Human Rights

February 7, 2013

Drones: A Terror in the Sky

The near constant presence of CIA drones “terrorises” much of the civilian population of Pakistan’s tribal areas according to a new report.

Men, women, and children are subjected to almost constant trauma – including fear of attack, severe anxiety, powerlessness, insomnia, and high levels of stress – says a nine month investigation into CIA drone strikes in Pakistan by two top US university law schools. More than 130 “victims, witnesses, and experts” were interviewed in Pakistan for the study.

A number of those eyewitnesses corroborated the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s recent findings – that rescuers have been deliberately targeted by the CIA in the tribal areas.

The new study heavily challenges US government claims that few civilians have died in CIA drone strikes, saying that there is “significant evidence” to the contrary.

As the report notes in its executive summary: “In the United States, the dominant narrative about the use of drones in Pakistan is of a surgically precise and effective tool that makes the US safer by enabling “targeted killing” of terrorists, with minimal downsides or collateral impacts. This narrative is false.”

The joint report, Living Under Drones, is by Stanford University’s International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, and New York University School of Law’s Global Justice Clinic. The 165-page study looks at key aspects of the CIA’s drone programme – its legal basis, how strikes are reported, their strategic implications – and how civilians are affected.

Psychiatrists and doctors report a deeply stressed population in parts of the tribal areas. In their ninth year of bombing, US drones now fly almost constantly over towns such as Mir Ali and Miranshah.

One psychiatrist told researchers that many of his patients experience “anticipatory anxiety,” a constant fear that they might come under attack. The report goes on to note that:

Interviewees described emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares, and other intrusive thoughts, hyper startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability, and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms. Interviewees also reported suffering from insomnia and other sleep disturbances, which medical health professionals in Pakistan stated were prevalent.

Don't drop

(Image:  Soldiers load Hellfire missiles onto an MQ-1B predator drone at an Air Force base in Afghanistan. Image Credit: US Air Force)

Pakistani MP Akhunzada Chitan reported that when he visits Waziristan to see his family, people “often complain that they wake up in the middle of the night screaming” because of the drones.

The Stanford/ NYU report also examines in detail three Obama administration drone strikes. Multiple eye-witness reports of civilian deaths are accompanied by “corroborating evidence from other independent investigations, media accounts, and submissions to the United Nations, and courts in the UK and Pakistan.”

In total, more than 50 civilians are likely to have died in these three strikes alone, the report concludes. Anonymous US officials were still claiming recently that civilian deaths have only been in “single digits” during Obama’s entire four years in office.

The NYU/ Stanford report also independently corroborates a major Bureau investigation with the Sunday Times, which found that multiple CIA strikes between 2009 and summer 2011 had deliberately targeted rescuers and funeral-goers. Citing a number of eyewitness accounts, the study notes:

Secondary strikes have discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue, and even inhibited the provision of emergency medical assistance from humanitarian workers.

Hayatullah Ayoub Khan was driving in North Waziristan when the car ahead of him was damaged in a drone strike. The report says that as Khan approached on foot to see if he could help “someone inside yelled that he should leave immediately because another missile would likely strike.” As he returned to his car, a second missile killed whoever had been inside.

CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004 – 2012

Total US strikes: 349 
Obama strikes: 297 
Total reported killed: 2,587-3,363 
Civilians reported killed: 474-884 
Children reported killed: 176 
Total reported injured: 1,243-1,390
For the latest Pakistan strike data click here.

A second anonymised man told researchers of an attack on the home of his in-laws: “Other people came to check what had happened, they were looking for the children in the beds and then a second drone strike hit those people.”

People now avoid assisting victims of drone strikes, researchers were told. One “leading humanitarian organization” said that it insists on a six-hour mandatory delay before its workers are allowed to assist, meaning it is “only the locals, the poor, [who] will pick up the bodies of loved ones.”

When seven of Faheem Qureshi’s family and friends died in Obama’s first ever drone strike, he believes he only survived because he was able to walk out of the smoking rubble of the house unaided.

“Usually, when a drone strikes and people die, nobody comes near the bodies for half an hour because they fear another missile will strike,” Qureshi told researchers.

Funeral practices have also changed in the tribal areas because of fears of CIA attack, according to a number of witnesses. Firoz Ali Khan told researchers:

Not many people go to funerals because funerals have been struck by drones. Many people are scared. They don’t go to funerals because of their fear.

US Covert Action in Yemen 2002 – 2012

Total confirmed US operations (all): 52-62
Total confirmed US drone strikes: 40-50
Possible additional US operations: 119-138
Possible additional US drone strikes: 63-76
Total reported killed (all): 357-1,038
Total civilians killed (all): 60-163
Children killed (all): 24-34
For the latest data from Yemen click here.

The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Professor Christof Heyns, recently described the deliberate targeting of civilian rescuers as “a war crime.”

The joint report by two of the US’s biggest university law schools came after legal campaigning group Reprieve suggested a study into the impact of drones on civilians. It also assisted in putting researchers in touch with some of those affected in Pakistan – although Reprieve has had no editorial input, according to the report.

Professor Sarah Knuckey of NYU’s Global Justice Clinic co-authored the study with Professor James Cavallaro at Stanford. The pair visited Pakistan twice with a team of young lawyers, interviewing more than 130 people in connection with the CIA’s bombing programme.

Knuckey, who has previously investigated killings by the Taliban in Afghanistan, told the Bureau she had been surprised at the high levels of civilian trauma described by health professionals in the tribal areas. Incidence levels more closely resembled those found in higher intensity conflicts, she said.

Asked what she thought the study would achieve, Knuckey said that she hoped that those responsible in the US for covert drone strikes “look at this and say there are extremely well documented and serious concerns, both about the impact of our policies on Pakistani civilians, and also on the US’s own interests, and we need to consider this very seriously.”

The Obama administration has so far not engaged with the authors. A July 18 request for a meeting with the US National Security Council has yet to be answered.

This report is by Chris Wood, a reporter working with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London, and is shared courtesy of the IPF’s partners at Inquire Magazine



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3 Comments


  1. Codar

    It’s also important to remember a few things. First of all, militants commonly conceal themselves among populations. This means that in order to strike at them, there will be others that get hurt. This applies to any form of attack, not just drones. At least with drones, one can better limit the damage by engaging on the pilot’s terms. Secondly (and perhaps more importantly), drones are much cheaper to operate than other platforms. This is a huge consideration.



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