Drone War Exposed: The complete picture of CIA strikes in Pakistan

CIA drone strikes have led to far more deaths in Pakistan than previously understood, according to extensive new research published by the Bureau. Some 175 children are among at least 2,347 people reported killed in US attacks since 2004. There are credible reports of at least 392 civilians among the dead.

In a surprise move, a counter-terrorism official has also released US government estimates of the numbers killed. These state that an estimated 2,050 people have been killed in drone strikes to mid-August – of whom all but an estimated 50 are combatants.


The Bureau’s fundamental reassessment of the covert US campaign involved a complete re-examination of all that is known about each US drone strike.

The study is based on close analysis of credible materials: some 2,000 media reports; witness testimonies; field reports of NGOs and lawyers; secret US government cables; leaked intelligence documents, and relevant accounts by journalists, politicians and former intelligence officers.

The Bureau’s findings are published in a 22,000-word database which covers each individual strike in Pakistan in detail. A powerful search engine, an extensive timeline and searchable maps accompany the data.

The result is the clearest public understanding so far of the CIA’s covert drone war against the militants. Yet US intelligence officials are understood to be briefing against the Bureau’s work, claiming ‘significant problems with its numbers and methodologies.’

Iain Overton, the Bureau’s editor said: ‘It comes as no surprise that the US intelligence services would attack our findings in this way. But to claim our methodology is problematic before we had even published reveals how they really operate. A revelation that is reinforced by the fact that they cannot bring themselves to refer to non-combatants as what they really are: civilians and, all too often, children’.

Many more strikes

The Bureau’s data reveals many more CIA attacks on alleged militant targets than previously reported. At least 305 US drone strikes are now known to have taken place since 2004.

The intended targets – militants in the tribal areas – appear to make up the majority of those killed. There are almost 150 named militants among the dead since 2004, though hundreds are unknown, low-ranking fighters. But as many as 175 children have also been reported killed among at least 392 civilians.

More than 1,150 people are also revealed to have been injured in the US drone attacks – the first time this number has been collated.

In the wake of the Bureau’s findings Amnesty International has called for more CIA transparency. ‘The Obama administration must explain the legal basis for drone strikes in Pakistan to avoid the perception that it acts with impunity. The Pakistan government must also ensure accountability for indiscriminate killing, in violation of international law, that occurs inside Pakistan,’ said Amnesty’s Director of Asia Pacific Sam Zarifi.

The Bureau’s key findings

  • 305 CIA attacks have taken place in Pakistan – 8% more than previously reported. Under President Obama alone there have been 253 strikes – one every four days.
  • Between 2,347 and 2,956 people are reported to have died in the attacks – most of them militants
  • The minimum number of reported deaths is far higher than previously believed – with 40% more recorded casualties. Most of those killed are likely to be low-ranking militants.
  • Up to 150 named militants have so far been killed.
  • The Bureau has collated credible news reports of 392-781 civilians being killed in the attacks.
  • The Bureau has identified credible reports of 175 children killed in the drone strikes. Under President Bush, one in three of all attacks is reported to have killed a child.
  • For the first time the Bureau has compiled accurate details of recorded injuries in drone strikes, revealing that at least 1,158 people have been wounded.

Civilian deaths

With the US military unable to operate overtly inside Pakistan, the Obama administration has come to rely heavily on CIA drone strikes to attack alleged militants in the country’s western tribal areas. To date, at least 253 drone attacks have been ordered in Obama’s name, the Bureau’s research shows.

At least 1,897 people have been reported killed in the Obama strikes, most of them militants.

Recently, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan stated that the president has ‘insisted’ that Pakistan drone strikes ‘do not put… innocent men, women and children in danger’. Yet at least 225 of those killed in drone attacks in Obama’s time in office may have been civilians.

Civilian casualties do seem to have declined in the past year. Yet the Bureau still found credible evidence of at least 45 civilians killed in some ten strikes in this time. The US continues to insist that it ‘can’t confirm any noncombatant casualties’ in the past year.

The most recently reported civilian fatalities were on October 31. Tariq Khan, aged 16 and his 12 year old cousin Wahid were killed in a strike on North Waziristan.

Internal US figures

The US government’s own internal estimate of those killed in the drone strikes was released in August and totalled about 2,050. All but 50 of these were described as militants. No ‘non-combatants’ have died in the past year, a US counter-terrorism official claimed. The Bureau’s own minimum suggested casualty figure across the campaign is 2,347 to the end of October 2011.

Yet a US counter-terrorism official told the Bureau that its numbers were ‘way off the mark’. The Washington-based official said: ‘These actions target militants planning actively to kill Afghans, Pakistanis, Europeans, and Americans among others, and most often the operations occur when they’re training or on the move, getting ready to attack. Over 4,000 Pakistani civilians have been killed by terrorists since 2009—the threat is clear and real.’

Reprieve, the legal action charity which campaigns on human rights issues said: ‘With the Bureau’s findings, at last we have a hard and comprehensive look at the facts. It is a great start. From now on, Reprieve hopes people will read official propaganda about drone warfare with a grain of salt — and ask themselves whether drones are radicalising as many young men as Guantánamo did.’

Pakistani villagers at funeral of drone victim on December 29 2010 via AP

This article was last updated on November 2 2011