. It was an open meeting, an open rally in front of the parliament in Islamabad.
After that, Tariq Aziz and the other attendees returned to their homes. And 72 hours later, when Tariq was traveling with his 12-year-old cousin to go pick up his aunt on Monday morning, he was killed in a drone strike.
AMY GOODMAN: He had expressed concern, at the news conference, of going home?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, Amy, he was not at the news conference, but at the jirga. I think every one of the people there were very aware of the situation that they were in, because in every village around Mir Ali, Miranshah, there are drones, often 24 hours a day. So people were aware of the threat to them. Yet they volunteered—Tariq, in particular, because he, at his age in that remote community, was familiar with computers, was excited about the idea of being able to document the civilian casualties. There’s a photographer who’s been doing that for three years—Noor Behram is his name—and he’s been doing a lot of documentation. Tariq was one of the young men who had volunteered to help him out and to be able to document, you know, the devastation that had happened in their own family.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Pratap, he is now one of about 175 children that have been killed in these drone strikes in recent years in Pakistan? And what about the rest of civilian casualties?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Exactly, Juan. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, where I work, has created a database of everybody that has been killed since these drone strikes began a number of years ago under Bush. Eighty-five percent of them have taken place under Barack Obama. And we have used the most conservative counting methodology that we can. We only record a death if it is confirmed by multiple sources. So if it’s reported by AP and then re-reported by the New York Times, we don’t count it. It has to be reported by multiple sources. And using that methodology, we have counted over 2,300 people that have been killed, and as many as 3,000. And when we have found an individual below the age of 18—a child, in other words—we have identified them separately. And we have documented at least 175 children, together with the number of women that have been killed in these strikes, that have been casualties of this secret war in Afghanistan. So, Waheed Khan, age 12, and Tariq Aziz, age 16, were the 174th and 175th documented child casualties in this war.
One of the things that John Brennan and many people in the administration are fond of saying is, “These are all militants.” Well, I question how a 12-year-old could be a militant in this war. But more than that, the very fact that I personally was able to meet them in an open, public meeting in Islamabad, I question as to whether the CIA is really attempting to identify people before they kill them, because if this person was a militant, they could well have met them in Islamabad, as did hundreds of other people. And at the press conference, there were—I counted 23 cameras. At the jirga, there were a dozen cameras. There are thousands of people in the streets of Islamabad. It would have been so easy for the CIA, the ISI, to come question these kids, to have taken them aside, even put them in jail or interrogated them, send them to Guantánamo. But instead they chose to kill them. This, to my mind, suggests that these—their information is erroneous, that there is collateral damage. And these are children that they are killing.
AMY GOODMAN: Pratap, I’m looking at Clive Stafford Smith’s piece, who heads up Reprieve, that gathered that group together. He said, “I told the elders [that] the only way to convince the American people of their suffering was to accumulate physical proof that civilians had been killed… Tariq stepped forward. He volunteered to gather proof if it would help to protect his family from future harm. We told him to think about it some more before moving forward.” I ask about the importance of documenting evidence. That was Clive Stafford Smith talking about the 16-year-old Tariq Aziz, who then went home to do that documentation and was killed with his 12-year-old cousin.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Amy, one of the problems here is that because Waziristan is inaccessible to Western reporters, and indeed even Pakistani reporters from the cities, when the CIA or the Pakistani government, Pakistani military, says they have killed militants, high-level targets, there is no way to prove otherwise. So the only way that’s possible is to gather physical evidence. At last week in Islamabad, in fact continuing as we speak, there is an exhibit of seven fragments of Hellfire missiles that I have seen and photographed myself, with serial numbers on them, that local villagers have picked up and can date to the dates of these attacks. So there’s physical evidence that those missiles, with those serial numbers, have hit communities in Waziristan.
They have—Noor Behram has been very meticulous in taking photographs, as soon as a drone strike takes place, of individuals that have been killed. But these strikes take place over a very large area. And the only way to be able to prove that the CIA is killing innocent people is to muster as many people as possible, give them cameras, and try and arrange to prove that the CIA is wrong. And that is what Tariq Aziz was trying to do, that is what a number of people have been trying to do, because nobody believes people from Waziristan. All they believe, all the information they get, is from the CIA. And that information is clearly wrong, as I have experienced myself.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Pratap, what is the reaction, if any, of the Pakistani government to these continued killings of civilians in their country?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Well, the Pakistani government speaks, like the U.S. government, with many voices. By and large, they are silent. They sometimes claim that the U.S. government is doing this without their own permission. But there are also military officials in Pakistan who have claimed that every person that has been killed has been a militant. And this is part of the problem, is that even though, you know, the government supposedly is not involved in this, there is a nod and wink going on, where they are working with the CIA, they are working with the White House, in order to be able to ensure that, you know, there is no culpability.
Here’s the thing. In Pakistan, if somebody is killed, just as in the U.S., we would—the state would intervene and investigate the murder. In Pakistan, the family can sue. A blood money can be paid. And in fact, the U.S. government, in many countries, has done this. It’s called solatia payments. In Afghanistan, in Iraq, the U.S. has compensated people that they have killed by accident. In Pakistan, that does not take place. The Pakistani government, the U.S. government, the local courts have not intervened.
And so, Shahzad Akbar, who’s a lawyer with the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in Pakistan, is trying to bring justice to these communities. He has worked with a journalist by the name of Kareem Khan—and Kareem, in fact, has lost his son and his brother in drone strikes—and he brought a lawsuit last December against the CIA. He named Jonathan Banks, the head of the CIA, who then fled the country. Today Shahzad is working to try and bring these kinds of lawsuits against the Pakistani government, against the CIA, to try and get compensation for these communities, because the Pakistani government is not stepping up to the plate. There is one politician today, Imran Khan, who is trying to change this. And he has said that he is going to, if he is elected, to try and bring justice and to deny the U.S. government permission to kill innocent people in Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: He is the famous cricketer who conceivably will run for president, is that right, of Pakistan? And people can go to our website at democracynow.org to see the different interviews that we’ve done with him as he has come to the United States. Pratap?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Imran Khan is running for the 2013 elections. Until recently, he was actually considered kind of a marginal player. But interestingly, the day the rally that Tariq Aziz attended, perhaps 2,000 people went to that Imran Khan rally. Nawaz Sharif had 35,000 people. But the following day in Lahore, Imran Khan had over 100,000 people, some believe as many as 500,000 people, attending. This is very significant. People are fed up with the drone strikes. They’re fed up with the corruption in Pakistan. And the young people are rallying behind Imran Khan, because they see him as somebody who’s not part of the establishment. Whether or not he can change what the U.S. government does in Pakistan is a question we will only be able to answer if he is elected. But there is certainly widespread dissatisfaction among the young communities. There is a tremendous surge of support for Imran Khan in Waziristan, where, you know, people are fed up with the politicians that they have elected and have sent to Islamabad.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Pratap, for being with us. Pratap Chatterjee, a reporter for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and director of CorpWatch, an NGO that tracks corporate malfeasance. Pratap Chatterjee, speaking to us from London.
A former US drone operator on the latest episode of the Bureau’s drones podcast
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