Everything You Don’t Know About U.S. Drone Strikes

Recently, Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian general was killed in a U.S. drone attack which has re-sparked debates on the U.S. justifications for violence, how ‘ethical’ drone warfare really is, and the ideology of military humanism. Today, drone warfare has become a prominent tactic within militarist strategies. On the surface, it seems to target specific dangerous insurgents whilst sparing the lives of innocent civilians and increasing the likelihood of U.S. soldiers coming home. In reality, some reports point towards the horrific realization that drone strikes inevitably kill substantial numbers of civilians whilst creating a culture of terror. Ultimately, drone warfare has blurred the lines between legality and illegality, civilian and combat, war and peace. 

Drones are used in various ways, the ultimate goal being, the elimination of threatening individuals and situations. In essence, drone technology conducts two different types of strikes: ‘personality strikes’ and ‘signature strikes’. ‘Personality strikes’ target specific individuals who have been tracked and whose names appear on a blacklist. The drones can circle in the air for up to 40 hours whilst relaying video footage and details of cell phone calls to centres in the Middle East, Europe or America. If enough ‘evidence’ is accumulated the drone can issue strikes if there are no, or few civilians nearby. 

The evidence accumulated to justify an attack varies immensely depending on the situation. For example, in the past drone operators have admitted that there have been cases where the only evidence they have to link a person on the ground to a name on their list is the fact that the person is in possession of the identified target’s mobile phone. Evidence is also sourced from local informants who will reveal to the U.S. potentially threatening people or the location of the target’s house. Yet, such evidence is certainly unreliable because these local informants may be tempted by large sums of money to point fingers at innocent people in order to settle a feud. Pakistani Anthropologist Akbar S. Ahmed states that tribesmen ‘seemed to be playing their own devious games with the drones’. Furthermore, it is troubling to think that the evidence used by the U.S. to condone a strike could be misinformation.

‘Signature strikes,’ involve people who are targeted based on them exhibiting a particular appearance or behaviour in accordance with what is labelled as ‘threatening’. Some behaviour profiling is clear-cut such as firing on U.S. troops, however, there are a lot of grey areas when it comes to ‘signature strikes.’ For example, behaviour such as digging may constitute enough evidence for a strike but this does not necessarily mean the target is burying an Improvised Exploding Device (IED). One tragic case occurred in 2011 when a drone operator attacked a convoy of families in Afghanistan because they prayed at dawn. This religiosity gave the mistaken impression that they were Taliban. The attack killed over a dozen children. 

In some instances, the killing of innocent civilians is justified by U.S. military lawyers through granting that the civilians are ‘proportionate’ to the risk of the target. In other words, they have the power to decide if the killing of civilians is acceptable and in accordance with the laws of war given the perceived risk of the target. Software such as Bugsplat calculates the probable repercussions in relation to the selected placement of the missile. According to an investigation team from Der Spiegal, drone operators have, in the past, been pushed by their superiors to stretch the justifications for a strike. For instance, the investigation discovered that only women, children and the elderly were treated as civilians. By only considering women, children, and the elderly as civilians it enables the U.S. to conduct more drone strikes since ‘officially’ there is ‘less’ risk of killing innocent non-combatants. 

Drone warfare has been portrayed by U.S. officials as the ‘clean, surgical excision of insurgents who were terrorizing the local population’. This is known as ‘drone essentialism,’ the false claim that drones minimize suffering. The U.S. National Security and leaders defend U.S. drone warfare by claiming it shows a kinder and gentler discourse of fighting and that it is more in line with international law than alternative weaponry and tactics such as torture. The CIA director, John Brennan argued that ‘it is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft.’ Such ideas allow for ‘ethical slipping’ where drone operators relax their operational practises. This process enables drones to become weapons of terror and be used to discriminate against innocent victims. It seems that the United States can use drone strikes to campaign terror in a foreign territory causing significant civilian casualties, whilst also continuing the American principle of acting with restraint and humanitarian concern. Such a statement is a good example of ‘Military humanism,’ a concept where war is represented as an unfortunate obligation which has been begrudgingly thrust upon a nation through the dysfunctional way that the world works; conclusively, the United States is forced to take salvationist responsibility for the greater good of society. 

Currently, according to the Bureau of Investigative journalism between 910-2,181 civilians have been killed by drone strikes. However, the realities of drone strikes are difficult to fully comprehend since ‘the United States has to date failed to reveal its own data on the level of civilian casualties inflicted through the use of remotely piloted aircraft in classified operations.’ The U.S. has repeatedly dismissed the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s inquisition into the concerning effects that drone warfare has on the civilians on the ground. In particular, disagreeing with the estimate that at least 400 civilians have died in Pakistan drone strikes. Brennan has said that the claims of high civilian casualties amount to ‘disinformation’. He also stated that in 2010 ‘there hasn’t been a single collateral death because of the exceptional proficiency and precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.’ However, as law professor Christiane Wilke points out, it is difficult to identify who is considered to be a civilian because the status of a civilian or non-civilian is blurred, and drone operators may not confidently know how many people lie inside a collapsed building. 

Human Rights organisation, Reprieve, tracked official U.S. announcements of successful kills and found that there were 41 instances claiming that the same insurgent leader had been killed in many different drone strikes. This alone highlights the danger drone strikes pose due to drone operators wrongly believing that someone on the ground is a match with someone on their ‘kill list’. Disappointingly, British Lawyer Ben Emmerson notes that operations that kill civilians are not necessarily illegal under international law, but national states do have a duty of transparency where there are credible allegations of non-combatants being harmed. 

The persistent buzzing of the drones instils profound psychological and effects within targeted societies. Such effects are especially visible within children’s behaviour. For example, Michael Kugelam reports, ‘I have heard Pakistanis speak about children in the tribal areas who become hysterical when they hear the characteristic buzz of a drone.’ Waziristan, which is located in the ‘tribal area’ of Pakistan, has probably endured the most drone strikes per square mile than any other place on earth. This has inevitably created a culture of terror. The terror in part alludes from the confusion of not knowing what type of behaviour will get them killed. For example, a doctor might have no way of knowing that the patient he is treating is on the U.S. target list. Strict rules of hospitality within the Pashtun honour code eliminates people’s choice to refuse potential targets into their guesthouses because of the peer pressure, cowardice and loss of face that this would bring. Therefore, innocent people are being framed as threatening due to a lack of cultural understanding. Drone strikes are inevitably forcing a sense of powerlessness, anticipatory anxiety and dread upon targeted regions. 

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of drone strikes is what is known as the ‘Double tap strikes’ which are favoured more by the CIA than military commanders. Double tap strikes are when drone operators launch further attacks against those who help the targets of the original attack. These are also used against those who attend the funerals of the original target. However, culturally the Pashtunwali honour code in Waziristan may compel men to attend funerals of their enemies as well as their friends. Such forms of attacks have been condemned by human rights lawyers as war crimes. UN Special Rapporteur Christof Heynes states that those pulling survivors out of the rubble are just as likely to be Good Samaritans as they are insurgents. To further this point Clive Stafford, the lawyer in charge of the charity Reprieve, argues that double tap strikes ‘are like attacking the Red Cross on the battlefield.’ 

Many view drone warfare as taking the moral high ground, believing that this technology is unprecedented in its ability to target insurgents whilst sparing the lives of innocent civilians. However, in the words of General David Deptula, ‘the real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that they allow you to project power without projecting vulnerability.’ Understandably, the United States turned to drones because they offered a way to kill the enemy without risking the lives of American soldiers. Yet, drone technologies should not be seen as a solution to warfare. It is evident that there is too large a disconnect between drone operators and the real consequences occurring on the ground. This creates a double standard that allows the U.S. to preach human rights and morality whilst simultaneously killing innocent children. Furthermore, in order to keep within the proposed concept of military humanism, this dichotomy needs to be clarified and the suffering of others made more visible by holding the U.S. accountable for their actions and lack of transparency.






Hugh Gusterson, Drone Warfare in Waziristan and the New Military Humanism, 19 Feb 2019, Current Anthropology, Vol. 60, 19. 

*This blog post discusses sensitive information that may be triggering for some individuals. EIJI is an impartial organization that seeks to inform people about contemporary issues of international justice. Views, information, and opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect EIJI, its team or Edinburgh University. If you are interested in hearing more about our content approach please read our previous post on EIJI content philosophy.*

Author: Bella Eperon

Editor: Kelsey Greeff

Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik

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