Drone Strikes

DRONE STRIKES

Investigating covert operations through spatial media

Although armed drones have been used in Afghanistan from the start of the US campaign in October 2001, the first known targeted assassination by the US outside a theatre of war took place in Yemen on November 3, 2002. Since June 2004 the main focus of the drone campaign has been in the frontier regions of Pakistan. The first Israeli drone strikes in Gaza also started around about the same time in 2004, while in Somalia drone strikes began in 2007. The areas most imperiled by drone warfare are generally outside of the effective control of states but are still subject to the worst of their violence.

Waziristan, part of a region of Pakistan known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), is also effectively under a media blackout due to a siege that forbids the entry and exit of nonresidents including journalists, and the taking of images or bringing out of recording devices. The targeted areas of Yemen and Somalia are likewise difficult for nonresidents to enter. Consequently, few images of the damage caused by drones and even fewer eyewitness accounts and survivors’ testimonies are available outside of these regions. News reporting has also been uneven and sometimes contradictory. This has meant that some aspects of drone warfare have been more present within public discourse than others.

One of the most under-researched aspects of drone warfare has been the spatial; that is, the territorial, urban, and architectural dimension of these campaigns. Forensic Architecture has investigated several issues relating to the spatial mapping of drone warfare; for example, the geographical patterns of strikes in relationship to the kind of settlements (towns or villages) targeted and types of buildings targeted. Our aim was to explore what potential connections there might be between these spatial patterns and the numbers of casualties, especially civilian casualties.

The investigation has, to date, primarily consisted in mapping, modeling, and visually animating the data in order to explore this question. Our research and analysis were divided between two primary scales of drone warfare respectively; that is, on the one hand, studying the spatial and temporal patterns of drone strikes on the territorial level, and, on the other, a very detailed architectural examination of a few specific strikes in Pakistan, Gaza, and Yemen.

Forensic Architecture team

  • Eyal Weizman (Principal Investigator)
  • Susan Schuppli (research & coordination)
  • Jacob Burns (research)
  • Steffen Krämer (video compositing & editing)
  • Reiner Beelitz (architectural modeling)
  • Samir Harb (architectural modeling)
  • Zahra Hussain (research assistance)
  • Francesco Sebregondi (research assistance)
  • Blake Fisher (research assistance)

SITU Research team

  • Bradley Samuels (Managing Partner)
  • Akshay Mehra (research)
  • Charles Perrault (research)
  • Xiaowei Wang (research)
  • McKenna Cole (research)

Collaborating Organizations & Individuals

  • Office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights (Ben Emmerson QC, Annie O’Reilly, Sarika Arya)
  • Foundation for Fundamental Rights (Mirza Shahzad Akbar)
  • European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (Andreas Schüller)
  • Al Mezan Center for Human Rights (Nuriya Oswald)
  • Reprieve (Jennifer Gibson)
  • Amnesty International (Mustafa Qadri)
  • One World Research (Bridget Prince, Nasser Arrabyee, Anis Mansour)
  • Bureau of Investigative Journalism (Alice Ross, Jack Serle)
  • Al Jazeera English (Ana Naomi de Sousa)
  • New York Times (Sergio Pecanha, Declan Walsh)
  • Chris Woods (freelance journalist)
  • Edmund Clark (photographer)
  • Chris Cobb-Smith (munitions expert & consultant)
  • Myra MacDonald (freelance journalist)

Case no.1: Datta Khel (full report)
Case no.3: Miranshah (full report)
Case no.2: Mir Ali (full report)
Case no.4: Gaza (full report)

Geo-Platform

The first part of our investigation focused upon the production, together with our research partners SITU Research and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), of an interactive online platform that plots information regarding the geographical and temporal distribution of drone strikes, the num- ber of people reported killed, and the kinds of targets reported hit. The first stage of the platform, which dealt with strikes in Pakistan from 2004 onwards, was launched in early 2014. It will be expanded to include information on strikes in Yemen, Gaza, and Somalia later in the year. This work was undertaken by trawling through the TBIJ’s archive of thousands of news reports that detailed strikes in both the global and local media. By looking again at this information—it had already been examined several times by BIJ staff in order to generate a number of their own reports and statistics—we found new data, specifically spatial, that had slipped through the cracks because it was not recorded by the prevailing categories used to classify strikes.

Countries subject to drone strikes since 2002. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Countries subject to drone strikes since 2002. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.


Civilian deaths from drone strikes in North and South Waziristan. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Civilian deaths from drone strikes in North and South Waziristan. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Target types and casualty numbers from drone strikes in FATA, Pakistan, 2004–2013. Mir Ali, Miranshah and Datta Khel, the locations of strikes investigated in this report are marked on the image. Visualization: Forensic Architecture and SITU Research.

Together with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), Forensic Architecture and Situ Research mapped the geographical and temporal distribution of drone strikes, the number of people killed, and the kinds of targets hit. Trawling through thousands of news reports in both the global and local media we found spatial data, previously unaccounted for. We discovered that most drone strikes took place on houses, and consequently it is in buildings that most people died. On March 11, 2014, the map was presented in the UN Human Rights Council as a part of the report on Drone Warfare by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism.

Case Study Analyses

Forensic Architecture undertook detailed case study analyses of five specific drone strikes. These have been created from the perspectives of survivors and on-site witnesses, as well as those that visited the aftermath of the strikes. The aim was to describe, in as detailed a manner as possible, the effects of these strikes on the ground, on architecture, and on the people within them. Each of our investigations is paradigmatic of a different way of working with scarce data. In each case we cross-referenced the different types of data available to us, including satellite imagery, local and international media reports, witness statements, and on-the- ground images when and if we could obtain them. Through these analyses we were able to demonstrate that, despite all inhibiting circumstances, investigating specific drone strikes is in fact possible. Crucially, by using a different methodology in each case study and demonstrating how these innovative ways of analysis may be carried out even when confronted with limited information and research materials, our work may help other investigators working on drone warfare.

We provided this analysis to different groups seeking accountability for drone strikes, or involved in pursuing legal processes against states using or aiding drone warfare. The research was used in a multiplicity of forums: it was provided to Shahzad Akbar of the Foundation for Fundamental Rights in Pakistan who is litigating the Datta Khel strike on behalf of the family of one of the victims; it also constitutes part of an international investigation by Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rapporteur on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights (UN SRCT) on drone warfare in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Palestine, and was presented as part of his interim report to the UN General Assembly in New York on October 25, 2013. Other groups with whom we worked closely in developing the research, as well as disseminating it, include B’Tselem (Israel/Palestine) and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (UK). Our work also features in various television documentaries on drone warfare, such as Töten per Joystick, a German production, as well as on Al-Jazeera.

Case study no. 1: Datta Khel, North Waziristan, March 16–17, 2011

On the morning of March 16, 2011, a jirga was convened at Datta Khel in North Waziristan, to debate the ownership of a local chromite mine. A jirga is a traditional community gathering that meets to resolve disputes. Reportedly at issue was the method of payment of Rs8.8 million ($100,000) for the mining rights. This particular meeting took place in an open field in the vicinity of the Nomada bus station, in Datta Khel’s bazaar. The jirga lasted two days. It consisted of two large adjacent circles of men seated on the ground. These discussion circles were positioned 3.6 meters apart according to one of the witnesses. On the first day of the meeting, a US drone struck in the vicinity of Datta Khel, killing 4 to 5 people. Very little is known about this strike. At approximately 10:45 on the morning of the second day, missiles fired from a US drone struck one of the two jirga circles. Upwards of 43 civilians were immediately killed. The convening of the jirga had been authorized by the Pakistani military 10 days previously and was thus an officially sanctioned meeting. Members of the local tribal police were also present. Surely the drones loitering over the tiny area of Datta Khel for two days must have observed the jirga in action. If so, why was a large community gathering targeted on the second day?

A jirga. Source: pukhtoogle.com

A jirga. Source: pukhtoogle.com


We proceeded by identifying key structures mentioned in witness statements. These statements were cross-referenced with other information and compared with before and after satellite imagery.

We proceeded by identifying key structures mentioned in witness statements. These statements were cross-referenced with other information and compared with before and after satellite imagery.


This diagram provides a detailed understanding of the potential explosive force of the multiple Hellfire missiles that struck the jirga. As indicated, the force would have also been intensified in the areas of overlap between the two points of impact from the missiles. This would have dramatically increased their capacity for killing and maiming jirga attendees.

This diagram provides a detailed understanding of the potential explosive force of the multiple Hellfire missiles that struck the jirga. As indicated, the force would have also been intensified in the areas of overlap between the two points of impact from the missiles. This would have dramatically increased their capacity for killing and maiming jirga attendees.

Trying to pinpoint the location of the drone strike itself was particularly difficult to verify due to the lack of photographic documentation, limited access to survivors, conflicting press reports, and the fact that the strike occurred in an open area, leaving minimal impact damage that can be revealed through satellite image analysis.

Trying to pinpoint the location of the drone strike itself was particularly difficult to verify due to the lack of photographic documentation, limited access to survivors, conflicting press reports, and the fact that the strike occurred in an open area, leaving minimal impact damage that can be revealed through satellite image analysis.


A comparison of satellite images taken before (23 January 2011) and after (5 April 2011) a strike that killed 43 people on 17 March 2011. In the after image, there are two subtle surface disturbance and discoloration, which could indicate the presence of two impact craters approximately 3.6 meters (12’) apart.

A comparison of satellite images taken before (23 January 2011) and after (5 April 2011) a strike that killed 43 people on 17 March 2011. In the after image, there are two subtle surface disturbance and discoloration, which could indicate the presence of two impact craters approximately 3.6 meters (12’) apart.


Unlike most drone strikes that had occurred up to this point, the attack on the jirga was roundly condemned by Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister and the Head of the Army. Twenty-seven days later, American drone strikes resumed with an attack in South Waziristan. The CIA continues to deny that any civilians were killed in the attack of March 17, 2011.

Protesters in Datta Khel holding pictures of the victims of the strike. Photo: Anjum Naveed/AP Photo. Unlike most drone strikes that had occurred up to this point, the attack on the jirga was roundly condemned by Pakistan’s President, Prime Minister and the Head of the Army. Twenty-seven days later, American drone strikes resumed with an attack in South Waziristan. The CIA continues to deny that any civilians were killed in the attack of March 17, 2011.

Case study no. 2: Mir Ali, North Waziristan, October 4, 2010

On October 4, 2010, a US drone struck a home in the town of Mir Ali, North Waziristan, in Pakistan, killing five people. One of the surviving witnesses to this attack is a German woman, who lived in the house at the time with her two-year-old boy and her husband. Together with Forensic Architecture, this witness built a digital model of her home, which no longer exists. During a day-long process of computer modeling, the witness slowly reconstructed every architectural element of her house. Placed virtually within the space and time of the attack, the witness was able to recollect and recount the events around the strike.

Our meeting with the witness took place in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 21, 2013. The witness sat with her lawyer and Forensic Architecture’s model maker . The woman—who prefers to remain anonymous—is hoping to communicate the realities of life under drones, and the experience of surviving a strike in which she also lost her brother-in-law.

Our meeting with the witness took place in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 21, 2013. The witness sat with her lawyer and Forensic Architecture’s model maker . The woman—who prefers to remain anonymous—is hoping to communicate the realities of life under drones, and the experience of surviving a strike in which she also lost her brother-in-law.


Our meeting took place in Düsseldorf, Germany, on May 21, 2013. The witness sat with her lawyer and Forensic Architecture’s model maker . The woman—who prefers to remain anonymous—is hoping to communicate the realities of life under drones, and the experience of surviving a strike in which she also lost her brother-in-law.

Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

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Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

A sketch of a residential house targeted by a drone strike in Mir Ali (4 October 2010). It was prepared by a German survivor at the request of the European Center for Constitutional and Human and Forensic Architecture.

A sketch of a residential house targeted by a drone strike in Mir Ali (4 October 2010). It was prepared by a German survivor at the request of the European Center for Constitutional and Human and Forensic Architecture.


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Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.


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Digital reconstruction of the scene of the strike in a 3D-model. Düsseldorf, May 21, 2013. Photo: Forensic Architecture.

Case study no. 3: Miranshah, North Waziristan, March 30, 2012

This case analyzed video testimony smuggled out of North Waziristan, in order to reconstruct the space of the strike and interrogate the event. The video was originally aired by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC on June 22, 2012. This footage revealed a great deal beyond what appeared to be chaotic images of rubble and ruin. In particular, it also shed light on the conditions involved in documenting such violent events in Waziristan.


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Still from the video testimony smuggled out of North Waziristan, originally aired on the Rachel Maddow Show, MSNBC, June 22, 2012.

Next we undertook a detailed comparison between the satellite image and the news footage. On the left side of the building we noticed a series of beams that fanned out in a radial pattern, and found the same radiating beams at the newly identified location on the satellite image.

Next we undertook a detailed comparison between the satellite image and the news footage. On the left side of the building we noticed a series of beams that fanned out in a radial pattern, and found the same radiating beams at the newly identified location on the satellite image.

 Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Using a collage pieced together from individual frames extracted from the footage, we eventually found the building within a satellite image of Miranshah, with the morphology of the streets as a guide.

Using a collage pieced together from individual frames extracted from the footage, we eventually found the building within a satellite image of Miranshah, with the morphology of the streets as a guide.

Both images depicted a tower to the left side of the building near the bend in the road. We could also make out a higher structure on the other side of the street from the tower. These spatial indicators allowed us to identify and match the location to the destroyed buildings depicted in the news footage.

Both images depicted a tower to the left side of the building near the bend in the road. We could also make out a higher structure on the other side of the street from the tower. These spatial indicators allowed us to identify and match the location to the destroyed buildings depicted in the news footage.

Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Sketch made after looking at satellite and aerial images and video footage, representing a stage in the construction of a 3D model.

Animating the shadows cast on different days and at different times enabled us to compare our model with the shadows visible in the satellite and video images, to corroborate its volumes as well as to determine the approximate time-3pm-that the video was shot.

Animating the shadows cast on different days and at different times enabled us to compare our model with the shadows visible in the satellite and video images, to corroborate its volumes as well as to determine the approximate time-3pm-that the video was shot.

The MSNBC video footage also depicted other locations. In particular, it also showed the destruction of a still unidentified empty room. The MSNBC video footage also depicted other locations. In particular, it also showed the destruction of a still unidentified empty room.

The MSNBC video footage also depicted other locations. In particular, it also showed the destruction of a still unidentified empty room. The MSNBC video footage also depicted other locations. In particular, it also showed the destruction of a still unidentified empty room.

The missile is designed to penetrate through a ceiling, and detonate when inside a room, spraying hundreds of steel fragments and killing everybody in proximity. Each fragment was studied and mapped. Where the distribution of fragments is in lower density, it is likely that something absorbed them. Although we could not be certain, it is possible that the absence of the fragments indicated the places where people died.

The missile is designed to penetrate through a ceiling, and detonate when inside a room, spraying hundreds of steel fragments and killing everybody in proximity. Each fragment was studied and mapped. Where the distribution of fragments is in lower density, it is likely that something absorbed them. Although we could not be certain, it is possible that the absence of the fragments indicated the places where people died.

Using the entry hole of the missile, and the light that streams through it as a compass, we found the orientation of the room, and calibrated the model to the time when the interior video was shot.

Using the entry hole of the missile, and the light that streams through it as a compass, we found the orientation of the room, and calibrated the model to the time when the interior video was shot.

 

Case study no. 4: Beit Lahiya, Gaza, January 9, 2009

In the early hours of January 9, 2009, an antitank missile was fired at the Salha family home in Beit Lahiya, Northern Gaza. Its hollow charge penetrated the roof, entered one of the rooms, and impacted the floor leaving a small hole. Three minutes later a bomb struck and destroyed the house. Six people were killed, all women and children. This strike exemplifies a new strategy adopted by the Israeli military referred to as “knock on the roof.” It is one of several methods used to alert residents of an imminent attack. Israel makes much of the fact that it tries to warn civilians of impending bombings. Warnings take the form of telephone calls or text messages, informing the inhabitants of the imminent destruction of their home. They can also take the form of leaflets dropped from airplanes; warning shots; or the firing of a nonexplosive missile. On August 28, 2013, Forensic Architecture interviewed two of the surviving members of the Salha family in Gaza by live satellite link from the Al Jazeera English studios in London. Fayez Salha and Noor Salha, his son, have been attempting to bring their story to public attention and obtain redress for their loss. With the family’s help, we built a detailed model of their home.


Map of Gaza, with the location of Beit Lahiya marked.

Map of Gaza, with the location of Beit Lahiya marked.

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On August 28, 2013, Forensic Architecture interviewed two of the surviving members of the Salha family in Gaza by live satellite link from the Al Jazeera English studios in London. Fayez Salha and Noor Salha, his son, have been attempting to bring their story to public attention and obtain redress for their loss. With the family’s help, we built a detailed model of their home.

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Annotations on the model of the Salha home.

View of the roof of the Salha house, as surveyed by munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith in the aftermath of the lethal strike. The hole measuring only 4cm in diameter approximatively, is likely to be the entry point of the first "knock-on-the-roof", nonexplosive missile. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International.

View of the roof of the Salha house, as surveyed by munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith in the aftermath of the lethal strike. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International.

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Still from footage of the ruins of the house hit. Source: Al-Mezan.

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Annotations on the model of the Salha home.

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View of the 3D reconstruction of the Salha home. Image: Forensic Architecture

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The hole measuring only 4cm in diameter approximatively, is likely to be the entry point of the first “knock-on-the-roof”, nonexplosive missile. Photo: Chris Cobb-Smith / Amnesty International.

Case study no. 5: Jaar and al Wade’a, Abyan Province, Yemen, 2011

July 14, 2011. In al Wade’a, Abyan province, up to fifty were killed, including up to thirty civilians, in a targeted strike on a police station, according to local officials, the Yemen Interior Ministry, CNN, and other media sources. An eyewitness told Al Jazeera that while 6 bodies of killed gunmen were pulled from the ruins of the police station, the death toll could “climb with ongoing rescue operations.” The New York Times claimed the strike killed 8 militants, while witnesses told CNN that “at least 30 civilians” were among the dead. According to CNN, the US government denied that a US drone was involved in the attack. However, Yemeni officials told the Associated Press that the strike must have been carried out by an American plane “because Yemeni planes aren’t equipped for night- time strikes.” Journalist Nasser Arrabyee reported that “some 20 al Qaeda fighters were killed … including leaders Hadi Mohammed Ali and Abu Bilal.” (Bureau of Investigative Journalism)

Forensic Architecture commissioned One World Research Services to work with their on-the-ground investigators in Yemen to document the aftermath of two drone strikes and interview witnesses. Under the direction of local journalist Nasser Arrabyee, Anis Mansour travelled from Aden to al Wade’a district, Abyan province, via Jaar, to film and photograph the strikes which occurred on July 14, 2011, and May 15, 2012.


Al Wade’a/Yemen: Before (5 May 2011) and after (21 July 2011) satellite images of a strike in Al Wade’a. Source: Digital Globe.  Without specific coordinates for this strike, Forensic Architecture scoured a large portion of Al Wade’a District using Google Earth, identifying several potential sites prior to acquiring before-and-after satellite images. According to munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith, whom we commissioned to interpret the after-image, which clearly indicates the building in ruin, the two lighter spots in the dusty courtyard are likely the result of an airburst bomb. These bombs detonate a few meters above the surface to maximize blast force. He noted that the level of destruction was likely due to bombs of at least 500 pounds each.

Al Wade’a/Yemen: Before (5 May 2011) and after (21 July 2011) satellite images of a strike in Al Wade’a. Source: Digital Globe.
Without specific coordinates for this strike, Forensic Architecture scoured a large portion of Al Wade’a District using Google Earth, identifying several potential sites prior to acquiring before-and-after satellite images. According to munitions expert Chris Cobb-Smith, whom we commissioned to interpret the after-image, which clearly indicates the building in ruin, the two lighter spots in the dusty courtyard are likely the result of an airburst bomb. These bombs detonate a few meters above the surface to maximize blast force. He noted that the level of destruction was likely due to bombs of at least 500 pounds each.

A memorandum sent from One World Research to Forensic Architecture describing the journey and work undertaken by Anis Mansour, the researcher who had been contracted to carry out investigations into drone strikes in Jaar (15 May 2012) and Al Wade’a (14 July 2011).

A memorandum sent from One World Research to Forensic Architecture describing the journey and work undertaken by Anis Mansour, the researcher who had been contracted to carry out investigations into drone strikes in Jaar (15 May 2012) and Al Wade’a (14 July 2011).


Satellite images after a strike in Al Wade’a (July 21, 2011). Source: Digital Globe.

Satellite images after a strike in Al Wade’a (July 21, 2011). Source: Digital Globe.

By extracting stills from the footage of the strike site broadcast by Aden News Agency TV, Forensic Architecture created a panoramic image of the building hit in the strike. This helped us both to identify the location of the strike on a satellite image, and to identify with the help of Chris Cobb Smith the two lighter circles in front of the ruin which indicate the place above which the air-burst munitions detonated.

By extracting stills from the footage of the strike site broadcast by Aden News Agency TV, Forensic Architecture created a panoramic image of the building hit in the strike. This helped us both to identify the location of the strike on a satellite image, and to identify with the help of Chris Cobb Smith the two lighter circles in front of the ruin which indicate the place above which the air-burst munitions detonated.

Interviews conducted with eye witnesses of the 15 May 2012 strike on a house in Jaar, Yemen. Ansi Mansour / Forensic Architecture 

Footage broadcast by Aden News Agency TV showing the aftermath of the strike on the police station in Al Wade'a, Yemen. Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81KjC-kQDbs

 

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