Six-month update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia

Drone strikes restart in Pakistan after a pause of almost six months.

US drone strike casualty rate in Yemen jumps to 8.3 people killed in each attack on average.

Kenyan jets strike al Shabaab in Somalia.

The Naming the Dead project approaches 700 names.

CIA drone strikes in Pakistan‘s tribal area resumed on June 11 with an attack that killed at least four people. The first attack since December 25 2013, this brought to an end the longest pause in drone strikes of Obama’s presidency.

Within hours drones attacked again, killing 6-10 people shortly after midnight on June 12. Some reports said this was a follow-up strike on the same site that targeted rescuers. A third attack killed at least four more people on June 18.

After the first strike, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning the violation of its sovereignty. However, a senior Pakistani official told Reuters: ‘The attacks were launched with the express approval of the Pakistan government and army.’

During the almost six-month hiatus in strikes, the Pakistani government held peace talks with the Pakistan Taliban (TTP), an armed group based in the tribal agency of North Waziristan. These were interrupted by terrorist attacks and retaliatory Pakistan Air Force strikes on the tribal regions. A Bureau investigation found that 15 Pakistani air strikes between December and June 15 reportedly killed 291-540 people, including 16-112 civilians.

The peace talks conclusively ended after a June 8 attack in which gunmen and suicide bombers stormed Karachi airport. At least 34 people were killed in the ensuing gun battle, including 10 attackers. The TTP and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), also based in North Waziristan, claimed responsibility.

On June 15, the Pakistani government announced a long-awaited military offensive against the TTP in North Waziristan.

More than 450,000 people have fled their homes in North Waziristan since late May. On June 19 the Pakistan government said it would not ask aid agencies, including the UN, for help handling the refugee crisis. A week later the World Health Organisation warned the mass exodus risked increasing the spread of polio beyond the tribal belt – currently Pakistan’s worst affected area.

June 17 marked the tenth anniversary of the first drone strike in Pakistan. In June 2004, CIA drones killed Nek Mohammed and at least five others, including two children. On the anniversary, the Bureau published an interactive timeline of key milestones in the campaign, and eyewitness accounts of this strike. One local told the Bureau he heard a buzzing: ‘There was some noise then from the east, a flash of light came. There was a big blast.’

Also in June, a task force of legal experts, retired military and national security officials convened by the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think-tank, published a year-long analysis of the US use of armed drones for targeted killing.

The report called for more transparency over drone strikes and voiced concerns that the Obama administration’s ‘heavy reliance on targeted killings as a pillar of US counter-terrorism strategy … risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts.’ The authors also concluded drones do not ’cause disproportionate civilian casualties or turn killing into a “video-game”.’

Six-monthly trends

The absence of reported drone strikes in the first five months of 2014 led some to question whether the campaign in Pakistan had ended entirely.

Several factors may have contributed to the lengthy hiatus. The Pakistani government spent the first half of the year in often fractious peace negotiations with the TTP. A source close to the talks told the Bureau that Islamabad had asked the US to stop drone strikes during the process. All hope of the talks succeeding ended with the TTP’s joint attack on Karachi airport on June 8; drone strikes returned days later.

Drones reportedly continued flying over the tribal regions, and US officials said the administration reserved the right to use lethal force if a target presented itself. It is possible the CIA may have decided to pursue a more limited list of targets.

The campaign may have been affected by the scaling-down of the US intelligence network over the border in Afghanistan. CIA border posts and listening stations are closing ahead of the drawdown and AP reported the CIA is ending payments to its proxy militias in the region, which gather human intelligence on targets in Pakistan.

The strikes may also have been constrained by secret negotiations leading up to the May 31 release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the last US prisoner of war. He was exchanged for five members of the Afghan Taliban held in Guantanamo. Bergdahl had been held prisoner in Pakistan’s tribal areas by the Haqqani Network, members of which were the target of at least one of June’s three strikes.

The year’s three strikes so far killed 14-24 people, none of whom were described as civilians. This is the smallest reported death toll for a six-month period of drone strikes in Pakistan since the first half of 2006, when 13-22 people reportedly died.

June saw one confirmed drone strike in Yemen, killing 5-6 people, and two further attacks that may have been drone strikes. One of these possible strikes, on June 4, killed 3-4 people. Casualties were unknown in the other.

Only two of the dead were identified, both described as members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). ‘Tribal sources‘ told reporters that the June 4 strike killed Jafar al Shabwani, describing him as a mid-level AQAP commander. He was the fourth man with this name to have reportedly died in a drone strike this year, but their relation to each other is unclear.

The confirmed US drone strike, on June 13 or 14, killed ‘leading AQAP figure’ Musaed al Habshi al Barasi al Awlaqi and two unnamed Saudis, along with at least two other unidentified casualties.

The US added alleged AQAP member Shawqi Ali Ahmed al Badani to a US sanctions list. According to unnamed officials, al Badani was the target of a disastrous US drone strike on a wedding procession in December 2013.

On June 23 the US government released, with redactions, a secret memo setting out legal justifications for killing a US citizen, Anwar al Awlaki. The release met with mixed reactions from national security analysts and legal experts.

June also saw the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) overrun major cities in Iraq. So far Washington has refused Baghdad’s requests for airstrikes on ISIS fighters, but has started flying armed drones over the country. And there are now more than 180 US special forces in the country.

Six-monthly trends

Six confirmed drone strikes since January this year have reportedly killed at least 50 people, including four civilians. This makes it the bloodiest six-month period for drone strikes in the country since the first half of 2012, when the US launched at least 21 confirmed drone strikes, killing upwards of 140 people.

While more people died overall in January to June 2012, this year’s drone strikes have had higher death tolls. The casualty rate for the past six months was 8.3 people killed per strike – the highest yet recorded in Yemen, and almost double that recorded in the second half of last year.

The article was published at Six-month update: US covert actions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

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