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A Year After Congressional Testimony, Drone Strike Victims Still Searching for Justice

By Candice Bernd for Truthout

Drone strikes launched on October 11 of this year in Pakistan's Tirah Valley in the Khyber region and in Shawal in the North Waziristan region brought the total number of strikes in Pakistan to 400 since June 2004. The CIA's covert drone program regularly strikes parts of Yemen and Somalia as well.

In addition, a US-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes against IS fighters since the US military first launched its own airstrikes in Iraq in August. An increased emphasis on drone warfare to combat IS forces has longtime critics of the CIA's covert drone program, especially as it's used in countries like Pakistan and Yemen, on guard.

"The war hawks never met a conflict, they never met a problem, they didn't think could be solved by invasion, occupying or drones, and we're going to see more of that, unfortunately," says filmmaker Robert Greenwald, who directed Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars, in an interview. "It's almost a knee-jerk reaction."

Since October and November of 2013, when drone strike survivors told their stories to lawmakers in both Europe and the United States, some of the drone survivors interviewed in Greenwald's film have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan.Unmanned highlights how these covert drone strikes are often imprecise, relying on insubstantial evidence and resulting in the extra-judicial killing of innocent people in violation of international law.

In February of this year, The Intercept further detailed how the National Security Agency relies on highly circumstantial and unreliable metadata analysis and cellphone tracking technologies, rather than human intelligence, to target individuals in drone attacks - a strategy that has resulted in the killing of innocent and unidentified people throughout the Middle East.

The New York Times also revealed that the Obama administration embraced the CIA's disputed method of counting all military-age males in an area targeted for drone strikes as "combatants" unless intelligence proves them innocent posthumously. It's a strategy that also seems to have been embraced by many major media outlets, which continue to describe unknown victims of drone strike as "militants."

recent investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has determined that fewer than 4 percent of drone strike casualties in Pakistan have been identified and confirmed through records as members of al-Qaeda.

"The people running the drone program are taking enormous liberties with how they label people in order to try to rationalize the gross over-extension of the program and to cover up the fact that they're killing people knowing only little-to-nothing about them," Rep. Alan Grayson, Democrat of Florida, told Truthout.

"They use the term 'insurgent' to describe almost every adult male in the area, and then the administration goes in and kills a very extensive number of children and females as well," he said.

Rep. Grayson was one of only five members of Congress who showed up last year to listen to what Rafiq-ur Rehman and his family had to say about how the CIA's covert drone program in Pakistan completely tore their lives apart. A drone strike killed Rehman's mother while she was working in a field just outside his village of Tappi, in the tribal region of North Waziristan, in October 2012.

"Literally, all the Rehman family has gotten [for compensation], even after speaking to Congress, is an ice cream cone that they were offered by some Congressional staffers on the day of the briefing," said Jennifer Gibson, a staff attorney at the British human rights organization Reprieve. Gibson accompanied the Rehman family to DC last year during their public appearances. "They've had no further correspondence from the US government. They've been unable to get anything from the Pakistani government. ... They can't get anyone to say 'Yes, we killed your grandmother.' "

Reprieve recently released a new analysis of publicly available data on drone strikes compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The findings reveal that targeted killings by drone strikes kill immensely more people than those targeted, making multiple strikes necessary in many cases. According to the analysis, as of November 24, the targeted killings of 41 men have resulted in the killing of an additional 1,147 people.

Gibson helped file a legal complaint at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague last year, documenting the experiences of Pakistani anti-drone activist Kareem Khan and other drone strike victims. The complaint also accused NATO-allied states of committing war crimes by helping to facilitate the United States' covert drone program in Pakistan.

According to Gibson, the complaint is still pending as part of the ICC's preliminary investigation into whether the Afghan government has taken sufficient measures to investigate and prosecute war crimes. Reprieve filed the complaint based on revelations that NATO member states, including the UK, Germany and Australia, support US drone strikes by sharing intelligence. The complaint argues that since the drones are being flown out from bases in Afghanistan, the ICC has territorial jurisdiction over the drone strikes occurring in Pakistan and that the prosecutor’s office should include the drone strikes in their considerations about whether to open a formal investigation in Afghanistan.

Gibson has also been involved in Khan's legal battles in Pakistan. Khan's 18-year-old son and brother were killed in a US drone strike in the North Waziristan region of Pakistan in December 2009. He has since fought an ongoing legal battle with the Pakistani government and the United States. In a 2010 lawsuit he filed in the Islamabad High Court, he identified the then-CIA station chief in Pakistan, Jonathan Banks, for his alleged role in the drone attack.

Gibson said the High Court officially ordered the police to launch a criminal investigation into domestic murder charges against the CIA in September, and Khan's legal team expects to follow up with the court in January.

In October this year an Islamabad High Court Justice directed an officer of the Secretariat Police Station to appear on contempt of court charges, after Khan argued Pakistani police had not registered what's known as a "First Information Report" against the former CIA station chief Banks in Islamabad, despite the court's orders to do so earlier. Generally, the Pakistani police cannot take up an investigation until after an information report regarding an offense is registered.

Also in October, Reprieve assisted Yemeni drone victim Faisal bin Ali Jaber, who lost his nephew and brother-in-law in a 2012 drone strike, in traveling to Germany to testify before officials and file a lawsuit against the German government for facilitating US drone strikes launched from the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Jaber also traveled to Washington, DC, last November to speak before lawmakers.

"Were it not for the help of Germany and Ramstein, men like my brother-in-law and nephew might still be alive today. It is quite simple: Without Germany, US drones would not fly," Jaber said in an October press release.

Gibson told Truthout that Jaber, after returning from Washington, DC, last year, was given a bag of cash - totaling $100,000 - ostensibly as "hush money" and compensation from the Yemeni government for the loss of his innocent relatives. Jaber said officials from Yemen's National Security Bureau, which works closely with the CIA, told him the money came from the US government. Jaber said he initially refused the money and instead asked for a formal apology, but after a conversation with elders in his village, he took the money to help care for the struggling families of drone victims.

As the CIA's covert drone program continues unabated across much of Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, key European allies, including Germany and the UK, are making a point to differentiate their own policies and positions from those of the US regarding targeted killing by drone strikes.

Last month, the findings of a policy commission chaired by the former head of the UK Government Communication Headquarters, David Omand, warned that the UK must ensure that intelligence cooperation with the United States does not implicate British officials in illegal activity.

But a growing dependence on drone warfare to combat IS forces in Iraq and Syria could affect how European allies, working in coalition with the United States, revamp their positions on targeted killing.

"The US is now using drone strikes in Syria, under the banner of the ISIS conflict, while openly admitting that their intelligence is really bad on the ground and they don't know what's going on, and we're seeing increasing reports of civilian casualties," Gibson told Truthout. "What we need to be careful of with Syria and Iraq is that we learn the lessons of Pakistan and Yemen."