Drone war report, January – June 2015: controversial ‘signature strikes’ hit Yemen and Pakistan

The Bureau’s estimates are based predominantly on information from open sources like media reports. Sometimes it is not possible to reconcile details in different reports. This is why we use ranges for our record of casualties and, in the case of Yemen and Somalia, our strike tallies.

** In Pakistan the US has only carried out drone strikes.

iii. Bureau analysis for the first half of 2015:

US drone and air strikes killed at least 207 people in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen so far in 2015, according to data collected by the Bureau.

The strikes left 52 dead in June alone. Last month there were two confirmed US strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, and four in Afghanistan.

CIA drones have been striking in Pakistan at a rate of around two per month for the past two years. After an intense start to the year, with five attacks reported in January, the strikes have become more occasional with none reported in February, one in March and April, and two in May and June.

This year Yemen has sunk into a civil war. Despite this, on January 25 President Barack Obama said the crisis would not affect the US’ counter-terrorism tactics. The US punctuated this statement with drone strikes on January 26, January 31 and February 2. There was then a pause for more than two months in Yemen.

The attacks abated as the Shia Houthi militia forced the government into exile and began taking control of major cities in the west of the country. Saudi Arabia began bombing Yemen in an as-yet fruitless effort to halt the Houthi advance.

The drone strikes returned in April in response to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) exploiting the crisis and taking control of the city of Mukalla in the east of the country.

Two strikes in the past six months are of particular note. Both were signature strikes – targeted at men who had been judged as al Qaeda based on their observed patterns of behaviour rather than their actual identities.

In January, the US killed two al Qaeda hostages, an American and an Italian, in Pakistan. The attack was aimed at a building housing four unnamed targets – correctly determined to be al Qaeda fighters by their observed patterns of behaviour.

Unbeknownst to the CIA, the two hostages were being held in the same building. It took the Agency several weeks to determine it had killed the two civilians in the attack.

Another CIA drone strike, this time in Yemen, also appeared to be a signature strike. It killed AQAP’s commander, Nasser al Wuhayshi (right).

Unnamed “US officials familiar with the situation” told Bloomberg the CIA had tracked al Wuhayshi and targeted him in the attack. Other unnamed US officials, however, told the Washington Post they did not know al Wuhayshi was in the car when the drones struck.

The CIA has not commented on the strike, however the timeline of events leading to the White House declaring al Wuhayshi dead suggests this was indeed a signature strike. CNN first reported his death, citing two unnamed Yemeni officials. A US official told the broadcaster America was reviewing its intelligence to see if they had killed him. It was only after AQAP itself declared Wuhayshi dead that the US came out with its own statement.

The CIA’s drone campaign continued in Pakistan with two strikes killing 11-14 people in the first week of June.

Four or five people were killed in a strike on the Shawal area of North Waziristan on June 1. Five days later drones reportedly hit the Shawal again, killing 7-9 people. Tribal and security sources told The News three women were among the dead. Another unnamed official told the paper fighters had their families with them “and it is possible the drone killed women as well.” None of the people killed last month have been identified.

June also saw the one year anniversary of the beginning of the Pakistani offensive in North Waziristan. The Pakistani military began air strikes in June 2014, gradually putting ground troops into the tribal agency as the second half of the year progressed. Thousands of militants have been killed since, according to the Pakistani military information service ISPR. However it is impossible to verify these claims as the army is not allowing journalists into the area and telecoms have reportedly been disrupted in some areas. This is also affecting the flow of information relating to drone strikes.

Six month analysis

All the CIA drone strikes so far this year have damaged or destroyed domestic buildings. And 10 of the 11 strikes have reportedly hit in the Shawal area of North Waziristan.

The Shawal is a forested area of steep valleys. This inhospitable region straddles the North-South Waziristan border, and the Afghan-Pakistan border. It has long been a stronghold for smugglers and armed groups. It is one of the last Taliban bastions to be taken by Pakistani ground forces in the military’s ongoing offensive.

The rate of strikes in Pakistan could be reaching a stable point after falling from the peak of the campaign in the second half of 2010. The first and second halves of 2013, and the second half of last year saw strike hit at a rate of around two per month.

The exception is the first half of 2014 when attacks stopped entirely for more than five months while the Pakistan government tried and ultimately failed to negotiate a peace deal with the Pakistan Taliban. Three drone strikes hit in June, after the Pakistan military had begun its now year-long military operation in North Waziristan.

The Bureau has been collecting data on US air and drone strikes in Afghanistan since the start of January this year. In this period, June has been the deadliest month yet recorded.

There have been eight confirmed US attacks that have killed 50-89 people, including at least 14 civilians.

The first two confirmed US attacks, on June 5 and June 8, reportedly killed civilians. The first hit a convoy of vehicles leaving a funeral in Khost province. The attack either killed 34 insurgents who had just buried a senior Taliban commander. Or it killed 14-29 civilian members of the Kuchi tribe who had buried a tribal elder.

The US said it had attacked armed militants in Khost and that reports of civilian casualties were being investigated.

The second attack hit three days later and killed seven people. One was identified as Spargahy, a local Taliban commander. Up to six of the dead were said to be high school students who had been taken for military training. It was not clear what age they were or whether they were taken by force.

The third and fourth strikes killed 13-15 people, including up to seven named alleged Taliban insurgents. There were three US air strikes reported at the end of the month, hitting Nuristan and Paktika province. The Taliban had reportedly fought fierce battles with the Afghan army in the days before the US attacks. The Taliban briefly took control of the province’s Want Waygal district on June 26. The insurgents were pushed out of the area the same day and US air attack killed five in that district on June 27.

The article was published at Drone war report, January – June 2015: controversial ‘signature strikes’ hit Yemen and Pakistan.

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