The strikes last a moment, but the consequences last forever. Six families explain how Obama’s secret drone war has left them struggling for answers after loved ones were wiped out without warning
What happens in a drone attack? ‘Suddenly there were explosions.’
Nabila’s favorite memories of her grandmother come from weddings. It didn’t matter who was getting married – relative or neighbor – her grandmother, Mamana, was an active participant, owing to her matriarchal perch above their village.
Mamana was as responsible as she was festive. An uneducated woman, she was the local midwife, and served as an impromptu primary care physician, even a veterinarian, when the need arose.
On a fall afternoon in 2012, Mamana called Nabila and a squad of her siblings and cousins outside to the family’s okra fields, part of their sprawling garden in tribal Pakistan. It was about to be the Eid festival and the Rehman family needed to gather and prepare vegetables. Nabila, nine years old, had set to work when the drone fired its missiles.
A dark plume of dust rose from the garden and mixed with acrid smoke. It spared Nabila and the other children the sight of their grandmother’s mutilated corpse.
Her older cousins, all male, ran to help the screaming children. Nabila’s hand and her arm were injured with burns and shrapnel. Her three-year-old brother, Safdar, who was watching the harvest from the roof of their home, had fallen to the ground, breaking bones in his chest and shoulders. The teenagers had gotten Nabila and some of the others out of the way when the second round of missiles hit, in what the CIA refers to as a “double-tap”, to make sure it kills its targets.
Timely surgeries saved them. Then began the struggles that would characterize their lives thereafter.
Because US drone strikes are cloaked in secrecy, occur in remote or dangerous locales and target people presumed to be terrorists, Americans rarely hear from survivors or their relatives. But a theme emerges in interviews the Guardian has conducted with more than half a dozen drone survivors: the pain from the strike never ends, as the apparatus of secrecy renders closure unobtainable.
According to six people in Pakistan and Yemen who have lost their brothers, sons and grandparents to drone strikes, the strike lasts a moment and the consequences last a lifetime. Most of them have never told their stories to an American reporter. Some of them have theories about whom the US was targeting, while others are left guessing. The interviews were facilitated by the human rights group Reprieve and the Foundation for Fundamental Rights and conducted in translation.
The people are left impoverished, anguished and infuriated. Justice, let alone apologies, never arrives, even as a modest amount of blood money flows from the local governments. The United States, which styles itself a force for justice in the world, is to them the remote force that introduced death into their lives and treats them like they are subhuman, fit only to be targeted. At any moment, they fear, another drone could come for them.
The White House has said it will soon release of a tally of drone deaths. Relatives of the dead and survivors of the attacks expect little of it to include the truth, and doubt it will lead to the public apologies they desire – particularly since a senior aide to Barack Obama recently told the Atlantic that the president “has not had a second thought about drones”.
The aftermath of a drone attack: ‘No one has offered an apology.’
The CIA would not comment for this piece. An Obama administration official said: “It is certainly not the case that lives of a certain nationality are more valuable to us than those of any other. What is true, however, is that the president has said … that the American people need information to hold their government accountable. That is in part why we have been especially transparent when it comes to the deaths of US citizens.”
Nabila’s father, and Mamana’s son, Rafiq ur-Rehman, took a different view. “If America kills any westerner, one of their own, white people, they apologize and compensate. But if it’s Pakistanis like us, they don’t care. In my opinion, America treats us worse than animals.”
The taxi driver
Mohammed al-Qawli just wanted to bury his brother.
It was the evening of 23 January 2013. Mohammed, now 43, rushed to the cratered road east of the Yemeni capital of Sana’a, where his brother and cousin were killed. He found Ali, his 34-year-old brother, in pieces.
After fainting from grief, Mohammed took Ali’s body to the local hospital in preparation for burial. But when he returned the next morning, he learned that what remained of Ali was no longer there. Mohammed would have to go to a military hospital. It was his first indication that the manner in which his brother died would result in bureaucratic complications over laying him to rest.
The military told Mohammed to go to the governor of Sana’a province. The governor was respectful, offering a token apology – and money.
“At first I didn’t accept it,” Mohammed said. Doing so would amount to an admission that Ali and their cousin, Salim, were terrorists. But they had died because of hitchhiking.
That afternoon, Ali and Salem had stopped by a market to pick up groceries after the school where Ali taught had let out. They occasionally used their Toyota Hilux as a taxi to make extra money, and a stranger known as Rabia, along with a companion, flagged them down. Mohammed explains that Yemen has a culture of hitchhiking that encourages drivers to offer strangers rides.
It would be a fateful decision. Rabia and his friend asked Ali and Salim to drive them through an area winding through military checkpoints. When they stopped at their destination to drop off the passengers, two Hellfires from an overhead US drone killed them all.
Mohammed believes Rabia was the target. Rabia is suspected of having served as a bodyguard for someone in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the al-Qaida affiliate considered the global terrorist group’s most competent. For years, the CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command had conducted parallel programs of drone strikes against the group under a cloak of secrecy. The al-Qawli cousins were collateral damage.
“All Yemenis know by now these drone strikes have a lot of civilian victims. They are not precise. There is no distinction between civilians and combatants,” Mohammed said.
Suddenly, Ali’s family had become Mohammed’s responsibility. Mohammed had to close down his small car dealership in order to make more money to support them. But his family tragedy had politicized him. Mohammed started the National Organization for Drone Victims, Yemen’s first advocacy group to deal with the aftermath of the aerial slayings, the following year.
The Yemeni government made a second attempt to offer support. Through a committee, it offered Mohammed a certificate saying Ali and Salem were innocent, an “accident while criminals were targeted”, and what Mohammed says was a “small amount of money to cover the burial costs”. The committee said it would come back with a better offer but never did. In January 2015, Yemen’s government fell in a coup, Saudi Arabia began a different bombing campaign with US backing, and the result has been chaos and hardship for Mohammed and his countrymen. A rare bit of pre- and post-coup continuity has been the US drone campaign.
Like many others in North Waziristan, the focus of drone strikes during Barack Obama’s first term, Ramazan Khan was paid for property damage, not the ultimately fatal injury of his teenaged grandson. Just as in Yemen, here in Pakistan, the unofficial nature of the drone strikes creates cognitive dissonance for the bureaucrats who have to handle the deaths caused by drones, and compound the insult experienced by the families.
“A few years ago I went to Khar to ask about the drone strike,” Khan told the Guardian, referring to a city 200km away. First Khan talked with an official he identifies only as “a gentleman”. The gentleman told him to go to the Pakistani military. The Pakistani military told him to go back home, to his local political agent, the liaison to the government. The agent told him to fill out a form. It took him a year to file it.
Life after a drone attack: ‘I can do nothing.’
The strike itself happened on 7 September 2009 at Khan’s home. It was Ramadan, and his family had gathered for a post-fast dinner. Khan and some of his relatives stepped outside for a postprandial walk and tobacco chew. They saw the drone overhead, flying low, until its missiles fired at the Khan family house. “It was like, what the hell is happening?” Ramazan Khan remembered.
Three of his brothers’ sons died in the strike. Grievously wounded was his grandson Sadaullah, a quiet, studious 14-year-old boy. Sadaullah’s favorite pastime was taking his books up the hill near their house to read outside after school.
Sadaullah’s crushed legs required amputation. Shrapnel cost him the sight in his left eye. The medical expenses bankrupted Ramazan: “I took money from anyone to pay his bills and try to go on. But since that strike, life was extremely difficult, and still is.” Sadaullah died in October 2012.
The local bureaucracy in North Waziristan ultimately processed the forms Ramazan Khan filed. He received no apology, explanation or pension. The authorities provided him with a few thousand dollars to rebuild his house. He complained it wasn’t really compensation. It was all he would get.
In June 2014, the Pakistani army invaded North Waziristan in a counter-terrorism operation that continues to this day. Ramazan Khan was among a million people driven from their homes. In a parallel with the chaos in Yemen, Pashtuns from the tribal borderlands have traded a drone war that at its 2010 height executed a strike every third day for the squalor of internal displacement. Destitute, he is unsure when he can go home, and forever reminded of the loss of his grandchild and nephews.
Near Datta Khel, in North Waziristan, is a tree-covered mountain that contains deposits of chromite. Both the Manzar Khel and the Mada Khel tribes possessed timber and mining claims on the mountain, and needed a decision over who owned what. On 17 March 2011, the tribes met at Datta Khel for a jirga, a traditional mechanism of dispute resolution, to adjudicate the claims. Ahmed Jan was there.
Jan said the mediators and tribal elders started hearing the drones overhead. He remembers “at least three” of them. Four missiles fired into the gathering. Jan saw pieces of his friends lying within the wreckage. He had broken both legs. Shrapnel had pierced his abdomen, his nose was broken, his eyes were injured and his hearing wrecked. About 40 people were killed.
Jan, who has never discussed the strike with an American reporter, said no one at the jirga was a terrorist. “They’re my tribal kinsmen. I know their parents, I know their grandparents,” he said.
While Jan professes not to know why the jirga was targeted, there are suggestions that the US took reprisal for an unrelated geopolitical tussle. In far-off Lahore, Pakistanis had taken into custody a CIA contractor, Raymond Davis, after Davis killed two men who pulled up beside his car at a red light on 25 January. They released Davis, under overwhelming US pressure, on 16 March, the day before the jirga attack. Reportedly, the US ambassador implored the CIA to call off the strike.
Jan, a truck driver who looks much older than the 55 years he claims, was left destitute. To finance his medical bills, he burned through his life savings and then sold his land. He had a rod inserted into his left leg and now his left foot is mostly useless. Jan’s children support him, a task complicated by his status as an internally displaced person.
Jan said he had been on anti-anxiety medication for the last five years. His “lower body would physically hurt”, with tremors running through his left leg, when he heard the whine of a drone engine after the strike. To him, the dead are the lucky ones.
“The agony continues after the drone. You’re worse off injured than being dead. You have to live with the pain and the suffering that continues,” he said.
But the pain Jan suffered was compounded by the social devastation created by the attack on the jirga.
In an instant, the Manzar Khel and the Mada Khel subtribes lost a generation of leadership. The men attending the jirga did not inherit their positions, Jan said, they earned them through demonstrating the wisdom necessary to reach fair decisions, and retained them through accruing experience. Killing them left “a huge vacuum”, Jan said.
Nor was that vacuum limited to settling internal disputes. The elders were the liaisons to the local government and the military. Losing men of their stature meant the subtribes would lose influence. A loss of influence meant ruin.
“The young lot replacing them lack experience and the position to get [the community] more benefits. It is a loss we have never recovered from,” said Jan.
Perhaps, he wondered, the elders who were killed might have been able to better negotiate benefits for the subtribes displaced by the army invasion. Perhaps they might have been able to prevent or mitigate the invasion in the first place. All Jan has are questions.
“In the same time frame [as the jirga strike] we saw funerals being attacked, bakeries, mosques. It felt like the US is not leaving any part of Waziris’ life untouched. They had to destroy every segment of our life,” Jan said.
‘Is the US in the habit of targeting journalists?’
The reporting of US drone strikes is a bizarre process. The strikes remain officially classified. US officials, when asked about any specific strike, typically decline to answer, even if only asked to verify that one occurred. Word of the strikes typically spreads via anonymous local authorities, exercising responsibility for tribal Pakistan or rural Yemen, talking to local reporters.
‘There is an immense hatred of America’: how drones affect life in Pakistan.
One of them, Kareem Khan, found himself in the striking position of having his son and brother killed in a drone strike on 31 December 2009. Asked if he thought it was a reprisal for his work – which did not actually involve reporting on drones – Khan asked: “Many people think my house was hit because I’m a journalist. But is the US in the habit of targeting journalists?”
Like the others, Khan had to grapple with a local bureaucracy that treated addressing death and destruction with the efficiency and care of a trip to the department of motor vehicles. An official letter came, acknowledging the tragedy, but “the names of my family were not fully right”, with his son identified as his nephew.
The social impact of the drones in North Waziristan was overwhelming. “When we were there and the drones were flying, life was miserable,” Khan said, comparing it to trying to sleep in a room with a buzzing bee trapped inside. “Now imagine so many bees flying – how would you feel, how would society feel?”
The mass displacement and immiseration brought by the Pakistani army’s invasion of Waziristan has intermingled with local anger felt at surviving the drone strikes. They are “increasingly anti-west and anti-America because they’re constantly living under this threat”, Khan said.
And Khan agrees with the sentiment: the drones, he said, are the “real face of America”. Since the strike, he has filed criminal charges in Pakistan against the former CIA station chief Jonathan Banks – whose execution Khan has called for – and the ex-CIA attorney John Rizzo. He now lives in an undisclosed location after Pakistani intelligence abducted him for three weeks in 2014, an action which he believes the US was behind.
“They are not against injustice. They are unjust themselves, and they are against Muslims. Anything evil, you always find America behind it,” Khan said.
A plastic bag filled with cash
Two years after US drones killed Faisal bin Ali Jubair’s brother and nephew, he received a call from Yemeni intelligence requesting a meeting. It was July of 2014, and Jubair’s story was shaping up to be a rare case of a drone victim’s relative receiving international attention at the highest levels.
Jubair had even travelled to Washington DC for a rare audience at the White House – though, to his disappointment, the National Security Council staffers who heard out his plans for a reparations fund for his village, manifested in water projects and infrastructure improvements, declined to take any action.
‘They are experimenting on us with drones’: a Yemeni man tells his story.
Shortly after the August 2012 drone strike in the Hadhramaut province village of Khashamir, local Yemeni officials began the blood-money process. Jubair’s brother and nephew were the polar opposite of the drones’ stated targets: one was an anti-al-Qaida preacher and the other a traffic cop. The local government also had a situation on its hands: the village youth wanted to take arms against a government they correctly judged was complicit in the US drone strikes, but the older residents convinced them to launch peaceful protests instead.
The officials had quickly promised a $50,000 payment, $25,000 for each dead civilian. They even issued him an official document calling his relatives “martyrs”. Jubair ultimately wouldn’t get the money until after he visited the White House, but it was something.
Now there was more. The intelligence officials gestured toward a plastic bag. Inside was $100,000 in cash. It was in US money, not Yemeni rials, and the bills were sequential. The spies would put nothing on paper, and wouldn’t tell him officially where the money came from, but unofficially said it was an American initiative.
It has failed to satisfy Jubair, who wants a public acknowledgement from the US of its lethal mistake. He is unlikely to receive it: a federal judge in January shut down his lawsuit, even though he said he would drop the suit in exchange for an apology. The Justice Department preferred to win in court, sparing the US any admission of wrongdoing. Jubair said the cash was in escrow until he exhausted his legal options to compel the US to acknowledge the strike.
Even if he doesn’t win, he wants the US to understand the impact of the drone strikes on Yemen. Jubair speaks without hesitation in condemning al-Qaida. His opposition to the drone strikes stems as much from his belief in their counter-productivity as from his personal tragedy.
“At the village level, people are so confused, and looking for ways to protect their families from falling prey to these [radical] ideologies. You’re either a killer or you’ll be killed, and that’s the terrorists’ logic,” Jubair said.
Jubair himself is now seeking asylum in Canada and lives in Montreal. The devastation that unfolded after Saudi Arabia, supported by the US, began bombing Yemen to roll back a coup has proven too much for him. Speaking measuredly, he does not blame the drone attacks for the coup, but said they contributed to a political environment that saw the government “as very weak, unable to protect citizens”.
Meanwhile, even as the Saudi air war unfolds, the US drone strikes continue. Another hit on 27 March and killed 14 Yemenis. Jubair said his old Hadhramaut neighbors had expected it. “Every moment,” he said, they fear the drones will return to finish the task of devastating their lives.
Ned Price, the National Security Council’s chief spokesman, told the Guardian that the administration took seriously all credible reports of non-combatant deaths and was also committed to being as open as possible about its counter-terrorism operations.
He also said condolence or other payments might be available by the US in some cases for those injured and the families of those killed.
“The United States goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid non-combatant casualties in lethal operations, providing protections as a matter of policy that go beyond those required by the law of armed conflict,” he said. “Unlike our enemies, which deliberately and pointedly violate the law of armed conflict, the United States takes great care to adhere to the fundamental law of armed conflict principle of distinction, which requires that attacks be directed only against military objectives and that civilians and civilian objects not be the target of attack.”
Raya Jalabi in New York contributed research