Just before noon on October 30 2011, a CIA drone attacked a vehicle near Datta Khel in Pakistan’s tribal northwest. At least four people were reported to have been killed and two injured. Pakistani intelligence officials said the dead men were militants. But local villagers disagreed. They said the dead men were 'peaceful tribesmen'. They even named one of them: Saeedur Rahman, described as a local chromite dealer.
Five months later, in March 2012, journalists from the New York Times spoke with a 64-year-old farmer called Noor Magul. He said three of the men killed in the strike were relatives of his. He named them as Khastar Gul, Mamrud Khan and Noorzal Khan, and all three, he claimed, were not militants but worked in a local chromite mine.
This is just one of more than 370 drone strikes to hit Pakistan’s Afghan border region in the past nine years. More than 2,500 people have reportedly died in these strikes, including at least 400 civilians.
What makes Saeedur Rahman and his fellow passengers unusual is that they have been identified by name.
Although the US government claims drones are highly precise and target 'high-value' terrorists, including members of al Qaeda and affiliated organisations, it is only in exceptional circumstances that the administration will acknowledge responsibility for a particular strike – let alone admit to killing a specific person.
At the same time, reporting from the tribal regions is challenging. These are remote lands, largely out of bounds to foreign reporters, and even local journalists can face threats from the militant groups that control swathes of the area. Because of this, news reports can be vague and often lack details.
Tracking the drones
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has been tracking drone strikes in Pakistan for more than two years. We have combed through thousands of credible press reports, as well as court documents and field studies. Our search has revealed that these reports identify fewer than 570 of the dead by name. This is little over one in five of those who have been clearly reported as killed. Of these, 295 are classed as civilians in the reports.
Related project: Covert Drone War
On the occasions when civilians are identified it is often only by a single name, as is common in this area. Just over 200 people, representing more than a third of those named, are identified in this way. Where full names have been reported, they have usually been supplied to journalists by local village elders or field researchers. But further details about the person killed are often in short supply.
With such limited information, it is impossible to definitively chronicle who is being killed.
‘In armed conflict, it is not necessary for an armed force to know the individual identities of those they are killing, but they must determine whether those persons are in fact combatants or fighters,’ says Professor Sarah Knuckey, who led Living Under Drones, a major study by New York University’s School of Law and Stanford Law School.
‘The troubling aspect of US strikes is that there have been numerous reports put forward of evidence of civilian casualties, which the US has failed to publicly address in any meaningful manner,’ she adds, ‘and that it is not sufficiently clear what criteria and standards the US is using for classifying someone as a lawful military target.’
A US official told the Bureau: 'The notion that any US actions in Pakistan have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of innocent Pakistanis is ludicrous. There is no credible information whatsoever to substantiate such claims and there are many who are interested in spreading this disinformation.'
The Bureau's identification of high civilian casualties rests on hundreds of media reports and other sources, which are presented transparently.
From the Bureau’s research, one group that is almost never identified by name is women. Just two adult women are identified using their own names, while more than 20 others are identified as the wife, mother or other relative of a named person.
Many others – men, women and children – are referred to only in the vaguest terms, described as 'foreigners' or 'women and children'. It is often impossible to even say how many people died, let alone who they may have been.
There are a rare few cases in which a more detailed picture of the deceased emerges, usually because a field researcher working for a newspaper, campaign group or academic organisation has tracked down relatives of victims to get a deeper understanding of a particular attack.
It is thanks to the Living Under Drones report, for example, that we know about Akram Shah, who died on June 15 2011. He was a government driver, in his mid-30s, had three children, and worked for the Pakistani Water and Power Development Authority, according to those who knew him.
But as time passes, those details become harder to ascertain. It is already nine years since two boys aged 10 and 16 were killed in the very first strike in Pakistan in June 2004 – the first civilian deaths to be reported from a drone attack. Missiles hit their home as their father Sher Zaman Ashrafkhel was playing host to militant leader Nek Mohammad. The two children’s names have never emerged.
For senior militant commanders, though, it is sometimes possible to develop a fuller picture. In the cases of Abu Yahya al Libi, the second-in-command of al Qaeda, or Baitullah Mehsud, head of the Pakistan Taliban (TTP), for example, there is a wealth of information.
The deaths of senior militants are often widely reported, both in the Pakistani press and in western news outlets. The US administration occasionally acknowledges that they have taken a major figure off the field, although in the few instances that this happens the information usually comes through anonymous officials.
In addition, there are often fairly extensive details available: most-wanted lists, terrorism databases and sanctions lists can all provide information. The deaths of leading figures are also often marked by militants through detailed obituaries and martyrdom videos posted in jihadist forums.
But it is only usually the top tier of militants whose lives are recorded so thoroughly. Major players rarely die alone – and the record is often almost silent on the details of those who died alongside them.
Followers of particular militant leaders are often identified only in the vaguest terms – press reporting will refer to 'three Arabs', 'four militants' or even just 'non-locals'. More than 300 people are identified in similar terms – nearly all of them alleged militants.
‘Thus far, all we know and all we are told by the US government is that “we are killing militants”. We can’t start to get to the bottom of who’s being killed until we get the names of those people,’ says Jennifer Gibson, attorney at legal charity Reprieve.
On December 6 2012, for instance, drones attacked a house in Mubarak Shahi, North Waziristan, as its inhabitants were eating a pre-dawn meal. Parts of the building were completely destroyed. The attack killed Sheikh Khalid Bin Abdul Rehman al Hussainan, described as a leading member of al Qaeda’s religious committee, and his wife. Up to nine others were also killed, but little is known about them aside from the suggestion they were 'Arab nationals'.
While the Bureau’s data suggests that more than 2,000 of those who have died in drone strikes may have been militants, we have the names of just 255, including the 74 senior figures.
Discovering the stories of alleged militants is made all the more difficult by the fact that many use noms de guerre, chosen precisely to obscure their true identities.
'You don’t want your family members to get in trouble, which could happen if you come out and say, “Here’s my name, here’s where I’m from”,' explains terrorism analyst Jacob Zenn. 'Also, people in war for centuries have taken noms de guerre – it’s a war tradition, and it’s helpful to conceal your identity to make it tricky for other people to catch you and know who you are.'
It is likely that we will never know the full story of everyone killed in CIA drone strikes. This is a common problem with armed violence of all kinds – information gets lost, and the record of who was killed loses definition. Memories fade and evidence disappears.
Casualty recording efforts such as Naming the Dead are a key step towards avoiding future conflicts, says Hamit Dardagan, co-director of the Every Casualty campaign, which calls for every death in conflict to be recorded. ‘Casualty recording is a way of recognising the humanity of people who have been killed, and making not just their death but also the manner of their death part of the public record – which is important if one is to prevent these kinds of deaths happening again.’
He adds: ‘If things such as human loss and suffering are important, then it’s important to have the correct facts: it’s in the self-interest of militaries to show that they have made every effort to confirm who was killed by their actions.
‘The recognition of human losses is a necessary part of peace and reconciliation efforts.’