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Low-Flying Drones

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On 17 March 2011, at approximately 10:45 a.m., a US drone fired at least two missiles at a jirga (meeting of elders) in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. The Daily Telegraph reported later that day, quoting anonymous ‘intelligence sources’, that ‘more than 38 suspected militants were killed’. There has never been an independent and impartial investigation or even official acknowledgment of the strike.

In Pakistan last October I spoke to some of the victims’ relatives. ‘The drones had been flying low all day,’ I was told by Sayed (not his real name), whose cousin, an 18-year-old student, was killed in the strike. After hearing the explosions from nine miles away he made the journey to the bombsite on foot. ‘It was a very scary sight because there were body parts all over the place,’ he said. ‘More than 42 people were gathered at that jirga. It was like pieces of meat lying everywhere and some people you couldn’t even recognise. But I was able to recognise my cousin and send his body home – one of his arms and one leg was missing.’ He said his cousin ‘was very dedicated to his studies and would help his mother after school’.  

A few months after the strike, the New York Times quoted an anonymous US official:

There’s no question the Pakistani and US governments have different views on the outcome of this strike. The fact is that a large group of heavily armed men, some of whom were clearly connected to Al Qaeda and all of whom acted in a manner consistent with AQ-linked militants, were killed.

He didn’t elaborate on what ‘acting in a manner consistent with al-Qaida-linked militants’ might mean. According to Sayed, ‘there was no illegal activity, no planning against Americans or Nato, it was a domestic issue about a chromite mine. The people gathered were Tribal elders, traders and businessmen who worked with, and sold, chromite.’

In a speech on ‘The Ethics and Efficacy of the President’s Counterterrorism Strategy’ he gave in April last year, John Brennan, now the director of the CIA, talked about the ‘surgical precision’ and ‘laser-like focus’ of drones:

one could argue that never before has there been a weapon that allows us to distinguish more effectively between an al-Qa’ida terrorist and innocent civilians.

Sayed told me that it took a team of 12 people four hours to sort through the body parts, try to identify people and gather the dead bodies. ‘We were extremely afraid because three drones continued to fly above and we feared a secondary strike, because it has happened before, where they strike the rescue teams.’ US military slang for a secondary strike aimed at rescue teams, on the logic that first responders must be ‘up to no good’, is a ‘double tap’. When they kill someone, drone operators call it a ‘bugsplat’. For people who escape, the military slang is ‘squirters’ (because it’s assumed they involuntarily urinate in terror).

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner a few years ago erupted into laughter when President Obama joked about his approach to potential suitors for his daughters: ‘I have two words for you, Predator drones.’

‘There’s this perception somehow that we’re just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy-nilly,’ Obama said in January 2012. ‘This is a targeted, focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists.’ But the Washington Post reported last month that

Most attacks now are “signature strikes,” in which targets are selected based on suspicious patterns of activity and the identities of those who could be killed is not known.

The US government skews the civilian casualty figures by considering all military-age males in a strike zone to be militants unless ‘they can be posthumously proved otherwise.’

Sayed says that for the past five or six years drones have been a constant presence in the sky. But the day or two before an attack they fly very low. ‘When this happens,’ he says, ‘everyone in the area is terrified and fears for their lives because they know that a strike is imminent.’ Living under Drones, a report published by Stanford and New York University law schools last autumn, tells a similar story.

There have been 365 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004, 313 of them under Obama, killing as many as 3577 people, including 197 children. Drone strikes in Yemen and Somalia also continue. Sayed told me that day in Pakistan: ‘We just want the mass murder to stop.’

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