The Year in Drones: 2016

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Iwan Gabovitch | CC BY 2.0


Barack Obama’s final year in office began with the incarceration of a 59-year old grandmother.  In what must be a first in the annals of crime, Mary Anne Grady Flores was sentenced to six months in jail for a foot fault.  While photographing a peaceful demonstration by her group, the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, Grady Flores had accidentally stepped onto Hancock Field Air National Guard Base outside Syracuse, NY.  Her momentary presence on the base violated an Order of Protection a local court had granted the base commander.

Five thousand protestors gathered at Ramstein Air Base on June 17.  Ramstein, an American military base in Germany, is integral to the US drone campaign.  In February, 2015, Jeremy Scahill filed a report about Ramstein on The Intercept.  Leaked US slides and their confidential source confirmed what had long been suspected.  Ramstein Air Base is the global relay hub for signals which allow pilots in the United States to control US drones in South and Central Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa.  The slides put the lie to US and German attempts to minimize Ramstein’s crucial importance in the drone war.  The slides raise the possibility of US personnel at Ramstein facing prosecution under German law for assisting drone assassinations in violation of international law.[1]

Drone Kills inside the United States

Police in Dallas, Texas used a robot to kill Michael Xavier Johnson, an ex-GI, on July 7, 2016.  Johnson had killed five police officers overseeing a peaceful demonstration by Black Lives Matter after the police killings of Philandro Castile and Alton Sterling.  The Dallas PD adapted a robot normally used for bomb disposal to instead drop a bomb in the parking garage where Johnson was hiding.

Law Professor Marjorie Cohn decried the police execution of Johnson, rightly noting that “Killing with Robots Increases Militarization of Police.”  Professor Cohn notes that the police robot could have used tear gas to subdue Johnson, who posed no immediate further threat.  Two years earlier, a SWAT team in Albuquerque, NM had captured a schizophrenic man who had locked himself into a motel room.  The police took the man alive by using a bomb-disposal robot to fire tear gas through the motel room’s window.  Since Michael Johnson had told police that he had planted bombs throughout Dallas, capture would have been a more prudent course.  (The bomb threat turned out to be a bluff.)

It’s hard to feel sympathy for Johnson personally, but his execution by robot sets a precedent which should disturb each of us even if we haven’t blown away five police officers.  A year before Johnson was killed, the North Dakota legislature authorized police departments to use aerial drones carrying “less than lethal” weapons.    The original version of the bill had prohibited both lethal and non-lethal weapons.  However, the state’s police union was able to restrict the prohibition to lethal weapons alone.  Don’t feel too good about that.  Pepper spray, tear gas, tasers, sonic cannons, and rubber bullets all count as “less than lethal.”

Say, isn’t Standing Rock in North Dakota?

Numbering the Victims

On July 1, 2016, the Obama Administration finally released drone strike statistics compiled by the Director of National Intelligence.  The figures purport to give the number of the Obama Administration’s drone strikes and the number of people killed from the time Obama entered office through December 31, 2015.

Up until the July 1 release, the Obama Administration had been coy about the number of people US drones have killed.  The Administration refused repeatedly to release figures, while soothing the public with assurances that drones are “precision” weapons and that the number of civilian deaths has been very low.

There are serious problems with the DNI data.

The DNI figures leave out killings in “areas of active hostilities”:  Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria—an enormous omission.

The DNI figures do include drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya.  The DNI claims that 473 US drone strikes took place in those four nations which killed 2372-2581 combatants and 64-116 noncombatants between January 20, 2009 and December 31, 2015.  Independent monitors say the figures on civilian fatalities are far too low.[2]  Jennifer Gibson, an attorney with the human rights NGO Reprieve, said:  “The only thing those numbers tell us is that this Administration simply doesn’t know who it has killed. Back in 2011, it claimed to have killed ‘only 60’ civilians. Does it really expect us to believe that it has killed only 4 more civilians since then, despite taking hundreds more strikes?”

Professor Cohn remarks that the DNI “report lumps together seven years of airstrikes.”  Was this an accidental oversight?  The table which appears in the DNI report provides one range representing all “Combatant Deaths” and another range representing all “Non-Combatant Deaths.”  Since the data are not broken down by date or location, Professor Cohn as well as Jameel Jaffer of the American Civil Liberties Union, say that it is impossible to verify the accuracy of the DNI figures with figures compiled by independent sources.[3]

US Drone Strikes in 2016

The DNI figures cover drone strikes only up to December 31, 2015.  A new DNI report released on January 19 as the Obama Administration was heading out the door covers the period January 1, 2016 through December 31, 2016.  Strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria were again excluded.

The DNI reported 53 strikes in 2016, which killed 431-441 combatants and one non-combatant.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports 362-507 people killed “outside areas of active hostilities,” including four to six civilians.

Drones Over Syria

What about those “areas of active hostilities”?  The air war in Syria has produced thousands of civilian casualties, most of them the victims of manned aircraft.  The major players in Syria all possess drones of one sort or another.  Drones are most commonly used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), but several belligerents also possess weaponized drones.

The US has been bombing Syria since September 2014, but unmanned aircraft account for only about 7% of the 5,000+ US airstrikes so far.  The UK and Turkey conduct armed drone strikes.  Russia conducts deadly airstrikes on anti-Assad forces using manned aircraft, not drones.  Russia obtains surveillance drones from Israel.  According to unconfirmed reports, Israel also supplies Syria’s Assad regime with surveillance drones; so does Iran.  Iran also supplies Hezbollah with crude drones which can drop bombs.  And Iran conducts its own drone strikes on anti-Assad forces.

Confused yet?  Hezbollah is not the only Islamic militant group which uses drones in Syria.  The Islamic State possesses model-airplane sized drones converted from cheap, commercially available models.  IS drones are used for surveillance and for filming propaganda videos, but can also drop small explosive charges.  Jund al-Aqsa, an al-Qaeda front group, has drones which drop bombs.  Jabhat Fatah al–Sham, formerly the al-Qaeda-aligned Al Nusra Front, uses drones to produce propaganda videos.  Jaysh al-Islam (Army of Islam), a coalition of Islamist groups, has used drones to drop leaflets over Damascus.

To date, there have been no reports of drone dogfights in the Syrian skies.

Summing Up Obama’s Record on Drone Assassinations

During his Presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump said that he would continue the Obama Administration’s drone killing program.  Indeed, drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen on January 19, 20, and 21 overlapped the Obama and Trump Presidencies.

President Trump did not sign off on any of these attacks.  The strikes were conducted under the authority President Obama had delegated to CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel.    Still, a Trump-authorized drone strike even this early in his Administration would not break with precedent established by Obama.  Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations reminds us that:  “On January 23, 2009, just three days into his presidency, President Obama authorized his first kinetic military action, two drone strikes, three hours apart, in Waziristan, Pakistan, that killed as many as twenty civilians.”  According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there were ten times as many drone strikes under Obama than under President George W. Bush.  The Bureau also notes that there were more drone strikes during Obama’s first year in office than during eight years of the Bush Administration.  To some extent, these facts reflect Bush’s preference for capturing Al-Qaeda and Taliban rather than killing them.

Thank goodness for the Obama Nostalgia Industry which had gotten into high gear even before Obama left the White House.  They have been busily burnishing Obama’s legacy as a Man of Peace.  Thanks to them, we can rest comfortably in the knowledge that even when Obama killed innocent foreigners with Hellfire missiles he killed them peacefully.

We began our account of drones in 2016 in Syracuse, NY.  It is fitting that we end there.  The Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, to which Mary Anne Grady Flores belongs, was back in the news at 2016’s end.  DEMOCRACY NOW!’s Amy Goodman reported that on December 23, 2016:

In Syracuse, New York, four people were arrested outside the Hancock Air National Guard Base at a nonviolent protest against the U.S. drone assassination program.  Demonstrators marked the Christmas holiday by dressing as biblical figures and erecting a 20-foot long nativity scene at the gates of the air base, which is home to the 174th Attack wing of the National Guard’s Reaper drone program.[4]

The Upstate Coalition’s website identifies the four taken into custody as “Joseph, Mary, shepherd, [and] Zoroastrian wise man.”


[1]  Human rights groups have sued the German government on behalf of Yemeni and Somali plaintiffs for Germany’s complicity in US drone strikes which killed their relatives.  To date, none of these lawsuits has been successful.  Nor has a related wrongful death lawsuit against the Obama Administration brought in the US.

[2]  According to The Intercept:  “Organizations such as the Long War Journal, the New America Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that at least 200 and as many as 1,000 civilians have been killed by American drone strikes in nations where the U.S. is not at war since Obama took office.”  Ryan Devereaux, Obama Administration Finally Releases Its Dubious Drone Death Toll, INTERCEPT, July 1, 2016.

[3]  Regularly updated spread sheets showing US drone kills by country for Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen can be found on the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s website.

[4]  Amy Goodman, What Will Happen When Donald Trump Takes over U.S. Drone & Targeted Assassination Program?, DEMOCRACY NOW!, Dec. 27, 2016.

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