Above photo: A ground crew guides a U.S. Air Force MQ-1B Predator drone at an airbase in the Persian Gulf region on January 7, 2016. By John Moore, Getty Images.
A year after a German court issued a ruling that would have dramatically restricted U.S. drone operations in accordance with international law, no substantive changes have taken place, as the lawsuit that led to the March 2019 ruling is still stuck in the appeals process.
The lawsuit, filed by Yemeni engineer Faisal bin Ali Jaber over the killing of two family members, alleges that the German government intentionally ignored U.S. forces’ use of Ramstein Air Base, near Mannheim, as a vital data transfer point in drone assassinations. Those drone operations often kill civilians in areas where the United States has not declared war — a category of attack that has been interpreted as being against international law.
According to the human rights organization Reprieve, which also took part in the suit, the two people killed in the 2012 Yemen drone strike were Jaber’s brother-in-law, Salem, and his nephew, Waleed. The family had gathered for a wedding celebration.
Salem, an imam who preached against the violence of al-Qaeda, took Waleed to meet with men who he was trying to dissuade from extremist ideology. U.S. missiles struck the meeting, killing everyone present.
Yemeni officials arranged to give the men’s relatives a bag containing $100,000 — allegedly from the United States — but no apology for the strike was ever issued, and no official investigation of the strike ever took place.
“My family received money from the U.S. government as an admission of their guilt for ‘mistakenly’ killing our relatives in a drone strike,” said Jaber, according to Reprieve. “But this is not justice. There are many other families in Yemen who have lost innocent relatives in U.S. drone strikes but do not receive hush money for speaking out.”
Taking the Military at Its Word
Under the NATO status of forces agreement, U.S. forces on bases in Germany must follow German laws. Since the German government is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, that means following international law regarding the killing of civilians.
The Münster ruling of March 2019, if allowed to stand, would restrict — but not end — the use of Ramstein as a transfer point for data related to U.S. drone operations. In those transfers of data, piloting and targeting instructions flow from the U.S. through undersea cables, then are transformed at Ramstein into radio signals that go to satellites, which then send the instructions on to the drones. Information is then sent from the drones back in the other direction as well. Without Ramstein’s role in the process, lag would be great enough that it would be impossible for the U.S. to continue most drone operations.
The Münster court ruled in March 2019 that while the German Federal Government did not have a duty to ensure suspension of all drone operations, “the plaintiffs can merely demand from [the German Federal Government] that it will assure itself, on the basis of the legal assessment by the Senate [of the Higher Administrative Court], that the general practice of US drone operations in the plaintiffs’ home region in Yemen (in so far as facilities in Germany are used) is in accordance with the applicable international law.”
That means making sure that civilians in Yemen are not unduly deprived of their right to life because of communications that go through Ramstein.
The German government, however, has had a credulous take on what the U.S. government says it is doing at the base.
According to the description of the status quo in the Münster ruling, “in response to several parliamentary queries, the German Federal Government declared [before the Münster ruling] that because of the long-standing and trusting cooperation with the USA, there is no reason to doubt the assurance of the USA that activities at US military facilities in Germany complied with the applicable law and that the USA committed itself to this in the stationing treaties entered into with Germany.”
In other words, despite clear evidence in the press that U.S. officials had a creative relationship with the truth when it came to whom they were killing — automatically calling all military-aged males in conflict zones who happened to get killed “militants” after the fact, for example, in a bit of Orwellian jujitsu — alongside evidence that Ramstein was a key part of an opaque global campaign of often relatively indiscriminate assassinations, the German government took U.S. officials at their word.
Truthout reached out to the U.S. State Department, U.S. Defense Department and German Foreign Ministry with questions about the drone data operations at Ramstein. None of them responded on the record.
Especially problematic have been “signature strikes,” in which a person whose full identity is not necessarily known is targeted due to a signature of behavior associated with enemy combatants — often because an algorithm analyzes call records or detects proximity between a phone and those of suspected extremists.
“It’s not like ‘ha, ha, there’s [John Doe], and I want to get him, so we followed him and this is his home address,” said Andrew Cockburn, a journalist and the author of Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins in an interview with Truthout. Instead, “a signature strike is … basically based on circumstantial evidence, someone who’s behaving like [John Doe], and he’s giving off the signature of a dangerous person.”
And some of the targeting criteria can have a bizarre feel to them. Do you urinate while standing or sitting? If you’re in a conflict zone, that may play a role in whether you are killed, according to Hugh Gusterson’s book, Drone: Remote Control Warfare. Are you loading fertilizer onto a truck? You might be a farmer — or a bomb maker. Are a few people doing jumping jacks together? It might be a terrorist training camp, or it might just be morning exercise.
Another practice that has killed civilians is the “double tap.”
“A double tap is when you fire a missile at a target — a vehicle, or a gathering of people you want to kill — and then you wait, and as rescuers come, as people crowd around, as inevitably happens, then you launch another one and get them too,” Cockburn told Truthout. “Anywhere where they’re using drones in this way, that seems to be commonly used.”
(This practice is not limited to drones. Indeed, it was used by helicopter pilots in a 2010 helicopter strike in Iraq famously covered by Wikileaks.)
Even when less controversial approaches are being used, however, things can easily go wrong. In 2002, three men in Afghanistan were killed by a drone strike because they were near a place where Osama bin Laden was thought to dwell, and one of them looked tall.
The sloppy reality of these practices — relying on guilt by association, dropping secondary explosives to kill rescuers and using incomplete information when choosing to kill — are often glossed over when media outlets parrot terms like “surgical strikes.” The lack of specificity in U.S. drone operations played a large role in the Münster court’s decision that “careful assessment – to the extent that this is possible in a given situation – must always be made to see whether a protected civilian person is involved,” and that such assessment was not taking place to the satisfaction of the court in Yemen.
Deniability in the Skies
According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone activity in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan, at least 1,020 people have been killed by drone strikes in Yemen since drone attacks began there in 2002. Many more have been killed in other ways, in a conflict that killed or displaced millions of people.
The United States has never officially declared war on Yemen; its actions there are in support of Saudi Arabia as it fights a proxy war against Yemen’s Houthi separatist movement, which is seen to be aligned with Iran. The UN has called for a cease of military operations by both sides in Yemen.
The drone strike that killed Jaber’s brother in law and nephew in Yemen came in 2012, which means that it was definitely a U.S. drone operator doing the killing — possibly from a seat at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, where protesters regularly block commuter traffic to try to stop remote-control killings, though it’s also possible that it came from a different location, as the Yemen assassinations are heavy on C.I.A. involvement and light on military involvement, according to Gusterson’s book. The instruction to launch the strike would have flowed from the U.S. through an undersea fiber optic cable, ending up at a transfer point on Ramstein Air Base, from which it would be conveyed via satellite to the drone.
It wouldn’t be so simple to find the culprit these days. In the years since 2012, armed drones have proliferated, with more than a dozen countries operating them, according to Drone Wars UK. (The Trump administration has also loosened already-loose restrictions on American drone use.)
Even the Houthis have used drones, though they halted drone attacks in late 2019.
That list of drone-armed countries also includes the Houthis’ enemy, Saudi Arabia, which has been building up a drone fleet with partial help from the German company Hensoldt, a firm that skirted a weapons export ban by selling through a South African subsidiary.
The German government has a complex relationship with Yemen’s drone deaths, and that role is not likely to get simpler any time soon: The appeal of Jaber’s lawsuit will be heard in autumn 2020 at the earliest, according to a February 2020 email from a Reprieve representative.
When that appeal is heard, Jaber surely hopes he can find some closure, even if the number of drone attacks is only lowered, rather than being eliminated.
“I brought this case because I don’t want any other families to suffer the way that mine has,” Jaber told Reprieve in 2019. “Losing innocent family members, by mistake, to a U.S. drone strike is something that no one should have to go through. The U.S. drone program could not function without support from European countries like Germany and the UK. It is long past time these governments stepped up to prevent more innocent people from being killed by U.S. drones.”
Patrick Maynard’s reporting has appeared in Vice, The Baltimore Sun, The Detroit Metro Times and other outlets. He lives in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter: @patrickmaynard.