7.3.2.3  Drone Strikes against Terrorists

(This is a current extract from the Patterns of Power Repository.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition02/7323.htm)

Unmanned aerial vehicles, or ‘drones’, can be used for surveillance or to kill people.  America’s use of drone-strikes against suspected terrorists, in Pakistan for example, is a form of assassination.  America is not at war with Pakistan so it is contravening the UN guidelines on the use of drones,[1] even if Pakistan secretly condones the practice.[2]

Drones are costly but, for a wealthy country like America, affordable.  They change the perception of war into a video game – the operators of such weapons are less aware of the humanity of those they are killing and the psychology of a video game is to try to get a high score.[3]

There can be no certainty that the people targeted are actually involved in terrorism – particularly in the case of so-called ‘signature strikes’ where people are targeted solely because their behaviour looks suspicious.[4]  Pinpoint accuracy cannot be achieved, not least because of the time lapse due to the distance between the operator and the drone, and it is rarely possible to kill only one person with a bomb.  Innocent civilians are often killed: in October 2013, the UN reported that there had been 400 civilian deaths from drone-strikes in Pakistan.[5]  These deaths cause understandable indignation in the population and other family members, friends and neighbours can become radicalised – turning into terrorists.  The use of drones can thus be counter-productive, recruiting more terrorists than it kills.[6]

© PatternsofPower.org, 2014                                                 



[1] The Interim report to the General Assembly on the use of remotely piloted aircraft in counter-terrorism operations was published on 18 Sept 2013 as section III of the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.  This report outlines, in para. 24, the criteria for the legality of drone use:

“In a situation qualifying as an armed conflict, the adoption of a pre-identified list of individual military targets is not unlawful; if based upon reliable intelligence it is a paradigm application of the principle of distinction. Conversely, outside situations of armed conflict, international human rights law prohibits almost any counter-terrorism operation that has the infliction of deadly force as its sole or main purpose (A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, paras. 28 and 32-33).  The threshold question therefore is not whether a killing is targeted, but whether it takes place within or outside a situation of armed conflict ...”

This report was available in May 2014 at http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/68/389.

In American law, however, the President is permitted to regard any terrorist or potential terrorist as an enemy combatant under the "war against terrorism" legislation: The Authorisation to Use Military Force, which was signed on 18 September 2001, and was available in May 2014 at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-107sjres23enr/pdf/BILLS-107sjres23enr.pdf.

[2] On 23 Oct 2013 The Washington Post published allegations of Pakistan condoning America’s use of drones on its territory:

 “Despite repeatedly denouncing the CIA’s drone campaign, top officials in Pakistan’s government have for years secretly endorsed the program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.”

This report was available in May 2014 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/top-pakistani-leaders-secretly-backed-cia-drone-campaign-secret-documents-show/2013/10/23/15e6b0d8-3beb-11e3-b6a9-da62c264f40e_story.html.

[4] On 28 February 2013, Real Clear World published an article entitled The Drone War Doctrine We Still Don't Know About, which stated that “drone operators fire on people whose identities they do not know based on evidence of suspicious behavior or other ‘signatures’"; the article was available in May 2014 at http://www.realclearworld.com/articles/2013/02/28/the_drone_war_doctrine_we_still_dont_know_about_100585.htmlIt is possible to imagine a situation where a baker putting bags of flour into a van could be mistaken for someone packing a van with explosives; he might be killed simply because there would be no way of asking him what he was doing.

[5] On 22 Oct 2013, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called upon America to “to end drone attacks in his country”.  The US, though, defended its policy – as reported by the BBC that day, in an article entitled US defends drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, which was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-24632126. The article quoted UN figures on civilian deaths:

“Last week, a UN investigation found that US drone strikes had killed at least 400 civilians in Pakistan, far more than the US has ever acknowledged.”

[6] John O. Brennan, the current director of the CIA, is reported as being the architect of America's policy on drones.  The New York Times criticised his appointment, on the basis that drone strikes are increasing the scale of opposition in Yemen, in a report entitled The Wrong Man for the C.I.A., which was published on 19 November 2012 and was available in May 2014 at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/20/opinion/john-brennan-is-the-wrong-man-for-the-cia.html?_r=0.

On 30 May 2012, the BBC published an article entitled Is Obama's drone doctrine counter-productive?.  It cited Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University, an expert on Yemen, as saying that:

“the rain of drone attacks has strengthened the hand of terrorists there.

"Look at Yemen on Christmas Day 2009, the day the so-called underwear bomber attempted to bring down a flight over Detroit.

"On that day al-Qaeda numbered about 200 to 300 individuals and they controlled no territory. Now today, two-and-a-half years later, despite all the drone strikes al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has tripled in size, it's now around 1,000 members and it controls significant territory.

"The more the US bombs, the more they grow."

This article was available in May 2014 at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-18270490.