The Drone Papers

Drone Papers header JPEG

The Intercept has released a new series of documents – not from Edward Snowden – that provide extraordinary details about the Obama administration’s targeted killing operations (especially in Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia).

I haven’t had a chance to work through them yet – today is taken up with teaching and Eyal Weizman‘s visit for tonight’s Wall Exchange – but I imagine that readers who don’t already have their heads up will welcome a head’s up.

The reports include a considerable number of informative graphics (taken from briefing slides) together with analysis.  Here is the full list:

The Assassination Complex (by Jeremy Scahill)

A visual glossary (by Josh Begley)

The Kill Chain (by Jeremy Scahill)

Find, Fix, Finish (by Jeremy Scahill)

Manhunting in the Hindu Kush (by Ryan Devereaux)

Firing Blind (by Cora Currier and Peter Maass)

The Life and Death of Objective Peckham (by Ryan Gallagher)

Target Africa (by Nick Turse)

More to come when I’ve worked through the reports, slides and analyses.

Untargeted killing

Back in November 2012 I explained that the debate over CIA-directed targeted killing in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere risked overlooking the conduct of targeted killing by the US military and its coalition partners in Afghanistan:

Targeted killings are also carried out by the US military – indeed, the US Air Force has advertised its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads’ – and a strategic research report written by Colonel James Garrett for the US Army [‘Necessity and Proportionality in the Operation Enduring Freedom VII Campaign‘] provides a rare insight into the process followed by the military in operationalising its Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL). Wikileaks has provided further information about JSOC’s Task Force 373 – see, for example, here and here – but the focus of Garrett’s 2008 report is the application of the legal principles of necessity and proportionality (two vital principles in the calculus of International Humanitarian Law (IHL)) in counterinsurgency operations. Garrett describes ‘time-sensitive targeting procedures’ used by the Joint Targeting Working Group to order air strikes on ‘high-value’ Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, summarised in this diagram:


Notice that the members included representatives from both Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) and the CIA (‘Other Government Agency’, OGA). This matters because Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – once commanded by General Stanley McChrystal – and the CIA, even though they have their own ‘kill lists’, often co-operate in targeted killings and are both involved in strikes outside Afghanistan. Indeed, there have been persistent reports that many of the drone strikes in Pakistan attributed to the CIA – even if directed by the agency – have been carried out by JSOC.

Now Spiegel Online has provided new, detailed information about the Joint Prioritized Effects List and targeted killing in Afghanistan.  Its base materials – some of which come from the Snowden cache – cover the period 2009-2011 and include an anonymised version of the JPEL (extract below).

JPEL Afghanistan PNG

The Spiegel team explains:

[This is] the first known complete list of the Western alliance’s “targeted killings” in Afghanistan. The documents show that the deadly missions were not just viewed as a last resort to prevent attacks, but were in fact part of everyday life in the guerilla war in Afghanistan.

The list, which included up to 750 people at times, proves for the first time that NATO didn’t just target the Taliban leadership, but also eliminated mid- and lower-level members of the group on a large scale. Some Afghans were only on the list because, as drug dealers, they were allegedly supporting the insurgents.

As I’ve said, the JPEL was maintained through close collaboration between the CIA and the US military, including Joint Special Operations Command, so it is not surprising that the list is not confined to Afghanistan but also includes Pakistanis who were located inside Pakistan.

We already know that targeted killings inside Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas involved signal intelligence from the NSA, Britain’s GCHQ and Australia’s Pine Gap facility.  Spiegel‘s cache of documents shows that coalition states outside the ‘Five Eyes’ (US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) were included in the wider Center Ice platform that also supplied geospatial intelligence for tracking and targeting.  Taken together:

Predator drones and Eurofighter jets equipped with sensors were constantly searching for the radio signals from known telephone numbers tied to the Taliban. The hunt began as soon as the mobile phones were switched on.

Britain’s GCHQ and the US National Security Agency (NSA) maintained long lists of Afghan and Pakistani mobile phone numbers belonging to Taliban officials. A sophisticated mechanism was activated whenever a number was detected. If there was already a recording of the enemy combatant’s voice in the archives, it was used for identification purposes. If the pattern matched, preparations for an operation could begin. The attacks were so devastating for the Taliban that they instructed their fighters to stop using mobile phones.

The document also reveals how vague the basis for deadly operations apparently was. In the voice recognition procedure, it was sufficient if a suspect identified himself by name once during the monitored conversation. Within the next 24 hours, this voice recognition was treated as “positive target identification” and, therefore, as legitimate grounds for an airstrike. This greatly increased the risk of civilian casualties…

[In addition]  Center Ice was not just used to share intelligence about mobile phone conversations, but also information about targets.

Finally – and directly relevant to that penultimate paragraph – Spiegel includes a detailed post-strike ‘Dynamic Target Storyboard‘ that explains how one mission executed by a British AH-60 helicopter (callsign/codename UGLY 50) armed with Hellfire missiles missed its target (‘Objective DOODY’, a mid-level Taliban commander called Mullah Niaz Muhammed categorised as JPEL ‘level 3’) on its first pass and then, coming in for a second attack, seriously wounded an innocent father and killed his child:

Dynamic Targeting Storyboard PNG

To navigate the storyboard – a standard ‘after action’ report – you need to wade through an alphabet soup of acronyms, some of which I know and others I don’t.  Working left to right along the top line, the mission was under the control of TFH – ISAF’s Task Force Helmand – whose main component was provided by the UK military; under BDAR (Battle Damage Assessment and Repair) the AH-64 attack helicopter is identified as operating under ISAF Rules of Engagement 429 (the details of all these ROEs remain classified).  The Intelligence Summary shown below identifies the target as ‘Objective DOODY’, provides skeletal details of his activities, and links him with two other targets on the JPEL, ‘KOJAK’ and ‘STILTSKIN’ (presumably part of the military’s standard social network analysis).

The far right column provides further information about the attack.  At 0741 intelligence (ELINT is electronic intelligence, but RELINT is not included in the Ministry of Defence’s acronym list) places ‘DOODY’ in Nad-e-Ali (South); by 0950 he is holding a meeting with five other men, and at 1003 a ‘PURSUE 50 operator’ [how I would like to know more about what means] confirms positive identification (PID) which denotes ‘reasonable certainty that this is a legitimate military target’. Shortly afterwards, a Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), listed as a ‘Qualified Observer’ with the grim call sign WIDOW 87,  contacts the helicopter crew and talks them on to the target: once they have him in their field of view they are ready to attack.  What isn’t clear from all this is whether the JTAC is relying on a video feed from a drone – this seems the most likely source, and an aerial view is included on the storyboard, tracking the target’s movements once the attack is under way – or whether s/he is on the ground (unlikely, I think, since ground troops take more than an hour to arrive on site after the attack: see ‘Follow-on Plans’ box).

When the target walks away from the meeting, accompanied by one man, the helicopter crew is cleared to engage both of them (TEA) (I’ve explained PID but if anyone knows what PIDROF means please let me know since that seems to authorise killing his unknown and unnamed companion).

According to a supplementary page on the storyboard file, shown below, the AH-64 makes its initial run but fails to engage and returns for a second attempt; in doing so, the crew loses visual identification of the target, what the military usually calls the ‘visual chain of custody’, and at 1017 fires a Hellfire missile which misses the nominated target and instead causes fragmentation injuries to two civilians nearby (marked 1 on the aerial view).  The helicopter returns again; by then ‘DOODY’ and his companion have parted company, and the crew fires 100 rounds from its 30 mm cannon at ‘DOODY’, leaving him seriously wounded (EWIA: ‘enemy wounded in action’; marked 2 on the aerial view).

Over an hour later, at 1134, ground troops arrive to capture ‘DOODY’ – but they also find one other seriously wounded man and the body of his young son.  The boy is buried by his family, and the casualties are airlifted to the military hospital at Camp Bastion (BSN);  ‘DOODY’ is later transferred to Kandahar for further treatment for a serious head wound.
ISAF launched an investigation into the incident, but no details have been released.

So: two innocent, unnamed bystanders killed.  As more evidence unfolds of the inaccuracies of ‘targeted killing’, even when the target is supposedly named and identified (so not a ‘signature strike’), it seems that we should start talking about the prevalence of untargeted killing…

Keeping up with the Drones

Patrick Svensson:Unblinking stare

Several recent contributions on military drones – what Forensic Architecture calls Unmanned Aerial Violence – you might be interested in.

First, Steve Coll has a long essay in the latest New Yorker on ‘The Unblinking Stare‘ (and, yes, I do know that those watching the screens blink.  Duh) about the drone war in Pakistan.  Many readers will remember that it was the New Yorker that published Jane Mayer‘s classic essay on ‘The Predator War‘ (26 October 2009), so it’s high time for an up-date since so much has happened since then.  It’s a very helpful survey.  Much of it will not be news, but Steve does provide some interesting background to the deadly gavotte between the US and Pakistan (what I’ve called ‘dirty dancing‘; see also here):

Pakistan’s generals and politicians, who come mainly from the country’s dominant, more developed province of Punjab, treated Waziristan’s residents “as if they were tribes that were living in the Amazon,” the journalist Abubakar Siddique, who grew up in the region and is the author of “The Pashtun Question,” told me.

In 2002, Musharraf sent Pakistan’s Army into South Waziristan to quell Al Qaeda and local sympathizers. In 2004, the Army intensified its operations, and, as violence spread, Musharraf allowed the C.I.A. to fly drones to support Pakistani military action. In exchange, Musharraf told me, the Bush Administration “supplied us helicopters with precision weapons and night-operating capability.” He added, “The problem was intelligence collection and targeting. . . . The Americans brought the drones to bear.”

Musharraf allowed the C.I.A. to operate drones out of a Pakistani base in Baluchistan. He told me that he often urged Bush Administration officials, “Give the drones to Pakistan.” That was not possible, he was told, “because of high-technology transfer restrictions.”

We know that close co-operation and even co-ordination between Washington and Islamabad was still the order of the day until at least 2011.  We know, too, that local people live under a double threat, and the essay reports on a group interview in Islamabad with half a dozen young men, mainly university students, from Waziristan.  On one side, recalling the Stanford/NYU ‘Living under dronesreport:

Being attacked by a drone is not the same as being bombed by a jet. With drones, there is typically a much longer prelude to violence. Above North Waziristan, drones circled for hours, or even days, before striking. People below looked up to watch the machines, hovering at about twenty thousand feet, capable of unleashing fire at any moment, like dragon’s breath. “Drones may kill relatively few, but they terrify many more,” Malik Jalal, a tribal leader in North Waziristan, told me. “They turned the people into psychiatric patients. The F-16s [of the Pakistan Air Force] might be less accurate, but they come and go.”

On the other side:

Families in North Waziristan typically live within large walled compounds. Several brothers, their parents, and their extended families might share a single complex. Each compound may contain a hujra, or guesthouse, which usually stands just outside the main wall. In the evening, men gather there to eat dinner and talk war and politics. A rich man signals his status by building a large hujra with comfortable guest rooms for overnight visitors. The less well-heeled might have a hujra with just two rooms, carpets, rope cots, and cushions.

Taliban and Al Qaeda commanders moved from hujra to hujra to avoid detection. The available records of drone strikes make clear that the operators would regularly pick up commanders’ movements, follow them to a hujra attached to a private home, watch for hours—or days—and then fire. Many documented strikes took place after midnight, when the target was presumably not moving, children were asleep, and visitors would have returned home.

North Waziristan residents and other Pakistanis I spoke with emphasized how difficult it would be for a drone operator to distinguish between circumstances where a Taliban or Al Qaeda commander had been welcomed into a hujra and where the commander had bullied or forced his way in. If the Taliban “comes to my hujra and asks for shelter, you have no choice,” Saleem Safi, a journalist who has travelled extensively in Waziristan, told me. “Now a potential drone target is living in a guest room or a guesthouse on your compound, one wall away from your own house and family.”

“You can’t protect your family from a strike on a hujra,” another resident of North Waziristan said. “Your children will play nearby. They will even go inside to play.” The researcher in Islamabad said, “There is always peer pressure, tribal pressure, to be hospitable.” He went on, “If you say no, you look like a coward and you lose face. Anyway, you can’t say no to them. If a drone strike does take place, you are a criminal in the courts of the Taliban,” because you are suspected of espionage and betrayal. “You are also a criminal to the government, because you let the commander sleep in your hujra.” In such a landscape, the binary categories recognized by international law—combatant or noncombatant—can seem inadequate to describe the culpability of those who died. Women, children, and the elderly feel pressure from all sides. A young man of military age holding a gun outside a hujra might be a motivated Taliban volunteer, a reluctant conscript, or a victim of violent coercion.

This speaks directly to a general point made by Christiane Wilke: in today’s wars the requirement that combatants identify themselves as combatants (a standard obligation of international humanitarian law) has effectively been transferred to civilians, so that it becomes their responsibility to make themselves known as non-combatants.  Even to an unblinking eye at 20,000 feet.


Second, this week the Telegraph carried a video and an interview with ‘Major Yair’, the pseudonym for the pilot of a Israeli Heron TP drone based near Tel Aviv.  He reports that roughly 65 per cent of Israeli air operations are conducted by drones.  ‘Yair’ served in all three Israeli assaults on Gaza and he says nothing about Israel’s targeted killing – the focus is on the provision of Close Air Support.  But the claims he makes will be all too familiar to those familiar with USAF air strikes in Afghanistan:

As Israeli ground units pressed into Gaza, they would call Major Yair for close air support. “They’d be saying ‘we keep getting fire from within those buildings’ and I’m sitting at a distance – on a neat floorspace with screens and air conditioning systems – but you’re sweating and it’s ‘what do I do, what do I do’? How do I not cause more damage than help?”

I’ve repeatedly noted the affinity – even proximity – USAF crews working out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada feel with troops on the ground in Afghanistan.  But ‘Yair’ doesn’t elaborate on the Israeli ground assault.  Instead, remarkably, persistently – unblinkingly, you might say – he circles around his own last sentence:

Major Yair stressed how he was constrained by rules of engagement designed to avoid innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he added, routinely exploited this restraint by hiding behind civilians. One sequence shot by a Heron showed four men preparing to launch a salvo of rockets under a screen of trees. Seconds later, the men were shown running to a nearby street filled with children.

“They’re untouchable now,” said Major Yair, pointing at the screen. “I know that no mission commander, under current directions given by the chief of staff, will engage in this situation. No way.”

He added: “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.”


David Blair presses him on the large number of Palestinian civilians killed in Gaza, including children, only to be told:

“We do make mistakes… but it’s nature. People make mistakes. We learn from those mistakes. You’ll see no smiling face after an incident where kids were killed. None of us wants to be in a position where he does these mistakes. We learn and try to avoid this as much as we can.”…

“You learn to live with it,” he said. “It’s not easy. I’ve made mistakes that, for many years, will come back at me. But it’s something that people have to do. It’s not easy. We do not shove it back somewhere in our minds and try to avoid talking about it. We talk about it, we support each other.”

And so, as so often happens in the United States (and elsewhere) too, our gaze is directed away from the victims and towards the torment suffered by those who inflict military violence from the air.

But, third, Corporate Watch has just published the fifth in its series of reports on living under drones in Gaza.  These eyewitness reports are indispensable because there are serious problems in using satellite imagery to reconstruct drone strikes.  Nobody is better at doing so than Forensic Architecture, but as they note, there is a threshold of detectability:

IMG_0076rsSome drone-fired missiles can drill a hole through the roof before burrowing their way deep into buildings, where their warheads explode. The size of the hole the missile leaves is smaller than the size of a single pixel in the highest resolution to which publicly-available satellite images are degraded [a square that translate sin to 50 cm by 50 cm of terrain].  The hole is thus at the “threshold of visibility” and might appear as nothing more than a slight color variation, a single darker pixel perhaps. This has direct implications for the documentation of drone strikes in satellite imagery, which is often as close to the scene as most investigators can get. When the figure dissolves into the ground of the image, it is the conditions—legal, political, technical—that degrade the image, or that keep it at a lower resolution that become the relevant material for forensic investigations.

The Corporate Watch report also includes a remarkable tabulation from the Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights in Gaza, showing the numbers of people killed by the Israeli military in Gaza (col. 2) and the proportion killed by drone strikes (col. 3):

Israeli drone strikes in Gaza

I’m not sure what the sources for these tabulations might be: as Craig Jones has emphasised in a vitally important post, it’s exceptionally difficult to parse Israel’s targeted killings in occupied Palestine, and while these tabulations clearly include many other situations I have no idea how you begin to separate different killing machines in what is, after all, a networked mode of military violence in which drones are likely to perform vital surveillance operations for strikes carried out from other platforms. But the increased reliance on drones chimes with the report from David Blair.

A wedding turned into a funeral

yemen0214_reportcoverHard on the heels of its report into six US targeted killings in Yemen in 2009 and 2012-13, Human Rights Watch has published a detailed analysis by Letta Tayler of another drone strike carried out by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) against a wedding convoy on 12 December 2013.  According to Greg Miller in the Washington Post,

The report represents the most detailed independent examination to date of a strike that has focused attention on the administration’s struggles to tighten the rules for targeted killing, provide more information about such operations to the public and gradually shift full control of the drone campaign from the CIA to the Pentagon.

There is considerable evidence of covert US-Pakistan co-operation in targeting in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (see here and here), but in the case of Yemen the collaboration is more overt and perhaps even more formalised: Yemen’s President described a ‘joint operations room’, including agents/officers from the US, the UK, NATO and Yemen that ‘identifies in advance’ prospective targets (who are usually described as members of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula).

In this case, as in so many others, the United States has insisted that all those killed were terrorists, but HRW’s on-the-ground interviews (and videos) tell a different story.  After a wedding feast at the home of the bride, many of the men and some of the women jumped into their vehicles to escort the bridal couple to a second celebration at in the groom’s village of al Jashem 35 km away.

HRW Drone strike Yemen 12 December 2013

At 4.30 that afternoon four Hellfire missiles struck the vehicles, killing at least 12 men and wounding at least 15 others – who are named and identified in the HRW report, and according to relatives all civilians.

‘We were in a wedding,’ cried the groom, ‘but all of a sudden it became a funeral. …We have nothing, not even tractors or other machinery. We work with our hands. Why did the United States do this to us?’

The US isn’t saying, and HRW notes that accounts from the government of Yemen have been inconsistent – though the local governor an military commander apologies for the killings, describing them as ‘a mistake’.  Some reports agreed that some of those targeted were Al-Qaeda members – though if so, it seems they escaped: AQAP has not identified ‘martyrs’ lost in the attack, which is its invariable practice – and some claimed that the victims included ‘smugglers and arms dealers’.


But they also all made it clear that this was a wedding convoy that was targeted, and the government of Yemen has made compensation payments to the families.

HRW discusses the implications of the killings under the different legal regimes of international humanitarian law (the ‘laws of war’) and international human rights law, but also notes that the attack seems to have violated the protocols set out by the Obama administration in May 2013.  These included the ‘near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured…’

NBC – which also has video of the aftermath of the strike – reported in January that the Obama administration was carrying out an ‘internal investigation’, but nothing has been forthcoming and questions from HRW were rebuffed.  All we have so far is this extraordinary statement, reported by  Rooj Alwazir for al Jazeera:

“Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimise civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations – broadly speaking, without speaking to this one specifically,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said when asked about the strike.

‘Broadly speaking’, what is it about weddings that those carrying out air strikes don’t understand?

It’s not difficult to imagine what those who attended the wedding will remember of that day.  But in case it is, Reprieve (which carried out its own investigation into the strike) has published photographs of some of the victims and their families – and of a funeral of nine people.

UPDATE:  AP is now carrying sketchy information about the official investigation into the strike:

Three U.S. officials said the U.S. government did investigate the strike against al-Badani — twice — and concluded that only members of al-Qaida were killed in the three vehicles that were hit…

Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of Joint Special Operations Command, ordered an independent investigation by an Air Force general and the White House requested another by the National Counterterrorism Center. Both concluded no civilians were killed. Votel’s staff also showed lawmakers video of the operation. Two U.S. officials who watched the video and were briefed on the investigations said it showed three trucks in the convoy were hit, all carrying armed men.

The report provides no basis for the identification of the victims as non-civilians.  Human Rights Watch had already questioned the presence of armed men as indicative:

‘Nearly everyone in the procession was an adult male, and one Yemeni government source said many of the men carried military assault rifles. But these details do not necessarily point to involvement in violent militancy. Yemeni weddings are segregated, including the traditional journey to bring the bride to her new home. And Yemeni men commonly travel with assault rifles in tribal areas, including in wedding processions, when celebratory gunshots are common.’

But here is the final Catch-22:

The officials said the Pentagon can’t release details [of the strike or the investigation] because both the U.S. military and the CIA fly drones over Yemen. By statute, the military strikes can be acknowledged, but the CIA operations cannot. The officials said that if they explain one strike but not another, they are revealing by default which ones are being carried out by the CIA.

More unfinished business: haunting Waziristan

I’m just finishing up a new essay on drones and later modern war – “Moving targets and violent geographies” – and I’ll post the draft as soon as I’m done (this weekend, I hope).

Next up is the essay version of my various posts and presentations on air strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, past and present, by the US and by the Pakistan Air Force [see here and here], so I was heartened by news from Madiha Tahir [see my post here] of progress with her short documentary film, Wounds of Waziristan (they are down to the final edits):

More about the project and crowd-sourcing here, and you can find more information at the film’s website, which includes an image gallery and opens with some of the most hauntingly beautiful music composed by André Barros (shades of Arvo Part‘s Spiegel im Spiegel):

Haunting indeed.  In a report for Delhi’s Sunday Guardian, Tanishree Bhasin writes:

When Barack Obama finally admitted to the needless loss of life in Pakistan’s Waziristan area due to American drone attacks, he spoke about how the death of innocents would haunt him forever. Interrogating this notion of ‘haunting’ and what it means for those affected by these attacks is Pakistani filmmaker Madiha Tahir in her film Wounds of Waziristan….

With Wounds of Waziristan, Tahir tries to foreground the people who materially experience loss and absence — not as abstract body counts, but as the absence of a brother or a niece or a wife. “Haunting is the insistence by the dead that they be acknowledged, that the social conditions that brought about their demise be made known and rectified. So, haunting is about unfinished business. And, it’s thoroughly social and political. This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living of what they have lost,” she explains.

GORDON Ghostly matters

On her blog, Madiha wryly notes that her interest in the question of haunting may show ‘my academic side coming out’ – as well as an independent journalist she’s also a graduate  from NYU and Columbia, where she’s currently working on her PhD – and human geographers will probably be no strangers to the idea, from research by Steve Pile and Karen Till and most recently Alison Mountz‘s analysis of detention centres and Akin Akinwumi‘s work on Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.

Much of this has been indebted to Avery Gordon‘s by now classic study, Ghostly matters:

‘Haunting is one way in which abusive systems of power make themselves known and their impacts felt in everyday life, especially when they are supposedly over and done with or when their oppressive nature is denied… Haunting is not the same as being exploited, traumatized, or oppressed, although it usually involves these experiences or is produced by them. I used the term haunting to describe those singular yet repetitive instances when home becomes unfamiliar, when your bearings on the world lose direction, when the over-and-done-with comes alive, when what’s been in your blind spot comes into view.’

It’s not difficult to see how this applies to air strikes in Waziristan – the sense of familiarity unmoored by the devastations of state violence – but Madiha’s starting point is a two-page note Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno appended to Dialectic of Enlightenment, ‘On the theory of ghosts’, that also figured briefly in Gordon’s book (where she described it as an ‘unfilled promissory note’):

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope.

It’s that first clause that animates Madiha’s work:

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead.

Legitimate TargetShe notes that so much (too much) of the contemporary debate about drones is framed by the language of international law and its grammar of execution that is deeply embedded in military violence: as operational law has become a central discourse in the animation and legitimation of the kill-chain, so it turns targeted killing into a quasi-juridical process.  In consequence, as she says with a nod to Eyal Weizman, ‘international law is caught up in constructing the proper order of violence.’

And as a journalist she is dismayed at the complicity of journalists in popularizing law

‘as the only frame through which we can talk about drone attacks and moral standards. Journalists regularly fail to look beyond the usual “experts” in policy and legal circles to other fields that may have an alternative to offer. We are becoming vulgar empiricists who seem to think that a truth not attached to a number (say, the number of “militants” vs. “civilians” killed), or a legal rule (for example: whether an action does/does not violate international law) is no truth at all.’

So Madiha proposes haunting as an alternative frame ‘through which one can re-direct the conversation from issues of legal standards to the lives lived and lives lost under the drones in Waziristan and elsewhere’:

‘The questions then turn on the material conditions and the loss suffered – not as evidence for legal arguments but as queries about what it does to a person to live in such conditions. The question is not, ‘Do I stick him in the “militant” or “civilian” column?’ but instead, who survives him? How do they deal with that loss? What is it like to live among the rubble?

It isn’t through legal standards but though trying to understand the horror of the destruction that we create the correct relationship — with the dead, yes — but with the living, too.’

This matters so much – and reappears in a different form in ‘Moving targets’ – because the contemporary individuation of ‘war’ (if it is war) works to sanitize the battlefield: to confine attention to the individual-as-target (which is itself a technical artefact separated from the exploded fleshiness that flickers briefly on the Predator’s video screens) and to foreclose the way in which every death ripples across a family, a community, a district and beyond [see my brief discussion with Ian Shaw here].

Fahim Qureshi Attack date 23 January 2009

And, as Madiha explained to the Sunday Guardian, these effects ripple across time as well as space, tearing the very fabric of history:

Speaking about her experiences while making this film, she explained that it’s not just a question of life being lost, but also the obliteration of history. “When drone attacks destroy homes — as they often do — they erase entire family histories. Homes in this area are built over time as families grow. There may be as many as 50 members of a family living in one house. When you destroy structures like that, you not only destroy people, you also destroy their history. The rubble that’s left in the wake of an attack is a living memory of what happened there. It embodies loss. The people in Waziristan have to live around this loss, near it, in it. They have to live among ghosts,” says Tahir.

Charlie Foxtrot

I’ve noted on multiple occasions the existence of several databases that try to track US drone strikes.  The three most widely used are the Bureau of Investigate Journalism,  the Long War Journal (Pakistan here and Yemen here) and the New America Foundation, while Forensic Architecture is working on its own online platform (which will break new and vital ground by including Afghanistan and occupied Palestine – long overdue) which it calls UAV: Unmanned Aerial Violence.

I’ve just encountered a new one that compiles data on US drone strikes and targeted killings in Pakistan.  It comes from the University of Massachusetts, and is the creation of Matthew Fricker, Avery Plaw and Brian Glyn Williams, who have published several articles on the subject: see, for example, Plaw and Fricker’s ‘Tracking the Predators: Evaluating the US drone campaign in Pakistan’ [International Studies Perspectives 13 (4) (2012) 344-65] and Williams’s ‘The CIA’s covert predator drone war in Pakistan 2004–2010: the history of an assassination campaign’ [Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 33 (10) (2010)].  Williams also has a book out next month, Predators: the CIA’s drone war on Al Qaeda (Potomac Books).

They call their database UMass DRONEUniversity of Massachusetts Dartmouth Research on Operational Neutralization Events.

That’s right: ‘operational neutralization events’.

It’s no secret that the language used to describe the instruments of military violence is never innocent; some terms trumpet what is being done (‘Predator’, ‘Reaper’) while others seek to muffle the drums of war (‘executive action’, ‘collateral damage’).  Acronyms play their part in this desperate game of Camo-Scrabble too, and most of them have been created by the military; in order to do my work on later modern war I’ve had to learn to speak their language, which includes an alphabet soup of shorthand.

But the spectacular insensitivity of this one truly takes my breath away.  The killing of people thousands of miles away reduced to an ‘operational neutralization event’ for the sake of a clever-clever acronym.

The site, incidentally, includes a page devoted to profiles and even photographs of ‘HVTs [High Value Targets] killed’, which I assume is intended to provide a silent justification for the strikes.  Unlike the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s recent project, the rest remain nameless: ‘collateral damage’?

And my title?  Look it up.

Targeted killings and signature strikes

And so what Tom Junod calls the lethal presidency continues…  though it surely would have done whoever occupied the White House for the next four years.

Much of the discussion of US targeted killing has centred on both its status under international law and on the quasi-judicial armature through which various government agencies, including the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, draw up and adjudicate their kill lists of named individuals who are liable to a ‘personality strike’. But the majority of US targeted killings turn out to be ‘signature strikes’.

Signature strikes were initiated under President George W. Bush, who authorised more permissive rules of engagement in January/February 2008.  According to Eric Schmitt and David Sanger, writing in the New York Times,

[A] series of meetings among President Bush’s national security advisers resulted in a significant relaxation of the rules under which American forces could aim attacks at suspected Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the tribal areas near Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan.

The change, described by senior American and Pakistani officials who would not speak for attribution because of the classified nature of the program, allows American military commanders greater leeway to choose from what one official who took part in the debate called “a Chinese menu” of strike options.

Instead of having to confirm the identity of a suspected militant leader before attacking, this shift allowed American operators to strike convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run, for instance, so long as the risk of civilian casualties is judged to be low.

Under Obama signature strikes increased in frequency, and Micah Zenko notes that the President’s initial reluctance soon yielded to endorsement:

According to Daniel Klaidman, when Obama was first made aware of signature strikes, the CIA’s deputy director clarified: “Mr. President, we can see that there are a lot of military-age males down there, men associated with terrorist activity, but we don’t necessarily know who they are.” Obama reacted sharply, “That’s not good enough for me.” According to one adviser describing the president’s unease: “‘He would squirm … he didn’t like the idea of kill ‘em and sort it out later.’” Like other controversial counterterrorism policies inherited by Obama, it did end up “good enough,” since he allowed the practice to stand in Pakistan, and in April authorized the CIA and JSOC to conduct signature strikes in Yemen as well.

Today signature strikes are frequently triggered not on the fly – a sudden response to an imminent threat – but by a sustained ‘pattern of life’ that arouses the suspicion of distant observers and operators. This depends on persistent surveillance – on full motion video feeds and a suite of algorithms that decompose individual traces and networks – some of which involve a weaponized version of Hägerstrand’s time-geography: see, for example, GeoTime 5 here.

We know even less about the legal authority for these attacks, but Kevin Jon Heller has a new essay on their legality up at the wonderful open access resource that is SSRN [Social Science Research Network]  here, and there are preliminary responses at Opinio Juris here.  This is the abstract:

The vast majority of drone attacks conducted by the U.S. have been signature strikes – strikes that target “groups of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics associated with terrorist activity, but whose identities aren’t known.” In 2010, for example, Reuters reported that of the 500 “militants” killed by drones between 2008 and 2010, only 8% were the kind “top-tier militant targets” or “mid-to-high-level organizers” whose identities could have been known prior to being killed. Similarly, in 2011, a U.S. official revealed that the U.S. had killed “twice as many ‘wanted terrorists’ in signature strikes than in personality strikes.” 

Despite the U.S.’s intense reliance on signature strikes, scholars have paid almost no attention to their legality under international law. This article attempts to fill that lacuna. Section I explains why a signature strike must be justified under either international humanitarian law (IHL) or international human rights law (IHRL) even if the strike was a legitimate act of self-defence under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Section II explores the legality of signature strikes under IHL. It concludes that although some signature strikes clearly comply with the principle of distinction, others either violate that principle as a matter of law or require evidence concerning the target that the U.S. is unlikely to have prior to the attack. Section III then provides a similar analysis for IHRL, concluding that most of the signature strikes permitted by IHL – though certainly not all – would violate IHRL’s insistence that individuals cannot be arbitrarily deprived of their right to life.

The most interesting section (for me) is Kevin’s discussion of ‘evidentiary adequacy’.  Most of the examples he discusses appear to be derived from CIA-directed strikes in Pakistan – drawing on the Stanford/NYU report on Living under drones – and, for that very reason, are remarkably limited. But we know much more about problems of evidence – and inference – from strikes conducted by the US military in Afghanistan…

The first point to make, then, is that targeted killings are also carried out by the US military – indeed, the US Air Force has advertised its ability to put ‘warheads on foreheads‘ – and a strategic research report written by Colonel James Garrett for the US Army provides a rare insight into the process followed by the military in operationalising its Joint Prioritized Effects List (JPEL). Wikileaks has provided further information about JSOC’s Task Force 373 – see, for example, here and here – but the focus of Garrett’s 2008 report is the application of the legal principles of necessity and proportionality (two vital principles in the calculus of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) discussed by Kevin) in counterinsurgency operations.  Garrett describes ‘time-sensitive targeting procedures’ used by the Joint Targeting Working Group to order air strikes on ‘high-value’ Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan, summarised in this diagram:

Notice that the members included representatives from both Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) and the CIA (‘Other Government Agency’, OGA).  This matters because Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) – once commanded by General Stanley McChrystal – and the CIA, even though they have their own ‘kill lists’, often co-operate in targeted killings and are both involved in strikes outside Afghanistan.  Indeed, there have been persistent reports that many of the drone strikes in Pakistan attributed to the CIA – even if directed by the agency – have been carried out by JSOC.  Here is Jeremy Scahill citing a ‘military intelligence source’:

“Some of these strikes are attributed to OGA [Other Government Agency, intelligence parlance for the CIA], but in reality it’s JSOC and their parallel program of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] because they also have access to UAVs. So when you see some of these hits, especially the ones with high civilian casualties, those are almost always JSOC strikes.”

Garrett’s discussion clearly refers to ‘personality strikes’, but – second – the distinction between the evidential/inferential apparatus used for a ‘personality strike’ and for a ‘signature strike’ is by no means clear-cut.  Kate Clark‘s report for the Afghan Analysts Network describes the attempted killing of Muhammad Amin, the Taliban deputy shadow governor of Takhar province.  On 2 September 2010 ISAF announced that a ‘precision air strike’ earlier that morning had killed him and ‘nine other militants’.  The target had been under persistent surveillance from remote platforms – what Petraeus later called ‘days and days of the unblinking eye’ – until two strike aircraft repeatedly bombed the convoy in which he was travelling.  Two attack helicopters were then ‘authorized to re-engage’ the survivors. The victim was not the designated target, however, but Zabet Amanullah, the election agent for a parliamentary candidate; nine other campaign workers died with him. Clark’s painstaking analysis clearly shows that one man had been mistaken for the other, which she attributed to an over-reliance on ‘technical data’ – on remote signatures.  Special Forces had concentrated on tracking cell phone usage and constructing social networks. ‘We were not tracking the names,’ she was told, ‘we were targeting the telephones.’

This is unlikely to be an isolated incident.  Here for example is Gareth Porter:

‘…the link analysis methodology employed by intelligence analysis is incapable of qualitative distinctions among relationships depicted on their maps of links among “nodes.” It operates exclusively on quantitative data – in this case, the number of phone calls to or visits made to an existing JPEL target or to other numbers in touch with that target. The inevitable result is that more numbers of phones held by civilian noncombatants show up on the charts of insurgent networks. If the phone records show multiple links to numbers already on the “kill/capture” list, the individual is likely to be added to the list.’

In the Takhar case, despite informed protests to the contrary, ISAF insisted that they had killed their intended target (added emphases are mine):

PBS/Frontline screened a Stephen Grey/Dan Edge documentary on the Takhar incident last year, Kill/Capture, from which the images below are taken (reworked for my presentation on Lines of descent) and which, like Kate Clark’s remarkable report on which it drew, gave the lie to the ISAF statement; the film included an Afghan Police video of the aftermath of the attack: more here, video here, and transcript here.

Finally, there is a persistent propensity to read hostile intent into innocent actions. In ‘From a view to a kill’ (DOWNLOADS tab) I describe in detail an attack launched on 21 October 2010 near Shahidi Hassas in Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan.  In the early morning a Predator was tasked to track three vehicles travelling down a mountain road, several miles away from a Special Forces unit moving in to search a village for an IED factory.

The Predator crew in Nevada had radio contact with the Special Forces Joint Terminal Attack Controller and they were online with image analysts at the Air Force’s Special Operations Command headquarters in Florida. At every turn the flight crew converted their observations into threat indicators: thus the two SUVs and a pick-up truck became a ‘convoy’, cylindrical objects ‘rifles’, adolescents ‘military-aged males’ and praying a Taliban signifier (‘seriously, that’s what they do’).

After three hours’ surveillance two Kiowa helicopters were called in, and during the attack at least 23 people were killed and more than a dozen wounded.  Only after the smoke had cleared did the horrified Predator crew re-cognize the victims as civilians, including women and children.

I’m including a much fuller account in The everywhere war, based on a close reading of the redacted investigative report by Major General Timothy McHale released under a FOI request (the images above are all taken from my Keynote presentation based on the report), and you can also find David McCloud‘s spine-chilling analysis for the LA Times here.  But even in this abbreviated form it’s clear that the cascade of (mis)interpretations offered by the flight crew mimics Kevin’s list of ‘signatures’, where some would be categorised as ‘possibly adequate’ and others as ‘inadequate’.

All of these materials relate to air strikes inside a war zone, so that their modalities are different – in Afghanistan remote platforms like the Predator and the Reaper are one element in a networked ‘killing machine’, and they work in close concert with ground forces and conventional strike aircraft – and the legal parameters are not as contentious as those that govern ‘extra-territorial’ strikes in Pakistan, Somalia or Yemen (which are Kevin’s primary concern).  But they all raise questions about the evidential and inferential practices that are incorporated into the kill-chain that are clearly capable of wider application and concern.

Those questions raise other issues too.  It seems clear, from the examples I’ve given, that to isolate a single platform (the drone) is to contract the scrutiny of military and paramilitary violence that, under the conditions of late modern war, is typically networked.  And to determine the legal status of targeted killing must not foreclose on wider political and ethical decisions: to accept late modern war’s avowed reflexivity is too often to equate legality with legitimacy.