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History > 2013 > USA > War > Drones  (I)



Yemen Death

Test Claims of New Drone Policy


December 20, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — In some respects, the drone strike in Yemen last week resembled so many others from recent years: A hail of missiles slammed into a convoy of trucks on a remote desert road, killing at least 12 people.

But this time the trucks were part of a wedding procession, making the customary journey from the groom’s house to the house of the bride.

The Dec. 12 strike by the Pentagon, launched from an American base in Djibouti, killed at least a half-dozen innocent people, according to a number of tribal leaders and witnesses, and provoked a storm of outrage in the country. It also illuminated the reality behind the talk surrounding the Obama administration’s new drone policy, which was announced with fanfare seven months ago.

Although American officials say they are being more careful before launching drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere — and more transparent about the clandestine wars that President Obama has embraced — the strike last week offers a window on the intelligence breakdowns and continuing liability of a targeted killing program that remains almost entirely secret.

Both the Pentagon and the C.I.A. continue to wage parallel drone wars in Yemen, but neither is discussed publicly. A Pentagon spokeswoman declined to comment about the Dec. 12 strike, referring a reporter to a vague news release issued last week by the government of Yemen, written in Arabic.

It remains unclear whom the Americans were trying to kill in the strike, which was carried out in a desolate area southeast of Yemen’s capital, Sana. Witnesses to the strike’s aftermath said that one white pickup truck was destroyed and that two or three other vehicles were seriously damaged. The Associated Press reported Friday that the target of the strike was Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, a militant who is accused of planning a terrorist plot in August that led to the closing of more than a dozen United States Embassies. American officials declined to comment about that report.

At first, the Yemeni government, a close partner with the Obama administration on counterterrorism matters, said that all the dead were militants. But Yemeni officials conceded soon afterward that some civilians had been killed, and they gave 101 Kalashnikov rifles and about 24 million Yemeni riyals (about $110,000) to relatives of the victims as part of a traditional compensation process, a local tribal leader said.

Yemeni government officials and several local tribal leaders said that the dead included several militants with ties to Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, but no one has been able to identify them. Some witnesses who have interviewed victims’ families say they believe no militants were killed at all.

The murky details surrounding the strike raise questions about how rigorously American officials are applying the standards for lethal strikes that Mr. Obama laid out in a speech on May 23 at the National Defense University — and whether such standards are even possible in such a remote and opaque environment.

In the speech, the president said that targeted killing operations were carried out only against militants who posed a “continuing and imminent threat to the American people.” Over the past week, no government official has made a case in public that the people targeted in the strike posed a threat to Americans.

Moreover, the president said in May, no strike can be authorized without “near certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” — a bar he described as “the highest standard we can set.”

At the time, administration officials said that authority over the bulk of drone strikes would gradually shift to the Pentagon from the C.I.A., a move officials said was intended partly to lift the shroud of secrecy from the targeted killing program.

But nearly seven months later, the C.I.A. still carries out a majority of drone strikes in Yemen, with the remote-controlled aircraft taking off from a base in the southern desert of Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon strikes, usually launched from the Djibouti base, are cloaked in as much secrecy as those carried out by the C.I.A.

“The contradictory reports about what happened on Dec. 12 underscore the critical need for more transparency from the Obama administration and Yemeni authorities about these strikes,” said Letta Tayler of Human Rights Watch, who has done extensive research in Yemen about the drone strikes.

The very fact that the drone strike last week targeted an 11-vehicle convoy — a much larger group than Al Qaeda would typically use — suggests that the new American guidelines to rule out civilian casualties may not have been followed in this case.

And the confusion over the victims’ identities raises questions about how the United States government gathers intelligence in such a contested region and with partners whose interests may differ sharply from those of the Obama administration.

The area where the strike occurred, in the central province of Bayda, is almost completely beyond the control of the Yemeni government, and is populated by tribes whose recurring feuds can easily become tied up in the agendas of outsiders.

Over the past two years, the Saudi government — which for decades has used cash to maintain a network of influence in Yemen — has increased its payments to tribal figures in Bayda to recruit informers and deter militants, according to several tribal leaders in the area. This shadowy system appears to contribute to the secretive process of information-gathering that determines targets for drone strikes, a process in which Saudi and Yemeni officials cooperate with Americans.

But Saudi and American interests diverge in important ways in Yemen. Many of the militants there who fight in Al Qaeda’s name are expatriate Saudis whose sole goal is to bring down the Saudi government.

Because of the program’s secrecy, it is impossible to know whether the American dependence on Saudi and Yemeni intelligence results in the killing of militants who pose a danger only to Arab countries.

Some Yemeni officials have also hinted that the timing and target of the drone strike last week may have been influenced by a devastating attack two weeks ago on the Yemeni Defense Ministry in which 52 people were killed, including women, children and doctors at the ministry’s hospital.

That attack ignited a desire for revenge in Yemen’s security establishment and also damaged Al Qaeda’s reputation in Yemen, leaving the group hungry for opportunities to change the subject. Both parties, in other words, may have had reasons to manipulate the facts, both before and after the drone strike.

American officials will not say what they knew about the targets of the strike last week. But in the past, American officials have sometimes appeared to be misinformed about the accidental deaths of Yemeni civilians in drone strikes.

In one example from Aug. 1, a drone strike killed a 28-year-old man who happened to hitch a ride with three men suspected to have been Qaeda members. According to a number of witnesses, relatives and local police officials, the man, Saleh Yaslim Saeed bin Ishaq, was waiting by a gas station late at night when the three men stopped in a Land Cruiser and agreed to give him a ride.

Mr. Ishaq’s ID card and belongings were found in the burned wreckage of the vehicle, and the local police — who confirmed that the other three dead men were wanted militants — said he appeared to have been an innocent person whose presence in the car was accidental.

When contacted about the strike, American officials said they were aware only of the three militants killed. Yet the details of Mr. Ishaq’s death, and an image of his ID card, were published at the time in newspapers and on websites in Yemen.


Shuaib al-Mosawa contributed reporting from Sana, Yemen.

    Yemen Deaths Test Claims of New Drone Policy, NYT, 20.12.2013,






Drone Strikes Are Said to Kill Taliban Chief


November 1, 2013
The New York Times


LONDON — American drones on Friday killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, dealing a major blow to a militant group that has terrorized Pakistan and that tried to set off a car bomb in New York City in 2010, according to Pakistani intelligence officials and militant commanders in the tribal belt.

The death of the leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, is a signal achievement for the covert C.I.A. program at a time when drones themselves have come under criticism from human rights groups and other critics in Pakistan and the United States over the issue of civilian casualties.

While prior reports of Mr. Mehsud’s death have proved false — ultimately serving only to burnish his credentials as an untouchable renegade — within hours there was a strong sense from multiple sources, including two American defense officials, that this time he had not escaped.

“Hakimullah has been martyred,” said a local Taliban commander, speaking by phone from the tribal belt on the condition of anonymity. Pakistani officials backed up that assessment.

The death offered relief to many Pakistanis. In recent years the Pakistani Taliban — who are related to, but operate independently of, the Afghan Taliban — have killed thousands of people, mostly through suicide bombings. The group has drawn the Pakistani Army into a grinding conflict in the tribal belt, and it has destabilized the rest of the country through a relentless campaign of violence.

To the C.I.A., the demise of Mr. Mehsud, a showy man in his mid-30s with a flair for publicity as well as bloodshed, represents a payback of sorts.

He orchestrated a suicide attack on a spy base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 that killed seven American C.I.A. employees, and later trained Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who tried to attack Times Square in May 2010.

Mr. Mehsud had a $5 million United States government bounty on his head. But Mr. Mehsud’s death also comes at a delicate time. Just last week Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, who strenuously opposes drone strikes, met with President Obama at the White House to express that opposition.

Mr. Sharif’s plans to engage in peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban have also been thrown into disarray — and possibly rendered unnecessary — by Friday’s attack. Instead, enraged Taliban commanders have vowed to repay Mr. Mehsud’s killing in bloodshed. “Our revenge will be unprecedented,” Abu Omar, a Taliban commander in North Waziristan, said by phone on Friday.

Mr. Omar said he considered the Pakistani government “fully complicit” in the drone strike. “We know our enemy very well,” he said.

Friday’s strike occurred in Danday Darpa Khel, a small village and well-known militant stronghold in the North Waziristan tribal agency, near the Afghan border.

Pakistani officials said C.I.A.-operated drones had fired at least four missiles at a compound that had been built for Mr. Mehsud about a year ago and that he had used intermittently since then.

One Pakistani official, citing intelligence reports, said that besides Mr. Mehsud, three other people were killed in Friday’s attack, including Mr. Mehsud’s uncle and a bodyguard. Two other people were wounded. The Pakistani official said Abdullah Behar, Mr. Mehsud’s deputy, also had died in the strike. Mr. Behar had just taken over from Latif Mehsud, a militant commander who was detained by American forces in Afghanistan last month.

Caitlin M. Hayden, a White House spokeswoman, said in a written statement that the Obama administration was not in a position to confirm reports of Mr. Mehsud’s death. But if true “this would be serious loss for the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP),” the statement said, using the official title of the Pakistani Taliban.

And while the C.I.A. declined to comment, two American defense officials with knowledge of the strike said the United States was confident that Mr. Mehsud was dead.

The Americans tracking Mr. Mehsud were “nearly certain” of his location ahead of the strike, the American official said, and collected intelligence afterward that led them to conclude he was dead.

Tribesmen said they planned to bury Mr. Mehsud on Saturday, when Mr. Sharif is scheduled to return to Pakistan from London, where he has been holding talks with British officials and the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

Elsewhere in Pakistan, reports of Mr. Mehsud’s death met an uneasy welcome.

Some celebrated the demise of a ruthless militant who was responsible for much suffering and had evaded longstanding Pakistani efforts to capture or kill him.

“All peace-loving Pakistanis should be satisfied that a monster who had unleashed terror in Pakistan and elsewhere is dead,” said Pervez Musharraf, the former military leader, who is under house arrest.

But the interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, described the American action as a calculated blow against the fledgling peace process.

A delegation of three clerics from Punjab Province whom Mr. Sharif handpicked had been scheduled to travel to the tribal belt on Saturday to begin talks with the Pakistani Taliban and two other militant groups. The group has now been stopped from proceeding, a senior security official said.

And on the heated television talk shows, where public opinion is shaped, conservative politicians vigorously condemned the strike.

Imran Khan, the former cricket player whose party rules Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province, said he would seek to block NATO supply lines in retaliation; one of his deputies called for the Pakistani military to attack American drones. “Now, one thing is proven,” Mr. Khan said in a television interview. “Whenever Pakistan has attempted talks, drone attacks have sabotaged them.”

On Twitter, Bilawal Bhutto, a leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, mocked Mr. Khan’s stance, telling him he was “so sorry for your loss.”

Many ordinary Pakistanis, however, voiced fears of a violent backlash led by militants carrying out suicide attacks across the country. Seth Jones, a militancy expert at the RAND Corporation in Washington, said such a reaction was likely.

He noted that just after the C.I.A. killed the Pakistani Taliban’s previous leader, Baitullah Mehsud, in August 2009, the group then put together the plot to explode a bomb in Times Square.

While Mr. Mehsud’s death is a serious blow to the Pakistani Taliban, Mr. Jones said, this time it is more than able to replace him. “This won’t be lethal for the TTP,” he said.

Although the Pakistani leadership regularly condemns drone attacks, a growing body of evidence suggests that it has quietly cooperated with at least some strikes over the years.

Still, after the strike on Friday, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a pro forma condemnation, employing the usual language about the American action’s being a violation of Pakistan’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Hours before the strike, three American congressmen and the American ambassador to Pakistan, Richard G. Olson, met with Sartaj Aziz, the prime minister’s adviser on national security and foreign affairs, in Islamabad. In a statement, the Foreign Ministry said Mr. Aziz had “expressed satisfaction at the upward trajectory in bilateral relations between Pakistan and the United States.”

The leader of the American congressional delegation, Representative Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican, would not explicitly confirm Mr. Mehsud’s death, but in a statement after the strike, he said, “I congratulate the hard work of those protecting us and mourn the loss of those killed in past attacks by this man.”

Declan Walsh reported from London; Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Islamabad, Pakistan; and Ismail Khan from Peshawar, Pakistan. Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington; Matthew Rosenberg from Kabul, Afghanistan; and Salman Masood from Islamabad.

    Drone Strikes Are Said to Kill Taliban Chief, NYT, 1.11.2013,






Drone Issue Hovers More Than Ever,

Even as Strikes Ebb


October 24, 2013
The New York Times


LONDON — For years, American drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal belt have been the subject of what might be termed a wink-and-keep-moving approach between the leaders of both countries.

While in public the missile attacks produced furious denunciations and angry posturing from Pakistani politicians and generals, in private they led to a more muted process: discreet negotiations, secret deals and, in some drone strikes, full Pakistani cooperation.

But now the volume has been turned up, driven by pressure from advocacy groups, news media leaks and public demands in both countries for greater transparency in the drone program — demands that come, paradoxically, at a time when the pace of American drone strikes has reached its lowest ebb in five years.

Even Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate for the education of teenagers, brought up drones when she visited President Obama in the White House this month, warning him that the attacks were “fueling terrorism” in Pakistan.

And during Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Washington this week, the drone issue hovered constantly.

Mr. Sharif came to talk about economic growth, Pakistan’s energy crisis and to show that his country’s fragile democracy was taking root.

In return, the Obama administration offered an olive branch of almost $2.5 billion in mostly military aid.

But as Mr. Sharif flew into Washington, the United Nations released a report saying there was strong evidence that the drone program had Pakistani government approval. Amnesty International investigators asserted that civilian casualties were continuing in drone strikes despite American assurances. And a report in The Washington Post on Wednesday, based on leaked C.I.A. and Pakistani documents and published hours after Mr. Sharif met with Mr. Obama, offered striking new details of Pakistani cooperation on drone strikes.

“Mr. Sharif came to discuss other things. But it seemed as if it was only about drones,” said Adil Najam, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

In some ways, leaders of both countries are being haunted by an ambiguity that they deliberately cultivated for years.

Pakistan’s military leader, Pervez Musharraf, initially allowed drones to operate from Pakistan in 2004, but was given little choice when the Bush administration ramped up the program four years later.

And in some cases, American drone killings suited Pakistani objectives, like the strike that killed the Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

As diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2009 showed, Pakistani military and political leaders cooperated with some of those strikes.

Yet Pakistani leaders dared not start an open debate in their own country because of deep-seated anti-Americanism that was driven by the war in Afghanistan and events like the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

American officials have for the most part kept silent — bound by the legal constraints of a classified C.I.A. program, but also taking advantage of remoteness of the drones’ main stalking grounds: North and South Waziristan, where few independent observers can travel.

Behind the scenes, Americans have been briefing selected Pakistani leaders.

Earlier this year, a senior American official told The New York Times that a small number of Pakistani officials had been “read into” the drone program.

The strikes resulted in a diplomatic charade of sorts. American diplomats sometimes spoke with weariness about being summoned to dressings-down at the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, close to the United States Embassy in Islamabad.

But the drumbeat of revelations about Pakistani knowledge of drone strikes has made that position harder to maintain.

And in the United States, this year has seen a vocal debate about the legal transparency and ethical standards of the drone program. That is a change, because for a long time the drone program’s technological abilities outpaced both the law and diplomacy.

Cameron Munter, a former ambassador to Pakistan, left his job in 2011 after a series of bruising disagreements with the C.I.A. station chief over drone strikes. And lawyers argued over whether the strikes, which pushed on new boundaries of international law, were legal.

Since the beginning of this year, however, a pitched debate has been quietly under way inside the Obama administration, leading to Mr. Obama’s landmark speech on drones in May, in which he promised new limits to the program. Notably, the strike rate has dropped drastically in Pakistan, including during the elections in May.

For all that, few believe the drones will derail talks between the two countries on other major issues: the situation in Afghanistan after American troops leave next year, relations with India, and managing Pakistan’s nuclear security — not to mention rescuing the floundering economy and resolving the energy crisis.

And there is little doubt that, all things being equal, Mr. Sharif would like to end the drone strikes. The questions is how.

On Thursday, the Foreign Ministry rejected suggestions that Mr. Sharif’s government had been complicit in recent drone strikes.

But whatever the truth, those protestations are likely to be met with raised eyebrows from an increasingly skeptical Pakistani public. “Pointing to the U.S. and saying there’s nothing we can do about drones is less and less of an option,” said Mr. Najam, the professor. “As more questions are asked, these uncomfortable answers will have to come forth.”

    Drone Issue Hovers More Than Ever, Even as Strikes Ebb, NYT, 24.10.2013,






The Deaths of Innocents


October 23, 2013
The New York Times


One of the arguments for America’s heavy reliance on drone strikes against suspected extremists has been surgical precision. The weapons are so finely calibrated and precisely targeted, officials argue, that only militants are killed, and that collateral damage to innocent civilians is rare. These claims were always hard to accept, especially given the government’s refusal to provide corroborating data. Now two human rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have marshaled impressive new evidence challenging them.

In separate reports released on Tuesday, Amnesty International examined in detail nine suspected drone strikes in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch looked at six suspected strikes in Yemen. The groups reached a similar conclusion — that dozens of civilians have been killed and that the United States may have violated international law and even committed war crimes.

Mr. Obama took an important step in May when he announced that he would reduce the number of drone strikes, allow only those that posed no threat or virtually no threat to civilians, and issue guidelines codifying the use of force against terrorists, including a provision that they be shown to pose “a continuing, imminent threat to America.” The new reports provide fresh evidence that Mr. Obama’s promised policy changes are long overdue. They also require better answers from the president than the vague responses the White House has so far delivered.

The Pakistan attacks occurred between May 2012 and July 2013 in the border region of North Waziristan, where extremists have havens and American drone strikes have been the most intensive. Amnesty International’s report, based on Pakistani and other sources, says there have been 374 strikes since 2004, including four incidents it investigated in which more than 30 civilians were killed.

In one case, in October 2012, a 68-year-old grandmother was gathering vegetables in a field, her grandchildren nearby, when she was “blasted into pieces” by a drone strike that appeared aimed directly at her. Three months earlier, 18 male laborers, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in a series of drone strikes on the remote village of Zowi Sidgi. The first one struck a tent where the men had gathered for an evening meal; others struck those who came to rescue the injured.

The Human Rights Watch report on Yemen, which examined one attack in 2009 and five in 2012-13, determined that 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians, were killed in those episodes. All except one involved drone strikes; the other involved a cruise missile.

Both President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama have used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the state of war that has existed since as cause to target terrorist suspects. But under international law, parties to armed conflict must minimize harm to civilians in a war zone and observe rules about what is or isn’t a lawful military target.

Hence Mr. Obama’s promised guidelines. But those guidelines have never been made public, so there is no way to judge whether or how well they are being carried out. Similarly, because the government won’t talk about the attacks, there is no way of judging whether the military is honoring Mr. Obama’s pledge that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” before authorizing a strike.

Drones are important to America’s arsenal, not least because they can reach extremists in lawless areas who otherwise could not be captured and because they avoid putting American troops in harm’s way. But they are also creating enemies for the United States among people in Pakistan and Yemen who say the weapons are killing civilians, as well as militants. That alone argues for greater transparency and accountability from the government.

    The Deaths of Innocents, NYT, 23.10.2013,






Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes

Cited in Report


October 22, 2013
The New York Times


LONDON — In the telling of some American officials, the C.I.A. drone campaign in Pakistan has been a triumph with few downsides: In more than 300 missile attacks there since 2008, dozens of Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and the pace of the strikes, which officials frequently describe as “surgical” and “contained,” has dropped sharply over the past year.

But viewed from Miram Shah, the frontier Pakistani town that has become a virtual test laboratory for drone warfare, the campaign has not been the antiseptic salve portrayed in Washington. In interviews over the past year, residents paint a portrait of extended terror and strain within a tribal society caught between vicious militants and the American drones hunting them.

“The drones are like the angels of death,” said Nazeer Gul, a shopkeeper in Miram Shah. “Only they know when and where they will strike.”

Their claims of distress are now being backed by a new Amnesty International investigation that found, among other points, that at least 19 civilians in the surrounding area of North Waziristan had been killed in just two of the drone attacks since January 2012 — a time when the Obama administration has held that strikes have been increasingly accurate and free of mistakes.

The study is to be officially released on Tuesday along with a separate Human Rights Watch report on American drone strikes in Yemen, as the issue is again surfacing on other fronts. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a vocal critic of the drone campaign, is to meet with President Obama in the White House. And on Friday, the drone debate is scheduled to spill onto the floor of the United Nations, whose officials have recently published reports that attacked America’s lack of transparency over drones.

But nowhere has the issue played out more directly than in Miram Shah, in northwestern Pakistan. It has become a fearful and paranoid town, dealt at least 13 drone strikes since 2008, with an additional 25 in adjoining districts — more than any other urban settlement in the world.

Even when the missiles do not strike, buzzing drones hover day and night, scanning the alleys and markets with roving high-resolution cameras.

That is because their potential quarry is everywhere in Miram Shah — Islamist fighters with long hair, basketball shoes and AK-47 rifles who roam the streets, fraternize in restaurants and, in some cases, even direct traffic in the central bazaar. The men come from an array of militant groups that take shelter in Waziristan and nearby, including Al Qaeda and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

The militants’ commanders, however, are more elusive. Some turn up at the town’s phone exchange, to place ransom calls to the families of kidnapping victims who have been snatched from across Pakistan. Others run Islamic-style courts, filling the place of the virtually invisible government system. Still others stay completely out of sight, knowing they are being sought by the C.I.A.

In theory, the Pakistani security forces should be in charge. A sprawling base, with a long airstrip that is home to a fleet of American-made Cobra helicopter gunships, dominates the northern part of the town. Military engineers have just completed a new road that leads to the Afghan border, 10 miles to the north.

But apart from sporadic exchanges of fire with the militants, the soldiers are largely confined to their base, leaving residents to fend for themselves.

Unusually for the overall American drone campaign, the strikes in the area mostly occur in densely populated neighborhoods. The drones have hit a bakery, a disused girls’ school and a money changers’ market, residents say. One strike occurred in Matches Colony, a neighborhood named after an abandoned match factory that is now frequented by Uzbek militants.

While the strike rate has dropped drastically in recent months, the constant presence of circling drones — and accompanying tension over when, or whom, they will strike — is a crushing psychological burden for many residents.

Sales of sleeping tablets, antidepressants and medicine to treat anxiety have soared, said Hajji Gulab Jan Dawar, a pharmacist in the town bazaar. Women were particularly troubled, he said, but men also experienced problems. “We sell them this,” he said, producing a packet of pills that purported to treat erectile dysfunction under the brand name Rocket.

Despite everything, a semblance of normal life continues in Miram Shah. On market day, farmers herding goats and carrying vegetables stream in from the surrounding countryside. The bustling bazaar has clothes and food and gun shops.

Communication, however, is difficult. The army disabled the cellphone networks, so residents scramble to higher ground to capture stray signals from Afghan networks. And Internet cafes were shut, on orders from the Taliban, after complaints that young men were watching pornography and racy movies.

That ban distressed families that use the Internet to communicate with relatives working in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and across the Persian Gulf states. Emigrant remittances are a cornerstone of the local economy.

On the edge of town, where buildings melt into low, tree-studded hills, young boys play soccer on the banks of the Tochi River. As in so many other countries, some youngsters wear the jersey of the English soccer club Manchester United.

But the veneer of normality is easily, and frequently, shattered. Every week the streets empty for a day as army supply trucks rumble through. The curfew is strictly enforced: several children and mentally ill residents who have strayed outside have been shot dead, several residents said.

In the aftermath of drone strikes, things get worse. Many civilians hide at home, fearing masked vigilantes with the Ittehad-e-Mujahedeen Khorasan, a militant enforcement unit that hunts for American spies. The unit casts a wide net, and the suspects it hauls in are usually tortured and summarily executed.

Journalists face particular risks. In February, gunmen killed Malik Mumtaz Khan, the president of the local press club. Some blame Pakistani spies, while others say the Taliban are responsible.

Meanwhile state services have virtually collapsed. At the local hospital, corrupt officials are reselling supplies of medicine and fuel in the town market, doctors said. At the government high school, pupils are paying bribes to cheat in public exams — and threatening teachers with Taliban reprisals if they resist, one teacher said.

The collapse has created business opportunities for Taliban spouses: one commander’s wife is a gynecologist, while an Uzbek woman works as a homeopath, the pharmacist said.

For some residents, the only option is to leave. Hajji, a 50-year-old businessman, moved his family to the port city of Karachi in 2011. His family was scared by militant pamphlets that threatened to execute American spies, he said, and the militants prevented his children from obtaining polio vaccinations.

“They think vaccinators are spies who are looking for militant hide-outs,” he said during an interview in Karachi, agreeing to be identified only by part of his name.

For a number of outraged Pakistani officials, the drone debate has centered on claims of civilian casualties, despite American assurances that they have been few. In defending the drone strikes, which have sharply decreased this year, American officials note that the operations have killed many dangerous militants. One major militant killed this year was the Pakistani Taliban deputy, Wali ur-Rehman. He was killed at Chashma village, just outside Miram Shah, in May.

Still, in a speech announcing changes to the drone program in May, Mr. Obama admitted that mistakes had been made. Civilian deaths from drone strikes will haunt him, and others in the American chain of command, for “as long as we live,” he said.

He added, “There must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured.”

But the new Amnesty International report, which examines the 45 known strikes in North Waziristan between January 2012 and August 2013, asserts that in several cases drones killed civilians indiscriminately.

Last October, it says, American missiles killed a 68-year-old woman named Mamana Bibi as she picked vegetables in a field close to her grandchildren. In July 2012, 18 laborers, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed near the Afghan border.

Ms. Bibi’s son, Rafiq ur-Rehman, and two of her injured grandchildren are due to travel to the United States next week to speak about their experiences.

“The killing of Mamana Bibi appears to be a clear case of extrajudicial execution,” said Mustafa Qadri, the report’s author, in an interview. “It is extremely difficult to see how she could have been mistaken for a militant, let alone an imminent threat to the U.S.”


Declan Walsh reported from London,

and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud from Miram Shah, Pakistan.

Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting from Karachi, Pakistan.

        Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report, NYT, 22.10.2013,






U.S. Drone Kills 2, Yemen Officials Say


August 10, 2013
The New York Times


SANA, Yemen — An American drone strike killed two people believed to be militants in southern Yemen on Saturday, military officials here said, making it the ninth such strike in two weeks.

The strike, in Lahj Province, wounded two other suspected militants, one of them seriously, the officials said. The four had been traveling in a car in the area of Askariya. The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the news media, said it was the first time an American drone had fired on this area of Lahj.

Nine strikes in Yemen in the past two weeks have been attributed to American drones. Those attacks have killed 38 suspected militants, Yemeni officials have said.

While the United States acknowledges its drone program in Yemen, it does not usually talk about individual strikes.

Washington recently flew diplomatic staff members out of Sana, Yemen’s capital, over fears of a terrorist attack. The United States, which is set to reopen diplomatic posts that were temporarily closed in recent days throughout parts of Africa and the Middle East amid a major terrorism alert, will keep its embassy in Yemen closed.

The Yemeni defense minister, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, met Saturday with the United States’ deputy ambassador, Karen Sasahara, and two American security officials based in Yemen to discuss security.

The United States considers the Yemeni branch of Al Qaeda, known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, to be the most dangerous threat to the United States of the various Qaeda-allied groups.

    U.S. Drone Kills 2, Yemen Officials Say, NYT, 10.8.2013,






Judge Challenges White House Claims

on Authority in Drone Killings


July 19, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A federal judge on Friday sharply and repeatedly challenged the Obama administration’s claim that courts have no power over targeted drone killings of American citizens overseas.

Judge Rosemary M. Collyer of the United States District Court here was hearing the government’s request to dismiss a lawsuit filed by relatives of three Americans killed in two drone strikes in Yemen in 2011: Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical cleric who had joined Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who had no involvement in terrorism; and Samir Khan, a 30-year-old North Carolina man who had become a propagandist for the same Qaeda branch.

Judge Collyer said she was “troubled” by the government’s assertion that it could kill American citizens it designated as dangerous, with no role for courts to review the decision.

“Are you saying that a U.S. citizen targeted by the United States in a foreign country has no constitutional rights?” she asked Brian Hauck, a deputy assistant attorney general. “How broadly are you asserting the right of the United States to target an American citizen? Where is the limit to this?”

She provided her own answer: “The limit is the courthouse door.”

The case comes to court at a time when both the legality and wisdom of the administration’s use of targeted killing as a counterterrorism measure have come under question in Congress and among the public. The debate, including the first public discussions of drone strikes by Congress and a major speech by President Obama on May 23, has raised the possibility of a role for judges in approving the addition of Americans to the so-called kill list of suspected terrorists or in signing off on strikes.

Mr. Hauck acknowledged that Americans targeted overseas do have rights, but he said they could not be enforced in court either before or after the Americans were killed. Judges, he suggested, have neither the expertise nor the tools necessary to assess the danger posed by terrorists, the feasibility of capturing them or when and how they should be killed.

“Courts don’t have the apparatus to analyze” such issues, so they must be left to the executive branch, with oversight by Congress, Mr. Hauck said. But he argued, as Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has in the past, that there are multiple “checks” inside the executive branch to make sure such killings are legally justified.

Judge Collyer did not buy it. “No, no, no,” she said. “The executive is not an effective check on the executive.” She bridled at the notion that judges were incapable of properly assessing complex national security issues, declaring, “You’d be surprised at the amount of understanding other parts of the government think judges have.”

Despite Judge Collyer’s evident frustration with parts of the Obama administration’s stance, legal experts say the plaintiffs face an uphill battle. They are Nasser al-Awlaki, father and grandfather of two of the men killed, who wrote about their deaths on Wednesday in The New York Times, and Sarah Khan, mother of Samir Khan. Only Anwar al-Awlaki was deliberately targeted, officials say; Mr. Khan was killed in the same strike, while Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed by mistake in a strike officials say was intended for a suspected terrorist who turned out not to be present.

The relatives filed suit late last year, but not against the military and the Central Intelligence Agency, which carried out the strikes, because such lawsuits usually fail on technical grounds. Instead, they sued four officials in charge of the agencies at the time: David H. Petraeus, the former C.I.A. director; Leon E. Panetta, the former defense secretary; and two successive heads of the Joint Special Operations Command, Adm. William H. McRaven and Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Votel.

The lawsuit is known as a Bivens action, after a 1971 Supreme Court ruling that permitted citizens to sue government officials personally under some circumstances for violating their constitutional rights.

The government is asking that the lawsuit be dismissed on several grounds. Mr. Hauck said decisions about targeted killing should be reserved to the “political” branches of government, the executive and legislative, not the judiciary. In addition, he said, allowing a lawsuit against top national security officials to proceed would set a dangerous and disruptive precedent.

“We don’t want these counterterrorism officials distracted by the threat of litigation,” he said.

Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union, representing the plaintiffs, argued that the claims had extraordinary importance because they involved the deaths of Americans at the government’s hands. “The entire goal of Bivens is deterrence,” to discourage officials from infringing the rights of Americans, Ms. Shamsi said.

“The court still has a role to play in adjudicating whether or not a citizen’s rights have been violated,” she said.

At one point, when Mr. Hauck referred to the Constitution, Judge Collyer, 67, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and also serves on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, interrupted to note that the Constitution prescribed three branches of government, and that she represented one of them.

“The one that’s normally yelled at and not given any money,” she said, sounding as if she was not entirely joking. “The most important thing about the United States is that it’s a nation of laws.”

The judge said that she believed the case raised difficult questions and that she would “do a lot of reading and studying and thinking and try to reach a decision as soon as I can.”

    Judge Challenges White House Claims on Authority in Drone Killings,
    NYT, 19.7.2013,






The Drone That Killed My Grandson


July 17, 2013
The New York Times


SANA, Yemen — I LEARNED that my 16-year-old grandson, Abdulrahman — a United States citizen — had been killed by an American drone strike from news reports the morning after he died.

The missile killed him, his teenage cousin and at least five other civilians on Oct. 14, 2011, while the boys were eating dinner at an open-air restaurant in southern Yemen.

I visited the site later, once I was able to bear the pain of seeing where he sat in his final moments. Local residents told me his body was blown to pieces. They showed me the grave where they buried his remains. I stood over it, asking why my grandchild was dead.

Nearly two years later, I still have no answers. The United States government has refused to explain why Abdulrahman was killed. It was not until May of this year that the Obama administration, in a supposed effort to be more transparent, publicly acknowledged what the world already knew — that it was responsible for his death.

The attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., said only that Abdulrahman was not “specifically targeted,” raising more questions than he answered.

My grandson was killed by his own government. The Obama administration must answer for its actions and be held accountable. On Friday, I will petition a federal court in Washington to require the government to do just that.

Abdulrahman was born in Denver. He lived in America until he was 7, then came to live with me in Yemen. He was a typical teenager — he watched “The Simpsons,” listened to Snoop Dogg, read “Harry Potter” and had a Facebook page with many friends. He had a mop of curly hair, glasses like me and a wide, goofy smile.

In 2010, the Obama administration put Abdulrahman’s father, my son Anwar, on C.I.A. and Pentagon “kill lists” of suspected terrorists targeted for death. A drone took his life on Sept. 30, 2011.

The government repeatedly made accusations of terrorism against Anwar — who was also an American citizen — but never charged him with a crime. No court ever reviewed the government’s claims nor was any evidence of criminal wrongdoing ever presented to a court. He did not deserve to be deprived of his constitutional rights as an American citizen and killed.

Early one morning in September 2011, Abdulrahman set out from our home in Sana by himself. He went to look for his father, whom he hadn’t seen for years. He left a note for his mother explaining that he missed his father and wanted to find him, and asking her to forgive him for leaving without permission.

A couple of days after Abdulrahman left, we were relieved to receive word that he was safe and with cousins in southern Yemen, where our family is from. Days later, his father was targeted and killed by American drones in a northern province, hundreds of miles away. After Anwar died, Abdulrahman called us and said he was going to return home.

That was the last time I heard his voice. He was killed just two weeks after his father.

A country that believes it does not even need to answer for killing its own is not the America I once knew. From 1966 to 1977, I fulfilled a childhood dream and studied in the United States as a Fulbright scholar, earning my doctorate and then working as a researcher and assistant professor at universities in New Mexico, Nebraska and Minnesota.

I have fond memories of those years. When I first came to the United States as a student, my host family took me camping by the ocean and on road trips to places like Yosemite, Disneyland and New York — and it was wonderful.

After returning to Yemen, I used my American education and skills to help my country, serving as Yemen’s minister of agriculture and fisheries and establishing one of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning, Ibb University. Abdulrahman used to tell me he wanted to follow in my footsteps and go back to America to study. I can’t bear to think of those conversations now.

After Anwar was put on the government’s list, but before he was killed, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights represented me in a lawsuit challenging the government’s claim that it could kill anyone it deemed an enemy of the state.

The court dismissed the case, saying that I did not have standing to sue on my son’s behalf and that the government’s targeted killing program was outside the court’s jurisdiction anyway.

After the deaths of Abdulrahman and Anwar, I filed another lawsuit, seeking answers and accountability. The government has argued once again that its targeted killing program is beyond the reach of the courts. I find it hard to believe that this can be legal in a constitutional democracy based on a system of checks and balances.

The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn’t it at least have to explain why?

Nasser al-Awlaki, the founder of Ibb University and former president of Sana University, served as Yemen’s minister of agriculture and fisheries from 1988 to 1990.

    The Drone That Killed My Grandson, NYT, 17.7.2013,






Drone Attack Kills 17

in Pakistan’s Waziristan Region


July 3, 2013
The New York Times


PESHAWAR, Pakistan — A U.S. drone strike killed at least 17 people in Pakistan's restive border region early on Wednesday, Pakistani security officials said, in the biggest such attack this year, and the second since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took office.

Most of those killed were fighters for the Haqqani network, according to three Taliban commanders and security officials.

Two missiles hit a house near the main market in Miranshah, the provincial capital of the tribal region of North Waziristan. The region is considered a Taliban stronghold.

Many were wounded in the attack, local tribesman Kaleemullah Dawar said, but rescuers delayed for fear of falling victim to a second attack, a common tactic with drone strikes.

"It was not possible for the people to start rescue work for some time, as the drones were still flying over the area," Dawar said.

Sharif, who won elections in May, has called for an immediate end to U.S. drone strikes on the grounds that they are a breach of Pakistan's sovereignty. The U.S. says it is attacking militants in areas the Pakistani army cannot reach.

A drone strike in May killed the Pakistani Taliban's second-in-command and six others.


(Writing by Syed Hassan;

Editing by Katharine Houreld and Clarence Fernandez)

    Drone Attack Kills 17 in Pakistan’s Waziristan Region, NYT, 3.7.2013,






Drone Strike Kills at Least 4 in Pakistan


May 29, 2013
The New York Times


PESHAWAR, Pakistan — At least four people were killed and four others injured in a drone attack on a house near the Pakistani-Afghan border early Wednesday, residents in the region said.

Tuesday’s strike came just six days after President Obama unveiled his new drone policy, curtailing their use to limit civilian casualties and moving oversight of the program from the C.I.A. to the Pentagon — although the C.I.A. is expected to maintain control of strikes in Pakistan. U.S. officials do not comment on specific attacks, but the C.I.A. has carried out hundreds of drone strikes in Pakistan that have killed thousands of people.

Residents reached by phone in Miramshah, North Waziristan, said the drone attack happened around 3 a.m., hitting a house in nearby Chashma Pull and killing four people. Local militants immediately cordoned off the area and retrieved the dead and the wounded, one resident said.

A tribal administration official in Peshawar responsible for security in Pakistan’s federally administered tribal regions said at least three people apparently died in the attack.

“This is an initial report,” said the official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. “We don’t know the identities of the dead and wounded but so far it emerges that all were tribal people. We have not heard of any foreigner having been killed or wounded so far.”

Authorities in the militant-infested North Waziristan region often have to rely on local tribal contacts for information.

Wednesday’s strike, coming just days before the newly elected government in Pakistan takes over, suggests that Washington is not likely to completely halt such attacks, which it sees as an effective tactic in rooting out Al Qaeda from the tribal region along the Pakistani-Afghan border.

The incoming prime minister, Mian Nawaz Sharif, has said he plans to engage the United States in “serious” negotiations to put an end to drone strikes, which Pakistan says violate its sovereignty

The drone strike also came the same day that members of the provincial assembly of the northwestern Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province are scheduled to take their oaths of office. A majority of the incoming provincial assembly is deeply opposed to the use of drone strikes by United States, with opposition to the strikes and military offensives by the Pakistani army in the restive tribal regions a cornerstone of election campaigns of several political and religious parties in the runup to the May 11 general election.

The political party of Imran Khan, the former world-famous cricketer turned politician, will lead a coalition government in Khyber-Pakhtunkwa province. In October last year, Mr. Khan led a rally of thousands of supporters, party workers and a contingent of American peace activists to the edges of the tribal region in protest to drone strikes.


Salman Masood contributed

reporting from Islamabad, Pakistan.

    Drone Strike Kills at Least 4 in Pakistan, NYT, 29.5.2013,






Obama’s Forgotten Victims


May 22, 2013
The New York Times


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — WHEN Barack Obama ran for president of the United States in 2008, his message of hope and change gave us, the citizens of lesser republics, hope that he would close Guantánamo and shut down programs where extrajudicial killing or bribing foreign heads of state with American taxpayer dollars had become standard practice.

Instead, a few days after his inaugural address, a C.I.A.-operated drone dropped Hellfire missiles on Fahim Qureishi’s home in North Waziristan, killing seven of his family members and severely injuring Fahim. He was just 13 years old and left with only one eye, and shrapnel in his stomach.

There was no militant present. A recent book revealed that Mr. Obama was informed about the erroneous target but still did not offer any form of redress, because in 2009, the United States did not acknowledge the existence of its own drone program in Pakistan.

Sadaullah Wazir was another victim of hope and change. His house in North Waziristan was targeted on Sept. 7, 2009. The strike killed four members of his family. Sadaullah was 14 years old when it happened. A few days after the attack, he woke up in a Peshawar hospital to the news that both of his legs had to be amputated and he would never be able to walk again. He died last year, without receiving justice or even an apology. Once again, no militant was present or killed.

Mr. Obama is scheduled to deliver a major speech on drones at the National Defense University today. He is likely to tell his fellow Americans that drones are precise and effective at killing militants.

But his words will be little consolation for 8-year-old Nabila, who, on Oct. 24, had just returned from school and was playing in a field outside her house with her siblings and cousins while her grandmother picked flowers. At 2:30 p.m., a Hellfire missile came out of the sky and struck right in front of Nabila. Her grandmother was badly burned and succumbed to her injuries; Nabila survived with severe burns and shrapnel wounds in her shoulder.

Nabila doesn’t know who Mr. Obama is, or where the Hellfire missile that killed her grandmother came from. As she grows older, she will learn about the idea of justice. But how will she be able to grasp it if she herself has been denied this basic right?

The civilian victims of drone strikes have not been let down just by Mr. Obama. Their own government is equally culpable; Pakistan has been complicit in several strikes.

I have brought litigation on behalf of more than 100 civilian victims and their families before the provincial High Court in Peshawar and lower courts in Islamabad, the capital, to demand that the Pakistani government exercise its duty to protect the lives of its citizens.

A growing number of civilian casualties has raised the question of the efficacy of drone strikes in killing militants. Clearly Fahim, Sadaullah and Nabila were not menaces to America who had to be attacked in a brutal and lawless manner. According to the revelations in a recent McClatchy News Service article, the C.I.A. has no idea who is actually being killed in most of the strikes. Despite this acknowledgment, the drone program in Pakistan still continues without any Congressional oversight or accountability.

The burden of accountability is not exclusively on the American side. It is widely believed that the Pakistani government not only gives tacit consent for such strikes but also provides ground intelligence to the United States.

In response to our lawsuit, the Pakistani government has claimed that there is no written, verbal or tacit consent for such strikes nor any intelligence sharing. It cites two joint parliamentary resolutions declaring drone strikes a counterproductive violation of sovereignty and a request to stop such strikes. But Pakistan’s former military ruler, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, painted a different picture in a CNN interview in April, admitting that he consented to a number of strikes during his tenure as president.

In a recent landmark ruling on one of our drone lawsuits, the Peshawar High Court categorically ordered Pakistan’s government to end its duplicity and defend its citizens’ right to life by demanding that America halt drone strikes and compensate civilian victims.

People in Waziristan do not expect much of their government, but they at the very least deserve justice and a right to live.

If Mr. Obama will not end the strikes that are killing innocent Pakistanis, it is the duty of our government to stop America’s extrajudicial campaign of killing on our territory, just as it is the Pakistani government’s duty to eliminate the menace of terrorism from the country — but within the bounds of law and adhering to the principles of due process.


Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a lawyer

and former special prosecutor

for Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau

is co-founder and legal director

of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights,

a legal aid organization.

    Obama’s Forgotten Victims, NYT, 22.5.2013,






The Trouble With Drones


April 7, 2013
The New York Times


The Obama administration has floated a plan to shift drone operations from the Central Intelligence Agency to the military. This is supposed to make targeted killings of suspected terrorists more transparent and accountable, but so far it looks as if it would be a marginal improvement.

Popular discontent with the drone program has built slowly as drone missions grew from 50 strikes under President George W. Bush to more than 400 under President Obama, and it dawned on Americans that remote-controlled killing had become a permanent fixture of national policy. The issue came to a head when Mr. Obama named John Brennan, who created his drone policy as chief counterterrorism adviser, to be C.I.A. director and critics raised legal, moral and practical objections. Among the complaints: an American citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in Yemen in 2011 without due process; too many civilians have become collateral damage; and drone strikes are increasingly projecting a harmful, violent image of American foreign policy.

Right now, the Pentagon handles drones in Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen, where the C.I.A. runs a separate program. In theory, the public might know more about the drone program if it was shifted more to the Pentagon, which, operating under different laws, has more flexibility to be transparent than the C.I.A. and is more circumscribed by international law.

But most drone strikes have been carried out by the C.I.A. in Pakistan — 365 versus 45 in Yemen and a handful in Somalia — and officials say those will continue. Hence, the proposed change would mean scant improvement in the rules that govern drone strikes. The problem would be similar if more drone operations were shifted to the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, which is among the least transparent elements of the military.

The biggest impediment to change is that the C.I.A.’s role enables a fiction that has suited the United States, which refuses to acknowledge striking militants in the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, and Pakistan, which denounces American strikes but actually allows them. As Mark Mazzetti explained in The Times on Sunday, Pakistan’s intelligence service has permitted drone strikes in certain tribal areas under the terms of a secret deal struck with the C.I.A in 2004. If American military forces hit Pakistan, it could be an act of war. But the intelligence agencies operate in a netherworld where the same rules don’t apply.

Mr. Obama has promised to break down the wall of secrecy and work with Congress to create a lasting legal framework for drone strikes. It is essential that the administration not drag its feet so it can maintain maximum authority with minimum oversight. Among the proposals it should consider is some form of judicial review, like the special court that approves wiretaps for intelligence gathering, before it kills American citizens.

    The Trouble With Drones, NYT, 7.4.2013,






How a U.S. Citizen

Came to Be in America’s Cross Hairs


March 9, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — One morning in late September 2011, a group of American drones took off from an airstrip the C.I.A. had built in the remote southern expanse of Saudi Arabia. The drones crossed the border into Yemen, and were soon hovering over a group of trucks clustered in a desert patch of Jawf Province, a region of the impoverished country once renowned for breeding Arabian horses.

A group of men who had just finished breakfast scrambled to get to their trucks. One was Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand preacher, born in New Mexico, who had evolved from a peddler of Internet hatred to a senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. Another was Samir Khan, another American citizen who had moved to Yemen from North Carolina and was the creative force behind Inspire, the militant group’s English-language Internet magazine.

Two of the Predator drones pointed lasers on the trucks to pinpoint the targets, while the larger Reapers took aim. The Reaper pilots, operating their planes from thousands of miles away, readied for the missile shots, and fired.

It was the culmination of years of painstaking intelligence work, intense deliberation by lawyers working for President Obama and turf fights between the Pentagon and the C.I.A., whose parallel drone wars converged on the killing grounds of Yemen. For what was apparently the first time since the Civil War, the United States government had carried out the deliberate killing of an American citizen as a wartime enemy and without a trial.

Eighteen months later, despite the Obama administration’s effort to keep it cloaked in secrecy, the decision to hunt and kill Mr. Awlaki has become the subject of new public scrutiny and debate, touched off by the nomination of John O. Brennan, Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, to be head of the C.I.A.

The leak last month of an unclassified Justice Department “white paper” summarizing the administration’s abstract legal arguments — prepared months after the Awlaki and Khan killings amid an internal debate over how much to disclose — has ignited demands for even greater transparency, culminating last week in a 13-hour Senate filibuster that temporarily delayed Mr. Brennan’s confirmation. Some wondered aloud: If the president can order the assassination of Americans overseas, based on secret intelligence, what are the limits to his power?

This account of what led to the Awlaki strike, based on interviews with three dozen current and former legal and counterterrorism officials and outside experts, fills in new details of the legal, intelligence and military challenges faced by the Obama administration in what proved to be a landmark episode in American history and law. It highlights the perils of a war conducted behind a classified veil, relying on missile strikes rarely acknowledged by the American government and complex legal justifications drafted for only a small group of officials to read.

The missile strike on Sept. 30, 2011, that killed Mr. Awlaki — a terrorist leader whose death lawyers in the Obama administration believed to be justifiable — also killed Mr. Khan, though officials had judged he was not a significant enough threat to warrant being specifically targeted. The next month, another drone strike mistakenly killed Mr. Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who had set off into the Yemeni desert in search of his father. Within just two weeks, the American government had killed three of its own citizens in Yemen. Only one had been killed on purpose.


An Evolving Threat

By the time the missile found him, Mr. Awlaki, 40, had been under the scrutiny of American officials for more than a decade. He first came under F.B.I. investigation in 1999 because of associations with militants and was questioned after the 2001 terrorist attacks about his contacts with three of the hijackers at his mosques in San Diego and Virginia. But at other times, presenting himself as a moderate bridge-builder, he gave interviews to the national news media, preached at the Capitol in Washington and attended a breakfast with Pentagon officials.

In 2002, after leaving the United States for good, he endorsed the notion that the land of his birth was at war with Islam. In London, and then in Yemen, where he was imprisoned for 18 months with American encouragement, Mr. Awlaki inched steadily closer to a full embrace of terrorist violence. His eloquent, English-language exhortations to jihad turned up repeatedly on the computers of young plotters of violence arrested in Britain, Canada and the United States.

By 2008, said Philip Mudd, then a top F.B.I. counterterrorism official, Mr. Awlaki “was cropping up as a radicalizer — not in just a few investigations, but in what seemed to be every investigation.”

In November 2009, when Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist, was charged with opening fire at Fort Hood in Texas and killing 13 people, Mr. Awlaki finally found the global fame he had long appeared to court. Investigators quickly discovered that the major had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki, though the cleric’s replies had been cautious and noncommittal. But four days after the shootings, the cleric removed any doubt about where he stood.

“Nidal Hassan is a hero,” he wrote on his widely read blog. “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”

As chilling as the message was, it was still speech protected by the First Amendment. American intelligence agencies intensified their focus on Mr. Awlaki, intercepting communications that showed the cleric’s growing clout in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a Yemen-based affiliate of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network.

On Dec. 24, 2009, in the second American strike in Yemen in eight days, missiles hit a meeting of leaders of the affiliate group. News accounts said one target was Mr. Awlaki, who was falsely reported to have been killed.

In fact, other top officials of the group were the strike’s specific targets, and Mr. Awlaki’s death would have been collateral damage — legally defensible as a death incidental to the military aim. As dangerous as Mr. Awlaki seemed, he was proved to be only an inciter; counterterrorism analysts did not yet have incontrovertible evidence that he was, in their language, “operational.”

That would soon change. The next day, a 23-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried and failed to blow up an airliner as it approached Detroit. The would-be underwear bomber told F.B.I. agents that after he went to Yemen and tracked down Mr. Awlaki, his online hero, the cleric had discussed “martyrdom and jihad” with him, approved him for a suicide mission, helped him prepare a martyrdom video and directed him to detonate his bomb over United States territory, according to court documents.

In his initial 50-minute interrogation on Dec. 25, 2009, before he stopped speaking for a month, Mr. Abdulmutallab said he had been sent by a terrorist named Abu Tarek, although intelligence agencies quickly found indications that Mr. Awlaki was probably involved. When Mr. Abdulmutallab resumed cooperating with interrogators in late January, an official said, he admitted that “Abu Tarek” was Mr. Awlaki. With the Nigerian’s statements, American officials had witness confirmation that Mr. Awlaki was clearly a direct plotter, no longer just a dangerous propagandist.

“He had been on the radar all along, but it was Abdulmutallab’s testimony that really sealed it in my mind that this guy was dangerous and that we needed to go after him,” said Dennis C. Blair, then director of national intelligence.


A Legal Quandary

David Barron and Martin Lederman had a problem. As lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, it had fallen to them to declare whether deliberately killing Mr. Awlaki, despite his citizenship, would be lawful, assuming it was not feasible to capture him. The question raised a complex tangle of potential obstacles under both international and domestic law, and Mr. Awlaki might be located at any moment.

According to officials familiar with the deliberations, the lawyers threw themselves into the project and swiftly completed a short memorandum. It preliminarily concluded, based on the evidence available at the time, that Mr. Awlaki was a lawful target because he was participating in the war with Al Qaeda and also because he was a specific threat to the country. The overlapping reasoning justified a strike either by the Pentagon, which generally operated within the Congressional authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda, or by the C.I.A., a civilian agency which generally operated within a “national self-defense” framework deriving from a president’s security powers.

They also analyzed other bodies of law to see whether they would render a strike impermissible, concluding that they did not. For example, the Yemeni government had granted permission for airstrikes on its soil as long as the United States did not acknowledge its role, so such strikes would not violate Yemeni sovereignty.

And while the Constitution generally requires judicial process before the government may kill an American, the Supreme Court has held that in some contexts — like when the police, in order to protect innocent bystanders, ram a car to stop a high-speed chase — no prior permission from a judge is necessary; the lawyers concluded that the wartime threat posed by Mr. Awlaki qualified as such a context, and so his constitutional rights did not bar the government from killing him without a trial.

But as months passed, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman grew uneasy. They told colleagues there were issues they had not adequately addressed, particularly after reading a legal blog that focused on a statute that bars Americans from killing other Americans overseas. In light of the gravity of the question and with more time, they began drafting a second, more comprehensive memo, expanding and refining their legal analysis and, in an unusual step, researching and citing dense thickets of intelligence reports supporting the premise that Mr. Awlaki was plotting attacks.

Their labors played out against the backdrop of how some of their predecessors under President George W. Bush had become defined by their once-secret memos asserting a nearly unlimited view of executive authority, like that a president’s wartime powers allowed him to defy Congressional statutes limiting torture and surveillance.

Indeed, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman had produced a definitive denunciation of such reasoning, co-writing a book-length, two-part Harvard Law Review essay in 2008 concluding that the Bush team’s theory of presidential powers that could not be checked by Congress was “an even more radical attempt to remake the constitutional law of war powers than is often recognized.” Then a senator, Mr. Obama had called the Bush theory that a president could bypass a statute requiring warrants for surveillance “illegal and unconstitutional.”

Now, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman were being asked whether President Obama’s counterterrorism team could take its own extraordinary step, notwithstanding potential obstacles like the overseas-murder statute. Enacted as part of a 1994 crime bill, it makes no exception on its face for national security threats. By contrast, the main statute banning murder in ordinary, domestic contexts is far more nuanced and covers only “unlawful” killings.

As they researched the rarely invoked overseas-murder statute, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman discovered a 1997 district court decision involving a woman who was charged with killing her child in Japan. A judge ruled that the terse overseas-killing law must be interpreted as incorporating the exceptions of its domestic-murder counterpart, writing, “Congress did not intend to criminalize justifiable or excusable killings.”

And by arguing that it is not unlawful “murder” when the government kills an enemy leader in war or national self-defense, Mr. Barron and Mr. Lederman concluded that the foreign-killing statute would not impede a strike. They had not resorted to the Bush-style theories they had once denounced of sweeping presidential war powers to disregard Congressionally imposed limitations.

Due to return to academia in the fall of 2010, the two lawyers finished their second Awlaki memorandum, whose reasoning was widely approved by other administration lawyers, that summer. It had ballooned to about 63 pages but remained narrowly tailored to Mr. Awlaki’s circumstances, blessing lethal force against him without addressing whether it would also be permissible to kill citizens, like low-ranking members of Al Qaeda, in other situations.

Nearly three years later, a version of the legal analysis portions would become public in the “white paper,” which stripped out all references to Mr. Awlaki while retaining echoes, like its discussion of a generic “senior operational leader.” Divorced from its original context and misunderstood as a general statement about the scope and limits of the government’s authority to kill citizens, the free-floating reasoning would lead to widespread confusion.


Heightening Intelligence

Now the lawyers had twice signed off on killing Mr. Awlaki if he could not be captured — but the government still had no idea where in Yemen he was hiding. During the first half of 2010 the C.I.A. was just ramping up intelligence gathering in the country, and Saudi spies had yet to penetrate militant networks in Yemen deeply enough to learn the whereabouts of leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Mr. Awlaki appears to have hidden most of the time in Shabwa Province, several hours’ drive southeast of the capital, turf for Al Qaeda and also the traditional territory of his family’s powerful tribe, the Awaliq. Yemen’s cagey longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, negotiated with tribal leaders, who offered to hold Mr. Awlaki under house arrest, according to a Yemeni official. The talks were inconclusive.

And there were other problems. A disastrous American missile strike in May 2010 accidentally killed a deputy provincial governor in Yemen and infuriated President Saleh, effectively suspending the clandestine war. It would be months before the Pentagon’s next strike in Yemen.

In August 2010, Mr. Awlaki’s father, with help from civil liberties groups, filed a lawsuit in Washington challenging the government plan to kill his son, which had been reported in the news media. In court filings, the administration marshaled its public claims against Mr. Awlaki and said he could always surrender.

But it also declared that courts should play no role in overseeing the executive branch’s wartime targeting decisions, argued that Mr. Awlaki’s father had no legal standing to bring the case, and invoked the state secrets privilege. In December 2010, a judge dismissed the suit.

Back in Yemen, the C.I.A. and the Pentagon used the pause in the air campaign to develop more sources inside the country. The National Security Agency stepped up monitoring of cellphones in Yemen and penetrated computer networks to intercept electronic messages. Aware that Mr. Obama, shaken by the underwear bombing attempt, was closely following the hunt, agencies competed to get new scraps about Mr. Awlaki into the president’s daily intelligence briefing, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst said.

And, very quietly, the C.I.A. began to build its own drone base in Saudi Arabia. Saudi officials had given the C.I.A. permission to build the base on the condition that the kingdom’s role was masked. And the base took care of a separate problem: the government of Djibouti, where the military was basing its drone operations in the region, put tight restrictions on any lethal operations carried out from its soil. The Saudi government made no similar demands.

Meanwhile, attacks linked in various ways to Mr. Awlaki continued to mount, including the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen who had reached out to the preacher on the Internet, and the attempted bombing by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of cargo planes bound for the United States that October.

In late 2010 or early 2011, Yemeni security troops surrounded a village in Shabwa Province where Mr. Awlaki was reported to be hiding, said Gregory Johnsen, a Princeton scholar and author of “The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia.” But a house-to-house search did not find him.

At the White House, frustration was mounting.


The Hunt Narrows

Even as the hunt went on, Yemen’s strongman began to lose his grip on power as his country was caught up in the revolts sweeping the Arab world in early 2011.

That June, a barrage of rockets struck the room of the presidential palace where Mr. Saleh was hiding, severely injuring him and effectively ending his rule.

The weakening of Mr. Saleh gave the Americans more latitude for the Awlaki manhunt. By then, American and Saudi spies had turned a number of militants into sources, helping to guide American strikes.

In its most exotic effort to track the cleric, the C.I.A. worked with Danish intelligence to use Morten Storm, a Danish convert who had befriended Mr. Awlaki, to put a tracking device on the suitcase of a woman who had agreed to become the cleric’s third wife. The plan failed when Mr. Awlaki’s wary associates discarded the suitcase. But Mr. Storm also told the authorities that he communicated with Mr. Awlaki via a courier; it is not clear whether that courier eventually helped lead the C.I.A. to Mr. Awlaki’s location.

Other sources of information were also emerging, and one led to a new debate. In April 2011, the United States captured Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali man who worked closely with the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. He was held aboard a naval vessel for more than two months and spoke freely to interrogators, including about his encounters with the former North Carolina man now editing the group’s magazine, Samir Khan.

While the United States had long tracked Mr. Khan, the new details from the Warsame interrogation raised the question of whether another American citizen should be considered for targeting. There was still scant evidence tying Mr. Khan to any specific plot, so the administration left him off the list. But events would not turn out so neatly.

In May 2011, days after the American commando raid in Pakistan that killed Bin Laden, the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command, the hub for classified Army and Navy commando units, had its best chance to kill Mr. Awlaki as he moved around Shabwa Province. Drones and Marine Harrier jets fired at his truck, but he managed to escape and took refuge in a cave. According to Mr. Johnsen, the Princeton expert, Mr. Awlaki told friends that the episode “increased my certainty that no human being will die until they complete their livelihood and appointed time.”

Finally, by late September 2011, the C.I.A. base in Saudi Arabia was ready. Mr. Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, Mr. Brennan, directed that lead responsibility for the Awlaki hunt would be shifted to the agency. David H. Petraeus, who had taken over as C.I.A. director on Sept. 6, ordered several drones to be relocated from Pakistan to Saudi Arabia. By mid-September, the Americans were closing in — with updates from a C.I.A. source inside Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, officials say. That was when a very different search for Mr. Awlaki began.

As Mr. Awlaki had become one of the world’s most hunted terrorists, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman had lived the life of a normal adolescent. He liked sports and music and kept his Facebook page regularly updated. But now he sneaked out of the family home in Sana, Yemen’s capital, leaving an apologetic note for his mother saying that he had gone to find his father.

But by the time the teenager headed to Shabwa, his father had left for Jawf Province, hundreds of miles away. Accompanied by Mr. Khan, the elder Awlaki moved about the rugged territory, wary of staying anywhere for long.

What he did not know was that the C.I.A.’s source was reporting the movements. On the morning of Sept. 30, guided by the tipster, the fleet of drones arrived above Jawf. Missiles destroyed the convoy.

The same day, at a military ceremony at Fort Myer in Arlington, Va., Mr. Obama took note of the victory for the immense American counterterrorism effort — but in oddly indirect language. Mr. Awlaki, he said, “was killed” in Yemen, and “this success is a tribute to our intelligence community and to the efforts of Yemen and its security forces who have worked closely with the United States.”

Mr. Obama had immediately declassified the Bin Laden raid. But this time he signaled that the operation in Yemen, though already reported around the globe, would remain officially unacknowledged. Members of Congress would speak only cautiously about it, and counterterrorism officials could discuss only privately what the whole world knew.

Administration officials who had labored for months to evaluate the killing of Mr. Awlaki took stock. Mr. Khan, whom they had specifically decided not to add to the kill list, was dead, too. While the lawyers believed that his killing was legally defensible as collateral damage, the death cast a cloud over all those months of seemingly cautious efforts to analyze who should go on the list and who should not.

Then, on Oct. 14, a missile apparently intended for an Egyptian Qaeda operative, Ibrahim al-Banna, hit a modest outdoor eating place in Shabwa. The intelligence was bad: Mr. Banna was not there, and among about a dozen men killed was the young Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who had no connection to terrorism and would never have been deliberately targeted.

It was a tragic error and, for the Obama administration, a public relations disaster, further muddying the moral clarity of the previous strike on his father and fueling skepticism about American assertions of drones’ surgical precision. The damage was only compounded when anonymous officials at first gave the younger Mr. Awlaki’s age as 21, prompting his grieving family to make public his birth certificate.

He had been born in Denver, said the certificate from the Colorado health department. In the United States, at the time his government’s missile killed him, the teenager would have just reached driving age.

    The New York Times, NYT, 9.3.2013,






The Drone Question Obama Hasn’t Answered


March 8, 2013
The New York Times


THE Senate confirmed John O. Brennan as director of the Central Intelligence Agency on Thursday after a nearly 13-hour filibuster by the libertarian senator Rand Paul, who before the vote received a somewhat odd letter from the attorney general.

“It has come to my attention that you have now asked an additional question: ‘Does the President have the authority to use a weaponized drone to kill an American not engaged in combat on American soil?’ ” the attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., wrote to Mr. Paul. “The answer to that question is no.”

The senator, whose filibuster had become a social-media sensation, elating Tea Party members, human-rights groups and pacifists alike, said he was “quite happy with the answer.” But Mr. Holder’s letter raises more questions than it answers — and, indeed, more important and more serious questions than the senator posed.

What, exactly, does the Obama administration mean by “engaged in combat”? The extraordinary secrecy of this White House makes the answer difficult to know. We have some clues, and they are troubling.

If you put together the pieces of publicly available information, it seems that the Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, has acted with an overly broad definition of what it means to be engaged in combat. Back in 2004, the Pentagon released a list of the types of people it was holding at Guantánamo Bay as “enemy combatants” — a list that included people who were “involved in terrorist financing.”

One could argue that that definition applied solely to prolonged detention, not to targeting for a drone strike. But who’s to say if the administration believes in such a distinction?

American generals in Afghanistan said the laws of war “have been interpreted to allow” American forces to include “drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency on a kill list,” according to a report released in 2009 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then led by John Kerry, now the secretary of state.

The report went on to say that there were about 50 major traffickers “who contribute funds to the insurgency on the target list.” The Pentagon later said that it was “important to clarify that we are targeting terrorists with links to the drug trade, rather than targeting drug traffickers with links to terrorism.”

That statement, however, was not very clarifying, and did not seem to appease NATO allies who raised serious legal concerns about the American targeting program. The explanation soon gave way to more clues, and this time it was not simply a question of who had been placed on a list.

In a 2010 Fox News interview, under pressure to explain whether the Obama administration was any closer to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, Mr. Kerry’s predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said that “we have gotten closer because we have been able to kill a number of their trainers, their operational people, their financiers.” That revelation — killing financiers — appears not to have been noticed very widely.

As I have written, sweeping financiers into the group of people who can be killed in armed conflict stretches the laws of war beyond recognition. But this is not the only stretch the Obama administration seems to have made. The administration still hasn’t disavowed its stance, disclosed last May in a New York Times article, that military-age males killed in a strike zone are counted as combatants absent explicit posthumous evidence proving otherwise.

Mr. Holder’s one-word answer — “no” — is not a step toward the greater transparency that President Obama pledged when he came into office, but has not delivered, in the realm of national security.

By declining to specify what it means to be “engaged in combat,” the letter does not foreclose the possible scenario — however hypothetical — of a military drone strike, against a United States citizen, on American soil. It also raises anew questions about the standards the administration has used in deciding to use drone strikes to kill Americans suspected of terrorist involvement overseas — notably Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born cleric who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011.

Is there any reason to believe that military drones will soon be hovering over Manhattan, aiming to kill Americans believed to be involved in terrorist financing? No.

But is it well past time for the United States government to specify, precisely, its views on whom it thinks it can kill in the struggle against Al Qaeda and other terrorist forces? The answer is yes.

The Obama administration’s continued refusal to do so should alarm any American concerned about the constitutional right of our citizens — no matter what evil they may or may not be engaged in — to due process under the law. For those Americans, Mr. Holder’s seemingly simple but maddeningly vague letter offers no reassurance.


Ryan Goodman is a professor of law and co-chairman

of the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at New York University.

    The Drone Question Obama Hasn’t Answered, NYT, 8.3.2013,






U.S. Opens Drone Base in Niger,

Building Africa Presence


February 22, 2013
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the drone wars against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, President Obama announced on Friday that about 100 American troops had been sent to Niger in West Africa to help set up a new base from which unarmed Predator aircraft would conduct surveillance in the region.

The new drone base, located for now in the capital, Niamey, is an indication of the priority Africa has become in American antiterrorism efforts. The United States military has a limited presence in Africa, with only one permanent base, in Djibouti, more than 3,000 miles from Mali, where insurgents had taken over half the country until repelled by a French-led force.

In a letter to Congress, Mr. Obama said about 40 United States military service members arrived in Niger on Wednesday, bringing the total number of those deployed in the country to about 100 people. A military official said the troops were largely Air Force logistics specialists, intelligence analysts and security officers.

Mr. Obama said the troops, who are armed for self-protection, would support the French-led operation that last month drove the Qaeda and affiliated fighters out of a desert refuge the size of Texas in neighboring Mali.

Niger, one of the poorest countries in the world, signed a status-of-forces agreement last month with the United States that has cleared the way for greater American military involvement in the country and has provided legal protection to American troops there.

In an interview last month in Niamey, President Mahamadou Issoufou voiced concern about the spillover of violence and refugees from Mali, as well as growing threats from Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group to the south, in neighboring Nigeria.

French and African troops have retaken Mali’s northern cities, including Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal, but about 2,000 militants have melted back into desert and mountain hideaways and have begun a small campaign of harassment and terror, dispatching suicide bombers, attacking guard posts, infiltrating liberated cities or ordering attacks by militants hidden among civilians.

“Africa Command has positioned unarmed remotely piloted aircraft in Niger to support a range of regional security missions and engagements with partner nations,” Benjamin Benson, a command spokesman in Stuttgart, Germany, said in an e-mail message on Friday.

Mr. Benson did not say how many aircraft or troops would ultimately be deployed, but other American officials have said the base could eventually have as many as 300 United States military service members and contractors.

For now, American officials said, Predator drones will be unarmed and will fly only on surveillance missions, although they have not ruled out conducting missile strikes at some point if the threat worsens.

American officials would like to move the aircraft eventually to Agadez, a city in northern Niger that is closer to parts of northern Mali where cells of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other militant groups are operating. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the leader of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, visited the base last month as part of discussions with Niger’s leaders on closer counterterrorism cooperation.

The new drone base will join a constellation of small airstrips in recent years on the continent, including one in Ethiopia, for surveillance missions flown by drones or turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft.

A handful of unarmed Predator drones will fill a desperate need for more detailed information on regional threats, including the militants in Mali and the unabated flow of fighters and weapons from Libya. General Ham and intelligence analysts have complained that such information has been sorely lacking.

As the United States increased its presence in Niger, Russia sent a planeload of food, blankets and other aid to Mali on Friday, a day after Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov warned of the spread of terrorism in North Africa, which the Russian government has linked to Western intervention in Libya.

Mr. Lavrov met on Thursday with the United Nations special envoy for the region, Romano Prodi, to discuss the situation in Mali, where Russia has supported the French-led effort to oust Islamist militants. But Russia has also blamed the West for the unrest and singled out the French in particular for arming the rebels who ousted the Libyan leader, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“Particular concern was expressed about the activity of terrorist organizations in the north, a threat to regional peace and security,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement after the meeting. “The parties agreed that the uncontrolled proliferation of arms in the region in the wake of the conflict in Libya sets the stage for an escalation of tension throughout the Sahel.” The Sahel is a vast region stretching more than 3,000 miles across Africa, from the Atlantic in the west through Sudan in the east.

In a television interview this month, Mr. Lavrov said, “France is fighting against those in Mali whom it had once armed in Libya against Qaddafi.”

On Friday, suicide attackers detonated two car bombs near Tessalit, a town in Mali’s far north, according to news reports, while Islamist fighters clashed with Malian soldiers farther south in Gao, where fighting has flared in recent days.

The twin suicide bombings in Tessalit killed three fighters for the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, known as the M.N.L.A., an ethnic Tuareg armed group that has allied with the French forces, a spokesman for the group said, according to Agence France-Presse. The attackers were killed as well. On Thursday, a guard and an attacker were killed in a car bombing in Kidal, south of Tessalit, that appeared to have targeted a civilian fuel depot, France’s Defense Ministry said in a statement.

Responsibility for that attack was claimed by the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. The group said it would continue to press its fight and also intended to retake Gao, hundreds of miles to the south.

In central Gao late Thursday morning, Malian and French forces killed about 15 militants from “infiltrated terrorist groups” that had seized the town hall and court, according to the French Defense Ministry. The initial firefight involved only Malian soldiers and militant fighters, the ministry’s statement said, but several French armored vehicles and two helicopters were later involved.

Two militants were killed outside a checkpoint north of the city after “sporadically” attacking the Nigerien soldiers standing guard, the Defense Ministry said. As many as six Malian soldiers were reported wounded.

On Friday, sporadic gunfire and at least two rebel rocket attacks were reported in Gao, according to a Malian officer cited by The Associated Press. Most of the militants fled to the east of the city aboard seven vehicles, the officer said.

Russian officials have pointed repeatedly to the unrest in North Africa and the political turmoil in Egypt as evidence that the Western-supported Arab Spring has created a dangerous and chaotic situation and potential breeding grounds for terrorists. Russia has also used the examples of Libya and Egypt to justify its opposition to any Western effort to oust the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.


Eric Schmitt reported from Washington,

and Scott Sayare from Paris.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting from Moscow.

    U.S. Opens Drone Base in Niger, Building Africa Presence, NYT, 22.2.2013,






Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorders

Much as Those in Combat Do


February 22, 2013
The New York Times


In the first study of its kind, researchers with the Defense Department have found that pilots of drone aircraft experience mental health problems like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who are deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.

The study affirms a growing body of research finding health hazards even for those piloting machines from bases far from actual combat zones.

“Though it might be thousands of miles from the battlefield, this work still involves tough stressors and has tough consequences for those crews,” said Peter W. Singer, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has written extensively about drones. He was not involved in the new research.

That study, by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center, which analyzes health trends among military personnel, did not try to explain the sources of mental health problems among drone pilots.

But Air Force officials and independent experts have suggested several potential causes, among them witnessing combat violence on live video feeds, working in isolation or under inflexible shift hours, juggling the simultaneous demands of home life with combat operations and dealing with intense stress because of crew shortages.

“Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days,” said Jean Lin Otto, an epidemiologist who was a co-author of the study. “They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.”

Dr. Otto said she had begun the study expecting that drone pilots would actually have a higher rate of mental health problems because of the unique pressures of their job.

Since 2008, the number of pilots of remotely piloted aircraft — the Air Force’s preferred term for drones — has grown fourfold, to nearly 1,300. The Air Force is now training more pilots for its drones than for its fighter jets and bombers combined. And by 2015, it expects to have more drone pilots than bomber pilots, although fighter pilots will remain a larger group.

Those figures do not include drones operated by the C.I.A. in counterterrorism operations over Pakistan, Yemen and other countries.

The Pentagon has begun taking steps to keep pace with the rapid expansion of drone operations. It recently created a new medal to honor troops involved in both drone warfare and cyberwarfare. And the Air Force has expanded access to chaplains and therapists for drone operators, said Col. William M. Tart, who commanded remotely piloted aircraft crews at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

The Air Force has also conducted research into the health issues of drone crew members. In a 2011 survey of nearly 840 drone operators, it found that 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots, and 48 percent of Global Hawk sensor operators, reported “high operational stress.” Those crews cited long hours and frequent shift changes as major causes.

That study found the stress among drone operators to be much higher than that reported by Air Force members in logistics or support jobs. But it did not compare the stress levels of the drone operators with those of traditional pilots.

The new study looked at the electronic health records of 709 drone pilots and 5,256 manned aircraft pilots between October 2003 and December 2011. Those records included information about clinical diagnoses by medical professionals and not just self-reported symptoms.

After analyzing diagnosis and treatment records, the researchers initially found that the drone pilots had higher incidence rates for 12 conditions, including anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and suicidal ideation.

But after the data were adjusted for age, number of deployments, time in service and history of previous mental health problems, the rates were similar, said Dr. Otto, who was scheduled to present her findings in Arizona on Saturday at a conference of the American College of Preventive Medicine.

The study also found that the incidence rates of mental heath problems among drone pilots spiked in 2009. Dr. Otto speculated that the increase might have been the result of intense pressure on pilots during the Iraq surge in the preceding years.

The study found that pilots of both manned and unmanned aircraft had lower rates of mental health problems than other Air Force personnel. But Dr. Otto conceded that her study might underestimate problems among both manned and unmanned aircraft pilots, who may feel pressure not to report mental health symptoms to doctors out of fears that they will be grounded.

She said she planned to conduct two follow-up studies: one that tries to compensate for possible underreporting of mental health problems by pilots and another that analyzes mental health issues among sensor operators, who control drone cameras while sitting next to the pilots.

“The increasing use of remotely piloted aircraft for war fighting as well as humanitarian relief should prompt increased surveillance,” she said.

    Drone Pilots Are Found
    to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do, NYT, 22.2.2013,




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