Photographs Show Ground Zero of the Drone War
By Spencer Ackerman
November 08, 2012 "Wired"
-- December 12, 2011 - The epicenter of
global terrorism, and the CIA's highly classified drone war
against extremist groups, is a black hole on the map -- a
region of Pakistan off limits to outsiders, and especially
Westerners. Itís an
area so dangerous that even the
Pakistani military avoids it. The CIA may have launched
70 drone strikes in tribal Pakistan in 2011 alone. But
Americans, like the rest of the world, have no idea what the
area looks like, or who lives there.
resident of North Waziristan wants to expose the conflict.
Noor Behram has spent years photographing the aftermath of
drone strikes, often at personal risk. Working with
Islamabad lawyer Shahzad Akbar and London-based human rights
activist Clive Stafford Smith, who are helping get his
photos to the outside world, Behram provided Danger Room
with dozens of his images, none of which have ever been
published in the United States.
follows is a sample of some of the most arresting photos. Be
advised: Many of these pictures are disturbing. Some
of them show dead children.
be aware that our sources came to us with an agenda:
discrediting the drone war. "I want to show taxpayers in the
Western world what their tax money is doing to people in
another part of the world: killing civilians, innocent
victims, children," Behram says. Stafford Smith is
threatening the U.S. embassy in Pakistan with a lawsuit over
its complicity in
civilian deaths from drone strikes. And anonymous U.S.
officials have claimed that Akbar, whose clients are suing
the CIA for wrongful deaths in the drone war,
is acting at the behest of Pakistani intelligence --
something he denies.
Nevertheless, after careful consideration, we chose to
publish some of these images because of the inherent
journalistic value in depicting a largely unseen
posting Behram's photos we took a number of measures to
confirm as best we could what was being shown. We verified
Behramís bona fides with other news organizations.
We sifted through the images, tossing out any pictures that
couldnít correlate with previously reported drone attacks.
Then we grilled Behram in a series of lengthy Skype
interviews from Pakistan, translated by Akbar, about the
circumstances surrounding each of the images.
we weren't at the events depicted. We don't know for sure if
the destruction and casualties shown in the photos were
caused by CIA drones or Pakistani militants. Even Behram,
who drives at great personal risk to the scenes of the
strikes, has little choice but to rely on the accounts of
alleged eyewitnesses to learn what happened.
know for sure that these are rare photos from a war zone
most Americans never see. "In North Waziristan, the bar for
western journalists is very high because of the Taliban
presence," says Peter Bergen, al-Qaida expert and author of
The Longest War.
CIA has shown no inclination to declassify its
secret war. But transparency may come a different way.
Akbar and Stafford Smith have recently begun giving cameras
to North Waziristanis, so they can document the drone war
themselves. Behram wants to publish a book of his hundreds
of photographs. A black hole might soon become a floodlight.
Khel, Oct. 13, 2010
arrived in Datta Khel, a district not far from Mirin Shah --
North Waziristanís main city -- after the funerals for the
this strike. He was told that six people died, but
didnít see the corpses. One of the dead was said to be a man
in his thirties who was supposed to soon be married, the
cousin of the teenager in the maroon shirt shown here.
teenager helped with the cleanup and rescue effort at the
scene of his cousin's death. Along with some other local
children, when he saw Behram taking photos, he ran over to
Behram to express how angry he was. He gathered the children
and they showed Behram fragments of the missile they
recovered. Three U.S. ordnance experts examined Behrams'
photos of these pieces, are concluded that they were
Hellfires -- the missiles fired by U.S. drones and
teenager in the maroon shirt and his friend in the black,
about the same age, were an emotional mixture of anger,
grief and exhaustion. "They were pissed because he's one of
these guys' cousin," Behram recalls, "but at the same time
they were overworked in the rescue, so they were not saying
Shah, Nov. 28, 2008
drone strike, reportedly firing two missiles, slammed into
the home of Syeda Khan, a vegetable vendor who lived in a
on the outskirts of Mirin Shah. The nighttime strike
destroyed his guestroom, located in the front foyer of his
house, but left the structure standing. A curfew kept Behram
from reaching Khan's house until the next morning. Khan's
relatives, about a dozen of whom live with him, weren't
thrilled when Behram took out his camera.
were not happy to have their pictures taken," he remembers.
Even though drone strikes were relatively rare back then,
Khan's relatives, and the bystanders gathering around,
thought having their story documented just meant getting
labeled terrorists or terrorist sympathizers by a hysterical
press. They opted not to tell him much. "It's the same case
as with so-called CIA spies on the ground," Behram says.
"For the locals, there's no point in getting labeled
Noor Behram's Home in North Waziristan, Dec. 12, 2010
Sometimes Behram doesn't have to travel anywhere to see the
drone war. He lives on its battleground. All he has to do is
According to Behram, who has lived in North Waziristan all
his life, drones are in the skies above the region more or
less constantly. Around this time last year, he was sitting
around his house with his children when he saw a familiar
silhouette in the air through his window. "I took my camera
out and took a picture," he says. "I see them a lot in the
sky above where I live."
of course, raises the disturbing possibility that
misinformation could one day lead the CIA to do more
than buzz by his home. There are major risks in reporting on
the drones in the aftermath of a strike, as well. "I feel
threatened when I go to a site because... there might be a
second attack," he says. "A rescue operation could cause a
second attack, because of the assumption that it's the
Taliban helping the Taliban."
Darpa Khel, Aug. 21, 2009
summer of 2009, the drone war had escalated dramatically,
with then-CIA director Leon Panetta calling it the "only
game in town" for bottling up terrorists in tribal
Pakistan. Before dawn one August morning, residents of Dande
Darpa Khel, two kilometers north of Mirin Shah, learned what
that would mean for them.
massive drone strike took out three houses and partially
destroyed another three. "Of all the aftermaths, this was
the worst," says Behram, who arrived in the area by sunrise.
"There was big rubble, [much] destruction, and women and
children killed." He remembers smelling the "stench" of
burned bodies and feeling the heat from fires that had been
burning for hours.
The New York Times,
writing about the strike, described Dande Darpa Khel as a
stronghold of the brutal insurgent Jalaleddin Haqqani.
But it wasn't Haqqani who cleared the wreckage. This man,
for instance -- Behram doesn't know his name -- was
described by others as a local who came to help his
neighbors. He signaled to Behram that he had exhumed a
fragment of one of the missiles used in the strike. Behram
asked him to pose with it.
Darpa Khel, Aug. 21, 2009
stench that Behram smelled when he arrived at Dande Darpa
Khel came from the charred bodies of Bismullah Khan and his
wife. Near the bombed-out remains of their house, Behram
found the Khans' three living children.
children -- the younger two girls on the left, their older
brother on the right -- were in shock, and clutched the
their neighbor's house as if the rubble could comfort
them. "These kids had no idea where their parents were. They
didn't know their parents were killed," Behram says. Also
killed in the blast: their brother, Syed Wali Shah, age 7.
later heard that the children were taken in by their uncle.
"There's no government here, no social network or security,"
he explains. "People have to look after each other."
Darpa Khel, Aug. 21, 2009
time Behram reached Bismullah Khan's mud house, partially
destroyed in the strike, Khan's youngest son, Syed Wali
Shah, had already died. Behram watched as the boy's body was
laid out on a prayer rug, a "very small" one, in preparation
for his funeral.
body was whole," Behram recalls. "He was found dead." The
villagers wrapped a bandage around the boy's head, even
though they had no chance to save his life.
doesn't know who the target of
the Dande Darpa Khel attack was. ("You'd have to ask the
CIA that," he says.) But he observed people's anger as they
prepared bodies for burial and cleared the wreckage. "The
people were extremely angry. They were talking and shouting
against the U.S. for the attack," Behram says.
some cases, Behram is able to take more than pictures.
Survivors of drone strikes give him pieces of the AGM-114
Hellfire missiles that the drones fire. This fall, his
lawyer, Shahzad Akbar and human-rights activist ally Clive
Stafford Smith displayed Shahzad's photography at a Lahore
art festival with the unusual name
Bugsplat Week. They decided to include pieces of the
says it was a "hassle" to get the missile parts out of North
Waziristan, as it would have been difficult to explain to a
soldier or policeman what they were doing with missile
fragments in their car. "We transported about seven pieces
separately to a city in Punjab and then from there I drove
these to Islamabad," Akbar explains.
U.S. ordnance experts verified for Danger Room that these
are Hellfire missile fragments.
basically a second project we started," Akbar says. "All the
people we know whose houses are attacked, we wanted to have
the missile pieces, so we can trace the corporations
manufacturing missile parts."
Akbar and Stafford
Smith got British photographer Ed Clark to photograph the
missile parts for Bugsplat Week.
Tehsil Datta Khel, Oct. 15, 2009
Sometimes Behram arrives at the scene of an apparent drone
attack only to find a shellshocked community that resents
the presence of a camera-wielding journalist. That happened
at Tehsil Datta Khel, a village about 50 kilometers west of
Mirin Shah. After receiving a phone call on his landline
alerting him to
the strike -- along with walkie-talkies, landlines are a
primary, albeit unreliable, mode of communication in north
Waziristan -- Behram found few people on the scene the day
after the attack willing to talk to him.
"People there were very angry, criticizing the role of the
media," he says. He opted to take a picture of the
destruction of a house -- his camera captured a pile of mud,
stone, brick, wood and rebar -- before deciding to leave the
scene in order to defuse hostility.
of the reporting on the drones in the area isn't actually
done in the area. And much of it relies on official
statements -- which can be lax with the truth -- for
describing what happened and who was killed. That breeds
contempt among the locals. "A lot of the media don't go on
the site of the attack," he says. "If more went to the
sites, it'd be more useful."
Tehsil Datta Khel, Dec. 18, 2009
mess of straw, wood and a blue crossbeam used to be
someone's roof. The blue beam is meant to be bear the load
of bricks used to make the ceiling more substantial. "The
person didn't have so much money," Behram explains.
arrived on the scene of a
strike eight hours later. Funerals had already been
performed for the victims. Locals told him three people had
died -- "the media reported many more," he says -- but he
did not see their bodies directly.
Usually, Behram says, locals will open up about what they
saw after an attack if a journalist helps with the cleanup.
Not this time. When he tried to snap a portrait of a rescue
worker, he was told, "What's the point? It's all going to be
wrong anyway." Behram decided to limit his photography to
the wreckage of the house.
Khel, Oct. 28, 2010
man in the brown bending down is Zar Gull, a vendor in the
district of Datta Khel near Mirin Shah. The brick rubble he
stands amongst used to be his home. He's searching for the
remains of his possessions.
locals told Behram that the
strike killed four people, all of whom were Gull's
cousins. They all lived together in one large room.
time Behram arrived, the locals had buried the dead. They
gathered when they saw Behram begin to take photographs of
Gull. They weren't in much of a mood to talk, Behram
Datta Khel, Oct.
Pakistan's Express Tribune reported a drone
suspected militant hideouts" in Datta Khel near Mirin
Shah. Behram never saw the scene. He headed instead to a
Mirin Shah hospital, where he heard residents had
frantically driven one of the strike's victims: Naeemullah,
a boy of about 10 or 11.
Naeemullah was said to be injured in the strike after a
missile struck the house next door. Shrapnel and debris
travelled into Naeemullah's house, wounding him in his
"various parts of his body," Behram says. "You can't see his
back, but his back was wounded by missile pieces and burns."
hour after Behram took this picture, Naeemullah died of his
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