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 the same time in 2004, while in Somalia drone strikes began in 2007. The areas most imperilled 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 dimensions 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, modelling, 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)
ArgusIS 1.8 gigapixel Drone Camera (video stream)
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 number 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.
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 who 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.
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 10:45am 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?
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 modelling, 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.
This case analysed 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.
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.
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 six 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 eight 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)
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