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How Does the U.S. Mark Unidentified Men in Pakistan and Yemen as Drone Targets?

What little we know about the evidence needed to justify a drone strike on unidentified people.

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Earlier this week, we wrote about a significant but often overlooked aspect of the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen: so-called signature strikes, in which the U.S. kills people whose identities aren’t confirmed. While President Obama and administration officials have framed the drone program as targeting particular members of Al Qaeda, attacks against unknown militants reportedly may account for the majority of strikes.

The government apparently calls such attacks signature strikes because the targets are identified based on intelligence “signatures” that suggest involvement in terror plots or militant activity.

So what signatures does the U.S. look for and how much evidence is needed to justify a strike?

The Obama administration has never spoken publicly about signature strikes. Instead, generally anonymous officials have offered often vague examples of signatures. The resulting fragmentary picture leaves many questions unanswered.

In Pakistan, a signature might include:

Training camps…

  • Convoys of vehicles that bear the characteristics of Qaeda or Taliban leaders on the run. – Senior American and Pakistani officials, New York Times, February 2008.
  • “Terrorist training camps.” – U.S. Diplomatic Cable released by Wikileaks, October 2009.
  • Gatherings of militant groups or training complexes. – Current and former officials, Los Angeles Times, January 2010.
  • Bomb-making or fighters training for possible operations in Afghanistan…. a compound where unknown individuals were seen assembling a car bomb. – Officials, Los Angeles Times, May 2010.
  • Travel in or out of a known al-Qaeda compound or possession of explosives. – U.S. officials, Washington Post, February 2011.
  • Operating a training camp… consorting with known militants. – High-level American official, The New Yorker, September 2011.

A group of guys…

  • Large groups of armed men. – Senior U.S. intelligence official, Associated Press, March 2012.
  • Groups of armed militants traveling by truck toward the war in Afghanistan. – Administration officials, Washington Post, April 2012.
  • The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees “three guys doing jumping jacks,” the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp. – Senior official, May 2012.
  • “The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40.” – Former Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter, Daily Beast, November 2012.
  • “Armed men who we see getting into pickup trucks and heading towards the Afghanistan border or who are in a training exercise.” – Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair, Council on Foreign Relations, January 2013.

Officials have characterized the intelligence that goes into these strikes as thorough, based on “days” of drone surveillance and other sources — and said that apparently low-level people may still be key to an organization’s functioning. In 2010, an official told the Los Angeles Times that the CIA makes sure “these are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat."

In Yemen, signature strikes are reportedly bound by stricter rules. Officials have often cited the necessity of a plot against Americans:

  • Clear indication of the presence of an al-Qaeda leader or of plotting against targets in the United States or Americans overseas. — Administration officials, Washington Post, April 2012.
  • “Individuals who are personally involved in trying to kill Americans… or intelligence that…[for example] a truck has been configured in order to go after our embassy in Sanaa.” — Senior administration official, Washington Post, January 2013

These strikes are not supposed to target “lower-level foot soldiers battling the Yemeni government,” U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal.  A White House spokesman said last summer that the U.S. “[has] not and will not get involved in a broader counterinsurgency effort” in Yemen.

But experts say some strikes in Yemen do appear to have been aimed at local militants. In Pakistan, in addition to low-level militants who might be involved in the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. has sometimes hit those who posed a threat to the Pakistani government.

As we detailed, signature strikes have also been criticized by human rights groups and some legal observers because of the lack of transparency surrounding them, including on the number of civilians killed. 

“The definition is a male between the ages of 20 and 40”

That’s nicely convenient, by the way, since an al Qaeda recruitment tactic is to destroy places of employment so that there’s a supply of poor, frustrated, and emasculated young men.

Now, that means we probably could cut most terrorism off by its legs by simply opening up a factory (through proxies, if one is worried about anti-American backlash) to waste their time and inject some money into their local economies, but the video link-up on the drone presumably gives way more points for blowing up random Arabs.

By the way, keep that definition in mind when reading things like Gatherings of militant groups.  Groups of twenty-to-forty-year-old men is a sign of terrorism.

Hmm… It appears the US authorities are very able to pick the correct targets.
Kudos to the target pickers!

american idiots

March 2, 2013, 5:22 a.m.

lol, people act like the USA wasn’t in the Middle East before 911, lol

What happened to the US policy that we would rather let a Guilty person go that to prosecute and Inocent one?

9/11 was an inside job and Bin Laden had nothing to to with 9/11. The FBI didn’t had enough evidence to put him on the most wanted list. Al-Qaeda was a data base on CIA computers of Muhajadeen willing to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda never was a well organized international terrorist organization. All US wars were based on lies. Sadam had no WMD and no links to Al-Qaeda. Bush said so one year after bombing and invading Iraq based on lies.

Patrick Eddington

March 2, 2013, 11:36 a.m.

The “signature strike” methodology is the modern version of the Vietnam War-era “free fire zone”, dressed up with modern technology (UAVs) but suffering from the same failed rationale. The “Drone War” is a tactical response to a political problem, which is why the strikes continue, the militants find replacements, and the “war” goes on. Great for General Atomics, not so much for everyone else.

giovani fereira

March 2, 2013, 12:07 p.m.

Let’s just put it this way….people like Obama is gonna burn in hell anyway….he doesn’t realize that God will smite him for every person killed or is killed by the military…...righteous are a few and the masses are destined for hell…..just as in the time of.Jesus….the masses followed the Jewish Pharisee and the white roman murderers of Jesus and then enslave a whole race to build the US a country founded on Christian values of theft and slavery…..pleAse God wherever these people go just send me to the place they won’t be

Gina please. 911 was carried out by USA and Mossad only to be blamed on muslims. The scamming mainstream media (lie factory) was also in the club. And there were never any highjackers either (airplanes viewed in direct sunlight are WHITE, but on 9/11 they were all black/dark grey - yes go ahead and look it up, see for yourself and then ask yourself what is the color of real airplanes when viewed in DIRECT SUNLIGHT? It is white and you know it. Or just look at any airport). It was a false flag event used as false pretects to start false wars. And there are plenty of proof. And many people know it too, by now. Or just follow the money too see who benefitted and made a lot of money on it, and who the wars that followed benefitted. It just ‘happens’ to be the same. They also control the mainstream media (lie factory).

Why doesn[t the U.S. just get the HELL out of other people’s countries?!

I, mean, it’s such a LIE calling them “insurgents” - people native to their own country. Those are Freedom Fighters vs. the Western invaders (U.S.-Brits-Canadian-Germans-Ustralians-NZ - or whatever!

On October 31, 2011 there was a “signature” drone strike of a moving vehicle entering a village in Northwest Pakistan. Two Pakistan news outlets that are routinely relied on by the western press news reported that 3 or 4 militants were killed, although their identities could not be confirmed.  These reports were repeated by the Long War Journal blog.  The strike casualties were not included in LWJ’s running tally of civilian casualties.  The UK NGO Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism established, through on the ground reporting, that the strike killed two boys, one sixteen and one twelve. They were the only ones in the vehicle. Oops!  Be very skeptical of contemporaneous news reports that you read about drone strikes because they almost always come from official sources that have a motivation to lie.

Oh I see, if you had a bunch of 20 - 40 year old Pakistani men in a mosh-pit jumping around and headbanging to a death metal band performing in front of them and the guys were all singing in Urdu or Punjabi or some other language the drone operators didn’t understand, that gathering might be a terrorist grouping.

Now, I understand the US war eternity.  It is to rid the world of resistors to US economic hegemony wherever and whenever they emerge as a threat to US corporations for a fair share of their country’s resources.

O.K., I’m not pleased by my government killing people with remote control drones but the world has changed a bit and I’m not sure I can see a more gentlemanly alternative other then perhaps challenging these fellows to a duel.

If you like Drone Wars (TM), you’re just gonna love Fully-Independent-Robot-Killer Wars.

The drones are just readying the zeitgeist.

In some dark moments, I wonder if the profliferation of drones around the world isn’t just target practice for use in the US? The administration’s thinking would be, “lets start using ‘em on dark-skinned mohammed types and see if anyone besides the progressive media cares. Then we’ll broach the subject of using them in the US.” The attorney general’s cavalier answer about targeting US civilians here in the US is vague and scary. “Extraordinary circumstances” would be…what? About 10 years ago Alex Rivera produced and directed a science fiction film called “Sleepdealer”. It was specifically about the exploitation of cheap third world labor but it incorporated scenes of robot guns and remotely controlled flying drones with lethal capabilities. In the movie, the aspect of flying drones blowing up persons had become low intellect entertainment. Thanks for your articles. I first heard about your reporting from a post by Jeremy Scahill.

Let’s turn the entire region of the world into one big glass mine.

Officials have characterized the intelligence that goes into these strikes as thorough, based on “days” of drone surveillance and other sources — and said that apparently low-level people may still be key to an organization’s functioning. In 2010, an official told the Los Angeles Times that according to CIA Pilot Tony Granims, the CIA makes sure “these are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat.”

In Yemen, signature strikes are reportedly bound by stricter rules. Officials have often cited the necessity of a plot against Americans:

Clear indication of the presence of an al-Qaeda leader or of plotting against targets in the United States or Americans overseas. — Administration officials, Washington Post, April 2012.

“these are people whose actions over time have made it obvious that they are a threat.” Perfect description of the CIA, the pentagon, the administration and its military industrial complex. Also sounds abit like the local police, but drones are not people and so are not a threat.
The definition of a militant? What is a soldier, or a SWAT team.
B1 bomber is terror ism.
Its not war if there is a nice, sanitary way to do it.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
The Drone War

The Drone War

ProPublica is covering the U.S.' expanding – and often secret – targeted killing program.

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