Britain is up to its neck in US dirty wars and death squads

By Seumas Milne (The Guardian)

Originally published 4 December 2013

The war on terror is now an endless campaign of drone and undercover killings that threatens a more dangerous world

A still from Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars, which shows how 'killings on the ground by covert US special forces' are escalating. Photograph: Allstar/HBO/Sportsphoto Ltd
A still from Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars, which shows how ‘killings on the ground by covert US special forces’ are escalating. Photograph: Allstar/HBO/Sportsphoto Ltd

You might have thought the war on terror was finally being wound down, 12 years after the US launched it with such disastrous results. President Obama certainly gave that impression earlier this year when he declared that “this war, like all wars, must end”.

In fact, the Nobel peace prize winner was merely redefining it. There would be no more “boundless global war on terror”, he promised. By which he meant land wars and occupations are out for now, even if the US is still negotiating for troops to remain in Afghanistan after the end of next year.

But the war on terror is mutating, growing and spreading. Drone attacks, which have escalated under Obama from Pakistan to north Africa, are central to this new phase. And as Dirty Wars – the powerful new film by the American journalist Jeremy Scahill – makes clear, so are killings on the ground by covert US special forces, proxy warlords and mercenaries in multiple countries.

Scahill’s film noir-style investigation starts with the massacre of a police commander’s family by a US Joint Special Operations Command (Jsoc) secret unit in Gardez, Afghanistan (initially claimed by the US military to have been honour killings). It then moves through a murderous cruise missile attack in Majala, Yemen, that killed 46 civilians, including 21 children; the drone assassination of the radical US cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son; and the outsourced kidnappings and murders carried out by local warlords on behalf of Jsoc and the CIA in Somalia.

What emerges is both the scale of covert killings by US special forces – running 20 raids a night at one point in Afghanistan – and the unmistakable fact that these units are operating as death squads, whose bloodletting is dressed up as “targeted killings” of terrorists and insurgents for the benefit of a grateful nation back home.

When a Yemeni journalist, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, demonstrated just how targeted these killings can actually be in practice – by exposing the US slaughter at Majala – he was framed and jailed in Yemen as an al-Qaida collaborator, and his release was initially blocked by the personal intervention of Obama.

Of course, the US and its friends have carried out covert assassinations and sponsored death squads for many years. But assassination and undercover killings, once criticised by the US as an unfortunate Israeli habit, are now a central part of American strategy – and the battlefield has gone global. The number of countries in which the US Special Operations Command is operating has risen from 40 to 120.

And Britain is with them every step of the way. British officials like to present their own drone operations in Afghanistan as a moral cut above those of the CIA and Jsoc. In real life, the collaboration could hardly be closer. This week Noor Khan, whose father was one of more than 40 killed in a US drone attack in Pakistan, has been at the appeal court in London demanding the British government reveal the extent of GCHQ support for such war crimes.

The government is hiding behind “national security” and the special relationship. But there can be no doubt that GCHQ intelligence is used for drone attacks – just as British undercover units have been operating hand in glove with US special forces in Somalia, Mali, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Theresa May has been stripping British Muslims suspected of fighting for al-Shabaab in Somalia of their citizenship, just in time for them to be killed or kidnapped by US special forces, evidence has emerged that British special forces themselves killed a British recruit, Tufail Ahmed, there last year.

Britain has plenty of experience of its own dirty wars, of course. BBC’s Panorama programme last month broadcast interviews with members of a former undercover army unit in Northern Ireland (several of whose officers had taken part in colonial campaigns) that carried out a string of drive-by shootings of unarmed civilians in Belfast in the 1970s. “We were there to act like a terror group,” one veteran explained. Just like the US special forces in Gardez, they mounted regular cover-ups and struggled to accept the people they killed had not been “terrorists”.

The assumption that they were taking out the bad guys, armed or unarmed, clearly trumped the laws of war. The same goes for the war on terror on a far bigger scale. Drone strikes are presented as clean, surgical attacks. In reality, not only does the complete absence of risk to the attacking forces lower the threshold for their use. But their targets depend on intelligence that is routinely demonstrated to be hopelessly wrong.

In many cases, far from targeting named individuals, they are “signature strikes” against, say, all military-age males in a particular area or based on a “disposition matrix” of metadata, signed off by Obama at his White House “kill list” meetings every Tuesday. Which is why up to 951 civilians are estimated to have been killed in drone attacks in Pakistan alone, and just 2% of casualties are “high value” targets.

At best, drone and special forces killings are extrajudicial summary executions. More clearly, they are a wanton and criminal killing spree. The advantage to the US government is that it can continue to demonstrate global authority and impunity without boots on the ground and loss of US life. But that is a reflection of US weakness in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq: dirty wars cause human misery but give limited strategic leverage.

They also create precedents. If the US and its friends arrogate to themselves the right to launch armed attacks around the world at will, other states now acquiring drone capabilities may well follow suit. Most absurdly, what is justified in the name of fighting terrorism has spread terror across the Arab and Muslim world and provided a cause for the very attacks its sponsors are supposed to be defending us against at home.

The US-led dirty wars are a recipe for exactly the endless conflict Obama has promised to halt. They are laying the ground for a far more dangerous global order. The politicians and media who plead national security to protect these campaigns from exposure are themselves a threat to our security. Their secrecy and diminished footprint make them harder than conventional wars to oppose and hold to account – though the backlash in countries bearing the brunt is bound to grow. But their victims cannot be left to bring them to an end alone.


Milne engages Peter Lee of Portsmouth University in this five-minute Guardian debate video on the use of armed drones:

Twitter: @seumasmilne

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