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.

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