President Obama announced that two hostages were accidentally killed in a counterterrorism drone strike in January. Warren Weinstein, a former Peace Corps official and development expert held by Al Qaeda since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian aid worker held since 2012, were killed after the CIA targeted a suspected Al Qaeda compound in Pakistan. Both were doing relief work in Pakistan at the time of their capture.
The deaths, revealed by the White House today, mark the first known instance of hostages dying during a U.S. drone strike. “As president and as commander in chief I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations,” Obama said in a brief White House address on Thursday. “I profoundly regret what happened. On behalf of the United States government I offer our deepest apologies to their families.”
He added, “It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally, and our fight against terrorists specifically, that mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur.”
Officials believe another American died in the strike, Al Qaeda leader Ahmed Farouq. He was not being specifically targeted; when American citizens are targeted for believed terrorist affiliations, legal clearances are necessary. Adam Gadahn, an American-born Al Qaeda spokesperson who was on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, is also believed to be dead, from a different January strike. The drone program in Pakistan has not changed markedly since the incident, although the Obama administration is conducting a review to see if changes are necessary.
There have been five U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan so far this year — far fewer than in past years. Although the Obama administration has argued that drone strikes have proven to be a successful way to fight terrorism without killing many civilians, many organizations have contested this frame.
In 2012, Al Qaeda released a video in which Weinstein addresses Obama. “My life is in your hands, Mr. President. If you accept the demands, I live. If you don’t accept the demands, then I die.”
His wife Elaine told Voice of America last year, “I really don’t know why they are holding him. … He is just an old man, a sick man who was dedicated to doing his job in Pakistan and kept staying there for the benefit of the Pakistani people.”