The drone ‘blowback’

Drones fuel ‘blowback’ and undermine core principles of American identity.

The Obama Administration's promises to curb drone strikes have not materialised, writes Kutty [Reuters]

With respect, you cannot continue to behave as if innocent deaths like those in my family are irrelevant. If the Yemeni and American Presidents refuse to engage with overwhelming popular sentiment in Yemen, you will defeat your own counter-terrorism aims.”

The letter addressed to President Barack Obama and Yemen’s president Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi last July from Faisal bin Ali Jabar, who lost two relatives in a 2012 strike by an unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone, in Hadhramout, Yemen, hit right on target.

As Jabar testified in Washington a few months later, his 43-year-old brother-in-law, Salem Ahmed bin Ali Jaber, a local imam, accompanied by his son, Waleed Abdulla bin Ali Jaber, a 26-year-old police officer, were being confronted by three alleged militants outside a mosque over a sermon condemning extremism, when four missiles rained down on them, killing all five.

This is not an isolated incident according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights monitors. In fact, a report released earlier this year by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ), a UK non-profit organisation, documents that since Obama took office, there have been more than 2,400 deaths, many of them civilian. The TBIJ estimates that in Pakistan alone, between 416 and 957 civilians, including 168 to 202 children, have perished.

Despite Obama’s avowal last year to curtail their use, drone strikes have continued apace in Pakistan, Yemen, and Afghanistan. Now there are even accounts coming from Iraq as well.  

Drone blowback

Echoing Jabar, a report released on June 26th by the Stimson Center, a Washington DC think tank, concludes that extremist groups have only grown in influence. Indeed, the “blowback” from drones is “a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organisations” in places like Yemen and Pakistan. Naturally, the death and destruction left by the strikes provide perfect postcard images for terrorist recruiters. Drones have traction even among the Muslim masses. The legendary Pakistani cricketer, Imran Khan, ran a popular election campaign last year vowing to shoot down drones.   

Perhaps more surprisingly, the reverberations from the collateral damage are even being felt in the West.  In fact, the hum of the drone may be partly responsible for some of the radicalisation at home.  Indeed, a few years back, I sat in with a client being interrogated by Canadian security agents. He appeared on intelligence radars after a visit to Afghanistan.

He left Canada as an ardent supporter of western presence and returned a security threat for his vocal opposition to drones. A couple of dead relatives from Hellfire on a wedding party was the game changer. 

As clear as this cause and effect calculus is to many, the Obama administration just doesn’t get it.

The Stimson Task Force makes eight recommendations, including: conduct a strategic review of the role of drones in counter-terrorism strikes; improve transparency, accountability and oversight to advance the democratic debate on the important policy issues raised in this context; transfer responsibility from the CIA to the military; foster the development of appropriate international norms for the use of lethal force outside traditional battlefields; re-evaluate the regulatory scheme on drone technology and export controls; reassess drones in light of national security interests and values.

Some of these proposals have been advanced in the past, including in one study prepared jointly by Stanford Law School and NYU Law School. The two significant differences are the bipartisan composition of the ten-member Stimson panel (co-chaired by John Abizaid, a retired US Army general and former chief of US Central Command and Professor Rosa Brooks from Georgetown) and its unequivocal recommendation that  “The United States should not conduct a long-term killing program based on secret rationales.”

The heavy reliance on targeted killings in “US counterterrorism strategy rests on questionable assumptions, and risks increasing instability and escalating conflicts,” says the panel. 

The 80-page report came three days after a federal appeals court released parts of a Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) memo that argued it was lawful to target radical American citizen and cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011.  The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU),  the Center for Constitutional Rights and others are continuing their challenge to obtain more classified documents about drone casualties and the legal rationale relied on. An article in the Atlantic nicely sums up what can be gleaned from the OLC memo:

“For now, the takeaway is that the Obama Administration took a process that is supposed to constrain the president within the law’s confines; nodded toward the notion that they can kill only if capture is infeasible and the threat of attack imminent; and then qualified those constraints so drastically that it would be more honest to acknowledge that neither imminence nor infeasible capture are really required.”

People & Power – Attack of the Drones

Semantics and obfuscation aside, the fact remains that the administration continues to violate the spirit and sometimes even the letter of the law. The task force attempted to address the claim that US-targeted killings undermine respect for the rule of law and international legal safeguards. The report may not have gone far enough in this regard as with some of their other recommendations.  

Indeed, two members of the panel, John B Bellinger III, former legal counsel to the White House National Security Council and Jeff Smith, former legal counsel to the CIA, wrote an op-ed in Politico arguing that a long-term, secret US drone programme, even if authorised under US law and defensible under international law, may not be consistent with “more basic rule-of-law principles that are at the core of the American identity and that we seek to promote around the world.”

The US practice is also setting a dangerous precedent as others may follow suit. Moreover, as drone manufacturers and officials successfully reduce export control barriers, and as more countries develop such technologies, the risks only increase. Indeed, there are already reports of drones being shot down and reversed-engineered by countries considered as adversaries.

It is reported that by 2025, drones will be an $82bn business. With the stakes so high, the enormous clout and lobbying power of this industry, and a majority of the American public lulled into a false sense of security supportive, drones will inevitably be at the centre of US counter-terrorism policy for the foreseeable future.

Given this context and some of the findings confirmed by this report, it is incumbent that Washington conduct a fundamental re-evaluation of this strategy, taking into account all available evidence, the concerns of various stakeholders, and the short- and long-term costs and benefits. 

If the US does not use it wisely, accountably and within the confines of the rule of law and international legal norms, then it may not be able to prevent it from becoming the weapon that triggers the next world war.  

Faisal Kutty is an assistant professor at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and an adjunct professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University in Toronto. He has been included in the The Muslim 500: The World’s Most Influential Muslims, published by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, Jordan in cooperation with Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, for the past four years. 

Follow him on Twitter: @faisalkutty