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19 November 2011

What is Britain’s role in the CIA’s illegal drone campaign?

The death of two British nationals in Pakistan raises serious questions about UK complicity.

By Samira Shackle

In the latest casualties from America’s hidden war in Pakistan, two British nationals have reportedly been killed by drone missiles.

According to their friends and familiy, Ibrahim Adam and Mohammed Azmir died in a single strike in Waziristan at least three months ago. Both men were suspected of terrorist activity — Adam had absconded from a control order (yet was still able to leave Britain and enter Pakistan; there is a separate issue), while Azmir’s assets were frozen by the Treasury last year as he was suspected of funding terror.

The death of two men already known to UK authorities raises serious questions about the role that the British intelligence services is playing in the CIA’s secret war. If Britain provided information about the men’s whereabouts to the CIA, it is complicit in this illegal campaign.

The US does not formally acknowledge its drone campaign, but it is thought that it has launched more than 300 strikes since 2004, killing at least 2,000 people. It is near impossible to gain statistics on civilian deaths, although the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has made a decent attempt, finding that at least 392 civilians, including 175 children could be among the dead. The anecdotal evidence certainly disputes the official line that drone attacks keep collateral damage to a minimum. In this week’s NS (available on newsstands now) Jemima Khan reports from a conference in Islamabad about the huge human cost:

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Barack Obama has argued that the use of drone technology is the best way of targeting militants while minimising civilian casualties. Under his administration, the use of drones has increased tenfold — it is easier to eliminate terrorist suspects than to detain them. Yet an official US statement claimed there have been no “non-combatant deaths” as a result.

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The delegates, tribal elders, the families of victims of drone strikes and Tariq had come from Waziristan to dispute that. They descended on Islamabad — a riot of beige, with biblical beards — armed with gruesome photographs of women and children blown to pieces among debris and missile parts stamped with serial numbers and the US flag.

At the conference, Samiullah Jan, 17, just out of college, was represented only by his ID card, retrieved from the rubble of his home. Another teenager, a 16-year-old boy called Saadullah, hobbled in on prosthetic limbs: he had lost his legs and his sight two years earlier. “I used to dream of being a doctor” he told us. “Now I can’t even go to school. I’m not even human.”

The campaign is illegal, unaccountable, and having a devastating effect on already anti-US public sentiment in Pakistan. A poll for al-Jazeera in August 2009 showed that 67 per cent of respondents “oppose drone attacks by the United States against the Taliban and al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan”. A poll in October for the International Republican Institute found that 73 per cent of respondents opposed US military incursions into the tribal areas, while a recent Pew poll found that 97 per cent viewed the attacks negatively.

The campaign has been spurred on and stepped up, in part, because of high profile “successes”, like the death of Baitullah Mehsud, the former Taliban commander in Pakistan. But targeted killings should not be the first recourse of a country purporting to uphold human rights and the rule of law. Britain has serious questions to answer about its complicity.