12 December 2011
Rare Photographs Show Ground Zero of the Drone War
By Spencer Ackerman
Danger Room, Wired


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.

One 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.

What 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.

Also 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 battlefield.

Before 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.

Still, 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.

But we 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.

The 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.

In 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 missiles themselves.

Akbar 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.

Three U.S. ordnance experts verified for Danger Room that these are Hellfire missile fragments.

"It's 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.

Photos: Ed Clark

Mirin Shah, Nov. 28, 2008

A drone strike, reportedly firing two missiles, slammed into the home of Syeda Khan, a vegetable vendor who lived in a village 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.

"They 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 terrorists."

Dande Darpa Khel, Aug. 21, 2009

By the 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.

A 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.

The 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.

The children -- the younger two girls on the left, their older brother on the right -- were in shock, and clutched the ruins of 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.

Behram 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."

By the 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.

"The 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.

Behram 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.

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.

Much 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

This 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.

He 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.

Datta Khel, Oct. 13, 2010

Behram arrived in Datta Khel, a district not far from Mirin Shah -- North Waziristanís main city -- after the funerals for the victims of 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.

The 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 helicopters.

The 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 much."

Datta Khel, Oct. 18, 2010

Pakistan's Express Tribune reported a drone attacked "two 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."

An hour after Behram took this picture, Naeemullah died of his injuries.

Datta Khel, Oct. 28, 2010

The 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.

The locals told Behram that the strike killed four people, all of whom were Gull's cousins. They all lived together in one large room.

By the 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 recalls.

Above 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 look up.

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."

Which, 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."

Global Network