The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri:  the tip of the targeted killing iceberg

President Biden announcing the targeted killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Drone assassination returned briefly to the top of the news agenda this week with the US targeted killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Many could be forgiven for thinking this was the first drone targeted killing since the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, but behind the scenes the use of drones for these type of operations is growing – and spreading.

Over-the-Horizon

The strike on Zawahiri, which took place early on Sunday morning (31 July) in Afghanistan, was announced by President Biden on Monday evening.  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. US officials insisted that he was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of al-Qaeda although multiple international law scholars question the US’ interpretation of international law in this area.

The strike comes almost a year after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and, within the US at least, reporting of the targeted killing played out against continuing political arguments around whether the withdrawal has harmed or improved US interests/security in the region.  Biden argues that his ‘over-the-horizon’ strategy – that is remote drone strikes with ‘in-and-out’ special ops raids as necessary – instead of long-term deployments, improves US security.

Many early responses to the killing were quick to affirm the efficacy of drone strikes and this strategy. Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the original withdrawal agreement, told the New York Times “In this case, over the horizon worked.” He called the strike proof that “we can protect our interest against terror threats in Afghanistan without a large and expensive military presence there.”  Elsewhere, the liberal think-tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft also claimed that such strikes ‘work’ insisting that they were “a more sustainable form of risk management” than long-term occupation (although, to be fair, they did argue that such a position “should not be conflated with the unhinged permissiveness of past drone wars”).   However, whether such strikes ‘work’ by increasing peace and security in the long-term, is still  very questionable.  The reality is that the drone warfare has its own logic and momentum, and its increasingly clear just how hard it has become to put this tool back in Pandora’s boxRead more

Book Review: Navigating a way through the ethical maze of new technologies

  • Technology Is Not Neutral: A Short Guide To Technology Ethics, Stephanie Hare, London Publishing Partnership, Feb 2022
  • The Political Philosophy of AI: Mark Coeckelbergh, Polity Press, Feb 2022

New technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) raise formidable political and ethical challenges, and these two books each provide a different kind of practical toolkit for examining and analysing these challenges.  Through investigating a range of viewpoints and examples they thoroughly disprove the claim that ‘technology is neutral’, often used as a cop-out by those who refuse to take responsibility for the technologies they have developed or promoted.

Mark Coeckelbergh is Professor of Philosophy of Media and Technology at the University of Vienna, and his book ‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ encourages us to reflect on what advanced technologies such as AI are already doing to us, in order to prevent us from becoming their helpless victims.  In many ways the book is more about political philosophy than about AI, and is none the worse for that.  Coeckelbergh points out that although a great deal has been written about the technology and the ethics of AI, there has been little thought on the impacts of AI from the perspective of political philosophy, and he sets out to correct this omission.

Political theorist Langdon Winner has argued that technology is political and observes that instead of bringing greater democratisation and equality, new technologies may well give even more power to those who already have a great deal of it.  Coeckelbergh’s book exposes the political power that AI wields alongside its technical power and shows how new technologies such as AI are fundamentally entangled with changes in society.  He explains how the political issues we care about in society are changed and take on new meanings and urgency in the light of technological developments such as advances in robotics, AI, and biotechnology, arguing that to understand the rights and wrongs of new technologies we need to consider them from the perspective of political philosophy as well as ethics, and that this will help us to clarify the questions and issues which the technologies raise.

‘The Political Philosophy of AI’ sets out the theories of political philosophy chapter-by-chapter as they relate to the major elements of politics today – freedom, justice, equality, democracy, power, and the environment – and for each element explores the consequences that we can expect as AI becomes established in society.  This serves to frame the challenges that the technology will bring and act as an evaluative framework to assess its impacts.  Coeckelbergh also uses the analysis to develop a political philosophy for AI itself, which helps us to not only understand and question our political values but also gain a deeper insight into the nature of politics and humanity.

Coeckelbergh’s book asks questions rather than gives answers, and this may disappoint some readers.  But this approach is in line with the philosophical approach that politics should be publicly discussed in a participative and inclusive way, rather than subject to autocratic decisions made by a powerful minority.  That there is virtually no public debate about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI to transform society says as much about our political system as it does about AI.

“That there is virtually no public debate
about the wishes of the UK government and others to use AI
to transform society says as much about our political system
as it does about AI.”

Read more

Ukraine and the ethical debate on armed drones: some early reflections

Images of Bayraktar TB2 strike in Ukraine – undated.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has rightly been condemned across the globe.  The on-going war is horrific, with verified reports of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and a number of reports of killings which amount to war crimes.  At the time of writing, the UN reports that around 2,000 civilians have been killed since the invasion began although the actual figure may be much higher.  It is good to see so see such widespread condemnation of the war, although it is hard not to ask why there is little condemnation of other wars and not come to the obvious conclusion.

After seven weeks, there is a great deal that can be said about this awful war and the initial reaction to it. But our primary focus, as always, is on the use of armed drones and the ethical debate that surrounds their growing use.

Bayraktar drone use in Ukraine

While a variety of small unarmed drones have been used in Ukraine by both sides for surveillance and intelligence gathering, it is the use of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone by Ukrainian forces that has gained most attention.  Multiple news articles have reported that the Bayraktar drone has been used to deadly effect against Russian heavy weapons with headlines such as ‘Ukraine’s Drones Are Wreaking Havoc On The Russian Army’ and ‘Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Against Russia: Turkish Drones’Read more

Long read: Six strikes that show the reality of drone warfare today

Weddings. Hospitals. Refugee camps. Aid workers. All have become the target of lethal strikes this year due to the spreading use of drones by a growing number of states.  Here we detail six particular strikes and, below, reflect on what they show about the reality of drone warfare today.

1. January 3, 2021: French strike targeting a gathering of people, Mopti, Mali
Charred ground where French strike occurred according to UN investigation report.

Following surveillance by a French Reaper drone “spanning several days”, two French Mirage jets operating in conjunction with the drone fired three laser guided bombs at what was said to be a gathering of around 40 armed militants. French military spokesperson Col. Frederic Barbry told Associated Press that the strike followed an intelligence mission which showed a “suspicious gathering of people.”

The gathering, however, was a wedding party and, according to a subsequent UN investigation, 19 civilians, including the father of groom were killed. The detailed report concluded that around 100 people were at the wedding celebration including 5 men who were alleged to be members of an armed group, only one of whom visibly carried a weapon. The report stated:

“Of the 22 people killed, 19 were directly killed by the strike, including 16 civilians, while the three other civilians died of their injuries during their transfer for medical treatment. At least eight other civilians were injured in the strike.  The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are people protected against attacks under international humanitarian law.“

France rejected the results of the UN investigation and continues to dispute that any civilians were killed in the strike.  [Further details.]

 2. May 4 2021: US strike targeting vehicle and occupant, Deir Ezzor, Syria

A US Reaper drone strike targeted the occupant of a vehicle in eastern Syria with the man killed instantly. The Coalition tweeted:

“CJTFOIR conducted an air strike removing a Daesh terrorist from the battlefield near Dayr az Zawr, Syria today. Coalition and our partners will continue our mission to defeat Daesh, disrupt their resources and eliminate Daesh remnants.”

However, locals disputed that the man killed, identified as Bassem Atwan Al-Bilal, was involved with ISIS or any other militant group, stating that he worked in the gas industry, refining oil.  They also revealed that the man had only bought the vehicle two days previously and suggested that target of the drone strike was likely to have been the previous owner. Read more

Technology and the future of UK Foreign Policy – Our submission to the Foreign Affairs Committee Inquiry

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In a timely and welcome move, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has recently launched an investigation into ‘Tech and the future of UK foreign policy‘.  Recognising that new and emerging technologies are fundamentally altering the nature of international relations and the rapidly growing influence of private technology companies, the Committee’s inquiry intends to focus on how the government, and particularly the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO) should respond to the opportunities and challenges presented by new technologies.

A broad selection of stakeholders have already provided written evidence to the Committee, ranging from big technology companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, and BAE Systems, to academics and industry groups with specialist interests in the field.  Non-government organisations, including ourselves, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International UK, and the UK Campaign to Stop Killer Robots have also provided evidence.

Not surprisingly, submissions from industry urge the government to support and push ahead with the development of new technologies, with Microsoft insisting that the UK “must move more quickly to advance broad-based technology innovation, which will require “an even closer partnership between the government and the tech sector”.  BAE Systems calls for “a united front [which] can be presented in promoting the UK’s overseas interests across both the public and private sectors”.  Both BAE and Microsoft see roles for new technology in the military: BAE point out that “technology is also reshaping national security”, while Microsoft calls for “cooperation with the private sector in the context of NATO”. Read more

Death TV: Drone warfare in contemporary popular culture

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For those of us who have no direct experience of drone warfare, popular culture is one of the major ways that we come to understand what is at stake in UAV operations. Movies, novels, TV and other cultural forms can inform our ideas about drone warfare just as much as, if not sometimes more than, traditional news media or academic/NGO reports.

Death TV is a new study that looks in depth at how popular culture informs public understanding of the ethics, politics, and morality of drone operations. It looks at a wide range of popular drone fictions, including Hollywood movies such as Eye in the Sky and Good Kill, prestige TV shows such as Homeland, 24: Live Another Day and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and novels by authors including Dan Fesperman, Dale Brown, Daniel Suarez, and Mike Maden. Death TV looks at these cultural products and gets inside the way they work. It identifies six main themes that can be found across many of them, and examines the ways that they inform and shape the drone debate.

In broad terms, Death TV argues that popular cultural representations often have the effect of normalizing and justifying drone warfare. Enjoyable narrative texts such as films, TV series, novels, and some forms of popular journalism play a role in the process by which drone warfare is made comprehensible to those of us without first-hand experience of it. Importantly, they also do so in a way which has, however critical any individual story may appear to be, the general effect of making drone warfare seem a legitimate, rational and moral use of both cutting edge technology and lethal military force.  Read more