Pakistani journalists who have worked in Waziristan describe it as one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter. They have not forgotten what happened to Hayat Ullah Khan, a journalist who freelanced for PBS’s Frontline. Khan, thirty-two, reported for a Pakistani newspaper on the death of an al Qaeda leader, Abu Hamza Rabia, along with four others in December 2005. They had been killed by Hellfire missiles in a strike orchestrated by Americans, and not, as the Pakistani government had declared, by an accident in their illegal bomb-making lab. Khan took photos, proving it was a drone strike, and the story prompted protests over the infringement of Pakistani territory.
The day after his story appeared, Khan was kidnapped. His body was found months later. “He could have been killed by Pakistani security forces or the Taliban,” said Iqbal Khattak, Peshawar bureau chief of the Pakistani newspaper Daily Times, and one of the few reporters who has done stories about the drones in Waziristan. “We don’t know.”
Another reporter who has braved that danger is Pir Zubair Shah. Shah grew up in a roughshod region of South Waziristan, where his father sent him to school and also gave him a rifle, so that he would feel comfortable both among the educated and the tribal members of society. This allowed Shah to float between the world of intelligence agents and the one inhabited by Taliban fighters, and his reporting helped The New York Times win a 2009 Pulitzer for a package of stories depicting the deepening US military and political challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Shah’s first bylined article, which appeared in Newsday in January 2006, was about a drone strike in Bajaur, in North Waziristan. The CIA operatives who launched the strike had been trying to kill a man thought to be al Qaeda’s number-two leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, but he escaped. Eighteen people were killed, and Shah took pictures of jagged, metal pieces from the missile that had exploded, as well as the fresh graves.
“It was just a scene of devastation,” he recalled in an interview. He spoke with people who lived in the area about the assault, and through his reporting on this and other strikes, American readers were able to get a rare glimpse of how the war was unfolding in Waziristan.
Shah, thirty-three, was taken captive by the Taliban in 2008 and released after the intervention of a local tribal leader. He is no longer pursuing risky stories. Instead, he will join Harvard in the fall as a Nieman fellow.
Three days after Obama was sworn in as president, his administration launched its first drone strike, according to numerous news reports. A missile reportedly hit a house in Koresh Kot, a village in South Waziristan that was believed to be a Taliban hideout.
News accounts of the incident had few, and conflicting, details, underscoring the difficulty of getting basic facts. A January 23 article on Pakistan’s Geo News website said the attack was “reported to have killed 10 people,” but did not identify them. A January 23 New York Times article reported that the missile strike killed seven, including three children, citing Pakistani news reports. The story added, “American officials in Washington said there were no immediate signs that the strikes on Friday had killed any senior Qaeda leaders. They said the attacks had dispelled for the moment any notion that Mr. Obama would rein in the Predator attacks.”
A January 24 Washington Post story cast the incident in a somewhat celebratory tone, saying it was “the first tangible sign of President Obama’s commitment to sustained military pressure on the terrorist groups.”