While the Hellfire missile failed to kill the al-Qaeda leader, it launched the start of the US drone assassination programme.
President Bush would go on to authorise a further 50 drone strikes during his presidency, killing 410–595 “enemy combatants,” alongside an estimated 332 civilians, including more than 100 children.
Under President Obama, however, the US drone programme really took off. Obama carried out more drone strikes during the first year of his presidency – the same year he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize – than Bush executed in his eight years in office. All in all, Obama carried out a total of 563 strikes, killing up to 800 civilians in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq.
While the Obama White House long insisted its drone strikes were “exceptionally surgical and precise,” a detailed analysis by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that 45 civilians had been killed from a total of just 10 of Obama’s 563 drone strikes in Pakistan alone.
If drone strikes took off under Obama, then they have skyrocketed under President Trump, who doubled the number of drone strikes carried out by the US military in 2017 compared to Obama’s final year in office.
While the drone programme has been considered a short-term strategic success, making it difficult for terrorist groups to develop sanctuaries while also restricting movement of terrorist group leaders, the long-term negative consequences certainly offset short-term gains on the battlefield, with drone strikes considered to be a key driver for radicalising many into violent extremism.
Whatever the consequences of the US drone programme as a counterterrorism tool, the Middle East is now awash with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), with a consortium of countries now developing and procuring drones for not only military purposes but also as a tool to suppress and “manage” their “unruly” populations.
According to a new report by Drone Wars UK, at least seven Middle Eastern countries have either procured armed drones from China or have developed their own. Alarmingly, the authors also note that the number of states deploying armed drones has quadrupled in the past five years, and is on track to double within the next two years.
As of today, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia operate armed drones in the Middle East, which accompany the drones deployed by the US, Israel, Russia and the United Kingdom in the region.In Gaza, for instance, Israel has begun dropping tear gas canisters from drones, which have injured and maimed dozens in the past two months.Moreover, Israel, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have all launched drone strikes beyond their borders, many of them in Syria. Of particular concern to human rights groups is the use of drones against pro-democracy and human rights protesters.
“Drones have crossed into a new frontier in military affairs: an area of entirely risk-free, remote and even potentially automated killing detached from human behavioural cues,” observes John Sifton for The Nation.
To this end, a newly released report published by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Drones has warned the UK’s use of drones in Syria and Iraq has “raised some serious questions about the legality, efficacy and strategic coherence” regarding drones, adding that UK personnel are at risk of facing trial for murder where civilians are killed in foreign countries.
The APPG report also noted there is growing concern the UK is supporting what can only be defined as an illegal US drone programme, noting, “In its current form, assistance to partners is putting the UK and its personnel at risk of criminal liability. “Our report shows that without a crystal-clear policy, UK armed drones are flying into trouble. This risks harm to innocent civilians and leaves British personnel wide open to criminal prosecution,” said Adam Holloway, a Conservative Party MP and co-chair of the APPG on Drones.
“UK use of force or assistance to partners in drone strikes outside situations of armed conflict are not protected by combatant immunity, therefore making personnel liable to prosecution for murder.”
With an ever growing number of countries attaining or on their way to attaining the technology to deploy armed drones, and global power and human rights violator Russia soon to join their ranks, the need for clear and unambiguous controls on the use and proliferation has never been greater, according to Drone Wars UK.
This reality is underscored by the circumstances surrounding the first ever drone strike carried out by the US in Afghanistan in 2002, which not only killed civilians, but also struck where Bin Laden wasn’t, proving the strike was carried out based on faulty intelligence.
In other words, the first ever drone strike carried out by the US was based only on a “presumption of guilt,” which was all but confirmed by then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he stated, “Indicators were there that there was something untoward that we needed to go away… Initial indications would seem to say that these are not peasant people up there farming.”When details of the United States’ botched debut drone strike became known, Pentagon officials became evasive, offering little more than double-speak to explain why the order to strike had been given.
“We’re convinced that it was an appropriate target, then Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clark said at the time. “We do not know yet exactly who it was,” while another Pentagon spokesperson, John Stufflebeem, claimed only that the targets were “not innocent”, even though he refused to identify who the targets were.
This speaks directly to growing and threatening dilemma the use of armed drones poses the world today, particularly for the people of the Middle East.
In the coming years, dozens of nation-states will have armed drones roaming the skies in search of their next human target, many of whom could be assassinated remotely for no other reason than they didn’t “look innocent” or did not appear to be “farming”.