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Waking Up to the Drones

By Kelley B. Vlahos

Look at these photographs. See the eager faces among the children at the school — they could be anyone’s kids at any moment in America. And the baby, so precious and new, reflecting the light of his proud parents, the hope of everyone around him.

Now imagine that the school is attacked by Predator drones launching Hellfire missiles directly into the classrooms. The children are ripped to shreds where they sit on the carpet. Imagine that a similar flying machine, directed by an agent thousands of miles away in a windowless room, has targeted militants on the ground, but shrapnel from the blast slices through the walls of a nearby house, cutting into the crib where the sleeping baby lies unknowing, now eternal.

The very thought would tear the American mind asunder — on normal days, we worry almost neurotically whether our children are exposed to too many germs, eat too much junk food, are doing all the right things to get into college. We hand-wring over the clothes they wear, the video games they play, whether they are friendless and bullied, or sufficiently popular with their peers.

Pondering what attire to place on their little mutilated bodies before lowering them into the grave would be too much to bear. If this actually happened, there would be a conflagration of outrage in U.S cities and towns fearsome enough to build a funeral pyre to the sky.

Yet Pakistani and Yemeni adults face this merciless task all of the time from drone attacks they can neither control nor protest. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there have been upwards of 350 U.S. military and CIA drone strikes on Yemen and Pakistan since 2004, with the majority in Yemen (20 to 36) occurring in the last two months. As if their children were less valuable than our own, most Americans either ignore or remain passive-aggressively ignorant of the civilian carnage associated with these so-called “targeted strikes.”

Sadly, this has translated into broad public support of what has become the third post-9/11 American War following Iraq and Afghanistan — the Drone War. As coldly as the remote control technology behind these killing machines, Americans appear perfectly accepting of the most self-centered and weakest justifications: drones are making us safer at home, or, it is their fault for allowing the militants to hide among civilians.

Drones make for a cleaner, more precise war against the enemy.

A sizable group of human rights activists, law scholars and antiwar campaigners came together last weekend in Washington to not only turn that thinking completely on its head, but to formulate a strategy to stop the use of drones in warfare altogether. It is a herculean task, but aided in the fact that these groups already are engaged in a number of simultaneous lawsuits, Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests and field investigations with the goal of first bringing the brutal truth — perhaps their best weapon — to public light.

Syed Wali Shah, killed in an October 2008 airstrike in Waziristan

“The stories are really important to be told here, first of all, we have to see exactly what is going on the ground and what is happening to these people,” said Shahzad Akbar, who was finally able to obtain a travel visa to the U.S after repeatedly running into the brick wall of the “homeland security structure,” ostensibly because he is helping drone victims from Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) — the epicenter of the U.S strikes in Pakistan — file lawsuits against the CIA in Islamabad courts.

Akbar was a special guest of the weekend’s Drone Summit: Killing and Spying by Remote Control, which was probably the first event of its kind and hopefully, not the last. It was sponsored by CODEPINK (led by Medea Benjamin, author of the new book, Drone Warfare), the Foundation for Fundamental Rights (represented by Akbar) and U.K.-based Reprieve (led by founder Clive Stafford Smith, an American lawyer who represents Guantanamo Bay detainees)

Akbar and others, like journalist Madiha Tahir, who is working on a documentary about the Waziristan victims, were able to bring disturbing photo images, video and personal testimony to the forum, more than a few times shocking the audience with the brutality of the injuries and the horror of knowing that many of these victims, so many of them children, never knew what hit them, the strikes came so fast.

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Filed under News Commentary Drones Antiwar CIA US Military FBI Killing Afghanistan Iraq

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Celebrating our “Warrior President”

The Democratic case for Obama’s foreign policy greatness is most significant for what it blissfully ignores

Peter Bergen, the Director of National Security Studies at the Democratic-Party-supportive New America Foundation, has a long Op-Ed in The New York Times today glorifying President Obama as a valiant and steadfast “warrior President”; it begins this way:

THE president who won the Nobel Peace Prize less than nine months after his inauguration has turned out to be one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.

Just ponder that: not only the Democratic Party, but also its progressive faction, is wildly enamored of “one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.” That’s quite revealing on multiple levels. Bergen does note that irony: he recalls that Obama used his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to defend the justifications for war and points out: “if those on the left were listening, they didn’t seem to care.” He adds that “the left, which had loudly condemned George W. Bush for waterboarding and due process violations at Guantánamo, was relatively quiet when the Obama administration, acting as judge and executioner, ordered more than 250 drone strikes in Pakistan since 2009, during which at least 1,400 lives were lost.”

To explain the behavior of “the left,” Bergen offers this theory: “From both the right and left, there has been a continuing, dramaticcognitive disconnect between Mr. Obama’s record and the public perception of his leadership: despite his demonstrated willingness to use force, neither side regards him as the warrior president he is.” In other words, progressives are slavishly supportive of “one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades” because they have deluded themselves into denying this reality and continue to pretend he’s some sort of anti-war figure.

That’s not unreasonable speculation, but I ultimately don’t believe that’s true. Leaving aside Bergen’s over-generalization — some factions on “the left” have been quite vocal in condemning Obama’s actions in these areas — most Democrats are perfectly aware of Obama’s military aggression. They don’t support him despite that, but rather, that’s one of the things they love about him. After years of being mocked by the Right as Terrorist-coddling weaklings, Obama — strutting around touting his own strength — lets them feel strong and powerful in exactly the way that Bush and Cheney’s swaggering let conservatives prance around as tough-guy, play-acting warriors. Rather than ignore this aggression, Democratic think tanks point with beaming pride to the corpses piled up by the Democratic Commander-in-Chief to argue that he’s been such a resounding foreign policy “success,” while Democratic punditscelebrate and defend the political value of his majestic kills.

Yesterday on his MSNBC morning show, Chris Hayes conducted an excellent, two-part discussion of Obama’s escalated civilian-killing drone attacks, with a heavy emphasis on the innocent people, including numerous children, who have been killed. He showed a harrowing video clip of a Yemeni man’s anguish as he described the pregnant women and children killed by Obama’s 2009 cluster bomb strike; featured the U.S. drone killing of 16-year-old American citizen Abdulrahman Awlaki in Yemen; and interviewed human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith, who described the 16-year-old Pakistani boy he met at a meeting to discuss civilian drone deaths and who, a mere 3 days later, had his own life ended by an American drone.

Later that day, Hayes tweeted this: “A bit taken aback by the ugliness that drone conversation seems to bring out in some people.” What he meant was the avalanche of angry Twitter attacks from steadfast Obama loyalists who gleefully defended the drone program, mocked concerns over civilian deaths, and insisted that he should not be covering such matters because they may harm Obama in an election year (of course, it’s not only the President’s followers, but, as Hayes noted, the President himself who is quite adept at finding humor in his drone attacks).

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Filed under News Commentary War War crimes Obama Drones Killing Murder

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Was this 16-year-old, killed by a US drone, really a terrorist?

by Pratap Chatterjee

Tariqhighlight - Pratap Chatterjee

Tariq Aziz (ringed) was killed three days after this meeting.

He walked quietly between his two friends as he entered the conference hall in one of the best hotels in an exclusive enclave of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The carpeted room filled with chairs draped in white as if for a wedding, usually hosted business conferences. But this event was different. The smart suited-business men and laptops had been usurped by rough-hewn boys and traditionally-dressed older men from the tribal mountains a few arduous hours from the capital.

A row of elders greeted the attendees, lightly shaking hands as they gently touched their own chests in a traditional gesture. Deep-cut lines in their sun-hardened skin marked their years, full beards and elaborate head gear denoted their social standing. There was little chat as the three teenage boys filed to their seats. The men gathered had come to discuss death and destruction – the destruction of their homes and villages, the deaths of their children and friends.

Like many in the room, Tariq Aziz had travelled for eight hours by public bus to join the group. Despite his black kameez, flat-topped cap and the start of a neat beard, Aziz was clearly much younger than many of the other men gathered.

Seated just two rows directly in front was Jemima Khan, the British heiress, also dressed in a black traditional outfit edged with antique red and yellow embroidery, her thick, flowing hair left uncovered while in the hall. She tried hard not to attract attention, but her presence was so much at odds with those around her that it was difficult not to watch her reactions, not least because her former husband and now politician Imran Khan was also at the meeting.

Events a few hundred miles away, in the mountains of the north had brought this odd group together. Waziristan is an inaccessible, remote region on the border of Afghanistan. Few people other than the locals ever travel into the rugged interior. Frequent checkpoints keep journalists and foreigners out. The ubiquitous mobile phones have stopped working since the mobile network was switched off. There is no major industry and little farm-land. Most supplies are driven in by colourfully painted Bedford or Hino trucks, one of the few jobs available. People live as they have for centuries, following old traditions and tribal codes.

More than fifteen years ago, in 1996, Jemima Khan had travelled to the area, with her then husband Imran, and her father, Sir James Goldsmith, the billionaire financier. The tribesmen had regaled the visitors with stories of their fierceness. ‘One of the tribal elders came up to my father and said welcome to Waziristan. I just want to let you know that the last Englishman that came to these parts was 100 years ago, and our great grandfathers shot him,’ she recalled with a laugh. The men were warriors, violence was common, and Kalashnikov rifles carried openly, as they still are today.

But it was not the tribal fighting that concerned the men who had gathered in the Islamabad hotel. Life in Waziristan was being threatened by a far more fiercesome weapon than the automatic rifle. Unmanned planes, remotely-controlled from the Nevada desert thousands of miles away, have become an almost everyday sight in the skies above the arid lands of the north. It was the frequent attacks by these planes, or drones, operated by America, supposedly an ally, that were the focus of the gathering.

The drones had started flying, infrequently at first, over the northern mountains almost eight years ago. Initially they had hovered in the skies streaming video back to the operators – agents working for the US Central Intelligence Agency. They were gathering information about al Qaeda members allegedly hiding in the cut-off lands.

But now these unmanned planes have become an almost constant, and deadly presence.  Their deep, low dirge a terrifying symphony accompanying the villagers’ daily lives. They fly in packs, sometimes as many as a half dozen, circling the villages for hours, hovering over roads, before firing Hellfire missiles. As many as 3,000 people have been killed, though little more than a few lines ever gets reported in the Western press. This is a war fought largely out of sight of the global media, away from the connected world.

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Filed under News Feature Drones Killing Teenager Pakistan Afghanistan

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‘Emo’ killings in Iraq create different reactions among religious clerics

The rise of the emo Iraqi teenager has created divisions in society and they have been targets of hate crimes. (Courtesy of Radio Sawa)

By DINA AL-SHIBEEB

Iraqi religious clerics have reacted differently over reports of the killing of dozens of “Emo” teenagers in the country. 

Recently, activists rang the alarm over the killing of dozens of teenagers by religious police for donning “Emo” hair styles. “Emo” is a popular culture by some teenagers in many parts of the world and comes from the English word “emotional.” “Emos” use their appearances and type of accessories as a way to express their emotions and to embody their will and their view of life in their behavior. Their way of dressing and use of certain accessories such as piercings is not acceptable by some conservative sections of the Iraqi society, some even brand them as a cult of “devil worshipers.” 

The death toll of the total number of “Emo” youth is not clear, but reports of their killings have created a big uproar in Iraq. Hana al-Bayaty of Brussels Tribunal, an NGO dealing with Iraqi issues, said the current figure ranges “between 90 and 100.”

Various reactions

“Emos” are “fools” and “experts must finish them,” the Iraq-based Al Sumaria News TV reported the firebrand conservative cleric Muqtada al-Sadr as saying on Saturday. 

But on the other end of the spectrum, one of the most revered Shiite sheikhs in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said on Thursday that targeting “Emo” youth is an act of “terrorism” and a “bad phenomenon for the peaceful co-existence project.”

Another revered Iraqi cleric said in a statement on Friday that the killing of “Emo” teenagers’ in the country was exaggerated and fabricated to serve those of certain anti-religion, government agendas.

The revered Ayatollah Mohammed al-Yakoubi was reported by Al Sumaria News as saying that it should be everyone’s religious duty to advise “Emo” youth. 

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Filed under News Iraq Emo Violence Murder Killing Teenagers

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Shootings in Tulsa Arizona leaves 3 dead, 2 wounded - victims were all black

Tulsa’s police chief said that he’s never seen the type of crime that happened Friday when three people were killed, and two others wounded in a series of shootings. The victims were all black, and federal authorities are investigating. (April 7)

Filed under Breaking news Youtube Tulsa Arizona Murder Killing

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An Executioner for Syria’s Rebels Tells His Story

By Ulrike Putz

Human Rights Watch has condemned abuses committed by Syrian rebels in their stronghold of Homs. But one member of a rebel “burial brigade” who has executed four men by slitting their throats defended his work in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE. “If we don’t do it, nobody will hold these perpetrators to account,” he said.


Hussein can barely remember the first time he executed someone. It was probably in a cemetery in the evening, or at night; he can’t recall exactly. It was definitely mid-October of last year, and the man was Shiite, for sure. He had confessed to killing women — decent women, whose husbands and sons had protested against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. So the rebels had decided that the man, a soldier in the Syrian army, deserved to die, too.

Hussein didn’t care if the man had been beaten into a confession, or that he was terrified of death and had begun to stammer prayers. It was his tough luck that the rebels had caught him. Hussein took out his army knife and sliced the kneeling man’s neck. His comrades from the so-called “burial brigade” quickly interred the blood-stained corpse in the sand of the graveyard west of the Baba Amr area of the rebel stronghold of Homs. At the time, the neighborhood was in the hands of the insurgents.

That first execution was a rite of passage for Hussein. He now became a member of the Homs burial brigade. The men, of which there are only a handful, kill in the name of the Syrian revolution. They leave torture to others; that’s what the so-called interrogation brigade is for. “They do the ugly work,” says Hussein, who is currently being treated in a hospital in the Lebanese city of Tripoli. He was injured when a piece of shrapnel became lodged in his back during the army’s ground invasion of Baba Amr in early March.

He is recovering in relatively safe Lebanon until he can return to Syria and “get back to work.” It’s a job he considers relatively clean. “Most men can torture, but they’re not able to kill from close range,” he explains. “I don’t know why, but it doesn’t bother me. That’s why they gave me the job of executioner. It’s something for a madman like me.”

Before he joined the Farouk Brigade, as the Baba Amr militia is known, last August, the 24-year-old had worked as a salesman. “I can sell everything, from porcelain to yogurt,” he says.

How the Rebels Lost Their Innocence

The bloody uprising against the Assad regime has now lasted for a year. And Hussein’s story illustrates that, in this time, the rebels have also lost their innocence.

There are probably many reasons for that development. Hussein can rattle off several of them. “There are no longer any laws in Syria,” he says. “Soldiers or thugs hired by the regime kill men, maim children and rape our women. If we don’t do it, nobody will hold these perpetrators to account.”

Another reason, he explains, is the desire for vengeance. “I have been arrested twice. I was tortured for 72 hours. They hung me by the hands, until the joints in my shoulders cracked. They burnt me with hot irons. Of course I want revenge.”

His family, too, has suffered. He explains that he lost three uncles, all murdered by the regime. “One of them died with his five children,” he says. “Their murderers deserve no mercy.”

Most chillingly, Hussein believes that violence is simply in the nature of his society. “Children in France grow up with French, and learn to speak it perfectly,” he says. “We Syrians were brought up with the language of violence. We don’t speak anything else.”

But in spite of all the rebels’ justification for their brand of self-administered justice, Hussein’s actions fall under what the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch on Tuesday condemned as “serious human rights abuses” on the part of the Syrian rebels. In the corridors of the hospital in Tripoli, Hussein and his fellow injured comrades speak openly about the fact that they, just like the regime’s troops, torture and kill. They find the criticism from the human rights activists unfair: “We rebels are trying to defend the people. We’re fighting against slaughterers. When we catch them, we must strike hard,” says one fighter, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Rami.

Alternative Justice System

Over the course of the last year, Homs had developed into the unofficial capital of the revolution. Until a few weeks ago, the rebels controlled whole neighborhoods of the city, especially the district of Baba Amr. But that area was overrun by government troops in early March. The fight between rebels and government forces has now shifted to the neighboring district of Khalidiya.

According to Abu Rami and Hussein, the alternative justice system that the rebels set up in Homs last fall remains intact. “When we catch regime supporters, they are brought before a court martial,” they say. The commander of the rebels in Homs, Abu Mohammed, presides over the court. He is assisted by Abu Hussein, the head of the coordinating committee. “Sometimes even more men act as a jury,” says Hussein. The interrogation brigade reports on the confessions of the accused. Often the suspects even had videos on their cell phones that showed atrocities being perpetrated against insurgents, the men say. “In that situation, their guilt is established quickly.” In the event of a conviction, the prisoners are then handed over to Hussein’s burial brigade, which takes them to gardens or to the cemetery. And then Hussein comes along with his knife.

So far, Hussein has cut the throats of four men. Among the group of executioners in Homs, he is the least experienced — something that he almost seems apologetic about. “I was wounded four times in the last seven months,” he says. “I was out of action for a long time.” On top of that, he also has other commitments. “I operate our heavy machine gun, a Russian BKC. Naturally I have killed a lot more men with that. But only four with the blade.” That will change soon, he says. “I hope I will be released from the hospital next week and can return to Homs. Then those dogs will be in for it.”

'Sometimes We Acquit People'

The rebels in Homs began carrying out regular executions in August of last year, shortly after the conflict in the country began to escalate, says Hussein’s comrade Abu Rami. In his Adidas tracksuit, he looks like any other convalescent in the hospital. But Abu Rami is a senior member of the Homs militia. The other Syrians in the ward greet him respectfully and pay close attention to his words.

"Since last summer, we have executed slightly fewer than 150 men, which represents about 20 percent of our prisoners," says Abu Rami. Those prisoners who are not convicted and sentenced to death are exchanged for rebel prisoners or detained protesters, he says. But the executioners of Homs have been busier with traitors within their own ranks than with prisoners of war. "If we catch a Sunni spying, or if a citizen betrays the revolution, we make it quick," says the fighter. According to Abu Rami, Hussein’s burial brigade has put between 200 and 250 traitors to death since the beginning of the uprising.

He dismisses any doubts about whether these people were really all guilty and whether they received a fair trial. “We make great efforts to investigate thoroughly,” Abu Rami says. “Sometimes we acquit people, too.”

Apart from anything else, it is simply the nature of every revolution to be bloody, Abu Rami explains. “Syria is not a country for the sensitive.”

Filed under News Syria Execution Human Rights Throat cut Killing War Kill Death

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