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Obama’s Robotic Assassins


“It’s drones, baby, drones.”

– (former) United States Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, March 2011.

Unmanned U.S. aircraft now routinely fly over Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Their cameras record the presence of men in motion. A commander sitting in a base thousands of kilometres away gives the kill order. The U.S. President had previously been over lists of alleged terrorists and marked off those who can be killed. This is the “kill list”. If only one person is to be killed, the execution is called a “personality strike”. If the drone kills more than one person, it is called a “signature strike”.

On September 30, 2011, two U.S. Predator drones fired Hellfire missiles at a car in Yemen’s al-Jawf province. The missiles destroyed the car. Among the four dead were two U.S. citizens, the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and the editor of Al Qaeda’s English language magazine Inspire, Samir Khan. Two weeks later, on October 14, another U.S. drone fired at a group who were on their way to dinner. Among the 10 dead were 16-year-old Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki, the son of the cleric, and his 17-year-old cousin Abdulrahman.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) estimates that between 2001 and 2012, the U.S. launched about a hundred drone strikes in Yemen, killing between 317 and 826 people. The civilian casualty is estimated to be anywhere between 58 and 138, of them 24 being children. These are all very poor numbers, as the Bureau acknowledges. The U.S. has not released any firm data; indeed the U.S. continues to have an ambiguous attitude regarding its assassination policy. It takes credit for the killings, but does not take responsibility for the programme itself.

In a stinging 29-page report in 2010, former United Nations special representative on extrajudicial executions Philip Alston asked the major powers to lay out the legal limits to extrajudicial assassinations. In a statement that accompanied the report, Alston described the political problem for the U.S.: “I’m particularly concerned that the United States seems oblivious to this fact when it asserts an ever-expanding entitlement for itself to target individuals across the globe. But this strongly asserted but ill-defined licence to kill without accountability is not an entitlement which the United States or other states can have without doing grave damage to the rules designed to protect the right to life and prevent extrajudicial executions.” In the quiet rooms of the U.N., such language is rare: it asserted that the continual U.S. use of drones was not only a violation of current norms but a threat to the architecture of conflict resolution and the rules of war.

The BIJ collected data not only from Yemen but also from Pakistan and Somalia. In Pakistan, U.S. drones have killed between 2,462 and 3,145 people, among whom 482 to 830 were civilians (including 175 children). The numbers of those injured are upwards of 3,000. After the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) summit in Chicago, the U.S. struck in Waziristan about seven times (by June 3). In Somalia, the U.S. conducted a handful of drone strikes, with deaths reported in the hundreds (among them three children). The BIJ’s method is eclectic; it uses news reports and speeches. These are, therefore, not exact numbers, only indications of a trend. With no information forthcoming from the U.S., there is no way to have better figures.

The first public admission of extrajudicial executions came with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the first public admission of the use of drones came from President Barack Obama in an Internet interview on January 30 this year. Of the drone attacks, Obama said, “This is a targeted, focussed effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on.” He said geographical conditions necessitated these attacks. According to him, the alleged terrorists are in a region in Pakistan that is not amenable to a simply military operation. “Obviously a lot of these strikes have been in the FATA [Federally Administered Tribal Areas] and going after Al Qaeda suspects who are up in very tough terrain along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.” The key phrase in his statement was that he had a “list of active terrorists” who could be killed by the unmanned drones.

Lengthy process

On May 29, 2012, Jo Becker and Scott Shane of The New York Times confirmed the existence of this “kill list”. Two dozen counterterrorism officials meet every Tuesday in the White House Situation Room to go over the “kill list”, a scroll of names with biographies distilled onto “baseball cards”. These lists are derived after a lengthy process. Once a week, a hundred members of the national security apparatus gather to study the biographies of suspects and to recommend who should be put on the kill list. “This secret ‘nominations’ process is an invention of the Obama administration,” write Becker and Shane, “a grim debating society that vets the PowerPoint slides bearing the names, aliases and life stories of suspected
members of Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen or its allies in Somalia’s Shabab militia…. A parallel, more cloistered selection process at the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] focusses largely on Pakistan, where that agency conducts strikes.” The nominated go onto the kill list that Obama and his counterterrorism chief John Brennan study and approve. Obama personally “signs off on every strike in Yemen and Somalia and also on the more complex and risky strikes in Pakistan – about a third of the total.”

Obama came to office promising to end the illegal aspects of the War on Terror. He campaigned against the extraordinary rendition programme and promised to shut down both the “black prisons” and the Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba. A concern for legality motivated some of these rhetorical gestures. Obama suggested that he was worried about the civilian casualties – not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they had begun to add up to totals that boggled the mind, but also through aerial strikes against alleged terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen and eastern Africa.

On January 22, 2009, a few days after he took over as President, Obama gave orders for a strike in Pakistan. The first strike from a Predator drone hit two houses in the village of Zharki in Waziristan. It killed 10 people. A second attack, a few hours later, struck another village in Waziristan and killed eight. Most of those dead were civilians. The President apparently asked his advisers: “I want to know how this happened.” The CIA promised to be more precise in its targets. Their claims of “precision” were overblown. Civilians (including children) continue to fall victim to the drone strikes.

As a result of the failure to target the alleged terrorists better, the Obama team has now come up with a unique method to define the kill zone. The administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants,” note Becker and Shane, “unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.” This is a remarkable standard. Anyone near an alleged terrorist is now a terrorist. The only way to know if they are terrorists or not is after they are dead. It is because of this that the Obama team accepts very low numbers for civilian deaths (as collateral damage).

This extraordinary standard makes it impossible for anyone to be a non-terrorist at the moment of the strike. This is the reason why after a strike the officials call everyone who has been killed a militant. It is also the reason why U.S. Foreign Service officials are bewildered by the new policy. The U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, apparently complained that he “didn’t realise his main job was to kill people”.

Extending the use of drones into uncharted territory matches another inflation of arms in the Obama presidency. Since 2006, the U.S. has experimented with cyberwarfare, notably against Iran. In his new book Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (Crown Books, June 2012), the journalist David Sanger details the use of cyberweapons such as the Stuxnet. Once more in the White House Situation Room, Obama goes over detailed plans to strike at the Iranian nuclear production facilities and its grid with the scientists who planned this operation called Olympic Games. “From his first days in office,” a senior administration official told Sanger, “he was deep into every step in slowing the Iranian programme – the diplomacy, the sanctions, every major decision. And it’s safe to say that whatever other activity might have been under way was no exception to the rule.” In other words, the President was at the centre of the cyberwar against Iran, including against the Natanz site in the summer of 2010. At the time, the U.S. denied use of cyberweapons, just as it now denies that the Flame virus is its invention. Several participants in the Situation Room meetings told Sanger that Obama “was acutely aware that with every attack he was pushing the United States into new territory, much as his predecessors had with the first use of atomic weapons in the 1940s, of intercontinental missiles in the 1950s and of drones in the past decade. He repeatedly expressed concerns that any American acknowledgment that it was using cyberweapons – even under the most careful and limited circumstances – could enable other countries, terrorists or hackers to justify their own attacks.”

The use of drones and cyberweapons is significant because they allow the U.S. to use these lethal methods without a formal declaration of war. The U.S. denies that it is at war in Iran, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and yet it uses deadly technology to kill and maim. It is this technology that enables the U.S. to flout the rules of war and its own constitutional provisions that mandates Congressional approval for war-making. Drones and cyberworms befuddle the certainties of the existing laws of war. The U.S. has the political power to use these weapons (from atomic bombs to cyberworms) first before it gets sanctimonious about how they must be used and who must have access to them.

With infinite complacency, the U.S. administration has stretched and broken the rules of war, settling its little affairs in the name of a justice that is regularly undermined. Kill lists, signature kills, personality kills, beacons, electronic moats: a new vocabulary for a dangerous and destabilising new kind of warfare. With moral outrage, the U.S. turns against terrorists who use roadside bombs and suicide vests but reserves little of that moral fire to turn against aerial bombs and cybershocks. The hypocrisy sits uneasily on the surface. A senior U.S. official recognised this, but did not use the word “hypocrisy” to describe it. He used the word “irony”.

Vijay Prashad’s new book, Arab Spring, Libyan Winter , is published by AK Press.






Vijay Prashad’s most recent book is No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015).

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