ISLAMABAD — They are dead men talking, and they know it. Gulping nervously, the prisoners stare into the video camera, spilling tales of intrigue, betrayal and paid espionage on behalf of the United States. Some speak in trembling voices, a glint of fear in their eyes. Others look resigned. All plead for their lives.
“I am a spy and I took part in four attacks,” said Sidinkay, a young tribesman who said he was paid $350 to help direct CIA drones to their targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Sweat glistened on his forehead; he rocked nervously as he spoke. “Stay away from the Americans,” he said in an imploring voice. “Stay away from their dollars.”
Al-Qaida and the Taliban have few defenses against the U.S. drones that endlessly prowl the skies over the bustling militant hubs of North and South Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan, along the Afghan border. CIA missiles killed at least 246 people in 2012, most of them Islamist militants, according to watchdog groups that monitor the strikes. The dead included Abu Yahya al-Libi, the al-Qaida ideologue and deputy leader.
Despite the technological superiority of their enemy, however, the militants do possess one powerful countermeasure.
For several years now, militant enforcers have scoured the tribal belt in search of informers who help the CIA find and kill the spy agency’s jihadist quarry. The militants’ technique — often more witch hunt than investigation — follows a well-established pattern. Accused tribesmen are abducted from homes and workplaces at gunpoint and tortured. A sham religious court hears their case, usually declaring them guilty. Then they are forced to speak into a video camera.
The taped confessions, which are later distributed on CD, vary in style and content. But their endings are the same: execution by hanging, beheading or firing squad.
In Sidinkay’s last moments, the camera shows him standing in a dusty field with three other prisoners, all blindfolded, illuminated by car headlights. A volley of shots rings out, and the three others are mowed down. But Sidinkay, apparently untouched, is left standing. For a tragic instant, the accused spy shuffles about, confused. Then fresh shots ring out and he, too, crumples to the ground.
These macabre recordings offer a glimpse into a little-seen side of the drone war in Waziristan, a paranoid shadow conflict between militants and a faceless American enemy in which ordinary Pakistanis have often become unwitting victims.
Outside the tribal belt, the issue of civilian casualties has dominated the debate about U.S. drones. At least 473 noncombatants have been killed by CIA-directed strikes since 2004, according to monitoring groups — a toll frequently highlighted by critics of the drones like Pakistani politician Imran Khan. Still, strike accuracy seems to be improving: just seven civilian deaths have been confirmed in 2012, down from 68 the previous year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been critical of the Obama administration’s drone campaign.