Recent revelations have put Britain further to the centre of the US-lead drone assassination programme that targets multiple countries, including those where they are not officially at war. This makes timely IWM London’s showing of an art exhibition combining drones and Pakistani traditional art by Mahwish Chishty running from 19 October 2016 – 19 March 2017.
IWM is partially funded by the government, receives large donations from weapons manufacturers BAE Systems and Boeing and has worked closely on exhibitions with the Ministry of Defence. Nearly all of the Museums’ trustees come from the upper echelons of the corporate, security and military sectors. Therefore, the Museum’s coverage of drone surveillance and assassination, particularly, British involvement, will be a test of its editorial integrity and independence.
It has recently been reported, thanks to leaked documents from Edward Snowden, that the US National Security Agency (NSA) conduct intelligence gathering for lethal drone strikes from British soil. Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, has been an NSA base since the Cold War and its modern activities have been secret. The British government has refused to answer questions on what goes on but has insisted that operations have their “full knowledge and consent” according to The Intercept’s exclusive report.
From the leaked documents, we now know that Menwith Hill is used by the US to capture foreign satellite communications and to, also, capture wireless communications with the help of satellites orbiting over foreign countries. This information has been used in capture or kill operations, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but, also, in Yemen and, likely, in Pakistan and Somalia.
Jemima Stratford QC, a British human rights lawyer, advised Parliament in 2014 that British collusion in drone strikes outside of conventional warzones could give rise to charges of murder. “If the U.K. government knows that it is transferring data that may be used for drone strikes against non-combatants … that transfer is probably unlawful. An individual involved in passing that information is likely to be an accessory to murder.”
It is known that Britain has conducted its own lethal drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, first from a US base and, then, from Britain. Recently, a British drone killed three alleged members of ISIS in Syria, in what the UK government justified as self-defence against the threat of ISIS.
Britain has also been involved in the US’ drone assassination programme – British drone operators have been “embedded” with the US and assisted in conducting their strikes. Ben Emmerson QC, who lead a UN drones investigation, told Parliament that it was “inevitable” that Britain was giving the US intelligence for drone strikes, given the close intelligence sharing relationship between them.
The new Snowden leaks reveal that British participation in the US drone assassination is even stronger, with British soil being used to help collect intelligence for attacks. The ties could go further, given that around 600 staff from UK agencies, including GCHQ, work at the site – perhaps, verifying Ben Emmerson’s QC’s strong suspicion that the UK is working with the US on gathering intelligence for US drone strikes.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that between 424-966 civilians have died in Pakistan from US drone strikes since 2004. 573-833 Yemeni civilians are thought to have been killed since attacks started in that country in 2002.
Lies and secrecy have been the hallmark of the drone programme, creating a mythology that Mahwish Chishty’s paintings of drones tap into. In 2011, the US’ counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, falsely claimed that in the previous year there had been no “collateral” deaths from US drone strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found there to be 40 civilian deaths – and these were only the individuals that they could verify by name.
It is still not known why the US targeted and killed in Yemen 16 year-old US citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in 2011. He died, along with his 17 year old cousin and several other people in the vicinity of the open-café where they ate. Abdulrahman’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical preacher accused of being an al-Qaeda operative who the US killed by drone strike two weeks before killing his son. However, Abdulrahman had no connection to terrorism. Senior Obama re-election advisor, Robert Gibbs, suggested that the 16 year old should have had “a more responsible father”.
The US’ figures for civilian deaths from drones has been consistently lower than those from independent sources. A significant reason for this is that the US have the policy of treating any military aged male in a strike zone as a ‘terrorist,’ unless posthumous evidence reveals otherwise. Given that it is difficult for investigators and journalists to reach remote tribal regions in Pakistan or Afghanistan where a strike might occur, the US’ policy ensures that civilian deaths will be routinely hidden.
The US is known to have conducted “double tap” drone strikes, whereby a strike is followed up by another. As a result, first responders, passers-by, friends and family coming to the aid of victims, have been struck and killed.
There have been incidents of drone strikes targeting social gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, where innocent civilians are sure to injured or killed. The threat of such indiscriminate strikes have inhibited targeted populations from participating in normal cultural and community activities that involve gatherings. People have also become reluctant to go to the aid of victims in fear of a follow-up strike.
The very presence of drones in the sky is a constant and traumatising presence for communities in the north-west tribal areas of Pakistan. A joint investigation by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, found mental health illnesses in targeted populations, including insomnia, anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the presence of drones in the sky.
One interviewee, Haroon Quddoos, a Pakistani taxi driver who was injured in a strike, told the investigators: “We are always thinking that it is either going to attack our homes or whatever we do. It’s going to strike us; it’s going to attack us . . . . No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us. Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . . cards–no matter what we are doing we are always thinking the drone will strike us. So we are scared to do anything, no matter what.”
Inevitably, drone strikes are turning populations against the US, as Yemeni activist Farea Al-Muslimi described of his village which was struck by a drone strike: “Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.”
IWM’s Drone Test
IWM London’s first exhibition on military drones ran in the summer of 2014. “5,000 Feet is Best” by Omer Fast was a video installation focused on the psychological effects of working as a drone operator. The title referred to the ideal height for a drone.
As I outlined in my review of that exhibition, whilst it is important that IWM began to address this relatively new weapon and the judicial process-free assassination programme, the real victims are not the operators.
Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon argued, “I don’t doubt that some drone attackers experience some psychological stress from knowing that they are eradicating human beings with their joysticks and red buttons (though if it’s only “bugs” who are being splattered, why would the stress be particularly burdensome?). But that stress is nothing compared to the terror routinely imposed on the populations in numerous Muslim countries who are being targeted with these attacks.”
To make an informed decision on the drone programme and British involvement, the public must know the impact on victim populations. The raw, painful but important photography of Noor Behram, who visits the aftermath of strikes in Pakistan and takes pictures of the effects, including the injured and the dead, provides us real evidence of what the British government is participating in.
Mahwish Chishty’s upcoming art exhibition at IWM London is a positive step, for it gives a platform for a Pakistani artist with family and friends in that targeted country to express herself on the matter. Her art in this exhibit draws from traditional Afghan/Pakistani “truck art” – intricate artwork that truck drivers cover their vehicles with – is multi-faceted and suggestive, inviting us to reconsider what we think we know about the drone assassination programme and its impact on countries like Pakistan.
Update: Al Jazeera reports on Karim Khan’s legal case against the CIA for the drone killings of his son and brother in Pakistan.