Totalitarian Tendencies in Drone Strikes by States*

by | Mar 30, 2018

Totalitarian Tendencies in Drone Strikes by States*

by | Mar 30, 2018

*Note: “Totalitarian Tendencies in Drone Strikes by States” was published in Critical Studies on Terrorism on March 30, 2018, and is provided here, with the publisher’s permission, in manuscript form. (Citation: Laurie Calhoun (2018) Totalitarian tendencies in drone strikes by states, Critical Studies on Terrorism, DOI: 10.1080/17539153.2018.1456726)


Lethal drones or unmanned combat aerial vehicles have been used to kill thousands of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. Despite concerns aired by legal scholars that drone strikes outside areas of active hostilities violate international law, the US government contends that targeted killing is distinct from assassination, and has persisted in the practice to the point where it has become normalised as a standard operating procedure and taken up by other nations as well. Drone strikes have been championed by Western politicians as a “light footprint” approach to war, but the institutional apparatus of remote-control killing rests on totalitarian, not democratic principles. Secretive targeting criteria and procedures are withheld from citizens under a pretext of national security, resulting in a conflation of executive with judicial authority and an inversion of the burden of proof, undermining the very framework of universal human rights said to be championed by modern Western states. Moreover, lethal drones hovering above in the sky threaten all persons on the ground with the arbitrary termination of their lives and as such represent a form of terrorism no less than the suicide bombings of jihadist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS.

KEYWORDS: Drones, UCAVs, totalitarianism, democracy, dissent, justice, human rights, presumption of innocence


The perpetrators of the 11 September 2001 attacks were non-state actors, devoid of any form of military institution or industry. Nonetheless, the idea that a military attack against identifiable state sponsors of Al Qaeda would be an appropriate response, rather than criminal investigation and pursuit of the individuals directly responsible, was embraced by politicians and the populace traumatised by the events of 9/11. In October 2001, Afghanistan was invaded on the professed grounds that the Taliban had provided a safe haven to Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In March 2003, Iraq was invaded as well, with many high-level US officials insisting that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and was somehow associated with Al Qaeda. Neither turned out to be true. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people who not only had nothing to do with 9/11 but in some cases knew nothing about it (Trofimov 2011).

The increasingly common practice of remote-control killing using unmanned combat aerial vehicles, or lethal drones, crept in through the back door of this “global war on terror” (GWOT) in the early twenty-first century. Israel was the first drone-killer nation, having fired missiles from drones against suspected Palestinian terrorists, primarily in the Gaza strip.1 But the most geographically widespread use of lethal drones has been by the US government, which began dispatching suspects during the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Only about fifty drone strikes were conducted outside those declared war zones over the course of the two terms of the George W. Bush administration (from 2000 through 2008), which favoured extraordinary rendition and “enhanced interrogation techniques” in dealing with suspected terrorists (Bergen 2012). The avowed aim at that time was to gather information which might lead to the apprehension of Osama bin Laden, widely regarded as responsible, whether directly or indirectly, for the nearly 3000 deaths caused by Al Qaeda operatives on 11 September 2001.

Years later, it was determined that many of the suspects apprehended during the Bush era and rounded up by bounty hunters had no connection to radical Islamist groups such as Al Qaeda or the Taliban (Ball 2011). Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, promised to close Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba but never did, having faced vigorous opposition from legislators who feared electoral retaliation by their voting constituents should suspects be relocated or brought to trial in their vicinity. Some of the early detainees, despite having been cleared for release years ago, continue to be held without charges in Cuba to this day.

Over the course of eight years in office, the Obama administration imprisoned very few suspected terrorists located in the Middle East, opting instead to kill them using missiles launched from drones.2 Legal scholars and activists have argued that in contexts where compatriot force protection is not at issue, such “targeted killing” is intentional and premeditated homicide, the equivalent of illegal assassination (Heyns 2013). Before the Drone Age, analogous targeted killings – indistinguishable in structure from summary executions – would likely have been categorised as war crimes, particularly when they involve stalking before dispatching unarmed persons, refusing them the opportunity to surrender, eliminating them when no one’s life is directly at risk, and in some cases targeting even first responders in follow-up “double tap” strikes (Kelley 2012).

Unfazed by such concerns even on the part of special rapporteurs on extrajudicial execution for the United Nations, the Obama administration adopted remote-control killing as a primary counterterrorism tool, claiming that the firing of missiles from drones on persons located outside active war zones was distinct from assassination and in fact permitted by international law as a form of national self-defence. In effect, the administration defined battlefield broadly enough to encompass not only active war zones but also places where suspected jihadists were believed by analysts to be located. Territories acknowledged to be “outside areas of active hostilities” were considered, for targeting purposes, war zones in those cases where the local government authority was either unable or unwilling to take action to deal with perceived potential threats to US interests.

Self-defence, secrecy and the normalisation of assassination

One curiosity of the US administration’s targeted killing programme is that government officials sought permission from the leaders of Yemen and Pakistan to operate freely in those lands while also claiming that the concept of legitimate self-defence formalised in Article 51 of the UN Charter sufficed for drone strikes fired on lands where US force protection was not at issue. An inherent right of self-defence does not require permission from anyone, so the fact that permission was solicited arguably impugned the self-defence rationale. But the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was running the drone programme outside active war zones, as a result of which the targeted killings were covert and, therefore, not subject to effective public scrutiny. One rationalisation for the cloak of evidential secrecy, even in cases where deaths were publicly acknowledged (such as that of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in Yemen), was State Secrets Privilege, said to be necessitated, again, for national defence – to prevent the enemy from benefiting from revelations about the programme.

A less lofty reason for the administration’s refusal to acknowledge the effects and nature of its drone programme for so many years (from 2002 to 2012) was that the drone killers were thereby shielded from potential confrontations over their mistakes, reported by human rights groups and investigative journalists to be numerous (Scahill 2013). Over the course of the Obama years, from 2009 through 2016, locals on the ground, most vocally in Pakistan, mounted vigorous protests to the killing of their compatriots by US drones (Common Dreams 2012). The policy of secrecy served effectively to shield Western citizens from the truth, but the people near drone strike sites directly witnessed the physical destruction, even when no one claimed responsibility for the cratered houses and the incinerated, maimed, and traumatised victims of drone strikes.

Secrecy was arguably a major contributing factor to the normalisation of remote-control killing, for the refusal even to acknowledge the reality of drone strikes to the citizens paying for them served to suppress dissent. Far from defending democratic states and their most fundamental principles, the insistence on secrecy functioned as a form of state propaganda, impeding citizens’ ability to be fully informed about the policy initiatives tacitly condoned by taxpayers. In the CIA drone strikes, participants in the “kill chain” – from the president himself, to the analysts who mine intelligence for target selection, to the operators who launch the missiles – have been protected by the covert quality of their operations, for they are not subject to the far more robust congressional oversight required of military personnel in regular war contexts.

By early 2016, Obama had authorised more than 800 lethal drone strikes, more than half of which were conducted outside areas of active hostilities, where US force protection was not at issue (Serle and Purkiss 2017). Obama’s approach to counterterrorism and his accelerated schedule of drone strikes, which commenced upon his assumption of office in January 2009, appears to have been decisively influenced by men such as John Brennan (promoted in 2013 to be the CIA director), who, under Bush, had worked for the CIA during the period of “enhanced interrogation techniques”.3 In addition to denouncing torture and detention without charges, Obama had campaigned on the promise to avoid what he derided as “dumb wars”, notably the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which led to the deaths (in combat or by suicide) of thousands of US troops, along with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Drone killing was apparently presented to the foreign policy neophyte as a tactic consistent with his desired “light footprint” approach. President Obama’s rallying cry became “no boots on the ground”, and he did make some effort to avoid deployments of combat soldiers.

While openly admitting that “We tortured some folks”, Obama declined to prosecute the Bush-era torturers and somewhat remarkably replaced harsh interrogation techniques and indefinite detention of suspects with summary execution by remote control, made possible by the new drone technology.4 “Drone warriors” Obama and Brennan repeatedly portrayed their decisions to dispatch suspects as perfectly in keeping with the requirements of just war theory, claiming that the strikes were “proportional” and a “last resort” (McGreal 2013). Along the way, they assumed that their “good intentions” absolved them for mistakes made, as implied by their interpretation of the “Doctrine of Double Effect”, a maxim about moral intention credited to mediaeval scholar and Catholic theologian St Thomas Aquinas. This principle has been highly influential in rationalising and excusing the killing of innocent people by self-styled “just warriors”, who maintain that easily foreseen negative consequences, even the deaths of children, are permitted during the prosecution of a just war, so long as they are intended neither directly nor indirectly, as a means to another objective.5

Drone-delivered “justice” and human rights

Twenty-first century linguistic innovation in foreign policy matters began with US President George W. Bush’s provocative pronouncement that “our best defense is a good offense” in preparing the populace for the 2003 invasion of Iraq (US Government 2002). The Obama administration followed in the Bush tradition by giving old words and expressions new meanings and by basing institutional killing policy on those neologisms and redefinitions. Despite vigorously denouncing the preemptive war on Iraq, Obama unwittingly embraced the Bush concept of “preemption”, albeit one missile at a time.6

In fact, Obama went even further than Bush, by conceiving “imminent threats” posed by individual suspects as legally equivalent to acts of war by rogue states and hence appropriately countered by military force. Attorney General Eric Holder defended in public forums the position of a Department of Justice White Paper, that “immediacy” was not required of an “imminent threat” in order for military action to be undertaken in accordance with Article 51 of the UN Charter, not only against belligerent nations and state sponsors of terrorism, but also against individuals suspected of complicity with jihadist factions (US Government 2011). This new, vaguer definition of “imminent threat” opened up the possibility of targeting small groups or persons who might possibly, sometime in the future, be capable of carrying out terrorist attacks.

Obama’s zealous use of lethal drones to execute thousands of suspects without warning, much less indictment or trial, warrants scrutiny in the light of the statistics from Guantánamo Bay prison, where the majority of the prisoners were discovered after years of detention to have been erroneously apprehended. Bribed informants, who have been the primary source of human intelligence, or HUMINT, in the drone programme as well, are obviously subject to mercenary corruption. This fact was confirmed by the plight of suspects such as British resident Shaker Aamer, who was finally released from the prison in 2015, 14 years after having been detained without charges and tortured (Norton-Taylor et al. 2015). Aamer and the other detainees were denigrated at the time of their capture by Bush administration officials as “the worst of the worst”. In reality, many of them had no connections whatsoever to terrorist groups.

Rather than heed the most important lesson of what happened at Guantánamo Bay prison, that the intelligence and methods being used to finger suspects were themselves suspect, President Obama dealt with the political problems posed by the prospect of detaining new suspects by using drones to terminate their lives. Had Shaker Aamer been pegged as a terrorist suspect in 2011, rather than 2001, he would, in all likelihood, be dead, inked into the official story as an enemy killed in action, or EKIA, along with the thousands of other suspects slain under Obama’s authority (Scahill 2015). Some named, purportedly high-value, terrorist suspects have been eliminated, but many more unnamed military-age men located near the intended targets’ locations have been killed. Moreover, it is important to bear in mind that even some of the intended targets killed may well have been innocent, given the means by which they were selected for execution: fallible human sources, video surveillance captured by drones, and metadata derived from cell phone usage and SIM card analysis.

Equating individuals with states and removing the immediacy requirement on “imminent threats” was tantamount to asserting a right to kill anyone anywhere who might possibly decide, even in the remote future, to undertake terrorist attacks against the people of the United States. Every able-bodied person is capable of committing crimes, so the result of these innovations was effectively an inversion of the burden of proof. In the eyes of US government administrators, persons suspected of possible complicity in terrorism were no longer “innocent until proven guilty” but “guilty until proven innocent”. Somewhat surprisingly, the ultramodern innovation of networked lethal drones was thus accompanied by a roll back to pre-Magna Carta times in matters of procedural justice.

Before 1215, monarchs could capriciously decree “Off with their heads!” and dispatch anyone with impunity. Only in the thirteenth century did the absolute authority of political leaders come under effective scrutiny. Full rights were not extended to all human beings – regardless of class, race, or gender – for many centuries, but it all started with the Magna Carta and the path-breaking idea that the arbitrary justice handed down by kings up until that time needed to be moderated. Small concessions led to larger ones and were incorporated in the republican constitutions of many Western democratic states, including the United States of America.

Eventually, in the mid-twentieth century, universal human rights were made explicit in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 11 of which asserts that suspects are to be considered innocent until proven guilty – not the other way around (United Nations 1948). Little more than half a century later, in the Drone Age, the idea of universal human rights has come under attack by modern democratic states themselves, the elected officials of which have been seduced by the successful marketing of remotely piloted aircraft technology as tools of “smart war”. Thousands of persons never indicted, much less tried, for crimes have been annihilated in the twenty-first century under the authorisation of leaders of ostensibly democratic states.

In response to concerns aired by legal scholars and civil libertarians about its drone programme, the Obama administration claimed that the requirement of due process enshrined in the US constitution implies only that the executive must carry out a procedure of some kind, the implication being that secret meetings held behind closed doors sufficed even in the case of US citizen suspects such as Anwar al-Awlaki. Civil libertarians denounced Obama’s use of drones to assassinate US citizens in what they regarded as an outrageous display of executive branch overreach. But very few Westerners have been incinerated by Hellfire missiles. Most of the victims have been military-age Muslim men located in regions in the Middle East or Africa and designated “hostile” by their killers. When military-age Muslim males located in the vicinity of intended targets are perfunctorily eliminated based on behavioural cues alone – looks like a terrorist, walks like a terrorist, talks like a terrorist – the spectre of racial profiling cannot be ruled out.

Transparency and terrorism

Transparency is a modern innovation being undermined in the Drone Age no less than the idea that suspects should be considered innocent until proven guilty. For nearly a decade, from November 2002 to January 2012, the US government refused even to acknowledge its drone killing programme, much less provide any insight into targeting criteria or casualty figures. The potential for danger arising out of the precedent set by the US government has much to do with the drone programme’s impenetrable apparatus of secrecy, which leaves all important matters of interpretation to the imagination of drone-armed leaders and those whom they delegate to kill. Yet the well-known adage continues to ring true: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”

After years of silence, the Obama administration finally acknowledged that it had been killing people using drones but persisted in its refusal to disclose any of the evidence regarding even cases petitioned in courts of law. The most detailed information released has been the oft-rehearsed and vague refrain that the targets posed “imminent threats” to the people of the United States and were destroyed by missile strikes because capture was “infeasible”. Most of the persons killed have been unnamed (Ackerman 2014). What is known about them is only that they were suspected by anonymous analysts of associating in one way or another with terrorist groups.

In June 2014, the US government-commissioned Stimson Center Task Force on US Drone Policy issued a detailed report and several recommendations to the drone warriors, highlights being the need to perform a strategic review and cost-benefit analysis, to improve transparency, and to provide international norms for lethal drone use consistent with US values (Stimson Center Task Force 2014). The Center’s follow-up “report card”, issued in 2016, concluded that nearly no progress had been made on any of these fronts since its initial report (Stimson Center Task Force 2016). Near the end of Obama’s presidency, his administration released, under court order, some documents, including presidential policy guidance statements, which reiterate many of the vague and essentially non-prescriptive “guidelines” referred to by officials in public addresses, such as that strikes are not to be undertaken without “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed (Wheeler 2016). But people who are not suspected of posing any threat to anyone are being harmed and terrorised by lethal drones, even when they are located outside the missile’s radius of physical destruction. Future possible innocent victims located through no fault of their own in areas under surveillance are maintained in a state of near uncertainty as to whether they can expect to survive.7

Many of the pages released by the US government ostensibly to clarify its drone programme have been heavily redacted, with no explanation or definition of multiply interpretable concepts such as “near certainty”, “infeasibility of capture”, “imminent threats”, and “high value targets”, which in 2016 documents are variously termed “high value terrorists”, despite the fact that all of the targets of drone strikes are in fact suspects. Selection criteria for nominees to the government’s kill list have been entirely omitted, precluding the possibility of ascertaining why thousands of suspects located outside areas of active hostilities were deemed so dangerous as to warrant the extreme measure of state execution.

What we do know about the evidence compiled, which serves as the basis for what is equivalent to summary execution without trial, is that video footage taken from drones and metadata from cell phone and SIM card use play key roles. When there are assets in the field, information may be provided by bribed informants on the ground, who are mercenaries no less than the bounty hunters who rounded up the innocent men thrown into Guantánamo Bay prison. Using a variety of algorithms and heuristics such as “disposition matrices” of what are considered “typical” terrorist behaviours, lists are drawn up of people to be eliminated as opportunities arise. In its 1 July 2016, “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”, the US government openly admitted to having killed somewhere between 2372 and 2581 of these persons located “outside areas of active hostilities”, which is to say, nowhere near US troops (US Government 2016). The threat which the strike victims were said at the time of their deaths to pose was therefore clearly not immediate (US Government 2011). Instead, the danger envisioned by the drone killers was a type of potential future threat, which may or may not ever have materialised, had the persons been permitted to live.

Such persistent opacity obstructs efforts to assess what is being done by the US government allegedly in the name of national defence and has resulted in a marked expansion of the executive’s lethal power. In 2011, having already authorised the killing of suspects with drones outside Afghanistan and Iraq for more than two years, President Obama boldly asserted that he had no need to consult with the Congress – as required by the US Constitution – when he opted to fire hundreds of missiles on Libya, because, he said, it was not a war, given that no US soldiers’ lives were being put on the line (Savage, C., and M. Landler 2011).

In 2015, the Obama administration dropped more than 23K bombs on countries in the Middle East, during missions for which the president sought no authorisation but merely assumed the ongoing validity of the 2001 AUMF (authorisation for use of military force) granted to George W. Bush by congress so that his administration could pursue the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks as he saw fit. In 2016, five years after the elimination of Osama bin Laden, the number of bombs dropped under Obama’s authority exceeded 26K, including those within and outside areas of active hostilities (Welsh 2017). When missiles are fired from drones on territories allegedly harbouring “hostile” actors but outside areas of active hostilities – typically remote and difficult to access places inhabited by tribal groups – the sites suddenly become “battlefields” in one sense: the civilians mistakenly killed are referred to as “collateral damage” rather than victims of murder or manslaughter. In such contexts, the remote-control killers have succeeded, at least in the eyes of the populace paying for the drone strikes, in having it both ways. They are at war, and they are not at war. When it comes to oversight, it is not really war. When it comes to the permissibility of killing civilians, dubbed “collateral damage”, it must be war. That is because the only way the killers can excuse the deaths of innocent people living in their own civil society, during the pursuit of intended targets “outside areas of active hostilities”, is by redefining those areas as “war zones”. But this is flatly a contradiction. A place cannot both be and not be a war zone at the same time.

Collateral effects and the control of the official story by the killers

In July 2016, the US government officially reported that only between 64 and 116 civilians were killed by 473 drone strikes in territories unoccupied by US troops from January 2009 through December 2015. The explanation given for the large disparity between the government’s own civilian death toll and those of NGOs, whose numbers range from hundreds to thousands, is that everyone but the killers themselves has been fooled by the propaganda of terrorist factions. No matter that many of the victims have been named – the US government stands firm in denying that most of those civilians were in fact civilians (Friedersdorf 2016).

A principal reason for the large disparity in drone strike civilian casualty numbers would seem to be the ongoing categorisation of military-age males in lethal drone zones as guilty until proven innocent – which is all but impossible to do, since the suspects are not warned before they are killed. The military-age males destroyed by drone strikes are considered Enemy Killed in Action, or EKIA, according to classified documents released by the Intercept (Scahill 2015), confirming reports made earlier by anonymous officials commenting on the status of the unintended targets in what are termed “signature strikes” (De Luce and McCleary 2016). A footnote near the opening of the July 2016 report denies this to be the case, but the presumption of guilt in the government’s ongoing use of drones to target persons of unknown identity in signature strikes would seem to provide the best explanation of the fact that so few civilian casualties have been acknowledged by the US administration.

Even in the years since 2012, when President Obama openly acknowledged the reality of the drone programme, the second- and third-order effects of the killing campaigns continued to be ignored, as though “collateral damage” were exhausted by body count.8 The total omission of the deleterious psychological effects on persons living under drones is highly ironic given that the rapid expansion in the use of remote-control killing technology was galvanised by the violent actions of non-state factions identified as evil for their complicity in terrorism, beginning with the dramatic attacks of 11 September 2001. The government killers have written the history of what has transpired since then, effectively dismissing other versions of the story as erroneous while ignoring the psychological effects on survivors.

The choices are painted by advocates of targeted killing in simpleminded utilitarian terms, as though the killers know what will ensue if they do not choose to launch missiles. Such projections appear to be grounded in the dubious underlying assumption that every angry militant in a remote tribal region is operationally capable of orchestrating the next 9/11 attack, even though most of them are poor tribesmen who may not even possess passports. Political dissidents and suspected international jihadists are being assimilated in vexed contexts such as Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Syria, when in fact they may share only the willingness to take up arms for what they believe to be a just cause.

A key factor which helps to explain why US officials have become smitten with the practice of targeted killing is that they know nothing about what it is like to experience the constant, continual spectre of unpredictable death threatened from the sky at arbitrary times and for unknown reasons. The similarity between state-inflicted terrorism and factional terrorism wrought by non-state actors has been largely ignored by commentators in the West, who tend to accept the version of the story promulgated by the killers themselves. This control of the narrative by those who kill – and the concomitant suppression or dismissal of the perspectives of bereft and terrorised survivors of missile strikes – has been instrumental in the successful marketing of targeted assassination as “smart war”.

But if terrorism is the arbitrary threat of death, then the innocent persons located in areas where missiles are fired from drones have surely been terrorised (Alkarama 2015). Civilians living outside areas of active hostilities have been maimed, left bereft of family members and property, and psychologically traumatised by lethal drones no less than the victims of the terrorist attacks of suicide bombers.9 Because, however, even the first-order collateral effects are rarely acknowledged by the officials who report in the aftermath of drone strikes, the targeted killing of suspects has been successfully marketed in the West as a surgically precise way to contend with the problem of factional terrorism while minimising collateral damage. Meanwhile, the pages of the catalogue of Western-inflicted atrocities used by jihadists to recruit new converts – Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, and Bagram prisons; attacks on weddings, funerals, and other gatherings of civilians – continue to proliferate.

In 2011, the Obama administration hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden. A few months later, the president set an entirely new precedent by targeting US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an outspoken opponent of US militarism. Al-Awlaki had been a voice of moderation in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks but later came to advocate jihad, having concluded that the US government was engaged in a war on Muslims.10 The fact that the paradigm-shifting decision to execute US citizens without indictment, much less trial, was taken only months after the demise of Osama bin Laden may explain the tendency of many people at the time to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.

In the years leading up to Al-Awlaki’s assassination, when it was known that he had been placed on a US government kill list, it became more and more difficult to distinguish fact from fiction about the cleric, for the media obediently replicated and disseminated the official story put out as the government sought assiduously to eliminate him. By the time of his death, many people appear to have come to believe that, in addition to being an operational leader of Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Awlaki had something to do with the 9/11 attacks.11 Two weeks after killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the US government killed his sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, yet another step down a slippery slope of nihilistic homicide and a blueprint for what could become, under leaders more vicious and assiduous than Obama, a programme of genocide. In January 2017, newly elected President Trump authorised a Special Forces operation in which Al-Awlaki’s eight-year-old daughter was slain, among other civilians in Yemen (Ackerman, Burke, and Julian 2017).

What Obama initiated, a policy of state execution of suspects without indictment or trial – rebranded as war, to excuse the obviously innocent victims as “collateral damage” – is bound to grow worse under successors to the US throne, given the tendency of politicians to try to outdo their predecessors in what are claimed to be matters of national defence. Remote-control technology has made it possible to eliminate targets without risking the lives of compatriot soldiers, and this makes it much easier for drone-armed leaders to kill. President Obama normalised targeted killing outside declared war zones, and the practice has now been taken up by other Western governments as well. The intentional drone killing of not only US, but also British citizens illustrates that the lethal power of the state has dramatically augmented in the Drone Age.

Especially noteworthy was the British government’s use of lethal drones in Syria to kill British nationals in 2015, after the parliament had voted down Prime Minister David Cameron’s call for military deployment in that land (BBC 2013). It was in fact during the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, penned in Runnymede, West of London, that Cameron emulated US leaders Bush and Obama in one fell swoop by authorising the Royal Air Force to preemptively dispatch British citizens Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan (Khomami and Ross 2015). Prime Minister Cameron lacked even the AUMF ratified in 2001 by the US congress and cited by Obama as the primary legal basis for launching drone strikes in lands where there were no US troops on the ground to protect.

Cameron’s action was all the more surprising because capital punishment is forbidden by both British law and the EU charter (European Union 2010), to which the United Kingdom was fully committed at the time (before the Brexit vote in 2016). By following the example of the US “drone warriors”, the British prime minister strengthened the precedent set by Obama and helped to clear the way for political leaders all over the globe to use drones to spy on and kill their own compatriots without any judicial process whatsoever, as has already happened in both Nigeria and Pakistan (O’Grady 2015).

More than fifteen years after the global war on terrorism was waged by George W. Bush, the disturbing conflation of “insurgents” and “dissidents” with “terrorists” persists, as though there were not a world of difference between a rifle-bearing tribesman with the potential to rise up against his central government authority and someone like Osama bin Laden, whose aspirations were clearly international. Such nuances continue to be ignored, with all “evil-seeming people”, generally dark-skinned, able-bodied, “angry” Muslim males, lumped into the same category of “unlawful enemy combatants” to be eliminated from the face of earth before they have the chance to perpetrate terrorist attacks.

The complicity of the press in the suppression of dissent

An important contributing factor to the normalisation of targeted killing as a standard operating procedure has been the lax critical climate in the West in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks, with many people, including journalists, hesitant to question the government’s various efforts to protect the homeland. Despite a steady stream of disturbing reports by NGOs and human rights groups, mainstream media outlets have persisted in promoting the government line that drone killing is a form of “smart war”. Throughout GWOT, many journalists have gone out of their way to accommodate the US government in an understandable, albeit perilous, show of patriotism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Those habits of compliance, and practices such as clearing stories with State Department staff members before publication12 transformed the Fourth Estate for the worse in the twenty-first century.

Readers who only scan the headlines, naïvely digesting them as “news”, may uncritically accept whatever is being reported about “national defence” by the government and dutifully parroted by mainstream media journalists. For example, on 29 May 2012, the New York Times published a “President-as-Godfather” feature entitled “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will” (Becker and Shane 2012). The article revealed to Americans for the first time the reality of “Terror Tuesdays”, when Obama and his fellow “kill committee” members would meet to consider “nominees” for execution, wilfully choosing to annihilate persons located on the other side of the planet on the basis of analysis collected and interpreted by private contractors. The title of the article strongly suggested that the president’s hand wringing over whether to order deadly strikes against such suspects was somehow honourable.

In a February 2016 edition of the Sunday New York Times, another pro-lethal drone piece appeared, this time an op-ed by former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, who personally authorised 48 drone strikes resulting in 532 deaths, at least 144 known to be civilians (Zenko 2016). Those abysmal statistics, like most mass media reports of what transpires in the drone campaigns, ignore altogether the nonlethal harm to the survivors, including psychological trauma and physical maiming. Once again, the title of the piece was highly misleading: “To Keep America Safe, Embrace Drone Warfare”.13

A rare exception among mainstream newspapers, the Guardian has made some effort to offer criticism of the drone killing campaigns.14 Among other features, was a disturbing report on the findings of Reprieve (a UK human rights group), that in pursuit of 41 named targets, a total of 1147 persons ended up being destroyed (Ackerman 2014). The landmark study demonstrated that lethal drones are not the “smart weapon” they have been successfully marketed to be, for potentially many innocent people are being slain in connection with counterterrorism initiatives. The guiding logic appears to be that the unintended targets were obviously “up to no good”, since they were somehow associated with the intended targets – otherwise they would not be located in the same place. In truth, all victims of drone strikes, whether intended or not, are being assumed guilty until proven innocent. Only when they are too young or too old, or Western non-Muslims, or female rather than male, are they occasionally admitted to have been innocent by their killers. Most reports of civilian victims have been casually brushed aside by officials as “unconfirmed”.

To this day, when Westerners read in the headlines “Six Suspected Militants Likely Slain” they are apt to conclude that their government is working hard to keep the homeland safe. In the twenty-first century, news outlets compete for attention with sources of entertainment and have become far more eager to focus on uplifting news. They are certainly ill-inclined to follow up erroneous reports with emended versions of tragic targeting errors when the “suspects” exultantly claimed to have been killed turn out not to have been the intended targets. In fact, because the press has depended so heavily on the government for its source of information, the deaths of some named targets have been reported multiple times, with little attempt to acknowledge, much less retract, the earlier mistakes.

The drone warriors wave aside all of the many very real concerns about the inefficacy of remote-control killing in quelling terrorism, and the palpable danger of future blowback, insisting instead that the strikes are “proportional” and “discriminate”. Those kinds of words are chosen carefully, talking as warriors always do, the “just war” talk about their own missions of mass homicide. But assassination, the hunting down and killing of specific human beings, did not suddenly become “warfare” because of the development of unmanned aerial systems. Why should the implement of homicide matter when the intent is clearly the same? When pressed, supporters of targeted killing express the requisite regret at the Western civilians killed, as in the case of hostages Warren Weinstein (an American) and Giovanni Lo Porto (an Italian), for whose deaths President Obama publicly apologised (Baker 2015). Yet the drone warriors continue to insist, without substantiation (invoking State Secrets Privilege), that “drones have saved lives”, even though the sheer length of the war on terror should be a cause for pause. If the drone killing programme is so effective, then why are there so many more radical jihadists today than there were in 2001? And why are they now spread over such a vast expanse of land?

In reality, the likelihood that any of Obama’s many victims outside areas of active hostilities would ever have made it to US shores seems minuscule. To such criticisms, drone advocates reflexively retort that such persons are nonetheless capable of wreaking havoc from abroad, citing examples such as the US government’s version of the Anwar Al-Awlaki story. What seems difficult to deny, particularly when immigration from strife-ridden areas of the world is closely monitored or even forbidden (as under President Trump), is that persons already located in the West – in Paris, Brussels, Nice, San Bernardino, Orlando, Berlin – who sympathise with communities abroad under siege are far more likely to perpetrate revenge attacks against what they may regard as the US and allied governments’ “vicious, calculated, and despicable” campaign of murder, to use Obama’s own characterisation of the slaughter of Dallas policemen by military veteran Micah Xavier Johnson (Liptak 2016). In a vicious vortex of violence, the more terrorist attacks undertaken in response to the US government’s revved-up killing machine, the more lethal drone advocates claim that it needs to be revved up even more.

The thinking among the drone warriors appears to be that the only solution to the problem of factional terrorism is to destroy anyone who expresses sympathy with groups such as Al Qaeda, ISIS, and Al Shabaab. This approach nihilistically assumes that the only way for human beings to correct their mistaken ways is by preventing them altogether from existing. Rather than attempt to win over “hearts and minds”, Western leaders have chosen to incinerate them in a ghastly devaluation of human life. As drone strike targets have become younger and younger, the question must be posed whether eliminating such young men, seduced by the propaganda of factional jihadist groups, is not to deny their potential for a change in view. Cases such as Jessie Morton, a US citizen who became radicalised but eventually renounced his jihadism, suggest that there may be many others who need the support, not the drone-delivered Hellfire missiles, of Western governments.15

Each new “No. 2” ISIS or Al Qaeda or Al Shabaab leader to emerge from the ranks of younger and younger foot soldiers can be facilely incinerated by missile through the push of a button. But, even setting to one side the moral and legal issues, the ongoing danger to the West of these campaigns of summary execution should be clear from cases such as those of Ruhul Amin, Junaid Hussain, and Reyaad Khan, who fled Britain for Syria before being destroyed by lethal drones. What of the angry young persons who fall prey to the propaganda of jihadist groups but opt not to undertake a journey to the Middle East from their Western homeland?

Politicians have thrown their support behind the drone programme, vaunting their “toughness” on terrorism and “strength” on defence, while at the same time claiming to spare the lives of the sons and daughters of voters. On occasions when “high value” named targets are eliminated, the news is lauded as a great victory in the war on terror and proof that lawmakers deserve voters’ support. Rather than inquire why the US wars in the Middle East have persisted for more than sixteen years, and have expanded to include several different Muslim countries beyond Afghanistan and Iraq, the populace has exhibited obliviousness to the fact that the “No. 2” leaders of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS are regularly replaced by younger and younger persons, most of whom were mere children at the time of the attacks of 11 September 2001.

Judging by the words of jihadists themselves, men such as Humam al-Balawi and Nidal Hasan, who explicitly claimed to undertake terrorist plots in direct response to Western military killing in the Middle East, the means used by Western warriors post-9/11 have had exactly the opposite effect of their avowed intention. The result of the wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya; the exportation of tons of weapons to rebels in Syria; and the drone campaigns in Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan has been a massive mobilisation of angry jihadists – including the creation of new groups such as ISIS and AQAP, and a renewal and expansion of interest in radical Islam in countries where its presence had been minor before US military intervention.

Since 2001, the US government has struck deals with monarchic regimes in Yemen and elsewhere to effectively cede their country’s sovereignty, allowing the drone “warriors” to kill targets in exchange for military aid. Tribesmen pegged for death with the assistance of local intelligence operatives are often political dissidents who openly oppose their central government authority, which explains foreign leaders’ ready accession to requests by the US government to eliminate them using lethal drones. One thing is beyond dispute: in all of this frenzy of killing, the very human rights which the drone warriors proudly claim to champion are being denied whenever a person is stalked and slain. In addition to habeas corpus and the rights to life and a fair trial, the right to express dissent from government policies is also being denied whenever and wherever dissidents are summarily slain.

Propaganda lines such as “they hate us for our freedom” are much easier for people to accept than that their taxes are being used to destroy families and terrorise entire communities with the ominous threat of death delivered from the sky. But the potential for tyranny inherent to the drone programme is very real, as evidenced by the US government’s heavy reliance on redaction to avoid answering substantive questions about what they are doing. The announcement in 2011 by the Pentagon that it would counter cyberattacks using military means reflected a broadening of targeting criteria to include nonviolent dissidents who undertake only to expose war crimes and do not call for jihad (Gorman and Barnes 2011).

Calls for all of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sermons – many of which did not advocate jihad – to be taken down from the internet do not bode well at all for the future of democracy (Shane 2015). The new CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has gone even further than his predecessor, John Brennan, by denouncing Wikileaks and its founder, Julian Assange (Gonzales 2017). Does preventing people from knowing the facts protect the people of the United States? Evidently not. It should be obvious by now that if not only Osama bin Laden and Anwar Al-Awlaki, but also British nationals Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, were enraged by the war crimes of Western powers, then the only way to prevent the radicalisation of other, even younger people just like them will be for the offending actions to stop.

What radicalises young men and women is not calls for homicide in the name of justice – for that they have the clear and ever-present example of Western governments’ ongoing killing campaigns. Without halting the bombing which drives young people to seek retaliation, the tide of angry jihadists will never subside, if we are to take seriously the words of radicalised persons themselves (including bin Laden, Al-Balawi, Al-Awlaki, et al.), rather than hegemonically assume that we know better than they why they have undertaken and promoted jihad. Advocates of targeted killing may prefer to believe the caricatures of jihadists as intrinsically evil, but that is the logic of thinly veiled racism, for all people, whether Muslim or not, are born without ideological commitments. Preventing access to the truth about what has been and is being done serves no purpose beyond short-term political expediency, making it impossible for average citizens to find out the true answer to the question “Why do they hate us?”


The Drone Age is a remarkable period in human history, not because intentional, premeditated killing with the express aim of annihilation is somehow new; before the Drone Age, such homicide was considered murder, tout court. And political murder has been going on for as long as there have been societies. The targeted killing of thousands of human beings who did not pose an immediate threat to their killers, nor to any other person when they were destroyed, is surprisingly carried out by governments which claim to defend human rights. It is in some ways even more surprising that so few people appear to be shocked – or even mildly bothered – by the fact that their tax dollars are being used to hunt and kill persons for reasons as vague as that they appear to be associated with radical Islamist groups. With the aid of the press, most of the populace in the West has come to view the use of a government-run lethal drone “killing machine” to serially destroy human beings abroad as perfectly normal. There seems to be very little awareness of the fact that the drone campaigns terrorise entire communities of people, just as did the plane attacks of 11 September 2001.

It seems safe to say that the primary legacy of Barack Obama will be none other than the increased propensity of leaders in the West to strike first and suppress questions later, as President Trump’s enthusiasm for bombing has already borne out. The short-term apparent efficacy of bureaucratic, remote-control killing and its evident political appeal to lawmakers has prevented people from recognising what are likely to be the long-term negative consequences, not only for monarchic societies, where democratisation will be prevented as dissent is squelched, but also for seemingly stable democracies such as the United States and Britain. Most obviously, the promiscuous use of drones to kill suspects all over the Middle East has significantly lowered what was formerly the high barrier to war.

By 2016, the US government had been on a permanent war footing for fifteen years and was bombing seven different Muslim-majority nations simultaneously. Under Obama, record numbers of weapons were exported to nondemocratic regimes, above all Saudi Arabia (Aljazeera 2012). More than 600 tons of weapons were also supplied covertly to “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria from 2012 to 2013, exacerbating the brutal civil war already underway between the government of Assad and a motley assortment of dissidents, some of whom are known to be allied with ISIS and Al-Qaeda, sworn enemies of the United States (Erlich 2014). The result of these various initiatives has been mass murder throughout the Middle East, with the exodus of millions of refugees, primarily to Europe.

The irony of the remote-control killing campaigns is patent: the victims and bereft family and community members living under drones – the persons on the ground – are being terrorised in an effort to prevent future potential terrorists from attacking people in the West. This form of state terrorism – the arbitrary threat of death to persons living outside areas of active hostilities, in their own civil societies – is dealt out as a way of preemptively thwarting possible future terrorist acts by Muslim persons who may or may not ever have harmed anyone, whether at home or abroad. The certain infliction of terrorism upon civilians in the Middle East and Africa is being chosen over the uncertain possibility of future terrorist attacks in the West.

With the drone industry boom well underway, the new technology is spreading rapidly around the world, with the precedent for its use well established by the US government. But the danger presented by lethal drones far transcends the tragic death of innocent persons. By undermining the Fourth Estate, by indulging in linguistic legerdemain, by withholding evidence from citizens, by calling for censorship of the words of the suspects being killed, and by stigmatising nonviolent whistle blowers as criminals, Western officials assault the liberties essential to a flourishing democracy, which the separate branches of republican governments were established specifically to protect. Modern Western institutions of justice and concepts such as the presumption of innocence were developed in order to guard against the very tyranny which the first remote-control killers have held up as an example for leaders all over the world.

Totalitarianism, in contrast to democracy, is a form of government in which the state recognises no limits to its authority and tolerates no dissent from its rule. Obvious examples include the Third Reich under Hitler and communist regimes such as the former Soviet Union. The use of lethal drones to eliminate suspects at the behest of a small group of central government bureaucrats smacks of totalitarianism, though this comparison escaped attention for years because the first full-fledged drone warrior was also the first black president, US President Barack Obama. Leftists, traditionally outspoken war opponents, tended to give Obama the benefit of the doubt. But as other, less scrupulous leaders use lethal drones to eliminate their political enemies and suppress dissent, the potential of remote-control killing as the perfect totalitarian tool may become all too clear.


1. See Moreh (2012), The gatekeepers [a film] for insightful interviews with retired administrators and officers who worked in Israel’s targeted killing drone programme during its formative years.

2. Some of the suspects cleared for release were eventually granted their liberty, while other detainees were transferred to facilities in their country of residence. For more on the political difficulties encountered by the Obama administration vis-à-vis Guantánamo Bay prison, see Klaidman (2012).

3. In Naudet and Naudet (2015), The spymasters: CIA in the Crosshairs [a film], an engaging Showtime documentary in the spirit of Morris (2003) and Moreh (2012), former CIA director George Tenet points out that John Brennan (Tenet’s employee at the time) never voiced opposition to the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, denounced in a scathing Senate report as “torture”. In his own interview in the film, Brennan claims that he opposed the Bush administration programme. It is worth pointing out that, before becoming Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor, Brennan was the president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, a private firm involved in terrorist targeting analysis.

4. Obama’s new counterterrorism chief Brennan was given an office in the White House, and he orchestrated the “Terror Tuesday” meetings during which the president sat down with his advisors to consider “nominees” to the US government’s kill list. In 2013, Brennan was promoted by Obama to be the director of the CIA, thus ensuring that targeted killing would continue to dominate the Agency’s efforts.

5. Calhoun (2013) and the Appendix of Calhoun (2015) offer much more extensive treatments and critiques of just war theory.

6. Scholars have extensively debated the distinction between “preemption” and “prevention” but however these terms are defined, Obama, in authorising the targeted killing of suspects, followed the Bush example, albeit one missile at a time. See Calhoun (2004).

7. Several scholars have argued in a special issue of Peace Review journal that human beings have a right to live in peace, without the continuous threat of death represented by lethal drones hovering above their heads. See: Peace Review, Volume 27, no. 4, 2015.

8. Obama first revealed the fact that his administration was killing people with drones in a response to a question about the efficacy of the drone programme during a Google+ Hangout conversation on 30 January 2012.

9. Predictably enough, factional rebel groups such as ISIS have already begun using drones in their jihadist efforts (O’Connor 2017).

10. Scahill (2013) relays the disturbing chronology leading up to the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki and his son, Abdulrahman, in 2011. The once moderate cleric transformed into an advocate of jihad in direct response to FBI harassment followed by detention without charges in Yemen for more than a year at the US government’s request.

11. According to Johnsen (2013), however, the Al-Awlaki narrative was penned by John Brennan, to explain the increase in terrorist chatter coming out of Yemen. The story according to which Al-Awlaki was operationally involved in the 2009 Christmas Eve plot of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab does not explain why Al-Awlaki was targeted the day before Abdulmutallab was apprehended (Gardner 2013).

12. This was revealed by Wikileaks through its document dump of DNC emails.

13. Patriotic citizens may be inclined to sympathise with US administrators who have killed so many people, including obviously innocent civilians, while attempting to defend the nation. Officials such as Michael Hayden and John Brennan certainly have strong psychological and emotional reasons to convince themselves that what they have done is right – if only in order to be able to sleep at night. But before automatically applying interpretive charity to outspoken advocates for assassination, it is essential to be aware of the drone programme’s potential for profit. Upon retiring from government service, Michael Hayden, along with many other military officers, went on to serve as the principals and board members of drone programme–affiliated private companies.

14. Spencer Ackerman and Trevor Timm are two journalists who have consistently and assiduously challenged the US drone programme in the pages of the Guardian.

15. Jesse Morton’s story is relayed in Ellwood (2017).


Author information

Laurie Calhoun is the author of We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age (2015), War and Delusion: A Critical Examination (2013), and You Can Leave (2018), along with many essays on war, morality and politics.

About Laurie Calhoun

Laurie Calhoun is a Senior Fellow for The Libertarian Institute. She is the author of Questioning the COVID Company Line: Critical Thinking in Hysterical Times,We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, War and Delusion: A Critical Examination, Theodicy: A Metaphilosophical Investigation, You Can Leave, Laminated Souls, and Philosophy Unmasked: A Skeptic's Critique. In 2015, she began traveling around the world while writing. In 2020, she returned to the United States, where she remained until 2023 as a result of the COVID-19 travel restrictions imposed by governments nearly everywhere.

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