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Emerging from the Shadows: US Covert Drone Strikes in 2012

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by Chris Woods, Jack Serle and Alice K. Ross

Reported civilian deaths fell sharply in Pakistan in 2012, with Bureau data suggesting that a minimum of 2.5% of those reported killed were civilians – compared with more than 14% in 2011. This suggests the CIA is seeking to limit non-militant casualties, perhaps as a result of sustained criticism.

Drone strikes in Pakistan are now at their lowest level in five years, as Islamabad protests almost every attack. The CIA also appears to have abandoned ‘signature strikes’ on suspected militants fitting certain patterns of behaviour – at least for the present. Almost all attacks in recent months have been against named al Qaeda and other militant leaders.


As drone strikes fell in Pakistan they rose steeply in Yemen, as US forces aided a major military campaign to oust al Qaeda and other Islamists from southern cities. A parallel CIA targeted killing programme killed numerous alleged militants, many of them named individuals. Yet US officials took more than three months to confirm that American planes or drones had killed 12 civilians.

Little is still known about US drone strikes in Somalia, with only two credibly reported incidents in 2012. One of those killed was a British-Somali militant, Bilal al-Barjawi.

In 2012,the US also chose to loosen the bonds of secrecy on its 10-year-old drone targeted killing programme. A number of senior officials went on the record about aspects of the covert war. But details of those killed – still a highly contentious issue – remain classified.

The year also saw a number of significant legal challenges to the campaign, most of them ultimatelyunsuccessful.  UN experts also announced a study into possible war crimes, partly in response to a Bureau/Sunday Times investigation.

MQ-9 Reeper at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada (USAF /Lance Cheung)

An MQ-9 Reaper at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada (USAF/Lance Cheung)

A year of drones

President Obama became the first senior US official in eight years openly to discuss the covert drone programme in January, telling viewers of a Google Town Hall session that ‘a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Area], and going after al Qaeda suspects.’


And he insisted that ‘actually drones have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties, for the most part they have been very precise precision strikes against al Qaeda and their affiliates.’

Days afterwards, the Bureau and the Sunday Times published evidence in February showing that the CIA has deliberately targeted rescuers and funeral-goers in Pakistan, leading to the reported deaths of civilians. The administration has yet to deny the claims – although one anonymous senior official appeared to claim that the Bureau was ‘helping al Qaeda.’

Reported civilian deaths fell sharply in Pakistan in 2012, with Bureau data suggesting that 2.5% of those killed were civilians – compared with more than 14% in 2011.’ 

A major covert US military offensive in Yemen began in March. Its aim – in which it was successful – was to break al Qaeda’s grip on a number of towns and cities in the south of the country. By late spring, drone strikes were occurring more frequently in Yemen than in Pakistan.

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