The use of pilotless aircraft, commonly referred to as “drones”, for surveillance and so-called targeted killings by the USA has fast become one of the most controversial human rights issues in the world. In no place is this more apparent than in Pakistan. The USA appears to be exploiting the lawless and remote nature of the region to evade accountability for its drone program, including killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes. Amnesty International conducted detailed field research based on rare access to North Waziristan, where the vast majority of drone strikes have occurred.
Amnesty International research includes cases of so-called “rescuer attacks” in which residents came to the scene of an initial drone strike only to be struck in follow-up strikes, possibly on the presumption that they too were members of the group being targeted. Yet local communities have little control over the presence of armed groups in their villages and districts. Apart from the threat of US drone strikes, people in North Waziristan are caught in the middle of deliberate and indiscriminate attacks by armed groups and Pakistan’s armed forces. Al-Qa’ida-linked groups have killed dozens of local villagers they accused of being spies for US drone strikes.
Drone strike victims and their families have little chance of securing justice. US authorities have failed to acknowledge responsibility for specific strikes, let alone establish a mechanism for investigating potentially unlawful killings and providing redress. The Pakistani authorities have also failed to provide adequate compensation or other assistance to victims of drone strikes and other violence in the region.
Drone Strike: Esso Khel (Hassu Khel)
On 24 May 2012, a US drone strike on Esso Khel killed 8 people, including 4 Taliban and 4 foreign fighters. Of the Taliban two were locals – Abdul Samad Dawar and Hakimullah Dawar. Strike totally destroyed mosque used by Taliban and allied fighters and damaged neighboring buildings used by local residents who were not fighters.
Speeches by US officials suggest that the Administration believes that it can lawfully target people based merely on their membership in armed groups, rather than on the basis of their conduct or direct participation in hostilities. Membership in an armed group alone is not a sufficient basis to directly target an individual. Reports that the USA targets individuals on a ‘kill list’ suggest the USA is not doing a case-by-case analysis of whether those persons are taking direct part in hostilities at the time they are targeted.
Drone Strike: Miran Shah Bazaar
A US drone strike on the Miran Shah Bazaar on 26 May 2012 killed 3-4 members of the Taliban. The strike destroyed the entire building, including the bakery operated by two brothers, thus depriving them and their employees of their livelihood. Neighboring buildings were damaged and required extensive repairs. According to the bakery owners, Pakistani authorities did not give them any financial or other assistance.
“Four tractors were working all the day to clean the debris, all at our own expense,” said one of the bakery owners. “I did not receive nor expect anything from the [Pakistan or US] government.”
“The [Pakistan] government doesn’t assist us, only the local residents and the neighboring shop keepers,” said a Miran Shah resident when asked about assistance provided by the government after the his bakery was destroyed by the US drone strike.
Like other cases documented by Amnesty International, victims and their relatives lodged formal requests for compensation, but said they had yet to receive adequate financial or other assistance.
The US authorities must ensure that victims of unlawful drone strikes, their families and communities have effective access to remedies, including in the form of restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. Where it has been determined that civilians have been killed or injured in circumstances that did not amount to violations of international law, the USA should nevertheless offer adequate compensation.
Strike location is approximate.
Drone Strike: Esso Khel (Hassu Khel)
Around 4am on 4 June 2012, US drones fired missiles at a building in the village of Esso Khel, near Mir Ali, killing five men and injuring four more. Several minutes later around 12 people, including foreigners whom villagers said were Arabs and Central Asians who were likely members of al-Qa’ida, and local residents arrived at the scene to assist victims.
One resident recalled, “They started rescue work and were collecting body pieces of the slain people and pulling out the injured from debris of the building when the drones started firing again.”
According to villagers, one of those killed in the second strike was senior al-Qa’ida leader Abu Yahya al-Libi who was overseeing the rescue efforts. Ten to 16 people were killed in total, including six local tribesmen who, as far as Amnesty International could determine, had come only to assist victims.
It is possible that the USA was trying to target al-Libi as he is a prominent member of al-Qa’ida with a significant international profile owing to his frequent appearance in the group’s propaganda videos and other materials. However, he would need to have been directly participating in hostilities on behalf of a party to an actual armed conflict with the USA (whether as part of the spillover armed conflict in Afghanistan or an armed conflict in Pakistan) to have been considered a lawful target. Even if he could be considered to have been directly participating in hostilities, those planning and carrying out the attack would need to have taken into consideration the presence of civilians and the possibility that attacking him in such circumstances would have been disproportionate. Deliberately attacking civilians rescuing the wounded, or the wounded themselves, is a war crime.
Strike location is approximate.
CASE STUDY: Zowi Sidgi
At dusk on 6 July 2012 a group of laborers from Zowi Sidgi village had gathered at a tent after a long day of work in the summer heat.
“It was our gathering place; usually at the end of the day after work the villagers sit together and talk to each other about our daily business,” said Ahsan, a chromite miner and Zowi Sidgi resident who was praying in a local mosque at the time.
Four drones that had been hovering overhead for some minutes and were clearly visible to residents in the crimson dusk light. Suddenly, witnesses recalled, the sound of multiple missiles could be heard piercing the sky, hitting the tent and killing at least eight people instantly.
“When we went to where the missiles hit to help people; we saw a very horrible scene. Body parts were scattered everywhere. [I saw] bodies without heads and bodies without hands or legs. Everyone in the hut was cut to pieces,” recalled Ahsan.
Some villagers ventured to where the tent once was to search for survivors and sift through the devastation. Then, a few minutes later, the drones, which witnesses recalled hearing hovering overhead after the first attack, fired another series of missiles targeting those who had come to the scene.
At least six people died instantly, and at least another two died minutes later from wounds sustained in the attack.
“Children have lost their mental balance, they are afraid all the time,” said Nabeel from Zowi Sidgi.
“After seeing the body parts and hearing the screaming of the victims[of the 6 July 2012 drone strike that killed 18 people], my young nephew is always scared and crying, running towards his mother saying the drone could come and strike again.”
According to witnesses and relatives of victims interviewed by Amnesty International, 18 people were killed in the drone strikes that evening and at least 22 others were injured, including an eight-year-old girl named Shehrbano who sustained shrapnel injuries to her leg.
It is the responsibility of the US authorities to present the legal and factual justification for this attack. Amnesty International has serious concerns that this attack violated the prohibition of the arbitrary deprivation of life and may constitute war crimes or extrajudicial executions. Amnesty International calls for a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of the Zowi Sidgi drone strike on 6 July 2012. Where there is sufficient admissible evidence, anyone responsible for unlawful killings must be brought to justice in public and fair trials without recourse to the death penalty, and all victims provided full reparation.
Strike location confirmed.
Drone Strike: Darai Nishtar
On 23 July 2012, US drones targeted, according to residents, fighters from the Maulvi Ihsanullah group which are part of the Haqqani network of the Afghan Taliban.
“It was evening time and it was very difficult to understand how many planes were there,” recalled eyewitness Shakeeb. “It was fast-breaking time and we were sitting together to break our fast. Then the first drone attack took place on the Taliban Centre near Shaingai Shrine. The missiles, about six or seven, hit the building direct.”
At least six residents who, as far as Amnesty International could determine, were not directly participating in hostilities, were killed by a follow-up strike as they were attempting to rescue those injured in the initial attack. Among the local residents killed in the follow-up strike were Khatim, Noor Wali, Sabirkai and Bashirullah. According to residents interviewed by Amnesty International, these four men and possibly the two others killed, were not members of al-Qa’ida, the Taliban or other armed groups but ordinary residents.
“Some locals came to offer help when the second strike occurred. By then I tried to get as far as possible from there,” Shakeeb added. According to him and other witnesses, the Taliban began stopping residents who tried to venture towards the strike area after the attack on rescuers. “Taliban prevented people from going near the incident site. They cleaned the area themselves and took all the dead bodies with them,” Shakeen said.
But for ordinary villagers the strike has created a lingering sense of fear. “People are scared of the drone attacks, they don’t walk together; they sit only in pairs and if they gather in large groups, it would be only for a very short time. When the drone plane comes and we hear the sound of ‘ghommm’ people feel very scared. The drone plane can launch missiles at any time.”
CASE STUDY: The killing of Mamana Bibi
On a sunny afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in the family fields in Ghundi Kala village, northwest Pakistan, was blasted into pieces before their eyes.
Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi’s family has yet to receive any acknowledgment that it was the US that killed her, let alone justice or compensation for her death.
“We are ordinary people working in the education field,” said Rafeequl. “All of my brothers work in the schools; four as teachers, the fifth as a school assistant. My father is a renowned principal. They even named a school after him.”
On the day Mamana Bibi was killed, her son Rafeequl Rehman – father of Zubair, Nabeela, Asma and Safdar – was in a market in Miran Shah. He was buying gifts for the family in anticipation of the Muslim holy day of Eid ul Adha the next day.
“After finishing my evening prayers in Miran Shah, I returned to my village and on the way I saw that villagers had gathered near our home,” he said. At first nobody would tell Rafeequl what had happened that afternoon. Then some village children approached him and said his house had been hit by a drone attack and his children were wounded.
“I was shocked and rushed to my home and saw a big gathering of people. I rushed passed them and saw my mother’s dead body wrapped in a cloth – her body was in pieces.” For a brief moment that felt like an eternity, Rafeequl thought the rest of his family had also been killed in the strike. But one of his brothers finally confirmed that all of their children had survived.
“She was standing in our family fields gathering okra to cook that evening,” recalled Zubair Rehman, one of Mamana Bibi’s grandsons, who was working in the fields at the time.
Accustomed to seeing drones overhead, Mamana Bibi and her grandchildren continued their daily routine. “The drone planes were flying over our village all day and night, flying in pairs sometimes three together. We had grown used to them flying over our village all the time,” Zubair Rehman continued.
“I was watering our animals and my brother was harvesting maize crop,” said Nabeela.
Then, before her family’s eyes, Mamana Bibi was blown into pieces by at least two Hellfire missiles fired concurrently from a US drone aircraft.
“I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards. It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected as many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth,” Nabeela recalled.
“I wasn’t scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?”
Asma and 5-year old Naeema, were in the field less than 100-feet south of where Mamana Bibi was struck and killed by Hellfire missiles from a U.S. drone. Asma sustained shrapnel injuries to her arms and shoulders.
“I miss my grandmother, she used to give us pocket money and took us with her wherever she went.”
Mamana Bibi’s grandsons Kaleemul and Samdur Rehman were in the house at the time of the first strike which killed Mamana Bibi. Kaleemul Rehman recalled:
“I was sitting at my home drinking tea [when] suddenly I heard a sound of explosions. I ran outside and saw the rocket had left a big crater in the field and dead animals, and the area was full of smoke and dust. I could not see my grandmother anywhere.”
As the two boys surveyed the area, they discovered their grandmother had been blown to pieces. Fearing further attacks, the two tried to flee the area when the second volley of missiles was fired. Kaleemul was hit by shrapnel, breaking his left leg and suffering a large, deep gash to that thigh.
“This time I felt something hit my leg and the wave of the blast knocked me unconscious,” Kaleemul said. “Later I regained consciousness and noticed that my leg was wounded and my cousin was carrying me on his back to the main road, about 1.5 miles away.”
Amnesty International calls for a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation of the drone strikes that killed Mamana Bibi on 24 October 2012.
As part of this, the US authorities must fully disclose all information regarding her killing, including details of the legal and factual justification for carrying out the attacks. US officials must also disclose details of any investigation into anyone involved in planning, ordering, and carrying out this attack. Where there is sufficient admissible evidence that an individual may be responsible for an unlawful killing or other serious violation of international humanitarian law or human rights law, the authorities must ensure they are brought to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty.
Strike locations confirmed.
Drone strike: Haider Khel
On 8 January 2013, a US drone strike in Haider Khel in Mir Ali, North Waziristan, Pakistan killed approximately 4-9 people and injured 1-4 people*. All of those killed or injured appeared to be Taliban and/or al-Qa’ida.
Strike location is approximate.
*AI was unable to verify this with more than 2 separate sources.
Drone Strike: Dandai Darpa Khel
A US drone strike in Dandi Darpa Khel in Miran Shah, North Waziristan, Pakistan on 3 July 2013 killed 16 people and injured at least 5. All were members of armed groups including Afghan Taliban, Punjabi Taliban, and foreign fighters.
Strike location is approximate.