Only 12% of People Killed in US Drone Strikes in Pakistan Identified as Militants, Says Report

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Students gather at the site of a suspected U.S. drone strike on an Islamic seminary in Hangu district, bordering North Waziristan, November 21, 2013. Syed Shah/Reuters

Research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent news organisation based at City University, London, has found that only 12% of victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan could be identified as militants.

In a report, released by the organisation on Thursday, researchers also found that fewer than 4% of those killed have been identified as members of al Qaeda.  

The report said that out of the 2,379 known victims of drone strikes between June 2004 and October 2014, 704 have been identified. Only 295 of these were reported to be members of some kind of armed group.

The report alleges that of those there were “few corroborating details” to account for those who were solely listed as “militants”. More than a third of them were not designated a rank within their militant organisation, and almost 30% were not even linked to a specific group.

Only 84 of those designated as militants could be identified as members of al Qaeda, less than 4% of the total number of people killed.

The Bureau’s findings appear to contradict remarks made by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, who claimed last year that American drone strikes only targeted “confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level”.

The report was made as part of the Bureau’s ‘Naming the Dead’ scheme, a project which aims to compile the names and other details of people killed by CIA drones in Pakistan. A recent strike in October this year has brought the total number of drone attacks up to 400, since the first known strike in 2004.

According to the Bureau’s website, “the names of the dead have been collected over a year of research in and outside Pakistan, using a multitude of sources. These include both Pakistani government records leaked to the Bureau, and hundreds of open source reports in English, Pashtun and Urdu.”

The Bureau’s researchers found evidence of only two named female victims of the strikes during this time, although they cited reports of up to 50 women who might have been amongst the 2,379 recorded victims.

Jack Serle, one of the report’s researchers, said that the comparatively low numbers of female victims could serve as an indicator of low civilian casualties. However, he added that this discrepancy might also be explained by differing gender roles in Pakistani society.

In Warizistan, the region of the country most affected by drone strikes, men and women are strictly segregated. According to the rules of “purdah”, the practice of female seclusion prevalent in Pakistan, women must remain veiled when in mixed company and often have separate quarters in homes to avoid coming into contact with male visitors.

Serle said that when drone strikes target a particular community, “social and cultural norms dictate that the women are more likely to be indoors” than “exposed or out in the fields”.

He also cited an incident in October 2006 when a madrassa was destroyed in strikes, killing 69 boys, to demonstrate that the lack of female participation in public life may be borne out in lower casualty figures.

Although the Bureau has only been able to identify a minority of the 2379 reported victims of drone strikes, Serle added that the report’s findings demonstrate “a fundamental lack of transparency about what’s being done in America”.

He warned that within the casualty figures, “there are a huge number of people we know nothing about and will never know anything about”. Without a better understanding of their identities, he asked, “how can we come to any conclusions about whether the drone campaign is working?”