In an unprecedented announcement today President Barack Obama admitted that two al Qaeda hostages, an American and an Italian, were killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in January.
He also said two other US citizens were killed in a subsequent strike later in the same month.
These were not the only Westerners killed by the US in its covert drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
An in-depth analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and author Chris Woods has found that seven other US citizens have been killed since the White House launched its covert drone war on suspected terrorists in 2002.
These findings are part of a major investigation into the nationalities of people killed by the US drone war.
At least 38 Westerners in total have now been killed by US drones in the three target countries. The research raises serious questions about US policy and the extent to which Western governments have been colluding with the US over unlawful intelligence sharing.
The 38 Western deaths include 10 Americans, eight Britons, seven Germans, three Australians, two Spaniards, two Canadians, one Belgian or Swiss national, and now one Italian. There have also been four ‘Westerners’ of unidentified nationality.
Before today’s announcement, the most prominent strike on a Westerner was the one which killed US citizen Anwar al Awlaki, a cleric who became a leading figure and propagandist in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) who died in Yemen in September 2011.
The Bureau has compiled these figures over the past four years through an extensive analysis of thousands of media reports and NGO filings, as well as from court papers and leaked government documents. In all there have been at least 514 US drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen since the first in November 2002.
Of the 38 Westerners killed, six are believed to have converted to Islam. At least 18, half the total, were European citizens. We now know two of the 38 were innocent hostages.
The White House today said the US accidentally killed the two hostages, saying they were unaware Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto were in a building when the strike hit. The US “had no reason to believe either hostage was present,” added White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
The two Americans killed in the second January strike in Pakistan were named as al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn and Ahmed Farouq, an al Qaeda leader.
Obama announced today he has launched a thorough investigation into this attack.
Western casualties are a tiny percentage of the total killed by CIA and Pentagon drone operations in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The Bureau has established a country or region of origin for 2,350 people killed by drones. Of that total, the 38 Westerners comprise just 1.6%.
But these findings could reignite debate about fundamental issues surrounding the US drone programme, including the role of Washington’s European allies. It has long been assumed allies such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand have shared intelligence with the US that has been used in drone strikes.
Just last week, The Intercept, US investigative reporting site, revealed leaked documents that confirmed the US’s major military base in Ramstein, Germany, is fundamental to the drone programme. It relays signals to and from pilots stationed on bases in the US and the Predator and Reaper drones flying over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. That seven German citizens have been killed via this route may fuel concern in Berlin about the use of their territory.
“The US’ drone programme has dragged many Western allies into a dirty, secret war,” said Kat Craig, legal director of British charity Reprieve. “It is time to lift the veil on this programme, which has so far been shrouded in secrecy and been allowed to operate without any democratic transparency, and hold all complicit governments responsible for killing innocents and terrorising communities to account.”
The Bureau’s new research was carried out in conjunction with investigative author Chris Woods, a former Bureau journalist. In his new book, Sudden Justice, Woods reveals many of the Westerners were targeted as a result of a deliberate CIA policy that had been sanctioned by George W Bush.
In 2008 according to a former senior US intelligence official, the CIA adopted a policy of deliberately targeting and killing Westerners in Pakistan’s tribal areas. That decision was reportedly approved by both President George W Bush and his deputy Dick Cheney, amid fears of a new 9/11-style atrocity.
A number of radicalised Westerners had recently made their way to Pakistan’s tribal areas for terrorist training, the CIA learned. “These were folks who would not have called attention to themselves if they were standing next to you in the passport line or at McDonald’s,” a former high ranking US intelligence official told Woods.
The Agency now wanted to target and kill these Westerners. To do so, it needed approval at the highest level.
“At the heart of our discussion was that this now is the recreating of the threat to the homeland,” according to the former US intelligence official. “And that’s a pretty stark place for the intel guys to put a policy-maker in. But that’s kind of an accurate description of the box we built for the President and Vice President in the summer of 2008.”
In 2012, former CIA Director Michael Hayden told a Canadian newspaper that Westerners were indeed targeted. He describes once telling President Bush that Pakistan’s tribal areas were “a safe haven that’s being used to prepare people to come attack us. And therefore I recommend – and this is the best I can give you on this – stronger courses of action.”
The shift resulted in a dramatic increase in the frequency of drone attacks in Pakistan. From July 28 onwards that year, there were 33 strikes killing at least 199 people. There were just five strikes in the six months before, killing 53.
Briton Rashid Rauf was one of the 199 to die in the second half of 2008.
He was linked to the July 7 2005 terrorist attacks in London in which 52 people died. His role in this attack raised his profile in al Qaeda. This reportedly gained him a more central role in the planning of another operation – a plot to blow up airliners over the Atlantic, en route to the US from London.
The following year the second Briton died. Abdul Jabbar had travelled to Afghanistan and then Pakistan with his two brothers around the time of the September 11 attacks. Jabbar’s older brother, Mohammed Azmir Khan, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan November 2011.
A third UK citizen died in the same strike as Khan – Londoner Ibrahim Adam. Many details about these three Britons emerged in court documents relating to the testimony of Mohammed Junaid Babar, an al Qaeda supergrass. Babar, a US citizen, appeared as a witness in the trial of several men accused of plotting to detonated a massive fertiliser bomb in London in 2004.
There is a complete lack of detail available for two UK citizens killed in Pakistan. “Mr Dearsmith” and “Mr Stephen” were killed in December 2010 – they were both believed to be converts to Islam and originally came from the Midlands.
While six Britons were killed in Pakistan, two died in Somalia. The US killed Mohammed Sakr and Bilal al Berjawi with drones in January and February 2012 – roughly 18 months after the British government stripped them of their UK citizenship.
They were part of a loose group of young Londoners who left the UK to join terrorist groups, along with Mohammed Emwazi, the notorious Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis) fighter known as Jihadi John.
Almost as many Germans as Britons died in US drone strikes – all of them in CIA attacks in Pakistan. The first died in 2010, the year the CIA’s “shackles were unleashed“, according to an administration security official, and President Obama reportedly let the agency hike its drone strikes. Three Germans were killed in October 2010 alone.
Allegations of US allies providing the drone campaign with intelligence have surfaced in relation to a number of Western deaths. There were serious concerns the UK had given the US Berjawi’s location. He had reportedly called his wife in London shortly before the drones struck.
Debate about intelligence sharing for drone strikes, and consequently being complicit in a highly legally contentious policy, has intensified with the publication of documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
These have demonstrated just how close the US and UK intelligence communities are. In 2013 UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson told British parliamentarians that it is “inevitable” that intelligence shared by UK spies with the US had been used in drone strikes. “It would be absurd if it were not the case,” he added.
The Snowden leaks have also underlined how close the US intelligence relationship is with Australia and New Zealand. The spotlight fell on this proximity when the US killed an Australian citizen and an Australian-New Zealand dual-national in Yemen in November 2013.
The Australian intelligence service knew Australian citizen Christopher Havard was in Yemen when he was killed. The Australian Federal Police had obtained a warrant for his arrest three weeks before.
And New Zealand’s spies knew Daryl Jones was in Yemen for “quite some time,” according to Prime Minister John Key who had signed a warrant allowing his intelligence services to spy on Jones.
In an echo of the Berjawi case, both men had their passports revoked the year before they were killed.
Jones and Havard were two of only six Westerners recorded as killed in Yemen. The other four were all Americans. The first of them, Kamal Darwish, was killed in November 2002. It was the first US drone strike outside Afghanistan.
He was wanted on suspicion of being the recruiter of a terror support cell that had been rounded up in Buffalo, New York state. He was killed in a strike on a car with five others, including one of the alleged masterminds of the US Cole attack.
In September 2011 the US killed Anwar al Awlaki and Samir Khan. Both were propagandists, responsible for the English language magazine Inspire. The following month the US killed Abdulrahman al Awlaki, Anwar’s 16 year old son. He died in a strike while barbecuing with friends.
On May 22 2013, the US attorney-general Eric Holder acknowledged in a letter to Congress that the US had killed four of its own citizens in drone strikes. The four were: Samir Khan, Anwar and Abdulrahman al Awlaki, as well as Jude Kenan Mohamed from Raleigh, North Carolina, killed in Pakistan in November 2011. The letter claimed only Anwar al Awlaki was deliberately targeted. It made no mention of the other three Americans killed with drones.
This article was originally published on Hostage deaths mean 38 Westerners killed by US drone strikes, Bureau investigation reveals