The Predator drone began its career as a spy. Its first mission was to fly over the Balkans during the late 1990s and feed live video back to the US. In 2001, it was kitted out with Hellfire missiles and promoted to assassin. The CIA reportedly had qualms about operating unmanned killing machines, but these were swept away by the attacks of 11 September. In October 2001, the Washington Post reported that George W. Bush had signed a ‘presidential finding’ that effectively lifted a 25-year ban on assassinations. Although Bill Clinton had previously claimed the authority to mount covert attacks on al-Qaida, Bush’s finding greatly expanded the pool of potential targets and expressly permitted the drawing up of kill lists. ‘Targeted killing’, the new programme, was like ‘clipping toenails’, one official told the Post, because al-Qaida could always generate new leaders. ‘It won’t solve the whole problem, but it’s part of the solution.’
By early 2002, the Predator had picked off its first target in Yemen. The CIA’s drone campaign in Pakistan got underway in 2004. The US military sent Predators to support ground forces in their campaign against the Taliban in Afghanistan, then against Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq, then against the Baathist ‘dead-enders’, then against the rising insurgency. In 2001, the military had 167 drones; by 2009, it had 5500. Today the US drone fleet numbers more than seven thousand; in addition to Predators, there are longer-distance and harder-hitting Reapers, high-altitude radar-enabled Global Hawks, and hand-launched Ravens that look like model airplanes. Most missions are for surveillance, a substantial fraction for killings. They are carried out by US operators sitting in comfortable chairs in air-conditioned rooms thousands of miles away. Their screens show tiny, pixellated people disappearing into puffs of smoke.
Between three and five thousand people have died this way in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; hundreds more have been killed by drones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. Obama oversaw the departure of the last US troops from Iraq last year, and the current plan for Afghanistan is to complete the handover from Nato to local forces by the end of 2014. But as these conventional wars have wound down, the use of drones to kill individuals outside declared war zones has accelerated. Under Bush, the US carried out 48 known drone strikes in Pakistan. Under Obama, there have been more than three hundred. Other than a handful of ‘high value targets’, little is known about who exactly is being killed, and how many of the dead might be considered innocent civilians. Estimates of civilian deaths range from ‘single digits’ in a year (Dianne Feinstein) to the low hundreds (New America Foundation) to nearly a thousand (Bureau of Investigative Journalism) to more than 90 per cent of all the deaths in drone strikes (the ex-military officers David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum). In March 2012, the New York Times reported that all military-age males, armed or unarmed, are considered to be combatants unless there is posthumous evidence proving otherwise; the Obama administration recently disputed this.
Most of the killings take place in inaccessible tribal regions, so the organisations keeping the body counts often base their assessments – ‘civilian’, ‘militant’, ‘insurgent’ or ‘combatant’ – on media reports of whatever is said to have appeared on the video feed. A former drone operator published an account of his experience in Der Spiegel:
Bryant saw a flash on the screen: the explosion. Parts of the building collapsed. The child had disappeared. Bryant had a sick feeling in his stomach. ‘Did we just kill a kid?’ he asked the man sitting next to him. ‘Yeah, I guess that was a kid,’ the pilot replied. ‘Was that a kid?’ they wrote into a chat window on the monitor. Then, someone they didn’t know answered … ‘No. That was a dog.’
In other words, distinguishing between civilian and militant has become a post hoc body-sorting argument. As viewed through the drone’s crosshairs, the ciphers on the ground are neither civilians nor militants: they could be called ‘civilitants’, some of whom have been rendered killable not by who they are or what they have done but by where they happen to be.
The names on the kill lists come from a broad swathe of militant Islamists, not just the al-Qaida of Bush’s day but its Yemeni affiliates, Taliban allies and Somali fellow-travellers. Some of the dead are done in by their physical proximity to men wanted by the drone-flying authorities. Others are victims of mysterious ‘signature strikes’. In Kill or Capture, a Woodwardian palace history, Daniel Klaidman writes that Obama first learned of signature strikes three days after his inauguration in 2009.US officials began speaking about them openly in early 2012.
In a signature strike, a person is made a target not because of their identity but because of certain ‘signatures’ – criteria associated with terrorist activity. They could be called pieces of circumstantial evidence. An early report in the Washington Post gave a loose description: signatures are ‘patterns of behaviour that are detected through signals intercepts, human sources and aerial surveillance … that indicate the presence of an important operative or a plot against US interests’. Kevin Heller, a professor of law at the University of Melbourne, has used media reports to compile a list of 14 likely signatures. Five, he found, are legal under international law. Five are dubious. Four are illegal. These four are: ‘military-age male in area of known terrorist activity’; ‘consorting with known militants’; ‘armed men travelling in trucks’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula; and ‘suspicious camp’ in an area controlled by al-Qaida.Without knowledge of the actual signatures and which signatures have been applied to which target, Heller concludes that the legality of the programme is ‘extremely difficult to assess’.
It’s worth asking whether the guidelines for signature strikes define parameters for action as implied by the word ‘criteria’, or are just a codified set of justifications for killings that have already taken place. Obama’s final kill decisions, according to most accounts, are judgment calls made by his inner circle under deadline. ‘Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,’ Obama said, according to Klaidman, who obtained this quote from an ‘Obama confidant’. Klaidman tries to give the process a quasi-judicial air. He writes of ‘the care and precision with which operations were carried out … the intricate set of permissions that were required before the trigger could be pulled on a strike’. Klaidman’s Obama is ‘unsettled’ by signature strikes. He undergoes ‘Hamlet-like’ lurches of conscience. But he can never quite bring himself to renounce the practice.
Another method of killing pursued by the US since 9/11 is elimination by elite commando squads, a mix of private contractors, intelligence operatives and Special Operations Forces (SOF). These commando squads grew quickly as the US military, led by Donald Rumsfeld, jockeyed with the CIA. Though it has received less attention than the drones, the use of commandos has continued to expand under Obama. Between 2009 and 2011, the number of raids carried out each month in Afghanistan reportedly grew from twenty to several hundred. One of these raids forms a central thread of Dirty Wars, an outraged accounting of the war on terror’s later phase by Jeremy Scahill, who wrote an influential exposé of the private security contractor Blackwater and covers US national security for the Nation. In the middle of the night in February 2010, a team of commandos attacked a compound in the provincial capital of Gardez in Afghanistan, where they claimed a Taliban assembly was taking place. Initial reports from Nato stated that the commandos were fired on by insurgents, that they killed several, and that after entering the compound they made a ‘gruesome discovery’: three dead women, bound and gagged. Jerome Starkey, a correspondent for the Times, soon demonstrated how little of this was true. The ‘insurgents’ were a local prosecutor and a police commander trained by US forces. The assembly was not a council of Taliban members but a party, with live music, to celebrate the naming of a baby boy. The dead women weren’t victims of honour killings, as Nato initially suggested. They had been shot and killed by the commandos. Afghan investigators told Starkey that the intruders tampered with evidence by cutting open the women’s bodies and removing their bullets.
Gardez is one of the many places scarred by the excesses of the killing programme. In 2009, a cruise missile strike on the village of al-Majalah in Yemen killed 41 people, including 21 children. Forty-seven Afghans were killed at a wedding, including the bride, in an air strike at Deh Bala in 2008; 37 more were killed at a wedding party the same year in Wech Baghtu. Along with some Taliban commandos and likely terrorists, drones have killed a prominent tribal elder (Pakistan), a deputy governor (Yemen), and at least 35 men in a Pakistani village who were either tribesmen holding a meeting or ‘alleged Taliban fighters’.
Aside from the legal and ethical questions, is the strategy sound? Are drones and commandos an effective way to neutralise whatever threat al-Qaida poses? Scahill raises the question by quoting Rumsfeld: ‘Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying?’ Klaidman quotes a proud CIA officer telling the Washington Post in 2011 that the US was meeting Rumsfeld’s goal: it was ‘killing these sons of bitches faster than they can grow them’. Scahill argues the opposite: that the US killing programme has more in common with the cyclical, retributive violence of a long-drawn-out civil war than with the mass violence that has often succeeded in pacifying protesting students or rebelling slaves. The killings, he argues, fuel the flames they are intended to extinguish. Measured in terms of blowback, the costs outweigh the gains.
The root cause of this bloodshed is that, in the words of one of Scahill’s military sources, the US is ‘not accustomed to dealing with conditions of danger’ in everyday life. Under Dick Cheney’s ‘one per cent doctrine’, the slimmest chance of even a small-scale terrorist attack happening on US soil must be met with an overwhelming response. The demand for a perfect peace provokes panic in the men charged with carrying out the policy. Todd Purdum reported in Vanity Fair that Cheney would travel to the White House with a biohazard suit within arm’s reach. General Stanley McChrystal likened the flow of intelligence about terrorist threats to ‘a stream of hot cinders … falling everywhere around us, and we had to see them, catch those we could, and react instantly to those we had missed that were starting to set the ground on fire’.
Unable to accept the risk of deaths on its own soil, the US exports its insecurities. Living under Drones, a 2012 report assembled from information gathered at law clinics at Stanford and NYU, documents the trauma inflicted on Pakistani civilians by the continuous buzzing of drone engines overhead:
Interviewees described emotional breakdowns, running indoors or hiding when drones appear above, fainting, nightmares and other intrusive thoughts, hyper-startled reactions to loud noises, outbursts of anger or irritability and loss of appetite and other physical symptoms … A father of three said: ‘Drones are always on my mind. It makes it difficult to sleep. They are like a mosquito. Even when you don’t see them, you can hear them, you know they are there.’
Recent Congressional testimony by Farea al-Muslimi, a Yemeni writer, supports Scahill’s argument: ‘What radicals had previously failed to achieve in my village, one drone strike accomplished in an instant: there is now intense anger and growing hatred of America.’
The first US citizen killed by drone died in late 2002, in one of the first strikes to take place on the newly expanded global battlefield. Six suspected terrorists died when a missile hit their vehicle in the Marib province of Yemen; the US citizen among them was Kamal Derwish, who was wanted in connection with a terrorist cell operating in upstate New York. Derwish, officials explained, hadn’t been the intended target – the purpose of the strike was to kill a man who had been involved with the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. The question of whether it is permissible for US citizens to be deliberately killed without trial by their own government did not arise again until 2010, when an anonymous US official told the Washington Post that Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born Muslim cleric and online celebrity among Islamic radicals, was on a kill list. ‘He’s working actively to kill Americans,’ the official said, ‘so it’s both lawful and sensible to try to stop him … US citizenship hardly gives you blanket protection overseas to plot the murder of your fellow citizens.’
Before and immediately after the 11 September attacks, al-Awlaki led a conventional suburban life, raising a family and preaching against violence. Scahill interprets his radicalisation as a reaction to US aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as in his own life. The FBI pressured him to turn informant and the Yemeni government, at the request of the US, put him in prison. ‘From his perspective,’ Scahill writes, ‘it was America that had changed, not him.’ Al-Awlaki’s father, along with the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, filed a lawsuit to get his name removed from the kill list. The suit failed. Al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. His 16-year-old son, also a US citizen, was killed in another strike two weeks later. US officials said that the younger al-Awlaki, like Derwish, had not been ‘specifically targeted’. A senior official told Scahill that Obama was ‘surprised and upset and wanted an explanation’. Robert Gibbs, a senior advisor to Obama, suggested that the boy wouldn’t have been killed if he’d had a ‘more responsible father’. A wrongful death suit against US officials for the death of both al-Awlakis and a third US citizen is pending.
Scahill argues that in Somalia, US intervention has inspired the sort of radical backlash it was designed to stamp out. In 2003, the CIA bought up local warlords to gather intelligence and wanted men on its behalf. The country soon fell into the hands of the motley Islamic Courts Union, which attempted to impose Sharia law and contained some fundamentalist elements aligned with the Taliban. The US responded by supporting Ethiopia in a proxy war against the Courts, which served to strengthen al-Shabaab, one of the most militant elements in the Courts coalition. The Ethiopian military shelled residential neighbourhoods and is alleged to have engaged in the mass slaughter of civilians. In at least one case, Ethiopian forces were supported by an AC-130 gunship operated by US Special Operations Command. Early in 2009, al-Shabaab took control of Mogadishu. In 2010, it formally declared allegiance to al-Qaida. Soldiers from the African Union retook the capital, but the Shabaab insurgency continues to this day. Scahill persuasively argues that if the US had wanted a stable Somalia, it would have been better off backing the Islamic Courts Union instead of the warlords.
A pattern that runs through these foreign wars is the ability of local mercenaries to outmanoeuvre their over-funded US opponents. Recall the silver-tongued envoy who claimed to represent the Taliban’s Mullah Omar at high-level talks in Kabul with Nato in 2010, only to disappear with what one Western diplomat called ‘a lot of money’. The US has been able to rent the loyalties of individual players, but its attempts to buy peace in a foreign nation tend to fail.
In 2001 Yemen’s leadership was of a familiar kind: a mercenary strongman willing to take on patrons. Ali Abdullah Saleh had become president of North Yemen in 1978, had overseen unification with South Yemen in 1990 and in 2001 still held power. After refusing to back the US in the first Gulf War, Yemen had been isolated diplomatically and given little help in exploiting its oil reserves. It remains the poorest country in the Arab world. In 2000, when the FBI went to investigate the al-Qaida bombing of the USS Cole at Yemen’s largest port, Saleh gave the US uneven and reluctant help. But he quickly changed his position after 9/11, submitting to US demands that he pry suspected terrorists loose from their tribal hosts.
Over the next decade, in exchange for millions of dollars in assistance, Saleh arrested men on US wanted lists and gave the US permission to go after others with drones. Some suspects ended up in Guantánamo; some with better tribal connections were luckier. In 2004, Scahill reports, Saleh called on al-Qaida fighters to help him put down a rebellion. Two years later, 23 alleged al-Qaida prisoners dug a tunnel more than a hundred metres long and escaped from a Yemeni prison. Meanwhile, al-Qaida built up a presence in the country’s more remote areas, and the US responded by escalating its drone campaign. A similar double game was underway with Pakistan’s leadership, which accepted much larger amounts of US aid even as its intelligence service sheltered the Taliban and its military engaged in border shoot-outs with US forces. The US-backed counterterrorism forces in both countries don’t want to fight back too strenuously, in case they defeat their opponents and so lose their reason for being. The Yemeni government is ‘squandering the money allocated to fight al-Qaida’, a tribal leader told Scahill in 2011. ‘If they fight seriously, the funds will stop.’
Scahill concentrates on Saleh’s partnership with the US, telling how a young Yemeni journalist who broke the story about the US’s responsibility for the attack on al-Majalah was locked up at the behest of the Americans. ‘We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,’ Saleh told the US, according to a leaked cable. Badly wounded in an assassination attempt and buffeted by protests, Saleh left power in late 2011 and flew to America for medical treatment. He has since returned to Yemen, where the drone campaign continues.
Scahill’s book leans heavily on secondary sources: the endnotes show how big some of his debts are. At times, Scahill favours storytelling over scepticism: one account of a daring terrorist getaway comes straight from al-Qaida’s English-language magazine Inspire, something Scahill should have flagged in the text, not the notes. He is at his best when reporting from the ground, meeting Somali warlords, Yemeni tribal leaders, al-Awlaki’s extended family and a few shadowy sources. These face-to-face encounters are a big feature of the book’s film documentary sibling, also called Dirty Wars. At the centre of the movie is Scahill himself, his quest for truth and the risks he runs to deliver it. On screen, Scahill is a compelling character, but this complicates his work as an observer. I was especially torn by his voiceover account of reporting-induced insomnia, which helps establish Scahill as a sympathetic character but threatens to push his subjects’ stories towards the wings. Still, at a time when the president wants to retire the rhetoric of war while retaining its prerogatives, a campaigning voice like Scahill’s is indispensable.
In late May, Obama made a speech that attempted to reframe US killing policies. Al-Awlaki’s citizenship, he said, ‘should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a Swat team’. The analogy suggests that al-Awlaki was killed, and not captured, because he was close to striking the US. There is evidence to suggest this wasn’t the real reason. In October 2009, while al-Awlaki was still alive, Yemen’s government offered to help the CIA capture him, according to the Washington Post. Yemen asked for the participation of US special forces. The CIA turned Yemen down, claiming there was no ‘specific evidence that he threatened the lives of Americans’. Al-Awlaki is alleged to have become ‘operational’ by consulting with the perpetrator of the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009 and allegedly assisting with the failed underwear bombing on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. By March 2010, Klaidman writes, al-Awlaki had plans to attack the US with neurotoxins, ricin and cyanide. A top State Department lawyer concluded that al-Awlaki was ‘not just evil, he was satanic’.
The US had been watching al-Awlaki for years. Is it plausible that none of these alleged plots was underway when Yemen asked for help only six months earlier? ‘It wasn’t a case of missed intelligence,’ a US official told the Washington Post. ‘There was an American policy decision not to put boots on the ground.’ Arresting al-Awlaki would no doubt have involved considerable logistical, political and diplomatic risks, but it was possible, and to that extent Obama’s sniper analogy doesn’t hold up.
Meanwhile, the US is doing what it can to blur the distinction between the sniper on a rooftop and the sniper Googling where to buy his first gun. The two cases can be made into one with the ‘broader concept of imminence’ outlined in a US justice department white paper leaked this February:
The condition that an operational leader present an ‘imminent’ threat of violent attack … does not require the United States to have clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future … the nation may have a limited window of opportunity within which to strike in a manner that both has high likelihood of success and reduces the probability of American casualties.
‘If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s 34 people in the building, 35 people are going to die,’ a source in US military intelligence told Scahill.