• Sheet of paper Report

“Will I be Next?” US Drone Strikes in Pakistan

October 21, 2013


I wasn't scared of drones before, but now when they fly overhead I wonder, will I be next?

– Nabeela, eight-year-old granddaughter of US drone strike victim Mamana Bibi

On a sunny afternoon in October 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was killed in a drone strike that appears to have been aimed directly at her. Her grandchildren recounted in painful detail to Amnesty International the moment when Mamana Bibi, who was gathering vegetables in the family fields in Ghundi Kala village, northwest Pakistan, was blasted into pieces before their eyes. Nearly a year later, Mamana Bibi's family has yet to receive any acknowledgment that it was the US that killed her, let alone justice or compensation for her death.

Earlier, on 6 July 2012, 18 male laborers, including at least one boy, were killed in a series of US drone strikes in the remote village of Zowi Sidgi. Missiles first struck a tent in which some men had gathered for an evening meal after a hard day's work, and then struck those who came to help the injured from the first strike. Witnesses described a macabre scene of body parts and blood, panic and terror, as US drones continued to hover overhead.

The use of pilotless aircraft, commonly referred to as drones, for surveillance and so-called targeted killings by the USA has fast become one of the most controversial human rights issues in the world. In no place is this more apparent than in Pakistan.

The circumstances of civilian deaths from drone strikes in northwest Pakistan are disputed. The USA, which refuses to release detailed information about individual strikes, claims that its drone operations are based on reliable intelligence, are extremely accurate, and that the vast majority of people killed in such strikes are members of armed groups such as the Taliban and al-Qa'ida. Critics claim that drone strikes are much less discriminating, have resulted in hundreds of civilian deaths, some of which may amount to extrajudicial executions or war crimes, and foster animosity that increases recruitment into the very groups the USA seeks to eliminate.

According to NGO and Pakistan government sources the USA has launched some 330 to 374 drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and September 2013. Amnesty International is not in a position to endorse these figures, but according to these sources, between 400 and 900 civilians have been killed in these attacks and at least 600 people seriously injured.

Focus of this report

This report is not a comprehensive survey of US drone strikes in Pakistan; it is a qualitative assessment based on detailed field research into nine of the 45 reported strikes that occurred in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal agency between January 2012 and August 2013 (see Appendix) and a survey of publicly available information on all reported drone strikes in Pakistan over the same period.

An area bordering Afghanistan, North Waziristan is one of the seven tribal agencies that make up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Tribal Areas), a loosely-governed territory in northwest Pakistan that has been the focus of all US drone strikes in the country. Research was also carried out on the general impact of the US drone program on life in North Waziristan, as well as attacks by Pakistani forces and armed groups. The report highlights incidents in which men, women and children appear to have been unlawfully killed or injured. By examining these attacks in detail, Amnesty International seeks to shed light on a secretive program of surveillance and killings occurring in one of the most dangerous, neglected and inaccessible regions of the world.

Arbitrary deprivation of life

Because the US government refuses to provide even basic information on particular strikes, including the reasons for carrying them out, Amnesty International is unable to reach fi rm conclusions about the context in which the US drone attacks on Mamana Bibi and on the 18 laborers took place, and therefore their status under international law. However, based on its review of incidents over the last two years, Amnesty International is seriously concerned that these and other strikes have resulted in unlawful killings that may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.

The prevailing secrecy surrounding drone strikes, restrictions on access to drone-affected areas, and the refusal of the US administration to explain the international legal basis for individual attacks raise concerns that other strikes in the Tribal Areas may have also violated human rights. This includes drone strikes before 2012, the period prior to the incidents documented in this report, when killings were more frequent and widespread across these areas.

Armed groups operating in North Waziristan have been responsible for unlawful killings and other abuses constituting war crimes and other crimes under international law in Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Pakistan has a very poor record of bringing these perpetrators to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty. Since the creation of Pakistan, North Waziristan and the rest of the Tribal Areas have been neglected and under-developed, and their residents do not enjoy key human rights protections under Pakistani and international law.

Obligation to investigate

All states have a duty to take robust action to protect the life and physical integrity of people within their jurisdiction, and to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes under international law. But in doing so, these governments must respect their obligations under international human rights law and, in the exceptional situations where it applies, under international humanitarian law (also known as the laws of war).

Amnesty International calls on the USA to comply with its obligations under international law to ensure thorough, impartial, and independent investigations are conducted into the killings documented in this report. The USA should make public information it has about all drone strikes carried out in Pakistan. The US authorities should investigate all reports of civilian casualties from drone strikes. Where there is sufficient admissible evidence that individuals may be responsible for an unlawful killing or other serious human rights violation, the authorities must ensure they are brought to justice in fair trials without recourse to the death penalty. Victims of violations must be provided with compensation and meaningful access to full reparation including restitution, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition.

Amnesty International is also extremely concerned about the failure of the Pakistani authorities to protect and enforce the rights of victims of drone strikes. Pakistan stands accused of a range of human rights failings: from the possible complicity of some organs or officials of the Pakistan state in unlawful killings resulting from the US drones program, to the failure to protect people in the Tribal Areas from unlawful drone strikes or to adequately assist victims of such strikes. Pakistan has a duty to independently and impartially investigate all drone strikes in the country and ensure access to justice and reparation for victims of violations.

Apart from Pakistan, other states, including Australia, Germany and the UK, appear to be providing intelligence and other assistance to the USA in carrying out drone strikes. In tackling threats from armed groups in the Tribal Areas, Pakistan, the USA and other states providing assistance must act in full conformity with their obligations under international human rights law and, where applicable, international humanitarian law. Secrecy, technology and an elastic interpretation of law and policy may have given the USA unrivalled access to one of the most remote and lawless parts of the world. But immediate security concerns, whether real or perceived, must not and cannot be addressed by trampling on the rights of people living in Pakistan's tribal areas.


Amnesty International conducted research for this report from late 2012 to September 2013. The organization carried out over 60 interviews with survivors of drone strikes, relatives of victims, eyewitnesses, residents of affected areas, members of armed groups and Pakistani government officials. These took place in North Waziristan, neighboring areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Interviews were conducted in Pashto, Urdu, and English.

Amnesty International obtained rare access to some parts of North Waziristan, where more drone strikes have occurred over the past two years than anywhere else in Pakistan. Amnesty International corroborated written and oral testimony against photographic and video evidence and satellite imagery for every strike discussed in this report. Through this research, Amnesty International was able to determine the exact locations of the two main drone strikes documented in this report.

Obtaining reliable information about drone strikes in North Waziristan is extremely difficult due to ongoing insecurity and barriers on independent monitoring imposed by armed groups like the Taliban and the Pakistani military. Independent observers risk accusations of espionage, abduction and death at the hands of these actors for seeking to shed light on human rights in North Waziristan. In addition, the Pakistani military restricts access to the region on the grounds of security risks, which are a legitimate concern, but also to tightly manage reporting on the area. Given the highly politicized debate around the US drones program in Pakistan, Amnesty International was also concerned that local actors would seek to influence its research by coercing those interviewed for this report, or providing false or inaccurate information. To address this, Amnesty International assembled a number of local investigative teams, which worked independently from one other, and then cross-corroborated the information they gathered, including against other sources.

The Pakistan armed forces did not allow Amnesty International to travel to North Waziristan with them, citing security concerns. However, it agreed in principle to escort the organization to South Waziristan, which has also faced significant drone strikes. In any event, victims and residents said that they were reluctant to meet in North Waziristan during any visit facilitated by and under escort from the armed forces out of fear of retribution from them or from armed groups; for example, if they criticized the conduct of Pakistani forces, or armed groups, or for being seen as aligned with the Pakistani military. Given these obstacles, Amnesty International was not able to conduct on-site investigations in all areas targeted by drone strikes documented in this report, especially those carried out in 2013.

Many of the people interviewed for this report did so at great personal risk, knowing that they might face reprisals from US or Pakistani authorities, the Taliban, or other groups. They spoke out because they were anxious to make known the human cost of the drone program, and the impact on themselves and their communities of living in a state of fear. One witness said:

It is difficult to trust anyone. I can't even trust my own brother… After I spoke to you some men in plain clothes visited me [in North Waziristan]. I don't know who they were, whether they were Taliban or someone else; they were not from our village. I was clearly warned not to give any more information about the victims of drone strikes. They told me it is fine if I continue to do my work but I should not share any information with the people who come here.

Amnesty International discussed the possible risks carefully with the people who provided information for this report, and wishes to thank all those who shared their stories with us despite the dangers, as well as those who assisted in the research in other ways. However, because of ongoing security concerns, many of the names in this report have been changed to protect the identity of those who spoke with us, and we continue to monitor the situation of our contacts. Most of the Pakistani officials we spoke to also requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issues.

Amnesty International wrote to the relevant authorities in the USA and Pakistan regarding the specific cases documented in this report and the overall US drone program in Pakistan. The organization wishes to thank the Governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the Secretariat of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the Pakistan Foreign Ministry for speaking candidly and on the record regarding the US drone program in Pakistan and the broader law and order situation in the tribal areas. However, despite written requests and a number of follow ups by Amnesty International, none of the Pakistani authorities answered questions regarding specific drone strikes or the possible role of some Pakistani officials or private citizens in the US drone program.

The US government's utter lack of transparency about its drone program posed a significant research challenge. The USA refuses to make public even basic information about the program, and does not release legal or factual information about specific strikes. None of the US authorities contacted by Amnesty International were willing to provide information regarding the specific cases documented in this report or the legal and policy basis for the drone program in Pakistan. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which is believed to be responsible for the US drone program in Pakistan, said that questions regarding the drone program should be put to the White House. As at time of publication, the White House had not responded to Amnesty International's repeated requests for comment.


Download the report