American, Italian al-Qaeda Hostages Killed in CIA Drone Strike
A US drone strike targeting al-Qaeda fighters in Pakistan killed two hostages, an American and an Italian, in January, President Barack Obama said on Thursday.
The victims have been identified as Warren Weinstein, a 73-year-old contractor kidnapped by al-Qaeda in Lahore, Pakistan in July 2011 and Giovanni Lo Porto, 39, an Italian aid worker who was abducted along with a German colleague shortly after arriving in Pakistan in January 2012.
An American citizen believed to be a member of al-Qaeda, Ahmed Farouq, was also killed along with the two hostages. Another suspected American al-Qaeda operative, Adam Gadahn, was killed in a separate drone strike in the same region, the White House revealed in a statement.
In an emotional apology, President Obama said he takes “full responsibility” for the death of the hostages.
“In the fog of war, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur,” Obama told reporters gathered in the White House briefing room. “As president and as commander in chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations. I profoundly regret what happened.”
“On behalf of the US government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families,” Obama added.
The president said he declassified information about the incident because the victims’ families “deserve to know the truth.”
“The United States is a democracy, committed to openness in good times and in bad,” Obama said. “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, that mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur.”
US officials said the CIA was closely monitoring a suspected al-Qaeda compound in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal areas in the weeks preceding the drone strike that killed the hostages, and that hundreds of hours of surveillance gave no indication that the captives, or any other civilians, were present there. The CIA observed a man believed to be a senior al-Qaeda commander entering the compound in the days leading up to the strike, although agency operatives did not realize it was Farouq.
Normally, the administration would have been required to obtain special legal permission to assassinate an American suspected of plotting attacks against the US, but that process did not apply since Farouq and Gadahn were not directly targeted. Gadahn was believed to be a spokesman and propagandist for the terrorist group believed to be responsible for the September 11 attacks against the United States, as well as many other attacks; Farouq was allegedly a commander of al-Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent (AQIS).
Obama said that an initial review of the deadly drone strike shows it was “fully consistent” with administration guidelines regulating such attacks. The administration has launched a review of the newly-revealed strikes to determine whether any policy changes are needed to avoid similar future errors.
US drone strikes have long been criticized for the killing innocent civilians. According to a 2012 study by researchers from Stanford Law School and New York University School of Law, only about 2 percent of people killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan were high-level terrorist operatives. The rest were lower-level fighters and civilians.
Obama has repeatedly defended US drone policy, claiming such strikes are an essential tool in the war against terrorism and that they “have not caused a huge number of civilian casualties.”
But according to the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism, as many as 1,100 innocent civilians have been killed in US drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2002. The Bureau also found that drones deliberately attacked first responders attempting to rescue strike victims as well as people attending funerals of suspected militants killed in drone attacks.
In 2012, Obama came under fire after the New York Times revealed the existence of a secret ‘kill list’ of approved drone strike targets, a list which included Americans, including children. Also revealed was the administration’s embrace of the dubious practice of re-defining ‘militant’ to include all military-age males in a target zone in a deliberately deceptive bid to artificially lower the civilian death toll.
ABC News reports Warren Weinstein was a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) contract economic development advisor in Lahore, Pakistan, who was helping Pakistani families escape poverty when he was abducted from his guarded home.
While USAID’s stated mission is to “end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing [America’s] security and prosperity,” the organization has a long history of involvement in covert action, subversion and support for brutal authoritarian regimes which included a USAID operative allegedly torturing innocent people to death for instructional purposes. There is no indication Weinstein was involved in any such activities.
The other slain hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto, traveled to the Punjab region as a humanitarian aid worker, where he was abducted along with German colleague Bernd Mühlenbeck, who was released last October. Lo Porto, a student at London Metropolitan University, was described by friends as warm, friendly and in love with the people and culture of Pakistan. Professor Mike Newman called him “incredibly loyal to his friends.”
The families of the slain hostages expressed their anguish at Thursday’s news.
“On behalf of myself, our two daughters, our son-in-law, and two grandchildren, we are devastated by this news and the knowledge that my husband will never safely return home,” widow Elaine Weinstein said in a statement. While Weintstein thanked a handful of members of Congress and the FBI for their “relentless efforts” to secure her husband’s release, she blasted “other elements of the US government” for providing only “inconsistent and disappointing” assistance.