Drones, targeted killing and the Soleimani Strike

Remains of vehicle following US drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport

A week ago, a US air strike that officials (speaking off-the-record) acknowledged was carried out by a Reaper drone, killed senior Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and up to 10 others, travelling in a two-car convoy outside Baghdad airport. The targeted killing of a senior Iranian military officer sent shock waves around the globe and appalled many. International law scholars argued strongly that the strike was unlawful, politicians and diplomats articulated the dangerous impact both locally, regionally and internationally and military officials braced themselves for the inevitable retaliation. 

At the time of writing, Iran has launched a ballistic missile attack against two US bases (including the Al Asad base where the US Reaper drone used is thought to be based) although with seemingly no casualties.  Both sides now appear, in public at least, to wish to de-escalate from military action.  However, at this stage it’s too early to say the crisis caused by the drone strike is over and the consequences of the attack – including the strong Iraqi push for the withdrawal of US Coalition forces from its territory – remain unclear.

Much has already been written about the Soleimani strike over the past week and there will no doubt be much more over the coming weeks and months. Perhaps the most crucial aspect to be uncovered is when and why the decision was taken to launch the strike. Some suggest the decision to strike was agreed days or weeks beforehand while others suggest that it was an opportunistic strike, initiated to prevent an imminent attack. Justifications for the strike put forward by US officials since the strike have, as the US media puts it euphemistically, ‘evolved’.  But what cannot be denied is that the strike has its roots in, and builds on a much-expanded culture of targeted killing that has arisen over the past two decades with the advent of armed remote-controlled drones.

While it is unarguable that so-called ‘targeted killing’ – assassination – long predates the rise of the armed drone, the availability of this new military technology has enabled and widely expanded the practice.  Space forbids a detailed examination of the rise in drone targeted killing here – it has been well covered elsewhere.  Suffice to say that hundreds of individuals in a whole host of countries undertaking a variety of activities, from armed militants to propagandists, have been labelled as ‘terrorists’, hunted, and killed in drone attacks. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent civilians have been caught up in these strikes.

Legal critics of this type of drone targeted killing – that is, outside a situation of international armed conflict – have long argued that such killings do not comply with the international law unless the strike is taken to prevent an imminent attack, with ‘imminent’ meaning ‘instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation’ (the so-called Caroline test).  This argument is so strong that advocates of the use of armed drone are now insisting that the solution is not to stop the strikes, but rather the understanding of imminence must change in order to allow such pre-emptive drone attacks to continue.  Those, that is, that care about international law.

On top of this, we now have the US using a drone to target and kill a senior military official of a country with which it is not at war. The precedent this sets for the future is deeply worrying, particularly at a time when many more countries are acquiring armed drones and some of them (UAE, Turkey) have begun to use them to undertake targeted-killing attacks.

Perhaps the Soleimani strike – and the prospect of the opening of the Pandora’s Box of senior military officials being considered targetable – will give more weight and urgency to embryonic efforts to build international standards around the proliferation and use of armed drones. But this will require a significant change in political will which has been little in evidence lately. The unedifying sight of the new Johnson government ditching its initial tentatively neutral position for a full-throated support of the killing of Soleimani after a verbal warning from Pompeo makes clear that the UK simply cannot be counted on to stand-up for international law and human rights in this area.

We have long-argued that drones are a destabilising military technology that is lowering the threshold for the use of force and a real danger to global peace and security. This position is often derided by those who insist that drones are no different from other forms of air power.  Some suggest that the fact that the strike was undertake by a drone is insignificant as there appears nothing about the operation that could not have been undertaken by any armed aircraft. And that may well be correct. But it is surely unarguable that drones have enabled and normalised a culture of targeted killing which is eroding international law norms and making the world a more dangerous place. We may well look back at a few years distance and see the Soleimani strike as the beginning of a dangerous new era in drone warfare.

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