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

Drone Proliferation Update, July 2021

In the seeming absence of any political will at the international level to control the export and use of armed drones, their proliferation continued unabated during the first half of 2021.

The three main exporters of these systems – Turkey, China and the US –  all signed significant deals, with Israeli companies also exporting large drones, although, as always, Israel never officially admits that its drones can be armed. A number of other countries are attempting to develop indigenous armed drones although it is much harder to gain information on these programmes.

Turkey

Morocco:  The Moroccan armed forces confirmed in April that it had signed a deal with Turkey for the purchase of 13 armed Bayraktar drones at the cost of $70m, with deliveries “to begin within the year” according to news reports.  Reuters had reported late last year that the Trump administration was considering authorising the sale of SkyGuardian drones to Morocco, but this deal may have fallen by the wayside. Morocco also has Israeli Heron drones acquired via France in 2020. Reports circulated in April that Morocco had used a drone to undertake the targeted killing in the Western Sahara region of Polisario commander Addah Al-Bendir, however these reports have been unconfirmed and may be mistaken.

Poland: The Polish President, Andrzej Duda, signed a deal for 24 Bayraktar drones during a state visit to Turkey in May. The four sets of six drones will each have two ground control stations and three ground data terminals at a cost of $270m. The deal includes missiles, training ammunition and operator training.  Poland becomes the first NATO country to purchase Turkish armed drones which are expected to delivered in 2022.  Poland had previously considered the UK’s Watchkeeper drone and has been developing the Zefir UAV as a MALE drone, but it is now unclear whether this programme will continue.

Saudi Arabia: During a press conference In March, Turkey’s President Erdogan revealed that Saudi Arabia also wanted to acquire the Bayraktar armed drones.  While Turkey has been at odds with Saudi since the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and some nations have imposed an arms embargo on Saudi due to its war in Yemen – Turkey’s recently report to UN Register of Conventional Weapons shows that 3 UAVs have been exported to the country.  Read more

The use of drones in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

As the hostilities between and Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region reach their worst levels since the end of the 1992-94 war, daily reports of drones and loitering munitions being used in strikes or shot down pile up on social media, and the truth and extent are hard to clarify. This post takes a long view and looks at the protagonist’s acquisitions and use of drones and loitering munitions in the last few years and what their introduction means for peace and security in the region.  Read more

‘Precise’ Strikes: Fractured Bodies, Fractured Lives – An update on Israel’s drone wars

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Five years ago, Drone Wars published a ground breaking report examining Israel’s production, use and proliferation of military drones. Today we are pleased to publish ‘Precise Strikes: Fractured Bodies, Fractured Lives’ which brings our 2014 report up-to-date. The report looks beyond the veil of secrecy that surrounds Israel’s development and deployment of armed drones to explore their use and impact, particularly in Gaza in the five years since 2014.

Israel has been manufacturing and using unmanned military technology since the 1970s.  Yet its use of drones to launch attacks continues to be shrouded in secrecy and denial. This despite clear evidence, including leaked video footage, that Israel has used drones both for reconnaissance and monitoring purposes, as well as to launch attacks. According to Ha’aretz, drones now account for 70% of the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) flight hours.

While advocates present drones in humanitarian terms as effectively minimising civilian casualties in so-called ‘virtuous wars’, serious concerns have been raised by human rights organisations, UN Special Rapporteurs, survivors of drone attacks, and national parliaments. The lived experience of drone warfare in Palestine highlights the cost to life and human rights of remote-controlled weaponry, indicating that discourses of precision and risk-reduction do little to convey the terror and threat of omnipresent overhead drones. Read more

Three-month snapshot shows expanding use of armed drones

Over the past few years States, international organisations and civil society groups have expressed concern about the increasing proliferation and use of armed drones.  To illustrate what is happening, Drone Wars has compiled details of the use of armed drones in the first three months of 2018.  Due to both the lack of transparency by operators and the difficulty of reporting strikes from the remote locations where they often occur, this survey is undoubtedly incomplete.  In addition the fact that multiple nations are operating armed drones to launch strikes against differing groups in Syria (US, UK, Israel, Turkey and Iran)  and Yemen (US, UAE and Saudi Arabia) makes attribution and accountability for strikes there almost impossible.  Nevertheless this short survey (1 Jan 2018 – 31 March 2018) gives something of an insight into the use of armed drones by multiple operators to launch strikes in multiple countries. Read more

‘Anarchist’ hacks Israeli drones

Mary Dobbing, co-author of Drone Wars’ briefing on Israel and the drone wars, looks at the implications of the recent news that US and British spooks hacked Israeli drone feeds.

Image of Heron TP drone - Credit: Laura Poitras/The Intercept
Image of Heron TP drone – Credit: Laura Poitras/The Intercept

The United States and Britain have been hacking into Israeli drone signals and video feeds since 1998 we have learned from latest publication of leaks from former US NSA contractor Edward Snowden. The details were published by The Intercept at the end of January. “This is an earthquake, the worst leak in the history of Israeli intelligence” shouted the headline in The Times of Israel quoting “a security source”. The information hacked related to video feeds and routes-over-the-ground that the drones were flying. Read more