Psychological terror? Lessons from Pakistan and Yemen on the psychological impact of drones, 5 March 2013

 On 5 March 2013, the APPG met to discuss an often under-explored aspect of drone use –  the  psychological impact.  The Group heard presentations from Jennifer Gibson, formerly Living under Drones project, and Dr Peter Schaapveld, a forensic psychologist before a robust discussion on the issues raised. The meeting opened with Jennifer Gibson, who discussed the experiences of those living under drones in Pakistan.  She began by providing the background to the Living under Drones project.

In September 2012, Stanford and NYU Universities published a report detailing the impact of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan. The report was the product of nine months of intensive research and is the most comprehensive report to date on what it means to be living under drones. The research included two investigations in Pakistan, over 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and a review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting. The research team began the investigation expecting to focus on civilian deaths and injuries caused by drone strikes. As the research progressed, however, a common theme that repeatedly arose was the significant psychological impact of the use of this weapon.

Jennifer noted the limitations of the research methodology. These included the fact that these strikes occurred in a relatively inaccessible region of Pakistan thus attending the actual drones strike area was not possible; the need to rely on victims to travel to share information; and the difficulties in gaining the perspective and experiences of women, due to strict gender segregation.

The research found that the impact of drones was manifesting itself in a number of ways including a reduced willingness for local people to attend the scene of attacks and an erosion of community trust. The psychological impact of drones stemmed from their constant presence, compounded by the fact that those below didn’t know the targeting criteria or when the drones would fire their missile. Local people had developed a new word, ‘bangana’ meaning buzzing bee, to reflect the constant sound of the drones.

Jennifer referred to the comments of David Rohde, a New York Times reporter kidnapped in Afghanistan (later transferred to Pakistan), who heard drones during his captivity. He said: “The drones are terrifying. From the ground, it is impossible to determine who or what they are tracking as they circle overhead. The buzz of a distant propeller is a constant reminder of imminent death.”

Providing a number of quotes from those affected, she explored the range of consequences for those living under drones. One man said: “Everyone is scared all of the time. When we’re sitting together to have a meeting, we’re scared there might be a strike. When you can hear the drone circling in the sky, you think it might strike you. We’re always scared. We always have this fear in our head.”

She noted the consequences of drone use on communities and individuals included emotional breakdowns; running indoors or hiding when drones appear above; fainting; nightmares and flashbacks; hyper startled reactions to loud noises; outbursts of anger or irritability; loss of appetite; and insomnia. The solutions sought by local people were broad. Anecdotal evidence found, in extreme cases, women were being locked in rooms as a method of containing the affect of the psychological trauma (screaming, for example).  Many were now using anti-anxiety medication, anti-depressants or tranquilizers. This was significant as medical facilities in the region were limited, meaning victims had to undertake relatively arduous journeys to access medical treatment. She also explored the broader impact on the community, for example, noting the fact that people had stopped socialising together and children had stopped attending school. Congregating in groups, for example at weddings or at community meetings (jirgas) was considered risky behaviour. Jennifer ended her presentation with a quote from a Pakistani Mental Health Professional, who said:

The biggest concern I have . . . is that when children grow up, the kinds of images they will have with them, it is going to have a lot of consequences. You can imagine the impact it has on personality development. People who have experienced such things, they don’t trust people; they have anger, desire for revenge . . . So when you have these young boys and girls growing up with these impressions, it causes permanent scarring and damage.

Next to speak was Dr Peter Schaapveld, who reported back from his recent trip to Yemen. He began by explaining the background to his research. He was invited by the UK-based charity, Reprieve, to accompany the organisation on a fact-finding mission to Yemen from 9-16 February 2013. During the trip, a number of interviews were conducted with civil society, journalists and government about on-going drone use and other kinetic activity in the country. In addition to the interviews, a three-day clinic was arranged in Aden from 13-15 February, during which victims of air strikes in Yemen were interviewed. In total thirty-four persons were interviewed during the three day clinic with the assistance of a translator. Twenty-five were male; one adult female and eight children.

Dr Schaapveld highlighted the fact that given the security situation in Yemen broadly, and particularly in the affected region, it was likely that only the most robust individuals attended the clinic; those most severely affected were unlikely to be able to make the journey. Thus it would be logical to assume that there would be an increased severity of symptoms in the general population effected by strikes. For nearly all of the subjects, the triggering incident for the resulting abnormal mental health condition was an air strike. All continue to be affected by, and prevented from recovery by, the presence of drones. Throughout the week, people reported different levels of drone activity, often dependent upon where they were based in the country. Reports varied from the near constant presence of drones to drones flying on a circuit that passed overhead anywhere from once every seven minutes to once every forty-five minutes. In terms of results virtually all interviewed were found to be suffering from formal abnormal psychological conditions. The majority (71%) were found to be suffering from ‘full blown’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); 91% suffered from significant symptoms of PTSD. Other severe abnormal psychological conditions were found including Anxiety, Depression, dissociative experiences, panic reactions, hystericalsomatic reactions, exaggerated fear responses and abnormal grief reactions. 

The impact on children of drones was particularly worrying. Dr Schaapveld found that those examined were suffering from attachment disorders (either clinging to parents or behaving in an aloof and emotionally disconnected manner). They exhibited specific phobias for aircraft and a generalised fear of loud noises. Hypervigilance was common as was a lack of concentration, a loss of interest in pleasurable activities and infrequent or non-existent school attendance. Children were reported to exhibit emotional problems being emotionally labile and easily irritated and angry. This latter symptom led both to family and school disruption.

He then moved to some vignettes of those he examined. First was the case of Yasmeen (not her real name), aged eight. Before a strike hit the house next door she was a keen student and would often study for over an hour. After the strike she has been restless and unable to concentrate on studying for more than 5 to 10 minutes. She is also resistant to attending school. She is hyperactive and argumentative, has hallucinations and dreams of chaos and dead people. She frequently vomits at the sounds of drones and airplanes; indeed she vomited as she passed the airport on her journey to the clinic. Jamil (not his real name) was seven years old and had experienced air strikes since 2012. He regularly woke up screaming, and was startled by loud noises. He was said by both his father and his teachers to be frequently ‘spaced out’ which appeared clinically as dissociative re-experiencing of the original trauma (a severe symptom of PTSD). He was now doing poorly at school. Murad (not his real name), aged 17, often re-experienced the trauma of watching his friend burn to death after a drone strike. He told Dr Schaapveld that he and his friends used to be interested in Western fashion, music and films but had now lost all interest. He appeared withdrawn. Dr Schaapveld made the point that emerging research has shown that PTSD in children is associated with observable (neuro-imaging) alteration to their developing brains thus leaving permanent organic damage.

Dr Schaapveld believes it is possible the trauma found in Yemen, and perhaps Pakistan, is a new form of PTSD. He argued that while the symptoms were the similar to normal PTSD, the difference arose with the constant retraumatisation of those affected. He commented on the sample of those examined and noted that this was a case series and not an experimental selection.  With regard to the perception of Yemen held by those examined, Dr Schaapveld heard comments such as: “Yemen has no future in presence of drones”; “The strikes are collective punishment for the acts of a few”; “the United States and Yemini Governments know where al-Qaeda is and they are targeting civilians instead”; “the Yemeni Government are allowing the attacks to force civilians into the hands of al-Qaeda and then giving them a reason to attack”.

Dr Schaapveld concluded with a reference to research from the Holocaust which has showed that PTSD has trans-generational staying power when inflicted on a communitywide scale. He commented that Yemen was at high risk of a similar impact.

The meeting then moved to a discussion around the issues raised in the presentations. Highlighting previous experiences in the Second World War, a question was asked as to whether the aerial aspect of drone use was an intentional part of the “toolkit of warfare.”  Jennifer responded that her understanding from professionals is drones do not need to fly low enough to be heard or seen, yet communities are reporting that this is exactly what is happening. Additionally, she commented that everyone spoken to during the research mentioned the impact of buzzing, which was constant, and was substantive enough to be heard even indoors. This led to another participant highlighting the range of drones available to the military and the different heights at which they fly and commenting that, based upon established military doctrine and the findings in the Stanford/NYU report of constant aerial presence, the use of the aerial impact of drones could be seen as a method of showing military presence or strength.

A question was asked as to the impact of drones on drone pilots. Jennifer pointed to forthcoming research highlighted in the New York Times. Exploring Dr Schaapveld’s research, a question was asked as to how participants were found for the study. The participants came from Southern Yemen; for accessibility reasons, they came from a one hour drive from the city of Aden, where the clinic was held. Concern was highlighted at the lack of psychological support available to victims broadly, and those seen in the clinic particularly. Dr Schaapveld advocated that attendance at the clinic was beneficial for victims even if there was not the option of more substantive psychological care. Jennifer added that it should be noted that in Pakistan there was a feeling of constantly living under attack, much like one would feel if they actually lived in a warzone. It was also noted that, as in Pakistan, the area currently under attack from drones in Yemen was expanding.

Commenting on the anger caused by the attacks, a question was asked as to where this anger was channelled, for example, toward the US. Dr Schaapveld commented that he did not explore this issue in detail but did note that some of the anger was being directed at the Yemeni Government for allowing the attacks to happen. Some felt it was the Yemeni Government’s responsibility to stop the attacks. There was also a feeling that the Yemeni Government was unable to halt the attacks. Referring to her research in Pakistan, Jennifer noted that the researchers found a mixed reaction when it came to feelings towards the US. When asked if there is a message they would like researchers to take back, most said “please ask them to stop” and “it is not working”.

In response to a query about the targeting of individuals and intelligence, Jennifer noted that this was a grey area. Communities, as well as the New York Times, were reporting stories of “chips” used to help the drone identify who to target. People in the community were reportedly paid to place the “chips” on the doorsteps of militants.

However, communities reported that these people were instead placing the “chips” on the doorsteps of people with whom they had feuds. It was safer to do this than to place the chip on the doorstep of an actual militant. Jennifer noted that while many of those interviewed referenced the “chips”, the study was unable to establish the veracity of these claims. What they were able to establish was that the mere belief that these “chips” existed was undermining community trust. Local communities were becoming fearful and suspicious of their neighbours; further, this was undermining the Pashto code of honour, which strongly emphasised hospitality to strangers. People were now reluctant to welcome people into their homes.

A question was asked as to how those undertaking research in Yemen were able to differentiate between drone strikes and missile strikes from an aircraft. Dr Schaapveld pointed out that the main focus of his research was the psychological impact and thus he had not explored this issue particularly in-depth. It was pointed out by a participant at the meeting in Yemen that there was some confusion amongst local people as to the method of attack on occasion but that improvements were being made to try and establish the facts on the ground. It was also noted that the impact of the drones was felt further by the fact that they circled overhead continually, unlike airplanes.

In response to a question about how this research was being publicised, Dr Schaapveld commented that a formal report would be forthcoming and that there had been interest from a number of news channels in the story. In relation to the NYU/Stanford report, Jennifer noted that she was unaware of any plans by Stanford and NYU, as she was no longer with the Stanford clinic that conducted the project. However, Reprieve, a London-based legal charity, was looking to conduct more detailed, in-depth research on drone use in Yemen.

Broadening the discussion, a question was asked about fears in Pakistan about drone use expanding to other parts. Jennifer highlighted the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan and the rising concerns about this in the country, particularly what the US’s plans were for drones post-withdrawal. A further question focused on the relationship between drone use in Pakistan, the current government’s support for drones, and the forthcoming elections. Jennifer commented that allegations of Pakistani consent for drones are based upon a 2008 cable released by Wikileaks. Since then, there has been no evidence of consent and, in fact, in the past year, the government has been increasingly vocal in its opposition. Recently, they even raised the issue at the UN Human Rights Council. Drones were a key issue in the elections and that this would have an impact on their further use.

Speakers’ briefing, 05.03.2013

Note: the last minute absence of the APPG Chair unfortunately means this meeting cannot be considered to be official under relevant APPG rules. However, there was good attendance from members and stakeholders.


The APPG meeting followed on from a press conference held earlier in the day. Chaired by John Hemming MP, Treasurer of the APPG, Dr Schaapveld presented his findings to the media together with Ian Cameron, who spoke about his experiences of living with ‘Doodlebugs’, during the Blitz in the Second World War in London.

John Hemming MP opened the event by making the distinction between surveillance drones and armed drones, in both their purpose and their outcome. Reference was made to his recent contribution on drones to the Dialogue feature of House magazine, in which two MPs debate a key issue via email. This was indicative of the rising prominence of drones and significance of the debate around their use. He pointed to the need for a consideration of the objectives and outcomes of drones use in an asymmetric conflict. He also highlighted the concern that the use of this weapon was fuelling terrorism through a desire for revenge. A further area of concern was the idea that the use of drones could be considered collective punishment and that such punishment was illegal in international law and counter-productive. Outlining the purpose of the APPG, he noted that the Group was concerned that legislation needed to catch-up with the technology in relation to the use of drones for extra-judicial executions. This was particularly significant as the current procedure of its use caused indiscriminate harm to civilians, a tactic usually employed by terrorist groups. He concluded by saying that: “I think the use of armed drones is not reducing the amount of terrorism. I think it is maintaining it or maybe even increasing it. We want to have a strategy that achieves peace in the world.”

Ian Cameron was born in 1938, and lived in Clapham, London for the duration of the war. He was keen to point out that he was not a ‘Doodlebug’ expert and was just going to recount his own personal experiences. He highlighted the use of censorship by the Government as to the actual frequency and operation of doodlebugs. On the 24th June 1944, he was outside the Hope and Anchor pub, close to his home, with his father when he heard the air raid siren. He dropped to the ground. He peeped through his arms, he watched a plane fly lower and lower towards him. He heard the

‘Doodlebug’, the engine cut out and the bomb fell close by. He returned home to check on mother and two sisters. He found that they were ok as they had been in the local park at the time of the attack but the family flat was decimated. He remembers seeing an 83 year old woman named Rose sitting outside, badly hurt. Her head was bloody and bandaged. On many occasions, he said he had to run in a frantic panic with his parents and sisters to shelters, for example, on the platforms of the nearby Clapham North Tube Station. The family were moved to a requisition flat in Oval. He commented that “it was a fluke we weren’t killed, we were very traumatized”.