i. Key points:
- US drone strike frequency halves from Q4 2014 to Q1 2015
- Strikes appear to target the Pakistan Taliban in Afghanistan
- A single CIA strike kills three in Pakistan as Islamabad forces hammer the tribal areas
- Yemen sinks into civil war, hamstringing US intelligence gathering essential for drone strikes
- Another drone strike kills a senior al Shabaab figure in Somalia
ii. The Bureau’s numbers:
* The Bureau’s estimates are based predominantly on open sources information like media reports. Sometimes it is not possible to reconcile details in different reports. This is why use ranges for our record of casualties and, in the case of Yemen and Somalia, our strike tallies.
** The US has only carried out drone strikes in Pakistan.
iii. Bureau analysis for March 2015:
In March 2015, the Bureau recorded three confirmed US air and drone strikes across all of Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. This was down from four the month before. Meanwhile, Yemen plummeted into a civil war, as a possible rapprochement between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban failed to materialise, and as Pakistan Air Force jets hammered the tribal areas.
Yemen’s rapid descent into chaos forced the US to pull some 100 special forces commandos from the country country. They were there to train Yemeni special forces and coordinate counter-terrorism intelligence.
This turn of events left Washington’s counter-terrorism mission in the country floundering, US commentators and analysts reported, though the CIA is reportedly still operating.
The loss of intelligence coordination in Yemen may have hamstrung the US drone programme there.
In contrast, counter-terrorism operations are set to continue in Afghanistan. The US will keep troops in the country longer than originally planned, allowing special forces and CIA drone bases to remain in the country for longer. This is important for CIA action in Pakistan as its drones operate from bases in Afghanistan.
The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan was muted last month, despite maintaining the capacity to carry out strikes. The CIA carried out one strike. In contrast, the Pakistan Air Force was extremely active in March. It carried out several strikes, killing scores of people.
In Somalia, the US continued to target al Shabaab’s intelligence and external-action wing, Amniyatt. The second drone strike of 2015 killed the Amniyatt leader, Adan Garaar. He succeeded Yusef Dheeq, who was killed in a drone strike in January.
iv. Analysis by quarter: Drone strikes decline
Drone strikes and casualties dropped by about 50% in the first quarter of 2015, compared with the final three months of 2014. There were 23 confirmed US drone strikes reported in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia in Q4 2014 to the end of December, killing at least 87 people.
In Q1 2015, there were 12 strikes, killing at least 47 people.
Though there have been fewer strikes and deaths overall, the average number of people killed per strike, or casualty rate, has remained constant – just under four people were killed per strike in both Q4 2014 and Q1 2015.
One CIA drone strike killed three people in Pakistan last month. The attack hit in Kurram agency just across the border from North Waziristan – the location of the overwhelming majority of strikes this year and in 2014.
The attack hit in the Shabak area of the agency, which is close to the border with Afghanistan. Some reports had the strike hitting in Afghanistan however a Tehrik e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) statement placed the attack on the Pakistan side of the border.
This TTP press release was a eulogy for the three men killed in the attack. It said Khawrey Mehsud was a senior commander in the group and had been its former leader Baitullah Mehsud‘s bodyguard. Baituallah was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan in 2009.
This was the first strike in Pakistan since January 28 when six or seven people were killed in North Waziristan. There has been an abrupt reduction in drone strikes in Pakistan. Five strikes killed at least 29 people in January at a casualty rate of nearly five dead per strike. This was a continuation from the final three months in 2014 when 16 strikes killed at least 57 people at a rate of more than 3.5 killed per strike.
While the CIA has apparently curtailed its strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas, the Pakistan Air Force has launched numerous air strikes, killing scores of people in Tirrah valley of Khyber province. Air force jets and ground forces reportedly killed more than 80 in an operation over the weekend of March 21-22.
Also this month, the Bureau reported that a trove of al Qaeda documents recovered during the raid of Osama Bin Laden’s home in 2011 has corroborated many of the details in the Bureau’s reports of drone strikes in Pakistan.
The US appears to have been targeting fighters from the TTP in Afghanistan last month. The group reportedly carries out attacks in Pakistan from bases in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has been hammering the group in Pakistan’s tribal areas while a single US drone strike reportedly killed at least nine commanders from the TTP and allied entities. This strike hit in the Nazyan area of Nangrahar on March 23.
This coincided with several days of concerted Pakistan military operation just across the border in Pakistan’s Khyber agency, reportedly targeting the TTP and its allies.
There were two additional, possible US attacks. The first on March 15 killed 10 people, including Hafiz Waheed who succeeded his uncle Abdul Rauf Khadim (killed February 6) as the leader of a reportedly Islamic State-linked anti-government militia. Reporting around this strike was confusing: it was described as an Afghan military operation but also as an airstrike. This would suggest it was a US drone strike, though the Afghan air force does have some strike-capable helicopters.
The second possible attack reportedly killed 11 people on March 24. All the dead were reportedly TTP members though one source said four of the dead were part of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The strike was widely reported but not by sufficient authoritative sources for the Bureau to consider it a confirmed US attack.
There were five more strikes reported in Afghanistan this month, killing at least 22 people. However these were all reported by single sources and are not as yet included in the Bureau’s casualty estimates.
Also this month, Washington decided to keep 9,800 US soldiers in Afghanistan until the end of 2015, rather than drawing down numbers during the year. Maintaining this level of troops and contractors will enable the CIA to continue its drone strikes from bases in the country.
* All but one of these actions have taken place during Obama’s presidency. Reports of incidents in Yemen often conflate individual strikes. The range we have recorded in US drone strikes and covert operations reflects this.
March was the first month without a confirmed US strike since July 2014. There was however a possible US attack which left 3-4 dead. It was the third reported but not confirmed strike in Yemen to target a vehicle carrying alleged al Qaeda members. Al Qaeda’s spokesman denied the attack took place.
The frequency of attacks fell in the first quarter of 2015. There were two confirmed US strikes in January and one in February; all three killed at least 10 people. There were twice as many strikes in the final quarter of 2014, with four in December alone. At least 58 people died in US attacks between September and December 2014.
This decline in US drone strikes has coincided with a major escalation in Yemen’s long-simmering political crisis. The Houthi militia marched south, capturing an airbase used by the US, forcing the ousted president to flee the country and precipitating a Saudi-led military intervention.
The Aden residence of former president Abdu Rabbu al Mansour Hadi, who had been attempting to set up an alternative seat of government in the southern port city after escaping the Houthi-controlled capital in February, came under attack from an unidentified warplane. Yemeni forces reported to be loyal to Hadi’s Houthi-allied predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, meanwhile fought for control of Aden’s airport. After speculation as to his whereabouts, Hadi eventually surfaced in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
On March 25 the Houthis captured al Anad airbase 35 miles outside Aden, which had been used by US counter-terrorism forces to coordinate actions – including drone strikes – against the Sunni militant group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). US personnel had evacuated the base a few days previously.
Later that day Saudi Arabia announced a coalition to intervene militarily against the Houthis in Yemen. Intense aerial bombardment of different parts of Yemen has been reported since then. On March 30, dozens were reported killed in a strike on a camp for displaced persons in northern Yemen, though the circumstances of the attack are still unclear.
As the fighting intensifies, there are growing fears that Yemen will become the battlefield for a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran. Though the two sects have historically co-existed in Yemen, recent clashes between the advancing Houthis and Sunni tribes have raised the prospect of sectarian war. On March 20 more than 100 people were killed when suicide bombers struck Shiite mosques in the capital during Friday prayers.
The turmoil has left the US’s counter-terrorism policy in Yemen in disarray. US officials told the Associated Press that CIA drone strikes would continue but that there would be “fewer of them”, amid concerns about the lack of on-the-ground intelligence or coordinating partners.
A US drone strike killed three people, including Adnan Garaar, a commander from the Amniyatt – al Shabaab’s intelligence wing.
The Pentagon confirmed the details a week after the attack hit, saying in a statement: “Garar was a key operative responsible for coordinating al Shabaab’s external operations, which target US persons and other Western interests in order to further al Qaeda’s goals and objectives.”
Garaar was “connected to the West Gate Mall attack in Nairobi, Kenya” in September 2013. Garaar’s death was the latest in a series of drone killings in Somalia that appear to have targeted senior al Shabaab figures focused on terrorist attacks beyond Somalia’s borders. Garaar had replaced Yusef Dheeq in the job, who was killed in a drone strike in January. And Dheeq’s predecessor Abdishakur was killed on December 29 2014.
The impact of his and other Amniyatt commanders’ deaths remains to be seen. Al Shabaab has continued to carry out attacks in Kenya, killing 12 across several days this month. The US embassy in Uganda put out a warning on March 26 cautioning western travellers they could be the target of an attack that “may take place soon”.
Neither do the US attacks seem to have dented the group’s capacity to carry out attacks in the heart of Mogadishu. The diplomatic and government quarter, clustered around the city’s airport, is meant to be the most secure place in the country. Yet al Shabaab managed to storm a hotel in this area on March 27, killing 20 people including Somalia’s permanent ambassador to the UN in Geneva.
This article was originally published on Monthly Drone Report, March 2015: US drone strikes drop 50% as chaos envelops Yemen