Most US Drone Strikes in Pakistan Attack Houses

Domestic buildings have been hit by drone strikes more than any other type of target in the CIA’s 10-year campaign in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan, new research reveals.

By way of contrast, since 2008, in neighbouring Afghanistan drone strikes on buildings have been banned in all but the most urgent situations, as part of measures to protect civilian lives. But a new investigative project by the Bureau, Forensic Architecture, a research unit based at London’s Goldsmiths University, and New York-based Situ Research, reveals that in Pakistan, domestic buildings continue to be the most frequent target of drone attacks.

The project examines, for the first time, the types of target attacked in each drone strike – be they houses, vehicles or madrassas (religious schools) – and the time of day the attack took place.

It reveals:

  • Over three-fifths (61%) of all drone strikes in Pakistan targeted domestic buildings, with at least 132 houses destroyed, in more than 380 strikes.
  • At least 222 civilians are estimated to be among the 1,500 or more people killed in attacks on such buildings. In the past 18 months, reports of civilian casualties in attacks on any targets have almost completely vanished, but historically almost one civilian was killed, on average, in attacks on houses.
  • The CIA has consistently attacked houses have throughout the 10-year campaign in Pakistan.
  • The time of an attack affects how many people – and how many civilians – are likely to die. Houses are twice as likely to be attacked at night compared with in the afternoon. Strikes that took place in the evening, when families likely to be at home and gathered together, were particularly deadly.

Researchers analysed thousands of reports including contemporaneous media reports, witness testimonies and field investigations to gather the data on drone strikes in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata). The data is also presented in an interactive online map, showing the location and targets of each strike.

The research reveals a continued policy of targeting buildings throughout the CIA’s campaign in Pakistan, despite an instruction in Afghanistan from the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), the body which commands foreign operations in the country, that forces operate under the rule that ‘all compounds are assumed to house civilians unless proven to be clear’.

This rule has been in place since at least September 2008 when, according to a leaked classified report, Isaf introduced a Tactical Directive that ‘specifically called for limiting airstrikes on compounds to avoid civilian casualties when Isaf forces are not in imminent danger’.

A definition

In both Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan people tend to live in buildings that are often described as ‘compounds’. Mansur Mahsud, director of Islamabad-based organisation the Fata Research Center, describes the way people live in these areas: ‘One compound is used by many families, like brothers and first cousins, although every family has their own portion or space in the compound. The compounds in these agencies are quite big – most would measure half an acre or more. Normally you will find 20-25 people living in one compound, and in some cases you will find more than 50.’

When drones attack buildings in Pakistan, the target is typically described in media reports as a ‘compound’ – and often as a ‘militant compound’. But these are usually domestic structures, which are often rented or commandeered by militant groups.

A British commander told the Daily Telegraph in 2012 that the UK had stopped using the word ‘compound’: ‘We’re trying to get it into the guys’ heads that this is not compound no 28, it’s 34 Acacia Drive – so you don’t hit it,’ he said.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman told the Bureau this is not official policy, but is ‘very much aligned to our teaching and thinking’. The UK does not carry out drone strikes in Pakistan.

A US official told the Bureau: ‘US counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful, and effective. The United States takes extraordinary care to make sure that its counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law, and that they are consistent with US values and policy.’

While, over the 10 years of the drone campaign in Pakistan, strikes on houses have been more dangerous for civilians, in the past 18 months there have been no confirmed reports of civilian casualties in any attacks – despite a rise in the proportion of strikes that hit houses.

Mahsud says this is partly due to changes in behaviour on the ground. In the early years of the drone campaign, sympathetic locals would sometimes host the militants as their guests, he said, and carry on living in their properties. But the threat of drone strikes means that now, when militants come to stay, civilians usually leave.

There is little locals can do about the prospect of their buildings being damaged, he adds: ‘You cannot say no to the Taliban in Fata.’

The research also reveals that on average more civilians die when a building is targeted than when a vehicle is hit.

It is also possible that more civilians die in attacks on buildings than the reporting indicates. The Bureau’s Naming the Dead project has found that the deaths of women are particularly vulnerable to being underreported.

Women and children

Women and children are more likely to stay indoors and therefore less likely to be seen ‘by [a] drone operator monitoring the structure,’ says Susan Schuppli, senior research fellow at Forensic Architecture and the project coordinator. Women and children’s ‘relative seclusion within private space makes them particularly vulnerable to becoming an unknown casualty when a strike occurs’, she said.

Forensic Architecture interviewed a woman who survived a 2010 drone strike. Originally from Germany, she had moved to Pakistan with her husband and his brother. She and a female friend were in the house one evening, when a group of men sitting in the courtyard was attacked. Her son, aged two, was outside the compound walls with his father, who had gone to smoke a cigarette.

‘While we were eating, we heard a very loud bang. The house shook and a lot of earth fell on us from the roof… everything was covered in thick smoke,’ she told researchers. In the courtyard, she saw ‘a big black hole where the rocket hit’, where the men had been sitting to eat.

Everything was burned, she continued. There were ‘pieces of cloth, and metal from the rocket … everywhere there were bits similar to the pieces of flesh of the three men, which were scattered everywhere.’

Her brother-in-law was killed, along with at least four others.

The US official told the Bureau: ‘The US government only targets terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. Period. Any suggestion otherwise is flat wrong. Furthermore, before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured – the highest standard we can set.’ 


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