Could German court halt White House’s ‘illegal’ drone war? An exclusive extract from Chris Woods’ new book Sudden Justice

The US Air Base in Ramstein, Germany, has played a key role in the CIA drone strikes that killed seven Germany citizens (Flickr/US Army)

The debate over America’s use of drones to kill its own citizens has never been as intense. Last week in an unprecedented announcement, President Barack Obama admitted that CIA drones had killed three Americans in Pakistan in January, including al Qaeda hostage and aid worker Warren Weinstein.

It is not just Americans who have been killed. As new research by the Bureau shows, Weinstein is one of at least 38 Westerners to have been killed in the US’s covert drone war on terror. Citizens of some of America’s closest allies – the UK, Germany, Australia and Canada among them – are among the dead.

The deaths of these Westerners represent a mere fraction of the total death toll for drones. Yet their killing pose troubling questions for the White House over the legality of the programme. There is also growing concern within allied countries.

On May 27 a Cologne court will begin hearing complaints from three Yemeni survivors of a US drone strike, in a case brought by Reprieve and the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights.

Complaints centre on the use of Ramstein airbase by the US. The Intercept recently published leaked top secret documents showing that all drone satellite data from Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia transits through the German military base.

That means Ramstein will inevitably have helped facilitate the drone killing of seven or more German citizens by America, actions which may give further traction to the impending lawsuit. Kat Craig, from Reprieve, told the Bureau: “The time has come for Germany and the US’s other Western allies to face the facts: they are complicit in an illegal and immoral war – one which violates their own legal framework and should see them prosecuted.” 

Could the case succeed? The track record of Europe’s courts on earlier CIA progammes, including torture and rendition, is not encouraging. 

In this exclusive extract from Chris Woods’ new book Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, the former Bureau reporter shows how Germany’s role in the CIA’s covert drone wars has been highly controversial for years.

In early 2011, an urgent order was issued by Germany’s Interior Ministry: intelligence agencies could no longer pass information to the United States if there was any risk this might be used to kill German citizens. Berlin’s ban was triggered by a CIA drone strike on October 4, 2010, which according to early reports had killed as many as eight German nationals (two had in fact died).

In the days prior to that bombing, there were claims of impending terror attacks against Berlin and other European cities: “Terrorists plotting to carry out a Mumbai-style mas­sacre in Western Europe have a list of high-profile targets in their sights ranging from the Eiffel Tower to a hotel near Berlin’s famed Brandenburg Gate,” ran one of many such stories, with Fox News reporting that the source was “a German-Pakistani national interrogated at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, an anonymous US official told Reuters: “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that links between plots and those who are orchestrating them lead to decisive American action. The terrorists who are involved are, as everyone should expect, going to be targets. That’s the whole point of all of this.”

Shahab Dashti - IMU propaganda
Shahab Dashti – IMU propaganda

Binyamin Erdogan was talking in the courtyard of his rented home with fellow-German Shahab Dashti and three Pakistanis when a Hellfire missile detonated among them at around 7pm local time.

Erdogan’s widow, his pregnant sister-in-law, and infant nephew were just meters away, though survived unscathed. His brother Emrah was in a nearby room: “My eyes were full of earth because the houses were made of mud,” he later recalled. Staggering outside, he found Dashti mortally injured and his brother Binyamin dead.

Testimony from Emrah’s wife has described how her one-year-old son had been playing with his uncle in the courtyard only minutes before a US missile struck. She has recalled the scene imme­diately after: “The bodies of the three strangers had been cut into pieces by the attack and we could hardly find anything of them. The body of my brother-in-law lay in the soil. He was already dead and the back of his head had been blown apart… Although our friend´s [Dashti’s] hand was still trembling he was dead already as well… The whole courtyard had been turned to rubble by the attack.”

Related story: Hostage deaths mean 38 Westerners killed by US drone strikes, Bureau investigation reveals

Scared that he still risked being killed, and now on the run, the surviving brother contacted Hans-Christian Ströbele, the German Green Party MP:

Emrah contacted me via mail, apparently from Pakistan and at first anonymously. He told me what he’d experienced, that he was present during the drone strike and was indeed unbelievably lucky to survive. He also sent me photos of his dead brother and asked for my help.

Ströbele helped arrange for the return of Emrah Erdogan and his wife to Germany, where the former was ultimately imprisoned for seven years on terrorism-related charges.

Hans-Christian Strobele - German Green Party parliamentarian - sits wearing spectacles and a blue shirt and jacket.
Hans-Christian Strobele – German Green Party parliamentarian (Stephan Röhl)

It was widely assumed in media reports that those Germans bombed by the CIA in Waziristan had been involved in the “imminent terror plots” described just days beforehand.

Yet Germany’s interior minister Thomas de Maziere had insisted at the time that “there is no concrete imminent attack plan that we are aware of… We are looking at every­thing but there is no fever thermometer of danger”.

The strike on the Erdogan home again raised concerns about the extent to which Western intelligence agencies were colluding in lethal operations. Discomfort at the deaths of Germans—coupled with the later criminal trials of Emrah Erdogan and others–saw key aspects of the intelligence process exposed.

It emerged, for example, that Germany’s intelligence agencies had known of the Erdogans’ presence in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, for many weeks prior to the attack. Indeed, all phone calls made by the men were being recorded and analysed.

In a prophetic conversation in August 2010, for example, Emrah described his life in “dangerous Waziristan” to his fam­ily in Germany. Stern magazine, which obtained transcripts of the con­versations, described how Erdogan believed that “houses are marked so that airplanes can identify them and bomb them more accurately.” Only an American air raid would ever be able to reach them, he said. Other calls reportedly described a planned suicide mission in Afghanistan by Binyamin which was designed to kill “many dozens of people”.

With the Mir Ali house under direct surveillance by both US and German intelligence agencies, it is unclear why the United States had proceeded with a lethal strike when it did—particularly since women and children were in immediate proximity to the targets.

Modelling of the strike that killed Erdogan by Forensic Architecture.

Questioned by the Bundestag’s oversight committee, the German intel­ligence community admitted, according to Ströbele, that on occasion “they gave information to US [intelligence] services but explicitly not for killings or executions by Special Commando or drones, they would not do this. Then I asked, ‘Can you exclude the possibility?’ and they answered, ‘No.’” A government minister later insisted that while the intelligence ser­vices did share cellphone data with “other foreign secret services,” this was “not specific enough to pinpoint exact locations”.

“The only question for me was whether Germany’s intelligence services had the intention to kill Binyamin or oth­ers, or just gave the information and didn’t ask any questions.”

– Marc Lindemann

Critics complained that such data could still lead the CIA’s drones to the near vicinity of a German citizen, from where its own electronic eavesdropping technologies might easily locate them. Under pressure from MPs, in January 2011 prosecu­tors opened a criminal investigation into whether Germany’s intelligence agencies had been complicit in the killing of citizens.

Marc Lindemann, a former Military Intelligence officer who has made a study of the Erdogan case, believes it was “pretty likely” that Germany shared material with the Americans related to the strike: “The only question for me was whether Germany’s intelligence services had the intention to kill Binyamin or oth­ers, or just gave the information and didn’t ask any questions.”

Yet almost three years later, the inquiry concluded that there were no charges to answer, since Binyamin Erdogan had been a “civilian combatant” and was therefore “lawfully killed”. Questions relating to intelligence-sharing were sidestepped.

Even as federal investigators gathered their evidence, other Germans were still being killed by the CIA in Pakistan—regardless of any ban on intelligence sharing. On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Mohammad al-Faateh, a 27-year-old Berliner and suspected militant, was killed by the Americans in North Waziristan along with an alleged local Haqqani Network official and a Saudi Al Qaeda operative.

Seven months later, Samir Hatour also died. According to a martyrdom video obtained by SITE, a for-profit organisation that tracks the online activity of various extremist groups, “on the morning of March 9 2012, which was a Friday, Abu Laith [Hatour] went to his family, and on the way with three other mujahidin, the car he was in was fired upon by an American drone and the brothers died as martyrs.”

A collage of images of Ahmed B as part of a video eulogy produced by the terrorist organisation The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan
Ahmed B – the “King of Setterich” (from a eulogy video)

In October 2012 Ahmad B was also killed, a 24-year-old man of Moroccan origin who had been born in the town of Setterich in the German state of Aachen. Announcing his death, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (which took in many European radicals), pronounced in a 13-minute German-language video: “Dear brothers and sisters, the King of Setterich is now a martyr.”

As the longest-serving member of the Bundestag oversight commit­tee for Germany’s intelligence community, Ströbele was deeply con­cerned at the issues raised by the killing of Binyamin Erdogan and other nationals: “Our intelligence agencies always deny any involvement with surveillance and the use of drones, because they know that it is a very delicate issue here. First they would be liable to prosecution and sec­ond they would be violating the constitution.”

Sitting in a Berlin office stacked from floor to ceiling with box files of investigations he has con­ducted, Ströbele admitted to being disheartened at how little true over­sight politicians in Germany, Britain, and the United States now had over their respective intelligence services: “Too often we are dependent on good investigative journalists to get hold of certain facts, which then give us the chance to follow up with the intelligence services. Without the work of Spiegel, Süddeutsche Zeitung and others, our work would be far less worthy or of no worth at all.”

It was a disturbing admission from a politician whose role was to help hold to democratic account the intelligence world.

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