Posts Tagged ‘drone strikes’

U.S. Curtails Drone Strikes in Pakistan as Pakistan-Taliban Talks Develop

February 5, 2014

No drone strikes since 25 December, but lull puts onus on Sharif government to act, as on-off Taliban talks illustrate

By Jon Boone
The Guardian

US drone strike on madrasa in Pakistan on 21 November 2013

Aftermath of US drone strike on madrasa in Pakistan on 21 November 2013. Photograph: Basit Gilani/EPA

The US government has agreed to greatly limit attacks by unmanned drones in Pakistan‘s restless North Waziristan while the country’s politicians struggle to reach agreement on whether to send the army to clear out a region almost entirely controlled by militant groups.

There have been no known drone strikes in Pakistan since 25 December, and January was the first full month in two years without any attacks at all, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which closely monitors media reports about drones.

A campaign to assert state control over North Waziristan, home to all manner of al-Qaida linked groups, has been a longstanding demand of the US, which is particularly concerned by the presence of the Haqqani network – an Afghan insurgent group capable of highly effective attacks against US troops.

US diplomats have at times had major rows with their CIA colleagues over the havoc drone strikes can play with US foreign policy objectives.

Cameron Munter, the previous US ambassador in Pakistan, left his post in Islamabad early after furious disagreements with the CIA, which was exclusively focused on counter-terrorism rather than broader US foreign policy goals.

Many observers in Pakistan have noted the recent downturn in drone strikes, which US officials quoted in the Washington Post confirmed was a deliberate response to requests by prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s government.

Security analyst Zahid Hussain said the lull in attacks had helped shift the political debate in Pakistan away from forlorn efforts to engage the Pakistani Taliban, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), in peace talks and towards the sort of military operations against them  the US has long pushed Pakistan for.

“It has put more pressure on Pakistan because by not using drones then you have to do something else about it,” he said. “And it takes away any further excuse not to act from the Pakistani government and apologists for the Taliban.”

The problem was highlighted on 1 November when a drone strike killed Hakimullah Mehsud, the ruthlessly aggressive chief of the TTP.

The interior minister described the killing of a man regarded as public enemy No 1 for his attacks on the Pakistani state as “the murder of all efforts at peace”. The leader of an extremist religious party, the Jamaat-e-Islami, described Mehsud as a martyr.

It also energised the campaign of Imran Khan, the charismatic opposition politician strongly opposed to military operations in North Waziristan.

After a US drone attack on a madrasa just outside the tribal areas on 21 November, Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party launched a blockade against Nato supply convoys travelling into Afghanistan through the Khyber pass.

US restraint is not unlimited, however. It is understood the CIA will still launch attacks if the opportunity to kill a senior target becomes available.

The government’s gingerly move towards military operations in North Waziristan has faltered however – despite the lack of drone strikes.

It had been widely assumed that a surge in deadly militant attacks, particularly on army targets, had led the government to finally back military operations, with senior Pakistani officials confirming as much to western officials.

However, Sharif had a last minute change of mind, announcing last week a four-man committee to try once again to kickstart peace talks.

An initial meeting between the government team and intermediaries who had agreed to represent the TTP was cancelled on Tuesday at the last minute.

There is little agreement on what exactly triggered Sharif’s sudden decision to give peace talks another try, with analysts suggesting an ongoing fear of political attacks by Khan, deep concern over deadly retaliation by the TTP in the cities of Punjab and the dragging on of the trial of former dictator Pervez Musharraf, which has raised tension between Pakistan’s politicians and generals.

“There is still reluctance because Sharif’s entire policy is to somehow protect Punjab province,” Hussain said. “It cannot work, however. They can postpone the inevitable but for not very long.”

It is not the first time the US has reined in the drones. There was a six-week hiatus in 2011 following the accidental killing by US aircraft of 24 Pakistani troops near the Afghan border.

In the early days Pakistan enjoyed a veto over drone strikes, although that changed in mid-2008 when President George Bush became fed up with being unable to attack militants responsible for the death of US troops in Afghanistan.

A dramatic rise in drone strikes continued and increased under Barack Obama, although they have fallen off again in the past 18 months.

In a rare speech on drone policy last May, Barack Obama hinted US strikes in Pakistan would tail off over the long-term as US troops would require less “force protection” provided by drones as they withdraw from Afghanistan.

Pakistan denies it has any involvement in the drone programme, regularly lodging formal complaints when strikes occur.

But US officials familiar with the programme say the strikes would be impossible without some level of Pakistani consent.

Some senior officials in Pakistan regard them as a necessary evil but rarely say so in public.

Last month Rana Sanaullah, one of Sharif’s closest aides, told the Guardian that “drone attacks damage the terrorists, very much.”

“Inside, everyone believes that drone attacks are good; but outside, everyone condemns because the drones are American.”

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US Drone plane test flight

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US Drone plane test flight Photo: Northrop Grumman

By and
The Washington Post

The Obama administration has sharply curtailed drone strikes in Pakistan after a request from the government there for restraint as it pursues peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, according to U.S. officials.“That’s what they asked for, and we didn’t tell them no,” one U.S. official said. The administration indicated that it will still carry out strikes against senior al-Qaeda targets, if they become available, and move to thwart any direct, imminent threat to U.S. persons.

Concern about Pakistani political sensitivities provides one explanation for the absence of strikes since December, the longest pause in the CIA’s drone campaign since a six-week lull in 2011, after an errant U.S. air assault killed 24 Pakistani soldiers at a border post, triggering a diplomatic crisis.

The current pause follows a November strike that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud just days before an initial attempt at peace talks was scheduled to begin. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government accused the United States of trying to sabotage the talks, and the Taliban canceled the meeting.

Since then, the Obama administration has worked to improve relations with Sharif, who took office last June in the first democratic transfer of power in Pakistani history. Administration officials have praised his efforts to address serious structural problems in Pakistan and to promote peace in the region.

A senior administration official, in response to queries, denied that any informal agreement had been reached, saying that “the issue of whether to negotiate with the Pakistani Taliban is entirely an internal matter for Pakistan.”

The administration is “continuing to aggressively identify and disrupt terrorist threats in the Afghan war theater and outside areas of active hostilities in line with our established CT [counterterrorism] objectives and legal and policy standards. . . . Reports that we have agreed to a different approach in support of Pakistani peace talks are wrong,” said the senior official, one of several interviewed for this article who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive matter.

Relations with Pakistan have warmed even as U.S. tensions have worsened with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has accused the administration of plotting against him, both with Pakistan and with the Pakistan-based Afghan Taliban, a separate but allied organization with which he has said he is trying to start his own peace negotiations.

The new round of Pakistan-Taliban talks, which was due to begin Tuesday, was postponed by the government after two members of a Taliban-named delegation declined to participate.

Disclosure of a pause in the drone campaign in Pakistan came as a senior Republican lawmaker assailed the Obama administration for tightening the guidelines under which lethal drone strikes are permitted.

Rep. Mike Rogers (Mich.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday that policy changes made by President Obama last year to the drone program “are an utter and complete failure, and they leave Americans’ lives at risk.”

Rogers cited the spread of al-Qaeda offshoots in Yemen, Syria and Africa, and said that “individuals who would have been previously removed from the battlefield by U.S. counterterrorism operations for attacking or plotting to attack against U.S. interests remain free because of self-imposed red tape.”

The chairman did not mention the CIA program in Pakistan. His comments came during a House hearing on security threats and referred to new targeting criteria imposed by Obama last May that are supposed to allow strikes only against al-Qaeda operatives who pose a continuing and imminent threat to U.S. persons, and only in cases when there is a “near certainty” of no civilian casualties.

The nation’s intelligence director signaled his disagreement with Rogers later in the hearing. Asked whether he thinks the country is at greater risk because of Obama’s counterterrorism policies, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. said, “No, I do not.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the policies of this administration or any other,” Clapper said. “What I think it has more to do with is the transformation, if you will, of the terrorist threat, its diffusion, its globalization and its franchising.”

While strikes in Pakistan appear to have temporarily halted, they have continued in Yemen, including recent attacks that have reportedly killed civilians.

White House officials also disputed Rogers’s characterization, saying Obama’s constraints on the drone program are meant to allow the continuation of strikes against terrorist groups, but under rules that are less likely to incite hostility toward the United States.

“The president has made clear that even as we aggressively pursue terrorist networks — through more targeted efforts and by building the capacity of our foreign partners — America must move off a war footing,” said White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden. “We will not be safer if people abroad believe we strike within their countries without regard for the consequence.”

Asked after the hearing what people or countries he was referring to when he talked about “individuals” who “remain free,” Rogers said that “terrorists who are in the crosshairs and would be removed from the battlefield under the old policy are still in the crosshairs, but are still actively planning attacks because of the policy change.”

The counterterrorism policies adopted last year were also supposed to lead to greater transparency — a goal that has been largely unfulfilled. Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) urged intelligence officials at Tuesday’s hearing to release aggregate data each year on how many people the United States had killed in counterterrorism operations and how many might be civilians.

Officials showed scant enthusiasm for the proposal. CIA Director John Brennan said it was a “worthwhile recommendation” that the administration could consider, but he declined to comment on it further.

Sharif gained an endorsement for peace talks from an all-party conference shortly after he took office. Since then, he told Parliament last week, militants have continued killing innocent civilians and Pakistani soldiers.

While “the government is doing what it can to stop drone attacks,” which have bolstered extremism and anti-Americanism, “we can no longer allow the massacre of innocent civilians” by terrorists, he said. “The situation is not acceptable anymore.”

Sharif also said that “the whole nation will stand behind” a military offensive against the extremists if peace efforts fail. The administration has pressed Pakistan for years to launch a full-scale military assault against the Haqqani network, a branch of the Afghan Taliban that is headquartered in the same tribal area along the Pakistani-Afghan border as the Pakistani group.

But the lines dividing the groups are often hard to draw. In late 2009, seven CIA officers and contractors were killed in Khost, Afghanistan, in a suicide attack that al-Qaeda claimed as revenge for a CIA drone strike that year that killed Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud. He was replaced by his clansman, Hakimullah Mehsud, who appeared in a subsequently released video along with the bomber.

The strike that killed Hakimullah Mehsud was believed to be CIA retaliation for the Khost attack.

Julie Tate contributed to this report.

U.S. Starts Investigation into U.S. Drone-Caused Civilian Deaths in Yemen, Starting With ‘Wedding Party’ Drone Strike

January 8, 2014

Protesters loyal to the Shi'ite al-Houthi rebel group burn an effigy of a U.S. aircraft during a demonstration to protest against what they say is U.S. interference in Yemen, including drone strikes (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

Protesters loyal to the Shi’ite al-Houthi rebel group burn an effigy of a U.S. aircraft during a demonstration to protest against what they say is U.S. interference in Yemen, including drone strikes (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)

The Obama administration has begun an internal investigation into a drone strike in Yemen that supposedly targeted an Al-Qaeda militant, but which locals say killed 12 and injured 14 others in a wedding party.

US officials acknowledged a rare internal review of a drone  missile strike was launched following the Dec. 12 incident that  sparked outrage in Yemen and throughout the world. The  investigation of a drone strike is the first since President  Obama issued new guidelines for unmanned vehicle offensive in  May.

“Given that there are claims of civilian casualties, we are  reviewing it,” one US official speaking on condition of  anonymity told NBC News.

Asked about the Dec. 12 incident, White House National Security  Staff spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said offered only general  comments on US drone policy.

“Before we take any counterterrorism strike outside areas of  active hostilities, there must be near-certainty that no  civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can  set,” she said. “And when we believe that civilians may  have been killed, we investigate thoroughly.”

US and Yemeni officials told NBC News that the drone strike in  central Yemen came from the US Defense Department’s Joint Special  Operations Command, and not the CIA, which runs its own drone  operations in Yemen.

The targets of the strike, the officials say, were “dangerous  Al-Qaeda militants.” Purportedly among the group was Shawqi  Ali Ahmed Al-Badani, a “mid-level” operative suspected of  organizing a terror plot that led to a shutdown of numerous US  embassies around the globe in August.

Yemen security officials have stayed firm, insisting militants  were killed and that Badani escaped after being wounded. Though  another anonymous Yemeni official told NBC News the government,  upon reports of civilian deaths in the strike, authorized a local  governor of the province where the missile hit to offer fiscal  compensation – equivalent to US$110,000 in cash, in addition to  101 Kalashnikov rifles – to tribal leaders in the area.

“It is a total mess,” said the anonymous Yemen official.   “It is completely not clear who was killed. This is should be  a wake-up call to everyone involved [in drone strikes] to find  out what’s going on.”

NBC News obtained video and photos taken following the strike.  The images show dead young men who villagers said were in the  convoy heading to a wedding celebration when two Hellfire  missiles were fired by a US drone.

Medea Benjamin (L), co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink, places flowers on mock graves of drone victims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, in front of the White House in Washington on November 15, 2013 ahead of the Global Drone Summit. (AFP Photo)Medea Benjamin (L), co-founder of the anti-war group CodePink, places flowers on mock graves of drone victims in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, in front of the White House in Washington on November 15, 2013 ahead of the Global Drone Summit. (AFP Photo)

The materials were shot by Nasser Al-Sane, a Yemeni journalist,  and given to NBC by human rights group Reprieve. A Yemeni  official says the images were consistent with what its government  knew of the strike.

“You cannot imagine how angry people are [about the strike].  They turned a wedding into a funeral,” Al-Sane told NBC  News. Al-Sane lives near Radda, where the attack occurred.

White House and Pentagon officials were shown the video but  declined to comment. It is unknown what the US intends to do with  the investigation findings, much less whether the results will be  made public.

Human rights activist Baraa Shiban interviewed local villagers  days after the attack and said there was no sign of Badani in the  area. In fact, he says Badani was a “stranger” to the  area, and that it was unlikely he would have been invited to a  wedding of two people from neighboring villages.

“There was clearly a wedding party,” said Shiban. He  said it’s possible US officials “may have been fed the wrong  intel. They saw a group of people waiting in trucks for a convoy  and they assumed they were militants, so the made the decision to  strike.”

The 12 men who perished in the strike were shepherds and khat  farmers, ages 20 to 65, Shiban said.

Though some of the men who were killed were carrying rifles, the  local journalist Al-Sane said that’s common for a wedding party.

“In an Arab wedding, it is a tradition for people to carry  arms,” he said.

“They shoot bullets in the air as a form of expression.  That’s how they celebrate a wedding.”

Local villagers told Shiban, filing a report on the incident for  Reprieve, that the attack took place on a procession of 11 cars  and trucks carrying around 60 people going from the home of the  bride to the nearby village of the groom.

As the convoy waited in a valley for more guests, the group heard  the drone buzzing overhead, Shiban’s report attests.

“We heard a loud explosion coming from down in the  valley,” said shepherd Ahmed Mohammed Al-Shafe’ee, who lost  a son in the attack, according to Shiban’s report. “I arrived  to the site and there were bodies scattered all over the place.  The people told me that my son Aref had died.” Upon  returning to the village, Al Shafe’ee was quoted as saying,   “I saw the women of the village gathered crying and  screaming.”

Villager Sheikh Salah Al-Taisy told Shiban there was no place to  hide from the hovering drone.

“There was no way to run. It is a very remote area,” he said.   “…We live in fear day and night. Our children and women cannot  sleep.”

Shiban reported nine of the bodies were taken to Radda for a mass  burial.

Yemeni men walk past a mural depicting a US drone and reading " Why did you kill my family" on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. (AFP Photo)Yemeni men walk past a mural depicting a US drone and reading ” Why did you kill my family” on December 13, 2013 in the capital Sanaa. (AFP Photo)

The photos and videos Shiban supplied to Reprieve show burned  corpses lined up and surrounded by locals. Also shown is a  damaged truck supposedly hit in the strike; villagers protesting  US aggression with a banner that says in Arabic “America  Spills the Blood”; and locals holding fragments of a  Hellfire missile emblazoned in English with the words   “Warning — two man lift.”

The Dec. 12 strike in Al-Baydah province occurred one week after  Al-Qaeda militants attacked the Yemen Ministry of Defense and a  military hospital, killing 52 people. The attack exacerbated  anger directed at Al-Qaeda in the country.

Yet the drone strike elicited a strong reaction against the US,  and the Yemeni Parliament passed a resolution days later calling  for a halt to all drone strikes in the country.

Shortly after the alleged wedding strike, UN human rights experts  called on the US and Yemen for transparency and accountability  over the use of drones.

Special Rapporteurs, appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human  Rights Council (UNHRC), asked the US and Yemen to reveal if they  were responsible for the air strike.

If the strike was errant, UN experts demanded transparency over  what targeting standards were used in the operation, what the  death toll exactly was and whether families of the killed are  going to receive compensation.

“If armed drones are to be used, states must adhere to  international humanitarian law, and should disclose the legal  basis for their operational responsibility and criteria for  targeting,” said Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on  extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

The US has conducted a confirmed 59 to 69 clandestine drone  strikes in Yemen in the last several years, according to the  Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Of those definite attacks,  between 287 and 423 people have died. Many more strikes and  deaths, both of suspected militants and of civilians, are  believed to have occurred but cannot be verified as such data is  not provided by the US government.

President Obama Told Staff: “I am Really Good At Killing People”

November 4, 2013

President Obama in a 2012 photo in the Oval Office.

 

President Obama is criticized every day for the problems and difficulties associated with the Affordable Care Act. But in the long term, it’s likely history will scrutinize the CIA’s use of drone strikes during his administration with a far more critical eye.

 

A quote from a new book on the 2012 presidential campaign, “Double Down: Game Change 2012,” will surely stoke that interest. As first reported in a book review by the Washington Post’s Peter Hamby, Obama told aides in connection with the CIA’s drone program that he is “really good at killing people.”

It’s the kind of quote likely to make Obama supporters cringe or scramble for justifying explanations, perhaps by rationalizing the quote as either false or out of context, or critiquing the information-gathering methods of authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. The writers spent two years interviewing dozens of people connected with both the Obama and Romney campaigns.

Whether uttered in jest or in resignation, the Obama quote will only add to the concerns of those wondering whether the president has embraced the godlike, life-and-death power of the Oval Office. After campaigning against the intense interrogation procedures pursued under President George W. Bush, Obama has vastly expanded the drone program. Despite its intense unpopularity overseas, in part because of civilian casualties and in part because of its unclear, secretive mandates, the Pakistan drone program continues as it has since 2004.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the CIA has conducted 378 strikes in the program’s 10-year history. Of those, 326 are classified as “Obama strikes.” The total number of people killed by drones is estimated at 2,528 to 3,648. Civilian casualties are estimated at 416 to 948, with 168 to 200 of those being children. As many as another 1,545 are estimated to have been injured in those strikes.

“We conduct those strikes because they are necessary to mitigate ongoing actual threats — to stop plots, prevent future attacks and, again, save American lives,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in February. “These strikes are legal, they are ethical, and they are wise.” And, thanks to this book, the motivations of the man who orders them will remain under scrutiny.

“Double Down” is a sequel of sorts to “Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime,” a bestselling book made into an HBO movie. The book tracks the 2012 campaign through the voices of campaign strategists and other insiders for both President Obama and Mitt Romney, as well as the half-dozen other ancillary campaigns on the Republican side.

What emerges is a look at two men and two campaigns with singular visions and yet singular weaknesses. Here, via the Post’s Hamby, is a summary of “Double Down”’s through-line:

The book’s loose argument is that both Obama and Romney placed their bets about the race early on and “doubled down” throughout the contest. It’s an apt take on Obama World. The “Obamans,” as the authors call them, set out to annihilate Romney almost two years before the election and executed their plan with brutal efficiency. There were hiccups along the way, specifically Obama’s dreary debate-prep sessions and his cringe-worthy performance in Denver, but his deputies in Chicago rarely deviated from their search-and-destroy mission. Romney’s campaign, though, with its bad habit of reacting to news cycles with snap decisions, always felt more ad hoc, with tactics trumping strategy.

Per Hamby, Obama comes off as “brilliant but peevish, allergic to the nitty-gritty of politics,” while Romney “is a decent man but hopelessly ham-fisted on the stump and oblivious to why voters can’t seem to appreciate his private-equity résumé.”

Read the rest:

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President Barack Obama bragged to his aides on drone strikes ‘I’m really good at killing people’ — Book

November 4, 2013

  • Claim comes from new book ‘Double Down:  Game Change 2012′ about Obama’s re-election campaign
  • Obama Administration has not commented on  the report
  • Remark was made while discussing drone  strikes with aides
  • President won the Nobel Peace Prize in  2009

By  Michael Zennie

 

President Barack Obama bragged to his aides  that he’s ‘really good at killing people,’ according to explosive claims in a  new book about the 2012 presidential campaign.

The revelation comes at a time when Obama,  who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, has faced increasing criticism for his  use of drones to target insurgents and terrorist suspects, particularly in  Pakistan and Yemen.

The London-based Bureau of Investigative  Journalism estimates that Obama has authorized 326 drone strikes. Since 2004,  CIA unmanned aerial vehicles have killed 2,500 to 3,600 people – including up to  950 civilians.

President Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, had ordered an estimated 325 drone strikes against suspected terrorists and insurgentsPresident Obama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009,  had ordered an estimated 325 drone strikes against suspected terrorists and  insurgents

 

Obama was given the Peace Prize in 2009, less than a year into his presidency, for his aspirations of nuclear disarmament Obama was given the Peace Prize in 2009, less than a  year into his presidency, for his aspirations of nuclear disarmament

 

Double Down: Game Change 2012, will be  released on Tuesday, but at least one early review points out the shocking  detail included by authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.

A Washington Post report makes passing  reference to the anecdote, saying that while speaking with his aides about the  drone program Obama bragged that he was ‘really good at killing  people.’

The Obama Administration has not responded  specifically to reports of the alleged boast from the President.

More…

 

However, Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer told  ABC’s ‘This Week’ today that ‘the president is always frustrated about  leaks.

‘I haven’t talked to him about this book. I  haven’t read it. He hasn’t read it. But he hates leaks.’

Deadly strikes with the MQ-1 Predator drone and other unmanned aerial vehicles have grown considerably under the Obama Administration - and the President has defended the use of the tacticDeadly strikes with the MQ-1 Predator drone and other  unmanned aerial vehicles have grown considerably under the Obama Administration  – and the President has defended the use of the tactic

 

The Obama administration also disputes drone  casualty figures – though it has not released any numbers of its own to counter  the independent studies.

 

Obama has defended his use of drones as being  necessary for stopping terrorists in remote places before they can attack  civilians.

‘Let us remember that the terrorists we are  after target civilians, and the death toll from their acts of terrorism against  Muslims dwarfs any estimate of civilian casualties from drone strikes,’ he said  in a speech at the National Defense University in May.

In October 2009, the Norwegian Nobel  Committee – appointed by the Norwegian Parliament – gave Obama the Peace Prize  for his ‘extraordinary efforts’ to strengthen democracy, specifically citing his  goals of nuclear disarmament.

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Should Obama Stop Drone Strikes? New York Times Editorial “The Deaths of Innocents”

October 24, 2013

One of the arguments for America’s heavy reliance on drone strikes against suspected extremists has been surgical precision. The weapons are so finely calibrated and precisely targeted, officials argue, that only militants are killed, and that collateral damage to innocent civilians is rare. These claims were always hard to accept, especially given the government’s refusal to provide corroborating data. Now two human rights groups, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have marshaled impressive new evidence challenging them.

In separate reports released on Tuesday, Amnesty International examined in detail nine suspected drone strikes in Pakistan. Human Rights Watch looked at six suspected strikes in Yemen. The groups reached a similar conclusion — that dozens of civilians have been killed and that the United States may have violated international law and even committed war crimes.

Mr. Obama took an important step in May when he announced that he would reduce the number of drone strikes, allow only those that posed no threat or virtually no threat to civilians, and issue guidelines codifying the use of force against terrorists, including a provision that they be shown to pose “a continuing, imminent threat to America.” The new reports provide fresh evidence that Mr. Obama’s promised policy changes are long overdue. They also require better answers from the president than the vague responses the White House has so far delivered.

The Pakistan attacks occurred between May 2012 and July 2013 in the border region of North Waziristan, where extremists have havens and American drone strikes have been the most intensive. Amnesty International’s report, based on Pakistani and other sources, says there have been 374 strikes since 2004, including four incidents it investigated in which more than 30 civilians were killed.

In one case, in October 2012, a 68-year-old grandmother was gathering vegetables in a field, her grandchildren nearby, when she was “blasted into pieces” by a drone strike that appeared aimed directly at her. Three months earlier, 18 male laborers, including a 14-year-old boy, were killed in a series of drone strikes on the remote village of Zowi Sidgi. The first one struck a tent where the men had gathered for an evening meal; others struck those who came to rescue the injured.

The Human Rights Watch report on Yemen, which examined one attack in 2009 and five in 2012-13, determined that 82 people, at least 57 of them civilians, were killed in those episodes. All except one involved drone strikes; the other involved a cruise missile.

Both President George W. Bush and Mr. Obama have used the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the state of war that has existed since as cause to target terrorist suspects. But under international law, parties to armed conflict must minimize harm to civilians in a war zone and observe rules about what is or isn’t a lawful military target.

Hence Mr. Obama’s promised guidelines. But those guidelines have never been made public, so there is no way to judge whether or how well they are being carried out. Similarly, because the government won’t talk about the attacks, there is no way of judging whether the military is honoring Mr. Obama’s pledge that “there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured” before authorizing a strike.

Drones are important to America’s arsenal, not least because they can reach extremists in lawless areas who otherwise could not be captured and because they avoid putting American troops in harm’s way. But they are also creating enemies for the United States among people in Pakistan and Yemen who say the weapons are killing civilians, as well as militants. That alone argues for greater transparency and accountability from the government.

  <img src=”http://meter-svc.nytimes.com/meter.gif”/>            A version of this editorial appears in print on October 24, 2013, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: The Deaths of Innocents.

Pakistani PM pleads with Obama to put an end to drone strikes

October 24, 2013

Nawaz Sharif holds face-to-face talks with Obama and adds to growing pressure over America’s controversial drone program

By Dan Roberts
The Guardian

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif and Obama

Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif’s trip to Washington was designed to smooth growing US-Pakistan tensions. Photograph: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif added to growing international pressure over US drone killings on Wednesday by calling on Barack Obama to end all strikes in his country.

At the end of a long-awaited US trip designed to smooth growing tensions between the US and Pakistan, Sharif told reporters that he had “emphasised the need to end such strikes”, which are estimated to have killed between 2,525 and 3,613 people in Pakistan since 2004.

But a 2,500-word joint statement issued by the White House after the one-on-one meeting in Washington and attributed to the two leaders did not mention drone attacks, referring only to a need to respect “sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

It said President Obama also “conveyed appreciation for Pakistan’s internal and regional security challenges”. Both leaders refused to take questions at the end of their two-hour meeting in the Oval Office.

In prepared remarks, Obama acknowledged that there will “inevitably be some tensions … and some misunderstandings between our two countries” but insisted the US-Pakistan relationship will continue to be a “source of strength”.

“It’s a challenge,” Obama added. “It’s not easy.”

Pakistani criticism of the US drone program is known to irritate some in Washington defence circles, who believe that many of the attacks are secretly sanctioned or even assisted by officials in Islamabad, and regard the public condemnation as hypocritical.

But the White House is also facing its own charges of double standards after detailed reports published this week by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused the US of violating international law by failing to prevent civilian casualties during the attacks.

Analysts close to the administration say the talks between Pakistan and the US may mark a key moment in the drones program, especially since Obama has already indicated – during a speech in May – that he has a preference in future for capturing terrorist suspects where possible.

“There are always two discussions on drones; one behind closed doors,” said Karl Inderfurth, a former assistant US secretary of state for the region now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The real question is whether there is some private understanding about the need to curb the attacks. The numbers have come down since Obama’s speech to the National Defense University in May, but not to zero.”

Inderfurth said the real significance of Sharif’s visit to Washington was to smooth tensions between the two governments before a bumpy withdrawal of US forces in neighbouring Afghanistan.

“The most important part of the meeting is the fact that they are meeting.” he added. “It is important that Obama establishes some kind of rapport, so that when things go bad, as they are likely to, he has a personal relationship with his new interlocutor in Islamabad.”

In particular, Washington is keen for Pakistan to do more to encourage Taliban participation in peace talks with the Afghan government.

Speaking after his meeting with Obama, Sharif said: “Let there be no doubt about our commitment for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan. This result remains unwavering.”

The joint statement added: “The leaders affirmed their commitment to the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace and reconciliation process as the surest way to end violence and bring lasting stability to Afghanistan and the region.

“Acknowledging Pakistan’s efforts to support an inclusive reconciliation process in which Afghans determine the future of their country, both Leaders called on the Taliban to join the political process and enter into dialogue with the Afghan government.”

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Barack Obama gives no indication that the US is prepated to halt the use of   drones

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at the White House for talks with Barack Obama on drone strikes

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Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at the White House for talks with Barack Obama Photo: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

By Raf Sanchez in Washington

Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, has called on Barack Obama to end America’s campaign of drone strikes in his country, which have killed hundreds of civilians.

Sitting side-by-side after their first meeting at the White House, Mr Sharif said he had “brought up the issues of drones during our meeting, emphasising the need for an end to such strikes”.

Mr Sharif was elected to a third term in office in May on a promise to end US drone strikes in northwest Pakistan in the face of mounting public anger over civilian deaths.

Mr Obama did not address the subject and the White House has given no indication it is prepared to stop the strikes, calling them “precise, lawful and effective”.

The two leaders released a joint 2,500-word statement but did not mention the drone strikes, saying only that they shared “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity”.

Pakistan has repeatedly protested that the strikes – as well as the 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound – were violations of Pakistan’s sovereignty.

The meeting comes a day after Amnesty International warned the US may have committed war crimes during the course of its drone campaign and demanded greater transparency of the secret programme.

While Mr Sharif was expected to raise the sensitive drone issue both sides are looking to improve relations after years of tension.

In a goodwill gesture, the US released $1.6 billion (£1 billion) of military and economic aid it had been withholding after Pakistan blocked Nato supply routes into Afghanistan. The routes have since re-opened amid a thawing of relations.

Mr Obama also tried to reassure the Pakistani leader that he was “confident” of reaching a stable outcome in Afghanistan, where Nato troops will end their combat mission at the end of next year.

The president said he was looking for an outcome “that is good for Afghanistan, but also helps to protect Pakistan over the long term.”

The US is eager to enlist Pakistan’s help in negotiating a peace settlement between the government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban.

Is The U.S. Committing War Crimes? Amnesty International Reports

October 22, 2013

U.S. Drone Use: Amnesty International says US may be guilty of war crimes over its use of   drone strikes after finding evidence of civilian deaths

John Kerry and Nawaz Sharif

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Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, right, meeting US Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on Sunday. He is expected to raise the issue of drone strikes with Barack Obama days before a UN debate on the subject Photo: CLIFF OWEN/AP
Rob Crilly

By , Islamabad

Human rights campaigners will today demand that American officials be held   responsible for illegal killings carried out by drones and call for greater   transparency over its secret programme.

A new report by Amnesty International details how civilians have been killed   in Pakistan – including a 68-year-old grandmother who died in her family’s   fields – and warns the US that some deaths may amount to war crimes.

It comes amid intense scrutiny of the CIA’s covert drone programme.

Nawaz Sharif, the Pakistani prime minister, is in Washington where he is   expected to raise the issue of drones with Barack Obama days before a United   Nations debate on the subject.

The strikes are intensely controversial in Pakistan, where they are frequently   blamed for killing civilians and driving young men to terrorism.

In its report, Amnesty also asked the UK not to share intelligence, facilities   or specialist components that might be used in strikes.

Mustafa Qadri, the report’s author, said: “Secrecy surrounding the drones   programme gives the US administration a license to kill beyond the reach of   the courts or basic standards of international law. It’s time for the USA to   come clean about the drones programme and hold those responsible for these   violations to account,” he said.

“What hope for redress can there be for victims of drone attacks and their   families when the USA won’t even acknowledge its responsibility for   particular strikes?”

Amnesty reviewed all 45 known drone strikes that took place in North   Waziristan in north-western Pakistan between January 2012 and August this   year. Contrary to official claims that those killed were “terrorists”,    campaigners concluded that in a number of cases the victims were not   involved in armed activity and posed no threat to life. 

In July last year, researchers found that 18 labourers, including a   14-year-old boy, were killed in multiple strikes on a village close to the   border with Afghanistan as they were about to eat an evening meal at the end   of work.

In October 2012, Mamana Bibi was killed in a double strike – apparently by a   Hellfire missile – as she picked vegetables in the family’s fields while   surrounded by her grandchildren.

In a report published last week, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights   and counter-terrorism , found that 400 civilians had been killed in   Pakistan’s tribal areas – more than the US had ever publicly confirmed.

However, Ben Emmerson also said that unmanned aerial vehicles could reduce the   risk of civilian casualties if used in accordance with international   humanitarian law.

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File:Global Hawk 1.jpg
An RQ-4 Global Hawk

Amnesty International stops just short of accusing the United States of war crimes in a new report on American drone killings in Pakistan. The documents focus on two separate strikes that left scores of civilians dead or injured for what they claim is no apparent reason.

Mamana Bibi, a 68-year old grandmother, was blown up by a hellfire missile last October while she was picking okra outside her home; Amnesty describes Bibi’s situation in its first case study. The second involves 18 laborers — including a 14-year-old boy — who were drinking afternoon tea just before a missile killed them.

“Amnesty International’s investigations have shown that some of these drone strikes could amount to war crimes,” according to a video that was released alongside Amnesty’s report.

Under the Obama administration, drone assaults have become a signature of the U.S. military. They have been used to hunt terrorism suspects in countries such as Pakistan and Yemen, and much of that use has been unprecedented. Before Obama became president, unmanned aircraft were rarely used, and now they have been implemented to kill thousands of suspected terrorists. Those killings have taken place without a clear framework that defines the legality of carrying out air assaults against people who in many cases haven’t been accused of specific crimes.

Without legal framework for what constitutes a legal and an illegal drone strike, Amnesty International cannot outright accuse the U.S. of any crimes. The drone program remains so secret, and the legality of carrying out drone strikes in other nations so foggy, that the organization can only demand explanations. The U.S. has yet to even acknowledge Bibi’s death, according to Amnesty.

“We’re really concerned about the U.S. drone program because it says they can use them anywhere in the world because it has a global war against al-Qaeda and its allies,” Mustafa Qadri, a Pakistan researcher at Amnesty International, says in the same video. “But we have to take the U.S. at its word because they provide us with no information.”

When Qadri says “information,” he is referring to legal justification. Amnesty says it fears that the U.S. is using the lawlessness of Northern Waziristan — a section of Pakistan that borders Afghanistan and is rife with Taliban and al-Qaeda members — to avoid the consequences of what could be war crimes or extrajudicial killings.

“The USA is hiding behind a veil of secrecy to prevent any kind of investigations of killings like Mamana Bibi’s,” Qadri says. “Her family should not have to pay the price for the USA’s so-called global war against al-Qaeda and its allies.”

Amnesty International acknowledges in its report that drone strikes have decreased since last year, but emphasizes that a reduction in attacks doesn’t abate their concerns. The organization also requests that the Obama administration disclose all of its drone activities, and present a clear legal framework for drone assaults. Amnesty says it wants Congress to investigate the killings cited in its report, the White House to provide a legal basis for those attacks, and the U.S. to compensate families who were affected by drone attacks.

The United States Department of Defense did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

US steps up Yemen drone attacks, Two arrested in Saudi Arabia over terror plot

August 9, 2013

  • The two men, from Yemen and Chad, are  believed to be involved in al Qaeda threats on British and US embassies
  • Pair were caught after exchanging  information on social networking sites
  • Around 19 diplomatic posts in Middle East  and Africa closed over threats
  • US has stepped up drone strikes in Yemen,  killing 12 militants on Thursday

By  Suzannah Hills

 

Two men have been arrested in Saudi Arabia on  suspicion of planning terrorist attacks which forced the closure of several  foreign embassies in the region in recent weeks.

The arrests come as the U.S. sharply  escalated its drone attacks on neighbouring Yemen on Thursday with 12 militants  killed in three separate strikes.

Saudi officials claim the two men arrested,  from Yemen and Chad, were planning suicide attacks connected to recent al Qaeda  threats on American and British embassies which forced their closures this  week.

A soldier mans an anti-aircraft machine gun on a military vehicle during a patrol in Sanaa, Yemen, yesterday.

A soldier mans an anti-aircraft machine gun on a  military vehicle during a patrol in Sanaa, Yemen, yesterday

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Attack: American drones similar to these killed 12 militants in three separate blasts in Yemen yesterday .

Attack: American drones similar to these killed 12  militants in three separate blasts in Yemen yesterday

The pair were detained in late July after  they exchanged information on social media about imminent attacks, the official  Saudi Press Agency reported.

The Saudi Interior Ministry said an  investigation is continuing into the pair, who used mobile phones and encrypted  electronic communications to discuss the terrorist plot.

More…

 

‘The security authorities through monitoring  and follow up of published messages of incitement and hatred through social  networks managed at the beginning of the last ten days of the holy month of  Ramadan to arrest two expatriates,’ the ministry added, in a statement published  by the official state news agency SPA.

‘The two recruited themselves for the service  of deviant thought, as evidenced by their seized items which included computer  hardware, electronic media and mobile phones and which indicated their  communication with the deviant group abroad either by electronic encrypted  messages or through identities via the social networks (such as Abu Alfidaa,  Hspouy, Muawiya Almadani, Rasasah fi Qusasah, and Abu El Feda Aldokulai) so as  to exchange information about impending suicide operations in the region,’ the  statement added.

Children play with toy guns in Sanaa, Yemen, yesterday as America continued to launch drone attacks on al Qaeda terrorists in the country .

Children play with toy guns in Sanaa, Yemen, yesterday  as America continued to launch drone attacks on al Qaeda terrorists in the  country

As the world’s top oil exporter and main U.S.  Gulf ally, Saudi Arabia is a top target for al Qaeda, which carried out attacks  the country a decade ago which killed hundreds.

Saudi Arabia has arrested thousands of  suspects over the past 10 years and accused them of being involved with al  Qaeda. Attacks have been rare since 2006 when it crushed a domestic campaign by  the militant group.

Survivors of the al Qaeda group in Saudi  Arabia responsible for attacks between 2003 and 2006 are believed to have later  fled to Yemen where they joined local militants to set up AQAP.

The Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)  is now based in Saudi Arabia’s lawless neighbour Yemen – which is one of the  militant movement’s most active wings.

The U.S. is now targeting the terrorist group  with drone strikes across Yemen – with 34 suspected al Qaeda militants killed in  the last two weeks.

It comes amid a global terror alert issued by  Washington.

High alert: A Yemeni soldier guards security barriers outside the British embassy as authorities tighten security measures around the western embassies in Sanaa, Yemen, earlier this week.

High alert: A Yemeni soldier guards security barriers  outside the British embassy as authorities tighten security measures around the  western embassies in Sanaa, Yemen, earlier this week

The U.S. and Britain evacuated diplomatic  staff from the Yemen capital of Sanaa this week after learning of a threatened  attack that prompted Washington to close temporarily 19 diplomatic posts in the  Middle East and Africa.

On Thursday, the U.S. State Department warned  Americans not to travel to Pakistan and ordered nonessential government  personnel to leave the U.S. Consulate in Lahore because of a specific threat to  that diplomatic mission.

Thursday’s first reported drone attack hit a  car carrying suspected militants in the district of Wadi Ubaidah, about 175  kilometers (109 miles) east of Sanaa, and killed six, a security official said.

Badly burned bodies lay beside their vehicle,  according to the official. Five of the dead were Yemenis, while the sixth was  believed to be of another Arab nationality, he said.

The second drone attack killed three alleged  militants in the al-Ayoon area of Hadramawt province in the south, the official  said. The third, also in Hadramawt province, killed three more suspected  militants in the al-Qutn area, he added.

On patrol: Yemeni soldiers search a car on a street leading to the U.S. and British embassies after Washington issued a global terror alert .

On patrol: Yemeni soldiers search a car on a street  leading to the U.S. and British embassies after Washington issued a global  terror alert

All the airstrikes targeted cars, added the  official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to  talk to the media.

The drone strikes have become a near-daily  routine since they began July 27. So far, they have been concentrated in remote,  mountainous areas where al Qaeda’s top five leaders are believed to have taken  refuge.

But drones also have been seen and heard  buzzing for hours over Sanaa, worrying residents who fear getting caught in the  crossfire.

While the United States acknowledges its  drone program in Yemen, it does not talk about individual strikes or release  information on how many are carried out.

The program is run by the Pentagon’s Joint  Special Operations Command and the CIA, with the military flying its drones out  of Djibouti, and the CIA out of a base in Saudi Arabia.

Pentagon spokesman Army Lt. Col. Todd  Breasseale declined to comment Thursday and would not confirm the existence of a  military drone program in Yemen. The CIA also declined to comment.

Concerned: A police trooper mans a machine gun mounted on an armoured personnel carrier positioned near the British embassy in Sanaa which was closed earlier this week amid 'increased security concerns' .

Concerned: A police trooper mans a machine gun mounted  on an armoured personnel carrier positioned near the British embassy in Sanaa  which was closed earlier this week amid ‘increased security concerns’

 

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Yemen Says It Stopped al-Qaida Militants From Taking Over Two Cities in the Country; Drones Kill 6 More in Yemen

August 7, 2013

SANAA, Yemen     (AP) — A Yemeni government spokesman claims authorities have foiled a plot by al-Qaida militants aimed at taking control of two cities in the country, then storming strategic ports and bombing gas facilities.

Rageh Badi said Wednesday that the terror network planned to target the southern cities of Mukalla, the capital of Hadramawt province, and Bawzeer, then send its members disguised in military uniform to attack two strategic oil ports.

He says other al-Qaida militants, meanwhile, would try to sabotage pipelines to “create panic among Yemeni army and Yemeni security services.”

The remarks come as the country is on heightened alert over fears of an al-Qaida threat that led the U.S. and Britain to evacuate their embassies in the capital, Sanaa.

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A policeman stands guard at the entrance of Sanaa International Airport, Yemen, Aug. 7, 2013.

A policeman stands guard at the entrance of Sanaa International Airport, Yemen, Aug. 7, 2013. / AP

 CBS News

Yemen’s foreign minister confirmed to CBSNews.com on Wednesday that the nation’s security forces have disrupted an al Qaeda plot targeting Yemeni oil infrastructure and cities.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Abu-Bakr Al-Qirbi confirmed information given to the BBC by Yemeni government spokesman Rajeh Badi, who said the elaborate plot involved plans to blow up pipelines and attempts to seize key parts of cities vital to the impoverished Arab nation’s oil trade.

“There were attempts to control key cities in Yemen like Mukala and Bawzeer,” Badi told the British broadcaster. “This would be coordinated with attacks by al Qaeda members on the gas facilities in Shebwa city and the blowing up of the gas pipe in Belhaf city.”

Al-Qirbi told CBSNews.com he was unable to provide further information on the operation to disrupt the plot, and he also could not say whether Yemen’s security forces had received any assistance from the United States or any other country.

“We rely on our security forces and they have been doing an excellent job,” said al-Qirbi.

Pentagon spokesman George Little confirmed to CBS News that the U.S. Air Force had assisted in evacuating some emergency embassy personnel from Sanaa on Tuesday morning, and added that the “U.S. Department of Defense continues to have personnel on the ground in Yemen to support the U.S. State Department and monitor the security situation.”

The U.S. military has had troops on the ground in Yemen in a training capacity before, but there have been no reports that American military personnel have taken part in any ground operations against Islamic militants.

Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the terror network’s most active franchise and the one which many U.S. officials and analysts say represents the most direct threat to the U.S. and its interests abroad.

Video:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57597333/sus
pected-u.s-drone-strikes-said-to-kill-up-to-7-in-yemen/

Intercepted al Qaeda message discussed doing “something big”

CBS News learned this week that intercepted communications between al Qaeda’s core leadership in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region and the leader of AQAP in Yemen, Nasir Wuhayshi, were the catalyst for a broad terror threat alert which prompted the State Department to temporarily close embassies in Yemen, and across much of the Middle East and North Africa.

On Wednesday, the U.S., Britain and France pulled many of their embassy staff out of Yemen in response to what the State Department said was an “extremely high” threat level in the country.

The U.S. embassies were expected to remain closed at least until the end of the week, after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan concludes.

Yemen’s government has worked closely with the U.S. to combat AQAP on its soil, and a series of suspected U.S. drone strikes have hit the terrorist group hard this year. The killing of the group’s deputy leader Saeed al-Shihri in late 2012 or early 2013 was the most direct blow, but the strikes have been unrelenting, with four more suspected militants being blown up in a vehicle in the country’s center on Tuesday, and reports Wednesday morning suggested another six or seven had been killed in fresh strikes in the south.

Yemeni security officials told The Associated Press that suspected U.S. drone strikes had killed six alleged al Qaeda militants in the country’s south, while the Reuters news agency put the number at six.

Al-Qirbi said he did not have information on the most recent reported drone strikes, but that generally Yemen’s government supports the strikes so long as “they do not take place unless they (U.S.) get the Yemeni government’s approval, and they ensure there’s no collateral damage, and they are targeting legitimate al Qeada” suspects.

The suspected drone attack on Wednesday would be the fifth in Yemen in less than two weeks.

The officials said the militants were killed early Wednesday in Shabwa province. Residents in the area of Markha in Shabwa province told the AP they saw two vehicles and several bodies on fire at the site of the strikes. They declined to be identified, fearing reprisals.

In spite of the huge pressure brought by the drone strikes, U.S. government and counter-terrorism officials have warned that AQAP remains an extremely dangerous group, capable of inflicting serious damage on U.S. interests.

“These are the Saudi loyalists that bin Laden trusted the most,” explained CBS News senior correspondent John Miller after al-Shihiri’s death was confirmed in July. “They have been, out of all the al Qaeda affiliates, the ones that have been the most effective in targeting America.”

“They’re the ones who placed an underwear bomb in a plane over Detroit, they’re the ones who developed the printer bomb for three planes bound for the United States and Great Britain. They’re the ones who publish Inspire magazine, which gave the recipe — and, by it’s name, the inspiration — for the Boston Marathon bombings,” added Miller, who worked previously at both the FBI and in the office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Terror War Far From Over — al-Qaeda threat threw Western governments into turmoil, Closed Diplomatic Posts

August 5, 2013

War Against Terrorism: This war isn’t over yet

In the wake of an al-Qaeda threat that threw Western governments into turmoil, it is clear the terror network is far from defeated, says Con Coughlin

The US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, burns in September last year

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The US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, burns in September last year Photo: AFP/GETTY

For an organisation that is said to be in terminal decline, al-Qaeda will draw immense satisfaction from the events of this past weekend, when it demonstrated its ability to disrupt the work of Western governments by forcing the temporary closure of dozens of diplomatic missions throughout the Arab world.

While it is unclear what kind of threat prompted the US government to initiate such radical measures, or the Foreign Office to shut the British mission to Yemen, American intelligence officials are convinced that al-Qaeda is planning a spectacular attack to mark the festival of Eid, which comes at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Specifically, they say the intelligence relates to a deadly al-Qaeda cell operating in Yemen, a war-torn country where the writ of the government barely extends beyond the confines of the ancient capital, Sana’a.

In recent years, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has emerged as one of the more deadly arms of the wider al-Qaeda franchise. This brand of terrorism thrives in Muslim countries with weak governments – and Yemen, which has been afflicted by decades of civil war and instability, was an obvious target for exploitation.

Having established a base there at the start of the last decade, the country’s al-Qaeda offshoot gained international notoriety via the so-called “underpants bomber”, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. In December 2009, an attempt by this British-educated Nigerian terrorist to blow up a plane as it prepared to land at Detroit only failed when an explosive device hidden in his underwear failed to detonate.

Britain and America had another lucky escape the following year, when an explosive device was found hidden in an ink cartridge on a cargo flight due to leave East Midlands Airport for the US. It was primed to detonate as the aircraft approached America’s eastern seaboard.

Both these plots are said by intelligence officials to have been the work of Ibrahim al-Asiri, a 31-year-old Saudi who fled to Yemen after being jailed for his association with al-Qaeda. Despite a number of high-profile drone strikes in Yemen that have killed a number of key al-Qaeda leaders, including the group’s American-born founder Anwar al-Awlaki, Asiri still remains at large – and tops the list of America’s most wanted terrorists.

The fact that Asiri and his associates, both in Yemen and elsewhere in the Arab world, retain the ability to cause a global security alert suggests that, for all the efforts undertaken by Western counter-terrorism agencies, al-Qaeda remains a considerable threat to our security.

The widespread closure of diplomatic missions over the weekend certainly appears to contradict President Obama’s claim last summer that the “war on terror” was drawing to a close, and that the al-Qaeda organisation originally founded by Osama bin Laden no longer had the ability or capacity to cause wholesale carnage in the West.

The President made his comments in the wake of the successful mission to eliminate bin Laden at his hideaway in Pakistan in May 2011. Bin Laden’s death – together with the targeted killing by drone strikes of scores of senior

al-Qaeda terrorists hiding in the remote mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan – was used to justify the impending withdrawal of American and other Nato forces from Afghanistan. After all, if al-Qaeda no longer had the capacity to terrorise the West, then there was no need for American and British soldiers to continue risking their lives.

The impression that America is winding down its long war against al-Qaeda was strengthened last week during a visit by Senator John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, to Pakistan. He dropped a strong hint that America was planning to end its controversial drone strikes in the tribal areas “very, very soon”, because al-Qaeda no longer posed a threat.

“I think the programme will end, as we have eliminated most of the threat and continue to eliminate it,” said Mr Kerry.

Yet within hours of this statement, the Secretary of State was obliged to authorise an immediate lockdown of all American embassies and consulates in the Arab world, for fear that al-Qaeda might be planning a repeat of last September’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in Libya, which claimed the lives of the American ambassador Chris Stevens and three other staff members.

The Obama administration faced fierce criticism over the Benghazi attack, particularly when it was revealed that Hillary Clinton, Mr Kerry’s immediate predecessor, had ignored warnings that al-Qaeda was planning to target the compound (Sir Dominic Asquith, Britain’s ambassador to Libya, had survived an al-Qaeda assassination attempt the previous summer). The US government then appeared deliberately to mislead the American public about the nature of the attack, claiming that it was a demonstration that got out of control, rather than a carefully planned al-Qaeda operation.

This time, Mr Kerry and his officials are taking no chances. But even if no attack materialises, this episode reflects one of the more frustrating aspects of the decade-long campaign against

al-Qaeda and other Islamist terrorists: that no sooner has the threat posed by one group been eliminated, than another pops up to take its place. As the former director of the CIA, General David Petraeus said, the West needed to adopt a “whack-a-mole” policy, so that it could deal with different al-Qaeda cells popping up around the world at the same time.

Certainly, to judge by the recent upsurge in al-Qaeda activity, the organisation is currently experiencing something of a renaissance – whether it is organising mass prison breakouts, as have recently taken place in Iraq and Libya, or attempting to exploit the recent wave of Arab uprisings to suit its own Islamist agenda.

When anti-government protesters first took to the streets of the major Arab capitals two years ago to demand wholesale reform, it was seen as yet another nail in al-Qaeda’s coffin. The protesters wanted democracy and economic prosperity, not sharia law and a different system of repressive government. Notably, none of those taking part in the protests in places like Tahrir Square carried the black flag of al-Qaeda.

But as the protests have faltered, so al-Qaeda has moved quietly to seize the initiative for itself, exploiting the inexperience of newly installed governments in countries like Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Secular politicians who voice their opposition to Islamist government have been targeted – two prominent secularists have been assassinated in Libya and Tunisia in recent weeks.

The chaos created in Libya by the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime has also been to al-Qaeda’s benefit. Apart from acquiring a significant arsenal of hi-tech weaponry from the regime’s stockpiles – including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles – the removal of Gaddafi’s authoritarian government has allowed al-Qaeda cells to flourish with impunity throughout Libya’s vast desert expanse, even allowing its supporters to seize control of large areas of neighbouring Mali.

But arguably al-Qaeda’s most impressive recent achievement has been its infiltration of Syria’s moderate opposition movement, and its success in re-establishing a foothold in neighbouring Iraq, where it is once more doing its best to provoke a new round of sectarian conflict.

In Syria the al-Nusra Front, which makes no secret of its allegiance to al-Qaeda, has managed to provoke a civil war within a civil war by murdering a prominent commander of the Syrian Free Army. But its main objective remains the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and the establishment of an uncompromising Islamist government in Damascus – especially if it can seize control of Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons in the process.

For years, one of al-Qaeda’s central aims has been to obtain access to weapons of mass destruction, thereby enabling it to achieve its goal of inflicting widespread carnage against the West.

To date, it has failed, but if its allies in Syria or elsewhere in the Arab world ever succeed in getting their hands on such destructive weapons, then the Obama administration and its allies will have rather more to worry about than the security of their diplomatic missions.


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