The US & UK air strikes against the Syrian regime in response to the chemical weapons attack in Douma dominated headlines and political discourse. And rightly so: with Russia’s involvement in Syria, there was the potential for escalation into a nuclear war. But the US and UK’s drone strike program into Syria, and other countries, has mainly flown below the radar of our national press and political debate, despite the many civilians killed and injured. Between August 2014 and December 2017 1,134 UK Reaper drone missions were flown into Syria. Drone strikes are often used to assassinate suspected terrorists on a US Kill List, constructed from ‘intelligence’ including UK sources. Countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, with whom neither the UK or US are at war, are regularly targeted by US drones. Judicial procedure is abandoned as the military acts as judge, jury and executioner. This report is based on a talk by Reprieve at the Lush Summit 2018:
If you live in the wrong part of countries like Yemen and Pakistan, you could find yourself on a US terrorist ‘Kill List’, whether you are a terrorist or not. Innocent civilians, politicians, journalists and even United Nations peace negotiators have been wrongly placed on these lists. Once on the list you are a ‘legitimate’ target for US aerial drones to assassinate. And god help anyone nearby you if they do. Hellfire missiles fired by Predator drones do not distinguish between terrorists and non-terrorists; anyone within 15 metres of the explosion is likely to be killed, or wounded if within 20 metres. ‘Collateral damage’ will be the white-washing military euphemism used to describe the killing of innocent civilians, while a sense of injustice and a desire for revenge grows in those communities wrongly targeted.
The drone strikes assassination programme, started in 2013 by the Nobel Peace Prize winning US President Barack Obama, is being ramped up by current President Donald Trump, who persistently blames pretty much all terrorism on Muslims, and uses fake statistics to back up his arguments, stoking up religious and racial tensions in the US and across the globe. On Trump’s watch there has been a 400% increase in the number of drone strikes made in Yemen, a country neither the US nor the UK is at war with.
This was the chilling narrative of state sanctioned extrajudicial lethal force used to assassinate suspected terrorists described on the Human Rights Stage at the Lush Summit by Tayyiba Bajwa, a lawyer working in the Assassinations Team of human rights campaigning organisation Reprieve. Her work involves challenging the use of lethal force by the state in the fight against terrorism. She is particularly critical of Obama who introduced the Kill List and made the ultimate decision as to who was on the list when it was presented to him at regular ‘Terror Tuesday’ sessions. Bajwa says he introduced a policy of “murder anyone, at any time, broadly anywhere”
In war zones such as Syria and Iraq drone strikes can be claimed as legitimate under the rules of war. What concerns Bajwa most is their use in countries not at war with the US, such as Yemen, Pakistan, Niger and Somalia, where the US military and its ultimate commander, the President, is acting as judge, jury and executioner, and using a fundamentally flawed Kill List to do so.
“We kill people on meta-data.”
Most people would think a Kill List should be based on traditional intelligence, such as someone being reported as a terrorist or some evidence that links them to terrorist activity. But General Michael Hayden of the National Security Association and CIA admitted that “we kill people on meta-data”. Meta-data can include who people email, call or text on electronic devices but not the actual content of the message. Movements can also be collected by tracking applications such as Google maps. As well as collecting data on a person’s network of contacts, geographical data can be collected from GPS tracking applications, mobile phone masts and social media accounts. Combining all this data, the intelligence services build up a ‘signature’ for a person. If you tick enough boxes, for example you have been contacted by someone already on their list or driven down a road that is ‘tagged’ by US military as suspicious, you may be added to the Kill List. Bajwa says that in certain areas it is US policy to identify targets as legitimate if they are male and between the ages of 15-49, “so if you are born in a particular post code you are a legitimate target, which is absolute insanity”.
Although it is US drones that carry out the killings, the UK is complicit in these actions due to collecting meta-data and passing it on to the US. Bajwa says “the UK has a hell of a lot of blood on its hands… we work with the US hand in glove.” Intelligence released by Wikileaks showed MI6 was key in providing geolocational information to the drone program, operating programs with James Bond-like testosterone fuelled code names such as “Ghosthunter” and “Ghostwolf” to track down targets for the Kill List. Using bases in the UK originally built to monitor Soviet communications through the Cold War.
Life for some, and liberty for all under threat
Meta-data is an extremely fallible way of identifying terrorists and mistakes are common. Bajwa raises the case of Ahmed Zaidan, placed on the Kill List due to meta-data gathered by a program called “Skynet”. What the meta-data didn’t show was that Zaidan is a journalist who formerly worked for Al-Jazeera in Islamabad. He produced a ground breaking documentary in the 1990s on Al-Qaeda, and was the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden. Bajwa says:
“Beyond the broader right to life question of whether it is acceptable to kill someone without a trial. There is also an important freedom of expression angle there. Are we just going to be taking out brown journalists who talk about terrorism, does that mean we have to reserve that right to journalists from the New York Times?”
Reprieve is pursuing Zaidan’s case through the US courts, and is asking the US government to issue a declaration that they are not going to kill Zaidan. The government’s response, Bajwa says, was basically to assert the right to kill anyone at anytime anywhere, and that they will not give the requested declaration.
You only die once?
Between 2006-2013 there were 41 US high-value targets, people who Obama considered the really bad guys in Pakistan and Yemen. Analysis carried out by Reprieve showed that in trying to kill those 41 people they killed 1147 innocent civilians. Their only crime was either living next door to someone or being in a car behind the target. And many of these innocents died when drones were targeting the wrong people. Each of the 41 men were announced dead after drone strikes, on average, three times before they were actually killed. “They listed them three times… they don’t even know for sure who they are killing… it’s not a precise way of warfare as they claim. One guy died three times before he [actually] died of hepatitis.” said Bajwa who went on to describe another Yemeni man being mistakenly declared dead, when a child was killed with the same name, “he is a peace negotiator being funded by the US government to go to peace talks, and the other arm of the US government is trying to kill him.” She went on to criticise the lack of checking of who is killed, and the lack of feedback resulting in them being unable to reduce civilian casualties.
The trauma for civilians living under this threat is immense, with some families experiencing repeated attacks, leaving children in abject terror every time they hear a drone going overhead. Bajwa is one of many that believe killing a large part of the male population and destroying the fabric of society actually provides fertile ground for groups like Al-Qaeda to establish themselves, where they had little popular support before conflict arose.
The national security trump card
When Reprieve tried to challenge the UK’s involvement in the US drone programme as unlawful, they pursued it up to the Court of Appeal but lost. Their attempts to pursue litigation against the legality of the Kill List through the American courts has also failed and in both countries national security is used as the reason why the courts will not rule against the government’s actions. Bajwa says:
“National security is an amazing trump card that basically allows the government carte blanche to do whatever it wants wherever it wants.” She went on to describe the unique status terrorism is given, “like no other crime terrorism is treated as a zero sum game. Governments think they can achieve a world where there are no longer terrorists. We would never say of murderers, we think that we can eradicate or stop all murders from happening ever, or we can stop any property crime from happening ever… but somehow in the counter terrorism sphere it is broadly accepted that that is lawful”.
The use of meta-data to construct Kill Lists for drone strikes is perhaps the most sinister and deadly use of IT and big data yet known. It is being used to pursue, and many fear to propagate, the “war on terror”. A meta-war, above and beyond the reach of all the old conventions of warfare, sovereign states and international justice, which appear powerless to curb or to end it. As Bajwa points out, it is a war that threatens the pillars of western democracy, human rights and the rule of law – and sees democratic nations spreading terror to millions of civilians living in mainly Muslim countries – igniting global religious tensions that may burn for decades to come. Rather than protecting our liberal democracies, governments’ pursuit of the “war on terror” may be the biggest threat to them.
Article first published in The Meteor: Manchester’s Independent Media on 16 April 2018
Reprieve’s Drones & Assassinations website – click here
Could you end up on the kill list? To find out – click here
Feature Image: Drone Wars