It seems that Mike Rogers lately is aiming to take over the Emptywheel blog. When he’s not yapping about criminalizing journalism or dissembling about Congressional briefings on the Patriot Act renewal, he’s putting out bloodthirsty endorsements of drone violence. When we last heard from him on the drone front, he was joining the mad rush to come up with the most damning indictment of Hakimullah Mehsud after the US disrupted Pakistan’s plans to start peace talks the very next day with a Taliban group headed by Mehsud. Yesterday, Rogers used a hearing of his House Intelligence Committee as a venue in which to pitch a tantrum over the US daring to adjust its drone policy, leading to fewer strikes.
Now, almost exactly three months after the Mehsud drone strike, we see the prospect for peace talks between Pakistan and the Taliban disrupted again. As I mentioned yesterday, Taliban negotiators fear that Pakistan’s government may be planning to scuttle the talks in order to launch an offensive against the Taliban in tribal areas, which might also play into a desire by Sharif’s government to be in line for counterterrorism funds which the US might not be spending in Afghanistan.
The Washington Post has Rogers’ tirade. First, there is news of a pause in drone strikes in Pakistan:
The Obama administration has sharply curtailed drone strikes in Pakistan after a request from the government there for restraint as it pursues peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, according to U.S. officials.
“That’s what they asked for, and we didn’t tell them no,” one U.S. official said. The administration indicated that it will still carry out strikes against senior al-Qaeda targets, if they become available, and move to thwart any direct, imminent threat to U.S. persons.
Concern about Pakistani political sensitivities provides one explanation for the absence of strikes since December, the longest pause in the CIA’s drone campaign since a six-week lull in 2011, after an errant U.S. air assault killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post, triggering a diplomatic crisis.
Oooh, look! There’s Marcy’s favorite word again, “imminent“. But this lull in drone strikes, coupled with the explanation offered in the Post, tells us that no suitable al Qaeda targets with credible plans against the US presented themselves in Pakistan’s tribal areas for over a month. That didn’t deter Rogers; he’s upset that any potential targets aren’t blasted immediately: Continue reading
Back in November, two bomb blasts in front of the Iranian embassy in Beirut killed 23 people. From the very beginning, it was known that an al Qaeda-linked group known as the Abdullah Azzam Brigades was responsible for the attack. In a fascinating sequence of events, we have learned that the mastermind of the attack, Majed al-Majed, died in Lebanese custody. Iran claims that Majed had very strong ties to Saudi Arabia, and specifically to Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan. In a very interesting twist, Saudi Arabia announced a pledge of $3 billion to Lebanon, ostensibly to be used to buy weapons from France. The announcement most likely came after Majed had been arrested but before news reports had leaked out about his detention, although news reports vary widely on when and where he was detained.
The announcement of the Saudi pledge to Lebanon came on December 29:
Saudi Arabia has pledged $3bn for the Lebanese army, Lebanese President Michel Suleiman announced, calling it the largest grant ever given to the country’s armed forces.
“The king of the brotherly Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is offering this generous and appreciated aid of $3bn to the Lebanese army to strengthen its capabilities,” Suleiman said in a televised address on Sunday.
He said the funds would allow Lebanon’s military to purchase French weapons.
An AFP report suggested that Majed was arrested around December 26:
An Al-Qaeda-linked Saudi suspect detained in Lebanon is being held in a military hospital because “he is in poor health”, a medical official told AFP Friday.
The doctor who had been treating Majid before his arrest without knowing who he was said he suffers from kidney failure and requires regular dialysis.
“On December 26, the hospital where Majid was being treated contacted the Red Cross to arrange his transfer to another hospital,” said the source.
But before the suspect arrived at the second facility, “the Lebanese army intelligence intercepted the ambulance and arrested Majid,” the source said, adding that neither the hospital nor the ambulance teams had prior knowledge of who Majid was.
In its announcement on January 1 of Majed’s arrest, the New York Times has highly conflicting information about when the arrest took place. First, this bit suggests they were working under the assumption that the arrest was near the January 1 date of the article:
He was taken into custody just three days after Saudi Arabia pledged a $3 billion aid package to the Lebanese Army.
But near the end of this same article, the Times suggests that he was in custody as early as December 15 (clearly before the Saudi pledge was announced):
While it is not known when Mr. Majid was detained, Hezbollah’s television channel Al Manar quoted Lebanese security officials as saying that an attack on a security checkpoint on Dec. 15 near Sidon and the Ein al-Hilwe camp was an attempt by militants to free him.
Given the additional detail and reporting from doctors involved in his treatment, the AFP report seems to me to be more reliable, placing Majed’s arrest after December 26, but most likely not very long after that date since a patient requiring dialysis cannot put if off for very many days.
The Times report suggests that Saudi Arabia considered Majed to be a criminal: Continue reading
Iraq has been seeping back into the headlines lately, as civilian deaths there have now reached a level last seen in 2008. What is striking about this increase is that it did not occur until almost 18 months after the last US troops left Iraq.
Here is a screen capture of the latest data on civilian deaths in Iraq by Iraq Body Count:
Recall that the final US troops left Iraq in the middle of December, 2011. The civilian death rate had leveled off in 2010 and remained steady throughout all of 2012, not rising significantly until May of 2013. Recall that earlier this week, conclusions of a National Intelligence Estimate on Afghanistan were leaked, suggesting that should the US completely withdraw troops from Afghanistan as we did in Iraq, the situation would deteriorate very rapidly. With Iraq now at high levels of violence, it would be very easy for politicians to lose sight of the very long gap between withdrawal of our troops and the rise in civilian deaths. Iraq should not be used as a cautionary tale against complete withdrawal though, since there was such a long gap between the withdrawal and the degradation of security.
Recall that David Petraeus was quick to accept praise for the drop in civilian death rates that began in late 2007 and continued throughout 2008. Many attributed this calming to Petraeus’ surge and others ascribed it to the “Anbar Awakening” that Petraeus exploited:
Controversially, he even started putting some Sunni groups – including some that had previously fought the U.S. – on the American payroll. The “Anbar Awakening” of Sunni groups willing to cooperate with the Americans had begun in 2005, but at a smaller scale. Petraeus recognized that the groups had real community influence and ability to bring security, whether he liked them or not, and brought them on board. At the program’s peak in 2008, the U.S. had “contracted” 103,000 fighters who were now ostensibly paid to assist an American-dominated peace rather than the disrupt it. That same year, according to Ricks, the U.S. signed ceasefire deals with 779 separate Iraqi militias.
Other analysts, especially Daniel Davis, came to the conclusion that most of the decline in violence was due to Sunni citizens in Anbar rejecting the extreme violence to which al Qaeda had sunk and especially its toll on fellow Muslims.
As is well known, the turning point in 2007 Iraq came when the heart of the Sunni insurgency turned against al-Qaeda and joined with US Forces against them, dramatically reducing the violence in Iraq almost overnight. The overriding reason the Sunni insurgency turned towards the United States was because after almost two years of internal conflict between what ought to have been natural allies – al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the greater Sunni insurgency – a tipping point was reached whereby the Iraqi Sunnis finally and decisively turned against AQI. Had this unnatural split not occurred, by all accounts I have been given on both the Iraqi side and the US military side, “we would still be fighting in Iraq today,” in the words of two officers I know who fought there.
Although there likely are many factors that contributed to the eventual outbreak of violence in Iraq that elevated civilian death rates, one possibility that intrigues me is that the timing fits reasonably well to be a part of Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan’s play for regional dominance. Marcy noted this week that the recent bombings in Russia fit with Bandar’s warning delivered to Putin in a secret meeting last July. But if we go back to the report on that meeting, we see this about Bandar’s regional plan and especially how it applied to Syria: Continue reading
As more details emerge on the drone strike Thursday in Yemen that hit a wedding party, it is becoming clear that the New York Times got it wrong, and those killed were mostly civilians rather than mostly suspected al Qaeda militants. A follow-up story in the Los Angeles Times on Friday put the death toll at 17, with only five of the dead having suspected al Qaeda connections. But CNN’s follow-up on Friday is even worse: they put the death toll at only 14, but they carried this statement from a Yemeni official:
“This was a tragic mistake and comes at a very critical time. None of the killed was a wanted suspect by the Yemeni government,” said a top Yemeni national security official who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to media.
If we read between the lines, then, it would seem that although a few of those killed may have had al Qaeda connections, they were not of sufficiently high profile to merit being wanted by Yemen’s government.
The CNN story only gets worse:
The convoy consisted of 11 vehicles, and the officials said that four of the vehicles were targeted in the strikes. Two of the vehicles were completely damaged. Among the killed were two prominent tribal leaders within the province.
This piece of information alone seems to embody all of the moral depravity of the US drone program as it now stands. Despite all the bleating about the effort put into assuring that only militants are targeted and that every effort is made to prevent civilian casualties, there simply is no justification for proceeding with an attack that intends to target fewer than half the vehicles in a large convoy. Such an attack is virtually guaranteed to kill more than just those targeted, and as discussed above, it seems very likely that even those targeted in this strike were low level operatives instead of high level al Qaeda leaders.
Sunday saw a strong response to the attacks by Yemen’s Parliament. They voted to end drone strikes in the country. From CNN:
Yemen’s parliament Sunday called for an end to drone strikes on its territory after a U.S. missile attack mistakenly struck a wedding convoy, killing more than a dozen people.
The nearly unanimous but non-binding vote was “a strong warning” to both the United States and the government of Yemeni President Abdo Rabbo Mansour Hadi, a Yemeni government official told CNN.
“The Yemeni public is angered by the drone strikes,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to talk to reporters. “The people’s representatives reflected on the tone of the streets.”
The official statement carried in the Reuters story on the vote strikes a similar position to what we have been hearing from Pakistan regarding US drone strikes there:
“Members of parliament voted to stop what drones are doing in Yemeni airspace, stressing the importance of preserving innocent civilian lives against any attack and maintaining Yemeni sovereignty,” the state news agency SABA said.
There’s that pesky issue of sovereignty again. Recall that it is a huge driver for the demonstrations by Imran Khan’s PTI party that have shut down NATO convoys on Pakistan’s northern supply route. And Khan appears to be gearing up for his protests to stage major events in Lahore and even Islamabad next week.
Writing in The Atlantic this morning, Conor Friedersdorf poses some interesting questions regarding the strike: Continue reading
At least fifteen people were killed by a US drone strike in Yemen yesterday. It is particularly difficult to get accurate information in the immediate aftermath of strikes in Yemen, and the reports being generated now conflict in several regards, but what seems to be clear on all fronts is that the convoy of vehicles that was attacked was a wedding party.
Reuters reports the targeting of the wedding party as a mistake:
Fifteen people on their way to a wedding in Yemen were killed in an air strike after their party was mistaken for an al Qaeda convoy, local security officials said on Thursday.
The officials did not identify the plane in the strike in central al-Bayda province, but tribal and local media sources said that it was a drone.
“An air strike missed its target and hit a wedding car convoy, ten people were killed immediately and another five who were injured died after being admitted to the hospital,” one security official said.
But the New York Times seems quite willing to accept claims that there were al Qaeda militants present in the convoy:
Most of the dead appeared to be people suspected of being militants linked to Al Qaeda, according to tribal leaders in the area, but there were also reports that several civilians had been killed.
The Times opened their article, however by noting that the vehicles that were hit were indeed traveling to a wedding. Yemen reporter Adam Baron noted that he also was getting reports that those killed were mostly militants:
Possible twist? (staunchly anti-drone) Qayfa contact now saying those killed wedding convoy strike were mostly local AQ fighters. #yemen
— Adam Baron (@adammbaron) December 12, 2013
That Baron got that report from a drone critic is especially interesting. But Baron went on to pose a very important queston:
What’s worse: a drone strike hitting a wedding convoy by mistake or a drone strike hitting a wedding convoy on purpose? #yemen
— Adam Baron (@adammbaron) December 12, 2013
And just to make things even more interesting, Baron tweeted this morning that he now is hearing from “tribal sources” that a teenager with US citizenship was among those killed.
The AP story carried in the Washington Post reports on the multiple accounts that exist:
There were no immediate details on who was killed in the strike, and there were conflicting reports about whether there were militants traveling with the wedding convoy.
A military official said initial information indicated the drone mistook the wedding party for an al-Qaida convoy. He said tribesmen known to the villagers were among the dead.
One of the three security officials, however, said al-Qaida militants were suspected to have been traveling with the wedding convoy.
Did you notice what AP reported the “military official” to have said? From that snippet, we see the claim that it was the drone that made the mistake in targeting, as if we already are employing drones that are capable of autonomous function. No, drones are still simply tools to deliver weapons and it was the operator flying the drone and firing the missiles who made the mistake, not the drone.
Once again, John Brennan has shown with this strike his amazing ability to carry out strikes that now and then are so depraved that they seem almost intentionally crafted to put the drone program in the worst possible light.
Marcy has been all over the current episode of security theater surrounding the latest al Qaeda “conference call” that led to the closure of many US embassies, but I want to focus on news reports that have come out over the last month or so that remind us, once again, that high rates of civilian deaths in drone strikes in Yemen, as they do elsewhere, contribute dramatically to recruitment for al Qaeda. Analyst Gregory Johnsen is one of the most authoritative voices on militants in the region (a must-follow on Twitter as @gregorydjohnsen). He appeared on the PBS News Hour last week to discuss the latest flurry of US drone strikes in Yemen. A startling statistic he cited is that on the date of Underwear Bomb 1.0, Christmas Day of 2009, al Qaeda had approximately 200-300 members in Yemen. Today, after dramatic increases in US drone strikes, al Qaeda has “more than a few thousand”. Johnsen informs us that the estimate of al Qaeda force size in Yemen today comes from the US State Department. Here is his interview in full:
Wow, US “targeted killings” of high-level AQAP figures in Yemen has been so effective that the group is now only ten times larger than it was less than four years ago.
In an extended video report posted at BBC last week, Yalda Hakim talked to family members of civilians killed in US drone strikes along with a widely known “pro-US democracy advocate” and Yemen’s Foreign Minister.
A particularly sad story comes from Mohammed Ahmad Bagash, whose eight year old daughter died in a strike:
During the fighting, al Qaeda fighters stored ammunition in the local hospital against the wishes of the doctors.
After the hospital was hit by a missile strike, Mohammed and his two children ran to a school and hid in the basement.
But then the school was hit in a suspected drone strike.
“It was as if everyone was burning. It was all dark,” said Mr Bagash.
“When the smoke cleared, I saw my son’s leg was bleeding, and my daughter was hit on the back of the head,” he said.
He carried both children out. His son survived but his eight-year-old daughter bled to death on the way to the hospital.
Mr Bagash has a question for the person who ordered the drone strike: “What did my daughter ever do to them? She was only eight years old.”
And then a bleak observation.
“They think we’re rats. We’re not. We’re human beings.”
Even fans of the US in Yemen see that drone strikes work against the US: Continue reading
Joby Warrick takes to the pages of the Washington Post again today in his primary function of regurgitating whatever points the US government wishes to make. In today’s installment, Warrick is repeating US statements on how Iran’s expulsion of Suleiman Abu Ghaith reveals a widening crack between Iran and al Qaeda, but by confining his report to the talking points he got from the government, he misses the larger context of how the Iran-al Qaeda issues fit into the overall propaganda battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Here is the beginning of Warrick’s report (which he begins, of course, by crediting “US officials”):
Iran’s expulsion of a senior al-Qaeda official appears to signal a crackdown on the terrorist group that has long been granted safe haven within its borders, U.S. officials say.
Iran’s ouster of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a former al-Qaeda spokesman and the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, marked at least the third time in the past year that a prominent al-Qaeda figure has left the country after living for years in a limbo between houseguest and home detainee.
U.S. officials and terrorism experts say the tougher stance appears to reflect growing tensions between Iran’s Shiite clerics and the Sunni Muslim terrorist group, particularly over the civil war in Syria, where they are backing opposing sides.
Despite the fact that the primary source of support for al Qaeda, as a “Sunni Muslim terrorist group” is Saudi Arabia, that country is never mentioned in Warrick’s report. Such an omission is especially glaring because Iran is producing much material right now in its ongoing propaganda battle against Saudi Arabia. The UN report on human rights in Iran released earlier this week provided much fodder for Iran’s propaganda machine. In the press release accompanying release of the report, the UN noted:
An independent United Nations expert today voiced serious concern about the general situation of human rights in Iran, pointing to “widespread and systemic” torture, as well as the harassment, arrest and attacks against human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists.
“The prevailing situation of human rights in Iran continues to warrant serious concern, and will require a wide range of solutions that are both respectful of cultural perspectives and mindful of the universality of fundamental human rights promulgated by the treaties to which Iran is a party,” said the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed.
At the same time, a “preponderance of reports” communicated to him this past year indicate that that the situation for individuals in Iran who advocate for the advancement of human rights, or those that document, report, or protest against human rights violations, is “grave and continues to deteriorate.”
People who defend the rights of women, religious and ethnic minorities, as well as those that work to advance protections for the environment, workers and children continue to be subjected to harassment, arrest, interrogation, and torture and are “frequently charged with vaguely-defined national security crimes, which is seemingly meant to erode the frontline of human rights defence in the country,” said the expert.
At Fars News, Iran is denouncing the report and Shaheed, blaming “terrorists” aligned with the West for fabrication. Remarkably, though, at Mehr News, Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of exactly the same offenses as the UN found against Iran, specifically the abuse and imprisonment of human rights activists: Continue reading
Australia’s Institute for Economics and Peace released a study (pdf) today in which they have tabulated terrorist attacks over the past ten years. They have developed a Global Terrorism Index which, on a country by country basis, quantifies attacks by number of fatalities, number of injuries and property damage incurred and allows for trends over time. The top three countries in the index are, in order, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the US has spent the bulk of its efforts in the Great War on Terror since the attacks of September 11, 2001. The fact remains that after over ten years of effort, over a trillion dollars spent and thousands of US troops killed, terrorism remains at greatly elevated levels in those countries compared to the level at the beginning of the study in 2002. There has been a slight plateauing of the number of attacks since its peak in 2007, but there is no real trend toward lower numbers of attacks. The top ten countries, from the report:
What qualifies as terrorism differs greatly depending on the definition employed. The definition employed here is:
the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation
The study notes that in this context, drones are excluded:
This definition excludes perceived acts of state terror, such as drone attacks resulting in civilian casualties.
It should be noted that the scale employed is logarithmic and so small differences in the terror index number reflect large differences in the numbers of attacks and fatalities. For 2011, there were 1228 incidents in the top country Iraq with 1798 fatalities while the number nine country Russia saw 182 incidents with 159 fatalities. An interactive map of the data can be found here.
As mentioned above, attacks increased greatly from 2002 through 2007 and then plateaued. The trend of attacks over time can be seen here:
The study looked at the data in an attempt to find potential causes of terrorism (emphasis in original):
Analysis has also been carried out against a range of socioeconomic data to determine what factors may be associated with terrorism. The factors that correlated the strongest with the GTI were group grievances, intergroup cohesion, human rights, and political stability.
Interestingly, even though the US embarked on its Great War on Terror in response to an attack by al Qaeda, the study found only one incident in 2011 attributed to it. However, there are many offshoots of the group which remain active:
According to GTD data, however, the al-Qa’ida organization itself was responsible for only one incident – a kidnapping – out of the 5000 terrorist incidents in 2011, while 11 of the most 20 [sic] active groups globally were al-Qa’ida linked.
So while the primary al Qaeda organization is essentially defunct with regard to terror attacks, its offshoots remain active. In terms of fatalities, the top three groups for the time period 2002 through 2001 were the Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State of Iraq. Despite all the effort by the US, its targets remain the most effective actors in global terrorism in terms of deaths.
In a rational world, this report would prompt long, careful review in Washington and a reassessment of how our country goes about trying to stop terrorism. Instead, it is more likely to result in allocation of even more lives and treasure to tactics and strategies that have proven completely useless.
Yesterday, the State Department released its annual Country Reports on Terrorism and held a briefing regarding the findings. Both ABC and Reuters covered the report and crafted their stories around a single finding from it: world-wide terror attacks decreased from 11,641 in 2010 to 10,283 in 2011. Both outlets decided (as the State Department dictated to them) that this decline was due to the death of Osama bin Laden just before the midpoint of 2011. ABC chose to use “Sharp Decline in Terror Attacks After Bin Laden Death” as their headline and Reuters went with “Al Qaeda decline hard to reverse after Bin Laden killing: US“.
However, even a cursory look beyond the comparison of the attack totals for 2011 compared to 2010 shows that drawing the conclusions stated by these headlines is completely unwarranted. First, take a look at the “noise” in the annual numbers for worldwide attacks. Data have only been collected for four years, 2007-2011 and the number jumps considerably from year to year:
I don’t think bin Laden also died in 2008 and 2009, so there must be some other reason the worldwide attack numbers went down in those years.
Looking further into the data, we see that the NCTC did break out the attacks that could be directly attributed to al Qaeda. Neither ABC nor Reuters chose to present this information in their stories, perhaps because it directly contradicts the narrative that the State Department wanted delivered:
Attacks by AQ and its affiliates increased by 8 percent from 2010 to 2011. A significant increase in attacks by al-Shabaab, from 401 in 2010 to 544 in 2011, offset a sharp decline in attacks by al-Qa‘ida in Iraq (AQI) and a smaller decline in attacks by al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qa‘ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
That’s right. Attacks by al Qaeda actually went up in 2011, and yet the State Department and our subservient press are happily chirping that we have them on the run. From ABC Continue reading
Back in early February, a report from Chris Woods and Christina Lamb at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism delivered the shocking news that CIA targeting practices for drone attacks include the intentional targeting of mourners at funerals and first responders to initial attacks:
The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan has killed dozens of civilians who had gone to help rescue victims or were attending funerals, an investigation by the Bureau for the Sunday Times has revealed.
But research by the Bureau has found that since Obama took office three years ago, between 282 and 535 civilians have been credibly reported as killed including more than 60 children. A three month investigation including eye witness reports has found evidence that at least 50 civilians were killed in follow-up strikes when they had gone to help victims. More than 20 civilians have also been attacked in deliberate strikes on funerals and mourners. The tactics have been condemned by leading legal experts.
As Woods and Lamb point out, targeting mourners and first responders is a practice that is both heinous and likely to include civilian deaths along with those who are military targets. However, it now appears that the strikes that took out Abu Yahya al-Libi included both a strike on mourners and possibly a strike on first responders, so it seems likely now that there will be a push from Obama administration figures to provide a patina of glory derived from taking out al-Qaeda’s number two in command to a practice that Woods and Lamb pointed out amounts to “little more than extra-judicial executions”.
Before it was known that al-Libi had likely been killed, Glenn Greenwald pointed out yesterday that Monday’s strikes had been aimed at mourners and I pointed out that locals in the vicinity feared a follow-on strike hitting first responders. Greenwald cited and quoted from a Guardian article pointing out the mourner aspect of the strike. More details come from this article in Pakistan Today:
A US drone targeted a compound believed to be used by militant commanders Mullah Nazir and Commander Malang in the Wocha Dana Beermal area of South Waziristan.
While officials in various intelligence agencies have confirmed al-Libi’s death, officials in the United States endorsed that al-Libi was the target of Monday’s drone strike. There has not been any confirmation or rejection of the report by al Qaeda yet. According to reports, the militants had gathered in the compound to condole the death of Malang’s brother who was killed the previous day in a drone attack in the same area.
Multiple reports indicate that two missiles were used in the attack that killed al-Libi. Continue reading