Category Archives: Library

Audio: What We Can Learn About Drone Strikes From 10 Million Yemeni Cell Phones

Over at Five Thirty-Eight, Jody Avirgan interviews Fotini Christia, an MIT political scientist who was given 10 million cell-phone records by a mobile phone company to do big data research. Christia explains that the motive for the phone company for handing over the records had to do with wanting to further development research in Yemen.

The audio and interview are worth a listen. Also this:

Jody Avirgan: I wonder if you can start by describing the challenge that you were trying to solve by using this data?

Fotini Christia: Yemen is a fascinating place because it is a hotspot and a place of trouble. It has been an issue for the U.S. in terms of terrorism, instability, continued conflict. And though we do have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence [about the country], it tends to be very selective. It’s usually from journalists that can be on the ground in very particular places. So there’s a lot we don’t get to hear about Yemen because it’s so hard to do social scientific or analytic work on the ground. It’s not a place that has rich census data. It’s not a place that has rich household-level data, recent survey or polling data. So people tried to be creative about where else you can get information.

That line about journalists speaks to questions of epistemology and, as someone who is anthropologically trained, its assumption that ‘evidence’ derives from mass data rather than familiarity with ‘particular places’ struck me.

In the interview, Christia describes drone attacks as an “exogenous event,” like an earthquake (her example), but this is a strange characterization for a number of reasons. For one, an exogenous event is one that has no particular relationship to the sociality of a place, but the US itself argues that they bomb particular people because they are doing militant-y things on the ground. Second, at least for FATA (and I would suspect Yemen), people are in fact making judgments about what might make them targetable (i.e. don’t talk to so-and-so; don’t make phone calls here or there or say this or that word; don’t go to this place at this hour) and are trying to avoid it. Moreover, opposition groups have repeatedly killed people they suspect to be informants in the aftermath of a drone attack. Others speculate that drone bombing is sometimes caught up in local rivalries where a person may (mis)inform or allege that his rival is a terrorist. In short, drones are not exogenous except in the theoretical frame that flattens place into blank space.

And finally, I haven’t read the paper, but in the interview at least, the deployment of the category of religion (i.e. Christia says they can see from the phone records how much religion structures life) is simplistic.

And finally, this kind of big data research opens for me all kinds of ethical questions about the researcher’s relationship to her subjects who have no idea that their metadata and information, down to the individual level it sounds like from the interview, has been handed over.

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The Image and Terror

Did American citizens in the spring of 2004 notice the resemblance of Lynndie England leading an Iraqi on a leash to Tintoretto’s treatment of a similar moment in the Passion? Did they notice the uncanny coincidence in the release of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ at the very time the Abu Ghraib images were made public in the spring of 2004? Did they notice the resemblance between Gibson’s portrayal of the pleasure and glee that the Roman soldiers take in torture and the grinning faces of American soldiers mocking their Iraqi victims? Did they ask themselves what has become of Christianity in a time when its major cinematic expression completely eliminates its positive message in favor of an obsessive concentration on the minute details of the tortured human body, from beatings, to a scourging that literally flays the flesh from the victim, to agonizingly slow death by that “stress position” known as crucifixion? Did they notice that Arabs and Muslims have now assumed the position of the sacrificial victims in a Christian crusade against evil?

Cloning Terror: The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present by W. J. T. Mitchell

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Views from the Ground: Investigating U.S. Drone Strikes

Event took place on Tues, October 29, 2013. Event description:

Hosted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (NYU School of Law) & the Open Society Foundations

Under President Obama, the US dramatically expanded targeted killing outside traditional battlefields. Over 400 strikes since 2009 have killed thousands of people. Yet rarely do American audiences hear directly from victims, or about investigations into civilian deaths. Experts at this event discussed soon-to-be released, groundbreaking reports, a new film, and legal actions that reveal serious concerns around US strikes and—for the first time—a victim of a US drone strike will speak directly to an American audience.

Welcome: Sarah Knuckey (NYU Law) and Christopher Rogers (OSF)

Moderator: Steve Coll, Dean, Columbia Journalism School; Staff Writer, The New Yorker

+ Rafiq ur Rehman, whose mother was killed in a 2012 drone strike in Pakistan
+ Robert Greenwald, director of the upcoming documentary “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” which documents Rehman’s case, among others
+ Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, speaking on his new UN report on targeted killings and the right to life.
+ Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International Pakistan Researcher, speaking on his recent investigations of strikes in Pakistan.
+ Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, speaking on the ACLU’s litigation challenging targeted killings secrecy and the killing of US citizens in Yemen.
+ Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch Senior Terrorism/Counterterrorism Researcher, speaking on her new report on drone strikes in Yemen.

This event was presented in memory and honor of Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni advocate and writer who made enormous contributions to awareness of the civilian and security impacts of US targeted killings. Mothana died at the age of 24 in September 2013.

This event took place on Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

The most revealing section of this appears towards the end in response to the first question by an audience member. I’m transcribing it roughly here:

1:09:00 Audience member: Based on the evidence we have now – which is a great amount, do you think the United States should stop completely its drone attacks right now? right now?
(Panelists look at each other.  Steve Coll: it’s a clear enough question. laughs from audience.)

1:10:00 Shamsi (ACLU): I think that [pause the answer to that is based not he info we have, it appears clear that several hundred civilian bystanders have died. Mistakes have been made, but i cannot say to you that the use of drones is in itself unlawful or always unlawful. sdrones may be used um and lethal force might be permissible under very restricted circumstances including in the context of human rights as well as the laws of war. i think our position is that the unlawful killing, and we think that killing people far from any battlefield under the circumstances that the Obama administration is currently engaged in results in unlawful killing. That needs to stop. That the president’s promises of reigning and restricting the use of lethal force have to be followed upon.

1:11:16 Tayler (Human Rights Watch): I’ll take a drone over a cluster munition any day but i share all of hina’s concerns about the sue of, secrecy surrounding the drone program, the questions about the legality of the strikes, so what we need is enough basic information, and it’s shocking that this many years later, we do not have it – about how exactly drones are being used, but the weapon itself is — i do not think that we need to stop using drones, and i don’t think we’re in a position to say that we should stop all strikes – uh – there are serious terrorist threats in this world uh theres a lot of debate and discussion that should happen on the best way to address that threat but um – thats a long way from saying stop now.

1:02:06 Heyns (UN Special Rapporteur): I would also say that i also  don’t think that drones are inherently illegal if they are used in a situation of armed conflict within the rules of international humanitarian law. it can be justifiable. I think the problem comes in outside of situations of armed conflict and that is where i think the main focus should be.

Sarah Knuckey remarked on the answers, which kicked off a conversation online.

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Reagan and the Afghan Resistance

From the archives – while researching for Wounds, we came across this Reagan dedication of the space shuttle, Columbia, to the Afghan resistance. Enjoy!

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To Think With

There are some great videos out on the interwebs, so here are few of what I’ve been watching, thinking about as I report the terror war(s). Oh yes – and there’s David Harvey, just because.

Critique of Humanitarian Reason | Didier Fassin:

Video of the House Judiciary Committee Hearing on drones here and witness testimonies here.

The Everwhere War | Derek Gregory

The Everywhere War – RT with Derek Gregory – 10 November 2011 from Forensic Architecture on Vimeo.

Reading Marx’s Capital | David Harvey:

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I. Notes on the Pakistan cables

These are my notes, thoughts, musings on the cables related to Afghanistan and Pakistan. These notes refer to these cables:

1. Govt abandoned Swat. “Kayani was candid that the government has essentially abandoned the Swat valley.” Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009. And that is exactly what those who opposed the Swat operation were saying from the start, and has been clear for a long time now.

2. Does he or doesn’t he? “Biden asked if Kayani made a distinction between the Pashtuns and the Taliban. Kayani replied that the Taliban were a reality, but the Afghan government dominated by the Taliban had had a negative effect on Pakistan.” Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009. Important to know particularly as it concerns what happened in Fata and Swat.

3. Military funding. Senator Biden said the system of reimbursement through Coalition Support Funds would be reexamined. Kayani said that the military had only received about $300 million of the $1 billion ostensibly reimbursed for military expenses. He was not implying that the money had been stolen, but had been used for general budget support.”Biden’s meeting w. Kayani Secret, US Embassy, Islamabad, Feb 06, 2009.

4. American knowledge of murders by the Pakistani Army. “A growing body of evidence is lending credence to allegations of human rights abuses by Pakistan security forces…The crux of the problem appears to center on the treatment of terrorists detained in battlefield operations and have focused on the extra-judicial killing of some detainees. The detainees involved were in the custody of Frontier Corps or Pakistan Army units.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. Why presume that the ones being detained and killed are, in fact, terrorists? As with drones, there is a presumption that if you have been killed, you must have been a terrorist. Witch hunt anyone?

5. The ‘guilt’ of the forcibly disappeared. “The allegations of extra-judicial killings generally do not/not extend to what are locally referred to as “the disappeared” — high-value terrorist suspects and domestic insurgents who are being held incommunicado by Pakistani intelligence agencies…” Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. Again, the presumption that those missing are guilty.

6. Orientalist logic as explanation for Army murders. “Revenge for terrorist attacks on Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps personnel is believed to be one of the primary motivating factors for the extra-judicial killings. Cultural traditions place a strong importance on such revenge killings, which are seen as key to maintaining a unit’s honor.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

7. They have to kill because the courts don’t work. “Senior military commanders have equally and repeatedly stressed their concerns that the court’s are incapable of dealing with many of those detained on the battlefield and their fears that if detainees are handed over to the courts and formally charged, they will be released,…This fear is well-founded as both Anti-Terrorism Courts and the appellate judiciary have a poor track record of dealing with suspects detained in combat operations such as the Red Mosque operation in Islamabad…Post assesses that the lack of viable prosecution and punishment options available to the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps is a contributing factor in allowing extra-judicial killings and other human rights abuses of detained terrorist combatants to proceed.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

8. Number of detainees. “There may be as many as 5000 such terrorist detainees currently in the custody of the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps from operations in Malakand, Bajaur, and Mohmand.”Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009.

9. The solution to PK Army murders? Legalise the state of exception. “To the Defense Minister propose assistance in drafting a new Presidential Order that would create a parallel administrative track for charging and sentencing terrorists detained by the military in combat operations.” Human rights abuses by the PK Army Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 10. 2009. But, it’s very interesting to see that legal regimes matter, however oddly. I would shy away from viewing this simply as a legal “cover”; it is that, but why does the US feel the need to create a legal cover in the first place?

10. Verbiage. Why does Anne Patterson use the antiquated “Pakhtoon” rather than the more common “Pashtun” in her cables? Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

11. What the PK Army may do in case of US withdrawal from Afghanistan. “General Kayani has been utterly frank about Pakistan’s position on this. In such a scenario, the Pakistan establishment will dramatically increase support for Taliban groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, which they see either as ultimately likely to take over the Afghan government or at least an important counter-weight to an Indian-controlled Northern Alliance.” Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

12. Follow the money? The Pakistani establishment, as we saw in 1998 with the nuclear test, does not view assistance — even sizable assistance to their own entities — as a trade-off for national security vis-a-vis India.” Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

13. Afghanistan: Does the Army want it stable or unstable? “Afghan instability by definition leads the Pakistani establishment to increase support for the Taliban and thereby, unintentionally, create space for al-Qaeda. No amount of money will sever that link.”Will more aid persuade the PK Army to cut its ties with extremists? Secret/Noforn, US Embassy, Islamabad, Sept 23, 2009

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