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The UK’s complicity in data-driven drone strikes

Blue skies, a universal symbol of hope for many, mean nothing but fear for those living under the threat of US-ordered drone strikes, which are picking off people on a kill list informed by UK intelligence. Safety only comes when the skies cloud over, meaning the drones cannot fly.

Those overhead drones incite constant fear for innocent civilians in some parts of the world, and some 1,207 people have so far been killed by drones outside of war zones. While the finger on the trigger may belong to the US, some of the intelligence leading to drone strikes is coming from the UK and Europe. Human rights organisation Reprieve is now calling on Theresa May to provide accountability and transparency when it comes to sharing data that could end in the unlawful loss of human life.

Death by data

Under the Obama administration, a weekly meeting to decide on who should be killed by drone, labelled Terror Tuesdays, came with a grisly slideshow of individuals identified as potential suspects. The targets on the list were people from places like Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and the US president and his advisers decided their fate.

The information that these drone strikes were based on was flawed, according to Reprieve, an organisation working to raise awareness of the issue. It says that much of the intelligence fed to the US came from political opponents, or was based on metadata, like patterns of behaviour, travel, people they had contacted, and their age. Now the man in the White House has changed, and Reprieve says the drones are still flying, and still being fed by flawed intelligence, but now in even greater numbers.

The organisation’s founder, Clive Stafford Smith, says: “When the US is killing people in Yemen for example, you can be pretty sure that a lot of that information is coming from the British, and that makes the British complicit in the international war crimes that the Americans are committing.”

There is no trial before an attack, and the people in question have no opportunity to defend themselves. The US president becomes judge, jury, and executioner. Donald Trump has gone one step further than his predecessor - in Yemen he has delegated this lethal task to increasingly junior military officers with even less accountability, says Reprieve.

The world of drones and the US kill list of targets is geographically far away from the UK, but the intelligence feeding decisions is coming from somewhere closer to home. Evidence is mounting that the UK is complicit in the murder of hundreds of people. The Sunday Times  uncovered that the UK is sharing intelligence and geolocational data with the US, which informs the decisions of whether someone lives or dies. Both the Guardian and Vice unearthed yet more evidence. The UK is working directly with US counterparts to select targets, and has worked closely with the US to plan strikes in Yemen.

The UK government has repeatedly refused to publish the guidance on when and how data is shared. The list of targets is shrouded in secrecy, and individuals may only find out they are on the kill list when the buzzing of drones closes in.

Maya Foa, Reprieve’s director, says: “We as the British public have a duty to stand up and say that we need to know what Theresa May is getting us mixed up in with Donald Trump. If he’s got his hand on the trigger, and he is ordering potentially innocent people to be killed, and young children to be assassinated as accidental damage of the US drone programme, we as British citizens need to know what role we’re playing.”

Maryam Mir is an assassinations caseworker at Reprieve, and she has seen just how easy it is for someone to end up on the list.

“Can you imagine if your friend didn’t have their phone on them, and you let them use yours, but you didn’t know who they were calling? Can you imagine picking up somebody who looked stranded late at night, to offer them a lift home? These are the kinds of things that might lead to you being killed in a drone strike,” she says.

“Can you imagine seeing somebody injured in the street and feeling the strong desire to go and help? In Pakistan, that could lead to you getting killed.”

A campaign for accountability

Reprieve is tackling the issue of illegal drone strikes, which they dub ‘the death penalty without trial,’ by supporting victims and their families, and fighting for legal accountability, transparency and justice. They have hugely reduced the number of drone strikes in Pakistan, but the use of drones is increasing around the world.

Reprieve is launching a campaign with Lush later this week to raise awareness around the issue, and is calling on the British public to raise their voices against the decisions being made by their government.

As part of the campaign, an online quiz will show people how close their metadata would get them to ending up on the US kill list, if they lived in somewhere like Pakistan or Yemen. Awareness raising is the first step, but public pressure is needed in the fight to end the drone wars. Reprieve is now rallying the British public, and asking them to sign a petition (launching Friday 8th September), and demand that the government comes clean.

Maryam has her own message for the prime minister: “When is it, Theresa May, that you decide to share that intelligence that leads to individuals being killed? What are the criteria that you use to decide that?”

The human targets on the list

Drone strikes are a constant source of fear for those on the kill list. Simple tasks like going to the market, taking children to school, and even sleeping in the family home (Malik Jalal has taken to sleeping in the mountains to protect his family from strikes aimed at him), become terrifying activities that could see a life ended by a Hellfire missile.

Reprieve is assisting families like the Tuaimans, who have lost numerous members at the hands of drone strikes. The charity offers to represent those affected, and aims to prevent attacks. Through its work, it gives power back to the powerless.

Tuiaman family

“If you’re stuck in Yemen somewhere, how on earth are you meant to stop the United States from getting false intelligence and killing your family?” says Clive.

Ahmad Zaidan, an acclaimed Al Jazeera journalist, is another target on the US ‘kill list.’ His crime? Interviewing people connected with Al Qaeda, including being the first journalist to interview Osama Bin Laden. A US programme called Skynet marked Ahmad as suspicious, by analysing metadata on his phone.

Entering the drone age

When it comes to drone use, Clive says: “What we need is an international convention, we need a debate so that we can come up with an agreement on how these things are used, and I would begin by saying they should never be used in warfare.”

While it is clear that the wrong people are being targeted, drone strikes all too often miss their intended target, and hit innocent civilians who are simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. It can take several attempts, with a considerable number of casualties, before the target on the list is actually killed - Reprieve estimates that approximately 1,147 people have been killed in an attempt to kill 41 men. The group says that for every person that the US tries to assassinate with a drone strike, an average of nine innocent children are killed.

Double tap strikes - or as Clive Stafford Smith prefers to call them, “good samaritan strikes” - are another risk to civilians. First comes strike one. People flock to help the injured, and then the second strike arrives. This is all based on the presumption that the helpers must also be dangerous.

Drone strikes like these may be a counter-terrorism policy, but when the families and friends of victims are left confused and angry at senseless and unexplained attacks, the potential for radicalisation is very real.

For a programme designed to bring peace, it is doing the reverse, says Reprieve. When whole villages are destroyed in what seem like nonsensical explosions, there will no doubt be an impact on the psychology of that community.

When it comes to the future of drone use and state-sponsored assassinations, public pressure could be the key to carving out a system that respects human rights.

Clive Stafford Smith says: “One of the great rules of public debate is you, the public, have great power over politicians.”

The ineffectiveness of data-driven drone strikes is clear, even if the UK’s decisions on data-sharing are not. Whether the drones will continue to fly, and whether they will be sent to kill people based on metadata, could soon be influenced by the full force of the Great British public.

“Can you imagine seeing somebody injured in the street and feeling the strong desire to go and help? In Pakistan, that could lead to you getting killed,” Maryam Mir, Reprieve.

Comments (5)


about 3 years ago

Don't forget that it took a whistle blower to tell how Margaret Thatcher was supporting USA fund Al Qaeda. They keep spreading propaganda against Russia, but Russia gave asylum to Snowden just for telling us the truth


about 3 years ago

Thank you, Lush, for talking about the tough issues as usual and shedding light on the government's complicity in the bombing of innocents. People empathise with attacks that happen in white majority countries, but seem to have a blind spot for the bombings that the US and UK government's have conducted in the middle east, resulting in massive civilian deaths.

about 3 years ago

Thank you Lush for supporting organizations that fearfully expose the government's wrongdoings. Metadata is highly inaccurate and is costing innocent lives, including children. These people who have no unwillingly


about 3 years ago

I hope you won't get it the wrong way, but people come to the lush web store to buy soap, not to deal with political issues, politics might make people not buy at the web site. It sure made me nervous and not in a good way.


about 3 years ago

it made you nervous? then think about how the people living in Yemen, Pakistan, and many other countries affected by these drone strikes may feel. you weren't obligated to click on the link, nor were you obligated to read this article. its important to broadcast that the UK has yet again, been aiding war crimes, and its powerful to see big companies talk about this instead of keeping quiet to earn a couple more bucks