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Drone Strikes: An Ineffective Tool in the War on Terror

June 3, 2016

The United Statesdrone programs, which consist of covert operations, including the “Kill List” operated under CIA guidance, and special operations under the Department of Defense’s Joint Special Operations Command, are shrouded in secrecy. However, the limited data that has been compiled by human rights organizations and investigative journalists hints that the drone programs not only kill a large number of civilians but in fact contribute to the rise of terrorism by alienating and angering civilian populations that lose a loved one to drone strikes. Yet proponents of the drone programs insist that the drones are accurate, they minimize causalities to civilians, and the programs are vital in defeating terrorists groups

Are Drone Strikes Effective?

In 2013, President Barack Obama offered a speech at the National Defense University, in which he defended his use of drones. Obama claimed: “To begin with, our actions are effective. Dont take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at Bin Ladens compound, we found that he wrote, ‘We could lose the reserves to enemys air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives.” (1

To be sure, the drone attacks have killed members of the terrorist organization. The administration has not released the exact number of people killed-whether terrorists or civilians-by drone strikes. However, terrorists groups often confirm the death of a leader, which can aid human rights groups and investigative journalists in keeping track of the number of drone strikes that have been successful. For example, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) confirmed on June 2015 death of the groups second in command, Nasir al-Wuhaysh, in a drone strike in Yemen. In a video released soon after al-Wuhayshs death, the group insisted that, “In the name of God, the blood of these pioneers make us more determined to sacrifice, let the enemies know that the battle is not with an individual … the battle led by crusaders and their agents is colliding with a billion-member nation.” (2)

The issue becomes much more complicated when terrorist organizations do not confirm the death of a leader, yet the United States government insists that they have successfully eliminated a target. For example 2014 report issued by Reprieve, a London based human rights organization, calls into question the notion of the effectiveness of programs. In their report, “You Never Die Twice: Multiple Kills in the US Drone Program” they found “41 names of men who seemed to have achieved the impossible: to have ‘died,in public reporting, not just once, not just twice, but again and again. Reports indicate that each assassination target ‘diedon average more than three times before their actual death.” (3) The report (4) also lists the estimated number of civilians killed by each failed attempt at killing a particular terrorist leader. For instance, in Pakistan, Abu Ubaidah al Masri, was declared killed by drone strikes three times before he eventually died (5) of natural causes. (6) Instead of causing his death, a total of 120 other people died in those strikes. (7) Qari Hussain, deputy commander of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), was killed on the sixth and final attempt on his life. The strikes resulted in the death of 128 other people, including 13 children. (8)

Questions about the accurateness and effectiveness of US drone strikes are not limited to human rights reports that may or may not be read by the general public. The New York Times reported in April 2015 that,

Every independent investigation of the strikes has found far more civilian casualties than administration officials admit. Gradually, it has become clear that when operators in Nevada fire missiles into remote tribal territories on the other side of the world, they often do not know who they are killing, but are making an imperfect best guess.” (9)

The article goes on to quote Micah Zenko, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, who argues: “that most individuals killed are not on a kill list, and the government does not know their names.” (10)

The government’s inability to state definitively who is killed in drone strikes disputes the administration’s insistence that drone strikes are effective. How can the administration claim that drone strikes are “effective” when multiple attempts are needed to kill a suspected terrorist leader? Each failed strike kills civilian and children.

In April 2015, president Obama apologized for a drone strike that accidently killed two western hostages held in Pakistan: Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. In his statement regarding the drone strikes, Obama asserted:

It is a cruel and bitter truth that in the fog of war generally and our fight against terrorists specifically, mistakes, sometimes deadly mistakes, can occur, But one of the things that sets America apart from many other nations, one of the things that makes us exceptional, is our willingness to confront squarely our imperfections and to learn from our mistakes.” (11)

Obama’s insistence that the US is willing to admit and take responsibility for mistakes made in the fight against terrorism is not borne out by the limited data available on US drone strikes. The administration keeps the number of strikes conducted and the total number of people killed a secret. Only on select occasions, such as when a high ranking terrorist member is suspected to have been killed or when information has been linked to the media, will the administration provide a small amount of information to the public. This hesitancy is understandable, since drone strikes have become a key part of President Obamas foreign policy. While President Bush authorized 50 drone strikes that killed 286 terrorists and 195 civilians, it is estimated that Obama has authorized at least 506 drone strikes. (12) Furthermore, it is important to note that while adding an individual to the “kill list” requires presidential approval, this does not mean that Obama necessarily vets or personally approves each individual strike. (13) The number 506 might be an under-estimate.

Further complicating the use of drone strikes is the use of “signature strikes.” Unlike “kill strikes” which target specific individuals, signature strikes target people based on their display of certain signs such as age, location, and actions that suggest they are part of militant activity.

Civilians Killed

Reprieve’s report, “You Never Die Twice,” provides examples of civilians killed in drone strikes that were originally meant to target one specific individual. On February 14, 2009, when US drones sought to kill Baitullah Mehsud, eight year old Noor Syed and 30 other people were killed instead. (14) In an attempt to kill Haji Omar, a suspected Taliban leader, US drone strikes instead killed 18 year old Zainullah Khan and primary school teacher, Asif Iqbal. (15) Neither are believed to have been involved in terrorist activities.

On March 17, 2011 the US fired at least two missiles at a group gathered in Datta Khel, North Waziristan. (16) While the US maintains that those killed were insurgents, the witnesses, survivors, lawyers, and family members interviewed for the 2012 report, as well as the Pakistan military, and an independent investigation by the Associated Press contradict the United States governments assessment and instead conclude that the majority of those killed were civilians. (17) At most there were four members (18) of the local Taliban, none of whom were high ranking or important. The ranking of the alleged militants is important because according to a fact sheet released by the Obama administration in 2012,

“…The United States will use lethal force only against a target that poses a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons. It is simply not the case that all terrorists pose a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons; if a terrorist does not pose such a threat, the United States will not use lethal force.” (19)

The administration has not released any information on what would have made the four alleged Taliban members an imminent threat to US persons, other than the fact that they may have been associated with the Taliban.

Those gathered were mainly local leaders and elders seeking to resolve a dispute. (20) At least 42 people were killed in the airstrikes. (21) A survivor told the interviewers that members of the community could only collect bits and pieces of the dead. (22)

This story demonstrates carelessness on the part of the Obama administration to ensure that those targeted and killed by drone strikes are actually terrorists and it calls into question how the Obama administration determines whether a group of people are part of a terrorist organization. Moreover, this story demonstrates a blatant disregard for the rules that the Obama administration crafted to limit the use of drone strikes. How was it determined that these men posed “a continuing, imminent threat to US persons?” (23)

The report also references a technique called, “double tap” in which drones fire one missile, then wait until rescuers and medics arrive to aid the wounded to conduct another strike. (24) Noor Behram, a local journalist, is quoted in the report as stating:

[W]hat America has tried to do is attack the rescue teams . . . . So now, what the tribals do, they dont want many people going to the strike areas. Only three or four willing people who know that if they go, they are going to die, only they go. . . . It has happened most of the times . . . [O]nce there has been a drone attack, people have gone in for rescue missions, and five or ten minutes after the drone attack, they attack the rescuers who are there.” (25)

The “double tap” technique, whether used by the United States government or by a terrorist group has one purpose: to inflict terror on the population, Jack Spencer, of the Heritage Foundation argues that the purpose of secondary strikes, “is to incite more terror. If there’s an initial explosion and a second explosion, then we’re thinking about a third explosion.” (26)

Drone Strikes as Propaganda for Terrorist Organizations

Terrorists groups, instead of being dissuaded by drone strikes, have used the strikes as justification for their actions. In December 2009, Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi entered a CIA post in Khost Afghanistan, blew himself up, killing seven CIA officers and a Jordanian intelligence officer. (27) Balawi, in a video released after the attack, says, “This attack will be the first of revenge operations against the Americans and their drone teams outside the Pakistani borders.” (28)

Some of those interviewed by the New York University and Stanford demonstrated anger and bitterness towards losing loved ones in drone strikes. One relative claimed,

We wont forget. Our blood, for two hundred, two thousand, five thousand years—we will take ourrevenge for these drone attacks.” (29) Another person who lost a family member stated, “Blood for blood. . . . All I want to say to them is . . . why are you killing innocent people like us that have no concern with you?” (30)

Furthermore, even when drone strikes kill their intended target, the target who dies may simply be framed as a martyr. Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a drone strike in 2011, but the ideology he espoused continues to influence terrorists and would-be-terrorists years later. The brothers responsible for the 2013 Boston marathon bombers were reportedly influenced by al-Awlakis sermons, widely available online. (31) Chérif Kouachi, one of the shooters responsible for the January 2015 attack at Charlie Hebdo referenced,“Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki” in his last public words before being killed by police. (32)


Data compiled by nonprofits, think tanks, academics, and journalists have raised significant doubts as to the governments insistence that the drone program predominately kills terrorists, that the civilian number is low, and that it deters terrorists. In fact, the limited available data suggests that the use of drones is ineffective at deterring terrorists, as it instead increases hostility against America that benefits the agenda of terrorist groups. The drone strikes, in contrast to President Obama and his administrations reassurances that they are accurate, may in fact be killing a substantial number of civilians, which in turn angers the local population and can increase sympathy towards terrorists groups. But even if the drone strikes kill the targeted individual, the individuals death can become a call to martyrdom inspiring others to take up the fight against the West.


Al Qaeda Second-in-command Killed by US Drone Strike, Group Says.” Fox News. June 16, 2015. Accessed May 12, 2016.

Currier, Cora. “The Kill Chain.” The Intercept. October 15, 2015. Accessed May 12, 2016.

Cavallaro, James, Stephan Sonnenberg, and Sarah Knuckey, “Living Under Drones: Death,

Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan,” Stanford: International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, Stanford Law School; New York: NYU School of Law, Global Justice Clinic, 2012, pg #57.

De Luce, Dan, and Paul Mcleary. “Obama’s Most Dangerous Drone Tactic Is Here to Stay.” Foreign Policy Obamas Most Dangerous Drone Tactic Is Here to Stay Comments. April 5, 2016. Accessed May 12, 2016.

Greenwald, Glenn. “US Drone Strikes Target Rescuers in Pakistan – and the West Stays Silent.” The Guardian. August 20, 2012. Accessed May 24, 2016.

Hudson, Leila, Colin S, Owens, and Matt Flannes. “Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War.” Middle East Policy Council. Fall 2011. Accessed May 12, 2016.

“Obama’s Speech on Drone Policy.” The New York Times. May 23, 2013. Accessed May 12, 2016.

Shane, Scott. “Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die.” The New York Times. April 23, 2015. Accessed May 12, 2016.

Shane, Scott. “The Lessons of Anwar Al-Awlaki.” The New York Times. August 29, 2015. Accessed May 12, 2016.

Whitelock, Craig, and Karen DeYong. “Senior Al-Qaeda Commander Believed to Be Dead.” Washington Post. April 10, 2008. Accessed May 24, 2016.

Whitlock, Craig, Missy Ryan, and Greg Miller. “Obama Apologizes for Attack That Killed Two Hostages.” Washington Post. April 23, 2015. Accessed May 12, 2016.

“You Never Die Twice: Multiple Kills in the US Drone Program.” 2012, 1-16.

Zenko, Micah. “Obama’s Embrace of Drone Strikes Will Be a Lasting Legacy.” The New York Times. January 12, 2016. Accessed May 12, 2016.


1 “Obama’s Speech on Drone Policy,” The New York Times, May 23, 2013, accessed May 12, 2016,

2 “Al Qaeda Second-in-command Killed by US Drone Strike, Group Says,” Fox News, June 16, 2015, accessed May 12, 2016,

3 “You Never Die Twice: Multiple Kills in the US Drone Program,” 2012, pg. #3,

4 Note on the report’s methodology: “This study aimed to identify “multiple kills”, those who have been reported targeted and/or killed by a US air strike (drone or otherwise36) on more than one occasion. Reports of deaths by government officials have been used as a proxy indicator showing instances of targeting. We started by looking at all the drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan mentioned by the The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) from November 2002 (the first drone strike in Yemen) through August 2014. We categorized these strikes according to the alleged target of the strike and/or those who were reported killed. Reprieve then did further research on the individuals in question to ensure we had a comprehensive overview of the number of strikes where they were reported as either targets or casualties. This turned up a dozen additional strikes that had not been captured via The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s database, as well as two further individuals who have reportedly been killed multiple times. It also led to the removal of some strikes…” pg. 10

5 Whitlock, Craig and Karen DeYoung. 2016. “Senior Al-Qaeda Commander Believed To Be Dead”. Washingtonpost.Com.

6 Note of clarification, the US Government has not revealed the number of people, whether suspected/confirmed terrorists or civilians, in total that have been killed by drone strikes. However, US government officials do decide on an individual basis whether or not to release to the public that a suspected high ranking or influential member of a terrorist organization has died.

7 Ibid, 7.

8 Ibid.

9 Scott Shane, “Drone Strikes Reveal Uncomfortable Truth: U.S. Is Often Unsure About Who Will Die,” The New York Times, April 23, 2015, accessed May 12, 2016,

10 Ibid.

11 Craig Whitlock, Missy Ryan, and Greg Miller, “Obama Apologizes for Attack That Killed Two Hostages,” Washington Post, April 23, 2015, accessed May 12, 2016,

12 Micah Zenko, “Obama’s Embrace of Drone Strikes Will Be a Lasting Legacy,” The New York Times, January 12, 2016, accessed May 12, 2016,

13 Cora Currier, “The Kill Chain,” The Intercept, October 15, 2015, accessed May 12, 2016,

14 Reprieve, 13.

15 Ibid, 15.

16 James Cavallaro, Stephan Sonnenberg, and Sarah Knuckey, Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan, Stanford: International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic, Stanford Law School; New York: NYU School of Law, Global Justice Clinic, 2012, pg #57.

Note on study: Note on reports methodology: Following nine months of intensive research—including two investigations in Pakistan, more than 130 interviews with victims, witnesses, and experts, and review of thousands of pages of documentation and media reporting—this report presents evidence of the damaging and counterproductive effects of current US drone strike policies. Based on extensive interviews with Pakistanis living in the regions directly affected, as well as humanitarian and medical workers, this report provides new and firsthand testimony about the negative impacts US policies are having on the civilians living under drones. Page #2

17 Ibid

18 Ibid 58.

19 The White House, “Fact Sheet: U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities,” The White House, May 23, 2013, accessed April 24, 2016,

20 Living Under Drones, 58.

21 Ibid, 59.

22 Ibid, 60.

23 The White House

24 Ibid, 74.

25 Ibid, 75.

26 Glenn Greenwald, “US Drone Strikes Target Rescuers in Pakistan – and the West Stays Silent,” The Guardian, August 20, 2012, section goes here, accessed May 24, 2016,

27 Leila Hudson, Colin S. Owens, and Matt Flannes, “Drone Warfare: Blowback from the New American Way of War,” Middle East Policy Council, Fall 2011, accessed April 24, 2016,

28 Ibid.

29 Living Under Drones,133.

30 Ibid.

31 Scott Shane, “The Lessons of Anwar Al-Awlaki,” The New York Times, August 29, 2015,accessed May 12, 2016,

32 Ibid.

1 Comment

  1. Johnnycannuk

    A good article but there are some nuances it misses:

    1. There isn’t just 1 uniform and amorphous drone program. The CIA, the Army and the Air Force (along with other departments) have separate drone forces, with different capabilities, mandates and SOP. The CIA, who originated using drones during the start of the Afghan War in 2001 use them predominantly for intelligence gathering and only occasionally for targeted assassinations. The other branches use them exclusively as a replacement for regular air strikes.

    2. Drones and drone strikes aren’t the problem per se, but how they are used. Again, for intelligence gathering, they are great. For highly targeted bombings, they are also useful. Its when they are used as merely a bomber without a pilot, to simply bomb and kill the same way a B-2 would, then you have the same problems as a B-2 – indiscriminate killing.

    The real issue with drones is their use as replacements for manned bombers buy the military that makes them ineffective and actually produces more terrorists. When used as intelligence gathering tools or even as a platform for targeted killing based on this intellegnence, it can be quite effective.

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