Naming The Dead: One Group's Struggle To Record Deaths From U.S. Drone Strikes In Pakistan

10/31/2014 04:59 pm ET | Updated Nov 04, 2014

Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. This week, we talked to Jack Serle about the United States' drone strike program in Pakistan.

Last year, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London embarked upon an ambitious effort to record the names of people reportedly killed by U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. The project, called Naming the Dead, aims to acknowledge those who have lost their lives in the strikes and to create more transparency about a counterterrorism program shrouded in secrecy.

The CIA has conducted hundreds of drone strikes targeting militants in Pakistan's tribal regions since June 2004. U.S. officials have lauded the program for its effectiveness and precision, and it has become an essential pillar of the administration's counterterrorism policy. Yet despite promises by President Barack Obama to make the program more transparent and apply the highest possible standards to avoid civilian casualties, the administration has, so far, continued its secretive practices.

With Naming The Dead over a year into its investigation, The WorldPost sat down with Jack Serle of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to discuss the progress of the project.

What motived the Bureau to start this massive effort to identify the casualties of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan?

About three years ago, my former colleague Chris Woods decided that there was plenty of anecdotal evidence that U.S. drone strikes had killed civilians, but there was no hard data to analyze it. The line coming from Washington seemed to be that the strikes were surgically precise, but in order to test these statements we started collecting data on the strikes, all the way back to the first one in June 2004. In the process of recording those drone strikes, it became abundantly clear that what we were actually doing was casualty reporting. So we decided that we ought to find out more about those killed. For starters, without the names, you can really say whatever you like about those killed -- for example, that they are members of al Qaeda or the Taliban. They’re either unnamed militants and therefore permanently branded as bad guys, or unnamed civilians who we know nothing about.

It’s also the principle of these people dying anonymously in a conflict. Irrespective of their affiliation and status, whether they’re civilian or militant, we feel that they should be identified and their names should be recorded as a casualty of an armed conflict.

Where do you find information?

We monitor several sources and draw on the results of other organizations that have carried out similar investigations. Researchers also conduct field investigations into specific attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas and try to record the names of people who were killed and collect biographical details. We talk to sources in the Pakistani government and the local communities. We've also had some success with documents. We discovered that some local authorities kept lists of people killed in drone strikes.

But it's extremely difficult and it's only getting worse. The situation in North Waziristan is extremely unstable. It's really dangerous for our people to report on the ground and it's dangerous for sources to be seen talking to the researchers.

Are there other factors complicating the research?

The security situation is a first hurdle. The nature of reporting on drone strikes is a second. The Pakistani state and the Taliban have a very strict grip on the flow of information inside the tribal areas and on the information that leaves the areas.

In addition, there's a limited amount of investigating that can be done when strikes happen at a high frequency. For example, there were 23 drone strikes in September 2010, the highest number we've recorded in a calendar month. A lot of those strikes were hitting in North and South Waziristan.

Another factor is that a lot of the people who are being killed are unknown to the local community. They've crossed into the tribal regions from Afghanistan when the U.S. and their allies ousted the Taliban government. They may be known by a nom de guerre to some of the local community, but they are pretty much anonymous and die unknown. We've seen numerous reports of the deaths of unnamed Central Asians, Uzbeks and Chechens.

Will it be possible to identify every single person killed?

We don’t have an absolute figure on how many people have been killed, but our best estimate is about 2,318. I don’t think it’s realistic to think that we’ll be able to name every single one of them, partly because a lot of people have died anonymously.

We probably added about a hundred names since the project started last year and we have 700 names in total so far -- two of them are women. Their cases are a good example of how local social and cultural norms affect the identification process. Women tend not to go out unaccompanied, but stay in the house or the compound. It's therefore perfectly feasible that neighbors and people who live near these compounds may not know how many women were present inside the compound and were killed in a drone strike. That’s a clear potential for having an undercount.

What have you learned about who has been killed so far?

There’s a really interesting difference between what officials in the United States are saying about who’s being targeted and who’s effectively getting killed by drones. The affiliation, the association and the rank of the people don't necessarily match what is being said about who the drones are targeting. CIA Director John Brennan, then one of Obama’s most senior security advisers, said a few years ago in a speech that drones had not killed a civilian in the 12 months leading up to the statement. But the data strongly suggests that senior members of al Qaeda and senior members of affiliated groups are not the only ones being killed by drone strikes. We noticed that while some senior members of al Qaeda or associated groups have been killed, a lot of those who were killed were lower-level players.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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