US Drones: Strategic Freedom Fighters or Human Rights Violators?

By Alena M James    

Last Wednesday, news sources unveiled an alarming video released by al Qaeda highlighting the largest meeting of the terrorist organization in years. Arriving in white Toyota pickup trucks, nearly 100 members appeared to congregate in a remote location somewhere in Yemen.  The group was joined by the head of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Nasir al-Wuhayshi.  According to news reports, Wuhayshi gave a speech which echoed the usual ‘down with America’ sentiments.  The video spurred terrorism analysts to deconstruct the film and analyze every frame for possible clues to pinpoint a future terrorist attack.

From a cinematic view, the video, entitled “The Beginning of the Rain,” is well constructed, filmed, and edited.  The opening credits date the video to March 2014. Even if one does not understand the dialect of the film, the film demonstrates al Qaeda’s sophisticated broadcasting capabilities. The powerful cinematic nature of the film appears to promote the idea of a large scale terrorist attack taking place within the near future.  At the release of the video, many media sources were quick to criticize the US for its inability to disrupt the largest al Qaeda meeting to occur in years. Several sources speculated that the US intelligence was unaware of the meeting and caught off guard when the video surfaced on jihadi websites. The US has not provided any statements on the matter.  However, it clearly took action to prevent any chance of a grand scale terrorist attack from taking place, and it did so using one of the most controversial technologies of war to date…drones.

Over the weekend, and within days of the release of the AQAP video, nearly 55 al Qaeda militants were killed by drones in Yemen. Through collaborative counterterrorism efforts with the Yemeni government, the US helped launch drone airstrikes against al Qaeda convoys and on al Qaeda training camps in Yemen. While White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recognized the US’s involvement in counterterrorism initiatives against AQAP, the role of the US in the drone attacks was not made publicly clear by government officials. It has also not been made public yet if the airstrikes were in response to the AQAP video released last week.

Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) that have been integrated into military operations as instruments for surveillance and, more specifically, for killing targeted terrorists since 2004.  A drone is comprised of cameras and weaponry—just like any manned reconnaissance aircraft. The primary difference between the two aerial vehicles is the absence of a pilot flying the plane from inside the cockpit.  Once a terrorist suspect has been detected by the drone, cameras affixed to it will display images to a UAV analyst. It is the job of the UAV analyst to make the call as to whether or not the drone will deploy a hellfire missile to destroy the suspected target. This process of selecting targets has been the subject of major scrutiny of the US drone program, because it begs the question, “How are you sure it wasn’t a civilian?”

In his May 2013 speech on drone policy, President Obama announced that drones are important tools in the US’ counterterrorism strategy in the war against al Qaeda, the Taliban, and their affiliates.  The use of drones in the war against these terrorist organizations has helped the US target militants residing in remote locations of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. According to Obama, drones are much more precise in hitting targets and minimizing civilian casualties than traditional aerial airstrikes carried out by bomber aircrafts. The drone technologies have eliminated dozens of highly trained terrorists, as observed by the number of militants killed in Yemen over the weekend.

The US is not the only country to utilize drone technologies. There are 11 other countries known to deploy or share a vested interest in launching drones for military operations.  However, the US has carried the torch in their use of drones to thwart terrorist operations and the use of these technologies by the US remains under heavy criticism.  President Obama argues that the use of drones to target terrorists has legal basis considering the aftermath of 9/11. The legal basis is also laid out on the grounds that the US remains at war with an organization dedicated to killing Americans.

Groups such as Amnesty International have a different opinion on the US’ use of drones. The group argues that the US drone program appears to allow extrajudicial executions and violates human rights. The organization accuses the US of conducting unlawful killings in Pakistan and conducted a study entitled, “Will I be next?” US drone strikes in Pakistan.”  The study raises the notion that the covert nature of the program provides the US with a license to kill without due process of law.  The study highlights stories of civilians accidently killed by drones. For Amnesty International, civilians killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time is unacceptable. Also unacceptable is the government’s inability to provide US citizens with justifications for killing targets.  In 2011 a US citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. Al-Awlaki was a cleric thought to have participated in several terrorist attacks after joining Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate group. This week a federal appeals court ordered the US to provide the memorandum containing the justification for Al-Awalki as being a target kill.

Alongside accidental civilian casualties and the lack of knowledge on justifications of the drone program target selections, peace talks with terrorist organizations have also been impacted by the use of these technologies in a combative nature. As the Pakistani government undertakes great efforts to negotiate peace talks with the Pakistani Taliban, these talks have been stymied by US drone activities. Back in November, a US drone strike on a Pakistani Taliban leader took place days before peace talks. This placed a halt on peace negotiations with the organization.  As a result, Pakistan requested the US stop the use of drone strikes against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban; which the Obama Administration agreed to do to allow the peace talks to unfold.  At the conclusion of peace talks in February 2014, the Taliban agreed to a one month cease fire. The use of drones in Pakistani has also increased tensions between the US and Pakistani governments.

The US has an arsenal of drones it relies on to collect sensitive information on terrorists and to conduct combat missions against individuals that threaten Americans. Among their arsenal is the General Atomics produced MQ-9 Predator B developed in 2004. According to the manufacturer, the UAV (also known as the MQ-9 Reaper) provides the US Air Force with a weapons platform with instant action and precise engagement capabilities. The Reaper is armed with anti-tank Hellfire missiles and Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs. It performs real-time reconnaissance by providing visual imagery using IR sensor cameras, intensified TV, and daylight TV. Laser designators are used to mark targets and a joystick control is used to maneuver the aircraft. The remote control operator airmen flies and steadies the drone from an undisclosed location far from the site of the attack. General Atomics has plans to supersede the Reaper with a larger jet powered aircraft called the Stealthy Avenger.

The predecessor of both the Reaper and the soon to come Stealthy Avenger was the RQ/MQ-1Predator A; whose first flight took place in July 1994.  Predator A flew operations in Albania as a replacement aircraft to General Atomics GNAT-750, a surveillance aircraft that performed reconnaissance missions over Albania in 1994. Predator A was used to fly missions over Iraq in 1999 during Operation Southern Watch. Hellfire missiles were added to the aircraft in 2001 and have deployed these missiles in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.


(Image Credit)

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