Drones kill "blobs in shadows"

IssueDecember 2011 / January 2012
News by Chris Cole

The RAF reported recently that the 200th British drone strike had taken place in Afghanistan. In October, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) reported that the 300th CIA drone strike in Pakistan had just taken place, while amidst the frenzy of reporting around the death of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi , the Pentagon revealed that the US had carried out 145 drones strikes in Libya.

But statistics do not tell the whole story. Occasionally we are given glimpses into the human impact of the drone wars. On 14 October, a US drone strike in Yemen killed nine people including 16-year-old Abdul-Rahman al-Awlaki, the son of alleged al-Qa’eda leader Anwar al-Awlaki who was himself executed in a targeted drone strike – at least the third assassination attempt – in late September.

The al-Awlaki family said Abdul-Rahman was only going to dinner and was not involved in terrorism. “His Facebook page shows a typical kid,” the family said. “A teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.” In response a US official simply said the teenager was “a military-aged male.”

But Abdul-Rahman was not the only 16-year-old killed in a drone strike recently. In late October, the British human rights organisation Reprieve and local Pakistani groups held a jirga (tribal meeting) in Islamabad with tribal elders and others on the issue of drone strikes. The meeting was aimed at encouraging those attending to document drone strikes in their local area.

Three days later, one of those attending the meeting, Tariq Aziz, a 16-year-old boy, was killed along with his 12-year-old cousin, Waheed Khan, in a drone strike in North Waziristan. Again all the US military would say was that four insurgents were killed in the strike.

Two other victims of drone strikes also received some attention recently: Jeremy Smith, 26, and Ben Rast, 23, were US marines mistakenly killed in a US drone strike in April 2011.

While the 390-page Pentagon inquiry report has yet to be released, the Los Angeles Times reports that the inquiry blames “poor communications, faulty assumptions and a lack of overall common situational awareness” for the deaths.

Jerry Smith, father of one of the victims, was briefed by US military officers and shown video images of the attack. He told the LA Times that he saw “three blobs in really dark shadows” — his son, Rast and the other Marine mistakenly identified by the Predator crew as Taliban. He said it was impossible to see uniforms or weapons. “You couldn’t even tell they were human beings — just blobs,” he said.

So much for the famed accuracy and incredible hi-resolution images that drones are supposed to provide. The targets – whether insurgents or US marines, Taliban or teenage boys – are mere “blobs on a screen” for the PlayStation warriors.