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Yearly Archives: 2013
The UN special rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions Cristof Heyns has recently published a report on the dangers of lethal autonomous robots (LARs) currently under development in several countries.1 In this report the UN rapporteur stated:
‘The experience of the two World Wars of the last century may provide insight into the rationale of requiring humans to internalize the costs of armed conflict, and thereby hold themselves and their societies accountable for these costs. After these wars, during which the devastation that could be caused by modern technology became apparent, those who had personally taken the central military decisions resolved, “in order to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, to establish the United Nations to pursue world peace and to found it on the principles of human rights. While armed conflict is by no means a thing of the past today, nearly 70 years have passed without a global war. The commitment to achieve such an objective can be understood as a consequence of the long-term and indeed inter-generational effects of insisting on human responsibility for killing decisions.’2
The report stressed that the current time might represent the best chance to implement regulation or a complete ban of LARs since this would be much more difficult after such weapons have been introduced. Heyns points out that there “is clearly a strong case for approaching the possible introduction of LARs with great caution.” What the report eventually suggests is a moratorium on the development of LARs on a national level so that the policy and legal issues arising from LARs in the long term can be better evaluated.3
I think Cristof Heyns proposal for a moratorium is well-intentioned and would make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, there are lots of problems in terms of what the exact objectives behind this proposal are, how LARs can be legally defined, and in terms of what can be realistically achieved by such a moratorium. The report of the special rapporteur oscillates between different rationales for a moratorium and a possible ban of LARs. This creates confusion with respect to what the main objective behind a moratorium would be and what the real problems are with respect to robotic/automated weapons systems. On the one hand, the report outlines the issues that deal with the technological push towards autonomy and the technological limitations that raise doubts about the ability of such systems to comply with the demands of international law. On the other hand, the report also heavily criticizes the current use of teleoperated drones for targeted killings around the world and the prospect of robots and drones being used for political repression by ruthless elites. These are all very reasonable arguments that I have made myself, but if one pursues an international arms control agreement or even voluntary national moratoria on the development of the technology, there should be some clarity behind the main objective. Is it about reversing the trend of weapons automation, is it about stopping the use of drones for targeted killings around the world, or is it about preventing the abuse of robotic technology for political repression in a domestic policing context rather than a context of armed conflict?
By including everything the special rapporteur has weakened his case, especially as he has not defined what exactly states should refrain from developing. As pointed out, there are already some highly automated weapons systems in use. States will not reverse decades of military technology development to go back fighting with bows and arrows. The term LARs does not seem to include armed drones as currently used by the US, Britain, and Israel. No moratorium on the development of LARs could possibly affect the practice of targeted killings, especially since the main idea behind targeted killing is not a robot deciding who to kill, but rather the idea of the robot as an executioner going through ‘kill lists’ that have been put together by the intelligence services. Sure, this process of compiling targeting lists seems to become increasingly automated as well, if one considers the ‘disposition matrix’ – a database that would be designed to manage and coordinate US efforts to kill or capture certain individuals.4 However, a ban of LARs would not address software from adding names to targeting lists based on the communication patterns or other activities that flag them to computers as potential terrorists. In any case, not much automation is needed for eliminating some rag-tag militia members and terrorists with no air defense systems.
Finally, the idea of a moratorium on LARs addressing the issue of reversing the trend of turning modern societies into high-tech police states, as it is happening in the US and elsewhere is even more hopeless. Police and internal security forces already have access to drones and the police use of drones for domestic surveillance and crime fighting will continue with or without an international agreement. Ironically, the types of weapons that are banned by international law and cannot be used in international conflicts, such as expanding bullets, can be perfectly legal to use in a domestic context. In addition, police drones would be equipped with so-called non-lethal or less-than lethal weapons like Taser rounds, so they would by definition not fall under the term LAR.
In terms of what can be realistically expected from a moratorium I am also rather pessimistic. The states that are leading in terms of technology would have the most to lose if the support a moratorium on the development of LARs because it would just mean that other countries would have greater opportunity to catch up technologically and nullify all the advantages currently held by a handful of states. Secondly, the most capable weapons systems are these days developed and sometimes even used in complete secrecy. The US military has ‘white’ R&D projects and then it has also ‘black’ R&D project that are potentially a lot more advanced and revolutionary of what we know of. For example, it has been revealed that the US is secretly working on very advanced unmanned stealth aircraft. Little is known about their capabilities or even purpose. Nations will try to evade and circumvent international arms control agreements by keeping their most advanced toys secret.
The idea of a moratorium of LARs looks initially like a good one, but I very much doubt anything will come out of it. Governments will always do whatever they can do and get away with it, unless they are persuaded that there is just no benefit in certain practices. The only way of preventing further automation of war is by proving to governments that there is no benefit for them doing so. In addition, it does make sense to aim for arms control agreements that limit the permissible numbers of highly autonomous weapons systems and to put strict limitations on the capabilities of highly automated systems in terms of range, payload, and endurance. Permitting militaries to use a few very smart autonomous weapons with limited capability under clearly defined specific circumstances would most likely produce better humanitarian outcomes in war than freezing military technology at the current state where militaries can use an unlimited number of dumb automated weapons.
- Cristof Heyns, “Report of the Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Cristof Heyns,” UN General Assembly (A/HRC/23/47).
- Para. 96.
- Para. 118.
- Greg Miller, ‘Plan for Hunting Terrorists Signals U.S. Intends Adding Names to Kill Lists’, Washington Post, 24 October 2012.
For years the Obama administration has dodged the question whether or not they consider it legal to target US citizens on US soil. A Department of Justice White Paper on targeting US citizens did not suggest any geographical limits for targeting citizens. When questioned by Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky Attorney General Eric Holder finally clarified the issue by giving the following answer:
“It is possible, I suppose, to imagine an extraordinary circumstance in which it would be necessary and appropriate under the Constitution and applicable laws of the United States for the President to authorize the military to use lethal force within the territory of the United States. For example, the president could conceivably have no choice but to authorize the military to use such force if necessary to protect the homeland in the circumstances like a catastrophic attack like the ones suffered on December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001.”
Holder added that such a scenario was “entirely hypothetical” and that it would only happen in extreme circumstances. Although Holder indicated that there is no intention on part of the administration of doing so, he also refused to definitively rule out the possibility of domestic drone strikes.
Cause of concern is not so much the possibility that the Obama administration may use drone strikes with a similar frequency in the US as it does overseas, which would be in any case very unlikely, but rather the fact that the legal views of the Obama administration permanently erodes the Constitutional right of US citizens to have a fair trial before the government can kill them in situations that are not clearly war or law enforcement. Once the government establishes the authority to conduct targeted killings on its soil with no significant oversight from outside the executive branch, there is a massive danger of abuse. Future administrations may use the authority to kill citizens for targeting inconvenient journalists, political activists, dissidents, and whistleblowers.
The DoJ White Paper did not suggest that the President would have to be transparent to the public with respect to targeting US citizens. A Congressional committee may be created for reviewing ‘kill lists’, but this is not the same as public disclosures. The Obama administration has been extremely secretive with respect to the targeted killings they conducted overseas and it would be surprising if they were any less secretive with respect to targeted killings on US soil. The use of lethal military force on US soil as referred to by Eric Holder does not necessarily mean ‘Predator-strikes’ with missiles strong enough to cause widespread destruction within 20 meters of their impact. If a drone strike was to happen on US soil it would be far more likely that the US military would employ mini- or micro-drones like ‘Switchblade’, which attacks targets over five kilometers with very high precision and with minimal collateral damage. Such kinds of drone strikes are very difficult for the public to observe and they are therefore potentially deniable.
The US military, law enforcement agencies and other government agencies are planning to massively expand their uses of domestic drones, most of which will be micro-drones smaller than 1 meter in length. At least two US law enforcement agencies already stated their intention to arm these drones, which may fire taser rounds or even shotgun rounds on criminal suspects and terror suspects. Even non-lethal weapons sometimes cause death. From this perspective, it is almost a given that in the long run there will be ‘drone strikes’ on US citizens on US soil, even if the intention would be probably most of the time to incapacitate rather than kill. Nevertheless, it is equally sure that lives will be lost to armed drones in the US, intended or not.
Is the U.S. government contemplating the use of targeted killings within the U.S.? The position of the Obama administration and its senior policymakers is far from clear on this very important point. The practice of targeted killings by both the Bush and the Obama administration has been shrouded in much secrecy. What is publicly known about the targeting process has been deliberately leaked by the Obama administration itself and is suspect since the objective behind these leaks seems to be to persuade the public that extreme care is taken and that international and domestic laws are respected. In 2011 former CIA legal counsel John Rizzo explained in a Newsweek interview that there is a thorough legal review before anybody can be placed on a ‘kill list’. The administration has stressed many times its commitment to strictly following International Humanitarian Law when ordering a targeted attack on a terrorist abroad. However, all these public assurances are meaningless in the absence of any possibility of holding members of the CIA or the administration accountable for cases in which IHL has been violated. It is not possible to prosecute drone operators and their superiors without the access to information about who was targeted for what reason based on what evidence and under which exact circumstances. The administration has consistently refused to provide details about its targeted killing program(s) to civilian courts, stating state secret privilege. There is little transparency in the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and the public knows even less about other types of targeted attacks against individuals elsewhere.
What is known is that the Bush administration has extrajudicially detained without trial a few terrorism suspects within the U.S., such as Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, who is held in a military brig in South Carolina. The NDAA of 2012 retroactively legalized the practice of detaining U.S. citizens/residents by stating that members of Al Qaeda or associated groups engaged in hostilities in the U.S. can be detained by the U.S. military in compliance with international law for the duration of hostilities. Since the ‘war on terror’ has no projected end date it could mean the indefinite detention of terrorism suspects without trial. In effect, the NDAA 2012 declared the U.S. to be part of a global battlefield. Members of the Bush and Obama administrations have repeatedly stated that the ‘war on terror’ has no geographic limitations or boundaries and that it must be possible to ‘kill or capture’ members of Al Qaeda wherever they are. This suggests that the whole world is a battlefield and that anywhere a terrorist is located, measures taken against them are only constrained by the limitations of IHL. The overall legal reasoning of the Obama administration for targeted killing also raises the suspicion that members of ‘Al Qaeda and its associated groups’ could be also subjected to targeted killing on U.S. soil.
Attorney General Eric Holder gave a speech at the Northwestern University in March 2012 in which he outlined the administration’s rationale and justification for killing American citizens engaged in terrorism in targeted attacks. According to Holder, American citizens have a guaranteed right to “due process,” but not to “due judicial process.” In his view the U.S. government’s judicial review prior to a targeted killing of a U.S. citizen would satisfy the U.S. constitution’s requirement of due process. Although Holder is correct in stating that American citizens engaged in hostilities against their own country are not immune from being subjected to targeted attacks against them in the context of an armed conflict, it still misses the point whether or not Americans could be legally targeted outside of a battlefield and in situations where they are not currently engaged in hostilities. Eric Holder’s speech stirred up a lot of controversy and it resulted in a questioning of FBI Director Robert Mueller by Congress concerning the administration’s position with respect to targeting U.S. citizens on U.S. soil. When asked by Congressman Tom Graves Mueller said that he could not answer the question because he was not sure whether it was addressed in Holder’s speech or not. He promised to get back to Graves on the issue, but up to now there has not been any public clarification of the issue.
A White Paper of the Department of Justice leaked on February 5, 2013 gives three conditions for the use of targeted killings: “1) an informed high level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; 2) capture is infeasible and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and 3) the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles.” The White Paper tries to clarify several of the terms used in these conditions, but largely fails to do so. The language is vague enough to leave open at least the possibility of domestic targeting of suspected terrorists. Journalist and political activist Chris Hedges claims that the paper looks so amateurish as if it was written by a first-year law student. Further questions have been raised by Congressman Trey Gowdy with respect to the possible domestic targeting of terrorists. “Why could the same analysis not be employed for killing Americans that you suspect are part of al Qaeda on American soil? If you’re going to use the 5th and 14th Amendment to justify it, why can you not do it on American soil? What’s the difference?” Congressman Gowdy compared the procedures used for targeted killings to the legal procedures required under the U.S. constitution and within the legal system of the U.S. to sentence somebody to death. It would be a great for the government and it would usually take years, if not decades to carry out a death sentence. In the case of the targeted killing of a U.S. citizen there would be simply a senior government official, who determines that an individual presents an imminent threat and that capture would be infeasible.
When John Brennan was interviewed by the U.S. Senate in relation to his confirmation as new Director of the CIA, Senator Wyden asked him: ’Let me ask you several other questions with respect to the President’s authority to kill Americans. I ask you how much evidence the President needs to decide that a particular American can be lawfully killed and whether the administration believes that President can use this authority inside the United States.’ Brennan essentially offered a non-answer by pointing out that openness with respect to drone strikes needs to be optimized as well as secrecy for protecting national security. He further stressed that the CIA operates within the legal boundaries of the DoJ without actually explaining what these boundaries are. In the end, the hearing failed to clarify the issue of whether or not the administration considers the domestic targeting of terrorists legal or not.
It is deeply troubling that the Obama administration cannot provide a definitive answer to a fairly straightforward question, namely whether the rules for the targeted killing of Americans outside of the U.S. may also apply within the U.S. Up to now it seems that the administration wants to keep at least the option open to target terrorist leaders also inside the country should happen to be located there.
Herridge, Catherine, ‘FBI Director: Have to Check Whether Targeted Killing Rule Is Outside U.S. Only’, Fox News, 7 March 2012.
Mckelvey, Tara, ‘Inside the Killing Machine’, Newsweek Magazine, 13 February 2011.
U.S. Department of Justice, Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of Al-Qa’ida or An Associated Force, leaked to NBC News on February 5, 2013.
Van Susteren, Greta, ‘Obama Drone Program’s Potential Targeted Killing of American Citizens Abroad Opens Dangerous Legal Slippery Slope’, Fox News, 5 February 2013.
Wyden, Ron, ‘Wyden at Brennan Confirmation Hearing for CIA Director (Part 1), <http://www.wyden.senate.gov/news/video-and-audio/view/wyden-at-brennan-confirmation-hearing-for-cia-director-part-1>, 11 February 2013.
Targeted killing seems to be emerging as a new mode of warfare based on a series of selective assassinations of enemy leaders and certain other enemy combatants. This approach is mostly pursued in the context of counter-terrorism-, counter-insurgency- and ‘regime change’ operations. The new tendency of individually targeting enemies became apparent after 9/11, when President George W. Bush issued a presidential finding authorising the CIA to ‘kill, capture and detain members of al Qaeda anywhere in the world’.1 This finding resulted in the extraordinary rendition- and drone programmes of the CIA. Specific enemy combatants deemed ‘High-Value Targets’ (HVT) have been also systematically and individually targeted in the context of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.2 Under the Obama administration the CIA/Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) drone programmes have been dramatically stepped up and this enabled the US and NATO to kill Al-Qa’ida and Taliban members in their safe havens in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and possibly in a few other neutral countries.3 There have been at least 400 drone and missile strikes directed against specific individuals in neutral countries in the period 2002-2012.4 Just weeks before the presidential election of 2012 the Obama Administration moved towards the firm institutionalisation of targeted killing as a permanent tool of US foreign and security policy.5 It is commonly believed that the CIA drone programme will continue and may even grow further.6 But is this proof that the approach of targeted killing is working and that it is succeeding in defeating the West’s main enemies? Many critics of the CIA drone programme have pointed out that the opposite could be the case. Eleven years of targeted killings and other ‘neutralisations’ of terrorists has not resulted in any decisive victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere.7 Furthermore, there is even the possibility that continued targeted killings will result increasingly in strategic ‘blowback’ since it encourages radicalisation and nurtures a desire for revenge by those people subjected to constant drone attacks.8 In the end, a prolonged targeted killing campaign could very well end up producing more enemies than it can ever eliminate. Targeted killing in the form of continuous limited strikes against a relatively small number of enemy combatants is likely to turn out to be a strategic dead end since it creates a serious obstacle to negotiating peace and since it seems unable to deliver decisive results. In other words, it is most likely a recipe for never-ending war and not a path to victory.
The Evolution of US Targeting Practices
The idea of using targeted killing or assassination as an instrument of war and foreign policy is not a new one and ‘selective assassination’ has been employed by the US government on occasion. For example, during the earlier period of the Cold War the CIA targeted foreign leaders for assassination, which was revealed by the Church Committee investigations in 1975. The CIA also played a major role in the Phoenix Program in South Vietnam, which aimed to identify and ‘neutralise’ members of the Vietcong Infrastructure (VCI). There were a total of 80,000 ‘neutralisations’ or an estimated number of 40,000 VCI killed.9 Since assassination was later deemed to be a controversial practice (and in order to pre-empt a Congressional prohibition), President Gerald Ford issued an Executive Order (EO) in 1976 (No. 11905), which prohibited any U.S. government agency to engage in, or conspire in, assassination. The EO has been subsequently revised and renewed by Presidents Carter and Reagan (most recent EO is No. 12333) and is still in force. However, these EOs have been interpreted in the way that only ‘political assassination’ is prohibited, while overt military strikes against enemy leaders are allowed.10 In a few rare instances the US military targeted leaders like Muammar Gaddafi (1986), Saddam Hussein (1991) and Osama bin Laden (1998). A major change in US targeting practices came after 9/11 when the CIA was given the authority to essentially do whatever it takes to destroy Al-Qa’ida. The CIA first employed an armed Predator drone outside of a war zone in November 2002 in Yemen in order to kill Abu Ali al-Harithi, who was suspected of having been responsible for the U.S.S. Cole bombing of 2000.11 The first known use of armed drones in Pakistan took place in June 2004.12 It was a response to the fact that Al-Qa’ida and enemy Taliban moved their safe havens to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan from where they can plan and conduct operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan. There still exists a great amount of secrecy with respect to CIA/JSOC targeted killing operations, but some details have been leaked to the press. According to John Rizzo, the former CIA legal counsel, the CIA would prepare a two to five page dossier containing incriminating evidence on a terrorism suspect.13 If the dossier passes the legal review, the name would be put preliminarily on a ‘kill list’. Otherwise the dossier would be sent back. The ‘kill list’ would then be presented to the NSC for review and ultimately to the President, who reviews the list during the ‘Terror-Tuesdays’ meetings with counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan (now CIA Director) and who has a veto right. During the Obama administration there has been a very notable increase in drone strikes in neutral countries. President Obama explained his counter-terrorism strategy in a speech in March 2009: ‘So let me be clear: al Qaeda and its allies…are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe havens in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.’14 As a result, President Obama decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan and go after the terrorists in Pakistan with drones. While it is believed that the overall number of drone strikes in Pakistan was about 52 during the eight George W. Bush years, there have been over three hundred CIA/JSOC15 drone strikes in Pakistan in just four years of the Presidency of Barack Obama. In addition, there are also armed drone operations by the regular military in war zones. The Bureau of Investigative Journalists claims that in the past five years the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force had conducted a total of 1,168 drone strikes, mostly in Afghanistan.16 Since Obama took office there has been also a notable increase in so-called ‘signature strikes’, which target a ‘group of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics of terrorist activity but whose identities aren’t known’.17 Unfortunately, the CIA does not comment on the drone strikes and it remains classified what kind of observations or patterns of behaviour can justify a drone attack. According to the Wall Street Journal, ‘[t]he bulk of CIA’s drone strikes are signature strikes’18 and an estimate from 2009 suggests that only 2 per cent of the victims of the strikes are HVTs.19 So it can be concluded that the great majority of strikes are now directed against low- and mid-level militants, whose identities are unknown. In October 2012, just before the presidential elections, the Obama administrations announced its intention to firmly institutionalise targeted killing as a tool of US foreign policy and counter-terrorism by developing the so-called ‘disposition matrix’. The logic behind the proposed indefinite continuation of the drone strikes is, according to analyst Bruce Riedel, that one has ‘to mow the lawn all the time’ in order to stop the grass (the terrorists) from growing back.20 The ‘disposition matrix’ is apparently a database containing the names and other details of terrorism suspects, as well as assets and resources available for ‘neutralizing’ them.21 It has been described as an ‘information management tool’ for inter-agency co-operation and it may not signal any change in US policy or strategy.22 In contrast, NSA whistleblower William Binney fears that the ‘disposition matrix’ could largely automate the targeting process and result in ‘undisciplined slaughter’.23
Enemy Responses to a Targeted Killing Campaign
Despite eleven years of capturing and killing numerous key Al-Qa’ida and Taliban members, including members of their top leadership, both groups still seem to be going strong and continue to remain a serious threat, at least to Western interests in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, which has been highlighted by the successful Benghazi attack, in which US ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.24 The hostile Taliban factions that are allied with Al-Qa’ida are still able to attack Western forces and Afghan civilians in many parts of Afghanistan and inflict substantial damage, which was admitted by a recent Pentagon report to Congress.25 It remains even unclear whether US forces can keep their timeline for complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in late 2014.26 What went wrong and how were these groups able to not only survive, but also carry on with their fight?
Al-Qa’ida in particular has undergone very substantial organizational changes since 9/11 that made it much more resilient and enabled it to prosper in some parts of the world. The original Al-Qa’ida organization that existed pre-9/11 quickly collapsed after the invasion of Afghanistan and the battle of Tora Bora. President George W. Bush claimed that up to two thirds of the ‘known leadership of al-Qaeda’ has been captured or killed in 2003.27 However, Al-Qa’ida quickly reconstituted itself in Pakistan and later in Iraq after the misguided invasion and occupation of that country. Al-Qa’ida has now re-emerged in a third generation, which is believed by some, such as Bruce Riedel, to be more dangerous in some ways than its previous incarnations.28 The group has splintered into several autonomous regional sub-organizations and is now known as ‘Al-Qa’ida and Associated Movements’ (AQAM). Its main branches are Al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and Al-Qa’ida in Syria, which seems to be an offshoot of AQI and which is its most recent and most rapidly growing franchise.29 The central leadership of Al-Qa’ida does no longer exist or does no longer provide much centralised guidance or planning.30 It seems that Al-Qa’ida has become little more than an ideological platform or brand name for various Islamist groups to pursue their own local aims and objectives, which are mostly beyond the direct control of the likes of al Zawahiri.31 According to former CIA counterterrorism analyst Michael Scheuer, Al-Qa’ida also adapted to the challenge of targeted killings and capture of key personnel by developing robust succession planning.32 Whenever a key person is ‘taken out’ there are already several others waiting to replace them. The group made its organisational structure even less visible than before and it does not seem that very much is known about the governance structures of the organisation at all.33 Furthermore, Al-Qa’ida has even managed to benefit from the targeted killings by using the ‘martyr-effect’: its propaganda declares the killed leaders as martyrs, who would provide an example for others to follow.34
Is Targeted Killing Militarily Effective on a Strategic Level?
The question whether targeted killing is militarily effective against an enemy like Al-Qa’ida is a very contentious issue, as there is no hard evidence either way because of the unavailability or poor quality of public data.35 It is even doubtful that the military or the intelligence services have enough data for providing a definitive answer. When it comes to the drone strikes in Pakistan and other neutral countries very little effort seems to be made in terms of identifying victims of strikes or investigate the exact role or guilt of individuals, who have been targeted in air strikes and otherwise.36 The fact that the CIA and other decision-makers only rely on a two-page dossier or ‘baseball cards’ for effectively sentencing somebody to death does not look very thorough to begin with. Currently, the main methodology of determining the effectiveness of targeted killing is the use of case studies that compare terrorist incidents before and after an attack and then determine how key variables are impacted, e.g.: are there more or less terrorist incidents afterwards? or more or less victims in these incidents? etc. This might also enable the observation of some other general trends in terms of terrorist incidents. So it is not surprising that most academic and military analysis seems to concentrate on the problem of military effectiveness of targeted killing on an operational level. Very influential is still Daniel Byman’s paper ‘Do Targeted Killings Work’, in which he claims that they would effective since terrorist organisations cannot easily replace skilled and experienced operatives and talented leaders.37 In a similar fashion Alex Wilner argues that targeted killings reduce the capability of terrorist/ insurgent groups to carry out effective attacks in retaliation.38 There are also numerous studies that deal specifically with the military effectiveness of leadership attacks. Some studies claim they have little effect or their effectiveness may be related to specific circumstances, while others claim that successful leadership attacks more often than not destroy terrorist organisations.39 However, when it comes to strategic analysis of targeted killing used against a larger enemy organisation like Al-Qa’ida or the Taliban, which comprise of tens of thousands of members, the picture is less clear since there are still few ‘campaigns’ of this kind that can be analysed in this manner.40 Is it really true that a targeted killing campaign can destroy, coerce or manipulate a larger enemy organisation?
The main problem is that a large enemy organisation will usually have a sufficient amount of prospective leaders, who can replace those leaders who have been killed or captured. At a certain size and sophistication of an enemy organisation it becomes extremely unlikely to bring about the collapse of a terrorist or insurgent group by simply removing a few of its leaders. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 did not seem to impact in any noticeable way on Al-Qa’ida. Even if it is possible to kill Ayman al Zawahiri, the organisation’s alleged current leader, few analysts expect it would cripple Al-Qa’ida. Experience from Israel’s targeted killing campaign directed against Hamas since the beginning of the Second Intifada also indicates that targeted killing is extremely provocative and usually poses an obstacle to serious peace negotiations, rather than coercing the enemy to accept peace to the own conditions. After more than a decade of targeted killings the Hamas leadership has been driven underground and is less willing to engage in serious peace negotiations than ever.41 It also does not appear that targeted killing could manipulate enemies on a strategic level in the sense of deterring them from attack. To the contrary, although enemies weakened by a targeted killing campaign may have fewer capabilities of striking back they will still be motivated to do so. It is important to keep in mind Henry Kissinger’s observation that the guerrilla wins by not losing. As a result, it is more important for a terrorist or insurgent group to maintain their motivation and to be able to politically or ideologically mobilise others. This seems to be exactly the paradoxical effect of the drone strikes in Pakistan. Instead of wearing down and demoralizing Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Pakistan through constant drone strikes, the attacks seem to actually contribute to Islamic radicalization and anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and elsewhere.42 According to opinion polls, 90 per cent of the Pakistani object to the US drone strikes43 and 74 per cent consider the US more of an enemy than an ally.44 Even former Afghanistan commander Stanley McCrystal recently warned: ‘What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world…The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.’45
The drone strikes also seem to have no impact on Al Qa’ida’s propaganda output.46 It is very easy for radical Islamic groups to exploit the drone strikes in terms of propaganda since every attack that results in the death of innocent people, especially of children, can be used for inciting hatred towards America and all Westerners. The drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen seem to be the best recruiting argument that Al-Qa’ida ever had since Guantanamo Bay. As a result, US covert action in Pakistan has produced already substantial ‘blowback’ and is not likely to have improved the national security of the US or of other NATO countries, while contributing little to stabilising the government in Kabul, which would be a requirement for terminating the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. A study by RAND’s Patrick Johnston (with Anoop Sarbahi) on the effectiveness of targeted killing suggests: ‘it is important to reiterate that any reduction in terrorist activity associated with the drone campaign appears modest in scope. To the extent drone strikes “work,” their effectiveness is more likely to lie in disrupting militant operations at the tactical level than as a silver bullet that will reverse the course of the war and single handedly defeat Al Qaeda.’47 When directed against a more formidable enemy targeted killing is hardly a form of warfare that can by itself bring about a decision in a conflict. To the contrary, it is prone to ‘blowback’ and in any case complicates peace negotiations. It is time to reconsider the approach of simply going after the ‘bad guys’ using drones and other means.
Conclusion: When It Might Work
If the opposition organisation is large, there is little reason to believe that the removal of one or a few leaders would produce a decisive result. Removing one leader can have unpredictable consequences as successors might be more difficult to deal with than the individual they are replacing. This is probably the main reason why the CIA had to quit the assassination business in the mid-1970s. Targeted killing does not seem to be a very effective counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency tool either. By itself it is extremely unlikely to have a strategic effect in the sense of having the capability of destroying, coercing or manipulating an enemy organisation. While there are benefits on the tactical and operational levels there are often severe drawbacks on a strategic level. Expanding ‘kill lists’ to mostly mid- and low-level enemy personnel as can be seen in the US drone attacks in Pakistan also seems futile and very misguided. In order to defeat a large organisation like Al-Qa’ida through attrition one would have to very dramatically expand the current targeted killing program to kill more terrorists at a much faster rate than ever before. According to a Gallup poll 7 per cent of Muslims (or 112 millions) are Islamic radicals.48 Even if just 1 per cent is willing to take up arms, there would be more than a million Muslim militants in the world, who could be put on ‘kill lists’. This would be outrageous and politically unfeasible to carry out. In addition, the more people are targeted, the more likely it is that innocents get hurt. Even the most thorough and ethical targeting and attack procedures cannot prevent occasional mishaps and just a single major mishap can result in a huge propaganda victory for the enemy. Every mishap totally undermines the legitimacy of a campaign of targeted killings and can result in making more enemies than existed before.
However, there are indeed limited circumstances in which targeted killing could be very effective on a strategic level. When dealing with organisations of a small size, killing a leader can accelerate the collapse of the group.49 Corrupted or criminal organizations are particularly vulnerable with respect to leadership attacks since their groups are motivated by financial or other personal gains and are unwilling to accept as many risks as radicalized members of terrorist or insurgent groups, who are more likely to be prepared to die in the pursuit of their ideological or religious goals. The use of targeted killing against drug cartels and other criminal organisations might be in some cases quite effective as could be seen in the rapid collapse of the Medellin Cartel after the killing of Pablo Escobar in 1993. Some authoritarian regimes may be also highly vulnerable to leadership attacks, as most power tends to be concentrated in a few hands and as succession is often deliberately not planned in advance. At the same time, authoritarian regimes tend to have far greater resources for protecting their leaders than non-state organisations like terrorist groups, which makes it much more difficult to successfully kill the leaders of such a regime. Furthermore, even if one succeeds in killing an authoritarian leader through a limited strike and bring about the collapse of the regime, there is no substitute for a large number of ‘boots on the ground’ in order to prevent civil war or the collapse of the state. To some extent this can be already seen in Libya, where NATO’s removal of Gaddafi50 combined with the absence of Western ground forces has resulted in political instability and a continuing danger of a resurging civil war.51 In any case, the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime has tremendously benefited Al-Qa’ida and other radical groups, which now can operate almost unchecked in Libya.52 These should be important lessons to be learned with respect to the situation in Syria. The expansion of drone strikes in the AfPak theatre and elsewhere more and more looks like a strategic dead end and is hardly an effective way of dealing with the threat of Islamic terrorism. Drones are also no substitute for ground forces when it comes to overthrowing hostile regimes and establishing law and order afterwards. Drone strikes in neutral countries should be only used with extreme caution and in rare instances where the strategic benefits are likely to be high, considering their controversial nature and their great propensity for strategic ‘blowback’.
- Dana Priest, ‘CIA Holds Terror Suspects in Secret Prisons’, Washington Post, 2 November 2005.
- Compare William Rosenau and Austin Long, ‘The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency’, RAND, 2009; Jonathan Masters, ‘Targeted Killing/ Backgrounder’, Council on Foreign Relations website, <http://www.cfr.org/counterterrorism/targeted-killings/p9627>, 20 April 2012.
- CIA drone strikes are technically covert actions and are as such not officially acknowledged by the US government. There have been unconfirmed reports about US drone strikes in the Philippines. It is impossible to know whether there are targeted killings by drone strikes or otherwise in more neutral countries.
- According to statistics from The Bureau of Investigative Journalism there were 360 drone strikes in Pakistan, 43-53 drone strikes in Yemen, and 3-9 drone strikes in Somalia.
- Greg Miller, ‘Plan for Hunting Terrorists Signals U.S. Intends Adding Names to Kill Lists’, Washington Post, 24 October 2012.
- John Brennan, who was the main advocate and architect of the CIA drone programme, has recently become CIA Director, which could signal a continuing militarisation of the CIA and subsequently more drone strikes. Gregory D. Johnson, ‘The Wrong Man for the C.I.A.’, The New York Times, 19 November 2012.
- Terrorist attacks and deaths have persisted at a high level in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, averaging more than 2,000 deaths per year in each country. According to the NCTC Report for 2011, al Qaeda and affiliates carried out 668 attacks worldwide, killing more than 2,000 people in 2011, which represents an 8 percent increase since 2010. See National Counterterrorism Center, Report on Terrorism, 2011, March 2012.
- Leila Hudson, Colin S. Owens and Matt Flannes, ‘Drone Warfare: Blowback From the New American Way of War’, Middle East Policy (Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall 2011), pp. 122-132.
- DCI William Colby admitted to 20,000 VCI killed between 1968 and mid1971, but a more likely number is 40,000 since the program was continued by the South Vietnamese government until the end of 1972. Official DoD estimates suggest there have been ca. 80,000 ‘neutralizations’, which includes capture and ‘turning’ enemy agents. See Rosenau and Long, ‘The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency’, p. 13.
- Stephen T. Hosmer, Operations Against Enemy Leaders (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2000), p. 12-13.
- Micah Zenko, Between Threats and War: U.S. Discrete Military Operations in the Post-Cold War World (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 73.
- Bill Yenne, Birds of Prey: Predators, Reapers and America’s Newest UAVs in Combat (North Branch, MN: Specialty Press, 2010), p. 102.
- Dana Priest & William M. Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State (New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2010), p. 206.
- The White House, ‘Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan’, Office of the Press Secretary, 27 March 2009, <http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-a-New-Strategy-for-Afghanistan-and-Pakistan>, 5 January 2013.
- JSOC also has its separate ‘kill list’ and conducts drone strikes. It is not known whether JOSC has its own armed drones, or whether they ‘borrow’ the drones from the Air Force or the CIA. Priest and Arkin, Top Secret America, pp. 210-211.
- Chris Woods and Alice K. Ross, ‘Revealed: US and Britain Launched 1,200 Drone Strikes in Recent Wars’, The Bureau of Investigative Journalists, 4 December 2012, <http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2012/12/04/revealed-us-and-britain-launched-1200-drone-strikes-in-recent-wars/>, 5 January 2013.
- Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (New York: Houghton, Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2012), p. 41.
- Adam Entous, Soubhan Gorman and Julian E. Barnes, ‘U.S. Tightens Drone Rules’, The Wall Street Journal, 4 November 2011.
- David Kilcullen and Andrew Macdonald, ‘Death From Above, Outrage From Below’, The New York Times, 16 May 2009.
- Miller, ‘Plan for Hunting Terrorists Signals U.S. Intends Adding Names to Kill Lists’.
- Robert Chesney, ‘Kill Lists, the Disposition Matrix, and Permanent War: Thoughts on the Post Article’, lawfareblog, 24 October 2012, <http://www.lawfareblog.com/2012/10/kill-lists-the-disposition-matrix-and-the-permanent-war-thoughts-on-the-post-article/>, 5 January 2013.
- Speaking on DemocracyNow! Binney said: ‘They’re using metadata to target people… [A]ddresses and phone numbers, which gets back to relationships between suspects and others and social network building. If you use that kind of information to target people without having substantive stuff behind it, that’s getting down to more random killing or getting killed because you’re in proximity to somebody who’s doing bad things. It’s an undisciplined slaughter.’ ‘NSA Whistleblower: Obama’s “Disposition Matrix” Is an “Undisciplined Slaughter” ’, DemocracyNow!, 27 October 2012, available on <http://www.truthdig.com/eartotheground/item/nsa_whistleblower_speaks_against_obamas_disposition_matrix_20121027/>, 8 January 2013.
- Claims of al Qaeda’s decline or destruction have been frequently made and have been continuously proven wrong. While there have been no major terrorist attacks in the West since 2005 and none in the US since 2001, Al-Qa’ida has not only managed to remain active, but even to expand in North Africa (Libya, Mali), in Somalia, Yemen and most recently in Syria. However, as one researcher pointed out: ‘As with all claims about al-Qaeda…information is short-lived’. Christina Hellmich, Al Qaeda: From global Network to Local Franchise (London: Zed Books, 2011), p. 130.
- ‘Report on Progress Towards Security and Stability’, US Department of Defense Report to Congress, December 2012, p. 2.
- Jack Kenny, ‘ “Mixed Progress” Leaves Doubts Over Future of Afghan Security’, The New American, 11 December 2012.
- James Risen, ‘The Evolving Nature of Al Qaeda Is Misunderstood, Critic Says’, The New York Times, 8 November 2004. President Obama similarly boasted in 2011 that he had eliminated 22 out of 30 Al Qa’ida leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Mary Bruce, ‘Obama Fires Back at GOP Appeasement Charge: “Ask Osama bin Laden” ’, ABC News, 8 December 2011.
- Bruce Riedel, ‘Al Qaeda 3.0: Terrorism’s New Power Bases’, The Daily Beast, 3 December 2012, <http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/12/03/al-qaeda-3-0-terrorism-s-emergent-new-power-bases.html>, 8 January 2013.
- Nic Robertson & Paul Cruickshank, ‘Analysis: Study Shows Rise of Al Qaeda Affiliate in Syria’, CNN Online, 8 January 2013, <http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/01/08/analysis-study-shows-rise-of-al-qaeda-affiliate-in-syria/> 8 January 2013.
- Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).
- Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou, Understanding Al Qaeda: Changing War and Global Politics (London: Pluto Press, 2011), p. 85.
- Leigh Sales, ‘Former CIA Chief on Death of bin Laden’, ABC News 24, 2 May 2011, <http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2011/s3205794.htm>, 5 January 2013; analyst Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou has come to a similar conclusion as Scheuer: ‘the loss of Afghanistan as a base and the arrest or death of a few key figures…did not affect the organisation’s ability to function; displacement from the camps was anticipated, and the detained officers were replaced rapidly.’ Mohamedou, Understanding Al Qaeda, p. 64.
- Dennis Schoenborn and Andreas Georg Scherer, ‘Clandestine Organizations, al Qaeda, and the Paradox of (In-)Visibility: A Response to Stohl and Stohl’, Organization Studies (Vol. 33, No. 7, 2012), pp. 963-971.
- Megan Smith and James Igoe Walsh, ‘Do Drone Strikes Degrade al Qaeda? Evidence From Propaganda Output’, University of North Carolina Charlotte, 2012, p. 9.
- This problem has been highlighted in a recent report by Stanford University and New York University. See ‘Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan’, Stanford Law School and NYU Law School, September 2012.
- It seems that the CIA often do not know themselves for sure who they kill in the drone strikes as victims of strikes are burned beyond recognition and few efforts are made to determine or confirm the identities of those killed. See ‘Living Under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians From U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan’, p. 33.
- Daniel Byman, ‘Do Targeted Killings Work?’, Foreign Affairs (Vol. 85, No.2, Summer 2006), pp. 95-111.
- Alex Wilner, ‘Targeted Killings in Afghanistan: Measuring Coercion and Deterrence in Counterterrorism and Counterinsurgency’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (Vol. 33, No. 4, Winter 2010), pp. 307-329.
- E.g. Stephen Hosmer, Micah Zenko and Jenna Jordan claim that leadership attacks are not very effective; Bryan C. Price and Patrick Johnston claim the opposite. See Hosmer, Operations Against Enemy Leaders; Jenna Jordan, ‘When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Capitation’, Security Studies (Vol. 18, 2010), pp. 719-755; Bryan C. Price, ‘Targeting Top Terrorists: How Leadership Capitation Contributes to Counterterrorism’, International Security (Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter 2012), pp. 9-46; Patrick B. Johnston, ‘Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns’, International Security (Vol. 36, No. 4, Winter 2012), pp. 47-79.
- The main example, which comes to mind here, is the aforementioned Phoenix Program, which is often described as a complete failure or at least a mixed success. Needless to say, the US did not win the Vietnam War despite the enormous number of enemy combatants and political cadres killed over the years.
- Gershon Baskin, ‘Israel’s Shortsighted Assassination’, The New York Times, 16 November 2012.
- Hudson, Owens and Flannes, “Drone Warfare’, pp. 126.
- Spencer Ackerman, ‘New Poll: Pakistanis Hate the Drones, Back Suicide Attacks on U.S. Troops’, Wired Danger Room, 30 September 2010, <http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/09/new-poll-pakistanis-hate-the-drones-back-suicide-attacks-on-u-s-troops/>, 5 January 2013.
- ‘Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of US’, PewResearch: Global Attitudes Project, 27 June 2012, <http://www.pewglobal.org/2012/06/27/pakistani-public-opinion-ever-more-critical-of-u-s/>, 5 January 2013.
- David Alexander, ‘Retired General Cautions Against Overuse of “Hated” Drones’, Reuters, 7 January 2013.
- Smith and Walsh, ‘Do Drone Strikes Degrade al Qaeda? Evidence From Propaganda Output’, 2012.
- Patrick B. Johnston and Anoop Sarbahi, ‘The Impact of U.S. Drone Strikes on Terrorism in Pakistan’, Working Paper, 25 February 2012, <http://patrickjohnston.info/materials/drones.pdf>, 6 January 2013, p. 9.
- ‘Major Survey Challenges Western Perceptions of Islam’, AFP, 27 February 2008.
- Jenna Jordan suggests that this would be most likely for groups smaller than 25 and much less likely for groups bigger than 100 members. See Jordan, ‘When Heads Roll’, p. 743.
- Although Gaddafi was technically murdered by Libyan rebels after his surrender, there is now little doubt that NATO’s role in it was greater that it first appeared. See Thomas Harding, ‘Col. Gaddafi Killed: Convoy Bombed by Drone Flown by Pilot in Las Vegas’, The Telegraph, 20 October 2011; Ben Farmer, ‘Gaddafi’s Final Hours: NATO and the SAS Helped Rebels Drive Hunted Leader in an Endgame in a Desert Drain’, The Telegraph, 22 October 2011.
- Hadeel Al Shalchi & Marie-Louise Gumuchian, ‘Instability Grips Libya One Year After Gaddafi’s Fall’, Reuters, 22 October 2012, <http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/22/us-libya-anniversary-idUSBRE89L0CS20121022>, 3 January 2013.
- Con Coughlin, ‘Al-Qaeda “Intensifying Efforts to Establish New Base in Libya” ’, The Telegraph, 2 December 2012.