Book Review: ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’ by Chris Woods.

READING WEEK: The final post in our short series of book reviews related to the use of armed drones.

Sudden-Justice_webThe number of books about the use of armed drones has mushroomed over the past two or three years but investigative journalist Chris Woods’ just published ‘Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars’ sets a real benchmark for the genre and is likely to be a standard text for some time to come.

Over 300 tightly-written pages, the book traces the growing use of armed drones from the  almost ad hoc missions in the aftermath of 9/11, to their gradual acceptance in the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan before spreading ‘beyond the conventional battlefield’ into Yemen, Somali and most controversially Pakistan. Weaved into this chronological story, Woods examines the multiple legal and ethical issues that surround the drone wars including the questions of targeted killing, asymmetric warfare and the civilian casualties. Read more

As strikes continue opposition grows and broadens

original-ReaperUS drones struck in Yemen and Pakistan this past week after something of a pause.  On Weds (17 April) US drones hit a house in North Waziristan killing five people including an alleged commander of the Pakistan Taliban,  On the same day according to Associated Press US drones undertook two strikes 100 miles south of the capital Sana’a.  Five people were killed in the strikes, one on  vehicle and one on a house. Local journalist Farea Al-Muslimi live tweeted the attack, and reported in an article for  Al Monitor that the apparent target of the strike,  Hammed al-Radmi  regularly took part in meetings at the local government headquarters and thus could have been captured.  A further drone strike took place yesterday (21 April ) in Yemen killing two suspected militants.

While we continue to get no details of US and UK drone strikes in Afghanistan beyond bald figures, this week Congress was notified of a $95 million sale of 500 Hellfire missiles to the UK of the ‘P’ and ‘N’ variant.  The ‘P’ variant is specifically designed for use by drones while the ‘N’ variant has a thermobaric warhead and it may be, as we have previously reported that this variant too may be being use on British drones.

While the drone wars plod on, opposition continues to grow.  Ten days ago a coalition of US human rights groups including ACLU, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch wrote to President Obama questioning the legal basis for targeted killing and calling for an end to the secrecy surrounding the use of drones.  (full letter here)   A coalition of US faith group also wrote to the President challenging the growing use of targeted killing and highlighting the danger of remote warfare. On this the letter states:

“Military trainers know that human nature itself serves as a check on lethal violence. Coming face to face with someone  described as an enemy requires a deliberate choice to override a deep human instinct against killing. Remote, technical warfare removes that very human check.  As a society we have not adequately considered where this development leads us as a species. The remote nature of this type of deadly violence has the potential to encourage overuse and extension of the policy to more countries and more perceived threats.”

On top of these civil society groups, the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer also met with President Obama this week and urged restraint on the use of drones.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported that at a press conference following the visit, Maurer said ’The US is very aware… of where we disagree with the use of drones.’

Drone protesters at Hancock
Drone protesters at Hancock

Protest groups continue to demonstrate against the use of drones.  In the US five people were convicted of trespass this week after blockading the entrance to Hancock Air Force base from where drones are controlled over Afghanistan.  The five, who face jail time and fines, will be sentences on April 24.   Brian Terrell who was jailed for six months following an anti-drone protest at Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri, remains in prison and will be releases at the end of May. Many local US peace groups are currently taking part in a month-long  anti-drone campaign, with dozens of actions taking place across the US.

Here in the UK, campaigners are gearing up for a large protest planned for next week at RAF Waddington, the UK’s new centre of drone activity.  Hundreds will march on the base to call for an end to drone warfare.  Meanwhile a number of MPs are beginning to express opposition to the use of drones, (see for example the MPs quoted in this Daily Mail article reveling that UK company Cobham are supplying components for US Predator drones) while the the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drones goes from strength to strength.

While the continuing use of armed drones seems inevitable to the drone lobby,  the breath of opposition on legal, ethical and humanitarian grounds means that the future is far from certain.

Wikileaks, Cablegate and Drones (the story so far….)

Although Wikileaks has only released a small amount of US diplomatic cables so far  – the full release is expected later this week –  there has already been some significant information about the use of armed drones. [Also see  list of cables released so far on Guardian website)

US drone strikes in Pakistan

Despite repeatedly denying that it allows the US to carry out drone strikes on its territory many believe that, in private, the Pakistani government and military do in fact allow the attacks.  These suspicions appear confirmed  by a cable reporting Pakistani PM as saying “I don’t care if they do it as long as they get the right people. We’ll protest in the National Assembly and then ignore it.” 

Another cable reveals that Pakistan has allowed US special forces to be embedded into the Pakistan military to help direct the CIA’s drone strikes.  This will be extremely controversial within Pakistan.  While some US forces have been undertaking training work in Pakistan since 2008, this revelation will be extremely embarrassing for the Pakistani military and, as the Guardian reports “permission for the active combat deployment almost certainly came with the personal consent of the army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani.” 

A third cable quotes a local FATA official as supporting the drones strikes “as they were surgical and clearly hitting high value targets…” and “ “everyone knew that they only hit the house or location of very bad people.”   However a recent poll suggests that three-quarters of FATA residents  oppose the US drone strikes.


A leaked cable has confirmed that it was a US drone strike in south Yemen in December 2009 that killed 41 local residents.  Yemen had claimed it was their forces who undertook the attack but as the New York Times reported:

 “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours,” Mr. Saleh said, according to the cable sent by the American ambassador, prompting Yemen’s deputy prime minister to “joke that he had just ‘lied’ by telling Parliament” that Yemen had carried out the strikes.

 In a press release Amnesty International has called on the US government to:

Investigate the serious allegations of the use of drones by US forces for targeted killings of individuals in Yemen and clarify the chain of command and rules governing the use of such drones. Ensure that all US military and security support given to Yemen, and all US military and security operations carried out in Yemen, are designed and implemented so as to adhere fully with relevant international human rights law and standards, and that such human rights standards are made fully operational in training programmes and systems of monitoring and accountability.   

Drones: Toys for the boys

As Danger Room puts it, armed drones are on every military’s Christmas list at the moment.   

Several cables report the growing desire for Predator and Reaper drones.  For example Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, after reporting that he was worried about the growing strength of Iran reportedly said “That’s why we need it first…. give me Predator B.”   

Turkey too wants the Predator drone with the Chief of the Turkish General Staff, General Ilker Basbug, saying it was urgent that they received the drone to make up for the decreasing US presence in Iraq.

With much less than 1% of the cables so far being releases, we are sure there will be plenty more information about the use of armed drones coming from Wikileaklsover the next few weeks.

Drones target Yemen

The CIA is to redeploy some Predator drones from Pakistan to the arabian peninsula so they can step up the ‘war against terror’ in Yemen and Somalia.   The Wall Street Journal revealed this week that:

 “U.S. military’s Special Operation Forces and the CIA have been positioning surveillance equipment, drones and personnel in Yemen, Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia to step up targeting of al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, known as AQAP, and Somalia’s al Shabaab—Arabic for The Youth.”

Unsuprising, given what the CIA have done in Pakistan in the name of the ‘war on terror’, senior Yemeni officals are clearly against the idea.  According to Associated Press,  Yemen’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdullah al-Saidi,  said CIA drones would be a “nonstarter,”  adding, “to even posit this theory about U.S. drones only builds support for radicalization.”   

Yemen has already been the target of several US drone strikes.  As noted previously, in May 2010, a Yemeni mediator was killed by  US drone as he  was seeking to persuade al Qaeda members to surrender.     

 Amnesty International this week launched, Yemen: Cracking Down Under Pressure,  a new report on the human rights situation in Yemen.  Amnesty said

“The USA appears to have carried out or collaborated in unlawful killings in Yemen and has closely cooperated with Yemeni security forces in situations that have failed to give due regard for human rights.” Amnesty urged Washington to “investigate the serious allegations of the use of drones by U.S. forces for targeted killings of individuals in Yemen and clarify the chain of command and rules governing the use of such drones”.

Yemen and Amnesty are right to be worried about US drone strikes.  Just this week a  US intellegence official confirmed that a drone strike in Paksitan killed a numer of children earlier this week.   “According to the reports we have received here four men, five women and four children died in the attack. The identities of those killed were not known yet,” the official said.      Wajid Shamsul Hassan, Pakistan’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, was among those who condemned the attack. “Americans are using indiscriminately the drones to hit what they called high-value targets that killed so many people,” Hassan said in an interview with Iranian Press TV.

Amnesty International: Attacks from US Aerial Drones in Pakistan

Amnesty International USA have published a new report, As if Hell Fell on Me’: The Human Rights Crisis in Northwest Pakistan, looking at the impact on civilians of the onging conflict in Northwest Pakistan.  Describing the area as a “human rights free zone”, the report says that civilians are facing the triple threat of the Taleban, the Pakistan army and US drone attacks. 

A short chapter in the report  – mostly reproduced on the web  here – focuses on the CIA’s drone attacks in the area.   The following, looking at the legal situation,  is excerted from the report:

In March 2010, Harold Koh, Legal Adviser to the United States Department of State, set out for the first time a brief explanation of the Obama administration’s claimed basis in international law for the drone attacks.  

He asserted that “as a matter of international law, the United States is in an armed conflict with al-Qa’ida, as well as the Taleban and associated forces, in response to the horrific 9/11 attacks” adding that the USA “may use force consistent with its inherent right to self-defense under international law”. Harold Koh argued that this included “authority under international law … to use force, including lethal force, to defend itself, including by targeting persons such as high-level al-Qa’ida leaders who are planning attacks.“ He further stated that “whether a particular individual will be targeted in a particular location will depend upon considerations specific to each case, including those related to the imminence of the threat, the sovereignty of the other states involved, and the willingness and ability of those states to suppress the threat the target poses”, adding that the principles of distinction and proportionality under international law were adhered to in both planning and execution of all attacks.

This explanation leaves many questions unanswered. Even after Koh’s statement, the USA has not officially  acknowledged that it carries out drone attacks in Pakistan (Koh speaks only generally, of “lethal operations conducted with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles”) and refuses to provide any official information on these attacks, which is crucial to assess their legitimacy under international law and standards. These include who the targets were, what justification there was for using lethal force against them, whether non-letha alternatives were tried or even considered, what safeguards were put in place to ensure that civilians not endangered, who was killed or injured, what investigations took place in cases where violations of  international legal rules are suspected and more. Nor was such information forthcoming from the Pakistani authorities. In addition, the attacks have taken place in remote areas to which access is difficult. For these reasons, Amnesty International could not independently investigate conditions surrounding the planning, conduct, or consequences of drone attacks in Pakistan. The organization calls upon the governments concerned – the USA and Pakistan—to ensure that all their actions are in strict accordance with relevant rules of international law, and that sufficient information is made available to the public to ensure accountability.