Umar Patek: Indonesia’s 20 Year Sentence Versus One Errant Drone Strike

Mark Mazzetti has a fascinating collection of details on drones. In addition to showing drone pilots training in New Mexico practicing by tracking (and therefore incidentally collecting intelligence on) US civilian cars and displaying a real callousness about their video game killing, Mazzetti describes this 2006 drone strike in the Philippines.

Over the years, details have trickled out about lethal drone operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen and elsewhere. But the drone war has been even more extensive. According to three current and former intelligence officials I spoke to, in 2006, a barrage of Hellfire missiles from a Predator hit a suspected militant camp in the jungles of the Philippines, in an attempt to kill the Indonesian terrorist Umar Patek. The strike, which was reported at the time as a “Philippine military operation,” missed Patek but killed others at the camp.

The detail is interesting not just because it reveals the scope of our drone war. It also provides an opportunity to compare two possible outcomes for Patek, who built the bombs used in the 2002 Bali bombings: death by drone strike in 2006, versus his conviction in an Indonesian court last year.

The outcome of the trial last month is a mixed bag. Because Patek apologized and argued successfully that he did not have as significant a role as the other conspirators (who have already been executed), he got just a 20 year sentence. But his conviction brings closure to the 2002 attacks (though it’s not clear whether Hambali will ever be charged); compare that with 9/11, where victims still have seen none of the plotters convicted.

So while counterterrorism officials might argue Patek got off easy (and I wouldn’t put it beyond the US to render him at the close of his sentence), some kind of justice has been served, which is more than the US can say.

Then there’s the possibility that Patek served an added purpose.

At the very least, Patek underwent interrogation in Pakistani custody for 7 months before his extradition to Indonesia. Presumably, he provided intelligence on matters unrelated to the Bali bombings.

But there’s a question that has, AFAIK, never been answered. Patek was arrested in January 2011 in Abbottabad, Pakistan. There have always been suspicions that the arrest of Patek in the city Osama bin Laden was hidden out in (Patek reportedly planned to meet OBL) helped to solidify the case that he was in fact the “Pacer” in the compound. Did Patek help the US get OBL?

We can’t really compare that to what might have happened had Patek died in 2006. How do you weigh the ongoing training Patek offered in the interim 5 years? How many innocents were killed in that strike in 2006?

But given how much intelligence the CIA appeared to be sustaining on Patek, it seems arrest rather than drone strike might bring additional tangible benefits.

5 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    One of the things that struck me in the NYT’s Mark Mazzetti Drone Zone article were these parts:

    “…Today many of the pilots at Holloman never get off the ground. The base has been converted into the U.S. Air Force’s primary training center for drone operators, where pilots spend their days in sand-colored trailers near a runway from which their planes take off without them. Inside each trailer, a pilot flies his plane from a padded chair, using a joystick and throttle, as his partner, the “sensor operator,” focuses on the grainy images moving across a video screen, directing missiles to their targets with a laser…

    …When I visited the base earlier this year with a small group of reporters, we were taken into a command post where a large flat-screen television was broadcasting a video feed from a drone flying overhead. It took a few seconds to figure out exactly what we were looking at. A white S.U.V. traveling along a highway adjacent to the base came into the cross hairs in the center of the screen and was tracked as it headed south along the desert road. When the S.U.V. drove out of the picture, the drone began following another car.

    “Wait, you guys practice tracking enemies by using civilian cars?” a reporter asked. One Air Force officer responded that this was only a training mission, and then the group was quickly hustled out of the room…”

    Now add that little tidbit with the Department of Defense Uruzgan Investigation of the 21 February 2010 US strike on civilians in Uruzgan Afghanistan where up to 23 civilians were killed and 12 others injured by OH-58D Kiowa helicopters using Hellfire missiles and High Explosive rockets on the advice of a Predator drone Air Force crew.

    From pages 33-34 of the DOD investigation report (50 page PDF):

    “…(g) (U) The Predator crew possessed a desire to engage inconsistent with the evolving target actions. The pervasive theme throughout several interviews with the Predator team, and seen throughout the internal crew dialogue was the desire to go kinetic. The Captain who was supposed to act as a safety observer stated that there was a “Top Gun” mentality amongst Predator crews…

    …1 Early on the AC 130 and the ODA CDR [Operational Detachment Alpha Commander] indicate a desire to destroy the vehicles based on the information available. At 0514D, the ODA JTAC [Operational Detachment Alpha Joint Tactical Air Controller] passes to the Predator crew that the “ODA CDR’s intent is to destroy the vehicles and the personnel…”

    …2 Early on when the Predator crew is talking about engaging the target based on a possible weapons sighting, TSgt [redacted] responds “we notice that but you know how it is with ROEs [Rules Of Engagement], so we have to be careful with those, ROEs.” In contrast the Predator crew acted almost juvenile in their desire to engage the targets. When the Screeners first identified children, the Predator Sensor responds “bull sh*t, where?” The Predator Pilot then follows with “at least one child…Really? assisting the MAM [Military Aged Male], uh, that means he’s guilty//Yeah review that (expletive deleted)…why didn’t he say possible child, why are they so quick to call (expletive deleted) kids but not call (expletive deleted) a rifle.”([redacted] audio log, Book 5, Exhibit T). The Predator sensor operator says on internal comms “I really doubt that children call, man I really (expletive deleted) hate that,” at 0557D he states, “I want this pickup truck full of dudes,” and at 0832D he says one guy fires the laser. Everybody else, buddy lazes for everybody else. And they all just go…and if they all fired simultaeneously…and it rains freakin’ Hellfires all over them, that would be bad ass, But…we’re not killers, we are ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance] ([redacted] audio log, Book 5, Exhibit T)…”

  2. Arbusto says:

    @MadDog @1:
    Wonder what the selection criteria for drone pilot/crew is vs fighter or rotowing candidates. Seems if you can walk and chew gum, more or less simultaneously, you qualify. Perhaps our military should take drone pilots out of targeting and have intel experts loose the ordinance.

  3. rosalind says:

    @MadDog: dummies should’ve invited the Reporters to sit in the chair and grab a joystick…Reporters would’ve been fighting each other off for the chance, and doubtful any concerns over civilian car targeting would’ve surfaced.

  4. MadDog says:

    @Arbusto: I’m not sure of the details, but from what I can gather they supposedly have a second set of eyes called “Screeners” that simultaneously view the same Predator Full Motion video feed that the Predator crew is seeing, and the Screeners are supposedly the ones who make the strike/no strike calls.

    From the details described in that DOD report, it seems that the Screeners were either bamboozled by the trigger-happy Predator crew (and the ground force SOF commander who thought he was being flanked), and/or the Screeners felt intimidated by the aggressiveness of Predator crew.

    Perhaps the strike process has improved since this incident back in February 2010, but even if it has, one should assume that the measurement of success for crews in the Air Force still rewards how many kills one gets.

    That motivation, is of course necessary to the function of Air Force crews (as well as other combatants in the other service branches), but it is also in direct competition and opposition to ensuring that only enemy combatants are targeted.

    This is of course the historical dilemma that all warfare entails, and I suspect that no amount of training or procedural detail will ever overcome that primary mission function and reward incentive of killing.

  5. MadDog says:

    @rosalind: So it was only jealousy that drove the reporter’s questioning about targeting civilian SUVs? I wouldn’t doubt your conclusion. Wannabee warriors who didn’t get to play with the toys.

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