Was Teen Killed By CIA Drone a Militant -- or Innocent Victim?

Family says Tariq Khan, 16, was killed while running errand for his mother.

ByABC News
December 30, 2011, 7:25 AM

Dec. 30, 2011 — -- In late October, on a rutted road in the mountains of northwest Pakistan, 16-year-old Tariq Khan drove the family car to pick up his aunt. His 12-year-old cousin Waheed sat in the passenger seat next to him. Just a few hundred yards before they reached their destination, a small missile fired from thousands of feet overhead pierced the thin metal roof of their vehicle. An explosion ripped through the car, burning it and everyone inside. Tariq and Waheed were killed instantly.

Just three days before his death, Tariq had made a difficult, eight-hour trip from his village to Islamabad to meet human rights activists and join their push to document the thousands of Pakistanis killed by the CIA drone campaign, the agency's largest covert operation in three decades. According to his family, Tariq was an innocent victim killed by the very drone program he planned to monitor.

The U.S., however, has a different version of events, one in which Tariq was not so innocent. A U.S. official acknowledged to ABC News that the car was targeted by the CIA, but said the two people inside it were militants, and that neither occupant was a 12-year-old.

 Was Tariq Khan an earnest teenage activist -- or a budding jihadi? Whichever description is closer to the truth, his death and the outrage that followed helped expose one of the key sources of tension between the U.S. and Pakistan. The U.S. believes that its drone campaign is a surgical success that does not kill anyone except al Qaeda and Taliban militants. Much of the Pakistani public believes just the opposite -- that hundreds of innocent civilians have paid with their lives for U.S. arrogance.

That perception has helped make America more unpopular than ever in Pakistan, and the U.S. government finally seems to get it. The drone campaign is in the midst of a hiatus that has lasted more than a month, the second extended interruption in 2011 and the longest break since Obama took office in 2009 and picked up the pace of drone strikes.

Tariq Khan Saw '10 or 15 Drones a Day'

Tariq Khan was a normal kid, say family members, a typical North Waziristan teen who loved soccer, enjoyed using a computer, and had just learned how to use a camera. His father worked abroad in order to support Tariq and his six siblings.

In late October, he accompanied a group of tribal elders when they traveled down to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad for the anti-drone conference. There, he sat with dozens of foreign lawyers and journalists and displayed no signs of hatred or animosity at them or the government, according to the people who spoke with him. According to family and associates, he said he wanted to refute Washington's claim that the drone program had killed zero civilians in the last few years.

"At just 16 years old, Tariq had already become a real enthusiast for helping out his North Waziristan community is whatever way he could," the attorney for Tariq's family, Islamabad-based Mirza Shahzad Akbar, later wrote in a letter threatening to sue the U.S. ambassador in Pakistan.

At the conference, Tariq carried in his pocket the identification card of a cousin, Asmar Ullah, a high school student who he said was killed by a drone last April as he rode his motorcycle near a small village named Norak.

"The first thing I noticed about him when I was talking to him was that he seemed to be very introverted. He just looked petrified," says Neil Williams, a British investigator with Reprieve, the charity that sponsored the conference and is spearheading the investigation into drone victims. "I asked him, 'Have you seen a drone,' and I expected him to say, 'Yes, I see one a week.' But he said they saw 10 or 15 every day. And he was saying at nighttime, it was making him crazy, because he couldn't sleep. All he was thinking about at home was whether everyone was ok. I could see it in his face. He looked absolutely terrified."

Tariq returned to his village after the conference. Like so many kids in rural communities worldwide, he had begun driving before he had a license -- not that any police in North Waziristan would ever check. With his father abroad, his mother sometimes needed him to drive the family car to run errands. On Oct. 31, she asked him to pick up his aunt. Tariq and his cousin Waheed Khan, according to Tariq's family, left their village with a friend, dropped him off, and then set off again to get the aunt.

A drone had tracked the vehicle as its passengers got in and began driving. The Hellfire missile that killed them, the type fired so often from Predator and Reaper drones in Pakistan's tribal areas, is designed to kill only its target and limit collateral damage, according to analysts who have studied the drone program.

Akbar called Tariq's death a "homicide," and said it "removed from this world one more witness who could have shed light on the shameful practices of the U.S. in its War on Terror."

Asked for documentation of Tariq and Waheed's deaths, Akbar did not provide pictures of the missile strike scene. Virtually none exist, since drones often target people who show up at the scene of an attack. A month after the strike, however, Akbar delivered high-quality video of a dual funeral. Pakistanis are seen performing traditional rites of mourning, with two families lined up along two straight lines of chalk drawn on the ground. Two caskets sit on a table with Tariq's and Waheed's photos on top of them. At one point, a family member lifts the shroud on one of the bodies to reveal a badly burned torso. The faces of the shrouded bodies are never shown.

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