Two hostages who were being held by al-Qaeda were killed accidentally in January in an airstrike along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a statement this morning, President Obama said he took “full responsibility” for their deaths.
White House: Hostages accidentally killed
Al-Qaeda has been holding American development professional Warren Weinstein since 2011 and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto since 2012. A Whitehouse spokesperson said in a statement that the airstrike targeted a compound known to be occupied by al-Qaeda and that they “had no reason to believe either hostage” was inside the compound, reports Peter Baker of The New York Times.
The president himself decided to make a statement on the hostages’ deaths today. The information that they had been killed in the strike had been classified until now. Obama made the decision to declassify the information because he felt it was important to give Americans “as much information as possible” regarding U.S. counterterrorism operations, especially when innocent hostages are killed.
A White House spokesperson declared the operation which took the lives of the two hostages as “lawful” and “consistent” with U.S. “counterterrorism policies.” However, the spokesperson also said officials are conducting a “thorough independent review” to figure out exactly what happened how U.S. intelligence agencies can avoid killing hostages again in the future.
Details on the strike
Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA used a drone to carry out the operation. CIA agents had been keeping a close watch on the compound where the hostages were killed in the weeks before the drone strike. The agency clocked hundreds of hours of surveillance, increasing the surveillance in the days right before the strike.
Agents had visibility of the site and the people who were going in and out of it almost constantly during those days. They said they never saw the hostages or any other civilians inside the target. They believed al-Qaeda fighters were using the compound. U.S. intelligence officials believe now that the militants were careful to keep the two hostages inside the compound and out of their watchful eyes.
American militants also killed
In addition to the two hostages, two American members of al-Qaeda were also killed in January. Adam Gadahn, who was a spokesperson for al-Qaeda, died in a separate incident. U.S. intelligence officials believe Gadahn died in another drone airstrike that happened not long after the one in which Weinstein and Lo Porto were killed. American citizen Ahmed Farouq, a senior leaderof Al-Qaeda, was also killed in the drone strike that took Weinsten’s and Lo Porto’s lives.
U.S. officials were not specifically targeting them and did not know that they were inside the compound at the time of the strike. Usually the White House must ask for legal clearance to target American citizens believed to be planning attacks against the U.S. In this case, officials said that requirement did not apply because they weren’t being specifically targeted in the strike.
Gadahn has been involved with al-Qaeda for some time and was indicted on treason charges and for supporting terrorism during the Bush administration. Intelligence agents had previously identified Farouq as a key leader for the militant organization as he recently was appointed deputy emir of a subgroup called al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent.
CIA drone program takes a hit after hostages’ deaths
This is the first time the U.S. has inadvertently killed a hostage in a drone airstrike. President Obama expanded the CIA’s covert drone program in Pakistan after taking office. The hostages’ deaths strike a serious blow on the program.
Additionally, their deaths show how limited intelligence is and how great of a risk there is of accidental consequences when carrying out the drone program. The U.S. said they must keep the program going to fight back against al-Qaeda. Officials said the CIA will not carry out missile strikes on a target if they know there are civilians there.
It can take many weeks for intelligence agents to figure out who was killed in a drone strike. The one that killed the two hostages took place in January, but it wasn’t until the following month that agents started to hear that Weinstein and Lo Porto were killed. They didn’t hear how they were killed until later. Initially, officials believed that the hostages might have been killed by Pakistani forces when they conducted their own military operation.