For many years I've wanted to report on the Taliban and al Qaeda bomb-making camps near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. After much difficulty, I got the chance to visit a Taliban camp in the mountains of North Waziristan in February 2014, but my trip did not go as expected. Though I arrived hoping to learn about bomb production, the discussion quickly morphed into a story about a tribal elder who'd discovered a fallen American drone.
A few days after I set foot in the camp, a talib student took me to a nearby market so I could stock up on supplies. The sky was studded with small clouds and showed clear blue against the high mountains. It was a beautiful view, but the menacing sound of drones humming through the air quickly reminded me where I was.
The market was about ten minutes from the camp and consisted of three shops in mud-brick buildings. About 20 people were assembled outside, deeply immersed in conversation. As we approached, the villagers rose and shook our hands. They were friendly, quickly offering tea and asking us to join them. We agreed. The talib introduced me as a journalist, heightening the locals' interests even more. In the tribal areas, journalists are held in high regard, yet there is very little media presence here because of the highly hostile environment.
The tribal elder, who requested not to be named, sat down across from me. He wanted my opinion about what was happening in the world today. "There is war and violence everywhere. Why?" he asked. I said that I believed the war was the result of political interests and religious fanaticism that have been at play for centuries. He drew a long breath and replied, "I hope to God that the withdrawal of the American army from Afghanistan begins soon, because it is the root of all problems." Many people here believe the US actually invaded Afghanistan because of its religion and rich mineral deposits.
I asked the elder how the local people feel about American drones. He explained that North Waziristan was once one of the most peaceful areas in the world but ongoing war and drone attacks have now made it one of the most dangerous.
By this time the tea had arrived, and as we sat outside enjoying our hot drinks the elder said, "Let me tell you an interesting story…"
* * *
One day, late in 2007, the elder was relaxing in the courtyard of his home when he heard frenzied voices yelling that a drone was falling from the sky.
Looking up, he saw the aircraft moving unusually — jerking up and down across the horizon — until it smashed into a nearby mountain. He ran toward the crash site, but before he arrived, the elder's son and his friends — who had been hunting on the mountain — surrounded the drone and claimed ownership of it, in accordance with local rules.
'We took it outside and hid it on a mountain nearby. We guarded it all night so that no one would steal it.'
Other villagers quickly appeared on the scene. The elder explained that people in this region have a severe hatred of drones, especially the incessant sound they make as they hover above. Discovering a drone lying silent and motionless in front of them was extremely bizarre, and the villagers experienced mixed emotions of joy, concern, anger, and shock.
How were they supposed to handle the situation? As they gathered around the drone, a man suddenly screamed at them to stay away, warning that the operator could blow it up at any second. They quickly called for an ax and cut off the two missiles still attached under the wings. The elder and his son then carried the drone home. According to locals, it was off-white and had several cameras on its underside.
* * *
The elder invited me to his house for dinner to continue the tale. He showed me photographs of his children and other villagers posing with the drone. He even had some hanging on his wall. Taking pictures with it had clearly been a point of pride.
The elder still keeps the engine, empty warhead, and other components of the drone's missiles in his house. He let me hold them in my hands, but when I asked if I could have some photos of the drone, he declined. The elder explained that this was a delicate matter and he didn't want any trouble.
As the food was served I asked the elder's son how he'd felt when he brought the drone home. "Disturbed and afraid" was his answer. "We were frightened that the US might send another drone, which could blast our entire house and our entire family," he replied. "So we took it outside and hid it on a mountain nearby. We guarded it all night so that no one would steal it. And my dad strictly told the people of the village that no one was to mention anything about the drone."
Just two days after they discovered it, the elder and his family were contacted by regional Taliban and al Qaeda members. He said they tried to pressure him into handing over the drone but he refused, plainly telling them that he wanted to sell it for profit.
He also claimed that the Indian, Afghan, and US governments contacted him as well (both directly and indirectly) and showed interest in buying the drone. Some even offered a good price, he said, but he didn't go through with a sale because he feared retribution from the Taliban and al Qaeda.
A few days later, some al Qaeda representatives arrived at his house, requesting to see the drone. They scrutinized it thoroughly, jotting down its serial numbers, before buying some of its cameras and circuit boards, explaining that they wanted to experiment with it and see if they could make a drone for themselves. Soon after that Baitullah Mehsud, the Pakistani Taliban's founder and chief, who was later killed in 2009, also paid a visit.
Pakistan unveiled its domestically built surveillance drones in November 2013.
The elder was worried about what would come of this situation. He was afraid of spies and concerned that someone might threaten him, hurt his family, or attack his house at night.
Then a different tribal leader contacted the elder on behalf of the Pakistani government, claiming they had sent him to buy it. The two men negotiated a price of 10 million Pakistani rupees ($100,000), of which the elder would get 1 million rupees in commission.
After this, Pakistani officials arrived under the cover of darkness, put the drone in a truck, and took it to the army camp in Miranshah. The following day a helicopter transferred it to an unknown location.
The elder said he was not completely satisfied with the trade, because he thought the drone was worth more than 10 million rupees, but he felt that he and his family had no easier, or safer, way to sell it.
The region's other tribal leaders were extremely passionate about the drone, however. With pride they recounted everything about the incident in great detail. According to them, losing the drone had created a major problem for the US, and they were very happy about that.
* * *
Pakistan unveiled its domestically built surveillance drones in November 2013. It has also reportedly been trying to develop combat drones for many years.
A Taliban commander told me over the summer that recent attacks on them have been extremely precise. The Pakistani military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb against the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, and other groups in June 2014. This US-backed campaign began after the collapse of negotiations between the government and the militants, and a week after the June 8 terror attack on Jinnah International Airport, which killed 18 people and ten fighters.
On July 9 a Pakistani military spokesperson said that 80 percent of the target area in the tribal region of North Waziristan had been "cleared of terrorists."
After a six-month pause, the US restarted drone attacks in June, and they have intensified since. On October 7 American strikes killed at least ten suspected militants in two separate attacks. Then on October 30 drone attacks claimed the lives of at least another five fighters.
This story was also featured in the November issue of VICE magazine. Check more of the issue out here.