By Adam Hudson, Truthout
Last month, on June 9, the United States launched a drone strike that killed Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a high-ranking leader in the Islamic militant group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). What makes the strike notable is that it was a coincidence: The CIA - the agency that pulled the trigger - had no idea al-Wuhayshi was among the group of suspected militants it targeted. Al-Wuhayshi's death at the hands of a US drone reveals that the United States continues to fire drone missiles at people whose identities it does not know.
Government officials confirmed the June 9 strike was a "signature strike" to The Washington Post. A signature strike takes place when a drone hits a target based on a target's patterns of behavior, but without knowing that target's identity. Thus, a US drone, in a signature strike, will target an area the government believes is filled with militant activity but will not know who exactly they are killing. While signature strikes have been happening for a while in the global war on terror, they signify a serious shift in US war-making. American warfare is increasingly placing a greater emphasis on big data, advanced computing, unmanned systems and cyberwarfare. While this approach may seem "cleaner" and more precise than previous tactics (particularly in contrast the drawn-out and bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan), it is not. High-tech militarism is far from "accurate." Even more importantly, it inflicts serious human suffering and perpetuates the US permanent-war machine.
Signature strikes began during the Bush years, in January 2008, as the US intensified drone strikes in Pakistan. When Obama entered office in 2009, his administration picked up where Bush left off and exponentially increased the number of drone strikes. During his eight years in office, Bush launched 51 drone strikes in Pakistan and killed between 410 and 595 people. Obama, so far, has launched 419 drone strikes in Pakistan, alone, and killed over 4,500 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2009.
When a drone strike takes place, the US government "counts all military-aged males in a strike zone as combatant" unless posthumous intelligence proves them innocent, according to a May 2012 New York Times report. A White House fact sheet says this is "not the case." However, that contradicts what government officials leaked to the media outlets like The New York Times and ProPublica. As the Times report notes, "Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: People in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good."
In fact, US drone strikes have killed teenagers in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. One example is 16-year-old US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (son of Islamic militant preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, also a US citizen killed in a US drone strike) in 2011. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder said Abdulrahman was not ''specifically targeted.'' Another is Mohammed Tuaiman, a 13-year-old Yemeni boy who was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen last February. Drones had killed his brother and father beforehand.
Some State Department officials complained to the White House that the CIA's criteria for signature strikes was "too lax," according to The New York Times report. "The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees 'three guys doing jumping jacks,' the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bomb makers - but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued," the report says.
Drone strikes are launched by the CIA and the US military's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an elite military unit that carries out specialized, risky missions - or "special operations" - such as manhunts, "targeted killings" and rescues. Underneath JSOC's umbrella are special mission units that directly perform the operations. Those units include the Army's Delta Force, the Air Force's 24th Special Tactics Squadron and the Navy's SEAL Team Six, which killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.
The CIA has a similar paramilitary unit, known as the Special Operations Group (SOG). SOG operates under the CIA's Special Activities Division - the division that carries out covert operations - and often selects operatives from JSOC. JSOC's activities are distinct from conventional troops in the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) oversees JSOC and all special operations units within every military branch. JSOC also answers directly to the executive branch, with little to no oversight from Congress. Its missions are secret. The CIA is subject to some congressional oversight but still largely answers to the executive branch. This means JSOC and the CIA's paramilitary unit are virtually the president's private armies.
The CIA has no drone bases in Yemen, but flies drones out of bases in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti. Last year, the United States signed a new, 20-year lease on its military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, which is a key hub in the US's counterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa. The US flies surveillance and armed drones out of Camp Lemonnier to spy on and kill militant groups in Somalia and Yemen. Recently, Foreign Policy magazine reported that the US has two military bases in Somalia, from which JSOC operates. The bases are used to carry out counterterrorism operations and surveillance, as well as lethal drone missions.
In order to know where to launch a drone strike or other lethal operation, the US needs intelligence. For drone strikes, the main source for that intelligence is electronic - it's known as "signals intelligence," as it is the result of monitoring anything with an electronic signal. Targeting for US drone strikes and other extrajudicial operations is based on a complex analysis of metadata and tracking of cellphone SIM cards.
Metadata is data about data - such as who called whom at what time, what day, and for how long - rather than the data's actual content. Analyzing electronic intelligence can help analysts connect the dots and map a person's activity, though often not the purpose or substance of that activity. In an earlier email interview, former CIA case officer Robert Steele explained, "Signals intelligence has always relied primarily on seeing the dots and connecting the dots, not on knowing what the dots are saying. When combined with a history of the dots, and particularly the dots coming together in meetings, or a black (anonymous) cellphone residing next to a white (known) cellphone, such that the black acquires the white identity by extension, it becomes possible to 'map' human activity in relation to weapons caches, mosques, meetings, etcetera."
According to The Intercept, "Rather than confirming a target's identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using." The NSA will typically pinpoint the location of a suspected terrorist's cellphone or handset SIM card and feed that information to the CIA or JSOC, which will either launch a lethal drone strike or conduct a raid. JSOC used a similar approach when it conducted raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. To capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, JSOC analyzed insurgent networks through surveillance drone imagery and the tracking of cellphone numbers.
However, that approach often leads to killing the wrong people. Because the US government is targeting cellphone SIM cards that are supposedly linked to individuals, rather than the individuals themselves, innocent people are regularly killed. Sometimes Taliban leaders in Pakistan - aware of the US government's tracking methods - will randomly distribute SIM cards among their fighters to confuse trackers. People who are unaware their phones are being tracked will often "lend their phone, with the SIM card in it, to friends, children, spouses and family members," according to The Intercept.
The use of signature strikes poses serious legal, strategic and moral questions. The recent Houthi rebellion in Yemen overthrew the US-backed Yemeni government, which the United States relied on to help wage its covert counterterrorism war in the country. As a result, the US has fewer operatives and on-the-ground intelligence sources in Yemen. According to Reuters, the US "will now be forced to rely more on surveillance drones, spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping, as well as their own 'human intelligence' sources on the ground." Thus, the government will defend drone strikes and signature strikes on the basis of convenience and efficacy. The Washington Post reported that "CIA officials have staunchly defended the targeting approach [of signature strikes], saying that analysts poring over drone footage and other surveillance have become adept at detecting patterns - such as the composition and movement of a security detail - associated with senior al-Qaeda operatives." The government also claims that signature strikes have killed many high-value al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.
So far this year, there have been between 14 to 15 confirmed US drone strikes in Yemen, which have killed 46 to 69 people, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's (TBIJ) figures. In 2014, there were 13 to 15 confirmed US drone strikes in the country, killing between 82 to 118 people, along with 3 additional US attacks that killed 21 to 22 people. TBIJ's figures don't differentiate between who was and was not a "militant," however; that is hard to determine since many drone strike victims are unknown people. The US government largely does not know who it is killing in drone strikes.
Overall, US drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations have, so far, killed between 3,155 and 5,285 people, including around 563 to 1,213 civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, according to TBIJ's numbers. A report by the human rights organization Reprieve found that US drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for each intended target. Only 2 percent of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan are top-level al-Qaeda leaders. The rest of those killed are either lower-level fighters who pose little existential threat to the US, or else they are simply civilians or other unknown individuals.
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