Fresh Evidence of War Crimes: CIA Drone Strikes Targeted Rescuers

August 3rd, 2013 - by admin

hris Woods and Mushtaq Yusufzai / The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – 2013-08-03 00:38:19

Fresh Evidence of War Crimes: CIA Drone Strikes Targeted Rescuers
Chris Woods and Mushtaq Yusufzai / The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

(August 1, 2013) — A field investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in Pakistan’s tribal areas appears to confirm that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) last year briefly revived the controversial tactic of deliberately targeting rescuers at the scene of a previous drone strike. The tactic has previously been labelled a possible war crime by two UN investigators.

The Bureau’s new study focused mainly on strikes around a single village in North Waziristan — attacks that were aimed at one of al Qaeda’s few remaining senior figures, Yahya al-Libi. He was finally killed by a CIA drone strike on June 4 2012.

Congressional aides have previously been reported as describing to the Los Angeles Times reviewing a CIA video showing Yahya al-Libi alone being killed. But the Bureau’s field research appears to confirm what others reported at the time — that al-Libi’s death was part of a sequence of strikes on the same location that killed up to 16 people.

If correct, that would indicate that Congressional aides were not shown crucial additional video material.

The CIA has robustly rejected the charge. Spokesman Edward Price told the Bureau: ‘The CIA takes its commitment to Congressional oversight with the utmost seriousness. The Agency provides accurate and timely information consistent with our obligation to the oversight Committees. Any accusation alleging otherwise is baseless.’

Tactic Revived
The Bureau first broke the story of the CIA’s deliberate targeting of rescuers in a February 2012 investigation for the Sunday Times. It found evidence of 11 attacks on rescuers – so-called ‘double-tap’ strikes — in Pakistan’s tribal areas between 2009 and 2011, along with a drone strike deliberately targeting a funeral, causing mass casualties.

Reports of these controversial tactics ended by July 2011. But credible news reports emerged a year later indicating that double-tap strikes had been revived.

International media including the BBC, CNN and news agency AFP variously reported that rescuers had been targeted on five occasions between May 24 and July 23 2012, with a mosque and prayers for the dead also reportedly bombed.

The Bureau commissioned a report into the alleged attacks from Mushtaq Yusufzai, a respected journalist based in Peshawar, who reports regularly for NBC and for local paper The News.

Over a period of months, Yusufzai — who has extensive government, Taliban and civilian contacts throughout Waziristan — built up a detailed understanding of the attacks through his sources. His findings indicate that five double-tap strikes did indeed take place again in mid-2012, one of which also struck a mosque. In total 53 people were killed in these attacks with 57 injured, the report suggests.

Yusufzai could find no evidence to support media claims that rescuers had been targeted on two further occasions.

No confirmed civilian deaths were reported by local communities in any of the strikes. A woman and three children were reportedly injured in one of the attacks. Yusufzai says: ‘It is possible some civilians were killed, but we don’t know’.

However a parallel investigation by legal charity Reprieve reports that eight civilians died in a double-tap strike on July 6 2012 (see below), with the possibility of further civilian deaths in a July 23 attack.

Islamabad-based lawyer Shahzad Akbar says Reprieve’s findings are based on interviews with villagers from affected areas.

‘On both occasions [in July] our independent investigation showed a high number of civilians who were rescuers were killed in the strikes,’ says Akbar.

While some 2012 double-tap strikes appear to have been aimed at al Qaeda’s Yahya al-Libi, Reprieve believes both July attacks were focused on killing another senior militant, Sadiq Noor.

Noor is deputy to militant leader Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Both men are long-time targets for the CIA because of their support for the Taliban’s Afghan insurgency. Noor had falsely been reported killed on at least two previous occasions. It is not known whether he survived either of the strikes.

Special Rules?
The rescuer strikes examined by Yusufzai all appear to have been aimed at very senior militants — so-called High Value Targets. Under international humanitarian law, the greater the threat a target represents, and the more imminent that threat is deemed to be, the greater the leeway for targeting. The Bureau’s findings suggest that strikes on rescuers are still permitted in certain circumstances, such as in the pursuit of a high value target such as Yahya al-Libi.

The Bureau’s original investigation into the deliberate targeting of rescuers found that a significant number of civilians had been reported killed, alongside Taliban rescuers.

It was the presence of civilians amid groups of rescuers which meant the US may have committed war crimes, according to the UN’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions. Christof Heyns noted in June 2012:
If civilian ‘rescuers’ are indeed being intentionally targeted, there is no doubt about the law: those strikes are a war crime.

Heyns’ colleague Ben Emmerson QC, UN special rapporteur on torture, also told reporters in October 2012: ‘The Bureau has alleged that since President Obama took office at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims and more than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. Christof Heyns… has described such attacks, if they prove to have happened, as war crimes. I would endorse that view.’

The Bureau understands that Emmerson’s ongoing UN investigation into drone strikes is likely to engage with the issue of targeting first responders.

Bureau field researcher Mushtaq Yusufzai notes that civilians now rarely appear to take part in rescue operations, and are often prevented from doing so by militants. They also fear further CIA attacks, he says.

Sarah Knuckey is an international lawyer at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, based at New York University’s School of Law. An adviser to UN rapporteur Christof Heyns, Knuckey also co-authored the 2012 report Living Under Drones, which gathered substantial testimony in Pakistan about strikes on rescuers.

‘The threat of the “double tap” reportedly deters not only the spontaneous humanitarian instinct of neighbours and bystanders in the immediate vicinity of strikes, but also professional humanitarian workers providing emergency medical relief to the wounded,’ the report noted.

Commenting on the Bureau’s latest findings, Knuckey says civilians cannot be targeted under the laws of war.

But she adds: ‘Secondary strikes are not necessarily unlawful. If, for example, secondary strikes are carried out on additional military targets who come to the area of a first strike, the strikes might comply with the laws of war. And the Bureau’s findings of no evidence of civilian harm from the 2012 strikes they investigated suggest that proper precautions in attack may have been taken for those strikes.

‘The key question around the legality of secondary strikes is: On what basis is the US making the assessment that the ‘rescuers’ are legitimate military targets? Is the US assuming that anyone coming to a second strike is also a militant, or does it have — for each rescuer — intelligence on that person’s militant status? If secondary strikes take place within 10-20 minutes of a first strike, is that sufficient time to determine militancy?’

Stark Contrast
The US has not generally responded to the issue of double-tap strikes. But three months after the 2012 attacks, a senior diplomat denied that civilian rescuers were ever ‘deliberately’ targeted by the CIA.

A group of US peace activists visiting Pakistan in October 2012 were told by acting US ambassador Richard E Hoagland: ‘For at least the last several years that I have been here in Pakistan and more intimately associated with the knowledge of this [drone campaign], there was never any deliberate strikes against civilian rescuers.’

The US Senate and House intelligence committees are charged with overseeing the CIA’s drone targeted killing project. But there is an unexplained disparity between an account of what committee members were shown by the CIA on a particular strike, and what other sources report.

Yahya al-Libi, al Qaeda’s second-in-command, was killed by the CIA on June 4 2012 in a strike on the village of Hassokhel in North Waziristan.

Almost all media reports at the time placed the death toll at 15-18. Sources including the Washington Post said rescuers were targeted and killed at the scene.

But the US has consistently denied this. ‘American officials said that Mr Libi was the only person who died in the attack, although others were present in the compound,’ the New York Times noted.

In July 2012, the Los Angeles Times published a detailed account of the workings of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. According to reporter Ken Dilanian, staffers from both committees visit CIA headquarters once a month, where they watch video and review other evidence relating to drone strikes.

The BBC and other news organisations quoted local officials saying that 15 “suspected militants” were killed in the June 4 Pakistan strike that killed al Libi,’ Dilanian reports. ‘But the [CIA] video shows that he alone was killed, congressional aides say.

The Bureau’s findings are in stark contrast, appearing to confirm original news reports that rescuers were indeed targeted at the time and that many more died.

According to Yusufzai’s sources, an initial 4am attack on a small house in the village of Hassokhel killed five. A dozen people ‘including Arabs, Turkmen and local tribesmen’ then started rescue work.

But as they were removing bodies, the CIA’s drones reportedly struck again — killing 10 more, including Yahya al-Libi, ‘who was observing the rescue operation when he too came under missile attack,’ the source said.

Neither the House nor Senate intelligence committees were prepared to comment on the disparity between these reports.

The Bureau approached the CIA for comment on the latest sequence of rescuer strikes. While declining to comment on most questions, spokesman Edward Price robustly denied the suggestion that the oversight committees may have been misled.

Summary of the Bureau’s New Findings

The Bureau’s field research finds that — as widely reported at the time — on May 24, 2012, a CIA-controlled armed drone hit a mosque in the village of Hasukhel in North Waziristan, killing some worshippers. Six further people were killed in a second drone strike shortly afterwards as they took part in rescue work, according to Yusufzai’s sources.

On June 3, 2012, two Taliban commanders and their men were targeted as they visited the village of Gangi Khel in South Waziristan to attend funeral prayers for a relative killed in an earlier drone strike. Despite reports that the two commanders were killed, the Bureau’s research finds both men survived and there were no fatalities.

An attack on June 4, 2012 ultimately killed al Qaeda second-in-command Yahya al-Libi. Despite US claims that al-Libi alone died, Bureau research appears to corroborate multiple accounts indicating that at least 16 people, all alleged militants, died in a series of missile strikes. This reportedly included the deliberate targeting of rescuers.

Congressional oversight committee staffers reportedly told the LA Times they had seen video showing only al-Libi’s death. They may have been unaware of additional strikes. The CIA told the Bureau it ‘provides accurate and timely information consistent with our obligation to the oversight Committees. Any accusation alleging otherwise is baseless.’

On July 6, 2012, a group of alleged militants were targeted and killed as they ate dinner with local tribesmen. Another nearby mixed group who were praying were not attacked. After waiting 30 minutes rescue work began. CIA drones then returned, killing 12 others including three brothers.

Legal charity Reprieve reports eyewitnesses as identifying eight civilians killed in the attack, who it names as Salay Khan; Mir Jahan Gul; Allah Mir Khan; Noor Bhadshah Khan; Mir Gull Jan; Batkai Jan; Gallop Haji Jan and Gull Saeed Khan.

An initial attack on a house in Dre Nishtar in the Shawal valley on July 23, 2012 killed five alleged militants. Local villagers refused to assist in aid work because they feared a fresh attack. Alleged militants involved in the rescue were then targeted in a second strike, with a further seven killed and eight injured. Reprieve believes civilians may also have died in this attack, and is continuing to investigate.

No evidence could be found for a claimed attack on rescuers on May 28, 2012. Instead, Yusufzai’s sources said two separate linked strikes took place. An initial 4am attack failed to destroy a truck. The vehicle was pursued and destroyed 10 minutes later as it passed through Hasukhel village, killing seven alleged militants. Four civilians including three children were also injured when a nearby house was damaged.

Similarly, the Bureau can find no evidence to support a claimed double-tap attack on June 14, 2012 in Miranshah. Instead, one individual died on the building’s roof, in what Yusufzai’s sources describe as a highly precise attack causing minimal structural damage.

Interview: ‘Ask the Wrong People about Drone Deaths and You Can Be Killed’
Chris Wood / The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

(August 1, 2013) — The US has so far killed more than 2,500 people in its ‘secret’ drone war in Pakistan. All but 22 of 372 recorded CIA strikes have taken place in Waziristan — a hostile and inaccessible area for journalists and researchers.

In the past two years the Bureau has published three major investigations into CIA strikes in Pakistan — all based on field research in Waziristan. So how has it been able to achieve this?

The inability of western reporters to access parts of Waziristan is certainly overstated. I was able to visit parts of South Waziristan with the Pakistan military recently for Britain’s Channel 4 News, and to speak first-hand with some of those villagers directly affected by CIA drone strikes. Other international media visiting recently have included France 24 and NBC News.

That said, journalists do face major restrictions from both the state, which limits access to the tribal regions, and the militant groups who control much of the region. Only certain areas can safely be accessed — most of North Waziristan remains off-limits, for example. And Pakistan’s military and intelligence officials often seek to influence reporters — just as their western counterparts sometimes do.

The solution for many western news agencies — and the Bureau — is at times to seek the assistance of skilled local reporters who are able to visit the tribal areas away from the spotlight.

One such man is Mushtaq Yusufzai (above), who carried out the Bureau’s present study into the revival of deliberate CIA attacks on rescuers in 2012. A respected journalist, his work frequently appears in NBC News reports, and he is also a regular reporter for The News, an English-language Pakistan paper which covers the covert drone war.

He is one of the few people able to report authoritatively on events in Waziristan, thanks to extensive contacts with government and military officials, with militant groups and with tribesmen. Those links have been built up over many years — but are not without risk.

I met Yusufzai in Islamabad to discuss the challenges of reporting from the tribal areas.

‘After 9/11, I’ve worked in each and every tribal region. It is very, very important that you’re able to go there and speak to locals, learn their customs and traditions,’ Yusufzai tells me.

‘I was lucky — thanks to my uncle Rahimullah Yusufzai’s reputation [a veteran BBC World Service reporter] anywhere I went, people respected me,’ he says. ‘People invited me into their own homes and guest houses. And they helped me, taking me to all parts of Waziristan… So I developed very good contacts among the local people, officials and among the Taliban, or those who would later become the Taliban.’

ournalists operating in the region must juggle these often conflicting relationships. ‘If you’re professional and have no hidden agenda, no personal agenda, I think there’s no problem. People can trust you. People can share with you sometimes even very sensitive information. If you remember in 2010, the Pakistani government was saying that Hakimullah Mehsud [leader of the Pakistan Taliban] was killed in a drone attack. Everybody was saying that, except me.’

Yusufzai’s TTP sources turned out to be correct — and to this day Hakimullah Mehsud continues to launch terrorist attacks on Pakistan’s population.

Some analysts claim that reporting from the tribal areas is often unreliable. Yusufzai is inclined to agree: ‘There is some truth to it. Reporting can be very, very poor and if you rely on your local stringers and journalists they may never ever tell you the truth, because they’re rarely paid, they don’t want to risk upsetting people.

The Taliban or security officials or local people might blame him for doing his job. So sometimes it’s easier for him to say nothing — or the wrong thing,’ he says.

Despite the risks, the militant groups can be an important source of information: ‘There are a number of people who know, among the Taliban’s leadership, among the fighters, what’s actually happening.

So I tell them that I want to write a story about these things if they can help. To some extent they will allow you, but if it’s related to their senior people, to the commanders, they may not allow you to do it and tell you instead to use their public statements.’

State sources such as the military and Pakistan’s powerful intelligence service, the ISI, can be less well-informed. ‘Often they don’t themselves have access to those areas,’ says Yusufzai.

Journalists are at risk of interference from the army and ISI. Yusufzai assumes that his phone is often listened to, which he believes can put journalists in danger. ‘Sometimes it becomes very dangerous, and the Taliban suspect it is possible you are working for spy agencies, for the government.’

There is certainly risk for Pakistan’s many reporters. The country has featured in the top five most dangerous nations on earth for journalists in every year since 2005, with 44 reporters killed. Some died trying to report on US drone strikes.

Rescuer Strikes
The Bureau recently engaged Yusufzai to examine reports of a series of strikes in 2012 that were reported to target rescuers from earlier drone attacks. He was chosen because of his reputation for independence. He examined half a dozen strikes, and what he found sometimes differed significantly from contemporaneous media reports.

‘When I was working on this project, I talked to my Taliban sources and I said, “Every time it is reported that four or five were killed in each and every drone strike. But we also know that sometimes, they kill innocent people, and especially those who come to rescue. And we have observed this, that most people are killed in the second attack. So help me to understand who died.”‘

He approached other sources too — though he often had to tread carefully: ‘I spoke to those tribesmen who have close links with, who might be supporting the Arabs and Punjabi Taliban. And then I spoke to security people who are dealing with ISI and other agencies.’

One major difference between the 2012 strikes on rescuers and those examined by the Bureau during the period 2009-2011 was an absence of reported civilian deaths. In Yusufzai’s view, villagers have learned to fear returning CIA drones.

‘Villagers and civilians, local people, they don’t want to go to any site [of a recent drone attack]. Firstly they are not allowed by the Taliban. Especially when there are foreigners staying in a house or a car. Nobody is allowed to go there and see them. And then they are afraid of the drone strike, they think they will fire more missiles… So that’s why nobody wants to go in to be killed. So most of the times we don’t say they’re civilians, we don’t know for sure. But the civilians do not go there.’

Yusufzai found no firm evidence of civilian deaths, but he is keeping an open mind. An attack on July 6 2012 killed three brothers from the same village, for example — and Yusufzai remains unsure of their status. In a parallel independent investigation, legal charity Reprieve reports eight civilian rescuers died in the same attack.

‘It is possible some civilians were killed, but we don’t know,’ says Yusufzai. ‘I tried my level best to know the names [of those killed]. But it’s extremely hard. The exception was these three brothers. But in most cases we don’t have exact information about civilian casualties.’

The biggest challenge is convincing the Taliban to release the names of militants killed by the CIA.

‘Most of the time, those who are killed belong to some other places and people don’t know their names. And they’re not able to ask who was killed. And media people are suspected [of being] spies. If you [are] working for the media and you ask someone about who was killed, then you are no more,’ he tells me.

‘So you do it very carefully. You don’t ask this directly of the Taliban, you… have to ask carefully from those who are collaborating [with] them, who have some relation with them. And certainly not at that time, it needs to be after some time.’

‘I often ask the Taliban, “Why don’t you release their names, why do you hide the number of people who were killed? Why don’t you allow us to go in and get videos?” And they say, “Look, the Americans, they are the enemy. If we allow you to come and get pictures, you’ll show those pictures to the Americans. And they will say, “Oh, so we killed these people, they are enemies.” So they will be happy. We don’t want to make them happy”.

The Bureau will be building on its already extensive experience of field investigations in Pakistan later this year, when it launches the Naming The Dead project.

‘We’ve set ourselves a tough challenge — identifying hundreds more of those killed by the CIA in Pakistan, be they militants or civilians,’ says project leader Rachel Oldroyd.

‘Vital to our success will be the knowledge and insight of an extensive network of journalists and researchers like Mushtaq Yusufzai, They often risk a great deal to ensure we understand what is happening, something we appreciate greatly.’

Related links:
Get the Data: The Pakistan government’s secret document
Is Congressional oversight tough enough on drones?
The Bureau’s drone project nominated for prestigious Martha Gellhorn Prize
January 2013 Update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia
‘We have to do better’: Protester speaks out

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