Death from the Skies—Targeted International Assassinations via U.S. Drones

With John Brennan—considered by many to be the mastermind behind U.S. drone policy—nominated to be the next head of the CIA, we are hearing a lot about drones. And unlike those upon who drones reign down terror—it’s not the high pitch of an overhead motor that we are hearing.  Instead the discussion is all about kill rates, kill versus capture, terrorizing innocents and an absence of transparency about policy—particularly when Americans and minors are considered eligible targets.

Surgically precise and effective—drone strikes are argued by many to be useful in decapitating known terrorist leadership. However the truth is that noncombatants are also being effected and the human toll of that fact may be causing as much threat to our national security as live terrorist leaders also pose. 

Much of the damage caused by U.S. drone strikes is clouded in secrecy and the U.S. government rarely acknowledges the full extent of civilian casualties.  And how civilians are categorized is also arguable—for instance all adult males in the strike vicinity are often named as militants.  Data reported by the New American Foundation, informs that in Pakistan alone drones have killed between 1,953 to 3,279 persons since 2004—with between eighteen and twenty-three percent of these being civilians.  (In 2012, the hit rate on militants got better and the civilian kill rate went down to ten percent.)  The New American Foundation also estimates that of the 646 to 928 people killed in Yemen (in a combination of air and drone strikes) four to eight percent were civilians.

In addition to the civilian kills, researchers are finding that armed drones hovering over Pakistani communities day and night and suddenly striking homes, vehicles and public spaces without warning also causes considerable anxiety and psychological trauma in the daily lives of ordinary civilians—most notably children.  When families fear gathering for funerals; tribal leaders shun gathering in groups—even for tribal dispute resolution; children are kept indoors and community members dread public assemblies, a breakdown in society occurs and anti-American sentiment is greatly fostered.  Likewise when the U.S. becomes known for striking an area multiple times killing those who gather around the first strike—a behavior that unfortunately mirrors al Qaeda type strikes—and rescue and even humanitarian workers fear aiding injured victims—both societies—theirs and ours is gravely injured  in multiple ways (see the Stanford/NYU Living Under Drones Report for more on this).

Indeed as the arguments of today are made in behalf of drone strikes we forget that it was not long ago—only twelve years back, in July, 2001—just before 9-11, that Martin Indyk our then American Ambassador to Israel, denounced Israel’s use of targeted killing against Palestinian terrorists stating, “The United States government is very clearly on record as against targeted assassinations. . . . They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.”  Likewise, George Tenet, the then CIA’s agency director argued the week before 9-11 that it would be “a terrible mistake” for “the Director of Central Intelligence to fire a weapon like this.”

Times appear to have changed. 

 That we are winning the so-called “war on terror” by heavy reliance on drone strikes is not necessarily true.  For one thing killing militants versus capturing them means that valuable Intel that might have been collected from prisoners is never gathered.  And as YouTube videos of burnt drone victims—including pictures of child victims—circulate over the Internet and ideologues cry out for more recruits to protect the innocent Muslim ummah against “death from the skies” we may be unwittingly contributing more to global militant jihadi terrorism recruitment than we are gaining by terrorist decapitation. Researchers have long known that when a feeling of personal threat from an outside force increases, so to does social support and endorsement for terrorism among the civilian population thereby increasing the pool of potential recruits.

Moreover when there is a lack of public transparency over U.S. drone strike policies, failure to follow international laws regarding who can and cannot be targeted by lethal force—especially force administered by CIA operatives versus our uniformed military—and repeat strikes kill rescue workers aiding the victims of the first strike—we may be playing with real fire.  Soon other nations will also have drones and all will likely deem whatever practices we follow justifiable.  If all of these concerns are not addressed thoughtfully in the coming months they may conspire to create circumstance in which our government’s moral stance is considered so questionable that in relying on drone strikes we may be doing more—rather than less—to increase the dangers from terrorism.

 Anne Speckhard, Ph.D. is author of Talking to Terrorists: Understanding the Psycho-Social Motivations of Militant Jihadi Terrorists, Mass Hostage Takers, Suicide Bombers & “Martyrs” available on Amazon at

2 thoughts on “Death from the Skies—Targeted International Assassinations via U.S. Drones

  1. Frederic Labarre

    Even if drones did not kill indiscriminately, and even if there use was fully consented by those whose skies they fly in, the cultural meaning of having a “hero” piloting and targeting the drone remotely from a foreign base, instead of setting foot on “hostile” soil to meet the foe eye-to-eye, is likely to stimulate further grievances from parties that perceive the unfairness of it all as an insult worse than death (discriminate or otherwise).

    Furthermore, drones are easy and cheap to make. If, on the other hand, the culture changes and it becomes acceptable to use remotely piloted bombs, then it is only a matter of time before they become used tactically, then operationally. Iran already uses drones strategically, but for the non-state actor, the trip at the local hobby shop, with a stop at a fertiliser company along the way, and within a week, for less than 300$, you have a remotely-piloted bomb that can be aimed at anything within a two mile radius. Escalation in drone warfare is not far off, I’d wager. Then nobody is safe.


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