i. Key points:
- A Pew Research Center poll finds strong support in the US for drone strikes
- Three US strikes kill at least 34 in Afghanistan
- The US continues to bomb Yemen in the midst of a brutal civil war
- British drones flew 301 missions over Iraq from September to the end of March
ii. The Bureau’s numbers:
* The Bureau’s estimates are based predominantly on open sources information such as 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 May 2015:
A new poll this month shows the American drone campaign continues to enjoy popular support in the US as seven strikes reportedly kill 48-56 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.
According to the Pew Research Center poll, 58% of respondents approve of “US drone strikes to target extremists” with 35% who disapprove. Nearly half, 48%, are very concerned US drone attacks endanger the lives of innocent civilians.
The research was carried out over seven days from May 12, 19 days after President Obama told the nation drones had killed Warren Weinstein, a US civilian, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian civilian.
It is not clear how intense media coverage of the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, and the drone war in general, affected what respondents said. However support for drones appears to have grown slightly since Pew last polled on the matter, up from 56% in February 2013.
In fact concern about civilian casualties seems to have fallen – 53% of the 2013 poll respondents said they were very concerned drones “endanger civilian lives”. It is not a direct comparison: Pew polled fewer people in February 2013 than in May 2015, and did not poll Alaska or Hawaii.
Also in May, the British government released data on anti-Islamic State air operations showing the Royal Air Force flew 301 Reaper drone missions over Iraq between the start of UK operations against Isis last September and the end of March.
CIA drone strikes continued in Pakistan. The first of two strikes killed 4-7 people on May 16, ending a 34 day pause. The attack hit a domestic compound reportedly being used by the Pakistan Taliban. There were no named dead though both Pakistanis and foreigners were killed, according to anonymous Pakistani officials.
The second strike hit on May 18, hours after the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the first attack. It released a statement repeating its “call for a cessation of such strikes,” describing them as counter-productive. The second attack reportedly killed 3-6 people, none of them identified, when it hit a domestic compound and possibly a vehicle.
The two strikes in May represent a slight increase from the solitary strikes that reportedly hit Pakistan in March and April. It is below the intense period in January when five attacks killed 26-38 people, the highest number of people killed per strike since August 2014.
Both attacks hit in the Shawal area – a forested region of steep valleys that straddles the North and South Waziristan as well as the Pakistan and Afghanistan border. Several armed groups reportedly have long established strongholds there because of its location and inhospitable terrain. Seven of the nine strikes so far this year have reportedly hit within the Shawal.
The Pakistan military was this month reportedly preparing to send troops into the Shawal, 11 months after it began its ongoing military operation in North Waziristan. The scale and progress of this push into the Shawal were unclear, Reuters reported. The area was said to be off limits to journalists with roads blocked and telephone cables cut.
Three confirmed US strikes killed 34 people in May – almost half the total number of people reported killed since January and the most in a single month this year, according to available reporting.
This increase in casualties came as Taliban attacks battered the Afghan army and police across the country. The insurgents continued to battle with Afghan forces around the capital of the northern Kunduz province, in Helmand in the south, and even in Kabul.
The confirmed US attacks all hit Nangarhar province and all reportedly killed named, alleged Taliban commanders.
The first killed 17 people on May 4. This was the highest reported death toll from a single strike since 18 were killed on January 3. The provincial police spokesman said: “A Taliban commander named Mullah Daoud is among the dead.”
A local resident told Afghan news service Pajhwok two strikes hit in quick succession. “Soon after the first attack, rebels came to collect bodies of their colleagues when [the rescuers] came under another attack,” he said. If true, this could demonstrate the continuation of a controversial tactic used by the CIA in Pakistan of deliberately targeting rescuers, first exposed by the Bureau in 2012.
The second confirmed US attack on May 9 killed 13 including Gul Agha, reportedly the Taliban’s shadow governor in the province. He had been put on a US government sanctions list in 2010, described as “the head of the Taliban’s financial commission and is part of a recently-created Taliban council that coordinates the collection of zakat [tithe] from Baluchistan Province, Pakistan.”
The third US attack killed four people on May 14 including Taliban commander Muslahuddin. A US military spokesman told the Bureau the US carried out the three Nangarhar strikes but said he was “not going to discuss the details of those strikes”.
Ten other air strikes that killed 37-75 people were reported in Afghanistan this month. All were described as US attacks but the Bureau has not yet been able to confirm that. The Bureau’s data provides only a part of the whole picture. The US military publishes summary data each month but will not release information on individual strikes.
The high number of confirmed and possible US attacks, and casualties, came as Taliban insurgents were reportedly fighting with Afghan forces in 10 provinces. “This is the worst fighting season in a decade,” according to analyst Attiqullah Amerkhil. “There is now fighting in every part of 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.
There were five reported US strikes in Yemen this month. However the Bureau has only been able to confirm three were US operations.
The first confirmed US attack killed four men on May 11 in Mukalla, the capital of the eastern province of Hadramout. The strike killed four al Qaeda members, identified as: Maamoun Hatem, Abu Anwar al Kutheiri, Mohammed Saleh al Gharabi and Mabkhout Waqash al Sayeri. Hatem (below) was reportedly among the more prominent supporters in Yemen of the Islamic State group.
The US has continued targeting al Qaeda in Yemen as a brutal civil war rages. The fighting between a complex mix of competing militias and factions halted for a five-day humanitarian ceasefire at 11pm on May 12. The second US strike killed three people in Shabwa province. It hit on May 16, the day before the ceasefire ended.
The third US attack killed 3-5 in the southern province of Shabwa on May 22. Local officials, tribal sources and security officials said US drones destroyed a vehicle in the province, killing several al Qaeda members. The two further possible US strikes all reportedly hit in Shabwa province as well.
On May 27 Saudi air strikes across the border in northern Yemen and in Sanaa killed at least 80 people, the deadliest day of bombing since the strikes began in March, according to Reuters. Forty people were reportedly killed in strikes in the Hajjah province, most of them civilians according to local sources. Forty more were reportedly killed in strikes in Sanaa a few hours later.
The months of bombing, shelling and street battles mean Yemen’s key infrastructure has been smashed. Food is in short supply, airport runways have been bombed, and a fuel shortage has stopped many water pumps from working.
“The infrastructure, health, all the other vital services people need, they’re in a state of collapse,” according to the director of operations at the UN’s Organisation for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “The ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] has been describing the situation as catastrophic and I think that is about the best word to describe the plight of the Yemeni people right now.”
The UN estimates nearly 2,000 people have died since the conflict began. There are 1,037 civilians reportedly among the dead, including 234 children and 134 women.
Also this month, three Yemeni men brought an unprecedented case against the German government in a court in Cologne. The men, relatives of two men killed in an August 2012 drone strike, “called upon the German government to accept legal and political responsibility for the US drone war in Yemen and to prohibit the use of Ramstein,” according to their lawyers.
Ramstein is a US air base in Germany which is a key hub in the network controlling US drones over Asia and the Middle East. It acts as a relay station, sending information it receives in real time via undersea cables from the US, directly to satellites and on to the drones. Their first attempt was defeated, however the men were given leave to appeal the decision.
There were no reported US strikes in Somalia for the second month running. However an al Shabaab commander died of natural causes this month having at least twice survived US attacks.
Ethiopian Hasan al Turki, 73, died after a long illness, al Shabaab reported. He met Osama Bin Laden in the mountains of Afghanistan and in Sudan, al Shabaab’s spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamud Rageh said.
Al Turki (below) was added to the US Treasury Department al Qaeda sanctions list in 2001 and the UN Security Council’s al Qaeda list in 2004.
On January 23 2007 the US killed eight people, possibly including civilians, in an AC-130 gunship attack. It was meant to kill al Turki, then a deputy leader of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), as well as Ahmed Madobe a fellow ICU leader. The US reportedly missed al Turki again on March 3 2008 with a cruise missile fired from a US warship. Al Turki was then leader of the Ras Kamboni Brigades, an Islamist insurgent group in southern Somalia that merged with al Shabaab in 2010.
Also this month, al Shabaab continued to demonstrate it is a dangerous enemy for both the Somali and Kenyan governments.
John Kerry was the first US secretary of state to visit Somalia on May 5. He spent three hours in the highly fortified diplomatic enclave near Mogadishu’s airport before flying back into Kenya. The next day Abdifatah Barre, the deputy district commissioner of Mogadishu’s Wadajir district, was murdered by al Shabaab on the streets of the capital.
On May 23 fighting between al Shabaab and government forces reportedly left at least 24 people dead in southern Somalia. Four people were also shot dead in Mogadishu by al Shabaab, including a parliamentarian.
In Kenya, al Shabaab took control of a village on May 21 for several hours. The group forced the villagers to the mosque where they preached at them for two hours before leaving. It attacked a second village the next day, also in Garissa Count. Al Shabaab said it took control of Yumbis village for eight hours though the Kenyan interior ministry claimed its forces had successfully repelled the attack. A local resident told al Jazeera masked al Shabaab fighters had planted their black flag throughout the village.
The following week al Shabaab gunmen attacked two police patrols in Garissa, triggering a gun battle that the armed group claimed left 25 Kenyans dead. The police said one of its men had been killed. The instability in Garissa forced Medecin Sans Frontier (MSF) to evacuate a third of its staff from Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp. It sits near the Somali border and is home to thousands of ethnic Somalis. MSF said it was forced to close two of its four health posts there and suspend its ante-natal work entirely.
This article was originally published on Monthly drone report, May 2015: US strikes kill at least 48 in three countries