A deadly legacy: 20 years of drone targeted killing

On the 3rd November 2002,  a US Predator drone targeted and killed Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, a Yemeni member of al-Qaeda who the CIA believed responsible for the attack on the USS Cole in which 17 US sailors were killed. While drones had previously been used in warzones, this was the first time the technology had been used to hunt down and kill a specific individual in a country in which the US was not at war – ‘beyond the battlefield’ as it has become euphemistically known. Since then, numerous US targeted killings have taken place in Yemen, Pakistan and Somalia, while other states who have acquired the technology – including the UK – have also carried out such strikes.

At first, the notion of remotely targeting and killing suspects outside of the battlefield and without due process was shocking to legal experts, politicians and the press.  In an armed conflict where international humanitarian law (the Laws of War) apply, such strikes can be lawful.  However, outside of the battlefield, where killing of suspects is only accepted in order to prevent imminent loss of life, such killings are almost certainly unlawful. Indeed in early reporting on the first such attack 20 years ago, journalists noted that the US State Department has condemned targeted killing of suspects by Israel (see article below).

New York Times, 6 November, 2002. Click to see original.

However, the US argued – and continues to argue today – that its targeted killings are lawful.  It has put forward a number of arguments over the years which are seriously questioned by other states and international law experts.  These include  the notion that whenever and wherever that US undertakes military action international humanitarian law applies; that because states where the US engages in such strikes are ‘unable or unwilling’ to apprehend suspects its lethal actions are lawful; and that there should be greater ‘flexibility’ in interpreting the notion of  ‘imminence’ in relation to last resort.

Here are a small sample of drone targeted killing operations undertaken by the US and others.

November 3, 2002, US drone strike on a vehicle in Marib province, Yemen. 
  • Target: Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi

The first drone targeted killing saw a CIA Predator drone operating out of Djibouti launch two missiles at a vehicle travelling through the desert in Marib province, Yemen. The drone’s target was ostensibly al-Qaeda leader Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi, said by the US to be behind the lethal attack on the USS Cole two years previously.  However, also in the vehicle was  US citizen Kemal Darwish and four other men, all believed to be members of al-Qaeda.  As Chris Woods wrote in 2012, “The way had been cleared for the killings months earlier, when President Bush lifted a 25-year ban on US assassinations just after 9/11. [Bush] wrote that ‘George Tenet proposed that I grant broader authority for covert actions, including permission for the CIA to kill or capture al Qaeda operatives without asking for my sign-off each time. I decided to grant the request.’”

Online webinar: Pandora’s box: 20 years of drone targeted killing

Drone Wars has invited a number of experts to mark 20 years of drone targeted killings by offering some reflections on the human, legal and political cost of the practice and to discuss how we can press the international community to ensure that drone operators abide by international law in this area.

  • Agnes Callamard, Secretary General, Amnesty International. Ex Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions (2016-2021)
  • Chris Woods, Founder of Airwars, author of ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’
  • Bonyan Jamal, Yemen-based lawyer and Legal Support Director with Mwatana for Human Rights, Yemen
  • Kamaran Osman, Human Rights Observer for Community Peacemaker Teams in Iraq Kurdistan
  • (Chair)  Chris Cole, Director, Drone Wars UK

Tickets for this online webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

August 5, 2009, US drone strike on house in South Waziristan, Pakistan
  • Target: Baitullah Mehsud

A CIA drone strike targeted and killed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) leader Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan on 5th August 2009. According to local reports Mehsud was on a drip receiving dialysis treatment at his father-in-law’s house when the drone struck. Pakistani officials said that 12 people were confirmed to have been killed in the strike, including Mehsud, his wife, his father-in-law, his mother-in-law, one unidentified commander and seven bodyguards.

This, however, was not the first CIA drone strike that had targeted Mehsud. According to a 2014 report by human rights group Reprieve, at least seven times CIA drones had launched strikes specifically targeting him and announcing his death, only for Mehsud to turn up alive again.  According to Reprieve’s analysis at least 164 people were killed in those strikes including 11 children.

Drone targeted killings are repeatedly portrayed as being precise and ‘surgical’ operations, with operators able to sit above the ‘fog and friction’ of war before launching a deadly strike. However time and time again we have seen strikes where the intelligence was flawed, leading to innocent people being killed. 

February 2, 2010, US drone strike, North Waziristan, Pakistan
  • Target: Sirajuddin Haqqani
A boy protests against US drone attacks in North Waziristan, 2010

Between  2008 and 2010 US drones launched multiple strikes in North Waziristan targeting Sirajuddin Haqqani, a senior leader of the Haqqani Network.  On 2 February 2010, local officials reported that 29 people were killed in strike targeting Haqqani but he again survived apparently not being present at the location of the strikes.  Like Baitullah Mehsud, Sirajuddin Haqqani was targeted and reportedly killed a number of times.  However more than a decade later he remains alive, having been appointed deputy leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (Taliban) in 2016.  In 2020 he wrote an op-ed for the New York Times explaining the position of the Taliban as they undertook negotiations with the US.  Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, Sirajuddin Haqqani has become deputy Head of State.

September 30, 2011, US drone strike, Al Jawf Governorate, Yemen 
  • Target: Anwar al-Awlaki

In 2010, counterterrorism officials told journalists that the Obama administration had authorised the targeted killing of US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.  Awlaki, who had condemned the September 11 attacks and had been invited to dine at the Pentagon, came under suspicion for  previous contact with several of the hijackers. FBI agents interviewed Awlaki repeatedly and placed him under surveillance. In 2002, Awlaki left the US, first for the UK and then for Yemen, where he was arrested and imprisoned without trial at the behest of the US. When he was released 18 months later, as  Jameel Jaffer wrote, “his views toward the US had hardened.  In online videos, and in an English-language magazine called Inspire, he became an unforgiving critic of US policies and, in some instances, an apologist for attacks against Americans.”

On 30 September, 2011, a CIA drone struck a vehicle carrying, Awlaki and Samir Khan, another US citizen and editor of English-language al-Qaida magazine, Inspire.  The following month, a drone strike killed his 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki, while his 8 year-old daughter, Nawar al-Awlaki, was killed during a US special forces raid in 2017.

September 1, 2014, US drone strike, Lower Shabelle region of Somalia
  • Target: Ahmed Abdi Godane

A US special forces operated Predator drone struck and killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, leader of al-Shabab on 1 September 2014. Killed alongside him were five other al-Shabab militants.  While other drone strikes in Somalia were rarely confirmed by the US, the US made several statements about this strike and answered questions on it from the press. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) pointed out that “French publication, Le Point, reported that France’s intelligence service the DGSE had given the US the precise whereabouts of Godane, under direct orders from President Francois Hollande [with] the article claiming that Paris had been hunting Godane to exact revenge for the kidnapping of two DGSE officers and the death of one of them and two commandos sent to rescue him in January 2013.

August 21, 2015, British drone strike, Raqqa area, Syria
  • Target: Reyaad Khan

On 21 August 2015, 21 year old British citizen Reyaad Khan was targeted and killed by an RAF Reaper drone as he was travelling in a vehicle with other ISIS militants near Raqqa in Syria.  According to news reports, Khan was targeted soon after he left hospital following being wounded in a previous targeted strike.

PM David Cameron announced the strike in parliament, admitting it was the first time that the UK had targeted one of its own citizens in a country in which the UK was not at war.  Previously, British politicians and officials has been critical of US targeted killing policy and insisted the UK would not follow down the same path. Two parliamentary enquires attempted to examine the circumstances of the killing in more detail but were refused access to key documents and witnesses. One anonymous senior military officer told MPs that officers has serious concerns about the operations saying arguing that it represented “the crossing of a Rubicon”.

January 3, 2020, US Reaper drone strike on vehicle exiting Baghdad international airport
  • Target: General Qassem Soleimani
Remains of vehicle following US drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport, 2020.

A US drone struck and killed 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. International law experts 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. Hours later,  Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against two US bases including the Al Asad base where the US Reaper drone used in the strike is thought to be based.  Five days later, Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down by Iran shortly after take-off killing all 176 passengers and crew aboard. Iranian authorities initially denied responsibility for the aircraft’s destruction, but later admitted that amidst heightend tension between the two countries, Flight 752 had been shot down after it had mistakenly been identified as an American cruise missile.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial summary or arbitrary Executions, Agnes Callmard stated “The justifications advanced by the US for its drone attack against General Soleimani, and later by Iran for its attack against US bases in Iraq, lacked any evidence of imminent threat.  Clearly, the strikes were made in retaliation or as reprisals.  And thus they were unlawful.”

May 17 2021: Israeli drone strike, Gaza City
  • Target: Hussam Abu Harbeed

During an eleven day surge in violence in violence between Israel and Palestinians, at least 253 Palestinians were killed in air strikes including 66 children, while 12 people, including two children, were killed in Israel by rockets fired by armed groups.

During this time, Israel launched a number of strikes targeting the homes and vehicles of alleged leaders of Palestinian militant groups in an acknowledged campaign of assassination.  On 17 May, a strike by the IDF on a car in Gaza City killed Hussam Abu Harbeed, leader of Islamic Jihad in Northern Gaza.  Pictures of the car show damage remarkably similar to that caused by the new R9X Hellfire missile used by US drones.  This uses steel blades rather than explosives to kill the target.  While it is unlikely that Israel is using R9X missiles, they appear to be using a similar type of non-kinetic missile.  After decades of refusing to discuss the issue, in 2022 Israel admitted for the first time that it had used armed drones to carry out both targeted killings and other strikes.

 August 16/17, 2021: Turkish drone strike on vehicle and follow up strike on injured at hospital, Sinjar, Iraq
  • Target: YBS officials
Funeral of Dr Mukhlisat Sidar, one of the medics killed in Turkish drone strike on hospital in Sinjar.

A Turkish drone strike targeted a vehicle in Iraq taking a group of YBS (Yazidi militia) delegates to a meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, during his visit to the region.  Two people were killed in the strike on the vehicle and the injured were transported to a local medical clinic.

The following day, Turkish drones returned and launched 3 attacks on the clinic where the injured were taken, apparently targeting the survivors of the first attack.  Eight people were killed in this second strike; four injured militia members receiving medical treatment and four medical staff. A number of other civilians were also injured. The deputy mayor of Sinjar, Jalal Khalaf Basso, told AFP that “the hospital was subjected to three raids with drones that destroyed the entire building.”   [

July 31, 2022, US drone strike on a compound in Kabul, Afghanistan
Kabul house targeted by US drone strike, 31 July 2022

Target: Ayman Al-Zawahiri

A US drone strike a house in Kabul on 31 July almost a year after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan targeted and killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.  US officials speaking to journalists on background said that the strike was carried out by the CIA after Zawahiri’s location was discovered earlier in the year.  Unlike many such strike, President Biden confirmed the US had carried out the strike in a TV statement. US officials insisted that Al-Zawahiri was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of al-Qaeda although international law scholars question the US’ interpretation of international law in this area.

A deadly legacy

There are many aspects of drone targeted killing to reflect on after 20 years, not least how such operations are eroding international law, have fuelled anti-Western sentiment, undermined non-military means of challenging terrorism and helped to create a culture of ‘forever war’.  However, as Agnes Callamard wrote just over two years ago when she was Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions:

What is especially troubling is the absence of public discussion about the ethics, legality, and effectiveness of the “decapitation” strategy  at the heart of drones targeted killings, whether or not they have their effect as claimed, and about the measures of their success, in terms of a long-term vision for the sustainable protection of human lives and global peace.  Instead, war has been normalized as the legitimate and necessary companion to “peace”, not as its opposite we must do all that we can to resist.

Professor of International Law, Mary Ellen O’Connell, also argues that targeted kill operations also  make it much harder for the international community to challenge illegal use of force like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because international law in this area has been seriously diluted.

Drone Wars has long-argued that armed drones are a destabilising technology that is helping to lower the threshold for the use of force. This is dismissed by those who insist that drones are no different from other forms of air power. But it is surely unarguable that drones have enabled and normalised a culture of targeted killing which is making the world a more dangerous place.

As the use of armed drones spreads, such targeted killings operations will expand and become normalised unless there is a strong push back from states, civil society groups and the public, insisting that drone operators adhere to international law.

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