The United States is currently engaged in covert military operations in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. These operations are largely carried out by unmanned aerial predator drones that are controlled remotely. This program began under the Bush Administration but has been greatly expanded under the Obama Administration.
There can be no doubt that these attacks have killed many members of Al Qaeda. CNN’s Peter Bergen was briefed by administration officials about the documents collected from Osama Bin Laden’s compound after his death. They told him that Bin Laden had written a memo in October 2010 describing his concern that the Pakistani region of Waziristan had become too dangerous for Al Qaeda because of the CIA’s drone program.
In August 2011, a drone killed Al Qaeda’s number 2, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman. In June 2012, a drone killed his replacement, Abu Yahya al-Libi. These developments lead Peter Bergen to conclude that there is only one senior member of Al Qaeda central remaining, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Anwar Awlaki was a senior recruiter for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He helped inspire the perpetrators of nearly a dozen attempted terrorist attacks, including the Fort Hood shooting, in the US, Canada, and Britain. In September 2011, Awlaki was killed in a drone attack. Besides being one of the most successful Al Qaeda propagandists, something else was notable about his death. Awlaki was also a US citizen. Some, including Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahil, have criticized the targeted killing of Awlaki because they do not think it is appropriate for a US president to authorize the killing of a US citizen without a trial. I disagree. Anwar Awlaki was a senior member of Al Qaeda trying to inspire others to attack the United States. It would have been next to impossible to capture Awlaki in Yemen. And during a war, you kill those who are trying to kill you.
In October 2011, Awlaki’s 16 year old son Abdulrahman Awlaki , who was also a US citizen, and his 17 year old Yemini cousin were killed in a another drone attack. Two US officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Washington Post, said that the target of that attack was Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian senior operative of AQAP. He was also killed in the strike. I find the death of these under-age casualties deeply troubling.
A recent New York Times article is the most detailed look into the classified drone program that as appeared thus far. It describes the targeted killing of Baitullah Mesud, then the head of the Pakistani Taliban. Pakistan urged the US to kill him in a drone strike. However, Mesud was more of a threat to Pakistan than to the US and thus did not meet the contemporaneous description of appropriate targets for the program. It was decided that he posed a threat to American personnel in Pakistan and that the attack would go ahead. The attack was authorized by the president even though he knew that it would almost certainly result in the death of Mesud’s wife. Both Mesud and his wife were killed. This attack violated Obama’s own correct standard that drone attacks should only be authorized if there is a “near certainty” that civilians will not be killed.
The article also explained that Obama has not only authorized strikes against specific individuals, known as “personality strikes,” but in Pakistan has also approved “signature strikes,” which target individuals based upon suspicious behavior. Strikes similar to “signature strikes,” that also do not target specific individuals are used in Yemen and are called “Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes.” They are supposedly approved under tighter criteria than “signature strikes,” but what those criteria are remain unknown to the public.
In my view, “signature strikes” and “Terrorist Attack Disruption Strikes” leave too much room for error and mistaken identity. I believe that only “personality strikes” against specific individuals should be authorized.
Drone strikes have become the main recruiting point for Al Qaeda and have spread anti-American sentiment in the areas where they have been deployed.
An investigation by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), which is based in the UK, found multiple instances of deliberate follow-up drone attacks that have killed rescuers as well as an example of a deliberate attack on a funeral in an earlier, unsuccessful attempt to kill Baitullah Mesud.
Determining the statistics of drone strikes is a difficult task. The BIJ, nevertheless, has attempted the task. They report that in 2011 there were 76 drone strikes in Pakistan, 13 confirmed and 12 possible strikes in Yemen, and 9 strikes in Somalia.
The Bureau also reports that in 2011 a minimum of 75 civilians died in Pakistan as a result of drone strikes, including 6 children. In 2011, there were 39 reported civilian casualties in Yemen and 15 in Somalia.
The aforementioned New York Times article revealed that Obama accepted the CIA’s method for classifying the casualties of the drone program. All military age males killed in a strike are counted as combatants, unless explicit evidence later confirms their innocence. This has lead to perpetually deceptive government claims of the numbers of civilians and militants killed as a result of the program.
The drone program is a valuable one which has killed many senior level members of Al Qaeda, but I believe that it has gone too far. Only “personality strikes” against individuals should be carried out. I also think that we use drone strikes too frequently. Only the senior leaders of Al Qaeda and affiliated groups should be targeted, as mid-level managers are easy to replace. I believe that we should only carry out about 12 drone strikes as year, and those should only be authorized if there is a “near certainty” that there will be no civilian deaths. This of course precludes attacking rescuers and funerals. Drone strikes are a valuable tool in the war against Al Qaeda, but their misuse, and overuse, results in civilian casualties and leads to resentment against the United States which can be used by Al Qaeda to recruit the next generation of terrorists.