Former drone operators accuse US Air Force program of fuelling ISIS

Two former US Air Force drone operators have come forward for the first time to denounce the country’s UAV program, saying it has aided the growth of the terrorist organisation ISIS.

Speaking at a press conference live streamed from New York, the two former drone pilots turned whistleblowers Stephen Lewis and Cian Westmoreland expressed deep concerns about the program and the impact it was having on people in the targeted regions.

“There’s always the off-chance that you could end up targeting someone that’s completely innocent, and that’s usually confirmed as an enemy kill,” said Westmoreland. “Those enemies aren’t always enemies. A military-aged male is 12 years old.”

They were joined by two other whistleblowers and former air force drone operators, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, who feature in the critically acclaimed documentary film Drone: The Documentary, which will have a theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal tomorrow.

Images courtesy of Drone: The Documentary

Images courtesy of Drone: The Documentary

Speaking during the press conference, Bryant said that for every four kills made by the drones, they create 10 terrorist members.

“They’re mostly tribal warrior culture. You arm these people and they’re going to want revenge,” he said.

Bryant argued that terrorists do use the fallout from drone strikes as a method to recruit.  He spoke of how he had seen Youtube videos of burning drones and wondered whether current US policy was enabling ISIS to exploit its recruits.

The four whistleblowers also released details of an open letter sent to US President Barack Obama, US Secretary of Defence Ashton B Carter and CIA Director John Brennan.

In the letter they question whether the US’ military stance is fuelling the country’s perpetual state of war.

“Drones have changed warfare and our future, without us having a proper debate on what this means morally, ethically or legally,” said Drone: The Documentary director Tonje Hessen Schei. “The US is setting an extremely dangerous precedent with their use of drones, killing thousands of people outside of declared warzones.

“The US drone program is creating more militants than it kills. We are adding more fuel to the fire.”

“Amid an unprecedented crackdown on whistleblowers, these four operators are taking a tremendous risk,” added legal representative Jesselyn Radack.

“We’re the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate peeping Toms – no one’s going to catch us,” said Bryant in the documentary. “And we’re getting orders to take these people’s lives. It was just point and click.”

Additional reporting by Daniel Davies

VR film lets you experience the world of a refugee child

A virtual reality film is providing the opportunity for viewers to immerse themselves in the world’s of three refugee children in a bid to promote deeper understanding of the global refugee crisis.

At present there are more people fleeing war and conflict around the world than at any time since World War II, with 60 million refugees worldwide, half of whom are children.

A The New York Times Collaboration with VR production company Vrse.works, The Displaced is designed to bring the experiences of children caught up in such conflicts home in a way not possible with conventional news bulletins.

Oleg, 11, from eastern Ukraine, who lives in the ruins of his former village.

Oleg, 11, from eastern Ukraine, who lives in the ruins of his former village.

“For me, the refugee situation in the world seems unfathomable,” said Imraan Ismail, creator at Vrse.works and co-director the The Displaced. “The numbers are so great, the refugees are so faceless, and the problem is so persistent that our brain can’t wrap our brains around it.”

“When The New York Times came with their idea of filming three children in VR in three different war torn countries, (Ukraine, Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and South Sudan), it felt like an opportunity to both personalise the issue and to show its scope, all through a meld of art and journalism.”

Hana, 12, from Syria, looks across the roof of a refugee settlement in Lebanon.

Hana, 12, from Syria, looks across the roof of a refugee settlement in Lebanon.

The film follows three children Oleg, 11, from eastern Ukraine; Hana, 12, from Syria and Chuol, 9, from South Sudan, and takes considerable effort to put the viewer at the same height as them, seeing the world from their perspective.

“I looked for ways that we could really get close and personal,” added Ismail “I always shot at the child’s height.

“I put the camera in their hands at times and we moved with them as best we could, to try and make the most personal and intimate of these types of VR films we could possibly make.”

Chuol, 9, from South Sudan, who lost his father when fighting came to his village and lost contact with his mother on their escape. He currently lives with his grandmother and 80,000 other refugees on an island in a vast Sudanese swamp.

Chuol, 9, from South Sudan, who lost his father when fighting came to his village and lost contact with his mother on their escape. He currently lives with his grandmother and 80,000 other refugees on an island in a vast Sudanese swamp.

The result is an immersive and surprisingly moving film, something that could only be achieved with the cooperation of the children.

“This of course required us, as filmmakers, to get up and close with these children. We played with them. We asked them to represent the faceless. Each one of these children and the millions like them exist just a shade away from death,” said Ismail.

“I hope that the viewer of this film, in their own way, grasps the gravity of this and the humanity of The Displaced refugees living half-lives all around the world. They deserve better. We all do.”

A little girl plays in a refugee tent in Lebanon.

A little girl plays in a refugee tent in Lebanon.

Just as VR can provide the experience of being in space in a way that conventional videos cannot, it can provide an emotional connect and experience that its creators say cannot be matched with a regular film.

“At its base, VR has an ability to put us in places we could never go,” added Ismail. “As an art, using all the tools of a filmmaker applied specifically to VR, it has the ability to express feeling and emotion and force the viewer to not just view it, but to swim in it. And ultimately, to express truth, not just reality.”

A food drop - some of the most remarkable footage in the VR film - in South Sudan. Images courtesy of Vrse.works additional information from the New York Times Magazine.

A food drop – some of the most remarkable footage in the VR film – in South Sudan. Images courtesy of Vrse.works additional information from the New York Times Magazine.

The New York Times is hoping to reach as many people as possible with the film, and included free Google Cardboard headsets for its Sunday home delivery subscribers yesterday to coincide with its release.

The Displaced is available to view using the iOS or Android NYT VR app, or through the NYT VR website.