The publication of a document earlier this month laying out the legal justifications for the “Drone War”, that is, missile strikes from unmanned aircraft targeting suspected terrorists, has brought this controversial mode of fighting a lot of public attention.
Let us review the reasons for controversy surrounding the strikes, take a look at the profile of one of the targets, examine the overall effect of this campaign on terrorist activities, and then try to see how valid the objections are.
The number one objection, coming from many on the Left (but also from some on the Right such as Ron Paul), is that the government cannot carry out executions without the due process:
“As we’ve seen today, this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director for the ACLU. “The government’s authority to use lethal force against its own citizens should be limited to circumstances in which the threat to life is concrete, specific and imminent. It is a mistake to invest the president – any president – with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to present a threat to the country.”
Added ACLU National Security Project Litigation Director Ben Wizner: “If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the president does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state.”
There have been objections to the drone strikes on other grounds as well. The one coming most loudly from Pakistan is “violation of sovereignty”. And of course, there is the issue of innocent life that is lost as a result of such strikes. (Blogger PZ Myers has specifically condemned the drone strikes for this reason.)
But the specific condemnation from the ACLU (quoted above) was made in the wake of the killing of Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki. So why did the administration would want to kill Awlaki? Well, the “victim” had a rather “impressived” resume. For starters, he was the instigator behind the Fort Hood massacre. The massacre which left these men and women dead.
And Mr Awlaki was also tied to two failed terrorist attacks as well: the 2009 Christmas Day airline bombing, and the plot to bring down commercial airliners using bombs hiddens in parcels.
Aside from taking out individual targets, how has this campaign affected terrorists, broadly speaking? Well, it seems that the martyrdom loving militants are really in no hurry to meet the 72 virgins.
A list of 22 techniques for evading drone strikes shows that militants are trying to share their knowledge and reduce the number of casualties that American attacks are costing them.
The tipsheet advises militants to hide under thick trees, stay in the shadows, cover up their vehicles, stay away from their parked cars, hold meetings indoors, and avoid using cell phones. If they hear a drone approaching, they are advised to scatter in multiple directions.
The list also suggests using jamming equipment, and even setting up dummies as decoys to fool the reconnaissance planes.
The list, according to CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank, demonstrates how concerned jihadists are about the toll that the strikes are taking on their ranks.
“It’s a matter of life or death for them,” he said. “It has induced a high degree of paranoia in their ranks. That has made it more difficult for them to recruit new members.”
Judging by interrogation reports and accounts of Westerners, said Cruickshank, “it is extremely stressful, to know that any moment, the droning sound you hear from the sky may well be your death.”
And the stress is showing itself in how they are attacking their targets. They have had to come up with a new strategy.
The new strategy involves a teacher-training approach in which a select few Western operatives are taught bombmaking and other aspects of terrorist tradecraft in the tribal areas of Pakistan and are then instructed to return back to the West to “spread the knowledge” to a larger body of Islamist extremists keen on launching attacks.
The new approach is a response to the growing toll of drone strikes which have made travel to the tribal areas increasingly perilous for Western recruits and significantly diminished al Qaeda’s ability to orchestrate terrorist plots from the region.
While Islamists militants have access to many bombmaking recipes online, analysts say they often contain potentially fatal errors and have been seen by militants as a poor substitute to hands-on training by an instructor schooled in the art of bombmaking.
So the Drone War is making the lives of terrorists difficult and stressful, and forcing them to come up with new and potentially fraught strategies. It is “working”, if you will.
In the second part of this post I will take a closer look at the legal and moral objections to the Drone War, and offer my responses to them.