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Are BT Helping Obama Wage His Secret Yemeni Drone War?

They're building cables between a UK RAF base and a US drone camp in Djibouti.

(Photo via)

BT, who recently suggested that a student Halloween party isn't a party without a fibre-optic broadband connection, haven't been all that honest lately. Not only have they given GCHQ complete access to their undersea cables, allowing all of their customers' data to be harvested by the intelligence agency, but they've also signed a $23 million (£14.9 million) contract with the US military to build cables between RAF Croughton in Northamptonshire and Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, east Africa.

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And instead of just providing soldiers with a more efficient way to exchange heavy-artillery selfies on Snapchat, campaign groups are worried that this deal is allowing the US to conduct a whole series of nefarious activities in Yemen and Somalia, with BT's involvement facilitating their actions. Actions that are highly likely to include ethically-questionable drone strikes, like the three last week that killed suspected al-Qaeda members in Yemen.

A common method of working out what people have been up to is to question them about it, so I did just that and asked BT to comment on the use of drone strikes from Camp Lemonnier. Unfortunately, one of their representatives – Dan Thomas – said he wouldn't "comment on rumour or speculation".

But regardless of Thomas' reticence, the fact is that an extensive drone programme – one that, last year, could supposedly rival "the CIA's controversial drone campaign in Pakistan" – is operating out of the Djibouti base that BT provides communications systems for. In fact, when I told Jack Serle from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that BT considered Yemeni drone strikes to be "rumour and speculation", he was surprised: “Their stand is unusual, because it’s pretty much the received wisdom that drone strikes are operating out of Lemonnier,” he told me.

The "Thunder Dome" at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo via)

Jack also pointed out that it's not only unmanned aircraft being sent out of the camp to embark on crucially significant strategic missions – like bombing and killing 37 civilians at a wedding party, for example. "Last year, a blog called the Aviationist found a satellite image on Google Earth, which – funnily enough – showed half a dozen US fighter-bombers on the airbase," he explained. "It’s conventional airstrikes [leaving Lemonnier] as well as drones.”

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But don’t just take the word of a respected, independent journalist; a Washington Post piece, which contains testimony of US officials who are actually based at Camp Lemonnier, described the site as the “busiest Predator drone base outside the Afghan war zone”, with the US military confirming “the presence of remotely piloted aircraft [drones] at Camp Lemonnier and [saying] they support 'a wide variety of regional security missions'".

These missions target al-Qaeda and another group, the Yemeni-based Ansar al-Sharia – an umbrella organisation including units from several Islamist militant groups. During the Arab Spring, when militants seized control in parts of southern Yemen, the frequency of the attacks was ramped up, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of people – a large percentage of whom were civilians. And, according to Serle, since September of 2012 – when BT’s contract started – there have been nine confirmed drone strikes, with another 24 to 32 "possible strikes", as well as the September the 2nd Radaa airstrike that killed 12 civilians, including three children. The US has admitted to orchestrating the attack, but won't say if CIA or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) drones or even fighter jets were responsible.

An RQ-1 Predator drone. (Photo via)

The reason those earlier statistics are described as "possible strikes" is because it's sometimes difficult to determine exactly which attacks came out of Lemonnier and which were carried out by Yemeni forces themselves. One primary reason for that difficulty is that Ali Abdullah Saleh, Yemen's president until February of 2012, was – according to a WikiLeaks diplomatic cable – perfectly happy to shoulder the blame for US strikes, claiming them as carried out by his own air force. In fact, his only concern was that the US shouldn't use cruise missiles because they typically cause a hefty amount of collateral damage, as demonstrated by the December 17th attack of 2009 that killed 52 people, including 22 children.

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There is, of course, always the chance the some of these attacks might have been carried out by the Yemeni air force. But as current President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi made clear in a speech recently, his country is unable to conduct missions at night, due to what could best be described as a rickety fleet of planes. The Yemeni military also certainly don't have the kind of equipment that would allow them to carry out precision strikes – like targeting a group of people in a moving vehicle, for example – which is what drones are designed to do. These sorts of attacks, according to Serle, are “beyond the ability of the Yemeni air force”.

It is important to note here that a CIA airbase in Saudi Arabia, which was discovered by the media earlier this year, has also been used to carry out attacks in Yemen – along with another base in Ethiopia – but that doesn't mean that the Lemonnier camp is redundant by any means.

The question now is whether BT is actually doing anything wrong. Providing communications infrastructure between two military bases isn't illegal, but the drone strikes in Yemen – an undeclared war zone – arguably are. So if BT is playing a vital role in helping the US military carry out these crimes, it could technically be facilitating illegal behaviour. However, we can't know whether that’s the case for certain until BT decides to release more information.

Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. (Photo via

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Reprieve, a charity that represents some of those who have been directly affected by Yemeni drone strikes, has tried to get that information out of BT to determine whether they are complicit in the drone strikes. After BT said in a letter to the charity that it “does not disclose contractual matters such as those you have requested”, Reprieve lodged a complaint with the UK government, calling for an investigation into whether BT’s contract with the US military infringes guidelines that multinational enterprises are supposed to follow.

These guidelines insist that companies respect the human rights of those affected by their activities, whether that’s by their own direct actions or by those of their clients. On top of that, companies like BT are urged to address such impacts whenever they occur and take risk assessments in order to predict whether their contract with a client is going to create any human rights violations – for instance, massacring innocent people with hovering murder machines.

BT themselves appear to acknowledge this; in their own Better Business Report, they say that human rights violations may arise from the way that their products are used, and considering that they are “committed to respecting human rights”, this is presumably of great concern to them. So, even if an investigation doesn’t find BT to be breaching guidelines, it's apparent that they might well be acting against their own policies, which – at best – is highly hypocritical and – at worst – could signal that they've been facilitating the deaths of hundreds of innocent civilians in drone attacks.

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Catherine Gilfedder from Reprieve told me, “We have asked BT to show us what steps it has taken to ensure it is not complicit in these human rights violations, for the background to the contract and BT’s precise obligations under it, as well as clarification of the stage of implementation. But so far BT’s management have refused to provide answers. This strongly suggests that the company’s equipment is facilitating the US military’s actions. That is why we have called upon the National Contact Point [part of the UK government] to launch an investigation.”

An MQ-9 Reaper drone. (Photo via)

Catherine was also positive that, in the wake of the BT accusations, we could start to see a trend of companies being investigated for aiding illegal operations, such as drone attacks: “Reprieve is investigating a number of companies profiting from various activities related to this drone campaign, including some engaged in the manufacture of components," she explained. "These companies risk serious reputational damage from the exposure of the human rights violations being carried out, and there is certainly a trend towards increased corporate accountability in this area.”

I also contacted Amnesty International for a neutral perspective on big businesses and human rights. Campaigner Peter Frankental told me that, "All companies should abide by international human rights standards, whatever the country or context in which they are operating. Information and communications technology companies have a special responsibility to ensure they are not complicit in abuses committed by governments against their political opponents. The OECD guidelines and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights articulate what is expected of companies to ensure they respect human rights. Companies that ignore these standards are increasingly likely to be found out."

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To round off, I called BT back and told them all about Camp Lemonnier’s drone strike programme and how many civilians it has killed, then gave them the opportunity to defend themselves. However, they still didn’t want to change their position and I was given the same statement as before: "BT provides telephony and communications which link up governments and thousands of organisations all over the world. We are comfortable having the US government as a client.”

Follow Joseph on Twitter: @josephfcox

More stuff about drones:

Afghanistan's Game of Drones

The Drone Ranger: Obama's Dirty Wars Look Forward to the Year of the Drone Are Surveillance Drones the Future of CCTV?