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All God’s Children Got Drones


First we got the bomb, and that was good,

‘Cause we love peace and motherhood.

Then Russia got the bomb, but that’s okay,

‘Cause the balance of power’s maintained that way.

Who’s next?

–Tom Lehrer, “Who’s Next?”

The Islamic State now has drones.  This is the conclusion of an August 25, 2014 article by Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider:  ”Now ISIS has drones?”

Bergen is a national security analyst for CNN and a director at the New America Foundation think tank in Washington DC.  Emily Schneider is a research associate at the Foundation.  The New America Foundation and the Britain-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism are two of the most frequently cited sources of statistics on number of drone attacks and numbers of people killed by drones.

On August 23, a video was uploaded to YouTube.  The video purports to have been made by the Islamic State and includes scenes of the Islamic State at prayer and at war.  “But,” Bergen and Schneider write, “this video has something else in it that previous videos released by ISIS have not:  Surveillance footage apparently shot by a drone” giving an aerial view of a Syrian Army base in Northern Syria.  A video caption declares:  “From the drone of the army of the Islamic State.”

Welcome to the drone club, Islamic State!  This exclusive club has long restricted membership to states—around 80, according to Bergen and Schneider.  (But why should the count end there?)

Non-state actors have begun to elbow their way into the club.  Bergen and Schneider write that Hezbollah and Hamas have used drones in or near Israel.  Hamas claims to possess armed drones, although what Hamas has displayed in videos may be less a drone than a small flying missile which can only be controlled while within the operator’s line of sight.  Anti-Gadhafi rebels used drones in Libya in 2011.

These are all surveillance drones.  The United States, Britain, and Israel are the only three countries which have deployed armed drones in combat.  China and Russia also possess armed drones but have yet to use them in combat.

The Islamic State’s drone or drones will probably not be a game changer in Iraq and Syria.  But this development is worth considering for what it says about drone proliferation.

A major consequence of drone proliferation is that war will become a little more symmetrical.  The US uses or has used killer drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia.  Britain has used armed drones in Afghanistan.  Israel has used armed drones in Gaza.  What all these targets have in common is that they’re weak.  Drone warfare is not about striking an equally matched adversary (hence, the euphemism:  “asymmetrical warfare”).  Drone warfare is Bambi versus Godzilla.  When Hellfire missiles fired from US drones hit Pashtun villages in Pakistan’s tribal areas it’s obvious who’s Godzilla and who’s been cast in the part of Bambi.begging slogans6

So the anti-drone movement misses the point when we ask:  how would America like it if Russia or China sent drones to kill “terrorists” hiding out in the United States?  They won’t, any more than the United States will launch drone strikes on Russia and China.  When Russia and China begin to use killer drones it will be against groups like the Chechens and Uighurs, just as the US will continue to target Yemenis and Pakistani tribesmen.

Terrorists, however, won’t hesitate to use drones against the United States.  Al-Qaeda’s October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen’s port of Aden which killed 17 American sailors could have been accomplished just as easily with a drone.

Bergen and Schneider offer a solution for drone proliferation.  It’s—don’t laugh—a “Geneva Convention” for drones.  The Convention would have two aims:  (1) tamping down on drone proliferation; and (2) establishing standards for when “armed drones could be sanctioned outside of conventional war zones to kill terrorists.”  I thought of lines from Edna St. Vincent Millay:  “Longing to wed with peace, what did we do?/Sketched her a fortress on a paper pad.”

Back in February 2013, when the US Senate confirmed President Obama’s nomination of John Brennan for CIA Director, I established a museum for gimmicky legal schemes to limit drone violence.  Brennan had been President Obama’s top adviser on counterterrorism.  Each “Terror Tuesday” (the White House designation, not mine), the two men would go into a huddle to choose the latest drone targets.  The museum’s first exhibit was donated by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR).  During Brennan’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator Wyden had suggested establishing a “Drone Court” to approve the White House’s selection of drone targets.

Like every other item in my museum, Senator Wyden’s proposal was a beautiful, though fragile object, easily broken if examined too hard.  The flaw in the diamond was this:  the Drone Court was to be modeled after the FISA Court created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  The FISA Court’s mandate was to approve or deny Executive wiretap requests in national security matters.  President George W. Bush circumvented the FISA Court during the first five years of his administration.  The public revelation in late 2005 that the government was conducting warrantless spying on Americans forced the Bush Administration back to the Court.  It hardly mattered.  The FISA Court has acted as a rubber stamp for both Bush and Obama wiretap requests ever since.  There is no reason to expect any better of a “Drone Court.”

A Geneva Convention for drones is a worthy addition to my museum.  It has nothing to offer the anti-drone movement.  Regarding the first aim of Bergen and Schneider’s proposed Convention—setting rules for drone use—the anti-drone movement has no interest in getting drones to play nice.  Our goal is to ground the drones.

The Convention’s other goal is nonproliferation.  The danger here is that a “Geneva Convention” for drones may turn drone proliferation into a distraction.  Yes, drone proliferation is real.  We’ve already remarked that some 80 countries now have drones.  And according to Medea Benjamin of CODE PINK, 10 to 15 countries are working to produce drones that can kill.  Naturally, we should be concerned about this.  But shouldn’t our first concern be states which already possess killer drones?  Medea Benjamin writes that there have been 350 lethal drone strikes on Pakistan since 2004 which have killed from 2,500 to 3,500 people.  Those strikes weren’t launched by Burundi.

While US drones fill the most coffins, Israel fills the most orders for drones.  Owing to export restrictions, US drone manufacturers such as Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Atomics, et al. sell most of their weaponized drones to the Pentagon.  Israel, led by manufacturers Elbit Systems and Israel Aerospace Industries, is drone maker to the world.  (According to a 2014 report from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the Latin American drone market is “dominated” by Israeli companies.)  So first let’s do something about US and Israeli companies.  Then we can worry about Bhutan’s drones.

Charles Pierson is a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition.  E-mail him at

Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at

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