Monthly Updates on the Covert War

US drone war: 2014 in numbers

  • CIA Pakistan drone campaign reported to have killed nearly five times more people under Obama than under Bush
  • No confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan for second year running
  • Domestic buildings continue to be the most frequently hit target in Pakistan
  • Highest ever number of drone strikes in a year in Somalia
  • Total people killed per strike in Yemen hits highest level

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December 2014 actions

Total CIA strikes in December: 4
Total people reported killed: 14-20

All 2014 actions

Total strikes: 25
Total reported killed: 114-183
Civilians reported killed: 0-2
Children reported killed: 0-2
Total reported injured: 44-67

All actions 2004 – 2014

Total Obama strikes: 357
Total US strikes since 2004: 408
Total reported killed: 2,410-3,902
Civilians reported killed: 416-959
Children reported killed: 168-204
Total reported injured: 1,133-1,706
For the Bureau’s full Pakistan databases click here.

Although the CIA did not carry out a strike in Pakistan for the first five months of the year, drones were reported to have killed at least 114 people in 2014, more than in all of the previous year. The number of people killed per strike, or casualty rate, also increased slightly.


The CIA’s strikes have been concentrated on North Waziristan where the Pakistan military has been conducting its own counter-terrorism operation.

The drone strikes began on June 11, five days before the Pakistani offensive. The timing fuelled speculation that the Pakistani and US governments had resumed coordination on drone strikes after an apparent deterioration of relations in 2011.

Pakistan’s military offensive came after the breakdown of peace talks between Islamabad and the Pakistan Taliban.

All but one of the CIA’s strikes this year hit in an area where the Pakistan military has been carrying out air or ground operations. Almost half the strikes were concentrated on the area in and around the North Waziristan town of Datta Khel – home to numerous Taliban fighters, weapons markets and bomb factories.

Five strikes hit in the Shawal area, a mountainous and thickly forested region that spreads across North Waziristan, South Waziristan and Afghanistan. It has long been a haven for armed groups because of its harsh, easily defended terrain.

While the concentration of CIA strikes would imply coordination with the Pakistani military, the reported affiliation of the victims suggests the two are not working from the same target sheet. The US appears to be targeting members of al Qaeda and groups, like the Haqqani Network, that concentrate on attacking US and allied troops across the border in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military meanwhile has focused on militants fighting Islamabad such as the Pakistan Taliban.

An outline map of North Waziristan, one of seven tribal agencies in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Agencies.
Map: Sarah Leo

Although the two types of groups are often aligned, sometimes Washington and Islamabad’s priorities diverge.

On September 28 for example a CIA drone was reported to have killed between two and four people near Wana, the capital of South Waziristan – an area that the Pakistani military claims to control. The strike reportedly killed members of a so-called “good” Taliban faction that eschewed attacking Pakistan in favour of fighting across the border in Afghanistan.

This strike, like all but three of the attacks in 2014, reportedly hit a house. This year a Bureau investigation showed the CIA has consistently targeted domestic buildings more than any other target type in Pakistan. This contrasts with the approach in neighbouring Afghanistan, where drone strikes on buildings have been banned in all but the most urgent situations since 2008 as part of measures to protect civilian lives.

Overall, there were fewer strikes in 2014 than any year since 2007 – the year before the drone war began to escalate.

President Barack Obama’s incoming administration dramatically increased the rate of strikes in 2009. The president is coming to the end of his sixth year in office and the CIA has now carried out more than 350 strikes during his tenure. This means there have been more than seven times as many drone strikes during Obama’s time in office than both of President Bush’s terms as of the end of 2014. The strikes under Obama are reported to have killed at least 2000 people, nearly five times as many as the 410 reported killed under Bush.

While there have been more strikes in the past six years, the casualty rate has been lower under Obama than under his predecessor. The CIA killed eight people, on average, per strike during the Bush years. Under Obama, it is less than six. The civilian casualty rate is lower too – more than three civilians were reported killed per strike during the past presidency. Under Obama, less than one.

There were no confirmed civilian casualties in Pakistan in the past year, as in 2013. There were two reported civilian casualties in 2014 but, like the four reported civilian deaths in 2013, the Bureau has as yet been unable to confirm the reports.


December 2014 actions

Confirmed US drone strikes: 1
Other US operations: 1
Total reported killed in all US operations: 20-21
Civilians reported killed in all US operations: 8

All confirmed drone strikes in 2014

US drone strikes: 13-15
Total reported killed: 82-118
Civilians reported killed: 4-9
Children reported killed: 1
Reported injured: 7-14

All actions 2002 – 2014*

Confirmed US drone strikes: 72-84
Total reported killed: 371-541
Civilians reported killed: 64-83
Children reported killed: 7
Reported injured: 81-199

Possible extra US drone strikes: 101-120
Total reported killed: 345-553
Civilians reported killed: 26-68
Children reported killed: 6-11
Reported injured: 90-123

All other US covert operations: 16-81
Total reported killed: 168-404
Civilians reported killed: 68-97
Children reported killed: 26-28
Reported injured: 22-115
Click here for the full Yemen data.

* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range in the total strikes and total drone strikes we have recorded reflects this.

There were at least 13 confirmed US drone strikes in 2014, along with 18 further incidents reported but as yet unconfirmed as US drone strikes. This is a decrease on the total strikes in 2013 and continues a downward trend in reported strikes since they peaked in 2012.

The frequency of strikes may have fallen in 2014 but more people were killed, on average, per strike than in any previous year.

The casualty rate for last year even outstrips 2012 – the bloodiest year recorded in the US’s drone campaign in Yemen when at least 173 people were reported killed in 29 strikes. In 2014 at least 82 people were reported to have died in just 13 strikes.

A graph showing the casualty rates for confirmed US drone strikes in Yemen from 2011 to 2014.

Far fewer civilians were reported killed in 2014 compared with the 17-37 reported dead in 2013. All but one of the 4-9 reported killed by US drones this year died in a CIA attack on April 19.

Reports of the strike all described an attack on a vehicle carrying alleged militants, in which a separate vehicle full of civilians was also hit.

2014 was a particularly turbulent year for Yemen, with the Shiite Houthi group pushing in to the capital, Sanaa, in September, and then expanding in to other parts of the country, clashing with Sunni tribesmen and al Qaeda-affiliated fighters. In October, two suspected drone strikes took place in al Bayda province, where Houthi fighters have been fighting al Qaeda-affiliated militants.

There were also three US special forces raids in 2014. This was a departure from the norm – the last time the Bureau recorded a reported US ground assault in Yemen was in 2010. Two of the attacks were in conjunction with Yemeni forces.

The first was a joint US-Yemeni operation on April 21. Helicopter-borne commandos ambushed a car, killing three or four people including a child. The attack came after two drone strikes were reported to have killed 37-52 people, including 4-9 civilians, one of them a 14-year old boy.

The second ground operation – a hostage rescue mission on November 26 – freed eight al Qaeda captives and left seven terrorists dead. However the raid failed to rescue the key hostage: Luke Somers, a US journalist. He had been moved days before the operation.

Somers tragically died in the third US ground operation – another special forces hostage rescue mission on December 6. Somers and another captive, South African Pierre Korkie, were both killed by al Qaeda fighters. It emerged after the operation that intermediaries believed they had negotiated Korkie’s release and that he would be free the following day.


All Somalia actions in 2014

Total US drone strikes: 3
Total reported killed: 10-18
Civilians reported killed: 0
Children reported killed: 0

Somalia December 2014 actions

Total reported US operations: 1
Total reported killed: 2-3

All Somalia actions 2007 – 2014

Drone strikes: 7-10
Total killed: 18-33
Civilians killed: 0-1
Children killed: 0
Injured: 2-3

Other covert operations: 8-11
Total killed: 40-141
Civilians killed: 7-47
Children killed: 0-2
Injured: 11-21
Click here for the Bureau’s full data on Somalia.

There were three confirmed US drone strikes in 2014, the most reported in any year. Each US attack reportedly killed a senior al Shabaab figure.

The first hit on January 26, reportedly targeting al Shabaab’s leader Ahmed Abdi Godane. The drone missed him but did kill Sahal Iskudhuq – said to be one of Godane’s senior aides and a leading figure in Amniyat, al Shabaab’s intelligence unit.

The second attack, on September 1, did kill Godane. US military drones killed the group’s leader in an encampment where he had stopped for the night. It was not clear if Godane had been killed and there was feverish speculation about whether the US had got its man in the days after the strike.


Ugandan soldiers, belonging to the African Union Mission in Somalia, sit on top of a tank in the early morning hours before advancing on the town of Qoryooley, Somalia, on March 22. AU UN IST PHOTO / Tobin Jones
African Union peacekeepers advance liberate key town from al Shabaab (Photo: AU UN IST PHOTO / Tobin Jones)


Unusually a Pentagon spokesman publicly acknowledged the US had carried out the attack and confirmed his death, saying in a statement: “The US military undertook operations against Godane on Sept. 1, which led to his death… Removing Godane from the battlefield is a major symbolic and operational loss to al Shabaab.”

The third strike, on December 29, killed Abdishakur, reportedly the group’s chief of intelligence.

Alongside the strikes, African Union peacekeepers have carried out operations against Shabaab and has made gains, including pushing the group out of the port town of Barawe – a key hub for al Shabaab’s illegal, lucrative charcoal trade.

Whether the ongoing efforts by the peacekeepers and the US decapitation strikes hasten the demise of the group remain to be seen. Al Shabaab continues to hold sway over rural areas of southern and central Somalia. It carried out bloody attacks throughout 2014, including attacking the president’s residence and parliament – both within the fortified centre of Mogadishu. The group has also murdered several members of the Somali parliament.

The group was also behind a number of cross-border attacks last year. One attack in May killed at least three in Djibouti. Several attacks in Kenya this year left scores of people dead.

The Bureau’s work in 2014

In January, the Bureau published a leaked Pakistani government document showing details of more than 300 CIA drone strikes between 2006 and 2013. It challenged some of the US’s rare public statements on its drone campaign in Pakistan.

In one particularly glaring discrepancy, the document recorded the deaths of 10 people during a 2012 attempt to kill Abu Yahya al Libi, al Qaeda’s second-in-command. Congressional aides told LA Times reporter Ken Dilanian however that the CIA had shown footage of the strike to politicians in which only one person was seen to be killed.

The lull in drone strikes in Pakistan continued in to February. A Pakistani journalist involved in negotiations between Islamabad and the Pakistan Taliban (TTP) confirmed to the Bureau that the Pakistani government had requested a pause to support the latest round of peace talks.

In March, the UK parliament’s defence select committee released its report in to drones, to which the Bureau submitted evidence.

The report was broadly positive about the UK’s use of drones, but called for greater transparency “in relation to safeguards and limitations the UK Government has in place for the sharing of intelligence”. There are concerns that the UK may be sharing locational intelligence with the US which is used to carry out targeted killings.

In April the Bureau reported on the bloodiest weekend of US attacks in Yemen that year. At least 40 people were reported killed in two US drone strikes and a US-Yemeni special forces raid. At least five civilians were reported to be among the dead, including children aged 14 and 16.

In May, the Bureau published its analysis of where the drones strike in Pakistan, produced in collaboration with Forensic Architecture, a research project based at London’s Goldsmiths University, and New York-based Situ Research.

The data was presented as an interactive online map which later in the year won a bronze medal in the Lovie Awards. These recognise outstanding achievement in computer technology.

In June, the Bureau reported on the end of the longest pause of Obama’s Pakistan drone campaign when two strikes hit North Waziristan in Pakistan’s tribal northwest.

In July, Bureau researchers published the results of their scoping study in to the feasibility of tracking drone strikes in Afghanistan, commissioned by the Oxford Research Group’s Remote Control project.

The report found that drones played an increasingly important role in the Afghan conflict (accounting for 18% of all strikes in 2012, as opposed to 5% in 2011). It concluded however that the obstacles to tracking their use with open source data as the Bureau has done in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are significant.

In the same month, the number of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan identified by the Bureau’s Naming the Dead project reached 700.

In August, the Bureau published an interactive graphic showing the different calls for transparency about the US drone warfare programme.

In September, the Bureau explained the limitations of drones in the US’s new campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In October, the Bureau analysed data from its Naming the Dead project and concluded that only 4% of those reported killed in the 10 year drone campaign in Pakistan are named and identified as members of al Qaeda.  It also published a graphic visualisation of the data.

The Bureau’s Drone News podcast meanwhile interviewed a former UK drone operator, Paul Rolfe, who described how jarring it was to engage in combat on the other side of the world while based in Nevada.

In November, the Bureau was shown a letter sent to Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond by the former head of GCHQ and other signatories urging the UK government to publish the legal guidance governing its intelligence sharing with the US on individuals at risk of targeted killing.

December the Bureau highlighted the paucity of information coming out of Pakistan’s tribal areas, pointing out that a far lower proportion of the victims of Pakistan drone strikes have been identified in 2014 than in the previous year.