Will al-Libi Killing Be Used to Justify Drone Strikes on Mourners, First Responders?

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. The Los Angeles Times indicates that both a house and a vehicle were destroyed, adding to the possibility raised in the Express Tribune article I quoted on Monday that the second missile may have been aimed at rescuers responding to the first. The Times article says that all three drone attacks Saturday, Sunday and Monday were targeted at al-Libi:

The CIA had targeted Libi with three separate drone-launched missile attacks over three days, finally succeeding early Monday in strikes that destroyed a house and a vehicle, U.S. and Pakistani officials said.

Death tolls from the weekend of attacks vary widely depending on sources. The LA Times article cited above quotes a “US official”:

Reports from Pakistan said as many as 15 people were killed in the drone strikes. The U.S. official said that figure was “wildly inaccurate” and insisted that the death toll was “less than a handful.”

Similarly, the New York Times reports:

American officials said that Mr. Libi was the only person who died in the attack, although others were present in the compound. A tribesman from the area, speaking by phone and citing Taliban sources, said that three to five militants had been killed. But he agreed that no civilians had died because there had been no public funerals in the area.

Were there no funerals because no civilians were killed or were there no funerals because the local civilians know that funerals are considered to be appropriate targets by the CIA?

At any rate, even if the death toll from Monday’s strikes is in dispute, it appears that the strikes on Saturday and Sunday, presumably in the hunt for al-Libi, killed a number of other people. It will be interesting to see whether the US begins to challenge the death toll numbers for those strikes as well. By moving the Saturday and Sunday strikes into the chase for al-Libi, though, the strikes are likely to be classed as targeted rather than as signature strikes. Even though strikes on mourners and on first responders are the worst kind of signature strikes, the “victory” of killing al-Libi almost certainly will be pointed to as a reason to continue this practice.

The ruse of a vaccine program to gather intelligence on Osama bin Laden’s compound seriously undermined third world vaccine work, but has resulted in conservatives in the US promoting citizenship and other rewards for Dr. Shakeel Afridia. Once again, with the death of al-Libi, we have a long-desired result likely to be trotted out as justification of a process that is deeply flawed.

19 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    @emptywheel: Oh, my. Maybe he can attend his own funeral as a guy named Phil Shiffley.

    At the very least, if he’s not dead, then maybe the arguments in favor of hitting mourners and first responders will lose a little of their enthusiasm.

  2. lysias says:

    This is a method much favored by criminal gangs and terrorists.

    I am reminded of a saying of St. Augustine: “Remota itaque iustitia quid sunt regna nisi magna latrocinia? quia et latrocinia quid sunt nisi parua regna? [So what are states without justice other than big gangs of robbers? For what are gangs of robbers other than small states?]”

  3. Jim White says:

    Interestingly, I don’t see any other news services picking up yet on reports that al-Libi survived. But here is more confirmation of the first responder aspect of the Monday attack, from Reuters:

    A Pakistani Taliban leader, speaking to Reuters by telephone from an undisclosed location, said Libi “had been living in the Mirali area for quite a while. Most of the people from his group were also in Mirali. When the first missile hit, they went to the house to check the damage.”
    “And immediately, another missile hit them at the spot. Unfortunately, Sheikh Sahib (Libi) was martyred. This is a big loss, he was a great scholar. After Doctor Sahib (Zawahri), he was the main al Qaeda leader,” the Pakistani Taliban leader said.


  4. phred says:

    Jim, are we certain they were targeting al-Libi or did they just happen to get him (or not, as the case may be) because of our happy habit of blowing up funerals?

    On edit: nevermind, I misunderstood your post. Having clicked through to the Telegraph article I now understand the targeting better.

  5. Jim White says:

    @phred: Actually, I’m still wondering about the targeting myself. Were there three days of signature strikes that finally may have hit a high value target, followed by a retroactive claim it was all targeted? That possibility keeps coming to my mind, especially given how hard some folks have been hammering on the signature strike issue. I’m agnostic on this one, because even if the strikes were indeed all targeted and based on strong intelligence leads, operational security would have dictated keeping silent on that aspect until confirmation of hitting the target was received.

    None of that, however, excuses the tactics of hitting mourners and first responders.

  6. tjallen says:

    These strikes are especially pernicious. The real target A has a friend B, so B is targeted and killed, in hopes A will appear at the funeral. Is B otherwise innocent?! Please tell me there must be some more motive for killing B than hoping A will appear at B’s funeral! If B is otherwise untargetable, then this is surely criminal.

    This is akin to kidnapping and torturing someone’s innocent brother to pressure him to talk or turn himself in.

  7. Jeff Kaye says:

    Why pull punches? The process is more than “deeply flawed.” It’s criminal. Jeremy Scahill is taking a lot of flak for saying the same thing.

    And yes, it could turn out that al-Libi is the new Mehsud. Such is the fate of #2s. Number 3s, on the other hand (about whom there seemed to be an endless supply), seem to stay dead.

  8. phred says:

    @Jim White: Thanks for the follow up Jim, much appreciated. A big part of the problem with trying to sort these questions out is that we can take nothing the government says at face value. And in any event, the questions are beside the point, given the illegality (not to mention immorality) of our conduct, whether signature or personality driven.

  9. orionATL says:

    it’s an an american policy, whether explicit or tolerated, and one of long-standing:

    recall the gun camera video “collateral damage”. the neighbors in a van, including children, were gunned down from a mile-and-a-half up while coming to the aid of other civilians which the apache warship had just finished gunning down moments earlier.

    let’s see, now, what is that much-admired, much-preached new testament parable?

    oh, yeah, “the good samaritan”.

    but then we know that militants, by definition, can’t be good anythings,

    so no cognitive dissonance here.

  10. P J Evans says:

    @Jeff Kaye:
    Why I didn’t vote in the presidential section of the primary yesterday in my state. One candidate. No other options. I can’t vote for him in good conscience now; in November, I don’t now what I’m going to do.

  11. orionATL says:


    “the vehicle belonged to al-libi, but at the time he was not in the vehicle”

    the americans bombed a compound and a vehicle near the compound. 15 people were killed in the compound. the vehicle would seem to me to be tangential.

    or was it that the compound bombed because the vehicle was nearby.

    so who WAS in that compound?

    the compound was razed promptly.

    by whom?

    who scooped up the cups of, speaking politely and bloodlessly now, “dna”?

  12. orionATL says:


    targeting vehicles, not their occupants, would seem to be premier evidence of a signature strike.

    “bro, you know that pick-up you loaned ___ last night?

    well, the americans had it marked and he parked it next to his girl friend’s folks’ place. boom. bad scene.”

  13. ondelette says:

    I happen to hate the use of the term “first responders” anymore. I say that as someone who was, for 3 years, what NHTSA defined as a “First Responder” by federal law. Perhaps that’s why I hate it, because now nobody has any frigging idea what someone else means when they use it.

  14. Jim White says:

    I agree that it’s a pretty loosely used descriptor, especially regarding the situations we are talking about here, were a number of different types of people could be among those who are in the immediate vicinity of a drone strike just after impact. I use the term here mostly to tweak the right-wingers who make the first responders in the US such a revered group when they talk about terrist attacks while they cynically cut funding for these and other public services at the same time.

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