Missing Pieces: The Human Impact of Drone Strikes

Afghanistan’s Khaama Press recently reported on coalition drone strikes against alleged ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) fighters, a branch of ISIS (also known as Daesh) operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The fighters were reportedly killed in two districts of Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan. The U.S.- and British-trained Afghan military claimed that eight ISIS-K members were killed in the operation, with no civilian casualties. With no other reporters on the ground, the apparent lack of civilian deaths cannot be verified. The report serves as a reminder that drone strikes are continuing across the Middle East and Central Asia and are continuing to take lives.

The corporate media have covered the lack of congressional oversight concerning President Trump’s expansion of both the military and civilian drone program. For example, in 2017, NBC reported that Trump was relaxing the rules on drone strikes, which would mean “tolerating more civilian casualties.” A year later, The Atlantic reported on Trump’s progress in this respect. But both articles, as is typical of mainstream reporting, omitted what explosive devices fired from drones actually do to human beings. This makes empathizing with victims more difficult.

A report by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom notes that many drone strikes occur in remote regions. It says that “media reports from these locations are extremely rare. This creates in the minds of many the idea that drone strikes are clean, safe and victimless.” The report also notes that, for many, life under the drones is one of constant stress and the fear of being annihilated at any second.

As I document in my new book, Manufacturing Terrorism (2018, Clairview Books), it is typical of mainstream media to simply omit the graphic and heartrending details of what happens to innocent civilians — so-called collateral damage — when a missile fired from a drone hits them. There is a danger of sensationalizing the horror of drone attacks and turning gore into exploitation. But not reporting the facts also dissociates U.S. and European readers from the reality of what their governments are doing to civilians abroad. If people knew the details of what happens to bodies when they are hit by missiles, more people might protest war and advocate for peace.

U.S. and British Drones

With program names like “Widowmaker,” U.S. and British ground-based drone operators launch Hellfire and other missiles from machines with names like “Predator.” The U.K. has a single drone operation program run by the Ministry of Defence. It includes killing alleged terrorist suspects in Iraq and Syria. The Ministry is reportedly working through a “kill list,” which includes British citizens like Reyaad Khan, who was killed by a British drone operator when Khan was allegedly fighting in Raqqa, Syria. Then-UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Execution Philip Alston settled the issue of drone legality in 2010, writing, “A State killing is legal only if it is required to protect life (making lethal force proportionate) and there is no other means, such as capture or nonlethal incapacitation, of preventing that threat to life (making lethal force necessary).”

Since late 2001, according to data from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes have killed at least 3,982 people in Afghanistan; 2,515 in Pakistan; 928 in Somalia; and 1,020 in Yemen (166 civilians, 44 children). These figures are minimum civilian casualties or confirmed (i.e., with physical evidence) deaths, though the actual toll is likely double. By 2014, the U.S. had targeted 41 alleged terror suspects, but in doing so, wiped out 1,147 people by mistake: a “success” rate of 3.57 percent.

What Happens When Bombs Explode

These statistics are important, but in order to better empathize with victims, it is worth considering what happens when an explosion occurs. First, there is a blast wave — the primary cause of injury. A blast wave occurs when air molecules are rapidly compressed and changed into a gas. The molecules are pushed out before oscillating (as supersonic waves). As they travel, peak overpressure is reached faster than the inverse-square of the distance relationship (as a suction wave).

Depending on the explosive yield, type of bomb and environmental conditions, the blast waves of the tens of thousands of bombs dropped by the U.S. and U.K. on Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Syria have the following effects on millions of men, women and children:

High-order explosives are more susceptible to over-pressurization, so victims can experience trauma to one or more of their organs, including the lungs (“blast lung,” or pulmonary barotrauma, being the most common fatal injury), stomach perforation and bleeding, and eye and ear trauma. Humans can withstand overpressures of 15-pound force per square inch (psi) before half of the eardrums of people in the vicinity will burst. When standing within 50 feet of a landmine, 500-pound aerial bomb or three-inch mortar shell, ear drum rupture occurred in more than half of documented cases.

Secondary injuries come from debris, such as shrapnel. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cites blast-induced structural collapse as the most common killer in explosions. In addition, the CDC says that around 10 percent of all bomb-blast victims have some form of eye injury. Injuries are usually perforations caused by the high-velocity projectiles that result from the blast wave. “Symptoms include eye pain or irritation, foreign body sensation, altered vision, periorbital swelling or contusions,” notes the CDC. Other symptoms, temporary or permanent, can include sight loss, hyphema (red eyes), globe perforation, subconjunctival bleeding and eyelid laceration.

The perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing in April 2013 reportedly used pressure cooker bombs, murdering three and injuring more than 260. Thirty-two of the 43 Boston Marathon bombing victims analyzed by Singh A.K., et al. had a total of 189 shrapnel fragments, including ball bearings, nails, metal, screws, gravel and glass, some buried deep in their flesh and bones. Aged between 19 and 65, the victims sustained injuries to the legs, pelvis and thighs.

Tertiary injuries result from falling or being pushed by the blast wave. Quaternary injuries are caused by, for example, resulting fires.

Starting in the 1970s, various U.S. weapons companies began to build helicopter-launched Heliborne, Laser, Fire and Forget (Hellfire) missiles. Weighing 100 pounds, the bombs were intended as anti-tank munitions, but are now launched from drones to destroy human beings. Thermobaric weapons use surrounding oxygen to create high-temperature explosions whose blast wave is longer in duration than non-thermobarics. One variety of thermobaric missile, the AGM-144N, was field-tested on human beings in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004; a city resisting the U.S.-British occupation. The reason that so many Fallujan children have severe deformities and the rate of cancer in Fallujah is so high is due to the use of radioactive uranium in the Hellfire thermobarics. Samira Alaani, et al., write:

Thermobaric weapons use high temperature/high pressure explosives as anti-personnel incendiary weapons. They char or vaporise victims in the immediate target location, or suffocate and collapse internal organs with their extended blast/vacuum effects. These weapons use a new generation of reactive metal explosives, some of which are suspected of using Uranium for the high temperature and increased kinetic blast effects.

Tragic Stories

Missing from most print media and all broadcast media is the detail of what happens to human bodies when drone and other missiles hit. Consider these few examples, some found in print media and others in human rights reports. On September 4, 2009, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) strike ignited fuel tanks in the village of Eissa Khail, Kunduz, Afghanistan. At least 70 people were killed.

The head of the village, Omar Khan, told The Guardian, “We didn’t recognise any of the dead when we arrived…. The villagers were fighting over the corpses. People were saying this is my brother, this is my cousin, and no one could identify anyone…. The smell was so bad. For three days I smelled of burned meat and fuel.”

One elderly man, Jan Mohammad also told The Guardian, “I couldn’t find my son, so I took a piece of flesh with me home and I called it my son. I told my wife we had him, but I didn’t let his children or anyone see. We buried the flesh as it if was my son.”

On October 24, 2012, 68-year-old Mamana Bibi was gathering vegetables in Ghundi Kala village in northwest Pakistan, when, according to Amnesty International, which interviewed one of her grandchildren, Bibi “was blasted into pieces before her eyes.” Her granddaughter Nabeela (age 8 at the time) told Amnesty, “I saw her shoes. We found her mutilated body a short time afterwards…. It had been thrown quite a long distance away by the blast and it was in pieces. We collected as many different parts from the field and wrapped them in a cloth.”

Mohammed Tuaiman of al-Zur village, Yemen, was 13 years old when a CIA drone operator killed him on January 26, 2015, in Hareeb, near al-Zur. “A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from them [the drones] and some now have mental problems,” he said in an interview shortly before his death. Tuaiman lost his brother and father in an earlier strike. His surviving brother Maqded told The Guardian, “I saw all the bodies completely burned, like charcoal…. We couldn’t move the bodies so we just buried them there, near the car.”

On March 17, 2017, 200 Iraqis were killed in an airstrike on Aghawat Jadidah, Mosul. The strike included the deaths of nine of Munatha Jasim’s relatives, including her 7-year-old son Firas and 4-year-old daughter Taiba. Of Firas, Jasim told the Los Angeles Times, “We recovered half his body…. The other half is still there…. [B]ecause one Islamic State [fighter] was on our house, the aircraft bombed us.”

In addition to the human consequences of using hi-tech death weapons, the longer-term political consequences are also severe. The recent warning from Daniel Coats, director of National Intelligence, suggests that terrorism aimed at U.S. and European civilians will continue and possibly increase this year, as the U.S. and its allies continue to bomb the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. “While ISIS is nearing territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria,” says Coats, “the group has returned to its guerilla-warfare roots while continuing to plot attacks, and direct its supporters worldwide.” It would seem that letting people in foreign countries live and protecting those at home from political “blowback” is a low priority for the U.S. compared to dominating other nations.

This article is based on reporting the author has done for his book, Manufacturing Terrorism, and has been lightly revised for Truthout with permission from the author.