From 2001 to 2005 the United States ran a global network to transfer terrorism suspects to secret detention sites across the world. Known as “extraordinary rendition operations,” these missions used private civilian aircrafts to conceal detainee transfers. Now, President Donald Trump has suggested that he wants to restart this program.
But will other countries cooperate? Most governments tried to keep their cooperation with rendition secret — the U.S. program was unpopular and illegal in many countries. My recently published research shows that many more countries likely participated than what has been publicly known.
Who cooperates and what does cooperation mean?
There has been considerable debate over how many countries participated in rendition, secret detention and interrogation during the post-9/11 period. Conventional accounts suggest that 54 countries were involved, including many established democracies. International cooperation in rendition included states hosting CIA black sites; providing staging posts for rendition flights to rest, refuel and regroup; sharing intelligence during detainee interrogations; and carrying out the arrest, capture, detention and interrogation detainees on behalf of the CIA.
How do we know who cooperated?
The secret nature of counterterrorism cooperation makes it difficult to know with 100 percent certainty who participated. But unlike other forms of counterterrorism, the practice of rendition is partially observable — we can track suspected extraordinary rendition flight paths using publicly available flight data.
I applied data pre-processing methods to the Rendition Project database of flights. I analyzed more than 60 known rendition flights and built a model that outlines their (measurable) common characteristics. I created a list of airports and flight registration numbers linked to this covert program for each of these categories.
My rendition flight specification model looked at these factors:
- Flight lands within close proximity to a confirmed CIA secret detention site
- Flight lands at a well-known staging post during the circuit
- Aircraft has been previously used during past renditions of detainees
- Flight lands at Washington Dulles International Airport during the circuit
Flights were coded yes or no for each of these four conditions. In total, I coded and classified all 11,000 flights within the data set according to their degree of similarity to a rendition flight.
I interpret those flights that meet all of the features outlined in the model to be the most likely rendition flights. The results from my analysis suggest 307 likely rendition flights — and new participating countries beyond the 54 known countries. I identified an additional 15 likely participating countries: Brazil, Dominican Republic, France, Jamaica, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malta, Norway, Qatar, Senegal, Seychelles, South Korea, Tajikistan and Tunisia.
I tested the accuracy of my model on its ability to correctly identify known rendition flights, as well as flights that we are certain were not used for rendition purposes. The results suggest high levels of model accuracy between 97-99 percent.
To prove that the 15 new countries knowingly participate in or condoned rendition, however, the results must be triangulated with reliable qualitative evidence. For example, there are reports that the U.S. and France regularly cooperated in secret during the war on terrorism. This included the establishment of a covert intelligence center in 2002 that tracked terrorist suspects and planned their capture.
During a previous investigation, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs said that he could not exclude the possibility that CIA flights had landed on French soil. France also maintained administrative silence during an investigation that used the right of access to inquire about the landing of suspected rendition flights.
By tracking the flight paths of suspected extraordinary rendition aircrafts, it’s possible to analyze all of the flights within a potential rendition circuit. This includes those airports that facilitated the refueling of an aircraft before and after the transfer of a CIA terrorist suspect. Figure 1 shows the frequency of flights that landed in a country during a rendition circuit identified by my model. Darker shades indicate a higher number of flights. Countries in white — other than the United States — are not identified by my analysis.
These flights took place between 2001-2005 with the majority occurring in 2003 and 2004. The most frequently visited airports with a close proximity to secret detention sites were located in Afghanistan, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq and Uzbekistan. Countries that received the greatest number of flights within a rendition circuit include Cyprus, Germany, Ireland, Portugal and the U.K.
Figure 2 displays two examples of new rendition flight circuits identified by my model. The red circuit lands in Norway and the blue circuit lands in Kazakhstan.
For the red circuit, 2005 flight data records a previously used rendition aircraft flying from Miami to a detention site in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The aircraft then flies to a frequently used staging post in Shannon, Ireland and lands in Kabul — where a number of black sites were located. The next day, the aircraft flies straight to Bergen, Norway before heading back to Dulles International Airport outside of Washington, D.C., where rendition teams were reportedly picked up and dropped off.
For the blue circuit, 2003 flight data documents the same previously used rendition aircraft completing a return flight from Teterboro, N.J., to Toronto. The aircraft later departs from Washington, D.C., and flies to the same staging post in Shannon, Ireland. Finally, the aircraft lands near a secret detention site in Baghdad and again in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
Counterterrorism policies continue to produce political controversies in the U.S. and abroad but the details are often shrouded in secrecy. My research shows how it is possible to uncover the participation of countries in extraordinary measures like rendition. The results suggest that this participation was much broader than most people believed.