Seven years on from Obama’s first drone strike, civilian victim describes his ordeal

January 23, 2016

Seven years on from Obama’s first drone strike, civilian victim describes his ordeal

Today (Saturday January 23) marks seven years to the day since President Obama’s first drone strike in office, which he was reportedly informed afterwards had killed innocent civilians. One of those victims, Faheem Qureshi, was 14 years old at the time of the strike. It killed several members of his family and left him without his left eye and severely burned.

At the time, Faheem was a high school student whose favourite subject was chemistry. Several of his cousins and uncles were killed in the strike, which Faheem survived only because he was able to drag his body far enough away that people felt it was safe to provide aid. Faheem was hospitalised for 24 days in Peshawar before he was recovered enough to leave. To this day, he still requires medical treatment for head injuries suffered in the attack.

During his time in office, President Obama has significantly expanded the CIA’s covert drone programme in Pakistan and Yemen, launching over 500 strikes in those two countries alone. He has never fully acknowledged the programme’s existence nor apologised to any of the hundreds of Yemeni and Pakistani civilians who have been killed since the drone programme began. Analysis of data by international human rights NGO Reprieve in 2014 found that 1,147 people – including women and children – were killed in attempts to target 41 men, raising serious concerns about the ‘precise’ nature of strikes.

Last year, US citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian Giovanni Lo Porto were mistakenly killed in a US drone strike. For the first and only time, President Obama admitted the US’ error and publicly apologised to the families of the two men. Attempts by Pakistani and Yemeni victims to get a similar apology have been met with silence.

Speaking about his ordeal this week to international human rights organization Reprieve, Faheem Qureshi said:

“On January 23rd 2009, a hellfire missile tore my family’s lives apart as they sat down to dinner. The drone strike – President Obama’s first – killed three members of my family. As the sole survivor, I lost my left eye and suffered serious head injuries. I was only 14 years old at the time, but I can still remember as if it was yesterday the feeling of my body burning and how I had to crawl from the rubble to get help. I am told reporting has since revealed that the President was told, almost immediately, that a mistake had been made. He had killed innocent civilians – my family – in the strike.

“In the years since, I have witnessed hundreds of drone strikes in my community that have killed many more innocent civilians. People became scared to go to funerals because drones targeted them. They became scared to remove bodies from the aftermath of a drone strike in case another strike hit. The constant threat from drones dominated every minute of our lives. And yet, seven years on, President Obama will not even fully acknowledge the existence of the covert drone program. The only ‘mistakes’ he acknowledges are an American and an Italian he accidentally killed last year.

“What about the hundreds of innocent Pakistanis who have also lost their lives in drone strikes? What about my family? President Obama knows we were innocent and yet we’ve never received an explanation for why we were targeted, much less an apology. As President Obama prepares to leave the White House, he needs to bring his drone programme out of the shadows. It is past time he face up to what his drones really do and apologise to me, to my family, and to all the other innocent people who have been killed by these terrible weapons.”

Commenting, Jennifer Gibson, staff attorney at international human rights organization Reprieve, which investigates civilian casualties from drone strikes, said: “For seven years, secret  drone strikes have been President Obama’s weapon of choice in the War on Terror.  Taken covertly in places where the US is not at war, these strikes have killed and injured hundreds of innocent men, women and children just like Fahim. Yet, even as is own Generals warn how counterproductive the programme is, President Obama has refused calls for even basic transparency.

This is a legacy no president should want to leave. President Obama needs to bring a halt to this illegal and counterproductive programme. He needs to open it up to scrutiny and he needs to extend the same apology to the innocent Pakistani and Yemenis he has killed, as the one he extended to the families of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni La Porto. Fahim deserves nothing less.”


Notes to editors

1. Reprieve is an international human rights organization. Reprieve’s London office can be contacted on: communications [at] / +44 (0) 207 553 8140. Reprieve US, based in New York City, can be contacted on Katherine [dot] oshea [at] / +1 917 855 8064.