Originally published by The Guardian
For anyone concerned about the use of drones, or ‘remotely piloted aircraft’ as the industry insists on calling them, the nature of recent coverage has been somewhat perturbing. With the normalisation of the use of military drones, media interest has waned and reporters now seems far more interested in writing about toy drones landing on the White House lawn than the White House’s use of drones for targeted assassination. Just this week much ink has been spilt covering the arrest of an amateur pilot for thoughtlessly flying a drone near Parliament while the use of armed British drones in Syria – breaching absolute assurances by the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon against mission creep – has not received a mention.
Despite widespread ethical, political and legal misgivings US, British and Israeli forces have already carried out numerous drone strikes this year. And as military spokespeople repeat bland assurances about the precise nature of such operations, civilians continue to die.
In Somalia there has been a surge in the use of drones with three senior Al Shabaab figures killed in separate US targeted assassinations in the past three months. The latest, confirmed by the Pentagon just this week, targeted Adnan Garaar, alleged to have been behind the 2013 attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya. His predecessor as chief of external operations, Yusef Dheeq was killed in a US drone strike last month reportedly along with four civilians.
US drone strikes also continue in Yemen despite the recent coup. It was thought that strikes would be suspended following the ousting of President Hadi as his authorization gave cover under international law. However Pentagon officials strongly denied there would be any suspension and as if to prove this a strike took place almost immediately. The strike resulted in the deaths of three people including Taeiman al Jahmi, a boy whose father and brother were killed in a previous drone strike in 2011. The Guardian released a remarkable video with Taeiman speaking about his life.
And while the US has officially declared the war in Afghanistan over, US forces continue to undertake drone strikes there too. One in February targeted Abdul Rauf a former member of the Taliban who had sworn allegiance to ISIS. Rauf was killed along with an unknown number of other people. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has recorded around 15 confirmed and reported drones strikes in Afghanistan since the beginning of 2015.
But it’s not just US drones that are carrying out targeted assassinations. Israeli drones carried out a cross-border strike against Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian section of the Golan Heights in January. The strike killed six members of the group as well as a senior Iranian General Mohammad Ali Allah-Dadi.
Since last August, Iraq and Syria have been the new front in the drone wars. This week Syrian air defences shot down a US drone when it flew near Latakia, a stronghold of President al-Assad. Although US drones have been flying over Syria since August and British ones since November, this is the first time but perhaps not the last, one has been shot down.
Freelance reporter Chris Woods who has been carefully monitoring the air war against ISIS reports that there have been over 2,800 strikes by manned and unmanned aircraft since August with the vast majority of these being undertaken by the US. Woods has recorded 37 ‘incidents of concern’ where civilians have reportedly been killed or injured in coalition bombing.
Compared to the large number of US strikes, the 170 British strikes there are relatively small. However they are happening at a much faster rate than in Afghanistan. British Reapers have already racked up 70 drone strikes in just under five months in Iraq whereas it took almost two years to notch up that amount in Afghanistan. And although the Ministry of Defence insists that its drones are predominately used for surveillance they are actually undertaking air strikes in Iraq at a slightly higher rate than the manned aircraft.. Tornados carried out 90 strikes in 22 weeks giving a strike rate of 4.09 per week, while Reapers have carried out 70 strikes in 16 weeks giving a strike rate of 4.37 per week.
Meanwhile the recently released US defense budget included plans for spending almost $3 billion on new unmanned systems while British spending on drones this financial year has reached almost a quarter of billion pounds on top of the more than £2bn previously spent. Other nations are clamouring to acquire armed drones now the US has relaxed its drone export policy and recent pictures of an apparent Chinese armed drone crashed in Nigeria are a worrying sign of the further spread of such systems.
While coverage of the danger of small drones in civil airspace is of course important, scrutiny of the growing use of armed drones around the globe is vital. Without it, the disconnect between us and the wars being waged in our name grows ever greater. From current reporting however you could be forgiven for thinking that drones are no more than a nuisance in the hands of a few reckless individuals. The reality is that armed drones have not only killed many hundreds of innocent civilians but are also a growing danger to global peace and security.