Visualizing a Decade of U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan

What are drone strikes: CIA's covert operations in Pakistan.

The United States are using unmanned air vehicles, remotely controlled from US military bases, to carry out targeted killings in Pakistan. Obama justified these operations, covertly carried out by the CIA,  as "lethal, targeted action against al Qaeda and its associated forces". 

But Pakistan sees the 422 US strikes as an intervention in a country's affairs. A country with which the United States aren't officially at war. The legal status of these actions is dubious. They were defined as human rights violations and illegal "criminal offenses" by the judge of a major Pakistan court ruling, and the Pakistani Foreign Ministry referred to CIA's drone attacks as "illegal, counterproductive, in contravention of international law and a violation of Pakistani sovereignty".

And it is not only Pakistan who is complaining about this intromission. For years, both the UN and major American civil rights organizations have been demanding greater transparency about the ongoing practice of targeted killings. CIA's leadership role in the drone strikes implies that these episodes are covert and surrounded by secrecy. There is no complete, exact and independent data to evaluate these practices fully. This makes it hard to know how they are being carried out, against who, and what the amount of civilian 'collateral damage' is. 

One of the main issues of concern around drone attacks regards the victims: who are the United States targeting? Under what rights can they claim who can be killed through a drone strike, instead of being trailed by regular legal processes? And finally, how can we access the human costs of these operations, in terms of civilian causalities? 

The rationale behind covert drone strikes and their claimed legal justification is that the attacks target individuals that pose an imminent threat to US safety. The lack of transparency around the operations, however, makes it hard to prove this claim, and different voices have raised doubts about whether the targeted killings in Pakistani soil all fall under the category of urgent response to an imminent threat. While there is no official, complete, and independent record of civilian deaths, the Bureau of investigative Journalism is researching the victims of the strikes. In this resource, we've incorporated their data from the project "Naming the Death". 

In the following paragraphs, we will try to use data to shed light onto this issue, thanks to the information collected since 2011 by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism's research on Covert Drone War.  Satellite imagery of drone strike locations is from Dronestagram by James Bridle

This Silk combines the accurate research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism covering the U.S. drone operations with Silk, a data publishing platform for organizing and visualizing information. This site is an interactive semantic database of US drone strikes in Pakistan, which can be dynamically queried by anyone to create tables and visualizations, and  discover possible patterns.

How to Use This Silk: Browse the charts and maps. Click "Explore" anywhere on the site to go into visualization and filtering mode. Search for individual pages or entities in the top search box. 

Last Update: January 2016

Using drones killings, the CIA has sentenced to death between 2,500 and 4,000 people without a fair trial

June 17, 2004, 9:45 PM. A US drone silently hovers over Wana, in South Waziristan. Missiles are dropped, hitting a domestic building and causing the death of at least six people, including at least two children. Among the victims is the target of the attack: Nek Mohammed, a local Taliban commander. In short, this is the (known) beginning of US covert operations in Pakistan, which frequently assumes the form of targeted killings through drone strikes. 

This was still the Bush era. More than 11 years have passed from that first strike, Obama succeeded Bush, and the strikes continue. This decade the number of US targeted killing operations in Pakistani soil has raised to over 422, killing between 2,494 and 3,994 individuals - according to the data collected by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Median reported injured and median people killed in drone strikes

The median values are chosen by comparing the max. and min. values reported - and therefore may differ from the most commonly reported value in the different sources or from the mean value. 

Map of Drone Strikes, Bubbles by Number of Victims (Median Estimate)

Select values from the filters to customize the visualization. Reset them to see the overall statistics. Click "Explore" to transform this into another type of chart, change the variables plotted, add dynamic filtersClick on each strike for more details. The median values are chosen by comparing the max. and min. values reported - and therefore may differ from the most commonly reported value in the different sources or from the mean value. 

At the very least, one every ten drone strike victim has been civilian

US Drone strikes are often depicted as precise, surgical targeted killings of terrorists. Back in 2011, as criticism of this practice grew, CIA's Director John Brennan denied that there had been any "collateral [civilian] death" since 2010.  According to BIJ's investigation, there had been at least 45. 

Civilian victims of drone strikes by month

The median values are chosen by comparing the max. and min. values reported - and therefore may differ from the most commonly reported value in the different sources or from the mean value. 

The next year, Obama reiterated the fact that the strikes are surgical operations against "people who are on a list of active terrorists, [...] al-Qaeda suspects who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan". He also admitted limited 'collateral damage',  as drones have "not caused a huge number of civilian casualties". Fast-forwarding two years, and after proof of multiple drone strikes that killed civilians and children, President Obama held the   first speech in history publicly discussing CIA'a drone operations. Again, Obama recognized the presence of limited civilian causalities. But again, the rhetoric around the use of drones portraits the operations as extremely precise: 

"The use of drones is heavily constrained. [...] America does not take strikes to punish individuals – we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured."  (Obama, The Future of our Fight against Terrorism, May 2013)

What does BIJ's data  have to say about this? Among the 422 drone strikes, in 76-135  cases there has been at least one civilian causality. Between 6 and 23 strikes had ten or more civilian causalities. These numbers include the three disastrous strikes by Bush (B6) and Obama (Ob21 and Ob202), with respectively 80 - 82, 18 - 50, and 19 - 41 civilian causalities. Obama's 202 strike is of the most controversial of the presidency, and it occurred in March 2011. A period in which, according to Brennan, there had been no 'collateral damage'.

Drone Strikes

Obama's 202nd strike has been called an example of something called: 'signature strike'. In a signature strike, "the CIA or the military makes the decision to fire based not on who the targets are but on whether they are exhibiting suspicious patterns of behavior thought to be 'signatures' of terrorists". In this case, what made the local elders such an 'imminent threat' to American safety (to the point of justifying an authorized US drone strike), is a local assembly already monitored also by the presence of Pakistani police.

The 421 drone strikes caused between 423 and 965 civilian causalities, out of the overall 2,494-3,994 individuals murdered Depending on the total and civilian death toll ranges considered, these numbers suggest that civilians have been at the very  least 10% of the drone strike victims (and up to 38%).

Civilian victims of drone strikes by year

Of these thousands of victims, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has given a name to 731, in their "Naming the Death" database. Here, 45% of the total are reported civilians. More than those allegedly militants.

Civilian or militant status of victims

Obama was given the Nobel Prize in 2009. After a year of "collateral damage" and controversial tactics like drone strikes on funerals and rescuers

Overall, the casualty rate has indeed been lower in the Bush era than during the Obama administration, especially in terms of civilian deaths. Still, during his first year, at the end of which Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he authorized multiple drone strikes that caused "collateral damage". Overall, murdering between 100 and 210 civilians.

Civilian victims of drone strikes in 2009

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism also reported the presence of controversial tactics deployed during drone attacks, like following a drone strike with a second attack targeting rescuers, or targeting funerals where prayers are mourning the dead victims of a previous drone strikes. The following table shows 24 drone strikes targeting rescuers. As the BIJ notes, one of these strikes (Ob49) took place just a week after Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Drone Strikes with "rescuers" in the summary. Filtered for 2009

Click here for a similar list of strikes targeted at funerals.

When targeting militants, drone strikes often targeted low-profile figures. An "imminent threat to US safety"?

Another controversial issue in the legal justification of drone strikes comes from the targeted killing of low profile Islamic militants. The drone strikes appear to target not only senior Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders, but also "low-level fighters whose identities may not be known".

Research is still underway, and there is information only for a limited number of victims. At the moment, however, out of the 732 entries in the database, only 19 are explicitly classified as Senior militants. 

Named senior militants

Click on each person for more details.

This data is only partial, as for most of the military rank is not known yet. At the same time, the fact that the BIJ is not able to yet assess the rank of these militants makes it hard to believe that they are the major al-Qaeda or Taliban leaders the CIA depicts as the main target of their strikes against "imminent threats" to US safety.

For the first time this year, a drone strike reportedly murdered non-militant civilians from NATO countries.

It's mostly Pakistani citizens that are paying for the covert American drone intervention in Pakistan. Of the 732 named victims identified by BIJ, 328 are civilians. And of these, 212 are locals from Pakistan. This alone raises serious legal concerns about the legitimacy of US actions in the country.

Number of Victims with Reported Civilians, grouped by Nationality

But this year, for the first time since the beginning of the strikes in 2004, we know that drone strikes inadvertently killed citizens of NATO countries as well. A further example of how "collateral damage" is still an issue to solve.

Drone strike data: a question of government accountability and transparency

The data on Pakistani drone strikes revealed numerous insights. Perhaps the main one is that its discrepancies from government official positions raise even more questions than it can answer. This year is the anniversary of the first drone strike in Pakistan. After a pause of six months - the longest ever since the beginning of these actions - the strikes have resumed in June. The US government still covers in secrecy the whole practice, refusing any independent non-governmental oversight. US drone strikes have been criticized by journalistspoliticiansacademicshuman rights organizations and even the United Nations. The latter also expressed concerns over the credibility of the 'collateral damage' estimates offered by the US government. From the basis for authorizing a targeted drone attack, up to the militants and civilians killed in each strike: withholding this information means denying the possibility of an informed public debate about US decision to engage in unconventional lethal practices. 

Explore the data: Latest known Pakistan drone strikes

Latest 20 known strikes

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We aggregated data from multiple projects and reports by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism covering US Covert Drone Warfare. For some of the most recent drone strikes, we also have included satellite imaginary from the amazing project "Dronestagram" by James Bridle

For more details about the specific sources we've used, the structuring we've applied and the Bureau's methodology for collecting the data, read the methodology page. As always, suggestions are welcome, even in the form of criticism.