By: Jihan Anwar
In the U.S. ‘War on Terror’ – which was effectively declared in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks – the assassinations of Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaqi are clearly considered to be among the Obama administration’s two most successful military operations.
For both the Obama and Bush White Houses, weapons of choice in the fight against terrorists have included Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems (RPAS), more popularly known as ‘drones’.
A study conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) counted 4,000 people who had been killed in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as the result of drone strikes.
In November 2001, drones were first used in Afghanistan to target Mohammed Atef, a high-level Al-Qaeda militant. The first drone strike in Yemen, a CIA operation remotely carried out from Djibouti in November 2002, left six people dead.
From the U.S. government’s perspective, there are several key advantages to utilizing drones. One of the most obvious is the avoidance of U.S. soldiers’ casualties; if a drone crashes or is shot down, there’s no pilots for enemies to kill or take hostage.
Since mid-2011, US counterterrorism operations in Yemen have been conducted by both the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency, with drones often described as the best available weapons to combat the notorious terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. In Yemen’s case, drone strikes are considered by the U.S. government as a key way to eradicate offshoots of Al-Qaeda present on Yemeni territory.
The use of drone strikes is largely based on a ‘kill list’ which receives authorization from U.S. President Barack Obama.
‘Ours, not yours’
Will Picard, Executive Director of the Yemen Peace Project, has commented, “[Yemeni] President Hadi is in a very difficult position – and he knows, from serving under Saleh, how costly it can be to defy the United States. He has gone out on a limb so far by being unequivocal in his support for the strikes, and I don’t think he can reverse this position. But we’ll probably see more and more Yemeni politicians from all parties begin to challenge Hadi’s legitimacy on this, mainly in order to score political points for themselves. In response, Hadi will probably try to portray himself as more in control of counter-terrorism policy than he actually is. He is already seen by many Yemenis as a pawn of the Americans.”
In a cable congratulating Obama’s on his reelection, Hadi reiterated his approval of Obama’s counterterrorism policy in Yemen. The Yemeni President publicly praised UAVs for their precision and took responsibility for every strike that had been launched since his presidency began. A parallel can be drawn with what was revealed by a 2010 cable in which ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh told then-General David Petraeus “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”
Other purported benefits of the use of drones include their relatively low cost and the limitation of civilian deaths. However, serious questions have been raised about these points, and especially the claim that the cost to civilians is lowered.
For one, drones are supplied with cameras which allow for the misidentification of targets; among such error was the killing of two U.S. soldiers in April 2011. In addition, as U.S. and international media outlets have increasingly reported, civilians frequently end up as ‘collateral damage’, to use the term often employed by U.S. government officials.
The Hellfire missile has a casualty radius of 60 feet and the Paveway bomb of 200 feet, both leaving people anywhere near the intended target at risk of death or severe injuries.
The first known US drone strike in Yemen with approval from Obama took place in Ma’jalah, Abyan, on December 17, 2009, and killed about 50 people. Among those killed were 21 children and 14 women.
A Reaper drone costs $28 million to produce; a single Hellfire missile costs about $70,000 and a Paveway bomb $20,000. The total cost of one load of such weapons on a Reaper drone is estimated to stand at around $320,000. The Know Drones Website has reported that “The [U.S.] Air Force is believed to have about 60 Reapers with plans to build a total of about 330. The US has built drones ranging in size from insect to airliner. There are a total of 7,494 drones in the US military inventory, according to a January 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service, compared to 10,767 manned aircraft.”
In an article on the subject of unmanned vehicles, Micah Zenko, a Douglas Dillon fellow at the Center for Preventive Action (CPA) at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that, “As of July 2010, the Air Force had identified 79 drone accidents costing at least $1 million each.” Weather conditions and human errors were cited as the main causes of the crashes.
Many have protested, or at the very least have questioned, the criteria used to place peoples’ names on a target or ‘kill list’. The use of so-called ‘signature strikes’ permit drones to target capable adult males as militants based on the people they are seen to be associated with.
While the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaqi – regarded by the U.S. government as a high-level AQAP operative was highly controversial in its own right, the targeted killing of his Al-Awlaqi’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman led a number of Yemeni citizens and journalists to question what crime the teenager committed to deserve such an end.
When a journalist observed that an American citizen had been targeted without due process, without trial and while still a minor, former White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs replied, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an Al-Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”
Until his family presented his passport, following his death, Abdulrahman had been identified in media reports as a 21-year-old militant.
An outraged Nasser al-Awlaki, Abdulrahman’s grandfather, filed a lawsuit against those he believed were responsible for the “wrongful death of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaqi.”
Constitutional Rights Center lawyer Pardiss Kebriaei commented, “There is something terribly wrong when a 16-year-old American boy can be killed by his own government without any accountability or explanation.”
‘Peace Prize’ strikes?
A more recent strike which caused a great deal of perplexity and anger occurred on November 7, 2012, less than 24 hours following Obama’s reelection. Adnan Al-Qadhi was targeted in Sinhan in the closest drone strike yet to Yemen’s capital city of Sana’a. The choice of the target and location and timing of the operation caused Yemeni writer and activist Ibrahim Mothana to say via the social media platform Twitter “Drone strikes in a ‘Secret War’ by a ‘Nobel Peace Laureate’ [Obama]! Life can’t get more surreal #Yemen.”
In a recent press conference in Thailand, Obama said, “No country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens from outside its borders.” Meanwhile, a recently-signed ‘open skies’ agreement between the U.S. and Yemen appears to signify greater risks from Yemen’s skies for the country’s civilian population.
The question of whether such targeted killings have been truly successful in the fight against Al-Qaeda has increasingly been raised by foreign and Yemeni journalists. Reports have indicated that in less than a decade’s time, the AQAP militant presence has gone from around 300 loosely-organized individuals to, at present, more than a thousand-and-counting.
Yemen Peace Project Executive Director Picard further remarked, “The Obama and Bush administrations have had very similar approaches to Yemen, in that both administrations viewed Yemen solely through the lens of counter-terrorism. Bush was intensely focused on Yemen from September 2001 through 2003, but after that his administration lost interest. By the time Obama came into office, Al-Qaeda’s Yemen branch had reconstituted itself, and Obama responded accordingly. In Obama’s first term, the US launched far more strikes against AQAP targets, and spent more on military assistance to Yemen, than it had during Bush’s two terms as president.”
Picard said that Obama’s counterterrorism efforts have consisted almost entirely of such strikes – which, he added, is “why these efforts have failed to weaken AQAP.”
Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer and active opponent to the use of drone strikes in his country, said, “I constantly meet the relatives of those killed in these drone strikes. This policy is simply further radicalizing an unstable region. People who support this war with their tax money need to ask questions of their governments if their money is being spent on such gruesome murders of women and children.”
Reprieve Organization Director Clive Stafford Smith – who deemed the US strategy “another terrible US policy in the War of Terror” – has said, “I hate to expose the world to pictures of a child with his head blown half off, but this is what the CIA calls ‘collateral’ damage. In a country that is not at war with America, everyone else calls it murder, and the drone attacks are causing vastly more harm than good.”
As Yemen’s National Dialogue Conference draws nearer and as Hadi’s presidency draws to a close, the question of whether Obama will find another enthusiastic and cooperative ally in his counterterrorism policies raises will inevitably be raised.
In the meantime, the United Nations announced on October 25 that if the Obama administration refuses to submit relevant documentation and fails to investigate the deaths of civilians in drone strikes, it would conduct an independent investigation of extra-judicial killings by way of drone strikes.