Naming the Dead: Five Stories of Drone War Victims
Of more than 2,500 people so far thought to have been killed in the CIA’s Pakistan
drone campaign, we’ve identified the names of perhaps 20%. Identifying the names
of those killed can dramatically change our understanding of particular strikes,
and bring more transparency to the debate on drones. Here are a few examples.
August 2008: the teacher’s family
On the afternoon of August 30 2008, Muhammed Bahadur was praying in his local
mosque in the village of Ghundi, North Waziristan, Pakistan, when, as he told
reporters, “the entire area was shaken by a huge blast.” A US drone had attacked a house in the village, killing six. The strike’s targets, according to a US intelligence report that was leaked later, were “two prominent al Qaeda paramilitary commanders”. At the time a local security official interviewed by AFP that the dead were “all foreign militants, including Arabs and Uzbeks”. However, local villagers claimed that some passers-by had been injured. The local security official who spoke to AFP said the wife and daughter of schoolteacher Raees Khan had become “collateral damage”, killed by flying shrapnel. Khan’s house was reportedly razed to the ground. Villagers said the other four who died were “guests”, which is sometimes a euphemism for foreigners associated with al Qaeda, but equally can mean they are simply guests. The identities of these four, their nationalities, and even whether they really were militants have never been confirmed.
June 2009: the funeral
Early in the morning of June 23 2009, missiles fired by a CIA drone hit a reported Pakistani Taliban camp, killing a mid-ranking local commander named Niaz Wali Mehsud along with five others who remain nameless. In accordance with custom, Wali Mehsud was buried later that day. As a 5,000-strong crowd gathered for the funeral, drones loitered overhead. Pakistan Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud and his most senior commanders were expected among the mourners. By some accounts the ceremony was over and people were leaving when the drones struck, firing three missiles into the crowd. Of as many as 70 people who are reported to have died that evening, between 18 and 50 were claimed to be civilians. Many more were injured, overwhelming the ill-equipped local hospital and prompting frantic appeals for blood donations. Only four of the dead have ever been named: alleged Taliban militants Maulvi Bilal, Khushdel and Shabir Khan, and Qari Hussain, also known as Usted-i-Fidayeen or “teacher of suicide bombers”. The civilian dead reportedly included 10 children and four tribal leaders. Yet nothing more is known of them. The dead were buried in a mass grave. As the range of reported casualties is so wide, naming the dead could bring clarity and greater accountability to this deadly event.
March 2011: the tribal meeting
On March 17 2011, dozens of local men had assembled in two large circles under the canopy of a bus depot in Datta Khel, Pakistan. As they talked, missiles fired by drones smashed into the gathering, reportedly hurling bodies in all directions. According to some estimates, only eight people survived. US officials claimed the group was a legitimate target but it later emerged the gathering was for a tribal jirga – a formal meeting to resolve a mining dispute. A senior Pakistani military official later told the Bureau, “Maybe there were one or two Taliban at that jirga – they have their people attending – but does that justify a drone strike which kills 42 mostly innocent people?” The Bureau, Reprieve, Associated Press and others have so far published the names of 23 people killed that day, including 13 civilians and five tribal policemen. Khalil Khan’s father Hajji Babat was one who died. Khan later told researchers that all he could do to have something to bury was “collect pieces of flesh and put them in a coffin”. He added: “We were told in plain words that none of the elders that had attended survived. They were all destroyed, all gone.”
May 2011: a roadside eatery
Five days after Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011, drones targeted a vehicle on a road near the Afghan border. The truck was destroyed but Pakistani officials indicated that missiles may have also hit a roadside eatery and house. Researchers commissioned by the Bureau reported: “The total number of people killed was 18. Six were civilians while the rest were stated to be militants. The civilians were identified as Samad, Jamshed, Daraz, Iqbal, Noor Nawaz and Yousaf.” An anonymous US official rejected the Bureau’s findings, telling the New York Times the claim of a restaurant being hit was “ludicrous”, and that “this was a vehicle carrying explosives and nearly 10 armed men, which was engaged in a remote area just a couple miles from the Afghanistan border. There’s no question where they or the explosives were headed.” But a later field investigation by the Associated Press in Waziristan found that six civilians had in fact died in the strike, along with 10 alleged Taliban members. There is no published information on the alleged militants who were killed.
October 2011: chromite miners
Just before noon on October 30 2011, missiles hit a vehicle carrying up to six people on a road near Datta Khel in mountainous North Waziristan, Pakistan. Anonymous Pakistani security officials were quick to declare that only militants were killed. But local media challenged this: the Pakistani newspaper, Nation, reported the strike also partially destroyed a nearby house, killing “peaceful tribesmen” not militants. Four of the dead were miners of chromite, a mineral used in the production of stainless steel. One, Saeedur Rahman, was reportedly a chromite dealer. In March 2012 journalists from the New York Times spoke with 64-year-old farmer Noor Magul. He said three civilians killed in the strike were his relatives, who he named as Khastar Gul, Mamrud Khan and Noorzal Khan. All were chromite miners, he added. Five months on, his anger was undimmed. He told the paper: “I have revenge in my heart. I just want to grab a drone by the tail and smash it into the ground.”
Learning more about those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan is the aim of the Bureau’s new “Naming the Dead” project. Identifying who is being killed by US drones – civilian and militant – is crucial to informing the debate on this covert campaign. Throughout February and March, the Bureau is fundraising for Naming the Dead. Donations, which are tax deductible in the US, can be made through the Freedom of the Press Foundation.