ISLAMABAD — They are dead men talking, and they know it. Gulping nervously, the prisoners stare into the video camera, spilling tales of intrigue, betrayal, and paid espionage on behalf of the United States. Some speak in trembling voices. Others look resigned. All plead for their lives.
‘‘I am a spy and I took part in four attacks,’’ said Sidinkay, a young tribesman who said he was paid $350 to help direct CIA drones to targets in Pakistan’s tribal belt. Sweat glistened on his forehead; he rocked nervously as he spoke. ‘‘Stay away from the Americans,’’ he said. ‘‘Stay away from their dollars.’’
Al Qaeda and the Taliban have few defenses against the US drones that prowl the skies over the militant hubs of North and South Waziristan in northwestern Pakistan, along the Afghan border.
CIA missiles killed at least 246 people in 2012, most of them Islamist militants, according to watchdog groups that monitor the strikes. The dead included Abu Yahya al-Libi, the Al Qaeda ideologue and deputy leader.
Despite the technological superiority of their enemy, however, the militants do possess one powerful countermeasure.
For several years now, militant enforcers have scoured the tribal belt in search of informers who help the CIA find and kill the spy agency’s jihadist quarry. The militants’ technique — often more witch hunt than investigation — follows a well-established pattern.
Accused tribesmen are abducted from homes and workplaces at gunpoint and tortured. A sham religious court hears their case, usually declaring them guilty. Then they are forced to speak into a video camera.
The taped confessions, which are later distributed on CD, vary in style and content. But their endings are the same: execution by hanging, beheading, or firing squad.
In Sidinkay’s last moments, the camera shows him standing in a dusty field with three other prisoners, all blindfolded, illuminated by car headlights. Shots rings out and the three others are mowed down. But Sidinkay is left standing. For a tragic instant, he shuffles about, confused. Then fresh shots ring out and he, too, crumples to the ground.
These recordings offer a glimpse into a little-seen side of the drone war in Waziristan, a paranoid shadow conflict between militants and a faceless American enemy in which ordinary Pakistanis have often become unwitting victims.
Outside the tribal belt, the issue of civilian casualties has dominated the debate about US drones. At least 473 noncombatants have been killed by CIA-directed strikes since 2004, according to monitoring groups — a toll frequently highlighted by critics of the drones.
Still, strike accuracy seems to be improving: just seven civilian deaths have been confirmed in 2012, down from 68 the previous year, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which has been critical of the Obama administration’s drone campaign.
Although each militant faction in Waziristan operates its own death squads, by far the most formidable is the Ittehad-e-Mujahedeen Khorasan, a shadowy group that analysts consider to be Al Qaeda’s local counterintelligence wing. Since it emerged in 2009, the group, which is led by Arab and Uzbek militants, has cultivated a sinister image through video theatrics and ruthless violence.
Black-clad Khorasan militants, their faces covered in balaclavas, roam across North Waziristan in jeeps with tinted windows. In a 2011 video, Khorasan fighters are seen searching traffic outside Mir Ali, a notorious militant hub. Then they move into the town center, distributing leaflets to shoppers, before executing three men outside a gas station.
“Spies, your days are numbered because we are carrying out raids,’’ chants the video soundtrack.
The Khorasan cooperates closely with Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, who is based in North Waziristan. A sister organization in Afghanistan has been responsible for 250 assassinations and executions, according to US military intelligence.
‘‘Everyone’s frightened of them,’’ said Mustafa Qadri of Amnesty International, which recently published a report on human rights abuses by both the military and militants.
The tapes produced by Khorasan and other groups offer a stark picture of their spy hunt. A review of 20 video confessions by The New York Times, as well as interviews with residents of the tribal belt, suggest the suspects are largely poor tribesmen.
Death is not inevitable, however. Suleman Wazir, a 20-year-old goat herder from South Waziristan, said militants abducted him in September.
“They told me I would die,’’ he said in a video interview recorded through an intermediary in Waziristan. But after some weeks, Wazir said, his relatives intervened through tribal elders and persuaded the Taliban of his innocence. After presenting five goats to the militants, he was set free, he said.