At the crack of dawn on Valentine’s Day, drone victim Kareem Khan was released – or rather thrown from a van, blindfolded, in the Tarnol surburb of Islamabad, not far from the temporary home of his family. His hands, at least, were untied but he was ‘pretty shaken up’ after being ‘tortured, beaten up, questioned, put in a cell, and handcuffed’ for 9 days, according to his lawyer Shazhad Akhbar. Kareem’s abduction bears the hallmarks of the Pakistan intelligence services (‘ISI’): the timing of the operation, number of men (about 20 men of whom 8 were uniformed), vehicles in attendance and absence of a local police report.
There might have been nothing unusual about Kareem’s story at the hands of the ISI, now able to work under cover of a new law which permits detention of terror suspects for 90 days without need to disclose whereabouts or charges. But the timing of his disappearance days before he was due to speak to parliamentarians in the UK, Germany and Holland suggests there may have been a connection. We are now told that the interrogation focused on Kareem’s work reporting on drone strikes in Waziristan; and that he was specifically warned not to speak to the media. News of his abduction on the 9th triggered legal action (habeas) in Pakistan and a concerted campaign for his release in the United States and EU.
MPs and peers will now benefit from hearing Kareem’s story first hand: the deaths of his father and son; the investigation and reporting of drone strikes he has done since; the impact of drone strikes on his community; the Pakistan High Court civil proceedings in which judgment is due; perhaps Kareem’s interrogation last week.
The story does not end here. The abduction demands some reflection on why this brave man was invited to the UK – and why he was taken on the 5th. Kareem, and the other APPG invitees Noor Begram and Noor Khan, represent the ‘human face’ of the CIA drone program in Pakistan. Where there is still no official acknowledgment of the program – and therefore no official record of anyone killed or wounded in the strikes – we are dependent on individual victims and investigative reporters, like Kareem, speaking out to ‘name the dead.’ Stuck between a rock and a hard place – and manipulation of numbers and stories by all sides – those willing and able to negotiate this role are thin on the ground.
Inviting individuals like Kareem to speak directly to parliamentarians has the potential to be a powerful antidote to lack of both transparency and access to Waziristan. It also sends a clear message: that European parliamentarians will continue to use parliamentary mechanisms to seek information, promote informed debate and increase the accountability of those responsible. There is a model for this: the family of Momina Bibi, the 67 year old midwife killed in October 2012, travelled to give testimony to lawmakers in Washington DC one year later.
But we should reflect on the dangers to individual invitees, and recall the history of interference with drone strike investigators. Last year in July, Abdulela Haider Shaye a Yemeni journalist was released but confined to Sana’a for two years – his drone strike reporting marshalled as evidence of links with terrorists. In September, Bara’a Shiban a Reprieve investigator was detained at Gatwick airport; in December he received anonymous death threats after recording eye witness accounts and images of the aftermath of the Yemen JSOC ‘wedding party’ strike, although his reporting triggered a rare investigation.
It is hoped that parliamentarians in the UK may reflect on the reported ‘back door’ consent of the ISI in the US drone program. According to anonymous DOD officials reported over the weekend, any ongoing arrangement between the CIA and ISI may be jeopodised if the US military and JSOC take over the program. Significantly, this is at a time when the US may be forced in 2015 to seek alternative bases from which to launch the drone strikes in Pakistan, perhaps from Tajikistan, visited last month by Major General Nagata, Commander of US Special Operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. This was anticipated in January. The US drone program in Pakistan, paused for peace talks, is under pressure.
Kareem’s disappearance may also cause MPs to reflect and examine the claims of complicity of our own intelligence services; and recent statements from the MOD which indicate further opportunities for ‘burden sharing’ between the UK and US are being considered. Policy makers in the UK may be more circumspect about providing support to a program approved by those who go to such lengths to silence their critics.