From the report “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians From US Drone Practices in Pakistan”
There is now significant evidence that the US has repeatedly engaged in a practice sometimes referred to as “double tap,” in which a targeted strike site is hit multiple times in relatively quick succession. Evidence also indicates that such secondary strikes have killed and maimed first responders coming to the rescue of those injured in the first strike. In a February 2012 joint investigative report, Chris Woods of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) documented that
[o]f the 18 attacks…on rescuers and mourners reported at the time by credible media, twelve cases have been independently confirmed by our researchers. In each case civilians are reported killed.
Since those findings were released, several more strikes have repeated this pattern, including a strike on July 6, 2012, in which three “local people” and “tribesmen…carrying out rescue work” were reportedly killed and two more injured in follow-up strikes. Those interviewed for this report were acutely aware of reports of the practice of follow-up strikes, and explained that the secondary strikes have discouraged average civilians from coming to one another’s rescue, and even inhibited the provision of emergency medical assistance from humanitarian workers.
The lone survivor of the Obama administration’s first strike in North Waziristan, Faheem Qureshi, stated that “usually, when a drone strikes and people die, nobody comes near the bodies for half an hour because they fear another missile will strike.” One interviewee told us that a strike at the home of his in-laws hit first responders: “Other people came to check what had happened; they were looking for the children in the beds and then a second drone strike hit those people.”
A father of four, who lost one of his legs in a drone strike, admitted that, “we and other people are so scared of drone attacks now that when there is a drone strike, for two or three hours nobody goes close to [the location of the strike]. We don’t know who [the victims] are, whether they are young or old, because we try to be safe.”
When individuals do try to recover bodies, they do so with knowledge that their efforts might get them killed or maimed. Another interviewee, Hayatullah Ayoub Khan, recounted a particularly harrowing incident that he said he experienced while driving between Dossali and Tal in North Waziristan.
He stated that a missile from a drone was fired at a car approximately three hundred meters in front of him, missing the car in front, but striking the road close enough to cause serious damage. Hayatullah stopped, got out of his own car, and slowly approached the wreckage, debating whether he should help the injured and risk being the victim of a follow-up strike. He stated that when he got close enough to see an arm moving inside the wrecked vehicle, someone inside yelled that he should leave immediately because another missile would likely strike. He started to return to his car and a second missile hit the damaged car and killed whomever was still left inside. He told us that nearby villagers waited another twenty minutes before removing the bodies, which he said included the body of a teacher from Hayatullah’s village.
Crucially, the threat of the “double tap” reportedly deters not only the spontaneous humanitarian instinct of neighbors and bystanders in the immediate vicinity of strikes, but also professional humanitarian workers providing emergency medical relief to the wounded. According to a health professional familiar with North Waziristan, one humanitarian organization had a “policy to not go immediately [to a reported drone strike] because of follow up strikes. There is a six hour mandatory delay.” According to the same source, therefore, it is “only the locals, the poor, [who] will pick up the bodies of loved ones.”
The dissuasive effect that the “double tap” pattern of strikes has on first responders raises crucial moral and legal concerns. Not only does the practice put into question the extent to which secondary strikes comply with international humanitarian law’s basic rules of distinction, proportionality, and precautions, but it also potentially violates specific legal protections for medical and humanitarian personnel, and for the wounded. As international law experts have noted, intentional strikes on first responders may constitute war crimes.