Do you know all the places where the U.S. currently deploys drones to wage shadow wars against an undeclared enemy? Drones have become the new tool of choice for lethally disposing known or suspected terrorists overseas, but the details of these secret wars are still shrouded in secrecy.
As such, we are not given the proper knowledge to judge whether or not these undeclared wars are effective, ethical, or legal.
Here's a list of the eight countries where America currently uses drones, as well one nation we're likely to see drones in the near future:
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The most widespread and high-casualty drone war is currently being waged in Afghanistan, where U.S. drones are routinely used to track down and kill suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda members and affiliates. In November, Wired reported that 330 drone strikes were carried out by that point in 2012. That’s roughly the same number of attacks carried out over the course of eight years in Pakistan. From 2009 to 2012, there were a total of 1,160 “weapon releases” conducted by unmanned aerial vehicles.
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While Algeria has gone from being considered a security threat to a close regional ally in the war on terror, U.S. drones were deployed there this past Wednesday and Thursday during a major hostage crisis at the BP plant in Ain Amenas, where 41 foreign hostages including 7 Americans were kidnapped by al-Qaeda affiliates. Future drone strikes in Algeria seem improbable, unless the country’s future stability is compromised.
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Photo Credit: Iranian State TV
It is impossible to know the extent of our unmanned aerial operations above Iran, but what is known is that Iranian planes have fired upon unmanned aircraft off the coast of the Persian Gulf. Iran claims it has shot down drones on multiple occasions, going so far as to air photos on state TV.
Are we flying drones over Iran? Unclear, but drones are likely being utilized in a wide spy net which includes high-altitude aerial surveillance and undercover agents.
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U.S. drones launched well over a hundred strikes against Libyan armed forces in the fight to oust the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Between April and October 2011, American drones launched 145 strikes on loyalist targets, killing an indeterminate amount of ex-regime officials and militia. In October, a NATO airstrike was crucial in disabling a 100-vehicle convoy attempting to escape from Sirte that ended up being Gaddafi’s final, desperate attempt to break out of rebel encirclement. NATO commanders have been reticent about whether the final strike was carried out with a drone.
Since then, the drones have stayed. In September, Army Lt. Col. Steve Warren said that the U.S. military has been flying Combat Air Patrols consisting of drones since the conclusion of the Libyan civil war, and may assist in the search for the individuals or groups that carried out the recent attack on the American consulate in Benghazi.
Among the lesser -known drone campaigns is our ongoing war against members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated al Shabaab militant organization. The Bureau for Investigative Journalism says U.S. operations in this theatre remain “largely a mystery,” with only two confirmed strikes in 2012 – one of which killed British-Somali militia leader Bilal al-Barjawi. Neither strike was officially reported, and U.S. drone sorties continue to fly from an American military base in Dijbouti.
Over the course of 2007-2012, between 10-23 total operations occurred, with 3-9 strikes killing between 58 and 170 persons total including 11-57 civilians.
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Drone strikes in Pakistan are at their lowest level in 5 years, thanks to massive protests in Islamabad and growing unrest. The CIA also appears to have abandoned their policy of conducting ‘signature strikes,’ or strikes against persons unconfirmed to be terrorists who exhibit suspicious patterns of behavior, after these were demonstrated to be responsible for a disproportionate amount of civilian casualties. These attacks are particularly problematic because the CIA’s loose criteria encourages strikes on many civilian targets; one official joked to the New York Times that “three guys doing jumping jacks” could be considered a terrorist training camp.
The New America Foundation estimates that 337 drone strikes have killed between 1,953 and 3,279 people since strikes in Pakistan began in 2004. Of these, 1,526 to 2,649 were reported to be militants. Using their figures and assuming reports of confirmed militancy among those targeted are accurate – which is highly disputable – that would mean the average non-militant casualty rate from U.S. drone strikes is 18-23%. In 2012, it was under 10%, down from a peak of above 60% in 2006.
The Long War Journal is even more conservative in estimating noncombatant deaths from drone strikes: it reports an estimate of 153 civilians killed since 2006.
Both estimates of collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths seem improbably low.
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Since 2002, the United States has been conducting a secret initiative to kill al-Qaeda commanders based in Yemen. According to the Long War Journal, there have been 61 strikes since the beginning of the program, which have killed 309 terrorists and 82 civilians.
Most infamously, drones assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen – a radical Islamic cleric who was an American citizen. President Obama said that al-Awlaki had taken “a lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans” and was “directly responsible for the death of many Yemeni citizens.” He had been implicated in the 2009 Detroit airline bomb plot, a plot to send bombs disguised as printer cartridges via cargo plane into the U.S., and the 2009 Fort Hood shootings where a Muslim Army psychologist killed 13 and wounded 29, as well as the failed 2010 Times Square bomb plot.
The Yemeni government tolerates U.S. attacks in its jurisdiction, but historically has refrained from commenting on American involvement.
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The recent attack on the BP facility in Algeria is widely recognized to have been revenge for recent French air strikes on Islamic insurgents in nearby Mali.
The strike was credited to Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian extremist who once served as a regional al-Qaeda commander. His group refer to themselves as “Those Who Sign With Blood” and in 2003 were responsible for kidnapping 32 French, German, Austrian, and Swiss tourists in the Sahara, netting a $6.5 million dollar ransom. Known as “The Uncatchable,” he has a secondary nickname: “Mr. Marlboro,” for his known involvement in Northern African cigarette smuggling rings.
He directed the attack from northern Mali; we now know that British, French, and American special forces are coordinating a search for him there. Can there be any doubt that drones will soon be flying over the skies of Mali?