ABSTRACT

On a hot August night in 2009, a man named Baitullah Mehsud lay on the rooftop of his father-in-law's house. The house was in the village of Zanghara in the remote and mountainous region of South Waziristan in north-west Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan. The man, a diabetic, was at the time receiving a leg massage as well as an intravenous drip to treat dehydration and stomach problems. Suddenly, the house was engulfed in flame as two Hellfire air-to-surface missiles slammed into it, instantly killing the man and 11 other people. Baitullah Mehsud was the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, and the missiles had been fired from an uninhabited aerial vehicle (UAV) or ‘drone’ hovering, undetected, about two miles above the house.1 According to the Government of Pakistan, Mehsud was the mastermind of the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and responsible for many suicide bombings across the border in Afghanistan. The decision to kill him, and the pressing of a button to make it happen, reportedly took place almost 7,000 miles away at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), a non-military agency of the United States (US) Government.2 The person who, via satellite, remotely operated the drone and released the missiles was probably either a CIA officer or a former member of the US military working under contract to the Agency. He or she would have been sitting at a console with a keyboard, a steering device resembling a joystick, and three television screens (one with live video feed from the drone flying over Pakistan, one displaying technical data on the drone, and a third showing a navigation map).3 For hours or days prior to the missile strike on Mehsud, the operator and others would have been watching live, close-up video footage of the house in South Waziristan captured by the drone's powerful camera. This particular drone strike was the last of 15 that had specifically targeted Mehsud,4 but it is unclear how many deaths (if any) resulted from the previous 14 attempts on his life.