My weekly Guardian column:
The news that the US had killed two Australian “militants” in a drone strike was announced in mid-April. Christopher Havard and “Muslim bin John”, who also held New Zealand citizenship, were allegedly killed by a CIA-led airstrike in eastern Yemen in November last year.
Readers were given little concrete information, apart from a “counter-terrorism source” who claimed that both men were foot soldiers for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though they may also have been collateral damage (the real target being other terror heads).
The Australian government claimed ignorance of the entire operation. “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation”, a spokesman said. New Zealand prime minister John Key released some more details, saying that the country’s GCSB spies had been authorised to spy on him. “I knew that he had gone there [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp”, he stated.
Since publication of these bare facts, little new information has emerged from the government or other sources – except for some reporting in The Australian about Havard’s apparent transformation after he converted to Islam in his early 20s and went to Yemen to teach English. The paper editorialised in support of the strike: “to be killed in this way is regrettable”, it wrote, but obliterating civilians without a trial was acceptable because “such attacks have done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” There was no condemnation of the scores of civilians killed by drones since 9/11.
It’s of course morally convenient to believe that the death of these men will make the world a safer place by removing “threats” without the need to place western soldiers in harm’s way – this is, after all, the apparently compelling logic of drone warfare. But it’s a myth challenged by the former drone pilots featured in the recently released documentary Drone, in which ex-Air Force pilot Michael Haas explains that:
‘You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.”
Yet, uncertainty be damned, the Australian government seems to keep on supporting the CIA killings with most of the media following without question.
Fairfax Media headlined one story “Abbott government defends drone strike that killed two Australian Al-Qaeda militants” without challenging that the two men were, indeed, militants or affiliated with Al-Qaida – they may or may not have been, but innocent civilians have been killed by drones before. The sentence “alleged militants, according to the government” never appeared in the article (this is a relatively common habit in journalism – see for example this essential take-down of a New York Times report on drone killings in Yemen).
I’ve reported independently from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and accurate journalism requires finding reliable sources on the ground (or corresponding with individuals through email, phone, encryption or Twitter) who can confirm or challenge the official version. It’s not rocket science, though definitive information can be scarce in a war zone.
In the last days I’ve reached out to various sources in Yemen (some of the best are here, here and here) and asked Sanaa-based Baraa Shiban to comment. His answer is revealing. “The lack of transparency has became a fixed strategy for the US in its drone war. The US announced recently the death of almost 30 militants in a training camp in Abyan, south of Yemen, but can’t release a single name; this tells it all.”
Taking the word of security sources and the state, when this information is so often wrong or deliberately skewed by anonymous officials who strategically leak to justify their counter-terrorism policies, is sadly all too common. “We don’t know the facts” is not a shameful statement. To be skeptical shouldn’t be a flaw, but an asset.
The desultory lack of debate over this latest drone attack is a sadly familiar tale (former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser lent a rare voice of criticism, saying Australians assisting the US drone program could face crimes against humanity charges). The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, former army officer and Australian diplomat, offered a commonly-held view of the deaths: “If it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were not deliberately targeted”, he wrote, “then I don’t think either the Australian government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.”
This misses the point entirely. The two men are dead, so arguments about the legality of their assassination should surely have happened before the US fired its missiles. Shanahan expressed confidence without evidence that Australia “would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power.” This is a familiar refrain echoed by governments, too: that if you’re standing, sitting or socialising with militants, with or without your knowledge, your life could be in jeopardy.
The effect of this random violence, along with the devastating signature strike policy – drone attacks based on “suspicious” behaviour without knowing names or identities of people – is well documented. In Yemen, hatred of the US, along with major social and political tensions, is growing amongst a poor and scared population.
Although the Yemeni regime works openly alongside Washington in its war against perceived enemies (unlike Pakistan, which many say behaves in a similar way but feigns opposition to appease the angry masses) the death of dozens of alleged Al-Qaida militants and civilians at a major base in the remote southern mountains last week will only inflame tensions in the nation.
Let us not forget that the US drone program, massively accelerated under the Obama administration, is mired in secrecy. Earlier this month, a US federal appeals court ordered the government to release legal advice relating to the killings of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union correctly argued that it was unacceptable for the US to both claim the program was classified and yet leak selective information to favoured journalists to “paint the program in the most favourable light.”
The latest killing of two Australian citizens is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why and the legal backing behind it. The countless lies during the “war on terror” warrants skepticism of official claims.