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