The Chenagai Madrassa Incident

Tuesday 23 July 2013

On 30 October 2006, an Islamic school in Pakistan was targeted in a missile strike that killed up to 81 people, most of whom were reportedly children, some as young as seven.

At the time of the strike, which took place in the town of Chenagai in the tribal area of Bajaur, Pakistan's military claimed responsibility, saying it had targeted the school — known as a madrassa — because it was being used as a terrorist training facility. However, an anonymous former Pakistan official, described as an ex-"key aide" to then-President Pervez Musharraf, later reportedly claimed that the attack had been carried out by a US drone, according to the Sunday Times. The US denied any role, saying it was "completely done by the Pakistani military."

Now, a newly published report has raised fresh questions about exactly who was behind this horrific incident. A leaked Pakistan government document, published by London's Bureau of Investigative Journalism on Monday, lists the Bajaur case among a series of US Predator drone strikes and NATO-backed attacks in Pakistan between 2006 and 2009. The Bureau says that the document shows the attack was the result of "a single drone strike," though the document does not specify whether a drone or other aircraft was involved.

So who carried out this controversial attack?

At the time of the strike, Pakistan's army spokesman said that it had been carried out by Pakistan military helicopter gunships that fired four or five missiles into the madrassa. One local villager told the BBC he had "heard helicopters flying in and then heard bombs." An NBC news correspondent, who was reportedly about a mile away from the madrassa at the time of the incident, said that it "was dark and very early in the morning when the blast occurred. And then I heard helicopters over the village of Chenagai where the madrassa school is located."

Analysts speculated that Pakistan's military may have not had the skills required to conduct the helicopter strike, because it was apparently conducted at 5am while it was still dark and had the hallmarks of an elite operation. Hours after the attack, Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal suggested that a US special operations team may have been behind it. "Look for signs of Task Force 145 having carried out this raid," Roggio wrote, "with unmanned Predators firing Hellfire missiles, and possibly C-130 and helicopters following up."

Others had an alternative theory. On October 31, 2006, Syed Saleem Shahzad at the Asia Times wrote:

Recently, Islamabad agreed with NATO that it could conduct operations in Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan... Significantly, Pakistan and Taliban authorities struck a peace deal in Bajour only two days ago and were scheduled to sign a document to that effect on Monday. This lends credence to the possibility that it was NATO and not Pakistani forces that made the raid.

Among those who died in the attack was the leader of the madrassa, a reportedly pro-Taliban radical cleric named Maulana Liaqat. Pakistan officials also claimed that Ayman al-Zawahiri — who was then Osama bin Laden's deputy — had used the madrassa to train suicide bombers. That would certainly have given both US and NATO forces a motive to want to target the building. And Pakistan has covered up for US drone strikes in the past.

But still, there is still no concrete information that has been presented confirming beyond doubt that a US drone or any other US or NATO military aircraft was involved.

Indeed, secret US diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks in 2010, four years after the strike, did not hint at any US or NATO role. US officials writing in classified cables dated from 2006 described the incident alternately as a "Pakistan military strike against a madrassa/militant training camp" and a "Pak-Mil attack on an extremist madrassa."

Even with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's publication of the leaked Pakistani document attributing the attack to NATO forces or a US drone, in my view, the facts remain murky and contentious. And that is perhaps one of the most shocking elements of this story — that seven years on there is still such a lack of clarity about the circumstances of this grave incident, involving the reported deaths of dozens of innocent children.

Without an answer to such a simple question — who pulled the trigger? — there can be no accountability, no closure, no recourse for justice for the families of those who lost a child on that day in Chenagai. It is an incident that seems to symbolise the bloody, faceless brutality of the ruthless covert warfare that has become a staple feature of the so-called War on Terror over the past decade, especially in the tribal regions of Pakistan. But just because there may be dangerous, high-level terror targets operating in these places, military forces, wherever they are from, should not get a pass to kill and maim with impunity. For that reason alone, the madrassa strike surely requires serious further scrutiny — perhaps from UN special rapporteur Ben Emmerson, who is currently investigating the issue of civilian drone deaths.

How UK Surveillance is on the Rise

Saturday 20 July 2013

Earlier this week, the UK's official communications interception commissioner published his annual report. The commissioner releases statistics every year that offer an insight into the levels of surveillance being conducted by UK authorities, including police, security and intelligence agencies.

The latest report provides more evidence that the trend in recent years has been towards a general increase in surveillance of communications. In 2012, the report shows, there were a record 570,135 authorisations for police and other agencies to obtain so-called "communications data." This can include subscriber information about suspects' phone and email accounts, as well as call and email records showing who a suspect is phoning/emailing and when. It does not include the actual content of the communication.

Notably, the 570,135 figure is a 15 percent increase on the figure for 2011 and amounts to about an average 1,562 communications data authorisations every day. In addition, the commissioner noted in his report that "979 communications data errors" were made by authorities in cases involving the wrongful collection of data from innocent individuals. The botched surveillance had serious ramifications, with six members of the public "wrongly detained / accused of crimes" as a consequence.

Here's a quick graph I've knocked up showing how, with the exception of a unusual drop in authorisations in 2011, UK authorities have been increasingly obtaining communications data as part of investigations in recent years:

The same trend is reflected in the latest statistics on the interception of communications. Interception is when the authorities obtain a warrant, signed off by the secretary of state, enabling them to secretly eavesdrop on phone calls or read emails and texts. There were 3,372 interception warrants authorised in 2012, which represents a 16 percent increase on the figure for 2011. It is crucial to note that a single interception warrant can encompass large groups of individuals. It is not known exactly how many people were swept up in the 3,372 warrants because these figures are, unfortunately, not published.

Here's a graph that illustrates the steady increase in interceptions since 2008:

While surveillance is on the rise, as the above graphs show, the UK government has been arguing that it does not have enough digital spying capabilities and needs more surveillance powers.

The government's case may have recently been damaged, however, by leaked secret documents, published by the Guardian in June, that revealed how UK spy agency GCHQ was tapping into internet cables and reportedly monitoring some 600 million "telephone events" every day. The exposed extent of GCHQ's spying offered a rare and startling insight into the sweeping scope of surveillance already being conducted by the UK government, and seemed to affirm what the UN's special rapporteur on free expression, Frank La Rue, warned about in an unprecedented report published just weeks before the leaks.

"Technological advancements," La Rue wrote, "mean that the state’s effectiveness in conducting surveillance is no longer limited by scale or duration."

Rights Groups on Snowden

Friday 12 July 2013

Edward Snowden is the NSA whistleblower whose document leaks have in recent weeks cracked open the US and UK governments' secret surveillance programs to an unprecedented level of public scrutiny. The former Hawaii-based NSA contractor, 30, is currently holed up in Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow, Russia, as he attempts to seek asylum in a number of countries — fearing persecution if he returns to the United States.

But Snowden's options are limited. The US government has revoked his passport while exerting extraordinary pressure on countries across the world in order to prevent the whistleblower from gaining asylum. This has raised questions about the US government's commitment to international law and has led a number of human rights groups to weigh in with criticism of US officials' actions. Today, Snowden is said to have set up a meeting with groups including Amnesty International in order to discuss his next steps.

Below, I've compiled a quick list for my own reference of the various rights groups that have issued a statement on the Snowden case so far. There may be others that I've missed. If so, add a comment at the bottom or send me a link via Twitter and I'll update this post.

American Civil Liberties Union

"In addition to infringing on Mr. Snowden's right to asylum, [the US government's] actions also create the risk of providing cover for other countries to crack down on whistleblowers and deny asylum to individuals who have exposed illegal activity or human rights violations." (Statement, 11 July.)

Amnesty International

"The US authorities’ relentless campaign to hunt down and block whistleblower Edward Snowden’s attempts to seek asylum is deplorable and amounts to a gross violation of his human rights." (Statement, 2 July.)

Article 19

“The manhunt for Edward Snowden must be stopped. More energy is being spent on arresting one whistleblower that exposed human rights violations than has been spent on finding and arresting perpetrators of war crimes or crimes against humanity." (Statement, 5 July.)

Government Accountability Project (US)

"Snowden disclosed information about a secret program that he reasonably believed to be illegal. Consequently, he meets the legal definition of a whistleblower, despite statements to the contrary made by numerous government officials and security pundits." (Statement, 14 June.)

Human Rights Watch

"[The US government] should not apply a double standard by working against other governments that might extend asylum in this case." (Statement, 3 July.)

“Edward Snowden has a serious asylum claim that should be considered fairly by Russia or any other country where he may apply. He should be allowed at least to make that claim and have it heard... Washington’s actions appear to be aimed at preventing Snowden from gaining an opportunity to claim refuge, in violation of his right to seek asylum under international law.” (Statement, 12 July.)

Index on Censorship

"The mass surveillance of citizens’ private communications is unacceptable – it both invades privacy and threatens freedom of expression. The US government cannot use the excuse of national security to justify either surveillance on this scale or the extradition of Snowden for revealing it." (Statement, 24 June.)

Norwegian PEN

"The threat of criminal prosecution against whistleblower Edward Snowden on the charge of espionage is an allegation against an individual who has used his right to free speech in order to uncover serious abuse, not worthy of a country that abides by the rule of law. By going out with this information, Edward Snowden has questioned the democratic openness of US counter-terrorism strategy. The practice uncovered in the United States is in clear conflict with the principles of a democratic constitutional state." (Statement, 3 July.)

Reporters Without Borders

"Now that Edward Snowden, the young American who revealed the global monitoring system known as Prism, has requested asylum from 20 countries, the EU nations should extend a welcome, under whatever law or status seems most appropriate... [European Union] countries owe Snowden a debt of gratitude for his revelations, which were clearly in the public interest... American leaders should realize the glaring contradiction between their soaring odes to freedom and the realities of official actions, which damage the image of their country." (Statement, 3 July.)