The epicenter of global terrorism, and the CIA’s highly classified drone war against extremist groups, is a black hole on the map — a region of Pakistan off limits to outsiders, and especially Westerners. It’s an area so dangerous that even the Pakistani military avoids it. The CIA may have launched 70 drone strikes in tribal Pakistan in 2011 alone. But Americans, like the rest of the world, have no idea what the area looks like, or who lives there.
One resident of North Waziristan wants to expose the conflict. Noor Behram has spent years photographing the aftermath of drone strikes, often at personal risk. Working with Islamabad lawyer Shahzad Akbar and London-based human rights activist Clive Stafford Smith, who are helping get his photos to the outside world, Behram provided Danger Room with dozens of his images, none of which have ever been published in the United States.
What follows is a sample of some of the most arresting photos. Be advised: Many of these pictures are disturbing. Some of them show dead children.
Also be aware that our sources came to us with an agenda: discrediting the drone war. “I want to show taxpayers in the Western world what their tax money is doing to people in another part of the world: killing civilians, innocent victims, children,” Behram says. Stafford Smith is threatening the U.S. embassy in Pakistan with a lawsuit over its complicity in civilian deaths from drone strikes. And anonymous U.S. officials have claimed that Akbar, whose clients are suing the CIA for wrongful deaths in the drone war, is acting at the behest of Pakistani intelligence — something he denies.
Nevertheless, after careful consideration, we chose to publish some of these images because of the inherent journalistic value in depicting a largely unseen battlefield.
Before posting Behram’s photos we took a number of measures to confirm as best we could what was being shown. We verified Behram’s bona fides with other news organizations. We sifted through the images, tossing out any pictures that couldn’t correlate with previously reported drone attacks. Then we grilled Behram in a series of lengthy Skype interviews from Pakistan, translated by Akbar, about the circumstances surrounding each of the images.
Still, we weren’t at the events depicted. We don’t know for sure if the destruction and casualties shown in the photos were caused by CIA drones or Pakistani militants. Even Behram, who drives at great personal risk to the scenes of the strikes, has little choice but to rely on the accounts of alleged eyewitnesses to learn what happened.
But we know for sure that these are rare photos from a war zone most Americans never see. “In North Waziristan, the bar for western journalists is very high because of the Taliban presence,” says Peter Bergen, al-Qaida expert and author of The Longest War.
The CIA has shown no inclination to declassify its secret war. But transparency may come a different way. Akbar and Stafford Smith have recently begun giving cameras to North Waziristanis, so they can document the drone war themselves. Behram wants to publish a book of his hundreds of photographs. A black hole might soon become a floodlight.
Datta Khel, Oct. 13, 2010
Behram arrived in Datta Khel, a district not far from Mirin Shah — North Waziristan’s main city — after the funerals for the victims of this strike. He was told that six people died, but didn’t see the corpses. One of the dead was said to be a man in his thirties who was supposed to soon be married, the cousin of the teenager in the maroon shirt shown here.
The teenager helped with the cleanup and rescue effort at the scene of his cousin’s death. Along with some other local children, when he saw Behram taking photos, he ran over to Behram to express how angry he was. He gathered the children and they showed Behram fragments of the missile they recovered. Three U.S. ordnance experts examined Behrams’ photos of these pieces, are concluded that they were Hellfires — the missiles fired by U.S. drones and helicopters.
The teenager in the maroon shirt and his friend in the black, about the same age, were an emotional mixture of anger, grief and exhaustion. “They were pissed because he’s one of these guys’ cousin,” Behram recalls, “but at the same time they were overworked in the rescue, so they were not saying much.”