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December 26, 2012

US Drone Strikes, Cyber Attacks Carried Out Under Cover of the Christmas Holiday

Posted in: Cyberspace,Secrecy,Security,US Foreign Policy,War on Terrorism

President Obama and national security staff meet on Nov. 14, 2012 (Flickr Photo by The White House)

On Christmas Eve, a US drone attacked a vehicle and killed at least two suspected al Qaeda militants in the southern Bayda province of Yemen. The attack happened in the early evening in the country. It was believed a “mid-level al Qaeda Yemeni operative,” Abdel-Raouf Naseeb, was one of the men killed. It was the first strike in Yemen in 47 days, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ).

A second US drone strike took place later in the night. Gulf News reported five “unidentified people” were killed in an attack on a motorcycle. The story quoted a Yemeni senior security official, who said, “Four of the people died at the scene and the fifth suffered heavy injuries and died later on in hospital. We do not know whether they are members of Al Qaida or not. Shiher residents suspect that there are outsiders.” TBIJ noted the strike on the Hadramout province, an area believed to be a “main operating base of al Qaeda,” was the first one in 15 weeks.

There was no ceasefire from the Obama administration during the holiday. In fact, it appears they waited until Christmas Eve on purpose to conduct a couple strikes as there had not been action in the covert drone war in Yemen for well over a month.

In earlier wars, there may have been some kind of a truce because most of the soldiers and their families would be celebrating Christmas, however, characteristic of drone warfare, the drone pilots who carried out the order to fire upon suspected militants were nowhere near the area of the strike. They were completely detached and, depending on where they were when they directed the flying killer robots to attack, they were likely able to go home and see their family on Christmas Eve.

The same day of these attacks, Washington Post published a feature story on the drone war in Yemen by Sudarsan Raghavan. It showed in some instances, like with a September 2, 2012 attack, the country’s leaders continue to provide cover for the Obama administration, saying its jets carried out attacks that killed al Qaeda militants when in reality it was a US strike that killed civilians.  It highlighted how the drone war is further destabilizing the country by inspiring militants to take up arms against the Yemeni government, which they view as being backed by the US.

Raghavan’s story noted, “Public outrage” has been “growing as calls for accountability, transparency and compensation go unanswered amid allegations by human rights activists and lawmakers that the government is trying to cover up the attack to protect its relationship with Washington. Even senior Yemeni officials said they fear that the backlash could undermine their authority.”

Sultan Ahmed Mohammed, who was “riding on the hood of the truck and flew headfirst into a sandy expanse” on September 2, “Our entire village is angry at the government and the Americans…If the Americans are responsible, I would have no choice but to sympathize with al-Qaeda because al-Qaeda is fighting.” Another Yemeni who was driving the truck and wounded in the attack, Nasser Mabkhoot Mohammed al-Sabooly, said, “If we are ignored and neglected, I would try to take my revenge. I would even hijack an army pickup, drive it back to my village and hold the soldiers in it hostage…I would fight along al-Qaeda’s side against whoever was behind this attack.”

Perhaps, in an earlier era of American warfare, a pause in combat around the holiday would have been an occasion for troops to reflect on how the war was going. They might have realized the more things change, the more things stay the same. Yemeni Prime Minister Abdy Rabu Mansour Hadi is “an even stauncher counterterrorism ally than Saleh, according to Raghavan. He was elected to replace Ali Abdullah Saleh in an “election” where he ran unopposed. The veneer of democracy did not prevent Yemenis from concluding the US was engaged in trying to impose their pick for a leader on a population as they had done numerous times prior in Middle Eastern countries. With the use of killer drones driving Yemenis to support al Qaeda, one cannot help but fear what US operations are doing to create more instability.

In another realm of covert warfare of which the Obama administration has pioneered, according to the New York Times, “Iran reported a number of new cyberattacks” on Christmas, “saying foreign enemy hackers tried in recent months to disrupt computer systems at a power plant and other industries in a strategically important southern coastal province as well as at a Culture Ministry information center.” The attacks on critical infrastructure were alleged to have originated in Dallas. And Iran also claimed Israel had been involved in the attacks, which came as “Western economic sanctions on Iran” continue to tighten with the stated intent of halting what up to this point has been a peaceful nuclear program.

As David Sanger of the New York Times reported on June 1, “From his first months in office, President Obama secretly ordered increasingly sophisticated attacks on the computer systems that run Iran’s main nuclear enrichment facilities, significantly expanding America’s first sustained use of cyberweapons.” A worm—Stuxnet—developed by the US and Israel was let loose, the first time the US had “repeatedly used cyberweapons to cripple another country’s infrastructure, achieving, with computer code, what until then could be accomplished only by bombing a country or sending in agents to plant explosives.”

Since that attack, Obama has embraced cyber warfare without giving much attention to key questions Sanger posed in his book, Confront and Conceal, like, “What is the difference between attacking a country’s weapons-making machinery through a laptop computer or through bunker-busters?” Or, “As the White House gets more comfortable with the technology—because it mixes, in the words of one of Obama’s national security aides, “precision, economy and deniability”—what are the implications of relying on them so frequently as a permanent expression of American power?”

Obama signed secret directive on cybersecurity policy in November that may have addressed some of the key questions Sanger included in his book. The directive was reportedly “the most extensive White House effort to date to wrestle with what constitutes an ‘offensive’ and a ‘defensive’ action in the rapidly evolving world of cyberwar and cyberterrorism,” according to a Washington Post report. But, shrouded in secrecy, one could only presume and speculate as to what the new policy directed.

The intent is to normalize acts of war and convince Americans they are tantamount to regular police action, which others should not have the ability or right to retaliate against. When Iran retaliates with a cyber attack or militants begin to intensify their operations, they are to be considered as individual acts separate from covert warfare, which are unwarranted.

This cyber attack and the two drone strikes carried out under cover of the holiday are all part of Obama’s “light-footprint strategy.” The intent is to maintain America’s military dominance in the world without large-scale lengthy, expensive and unpopular wars. It also is part of an effort to entirely free counterterrorism operations from the constraints of laws and politics to allow for unchecked executive power to engage in whatever acts considered necessary by the national security state. And the public is expected to simply trust the Obama administration as it transforms warfare into something that occurs completely in the shadows unbound by traditional checks and balances of government.

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Additional Note

The Post story by Raghavan used the Long War Journal‘s drone strike statistics, which earlier this year a Columbia Law University human rights clinic found to be flawed or incomplete.

The report found somewhere between 72 and 155 civilians were killed in 2011 in Pakistan. Fifty-two of the reported deaths identified the civilians killed by name, “a relatively strong indicator of reliability.” Long War Journal’s count was 30 civilians killed. “In percentage terms, and based on their and our minimum numbers,” the clinic counted, 140 percent more “civilian” casualties than the Long War Journal. TBIJ , on the hand  was much closer to the clinic’s recount of civilians killed. It had counted 68 to 157 civilians killed, which was “only 5.9 percent more minimum civilian casualties.”

The clinic concluded, “Exclusive or heavy reliance on the casualty counts,” of the Long War Journal, was “not appropriate” because of  ”significant methodological flaws.” It added, “While we do not agree with the Bureau’s analysis of media sources in all cases, it appears to have a more methodologically sound count of civilian casualties, commensurate with its special focus on that issue.”

To be more accurate, the Post should cite TBIJ’s numbers in future coverage of the US covert drone war.


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