This story is over 5 years old.


Why Have US Drones Targeted So Many Houses in Pakistan?

Drone strikes on residences have been all but forbidden in Afghanistan since 2008. But in Pakistan, houses have been targeted most of all.
Photo via AFP/Getty Images

This story comes to VICE News from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

She saw nothing more than a black hole where the men had been sitting.

On October 4, 2010, a German woman who had moved to northwest Pakistan with her husband and his brother was sitting at home eating dinner with a friend. Outside, several men sat together, including her brother-in-law. "While we were eating, we heard a very loud bang," the woman later told researchers. "The house shook and a lot of earth fell on us from the roof…. Everything was covered in thick smoke."


Her husband and 2-year-old son had also been sitting with the men — but minutes before the missile hit, her husband had happened to wander off to smoke a cigarette. He brought their son with him.

When the smoke from the drone strike cleared, the woman saw that everything was burned. There were "pieces of cloth, and metal from the rocket… everywhere there were bits similar to the pieces of flesh of the men, which were scattered everywhere."

News reports said at least five suspected militants, several of them German, had been killed in the attack.

* * *

A new investigative project by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Forensic Architecture — a research unit based at London's Goldsmiths University — and New York-based Situ Research reveals that in Pakistan, domestic buildings continue to be the most frequent target of drone attacks, having been hit by drone strikes more than any other type of target in the CIA's 10-year campaign in the country's northern tribal regions. At the same time, in neighboring Afghanistan, drone strikes on buildings have been banned since 2008 in all but the most urgent situations to protect civilians.

The project examines, for the first time, the kinds of targets attacked in every drone strike — houses, vehicles, madrasas — and the time of day the attack took place. Some findings:

  • More than 60 percent of all drone strikes in Pakistan targeted domestic buildings. At least 132 houses were destroyed in more than 380 strikes.
  • At least 222 civilians are among the 1,500 or more people killed in attacks on such buildings. In the past 18 months, however, there have been no confirmed reports of civilian casualties in drone attacks in Pakistan. Before that, an average of about one civilian was killed in every attack on domestic buildings.
  • The time of an attack affects how many people — and specifically how many civilians — are likely to die. Houses were twice as likely to be attacked at night as in the afternoon. And those strikes that took place in the evening were particularly deadly.


Researchers analyzed thousands of reports, including contemporaneous media accounts, eyewitness testimony, and field investigations, to gather data on drone strikes in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). (The data is also presented in an interactive online map showing the location and targets of each strike.)

The research reveals the continued targeting of buildings throughout the CIA's campaign in Pakistan. This has gone on despite instructions in Afghanistan from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the body that commands foreign operations in the country, that forces operate under the rule that "all compounds are assumed to house civilians unless proven to be clear."

This rule has been in place since at least September 2008 when, according to a leaked classified report, ISAF introduced a tactical directive that "specifically called for limiting airstrikes on compounds to avoid civilian casualties when ISAF forces are not in imminent danger."

In both Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan, people tend to live in buildings that are often described as "compounds." Mansur Mahsud, director of the Islamabad-based Fata Research Center, describes the way people live in these areas: "One compound is used by many families, like brothers and first cousins, although every family has their own portion or space in the compound. The compounds in these agencies are quite big — most would measure half an acre or more. Normally you will find 20 to 25 people living in one compound, and in some cases you will find more than 50."


When drones attack buildings in Pakistan, the target is typically described in media reports as a "compound" or "militant compound." But these are often domestic structures that have been rented or commandeered by militant groups.

A British commander told the Daily Telegraph in 2012 that the UK had stopped using the word compound. "We’re trying to get it into the guys’ heads that this is not compound No. 28, it’s 34 Acacia Drive, so you don’t hit it," he said.

Meanwhile, a US official told us that, "US counterterrorism operations are precise, lawful, and effective. The United States takes extraordinary care to make sure that its counterterrorism actions are in accordance with all applicable domestic and international law, and that they are consistent with US values and policy."

Interestingly, over the past 18 months there have been no confirmed reports of civilian casualties in any drone attacks despite a rise in the proportion of strikes that hit houses. Mahsud says this is partly due to changes on the ground. In the early years of the drone campaign, sympathetic locals would sometimes host militants as their guests and carry on living in their homes. But the threat of drone strikes means that now, when militants insist upon staying in a home, civilians usually leave.

"You cannot say no to the Taliban," Mahsud says.

* * *

It is also possible that more civilians die in attacks on buildings than reports indicate. The Bureau’s Naming the Dead project has found that the deaths of women are particularly vulnerable to being underreported. Women and children are more likely to stay indoors and therefore less likely to be seen "by [a] drone operator monitoring the structure," says Susan Schuppli, senior research fellow at Forensic Architecture. Women and children’s "relative seclusion within private space makes them particularly vulnerable to becoming an unknown casualty when a strike occurs," she added.


"The US government only targets terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. Period," the US official told us. "Any suggestion otherwise is flat wrong. Furthermore, before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set."

At least a quarter of drone strikes in Pakistan hit vehicles, and these attacks were significantly less likely to harm civilians. There have been no confirmed civilian casualties in strikes on vehicles at night.

"Civilians usually avoid going out at night, because Taliban militants do not allow people to venture out of their homes at night without a valid reason," Mahsud said.

The Bureau's analysis found that strikes on mosques and madrasas are the deadliest. At least eight strikes have hit such targets, killing on average more than 17 people in each attack. At least 99 civilians have reportedly been killed in total.

'When used against mud-brick houses in Pakistan, a missile designed to bore through thick Soviet armor is going to have pretty catastrophic effects.'

The figures for strikes on mosques and madrasas are skewed by a single strike that hit a religious school in Chenegai, Bajaur on October 30, 2006 — it reportedly killed 81 people. But even excluding the Chenegai strike, the civilian casualty rate in strikes on mosques and madrasas is nine times that of strikes on vehicles, or 2.7 civilians per strike.


But the care taken over the past 18 months to avoid civilian casualties appears to be changing that. The Chenegai attack flattened the building and killed scores of civilians. By contrast, a drone strike that targeted a madrasa in Hangu last November — the first drone strike outside Pakistan's tribal regions — took out only a single room. Although there were reportedly up to 80 students in the building, the strike instead killed at least six men, all of whom were allegedly militants.

(Opposition party leader Imran Khan claimed in a press conference that four children died in the attack, but we were unable to confirm any civilian deaths.)

US drones fire Hellfire missiles and the much more powerful GBU laser-guided bombs. The Hellfire is a product of the Cold War, designed to destroy Soviet tanks. But the US has adapted the drone-mounted versions, lowering the explosive yield twice, according to Chris Woods, author of the upcoming book Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars.

Reducing explosive power "makes a great deal of sense," Woods says. "When used against mud-brick houses in Pakistan, a missile designed to bore through thick Soviet armor is going to have pretty catastrophic effects."

The US has reportedly also added new Hellfire variants to its drone arsenal: specialized missiles for attacking vehicles, missiles with a delayed fuse designed to smash through walls and detonate inside buildings, and anti-personnel missiles with a metal sleeve that splinters upon detonation.


When drone strikes began in Pakistan, the CIA had access only to a small fleet of slow Predator drones that carried up to two Hellfire missiles. When the CIA acquired larger, more powerful Reaper drones, larger and more powerful munitions were added.

Meanwhile, the GBU-12 and GBU-38 laser-guided bombs have at least five times the explosive power of a Hellfire and, according to Woods, are "used when they want to be sure of a kill," particularly when high-value targets are involved.

In Yemen, where the US also launches frequent drone attacks, civilians are certainly killed — as when a drone strike on a wedding convoy killed a dozen people last December. However, suspected militants are generally targeted while in sparsely populated areas, often while traveling, which appears to be a conscious effort to reduce collateral damage. In Yemen, an average of one civilian has been killed for every two strikes. In Pakistan, an average of one civilian was killed in each strike.

"The CIA is careful in what it chooses to target in Yemen — for example, the deliberate focussing on moving vehicles between towns to limit the potential for collateral damage," Woods said. "What is so shocking to think about in Pakistan is that the CIA has continued to target homes in villages even up until 2013."

Follow Alice K. Ross and Jack Serle on Twitter.

Additional reporting by Jacob Burns.