Pandora’s Box: Reflecting on 20 years of drone targeted killing

Online webinar: 3 November 2022, 7pm (GMT)

November 3rd this year will mark 20 years since a remotely-controlled drone was first used to carry out an extra-judicial killing ‘beyond the battlefield’. While drones had previously been used in warzones, this was the first time a drone had been used to hunt down and kill specific individuals in a country in which the US was not at war.

Since then, an untold number of such operations have taken place across the globe with a significant number of such strikes also causing serious civilian casualties.  Despite huge controversy the United States continues to engage in such killings (even while arguing publicly such actions are ‘limited‘) and the practise has now spread amongst other drone operators including the UK, France and Turkey.

In this important online webinar, Drone Wars has invited a number of experts to mark 20 years of drone targeted killings, to offer 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.

 

Speakers:

  • 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 the webinar are free and can be booked at the Eventbrite page here.

 

See also  ‘Twenty years of drone targeted killing

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.

Read more

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

New UN Special Rapporteur report on armed drones and targeted killing – its relevance for the UK

Agnes Callamard, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

Agnes Callamard, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has produced a new report on armed drones and targeted killing for the UN Human Rights Council.  The report follows up and adds to two previous reports by her predecessors which we reported on at the time here (2010) and here (2014). While reading the full report is recommended, here is our summary and how it speaks to UK drone operations.

Focused on the use of armed drones in particular for  targeted killings, the report  lambasts the silence of States and international institutions in response to the damage being done by their increasing use:

“The vast majority of targeted killings by drones are subjected to little public scrutiny at either national or international levels. And yet, drone technologies and drone attacks generate fundamental challenges to international legal standards, the prohibition against arbitrary killings and the lawful limitations on permissible use of force, and the very institutions established to safeguard peace and security. [Para 1]

Read more

New Report – In the Frame: UK media coverage of drone targeted killing

Click to open copy of report

Our new report looks at UK involvement in drone targeted killing and in particular at media coverage of British citizens killed in such strikes. It argues that the government’s refusal to discuss key details or policy issues around these operations has helped to curtail coverage, creating a climate where targeted killing has become normalised and accepted, eroding human rights norms.

In recent days, we have seen exactly how far the US is willing to take targeted killing by armed drone. The jump from targeting members of non-state groups classed as terrorists to the assassination of top military personnel of a state that US is not at war with may appear huge in terms of strategy and legality. Unfortunately, however, it is also inevitable. Drone Wars UK has consistently argued that drones – with their particular capabilities to stay airborne long periods, hovering over targets, able to track them undetected before firing ‘precision’ missiles – were always likely to be used in provocative ways that blur the boundary between war and peace and cause further destabilisation in international relations. Read more

Drones, targeted killing and the Soleimani Strike

Remains of vehicle following US drone strike on Iranian General Qassem Soleimani outside Baghdad airport

A week ago, a US air strike that officials (speaking off-the-record) acknowledged was carried out by a Reaper drone, killed senior 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 and appalled many. International law scholars 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.  Read more