A case of civilian casualties originally researched by AAN has found its way to the High Court in London. A bank worker from rural Takhar, Habib Rahman, who lost five close relatives in a targeting killing during the 2010 Afghan election campaign, is challenging the legality of the alleged involvement of a British civilian police body in putting together the military’s targeted killing list, the so-called JPEL. AAN Senior Analyst Kate Clark, who conducted the original investigation, reports.This photo shows Zabet Amanullah, one of ten victims of the messed up 'targeted' killing from 2010, a civilian and father-in-law of the man who decided to take the British government to court. Photo: private
In 2010, an election campaign convoy was bombed from the air in a targeted killing which ISAF claimed had killed a senior Taleban commander and leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. AAN revealed how the strike had actually been based on flawed intelligence – the mixing up of the phone numbers the Taleban commander with Habib Rahman’s father-in-law, Zabet Amanullah. The commander had been put on the military’s targeted killing list, but it was Rahman’s father-in-law, Zabet Amanullah, and nine other civilians who ended up being killed. Lawyers acting on Rahman’s behalf have asked the court to rule on the legality of the alleged role of a British civilian police body, the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), in helping to compile, review, administer and/or execute the ‘kill list’ of insurgent leaders and facilitators.
Capture-or-kill has been one of the main tactics used to try to break the Taleban insurgency in recent years. Once a person’s name is added to the Joint Prioritised Effects List or JPEL as an insurgent leader of facilitator, he is deemed an enemy combatant and can be targeted with detention or lethal force regardless of whether he is fighting at the time or sleeping. The tactic has succeeded in decimating the Taleban’s field leadership and is legal, if certain safeguards are maintained, in particular taking all feasible precautions to protect civilians. However, the list is based on intelligence and if that is wrong, foreign forces can easily end up targeting civilians – as happened in Takhar in September 2010.
The military denied having killed civilians, but through extensive interviews with witnesses, survivors, government officials and the senior US Special Operations Forces commanders who had ordered the strike, AAN was able to present overwhelming evidence that they had targeted the wrong man and killed a civilian. Zabet Amanullah had been in Takhar as the agent for his nephew who was standing in the parliamentary elections. The military killed nine other civilians, all election campaign workers, whom they had just assumed were also Taleban.
The military never admitted getting the wrong man and indeed, gave duplicitous responses to journalists who asked questions about the killing (see AAN reporting here). Their denial came even after the intended target of the strike was located and interviewed in Peshawar by Harvard academic, Michael Semple.
Those who put Rahman’s father-in-law on the kill list had used network analysis of the phone calls made by the senior Taleban commander and then mixed up his number with Zabet Amanullah’s, conflating the two men’s identities. They failed to make even the most basic background checks – something which would have revealed that the dead man was a famous figure in Takhar, was known at the presidential palace in Kabul and indeed, had been featuring regularly in the local media during the election campaign.
The legal challenge today(1) has come in the alleged role – see Rahman’s lawyers’ press release here) – of the British police’s Serious Organised Crime Agency in helping put together the kill list. SOCA has denied this absolutely.
But what on earth might a British civilian policing agency be doing helping out with the military’s kill list in the first place? There are various sources for the UK’s involvement generally in both compiling and executing the kill list, including Wikileaks, as reported in The Guardian, a PBS documentary and Der Spiegel. As to SOCA’s specific involvement, Rahman’s lawyers have presented as evidence an official US Senate report, Afghanistan’s Narco War: Breaking the Link Between Drug Traffickers and Insurgents.
The principal investigator and author of the report, Douglas Frantz, who was then working for the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator John Kerry (now US Secretary of State) said that during a formal briefing an officer explained that, ‘We have a list of 367 ‘kill or capture’ targets, including 50 nexus targets who link drugs and insurgency.’ In other words, drug smugglers believed to be funding the insurgency have been put on the list of ‘insurgent leaders and facilitators’ for targeted killing or capture.
The Senate report describes how SOCA was one of a number of bodies – along with the US and UK military, the US Department of Drug Enforcement Agency and police and intelligence agencies from other countries – which were involved in the setting up of the Joint Inter-Agency Afghanistan Task Force (JIATF). In a witness statement to the court, Frantz said:
… military and civilian officials had provided information about the effort to combine law enforcement and military authorities in a program to identify drug traffickers who were involved with financing the insurgency. People who met the specific criteria would be placed the Joint Prioritized Effect List (JPEL), which would subject them to arrest and possible killing. My understanding was and remains that the JIATF was linked to the effort to identify people who qualified for inclusion on the JPEL. The briefing on the JIATF was conducted at the US military compound and it was attended by senior military and civilian law enforcement officers from the United States, Britain and Australia. The meeting was unclassified and not recorded, but the clear understanding was the information would be used in a subsequent public report.
In the Senate report, Frantz quotes ‘an investigator with SOCA who was involved in the JIATF:
… [he] described the approach as a critical opportunity to blend military and law enforcement expertise. ‘In the past, the military would have hit and evidence would not have been collected,’ he explained. ‘Now, with law enforcement present, we are seizing the ledgers and other information to develop an intelligence profile of the networks and the drug kingpins.’ An American military officer with the project was blunter, telling the committee staff, ‘Our long-term approach is to identify the regional drug figures and corrupt government officials and persuade them to choose legitimacy or remove them from the battlefield.’
SOCA contends that the Senate committee report misunderstood its role.
The legal challenge is serious. As a civilian policing agency, SOCA does not have combatant privileges – the legal protection given to members of armed forces to kill during an armed conflict and for this not to be classed as murder. As lawyer Rosa Curling from Leigh Day, which is representing Mr Rahman, said:
As a civilian policing organisation SOCA has no legitimate or lawful role to play in the compilation or administration of this Kill List – it has no authority to be involved in military operations and the killing of individuals. The courts must urgently review whether the SOCA’s and indeed the UK’s role in the compilation, review and execution of this list if unlawful. Incidents like that affecting our client must be properly investigated.
(1) See media reporting of the court case by The Guardian and Reuters.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020