You can bet that the “he was just a disturbed person who snapped, don’t look at it as a trend” pieces to start flowing any minute, but how can we see the brutal, senseless murders of Deah Barakat, Yusor Mohammad and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha as anything other than the natural consequence of over 13 years of the US targeting Muslims around the world? Just this week, despite his own role in the carnage of brown people, when Barack Obama tried to dial things back a bit by noting that violence has been perpetrated in the name of Christianity, we had shocking defenders of the Crusades rush into the debate.
As I noted back in December, the evidence is strong that a military approach to terrorism is almost always doomed to failure. And yet, the US just cannot let go of this military-industrial-antiterror complex. It leads to exceptionally deluded thinking. Obama was claiming as recently as September that Yemen was an example of “success” in the approach to terror. We knew even then that the claim was bullshit. The US got played as a dupe early there when Saleh dialed up a drone hit on a rival. There was ample evidence that the drone strikes were a boon to AQAP recruitment. The US even stooped so low as to kill a teenaged US citizen in a drone strike there.
That shining beacon of antiterror success in Yemen is folding now just as surely as our failures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and beyond. France and the UK are joining the US in closing embassies as Yemen crumbles further.
The war on Muslims has created a United States that is polarized to the point of taking up arms against innocent victims. It has created factions that defend atrocities both in the past and in current events. We reward Hollywood with near-record profits for a movie in which the we vicariously shoot Muslim evil-doers from a sniper’s perch.
How different would the world be today if the US had chosen to respond to 9/11 as a police matter rather than a military mission?
Ken Dilanian has a very interesting article in the Los Angeles Times outlining the latest failure in Congress’ attempts to exert oversight over drones. Senator Carl Levin had the reasonable idea of calling a joint closed session of the Senate Armed Services and Intelligence Committees so that the details of consolidating drone functions under the Pentagon (and helping the CIA to lose at least one of its paramilitary functions) could be smoothed out. In the end, “smooth” didn’t happen:
An effort by a powerful U.S. senator to broaden congressional oversight of lethal drone strikes overseas fell apart last week after the White House refused to expand the number of lawmakers briefed on covert CIA operations, according to senior U.S. officials.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who chairs the Armed Services Committee, held a joint classified hearing Thursday with the Senate Intelligence Committee on CIA and military drone strikes against suspected terrorists.
But the White House did not allow CIA officials to attend, so military counter-terrorism commanders testified on their own.
But perhaps the White House was merely retaliating for an earlier slight from Congress:
In May, the White House said it would seek to gradually move armed drone operations to the Pentagon. But lawmakers added a provision to the defense spending bill in December that cut off funds for that purpose, although it allows planning to continue.
Dilanian parrots the usual framing of CIA vs JSOC on drone targeting:
Levin thought it made sense for both committees to share a briefing from generals and CIA officials, officials said. He was eager to dispel the notion, they said, that CIA drone operators were more precise and less prone to error than those in the military.
The reality is that targeting in both the CIA and JSOC drone programs is deeply flawed, and the flaws lead directly to civilian deaths. I have noted many times (for example see here and here and here) when John Brennan-directed drone strikes (either when he had control of strike targeting as Obama’s assassination czar at the White House or after taking over the CIA and taking drone responsibility with him) reeked of political retaliation rather than being logically aimed at high value targets. But those examples pale in comparison to Brennan’s “not a bake sale” strike that killed 40 civilians immediately after Raymond Davis’ release or his personal intervention in the peace talks between Pakistan and the TTP. JSOC, on the other hand, has input from the Defense Intelligence Agency, which, as Marcy has noted, has its own style when it comes to “facts”. On top of that, we have the disclosure from Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald earlier this week that JSOC will target individual mobile phone SIM cards rather than people for strikes, without confirming that the phone is in possession of the target at the time of the strike. The flaws inherent in both of these approaches lead to civilian deaths that fuel creation of even more terrorists among the survivors.
Dilanian doesn’t note that the current move by the White House to consolidate drones at the Pentagon is the opposite of what took place about a year before Brennan took over the CIA, when his group at the White House took over some control of JSOC targeting decisions, at least with regard to signature strikes in Yemen.
In the end, though, it’s hard to see how getting all drone functions within the Pentagon and under Senate Armed Services Committee oversight will improve anything. Admittedly, the Senate Intelligence Committee is responsible for the spectacular failure of NSA oversight and has lacked the courage to release its thorough torture investigation report, but Armed Services oversees a bloated Pentagon that can’t even pass an audit (pdf). In the end, it seems to me that this entire pissing match between Congress and the White House is over which committee(s) will ultimately be blamed for failing oversight of drones.
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
NBC published a fascinating article yesterday that provided new and interesting details on the events surrounding the escalation of drone strikes in Yemen that took place in response to the “intercepted conference call” that wasn’t a conference call. Matthew Cole, Richard Esposito and Jim Miklaszewski report on the personnel and policy changes that were taking place in the Obama administration as these events unfolded and how these changes had led to a decrease in drone strikes:
Obama announced that he had chosen Lisa Monaco to replace Brennan as his top counterterror official on January 25, and she officially assumed the role of Homeland Security Advisor on March 8. The U.S. launched four strikes on Yemen between January 19 and January 23, just before Obama’s announcement about Monaco, but didn’t launch another until April 17.
“With Brennan going over to CIA and Monaco replacing him, it took time,” said a senior counterterrorism official. “This was a while coming. JSOC (the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command) was pushing for more strikes and more operations but the White House slowed everything down.”
Those three strikes in mid-April were followed by another lull in strikes until mid-May, when there were two strikes just before Obama’s drone policy speech:
In tandem with the drone speech, the President issued new internal guidance to officials that tightened controls on what targets could be hit and who could make the decision to launch a drone.
What followed, sources said, was more frustration from Defense Department officials, and a third, seven-week-long interruption in drone strikes that led to a backlog of identified militant targets in Yemen.
But the “targeting” done by JSOC in Yemen isn’t of the same quality as the information prepared for targeting by the CIA for strikes in Pakistan, according to the NBC report:
In May, around the time of Obama’s speech, senior military officials prepared “targeting packages” for Monaco, with a roster of suspected militants in Yemen that they wanted to eliminate. The “targeting packages” contain background information on the identified targets. The CIA’s packages for Pakistan are often very detailed, while the Defense Department’s research on Yemeni targets was sometimes less detailed.
In fact, the JSOC apparently even admitted that some of these recent targeting packages pertained to lower level targets, but in an apparent use of pre-cogs, they claimed these were going to be important al Qaeda figures in the future and the administration had to deal with the question of “pain now, or pain later” in their recommendation to take out these lower level operatives.
Keep in mind that these meetings to discuss drone targets, also know as “Terror Tuesday” meetings, are populated by high level security personnel from many agencies. Both JSOC, as the target developer for drone strikes in Yemen, and NSA, as the purveyor of information gleaned from surveillance, would of course be present.
As @pmcall noted to me on Twitter, the “intercept” then magically appeared and opened the floodgates for strikes:
@JimWhiteGNV Let’s see military frustrated no drone strikes approved & all of a sudden a magic message intercepted. Full speed ahead again
— pmcall (@pmcall) August 16, 2013
Here’s how the NBC article described that: Continue reading
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
Amid the escalating tensions, sources also told BBC Newsnight that the US was preparing special operations forces for possible strike operations against al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Although the US has previously sent special forces to train counter-terrorist units, there are now suggestions that the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), may be preparing units for strike operations, the sources said.
This information prompted me to remember that I had noticed someone mention that yesterday’s evacuation of personnel from Yemen was described as having employed an Air Force C-17. The C-17 is a highly versatile aircraft and can be rapidly reconfigured between transporting passengers and heavy equipment:
The design of the cargo compartment allows the C-17 to carry a wide range of vehicles, palleted cargo, paratroops, air-drop loads and aeromedical evacuees.
The cargo compartment has a sufficiently large cross-section to transport large wheeled and tracked vehicles, tanks, helicopters (such as the AH-64 Apache), artillery and weapons such as the Patriot missile system. Three Bradley armoured vehicles comprise one deployment load on the C-17. The US Army M1A1 main battle tank can be carried with other vehicles.
The maximum payload is 170,900lb (77,519kg) with 18 pallet positions, including four on the ramp. Airdrop capabilities include: a single load of up to 60,000lb (27,216kg), sequential loads of up to 110,000lb (49,895kg), Container Delivery System (CDS) airdrop up to 40 containers, 2,350lb (1,066kg) each, up to 102 paratroops.
Here is how the use of a C-17 in the evacuation was described:
Almost 100 U.S. government personnel were evacuated from Yemen at dawn Tuesday as the State Department urged all Americans in the country to leave “immediately” because of an “extremely high” threat of a terrorist attack — even as a U.S. drone attack killed four suspected terrorists.
U.S. officials said the “non-emergency evacuation” of “just under a hundred” personnel was carried out by an US Air Force C-17 which took off from the Yemeni capital, Sana’a, bound for Ramstein air base in Germany. Some essential embassy staff stayed behind.
And so that story would have us believe that as the C-17 left Sana’a for Ramstein, the inside looked somewhat like the photo above, but with the embassy personnel in civilian clothing instead of uniforms. But I wonder what the inside of the C-17 looked like as it landed in Sana’a. Something like this, maybe, with a number of Special Forces soldiers? (Not that tank would be the heavy equipment of choice, but you get the idea.)
Note also that the NBC story states the evacuation flight left at dawn. That means the C-17 would have arrived and possibly been unloaded under cover of darkness. Also note that Foust’s first assumption was that the usual course of action would have been for the US to utilize a commercial charter for the evacuation. Use of the C-17 instead of a commercial charter opens up more possibilities on what the US may have been up to with these flights.
Finally sensing that US policy on Yemeni prisoners at Guantanamo is a disaster of epic proportions, and after playing a key role in putting the moratorium on release of Yemeni prisoners into place, Dianne Feinstein on Thursday took the first step toward trying to resolve the crisis before hunger striking prisoners begin to die in large numbers. Feinstein penned a letter to National Security Director Tom Donilon on Thursday, asking for renewed efforts to release those Guantanamo prisoners who have been cleared for release. It is clear that a central step in that process is to review the moratorium on release of cleared Yemeni prisoners.
There is a craven semantics game that is played in the arena of prisoners who have been cleared for release. Government and military officials only ever refer to “detainees” who are cleared for “transfer”, even when those prisoners have been completely cleared of any wrong-doing. Because of that semantics problem, the Guantanamo Review Task Force final report (pdf), issued in January of 2010, provides a muddled description of two groups of Yemeni prisoners who are cleared at various levels for release:
Falling into the category of those who really should be released outright, but classed in the report as “Detainees Approved for Transfer”, we see 29 from Yemen:
29 are from Yemen. In light of the moratorium on transfers of Guantanamo detainees to Yemen announced by the President on January 5, 2010, these detainees cannot be transferred to Yemen at this time. In the meantime, these detainees are eligible to be transferred to third countries capable of imposing appropriate security measures.
A second category of Yemeni detainees cleared for release are those that the government believes still warrant some sort of detention in Yemen. They appear in the category “Detainees Approved for Conditional Detention”:
30 detainees from Yemen were unanimously approved for “conditional” detention based on current security conditions in Yemen.
The status of these prisoners is described further:
After carefully considering the intelligence concerning the security situation in Yemen, and reviewing each detainee on a case-by-case basis, the review participants selected a group of 30 Yemeni detainees who pose a lower threat than the 48 detainees designated for continued detention under the AUMF, but who should not be among the first groups of transfers to Yemen even if the current moratorium on such transfers is lifted.
These 30 detainees were approved for “conditional” detention, meaning that they may be transferred if one of the following conditions is satisfied: (1) the security situation improves in Yemen; (2) an appropriate rehabilitation program becomes available; or (3) an appropriate third-country resettlement option becomes available. Should any of these conditions be satisfied, however, the 29 Yemeni detainees approved for transfer would receive priority for any transfer options over the 30 Yemeni detainees approved for conditional detention.
About that “moratorium” on release of Yemeni prisoners. The review task force report informs us that of 36 Yemeni detainees initially cleared for full release, one was released by court order in September 2009 and another six were released in December 2009. But then the Undie Bomber episode took place on Christmas Day of 2009, and the release of Yemeni prisoners somehow became politically impossible. From the review report: Continue reading
With the simple title “Gitmo Is Killing Me”, today’s New York Times carries a chilling first-hand account from a hunger-striking prisoner at Guantanamo. Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel is one of 25 Yemeni prisoners held at Guantanamo who have been cleared for release but are still held because the US feels Yemen is too unstable for the prisoners to return there.
A theme that I keep returning to regarding the hunger strike at Guantanamo is that the military is conducting an information operation to limit damage to its reputation through reducing attention to the harsh treatment guards mete out to the prisoners. That is why, as I pointed out yesterday, Saturday’s operation to shut down the communal areas at the prison and return the prisoners to individual cells was carried out after the ICRC left and at a time when no members of the press were present. With that in mind, the military is very likely to view the publication of this piece as a huge loss of control of the narrative. While they had portrayed the Saturday action as taking place against resistance by the prisoners using “improvised weapons” (a description that was avidly eaten up by the press), Naji’s account of the pain and humiliation of forced feedings changes the focus from violence by the prisoners to violence being visited upon them.
The Times explains that Naji “told this story, through an Arabic interpreter, to his lawyers at the legal charity Reprieve in an unclassified telephone call”. Given previous behavior by the military at Guantanamo, I hope that they do not used their embarrassment over publication of this piece to limit phone calls from prisoners to their attorneys.
Naji explains his situation:
I’ve been on a hunger strike since Feb. 10 and have lost well over 30 pounds. I will not eat until they restore my dignity.
I’ve been detained at Guantánamo for 11 years and three months. I have never been charged with any crime. I have never received a trial.
Naji is 35 years old, so he has been a prisoner at Guantanamo for nearly a third of his life. He has never been charged. He has never been tried. Is it any wonder that he would give up hope and choose to starve himself to death?
Naji’s account of the forced feedings is horrifying:
There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.
During one force-feeding the nurse pushed the tube about 18 inches into my stomach, hurting me more than usual, because she was doing things so hastily. I called the interpreter to ask the doctor if the procedure was being done correctly or not.
It was so painful that I begged them to stop feeding me. The nurse refused to stop feeding me. As they were finishing, some of the “food” spilled on my clothes. I asked them to change my clothes, but the guard refused to allow me to hold on to this last shred of my dignity.
Most human rights groups object to the practice of forced feedings of hunger striking prisoners. Carol Rosenberg quotes Physicians for Human Rights: Continue reading
It has been clear from the start of the current hunger strike at Guantanamo that the military is carrying out its own information operation against a strike that it views as an information operation carried out by the prisoners. Back on March 17, Carol Rosenberg reported that commercial flights to Guantanamo will be terminated as of Friday of this week, and I asked whether the flights were terminated in order to quash coverage of the strike. Just a few days later, attorneys for Guantanamo prisoners made the same accusation to CNN:
“We are very concerned that the commercial flights have ended at a time when it’s critical to have more regular contact with our clients (not less!) in light of the hunger strikes and their potentially perilous health conditions,” Ranjana Natarajan, one of the lawyers representing Obaydullah, wrote to CNN.
Navy officials said lawyers and others who regularly take the commercial flights from Florida to the base may now take a once-a-week military flight from Andrews Air Force Base just outside of Washington.
But Anne Richardson, also with Hadsell Stormer Richardson & Renick, said the flights “are also capable of being canceled, at the last minute, without warning and at DOD’s discretion.”
David Remes, a Washington-based lawyer who represents 15 clients held at the detention facility, said authorities “are canceling these flights because they want to keep the public in the dark about the mayhem in the prison.”
“For the past several months, bad news has been streaming out of the camps,” Remes said. “The authorities are taking one hit after another for the way they’re running the camps, so they’re doing what comes naturally – choking off the flow of information.”
In that same March 17 report from Carol Rosenberg, we have this statement from Pentagon spokesman Todd Breasseale:
“That there is any concrete, mass hunger strike — that is an utter fabrication,” Breasseale said. “Some who claim to be hunger striking are in fact eating handfuls of trail mix, nuts, and other food. They are taking in plenty of calories.”
Reality is beginning to catch up with Breasseale and the military jailers at Guantanamo. As Rosenberg reported yesterday, the military now admits to 39 hunger strikers (making 23% of the 166 prisoners now held):
At Guantánamo, officials counted nearly a fourth of the captives, 39 of the 166 prisoners, as meeting the minimum U.S. military definition of a hunger striker for having lost enough body weight and skipped at least nine meals in a row. Eleven of the captives were being fed nutritional supplements by tubes snaked up their nose and into their stomach. Two were hospitalized for intravenous drips as well as the tube feedings.
Lawyers for the detainees described a much more dire situation, with one of the best known cleared-for-release captives, Shaker Aamer, telling his attorney on Friday that about 130 of the 166 captives were taking part.
Aamer estimated he had lost 32 pounds, according to Stafford Smith, who quoted him as saying, “You can see the bones in my chest.”
“Shaker understands that one detainee is reportedly 85 pounds, another 107 pounds and a third 117 pounds,” said Clive Stafford Smith, who spoke via a monitored telephone line between the camps and Britain, where Stafford Smith is based.
That there is an ongoing battle over whose reports can be believed is quite clear from Jason Leopold’s thorough article posted yesterday, where we learn that the military is following the same script it used during the last major hunger strike by Guantanamo prisoners: Continue reading
NPR’s Kelly McEvers just released a story with some on-the-ground reporting on attacks in Yemen attributed to the US. She focuses closely on an attack on Jaar I’ve discussed before in the context of reports on Obama’s embrace of signature strikes in Yemen.
I noted, for example, that this strike happened as anonymous Administration sources seeded a bunch of stories about a Kill List, falsely suggesting that the Administration only killed people whose identities they knew.
There is absolutely no reason to believe, for example, that Obama–or even John Brennan–knew the identity of the up to 8 civilians who were killed by a drone in Jaar, Yemen, on May 15. All anyone knew about them, according to reporting, is that they ran out after an earlier drone strike to look at the impact site. Boom! They were never on any Kill List, but they are nonetheless just as dead as Quso is.
And they rolled out that campaign amid disputes about who was responsible for the attack–and whether it was carried out with drones or manned aircraft.
I find the competing stories being told interesting, particularly in light of questions about who leaked information on the latest Underwear Bomb “plot.” At first, a “government official” toldChina’s Xinhua news that the Yemeni military had executed the attacks.
Earlier in the day, a botched air strike carried out by Yemeni warplanes hit a residential building near a compound used by al- Qaida militants in the insurgents-controlled town of Jaar, killing at least eight civilians and injuring five others, a government official said.[my emphasis]
But later, “three Yemeni security officials” blamed the strikes on drones, not the Yemeni military.
Two suspected U.S. drone strikes killed seven al Qaeda militants and eight civilians in the southern part of Yemen on Tuesday, three Yemeni security officials said.
It was the latest of several U.S. strikes in Yemen, which is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, described by U.S. officials as the al Qaeda affiliate that poses the most serious threat to the United States.
At least seven civilians were injured in the Tuesday strikes, the officials said.
In other words, this attack seems like a royal fuckup that elicited some real spin on the part of the Administration to explain away.
Which is interesting, given that McEvers’ report–or at least the description of the sound of a plane, as distinct from a drone–seems to support the manned aircraft claims.
In Jaar, a town in southern Yemen, an entire block has been reduced to rubble by what residents say was a powerful airstrike on May 15.
At this particular site, witnesses say the strikes rocked the town in the morning, just as many residents of Jaar were out buying breakfast. Residents say they heard a plane, and a house on the main street was flattened. One man inside died instantly. Continue reading