42% of Identified US Drone Strike Victims in Pakistan Confirmed to Be Militants, Report Says

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Site of a US drone strike in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan
The site of a US drone strike in Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan.
Source: Isambard Wilkinson, “US Drone Strike Kills Wife of Pakistani Taliban Leader Baitullah Mehsud,” telegraph.co.uk, Aug. 5, 2009

A new report found that 42% of the identified people killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan were militants, including the 12% confirmed to be members of al Qaeda. 46% were identified as civilians, while the remaining 12% were of unknown status.

The Oct. 16, 2014 findings were released by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, an independent nonprofit based at City University London, UK, as part of a project called Naming the Dead. The project’s objective is to identify the victims of US drone strikes in Pakistan. Of the 2,379 people killed since the first strike in Pakistan in June 2004, 704 have been identified so far (29.6%). 295 of those were militants, 84 have been identified as belonging to al Qaeda, 322 were believed to be civilians, and 87 were unable to be determined as civilian or militant. The report defines militants as “members of some kind of armed group,” although it also states that 30% of the militants “are not even linked to a specific group.”

Only two of the named victims were female. One of the report’s researchers, Jack Serle, surmised that the gender discrepancy may be partly due to segregation between males and females in parts of Pakistan, with women less likely to be “exposed or out in the fields.”

Serle stated in the report that “the CIA itself does not seem to know the affiliation of everyone they kill.” Citing leaked CIA documents logging drone strike victims, “hundreds of those killed” were labeled “as Afghan or Pakistani fighters, or as ‘unknown.'” In Serle’s view, the report highlights “a fundamental lack of transparency about what’s being done in America,” and he said “there are a huge number of people we know nothing about and will never know anything about” amongst the recorded victims.

Mustafa Qadri, Pakistan researcher for Amnesty International, said the findings “demonstrate the continuing complete lack of transparency surrounding US drone operations.”

When asked for a response, US National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden stated that “the death of innocent civilians is something that the US Government seeks to avoid if at all possible. In those rare instances in which it appears non-combatants may have been killed or injured, after-action reviews have been conducted to determine why, and to ensure that we are taking the most effective steps to minimize such risk to non-combatants in the future.”

In a separate finding based on an analysis of “credible media reports,” the Bureau has estimated that “at least 400 civilians” have been killed by drones in Pakistan. “Some were unlucky enough to be nearby when militants were attacked,” the Bureau stated. “Others were killed alongside their husbands or fathers, who were believed to be militants. Still others were mistaken for terrorists by drone operators sitting thousands of miles away.”

US drones have also killed several high-ranking militant operatives, including al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Abu Yahya al Libi, and Pakistan Taliban commander, Baitullah Mehsud. CIA Director John Brennan has touted the drone program for its “surgical precision – the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an al Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.” Secretary of State John Kerry stated in 2013 that “The only people we fire a drone at are confirmed terrorist targets at the highest level,” he said. “We don’t just fire a drone at somebody and think they’re a terrorist.”


Bureau of Investigative Journalism, “Naming the Dead: About,” thebureauinvestigates.com (accessed Oct. 24, 2014)

Abigail Fielding-Smith, “When Only 4 Per Cent of Those Killed by US Drone Strikes Are Named Members of al-Qaeda, It’s Hard to Trust American Foreign Policy,” independent.co.uk, Oct. 22, 2014

Madeline Grant, “Only 12% of People Killed in US Drone Strikes in Pakistan Identified as Militants, Says Report,” newsweek.com, Oct. 17, 2014

Jack Serle, “Only 4% of Drone Victims in Pakistan Named as al Qaeda Members,” thebureauinvestigates.com, Oct. 16, 2014

Jack Serle, “IamA Journalist Whose Latest Investigation Found That Only 4% of Those Named as Killed by Drones in Pakistan Were Members of al Qaeda. AMA,” reddit.com, Oct. 24, 2014

Thomas Wyke, “Al-Qaida Militants Make Up Just 4% of US Drone Victims in Pakistan,” ibtimes.co.uk, Oct. 17, 2014