Drone Attacks – The Proliferation Of A New Form Of Warfare

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.

Read the 1st chapter of Obstacle to Peace for free!

Aleksandra Bielska

Aleksandra Bielska is a student of the Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA. She works as a research assistant at the Mercyhurst College Institute of Intelligence Studies (MCIIS). In the past, she published her articles through the International Relations and Security Network (ISN). She was also a journalist of the Middle Eastern section of the Polish information website Portal Spraw Zagranicznych (PSZ). 

Comments are encouraged, but please respect the rules. Click here for terms of use.

  • The writer of the article mentions “the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah” in the second paragraph.

    But why does the writer call Hezhollah a terrotist organization? Merely because Hezbollah stands for the rights of its people and opposes the criminal wars and terrorism of the Zionist State of Israel? We know American imperialists and Zionists have been intrumental in portraying Hezbollah a terorist organization. But that is an absurd lie.

    Neo-fascist propaganda needs to be differentiated from the real facts about a liberation movement such as hezbollah.

    war policies o the occupying power

  • Corrected comment:

    The writer of the article mentions “the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah” in the second paragraph.
    Corrected comment:

    But why does the writer call Hezhollah a terrotist organization? Merely because Hezbollah stands for the rights of its people and opposes the criminal wars and terrorism of the Zionist State of Israel? We know American imperialists and Zionists have been intrumental in portraying Hezbollah a terorist organization. But that is an absurd lie.

    Neo-fascist propaganda needs to be differentiated from the real facts about a liberation movement such as Hezbollah.

  • In addition to the misapplication of the “terrorist” label to refer to Hezbollah, which is actually a democratically-elected representative party within the government of Lebanon (and therefore, no longer a ‘non-state actor’), the author of this article also mentions the so-called “global war on terror,” as if that is a legitimate term for anything other than wholesale imperialism and global domination and the never-ending slaughter, occupation, devastation, and dehumanization of mostly Muslim nations and communities in the Middle East and Central Asia.

    Furthermore, the author also seems to implicitly present the military capabilities of Israel and Iran as if they are on equal footing, simply due to Iran’s recent advancements in drone technologies, which is simply not the case.

    Even more surprising, though, are the statements made about Iran’s military and technological objectives. By quoting Fox News regarding the Karrar bomber’s capabilities, the stated purpose of the drone itself was omitted from the discourse. Al Jazeera reported Ahmadinejad as announcing that, “The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship.” While this proclamation may be a bit bizarre and seemingly contradictory, it is appears likely that “peace and friendship” actually mean “effective deterrence and self-defense,” since Ahmadinejad continued to explain that the goal of the new aircraft was to “keep the enemy paralysed in its bases.”

    Claiming that this drone will “be upgraded so that it could reach Israeli nuclear facilities and cities as remote as Tel Aviv” is to clearly associate Iran’s role in the Israeli-Iranian stand-off as aggressive rather than defensive, which is what it is. (Remember, Iran has never – never – threatened to attack Israel, only to respond to an unprovoked, illegal Israeli assault against Iran.)

    Ahmadinejad himself said that Iranian efforts to build-up its defensive capabilities will continue “until the enemies of humanity lose hope of ever attacking the Iranian nation.”

    It should also be noted, that Israel and the United States act with impunity as they both demonstrate their contempt for international law and human rights with reckless abandon as they constantly murder civilians via remote-controlled drone attacks.

    These weapons, which launch anti-tank munitions loaded with tiny, tungsten cubes at living targets, tear human bodies to shreds.

    During the Gaza massacre in the winter of 2008-09, Israeli drones reportedly “killed 29 civilians, eight of them children.” In one such attack, in broad daylight on the very first day of the Israeli assault, “an IDF drone-launched missile hit a group of students who were waiting for a bus in central Gaza City…killing nine students, two of them women, and three other civilians. The IDF has failed to explain why it targeted the group on a crowded central street with no known military activity in the area at the time.”

    (Chances are the civilian death toll in Gaza was much higher, as any Palestinian male over the age of 12 is generally considered to be a legitimate target by the Israeli military, regardless of whether or not he participates in any militant resistance to Israeli occupation and invasion. This, incidentally, is not only a staggeringly assumption to make, it is also a form of collective punishment, which is a war crime.)

    More recently, with regards to the use of UAV in US operations, it should be noted that, according to a study released by the New America Foundation in February 2010, “between 830 and 1,210 civilians have been killed in Pakistan by drones since 2004, 30 per cent of estimated total fatalities.”

    In late July of this year, three drone attacks in two days left 35 Pakistanis dead, most of whom were deemed to be civilians.

    From 2009 through early 2010, Predator and Reaper drones have fired at least 184 missiles and 66 laser-guided bombs at “militant suspects” in Afghanistan.

    In December 2009, an attack, by a US-manufactured cruise missile that carried cluster munitions, on the community of al-Ma’jalah in Yemen killed 41 local residents, including 14 women and 21 children.

    Just this week, Reuters reported, “Missiles fired from a U.S. pilotless drone aircraft killed 13 militants [sic] and 7 civilians in Pakistan’s North Waziristan on Monday, Pakistani intelligence officials said…Four women and three children were among the dead, said the officials.”

    This is the true face of drone warfare – a danger that should be investigated and analyzed as the author suggests. Yet, it should be made perfectly clear that this danger comes primarily (almost exclusively) from rogue state actors such as the US and Israel, rather than from the supposed “proliferation” of this horrendous weaponry to other nations and so-called “terrorist groups.”

    Perhaps we should be less concerned with making sure that weapons don’t fall into the hands of “bad guys” and more concerned with redefining who the “bad guys” really are to make sure they don’t continue their illegal and murderous actions.

    • Nima Shirazi, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      I read only the first three parapgraphs of the article and that was enough for me!

    • Excellent comments, Nima. Thanks.

    • Excellent critique Nima.

  • Martin Green

    Excellent analysis by both parties and this realy does hit the mark with my as I came across an article whilst ‘surfing’ last week which affirmed the DoD/Pentagons intent to increase the use of UAVs as part of future military policy. I didn’t make a note of the source unfortunately but it was written by a colleague of Lt Col William Huntingdon of the DoD who I was researching in relation his role in silencing Col Tony Shaffer, the leader of SOCOMs Able Danger programme in 1998-2000 which identified Mohammed Atta from ‘data mining’ software. Although unrelated to my research the article was chilling in it’s depiction of UAV use as the future weapon of first choice by the US military in conflict situations.

  • I am pleased to report that I have recently published a significantly expanded 3rd edition of this definitive guide to visual mapping – with nearly 50 pages of new tips, techniques and insights that you can put to work immediately to help you to produce high-impact mind maps that get results!

  • As a quick addendum to my previous comment, I just wanted to point out that, in just the past week, at least 16 people have been killed in US drone attacks in Pakistan and Israeli recon drones (as well as heavily-armed warplanes) have repeatedly violated Lebanese airspace.

    Obviously, though it should not need pointing out, the US drones attacks breach many laws of warfare and, quite frankly, are often tantamount to war crimes for their propensity to kill civilians and for the lack of accountability they represent with regards to the remote-controlled slaughter of alleged “terrorists,” “militants,” or “insurgents” without due process.

    As Philip Alston, independent UN investigator on extrajudicial killings (and NYU law professor), reported in June of this year to the UN Human Rights Council, UAV “targeted killing” operations by intelligence agencies such as the CIA in Pakistan and elsewhere are often shrouded in secrecy, which raises the likelihood illegal activity.

    “In a situation in which there is no disclosure of who has been killed, for what reason, and whether innocent civilians have died, the legal principle of international accountability is, by definition, comprehensively violated,” he said,

    Alston also called upon countries like the US and Israel, which are all credibly reported to have used drones in lethal operations, to lay out the rules and safeguards they use when carrying out so-called “targeted killings,” publish figures on civilian casualties, prove they have first attempted to capture or incapacitate suspects without killing them, and to disclose “the measures in place to provide prompt, thorough, effective, independent and public investigations of alleged violations of law.”

    “Unlike a state’s armed forces, its intelligence agents do not generally operate within a framework which places appropriate emphasis upon ensuring compliance with international humanitarian law, rendering violations more likely and causing a higher risk of prosecution both for war crimes and for violations of the laws of the state in which any killing occurs,” Alston added.

    Furthermore, Israel’s repeated violation of Lebanese airspace, which are reported on an almost daily basis, contravene UNSC Resolution 1701, which ended the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006. The Israeli violations began less than a month after Res. 1701 was implemented.

    Since then, the Lebanese government has submitted documentation to the UN proving that Israel has breached the provisions of the resolution on more than 7,000 occasions by violating Lebanon’s airspace, territorial waters, and border.

    So, when will the US and Israel be held accountable for their illegal actions?

    • You should write an article on this issue, Nima. ;)

    • Mustaf Herod Aupyrpupr

      “So, when will the US and Israel be held accountable for their illegal actions?”

      I’m guessing about the same time Hezbollah stops lobbing ordinance into Israel, Pakistan and Afghanistan move into the 21st century (or at least the 19th, if that’s too far a stretch), and so on.

      Then we can all ride our unicorns to feast on bacon lollipops in the great gumdrop castle filled with virgins in the sky!


      Good luck with that.

      • Mustaf, Hezbollah hasn’t lobbed any ordinance into Israel since the 2006 war.

  • James

    I am really impressed by Nima’s comments. Hope to read more from her in future.

  • Thanks for the kind words, James. Just one thing: I’m a dude.