Dead End Drones

Photo: Ignotus The Mage/Flikr

"We’ve tended to say, drop another bomb via a drone and put out a headline that ‘we killed Abu Bag of Doughnuts’ and it makes us all feel good for 24 hours. And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It just made them a martyr, it just created a new reason to fight us even harder." - Lt. Gen. Flynn


The U.S. drone campaign is cryptic and controversial. An anonymous leak, detailing the drone campaign in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, provides a glimpse into the CIA’s covert operations. The cache of leaked documents lends support to suspicions that current "small footprint operations" are problematic at best and counter-productive at worst. These operations set out to destroy terrorist networks, but engender state-sponsored civilian casualties, hinder intelligence-gathering operations and exacerbate existing grievances in their targeted region.

The leak revealed that 219 people were killed by drone strikes between 2012 and 2013. Of 219, only 35 were intended targets, suggesting that drone operations are carried out with lower accuracy than advertised, likely induced by an over-reliance on signals intelligence (SIGINT). SIGINT, an aggregation of communications and electronic signals from devices such as cell phones, is the source of over half of intelligence gathered on targets in Somalia and Yemen in 2012.

The first strikes ordered by the Obama administration in 2009 killed 40 people in Yemen, mostly women and children. Proponents of drone strikes point to the "kill list" as a ‘winning’ strategy, preferable to the cost-inefficient alternative: occupational ground forces, like those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The argument of cost-efficient drone campaigns is contingent on successful drone campaigns. From the leaked documents, we can gather that the intelligence criteria is far from stringent. Targets are located via communications signals such as phones. Once visual "confirmation" is established, a strike is ordered. The drone loiters in the sky to survey the damage and confirm whether the target has been hit. The leaked documents suggests there are “critical shortfalls of capabilities” in carrying out this already-frivolous procedure in Somalia and Yemen.

Where SIGINT is the lone source of information on targets, the margin of error will indubitably be large. Intercepting phone communications may determine the location of a caller, but cannot determine whether the caller is the target. Assuming the caller is the target, visual confirmation of the target is established on highly subjective speculation, based on the attire or posture of the target.

That is the extent of the information provided by SIGINT.

Assuming the correct target is successfully eliminated, there is little instrumental value to be derived. A dead target, the outcome of a successful drone strike, is a useless target for intelligence-gathering purposes The Bin Laden Raid was considered an intelligence success because of the volume of information collected after Bin Laden’s death. We know with certainty that Bin Laden’s favourite porn star was Sunny Leone, but we will have to use our imagination when it comes to his cadres — which documents reveal Osama had scant influence over.

This intelligence can only be gathered if there are people to sweep the area for electronics, correspondences, documents and miscellaneous other devices posthumously. Drone strikes, particularly in operational theaters like Yemen and Somalia, truncate intelligence gathering. Once a target has been eliminated, there are limited avenues through which terrorist networks can be further probed. Instead of undercutting terrorist networks by gathering information on them, drone operations can actually strengthen the terrorists’ cause. Once a target is eliminated, especially if and when that target is a civilian, leaders in terror networks cite said incident to incite and galvanize lower, less active tiers in their network. The U.S.’s preference for frequent, low to medium-profile assassinations versus infrequent targeting of high-profile assassinations thus directly bolsters terrorist support bases. There are as many, if not more, passive terrorist sympathizers galvanized into becoming active terrorist participants in response to unjust civilian death.

As long as "boots on the ground" operations are politically unpalatable, the U.S. executive will opt for short-sighted, short-term operations over serious security-inducing initiatives. If instability in the region persists, the U.S. will have to abandon their comfortable drone-default and reconsider viable alternatives, since, as the leaked documents confirm, assassinations via drone are generally counter-productive.

Stefan Kostic

Stefan is a an Envoy editor and UBC Political Science alumnus. In the future, he hopes to attend law school and complete his J.D. If he isn't on a list yet, he expects to be on one soon.

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