A U.S. drone killed an American and an Italian held hostage in a January attack on an Al Qaeda compound in Pakistan, sparking new questions about the use of the controversial and still-evolving weapon.
The intelligence that underpinned the drone strike turned out to have been tragically incomplete, U.S. officials and lawmakers said Thursday. As a result, American development expert Warren Weinstein and Italian aid worker Giovanni Lo Porto lost their lives after years as captives of the militants.
Weinstein was abducted from his guarded home in August 2011 in Pakistan’s relatively safe eastern city of Lahore.
He was employed at the time by a private U.S. contractor, J.E. Austin Associates Inc., which was working on a project for the U.S. Agency for International Development, a government agency responsible for nonmilitary foreign assistance. Pakistan is a major recipient of American aid.
U.S. officials said they have regularly briefed Weinstein’s family about U.S. efforts to find him, but U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t know where he was being held in Pakistan and didn’t attempt an operation to free him.
Lo Porto, born in Palermo, Sicily, was an experienced aid worker. After earning a degree in London, he had worked in the Central African Republic and Haiti before travelling to Pakistan, where he helped rebuild an area hit by severe flooding. He returned in Punjab in January 2012.
Soon after his arrival, on Jan. 19, he was abducted from a compound in Multan, a city in northern Pakistan, close to the Afghanistan border.
U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t realize that Weinstein was being held alongside Lo Porto until after analysts determined that they were killed at the compound in the January strike.
The deaths prompted President Barack Obama, who has expanded and redefined the use of U.S. drones, to take full responsibility.
“I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government I offer our deepest apologies to their families,” he said at the White House.
But Weinstein’s family expressed disillusionment at the U.S. and Pakistani approach to his capture and imprisonment by Al Qaeda.
“We were so hopeful that those in the U.S. and Pakistani governments with the power to take action and secure his release would have done everything possible to do so, and there are no words to do justice to the disappointment and heartbreak we are going through,” said Elaine Weinstein, the American hostage’s widow.
Obama said he spoke with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Weinstein’s family.
Obama knew about the deaths of the hostages when he met with Renzi in Washington last Friday but Obama didn’t tell him, a senior administration official said. Obama wanted to first develop a plan for sharing the news with the families and the public, the official said.
Renzi on Thursday expressed “deepest condolences” to the Lo Porto family, as well to the family of Weinstein. The Italian foreign ministry’s crisis unit immediately contacted Lo Porto’s family after Obama’s call.
It was the first known instance in which the Central Intelligence Agency killed hostages in a drone strike. The deaths were a major blow to the spy agency, which conducts the attacks largely behind a cloak of secrecy.
The CIA used rules of engagement that allow drone strikes against suspected militants even if the agency isn’t sure who they are.
The White House has launched a review of the strike to see if changes are needed to the program to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Officials said the program hasn’t been curtailed so far in response.
But Obama said the initial U.S. assessment of the strike shows it was fully consistent with the guidelines under which his administration conducts such counterterrorism operations.
The CIA launched the strike that killed the hostages under the broad authorities given to the agency to target suspected Al Qaeda targets in Pakistan, senior Obama administration officials said. Obama didn’t directly sign off on the strike beforehand, they said.
A spokesman for Pakistan’s embassy in Washington defended its government’s response to the Western captives and said Islamabad kept in close touch with the U.S. government about Weinstein’s case.
Pakistan’s intelligence and law-enforcement agencies made “strenuous efforts” to locate Weinstein, said the spokesman, Nadeem Hotiana, adding that Pakistan’s embassy in Washington regularly updated the Weinstein family as well as the Obama administration and Congress about its efforts to locate Weinstein.
However, Mrs. Weinstein, while saying she was unaware of all the facts behind her husband’s death, reserved her harshest criticism for Pakistan’s government.
“They failed to take action earlier in his captivity when opportunity presented itself, instead treating Warren’s captivity as more of an annoyance than a priority,” Mrs. Weinstein said.
Weinstein, while a captive, repeatedly appealed for greater help from the U.S. In a video released by Al Qaeda’s media arm in 2013, he made a direct appeal to Obama to negotiate his release, saying he felt “totally abandoned” by the U.S. government.
The Weinstein family was told of his death on Wednesday, a family spokesman said.
Along with Weinstein and Lo Porto, the strike on the compound killed Ahmed Farouq, an Al Qaeda leader and American citizen, the officials said. Until Thursday, Farouq was a little-known militant leader, and many experts were unaware that he held U.S. citizenship. The State Department said he also held Pakistani citizenship.
Farouq was identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as an operational leader who recently assumed the role of deputy emir of a new group known as Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, or AQIS.
Intelligence agencies said they believe American-born Al Qaeda spokesman Adam Gadahn was killed in January in a separate incident. Gadahn, who was indicted for treason in 2006, frequently referred to his identity as an American who joined the extremist movement.
An intelligence document obtained by Phase Zero gives the meticulous accounting of Gadahn’s transformation from American citizen to mere number on a targeting list (number 47, to be precise, when the Obama Administration took office):
- (S) Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) #152461
- (S) TPN # 2562339
- (S) Legal Authority/Warrant: W601236916
Obama embraced the program and expanded it dramatically after taking office in 2009, before announcing two years ago that changes would be made to try to mitigate the risk of civilian casualties and increase transparency about the operations. Many of those proposed changes were never made, U.S. officials said.
Details about CIA drone strikes in Pakistan are normally kept secret. In this case, Obama decided to declassify some of the information about the strike because of the U.S. government’s responsibility for the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, administration officials said.
The officials who spoke about the incident, however, declined to provide some details, including the date of the attack and precisely where it took place. They described the CIA drone strike as a “counterterrorism operation” because the program is classified.
The CIA had been closely monitoring the suspected Al Qaeda compound in Pakistan’s tribal areas for weeks leading up to the strike that killed the two hostages, according to a description of the operation based on interviews with U.S. administration and intelligence officials.
The agency collected hundreds of hours of surveillance. Then, a few days before the strike was launched, the surveillance was increased, giving the CIA near-constant visibility of the site and those entering it, Obama administration officials said.
At no point during that extended period of surveillance did the U.S. spy agency detect the presence of the two hostages or of any other civilians inside the compounds, the officials said. U.S. intelligence agencies now believe Al Qaeda took extraordinary measures to keep the hostages out of sight.
The White House normally would need to seek special legal clearances to directly target American citizens suspected of plotting attacks against the U.S. That process didn’t apply in these cases because Farouq and Gadahn weren’t being directly targeted in the operations, officials said.
Typically, it can take the CIA weeks or longer to determine who was killed in a drone strike.
In February, U.S. spy agencies began to pick up intelligence that Weinstein and Lo Porto had been killed, but they didn’t know how. At the time, U.S. officials thought that in addition to a possible drone strike, the hostages could have been killed in a military operation conducted by Pakistani forces, administration officials said.
To make a determination, U.S. spy agencies pored over CIA drone feeds, intercepted communications and other types of intelligence. A few days ago, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded with a high degree of confidence that the hostages were killed in the January drone attack. They then began the process of notifying relatives of the deceased as well as the Italian government and key congressional committees, Obama administration officials said.
The captors of U.S. aid worker Warren Weinstein received $250,000 in 2012 on what turned out to be a false promise that he would be freed, according to a Pakistani intermediary who negotiated directly with Al Qaeda for his release.
The Pakistani intermediary said $250,000 was handed over to the kidnappers in June 2012, following negotiations over Weinstein’s release.
The cash was handed over to the kidnappers in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar. The intermediary said he was unsure of the source of the money, which was in $100 bills, but described it as “private.”
A spokesman for the Weinstein family said the family had sought advice on dealing with the kidnapping from those “who deal with such issues on a regular basis.”
“Over the three and a half year period of Warren’s captivity the family made every effort to engage with those holding him or those with the power to find and rescue him,” a family spokesman said. “This is an ordinary American family and they’re not familiar with how one manages a kidnapping.”
In the weeks preceding the planned handover of the cash, a call was arranged between Weinstein and his wife, as “proof of life,” the intermediary said. Pakistani authorities even had a helicopter on standby to fly him to the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, the intermediary added. The Pakistani military didn’t return calls seeking comment.
“The money was delivered, but he [Weinstein] didn’t show up,” the intermediary said.
After the money was handed over, a different man representing the kidnappers began calling the intermediary, posing different terms for Weinstein’s release: He said he was told the kidnappers were prepared to release Weinstein as part of a prisoner exchange.
“They said [Weinstein] was a political prisoner,” the intermediary said.
According to the intermediary, the kidnappers proposed at one point to swap Weinstein for Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-trained Pakistani scientist who was sentenced in the U.S. in 2010 to 86 years for trying to kill U.S. soldiers and FBI agents in Afghanistan. At other times, they proposed Weinstein’s release in exchange for freeing militants in the custody of Pakistani security forces.
A spokesman for the Weinstein family said he had no information about the cash payment, the call beforehand between Weinstein and his wife, or the changing terms of the captors.
The intermediary said Weinstein had a good rapport with his captors. He already knew Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, and in captivity learned to communicate with his jailers in Pashto, the language spoken by ethnic Pashtuns who live on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan frontier.
“They kept him well and spent a lot of money to keep him alive on medicine for the heart,” said the intermediary. “Otherwise, he would have been dead long ago.”
Weinstein, who was 73 when he was killed, suffered from heart problems and asthma.
During the negotiations, the Pakistani intermediary kept a dedicated phone the kidnappers would call, sometimes as often as every other day. The intermediary said he never called the kidnappers.
Weinstein was being held on instructions from “the boss,” or “the Arab,” the kidnappers would say, which the intermediary took to mean Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The kidnappers, who claimed to be Afghans, threatened the intermediary at times. They never made any mention of the kidnapped Italian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, who was killed along with Weinstein in the U.S. drone strike. It is unclear how long the two men were held in the same compound.
Around two months ago, the kidnappers spoke about handing Weinstein over to the Islamic State militant group, but then said it was too difficult to send him to Syria, the intermediary said. Islamic State, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq, is locked in a rivalry with Al Qaeda. It is unclear why the kidnappers spoke about Islamic State, but Weinstein would already have been dead at that time.
Negotiations for Weinstein’s release continued well after his death. The Pakistani intermediary said the most recent contact with the kidnappers was last week, with those holding Weinstein giving no hint that their captive was dead.
“They called last week,” the intermediary said. “Why would they keep quiet about it?”
The intermediary believed that the kidnappers moved Weinstein around. They last claimed to be holding him near the city of Quetta, in the western province of Balochistan, which also borders Afghanistan.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest declined to comment on the account of the ransom payment, saying he couldn’t confirm any details about the arrangement.
“It is the policy of the United States government not to make concessions or pay ransom to terrorists who are holding hostages,” Earnest said, articulating long-standing U.S. policy.