Game Of Drones: How the United States Targets Terrorists but Kills Civilians


The last few days of July were incredibly busy for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), as the NGO obtained a secret document revealing how many civilians could have died in the CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. U.S. covert operations on terrorism utilizing drone strikes are waged mainly in three locations: Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The leaked Pakistani document recently published by the TJIB states that over the nine-year CIA drone operation in Pakistan with 372 flights, around 400 civilians were confirmed dead, including 94 children. The CIA appeared to have known about this. It seems that whatever the utility of such operations, drone strikes and heavy civilian casualties go hand in hand.

Interestingly, as many as 320 drone flights were made under the Obama administration. Although the CIA argues that no more than 60 civilians were killed in these operations, the Pakistani report states a much higher figure. TBIJ's own data confirms the validity of the leaked report: the organization has been collecting and analyzing reports on weaponized drone operations for quite some time and as of now is the most credible source of information on the issue.

Over the last decade Pentagon built more than 400 unmanned aircraft, which has revolutionized counter-terrorism operations. Most of these machines are unarmed and used for surveillance and reconnaissance operations throughout the Middle East and some parts of Africa. 

Courtesy of The Washington Post

While surveillance operations are harmless, there is large controversy surrounding drones themselves. In 2012, a caravan of 38 men on the Turkish-Iraqi border was falsely taken for Kurdish guerrillas and bombed by the Turkish military based on the information provided by a U.S. drone. But there is even more suspicion about operations involving weaponized drones, when decision to bomb or not to bomb the target has to be made within mere minutes otherwise the target may escape, which leaves no time for data scrutiny. Hence, there are legitimate concerns that American weaponized drones could be causing civilian casualties in the process of killing suspected terrorists overseas.

The operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen are different, however, because the CIA and the U.S. military conduct drone attacks there to eliminate Al-Qaeda and their "associates" once and for all, which is a perfect justification. The Obama administration argues that the CIA may unilaterally strike terrorists anywhere in the world, not just on active battlefields. Ordinary civilians and local authorities in Somalia (15 civilians versus 12 terrorists killed) and Yemen (up to 100 civilians may have been killed) do not share this view, but are unable to stop these operations. Yemeni activist Farea al-Muslimi was invited to testify in April 2013 at the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Senator Richard Durbin. Al-Muslimi compared calamities inflicted by drone strikes on Yemeni people with the effect of the Boston bombing on the American people.

Adding to the controversy over the use of drones, an investigation by TBIJ has found that in Pakistan drones carry out follow-up "double tap" strikes against civilians who go to help the victims, and strikes on funerals and mourners. As a result of this, around 70 civilians may have been killed in the past two years. Specialists call such tactic an extra-judicial execution and say it's illegal. But the Obama administration resorts to clever and carefully-picked wording to justify civilian victims in drone strikes, such as "unintentional killings" and "near-certainty that civilians would not be hit." President Obama has acknowledged that terrorist threat for the United States has fallen to a level unseen since before 9/11, meaning that the tactics involving indiscriminate use of armed drones is questionable. But doesn't the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan mean that drones will become the only effective tool to contain terrorism where it originates?

If you would like to discuss the issue, you may reach the author at @yurybarmin.