According to the Pakistan Daily Times, 13 suspected terrorists and seven civilians died in the most recent US drone attack in the Pakistani region of Northern Waziristan on 24 August 2010. Even though US drone attacks take place almost daily, the international community largely refrains from discussing their long-term consequences, which are highly likely to include the increasingly widespread application of the drone technology.

It is highly likely that the daily targeting of terrorists by drones operated by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US Department of Defense (DoD), the support of this form of warfare by the current US government, the impression of impunity conveyed by the relatively muted response of the international community, and advantages that drone attacks can have over alternative solutions from the users’ point of view will encourage countries, such as Israel, Iran, Algeria, China, Turkey, India, and non-state actors, such as the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, to increase the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for launching of targeted attacks against their perceived enemies.


BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- A MQ-1B Predator from the 46th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron takes off in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom here, June 12. Since January 2008, more than 1,000 Predator sorties were flown out of Balad, lasting more than 20,000 hours. The MQ-1 Predator carries the Multi-spectral Targeting System with inherent AGM-114 Hellfire missile targeting capability and integrates electro-optical, infrared, laser designator and laser illuminator into a single sensor package. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Senior Airman Julianne Showalter)

Most recently this trend has been evidenced by the development of UAV capability by Iran which, according to BBC, presented its first drone bomber on 22 August 2010.

From the beginning of the global war on terror, the US military and the CIA have used drones to target suspected terrorists. There are two separate drone programs: the military one which operates in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the CIA program that extends further, reaching countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. In his special report, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions mentioned that the “first credibly reported” assassination by a CIA drone took place on 3 November 2002. It targeted Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, an al-Qaeda operative allegedly involved in the planning of the attack on the USS Cole in 2000.

The use of drones has increased under the administration of President Barack Obama. The use of drones by the CIA has become a hallmark of antiterrorist operations that have been conducted since the Agency has been led by its current director, Leon Panetta. As the New York Times reported, the drone campaign in Pakistan has further intensified since seven CIA agents died in the suicide attack in Afghanistan in December 2010. Since this incident, the number of attacks has increased from one per week to one per day.

Philip Alston claims that currently “more than 40 countries” have access to drone technology. He adds that some countries, “including Israel, Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, the United Kingdom and France either have or are seeking drones that also have the capability to shoot laser-guided missiles ranging in weight from 35 pounds to more than 100 pounds.” Also terrorist groups, such as the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, have obtained drones and may be able to use them not only to conduct surveillance but also to launch targeted attacks.

Among state actors, the motivation for the increased interest in UAV targeting may vary from user to user. As Michael Boyle from the Scottish University of St. Andrews said, drones can be employed to attack “terrorist operatives in places where there’s limited reach.” As a result, the increased use of drones is highly likely among countries such as Israel, Algeria, China, Colombia, India or Turkey; that is, among those that struggle with terrorist units that sometimes operate in remote mountainous or desert areas.

Moreover, as terrorist groups active in these countries often find “safe-heavens” in cross-border territories and neighboring states, the application of UAVs may be seen as a way to reach terrorists hiding abroad. Finally, despite potential moral, ethical, and legal concerns, targeted killing by drones still meets relatively little attention from media and almost no objection from the international community. This contributes to the impression of impunity, which is dangerous as it can be inviting. The apparent lack of serious consequences is evident when we consider experience not only of the US, but also of Israel.

After the US and Russia, Israel is probably the best known from its use of drones for launching of targeted attacks. Israeli strikes take place mostly on Palestinian territories, primarily in the Gaza Strip. Nonetheless, reports saying that Israeli drones spotted Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut, but that the idea of killing him was finally aborted, suggest that Israel may extend its drone campaign abroad. Israeli experience clearly shows that in comparison with alternative solutions, such as operations of civil or military forces, the use of drones seems to generate less controversy and it appears to be less risky, especially regarding the well-being of foreign relations.

This is evidenced by the recent affair related to the alleged killing of a Hamas leader Mahmoud al Mabhouh by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, which operated in Dubai. The consequences for Israel of the unprecedented investigation into this incident contrast with the relatively mild international response to information about flights of Israeli drones over Lebanon or targeted attacks by US UAVs in Pakistan.

The killing in Dubai hotel resulted in the thorough investigation during which the local police used CCTV recordings to recreate almost every move of the alleged killers and their victim, from the moment they entered to the moment they left the country. The police described the modus operandi and released photos and personal information of suspected assassins. Authorities in Dubai identified 27 people involved in the strike and Interpol added 11 participants of the operation to its “most wanted” list. All this combined with the use by alleged assassins of fake British, Irish, French, Australian and German passports, a fact to which Great Britain, Australia and Ireland each reacted by expelling one of the local Israeli diplomats.

As a result of the Dubai affair, regardless of whether Mossad was really involved in the assassination, the environment in which Israeli intelligence services operated has forever changed. While considering their next move, Israeli planners will need to account for the increased vigilance of local police, widespread use of CCTV technologies, attentiveness of the media, and watchfulness of ordinary citizens now alerted for the possibility of encounter with foreign civil special operation units. Needless to say, from the Israeli point of view, these new difficulties can represent another argument in favor of the increased application of drones.

According to the Washington Times, which relied on information from the Israeli Air Force, the Heron TP drone introduced by Israel in February 2010 has the capability to attack targets in Iran. This Israeli announcement came as a response to the Iranian plans of launching of a UAV bomber that, as Fox News claimed, was intended to reach Israel. Hitherto, however, the Karrar bomber, first drone bomber presented by Iran, has a reach of 1000 km (620 miles) which is too little to attack Israeli targets. Nevertheless, it is sufficient to reach US targets in the Persian Gulf. Moreover, it is likely that this aircraft, called a “messenger of death” by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will be a subject of further development, and its capabilities will be upgraded so that it could reach Israeli nuclear facilities and cities as remote as Tel Aviv.

It appears that in case of a military confrontation between Iran and the US or Iran and Israel, drone technologies will be available to both sides of the conflict. When compared to the unilateral use of UAVs by the US in Pakistan or by Israel in the Gaza Strip, this will be a novel dynamic which surely merits further attention and analysis.

What once seemed to be a science-fiction-kind of event slowly became a daily reality. Although more decisive criticism of drone attacks by the international community, official investigations into similar incidents, legal actions, or fierce diplomatic reactions by a country whose territory is affected without authorization are likely to slow down the spreading of this form of warfare, they are unlikely to utterly stop the proliferation. Considering advantages that, from the user’s point of view, can relate to the employment of drones, unless drone attacks will be banned by an international agreement, it is unlikely that their application by new actors and in new places will cease.

In light of the above, the international community needs a UAV-related debate that would include informed analysis of present occurrences and likely future trends. Such a debate should address multifaceted character of the issue, including not only the consideration of moral and legal aspects, but also of the psychological impact that targeted killings have on drone operators (the possible development of “Playstation mentality” mentioned by Alston). It should engage authoritative policymakers, scholars, legal experts and other people with knowledge and understanding relevant to carry out an informed and beneficial discussion aimed at the introduction of international rules that would identify constraints, introduce a well-thought out supervision, and define sanctions helpful in dealing with uncontrolled proliferation of this new form of warfare.