The governments of Australia and New Zealand have confirmed the deaths of two men in a US strike in Yemen, which took place last November.
The two men, one Australian and one dual Australian-New Zealand citizen, were reportedly junior members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and were believed to be in their 20s.
The Australian foreign minister and the New Zealand prime minister, John Key, confirmed the deaths.
The men were identified as Christopher Harvard, reportedly from Townsville in Queensland, north eastern Australia, and a dual-national who went by the name Muslim bin John. The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Bureau Bin John’s next of kin have been told of his death.
‘The Americans advised us that they had intelligence that suggested they may have been in the car and may have been collateral damage’
- unnamed CT source
Harvard reportedly went by the pseudonym Abu Slama al Russi – incorrectly labelled ‘the Russian’ in a report by a Yemeni reporter and terrorism expert Abdul Razzaq al Jamal. Bin John was reportedly named Abu Suhaib al Australi, or ‘the Australian’.
They were killed with up to three others on November 19 2013 in a US strike as they drove through the sparsely populated province of Hadramout in eastern Yemen. The three other men were: Abu Habib al Yemeni and Wadhah al Hadhrami, both from Yemen; and Hamam al Masri, from Egypt.
Harvard and bin John were reportedly identified by the Australian Federal Police using DNA taken from bone fragments and tissue samples by the Yemeni security forces.
A report in The Australian quoted a senior counter-terrorism source who described them as ‘foot soldiers’. The source said: ‘The Americans advised us that they had intelligence that suggested they may have been in the car and may have been collateral damage.’
They were not the intended targets of the strike, which aimed to kill Abu Habib al Yemeni, the paper reported.
The Yemen attack could have been carried out by one of two US forces operating in Yemen: the CIA, or Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a military unit. Each operates drones in the country – although it was reported earlier this month that JSOC has been barred from launching strikes in Yemen after a catastrophic strike hit a wedding last December.
In May 2013 the US revealed that, of the four US citizens killed during President Obama’s time in office, three were not the intended targets of the attack. Al Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan was killed alongside Anwar al Awlaki on September 30 2011 in Yemen. Al Awlaki, also a US citizen, was the target of the attack. Two weeks later, on October 14, al Awlaki’s 16-year-old son died in a separate drone strike. And Jude Kenan Mohammed, an al Qaeda recruiter and propagandist, died in a strike in Pakistan on November 16 2011.
Both Australia and New Zealand stressed that last November’s attack was solely a US operation. A spokesman for the Australian foreign ministry said: ‘There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation.’
The New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said: ‘I was advised it was highly likely he was killed in the latter part, I think, of 2013.’ He added: ‘My intelligence agencies informed me. I don’t know where they got the information from.’
He added that he had signed a warrant allowing New Zealand spy agency the Government Communications Security Bureau to spy on bin John. Key said he knew bin John had travelled to Yemen, adding: ‘Least as I understand it he had gone to some sort of terrorist training camp.’
Related story – Mystery of ‘Australian’ slain in drone strike deepens
A spokeswoman for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told the Bureau: ‘We believe he died in a counter-terrorism operation in November. We do not propose to discuss the details of the operation. We never discuss the details of such activity. There was no New Zealand involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation.’
Central Australia is home to the Pine Gap communications monitoring centre, which tracks radio signals from across Asia generated by devices such as mobile phones. Last year Australian newspaper The Age reported that Pine Gap has processed data on the locations of suspects that has contributed to CIA drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
This is the first time the Australian government has acknowledged the death of one of its citizens in a drone strike – although it is not the first time such a death has been reported.
An Australian drone death in Pakistan?
In 2011, multiple news reports suggested an national Australian named Saifullah had died in a drone strike in Pakistan. He was described by reporters as a senior militant with close connections to Osama bin Laden.
The attack took place late on the night of July 5, hitting the guest house of a local man in Mir Ali, one of the most frequently targeted towns in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Up to six people died.
When the Bureau approached the Australian government about the reports following the strike, a spokesman said: ‘We are aware of reports that an al Qaeda commander, Saifullah, allegedly an Australian, was killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan, Pakistan on 5 July. The relevant agencies are currently investigating the alleged Australian connection.’
A record of the strike that killed Saifullah from an internal Pakistani document – click to enlarge (The Bureau of Investigative Journalism)
The following month, the government announced: ‘There is no information to indicate an Australian was killed in the alleged attack.’
But the Bureau’s own field researchers agreed that an Australian had been killed in the strike. ‘There was no doubt about Saifullah’s background. He was a white Australian convert who had grown a beard, and who had come to North Waziristan four years ago,’ a Bureau field researcher wrote.
A Pakistani military source said he had been known locally as ‘the Australian’.
Saifullah fought against western and Afghan forces as part of a militant group headed by Hafiz Gul Bahadur, according to the field researcher.
A Pakistani government document obtained by the Bureau which records government estimates of drone strikes reports that four ‘non-locals’ died in the strike alongside two ‘locals’ in an attack on a hujra.
It adds a further detail that is not mentioned in any of the media reports or by the Bureau’s field research. In the ‘notes’ column, it records: ‘A Foreigner including his wife and two children’. The report is filed by local administrators in the FATA Secretariat, which administers the tribal areas, based on their contacts in the field. But no further details of a wife and children of Saifullah have ever been reported.