A protest at Wescam offices in Burlington, Ontario. (Image: Fair Use).
A protest at Wescam offices in Burlington, Ontario. (Image: Fair Use).

Long-forgotten amid the chaotic airlifts out of the Kabul airport in late August of this year is an incident in which Canadian taxpayers contributed to the murder of 10 members of an Afghan family, seven of them children.

Zemari Ahmadi, who worked for the U.S. aid organization Nutrition and Education International and had applied for refugee resettlement in the U.S. was the target of the lethal August 29 MQ-9 Reaper “hunter-killer” drone attack. The surveillance and targeting drone cameras that had been used to follow his every move that deadly day are made by L-3 Wescam, a Canadian-subsidized war manufacturer about to expand from its long-time Burlington, Ontario facility to a 330,000 square foot location in nearby Waterdown.

Initially described by Joint Chief Chairman General Mark Milley as a “righteous strike,” the Pentagon claimed its Hellfire missile attack on a residential street was justified because of an alleged “imminent threat” to evacuation operations, even though the airport was three kms away. As reported by the New York Times, those killed were Ahmadi and three of his children (Zamir, 20, Faisal, 16, and Farzad, 10); Ahmadi’s cousin Naser, 30; three of Ahmadi’s brother Romal’s children (Arwin, 7, Benyamin, 6, and Hayat, 2); and two 3-year-old girls, Malika and Somaya.

According to the New York Times report, most of those killed were completely “shredded,” leaving behind only “fragments of human remains.” We only know this because, unlike most drone strikes – which tend to take place in rural areas where fact checking Pentagon claims about the victims’ identities can prove difficult – this one occurred in a densely populated Kabul neighbourhood.

While the U.S. military continued to spin its baseless justification for the attack based on so-called evidence of terrorist threats, a Times investigation countered Pentagon claims that the driving and behaviour of Mr. Ahmadi were suspicious, noting “the evidence suggests that his travels that day actually involved transporting colleagues to and from work. And an analysis of video feeds showed that what the military may have seen was Mr. Ahmadi and a colleague loading canisters of water into his trunk to bring home to his family.”

The Hunter-Killer drone

The MQ-9 Reaper (using the Canadian-produced Wescam MX-20 Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR) tracking and targeting system) allowed the hunter-killer drone operators maneuvering joysticks from remote bases in the U.S. to track Ahmadi’s vehicle as it drove around Kabul. The Americans claimed that he had stopped at an ISIS safe house, but their own footage revealed that in fact, it was where he worked — the long-established office of Nutrition and Education International. The Pentagon said it decided to strike because of the “reasonable certainty” that no women, children or noncombatants would be killed as Ahmadi returned home. Yet, relatives of Ahmadi said as soon as they saw him pulling into his driveway, family members came out to welcome him home. They would have been seen clearly by the drone operators via the Wescam system, but the order to fire went ahead regardless. Because of a deadly airport attack the previous week, Joe Biden reverted to the old stand-by of flexing muscles no matter the civilian cost. The apparent “America won’t be pushed around” counter-action was to fire first and respond to questions later.

Half a world away in the Golden Horseshoe area that Wescam has long called home, it is unlikely that company executives gave a second thought to the fact that their products had once again proven their efficacy with bloodshed.

For 20 years, protesters have gathered at the entrance to Wescam, setting up graveyards with the names of hundreds of drone strike victims, illustrating in vivid detail the parent company’s connections to torture and being hauled off in handcuffs for trying to conduct citizens’ weapons inspections of the facility.

For two decades, drone strikes have been the face of long-distance “over the horizon” warfare waged by soldiers who go to work at video terminals, push buttons to fire Hellfire missiles as effortlessly as making a move on Playstation and return home in time for dinner and taking the kids to soccer practice.

Awash in federal funds

Wescam prides itself on being a world leader in drone technology, and Ottawa is only too pleased to keep them awash in federal tax dollars. In 2015, Wescam received a $75-million “repayable contribution” (they call it a contribution because it’s almost never repaid) to continue supplying technology used not only in overseas war zones, but also by domestic police forces and border agents.

There is no clearer Canadian example of a company that profits from the intersectionality of state violence than Wescam. Indeed, its systems are used by border agents to prevent migrants from gaining asylum, by police to terrorize the racialized communities they occupy, by militaries as a low-cost kill-chain alternative, and by Hollywood movies that celebrate this violence. As then-federal industry minister James Moore said in distributing the cash, “WESCAM surveillance and targeting technology has been used to help police forces conduct manhunts and track marijuana grow-ops here in Canada. Abroad, Canadian armed forces have used similar aerial systems during Canada’s 10-year mission in Afghanistan to capture high-value targets.”

Among numerous other contracts, in July 2020, the blood-stained Crown entity Canadian Commercial Corporation announced a $380-million contract to supply an “indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity” of the MX-Series of Wescam’s surveillance and targeting products for the U.S. army.

Wescam is also a proud supporter of the brutal Saudi regime, announcing a deal in 2019 where “we can significantly broaden our support for Saudi government and military forces.” Part of that arranged entailed the opening of a maintenance centre by L-3 Wescam in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. The CEO of Taqnia Defense and Security Technology Co., enthused: “We look forward to maintaining L3 WESCAM’s portfolio of products while providing exceptional service to its regional customers.”

Wescam technology has been used as part of the unending war crimes campaign led by the Saudis against the people of Yemen, as documented by the likes of researcher Antony Fenton.

Canada is now considering a new, $5-billion purchase of armed drones. There is little doubt that this will be a slam dunk contract award for Wescam. That inside knowledge is perhaps why they have busy preparing a 330,000 square foot factory just north of Hamilton. Even if it fails to win the Ottawa tender, the company should have no trouble keeping a positive balance sheet, with products being exported to over 80 countries.

Wescam’s overseas war crimes

Among the recipients of Wescam’s hunter-killer technology is Turkey. In September 2020, a Project Ploughshares report found that the Turkish military, supplied by the Burlington company, “has committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law and other violations, particularly when conducting airstrikes.”

Turkey has also exported its purchased Wescam technology to armed groups in Libya, “a blatant breach of the nearly decade-old UN arms embargo.” These exports also violate the Canadian government’s own Arms Trade Treaty obligations.

Ploughshares’s research also revealed that Wescam maintains an authorized service centre for the Turkish weapons company Baykar. Turkey is the third-biggest recipient of Canadian weapons exports (valued at over $152 million). After having temporarily suspended weapons sales to Turkey in October 2019 after that country’s latest invasion of Syria, Canada announced an extension of the embargo in spring 2020.

Turkish strongman Recep Erdogan was furious and confronted Trudeau about it. Erdogan was especially peeved, since at that time Trudeau had lifted a pause on weapons exports to the Saudi regime in Yemen. According to one Turkish official, Trudeau “said they would take some steps to alleviate Turkish concerns regarding the exports; that they would review everything case by case.”

 Middle East Eye reported, “Turkey was giving utmost importance to the import of the optics and surveillance systems from the Canadian firm Wescam for its military drones.” It did not take long for Global Affairs Canada to grant an exemption for Wescam to continue those weapons exports a month later.

Turkey was apparently worried that its capacity to wage drone warfare would be limited, given battlefield losses in Syria and Libya. That resumption of weapons sales came just as the group Genocide Watch openly questioned why Turkey was not before the International Criminal Court for war crimes committed during its multiple incursions into Syria. They noted that:

“In areas under Turkey’s control, civilians have been subjected to horrific crimes against humanity committed by Turkish forces and Turkish supported militias. Kurdish towns have been bombed and destroyed, some with white phosphorus, a war crime. Hundreds of civilians have been summarily executed. Kurdish and Yazidi women have been kidnapped and subjected to sexual slavery. Secret prisons hold hundreds of Kurds who are routinely tortured.”

During those incursions, schools and hospitals were bombed, as were civilian convoys fleeing the violence, and nearly 180,000 Kurds were forcibly displaced in an act that even U.S. officials named as an act of “ethnic cleansing.”

Similar genocidal attacks against Kurds have been launched by Turkey in northern Iraq, with Ploughshares pointing out, “In 2018, Turkey began the practice of targeted killings in Iraq, becoming only the second country in the region, after Israel, to undertake extraterritorial targeted killings.”

When one senior Kurdish leader was assassinated by a Turkish drone in Iraq, footage of the attack was proudly shared on Wescam’s own website, though it was erased after the Canadian embargo in spring 2020. Wescam’s MX-GCS EO/IR imaging system has also reportedly been integrated into the Belgian-made Cockerill turret of the Turkish FNSS Kaplan armoured fighting vehicle.

Meanwhile in Libya, where battling forces have all committed war crimes, Turkey is exporting its own drone technology with Wescam targeting systems, in violation of a decade-old UN arms embargo. Ploughshares shared pictures of downed drones that had been built with Wescam targeting cameras.

Constantly overhead the Kurds

Turkey also employs Wescam drone technology in ongoing domestic repression and murder by drone against Kurdish people, including reports in December 2019 that Turkish drones “participated in airstrikes against Kurdish organizations in at least 11 provinces in southeast Turkey.”

The Intercept noted last year as well that Turkish drones (which, notably, rely on Wescam technology) are a “near constant presence in the skies in the country’s southeast. Nearly every day, a Turkish drone, usually a TB2, either fires on a target or provides the location of a target that is subsequently bombed by an F-16 or attack helicopter.” Hundreds of people have been killed in these strikes.

In 2019, Amnesty International reported that Turkish operations demonstrate “an utterly callous disregard for civilian lives, launching unlawful deadly attacks in residential areas that have killed and injured civilians.” Ploughshares concludes that “there is a clear and demonstrable substantial risk that the further export of Wescam sensors to Turkey could cause harm to civilians and facilitate breaches of IHL [International Humanitarian Law].”

While export permits to Turkey were cancelled in April, 2021, a week later, Global Affairs produced a stunning report that essentially opened the door to the renewal of the same weapons exports at a time when media and Parliament would not be alert to such a reversal, with one memo advising the Minister: “The approval of the specific permits mentioned in this memorandum is not expected to garner media attention, as the process is not public. (…) Parliamentary scrutiny is expected to be limited given the current COVID-19 crisis.”

In a move that would make Orwell squirm, Global Affairs acknowledged that “credible evidence that certain Canadian military goods and technology exported to Turkey, namely sensors equipped on Turkish UAVs, have been used in the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and Syria.” Remarkably, Global then declared that “there is no substantial risk that Canadian military goods and technology exported to Turkey would be used to undermine peace and security, or to commit or facilitate” human rights violations and that “there is no reason to take any action in relation to the remaining permits” for exports to Turkey. Further on, they claim that “there is no substantial risk that Canadian exports of military goods and technology to Turkey would undermine peace and security, either nationally or regionally.”

Canada: A pawn for autocrats

Lawyers Anaïs Kadian and Emilie Béatrice Kokmanian produced a piercing critique of the Global Affairs report, Canada: Human Rights Champion or Pawn to Autocratic Regimes in the Global Arms Trade. Their response highlights the inconsistencies and outright falsehoods peddled by a Global Affairs department which plays a much stronger role justifying weapons sales than it does in promoting peaceful diplomacy.

The authors point out that Global Affairs perfidy extends to a “troubling lack of transparency in the process itself: permit approvals are not public, thus escaping scrutiny from the media and Canadians.” They conclude that Canada failed to abide even by its own fairly limited criteria in approving weapons exports.

As Wescam executives relish the booming business of warfare, drone resisters have blown the whistle on this insidious process of killing.

“The truth is that we could not differentiate between armed fighters and farmers, women, or children, ” Lisa Ling, a former drone technician with the U.S. military, told Emran Feroz, an independent journalist and the founder of Drone Memorial. “This kind of warfare is wrong on so many levels.”

Former intelligence analyst Daniel Hale was condemned last July to 45 months in the penitentiary for leaking documents that illustrated the global network of drone warfare links and high rate of civilian casualties. He informed the court at his sentencing, “I am here because I stole something that was never mine to take — precious human life. I couldn’t keep living in a world in which people pretend that things weren’t happening that were. Please, your honor, forgive me for taking papers instead of human lives.”

While thousands have been killed by drone warfare, their lives have been easily dismissed because, as Hale told the court, the U.S. military labels everyone killed in drone attacks – among them, some 2,200 children – as “enemies killed in action” unless proven otherwise, just as Ahmadi’s family in Kabul were listed until reporters uncovered the truth. “With drone warfare, sometimes nine out of 10 people killed are innocent,” Hale said. “You have to kill part of your conscience to do your job.”

Rarely addressed in such discussions is the fact that, even if the target is allegedly guilty of some offence or another, killing them in the absence of a fair, open, transparent trial is the gravest violation of due process. Drone warfare has conveniently removed the judicial process, through which embarrassing details about our own criminality could be brought to light.

This returns the spotlight to the provider of these hunter-killer weapons systems – Wescam – and its government promoter, Global Affairs Canada. These are not inaccessible organizations hiding away on remote islands producing illicit goods. They are located in very visible buildings and seen by thousands of travelers every day who drive by, perhaps never thinking about what goes on behind their doors. Their work is made possible by our tax dollars. Their work can be easily interfered with and shut down when we act on our conscience.

When Daniel Hale released his trove of documents illustrating the extent of drone warfare criminality, New York magazine asked, “Why did no one seem to care?” In light of the relative silence of the Canadian government and people following the murder of an Afghan family in Kabul in which we are all complicit, we should be asking ourselves the same question.

Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.