National Beat Reporter
President Obama has taken full responsibility for the accidental deaths of two al-Qaeda hostages killed by a drone strike in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan back in January 2015. It’s the first known instance of a U.S. drone strike accidentally killing a hostage. The deaths of the hostages, one American and one Italian, has called the President’s approach to fighting al-Qaeda into question and has stirred debate over the U.S.’s drone program.
Government officials disclosed on April 23 that the drone strike that killed American Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto on Jan. 15 was part of an American counterterrorism operation against al-Qaeda. Weinstein and Lo Porto were both aid workers who were kidnapped by al-Qaeda in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
The drone strike was intended to destroy a compound linked to al-Qaeda in a remote area in Pakistan near the Afghanistan border.
The Central Intelligence Agency authorized the attack, but had no idea that the hostages were being held there. CIA officials had said the compound had undergone hundreds of hours of surveillance, but saw no signs of the hidden hostages.
“As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations,” said President Obama in a statement Thursday. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.”
Ahmed Farouq, a leader of al-Qaeda and an American citizen, was also killed in the strike. Adam Gadahn, another American member of al-Qaida, was killed in a separate strike in the same region in January. According to CIA officials, Farouq and Gadahn were not “specifically targeted” in the strikes and they did not know that the two al-Qaeda members were present at the strike targets.
In his statement, the President went on to defend the authorization of the strike, even though the CIA did not know about the hostages.
“We believed this was an al-Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present, and that capturing these terrorists was not possible,” Obama said. “What we did not know, tragically, is that al-Qaeda was hiding the presence of Warren and Giovanni in this same compound.”
Although the President did not sign off on the specific strike that killed the two hostages, he had authorized the CIA to carry out drone attacks as long as the attack meets certain criteria. Obama said that the strike was “fully consistent with the guidelines” for such counterterrorism missions in the region.
In 2013, President Obama tightened rules for drone strikes in order to reduce civilian casualties. But the president secretly approved a waiver giving the CIA more flexibility on operations in Pakistan, according to the Wall Street Journal.
When he took office, Obama inherited two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and bringing these wars to a gradual end has been key to his foreign policy agenda. But a third conflict has come up in the form of the controversial drone program and the escalation of drone strikes in Pakistan, now expanded to Yemen and Somalia.
Drones are attractive because of their capacity for precise and pinpoint killing, able to pick off dangerous terrorists one at a time without having to enter the country into another war. Drones are able to target threats in parts of the world where it would be nearly impossible to have actual boots on the ground. Avoiding a conventional war in favor of strategic drone strikes has definitely helped kill off hundreds of dangerous militants, including several high-ranking al-Qaeda members. But this has come at the price of civilian casualties.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has estimated that between 423 and 962 civilians have been killed in drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004. Since then, the U.S. has carried out over 400 drone strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan alone. The deaths of the two hostages and the two American al-Qaeda members brings the total number of Americans killed by U.S. drone strikes during the Obama administration to seven.
These numbers alone have brought up concerns about the effectiveness and ethics of using unmanned technology for military purposes. The revelation of the unintended deaths of the hostages and the al-Qaeda members has brought the U.S.’s drone program under fire like never before.