Abdulrahman al-Awlaki loved watching The Simpsons. He avidly read Harry Potter. He frequently updated his Facebook page. Born in Denver, al-Awlaki was a typical American teenager. That is, until Oct. 14, 2011, when al-Awlaki was savagely killed by an American Predator drone in southern Yemen. “Local residents told me his body was blown to pieces,” his grandfather Nasser al-Awlaki wrote in a chilling op-ed for The New York Times.
The drone war has become a defining component of Obama’s foreign policy, yet also a topic on which he has remained eerily silent. President George W. Bush ramped up production of drones and used them for counterterrorism missions following 9/11. Obama, to the disdain of the far left, has exponentially grown the scope of the drone war thus far in his presidency. Drones have mainly been used in Pakistan, with President Obama authorizing four times the number of drone strikes during his first term than President Bush did in eight years in office.
In theory, drones are a boon to any military affair. For the first time in history, soldiers are entirely removed from the waging of war. The dangers and human costs—for one side, at least—normally associated with war don’t apply when the soldier is able to leave his desk in an air-conditioned room and return home in time for his son’s soccer game.
Drone strikes, however, have not held up to their theoretical potential. America has become far too lax in its standards for drone strikes. Drones strikes are intended for Al-Qaeda members that pose an imminent threat to American citizens at home or abroad. That being said, a mere 1.5 percent of total drone fatalities in Pakistan have been “High-Value Targets,” according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
For a weapon noted for precision, drones have killed a disproportionate number of civilians and low-to-mid-level Al-Qaeda members, none of whom pose any threat to American national security. Claims from the Obama administration and CIA director John Brennan that “there hasn’t been a single collateral death in a year because of the exceptional proficiency [and] precision” of drones seem to have no factual foundation. Since 2009, civilian deaths resulting from drone strikes have diminished, but, nevertheless, the numbers remain too high. Since July, American drones have wrongfully killed at least two Pakistani civilians. Our nation is committing a shameful and egregious moral wrong in pursuing killings that yield few practical benefits in the fight against terrorism.
An important component of these wrongful killings is the policy of signature strikes, where militants are targeted because of their behavior and not their identity. When a signature strike is conducted, the government has no idea who precisely is being targeted. In March of 2011, the Obama administration gave the go-ahead for a strike against a gathering of supposed militants in mountainous northern Pakistan. What seemed like a malicious rendezvous from 30,000 feet was actually a jirga, a community decision-making institution. Thirty-eight civilians were killed.
There seem to be few legal or ethical guidelines for the use of signature strikes. Of the 14 signatures or characteristics regularly attributed to terrorists that allow a drone pilot to engage in a signature strike, only four are definitely legal under international law.
Al-Qaeda has been decimated to the point that it no longer has the same scope and power as it did a decade ago. Drones deserve credit for their role in this process. In one of his final letters to his followers, Osama bin Laden warned of “the importance of the exit from [Pakistan] of the brother leaders … and that you choose distant locations to which to move them, away from aircraft photography and bombardment.” However, continued drone warfare may actually be perverse to counterterrorism efforts, because it stimulates anti-American sentiments while doing little to quell potential terrorist acts.
Virtually all drone strikes in Pakistan have occurred in Waziristan, part of the state’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (akin to America’s Native American reservations). Residents of this area know little about America outside of the drone strikes that destroy their buildings and kill their relatives. “I can’t sleep at night because when the drones are there … I hear them making that sound, that noise. The drones are all over my brain, I can’t sleep,” one resident told Conor Friedersdorf PO ’02 of The Atlantic.
Drones are complicit in creating a new breed of terrorism, one that America is utterly unprepared for. Homegrown terrorists are popping up with increased frequency, and U.S. drone policy is an important contributing factor of this. Umar Abdulmutallab—the failed underwear bomber of 2009—cited drones as a key motivation for his attack. Djohar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev—the brothers behind the Boston marathon bombing in April—may have also been led to fundamentalism because of drones.
Drones “roam Muslim houses, terrorizing children, women, and the weak,” states the Al-Qaeda propaganda magazine Inspire. “They bombard ‘suspected’ targets in villages, towns and cities.” Such claims resonate only because they are based in truth.