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The Forensics of a Lethal Drone Attack

How investigators pieced together the most notorious lethal US drone strike without much to go on.
Image: UN Human Rights / ForensicArchitecture.

Like so many incidents that have cut across five years of Obama's covert drone campaign, details about the March 17, 2011, airstrike in Datta Khel, North Waziristan, Pakistan, have always been murky at best.

We know a number of men showed up to a traditional jirga community gathering to settle a dispute, and that the elders sat in two large, adjacent circles in an open field near Datta Khel's bazaar. We know the CIA believed there were Taliban militants holed up in a nearby compound. We know a US drone had taken out between four to five people the day prior just outside Datta Khel, and that on the following morning, March 17, another round of missiles whirred down from high above, exploding over the field. We know Pakistan's government decried the second strike, as the jirga had been authorized by the country's military.


But that's it. The dust never fully settled. Even since, we've been faced with more questions than answers, this in large part due to a lack of compelling on-the-ground images and video of both the strike and immediate aftermath. How do we piece together a comprehensive understanding of deadly counterterror operations the US still keeps shrouded in secrecy—of the true scope of what really happened that day in Datta Khel—without much to go on?

It's a challenge that has hung over Ben Emmerson, the UN Special Rappoteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. Over the past year, Emmerson has plumbed the depths of the shadows wars, the end goal being to offer recommedations regarding the duty of certain nation states to carry out independent, impartial investigations into their respective counterterror operations. To that end, he turned an eye to evaluating allegations that remotely piloted hunter-killer drone strikes have caused disproportionate rates of civilian casualties throughout the Middle East and Horn of Africa.

At a concise 22 pages, Emmerson's final report is worth a close read. Likewise the inquiry's interactive companion website. Built in collaboration with SITU Research and team over at Forensic Architecture, it offers unprecedented forensic profiles of 30 known strikes generating drone strike evidence in "the absence of on-the-ground images by cross-referencing a variety of materials from witness declarations, press reports, satellite imagery, and local expertise," the website states.


One of the more striking facts corroborated by this methodology: Among the dead in Datta Khel were over 40 civilians. But how can we be so sure?

Before and after satellite photos of Datta Khel, above, show a rectangular space lined by the buildings that make up the bazaar. The images show a space that would've been fit for a few dozen people to congregate, and are consistent with eyewitness reports of the aftermath.

Punch in closer on the after image, and you can see signs of "surface disturbance and discoloration" where the drone's missiles are believed to have hit. See the two mounds encircled in the close up? Those are possible impact craters. According to witness acounts, the craters are set 3.6 meters apart:

Digging deeper into the impact analysis, the inquiry notes how there would've been little to break the outward explosive force of the strike. This happened in a field, after all.

In other words, the blast radius of a Hellfire missile (the signature payload of the Predator and Reaper drones used by both the Pentagon and the CIA, which as of late 2013 had resumed drone strikes in Pakistan's more populated areas), which can stretch out to 20 meters, spared no one. There was nothing to absorb the blow, a fact "borne out," the inquiry states, "by a survivor's description of being thrown 7 meters from where they were sitting."

And then there are those who surveyed the immediate aftermath of the attack. Here's just one account of the carnage, from a man the inquiry cites only as "Witness 3":

When I reached that place, the situation was very bad. There were still people lying around injured. The tribal elders who had been killed in the strike could not be identified because there were body parts strewn about. The smell was awful.

The sobering reality is that he could've been talking about Mir Ali, Gaza City, Jaar, Miranshah, or any other city that's fallen in the crosshairs of America's remote, robotized shadow wars. The Datta Khel airstrike is arguably the most notorious US drone attack, but it's just a drop in the bucket. It's one of five case studies included in Emmerson's landmark report—which poses a lot of questions we'd do well to think long and hard about—and can be viewed here.

Of course, there are still more holes than we'll probably ever know exist. Some may not ever be filled. But the new forensics of drone strike investigations is a good start. Finally, something to go on.