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Unmanned Drones - Targeted Killing vs. "Collateral Murder"

by Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS - When a Pakistani-U.S. national pleaded guilty last week to a failed attempt to detonate explosives packed in a vehicle in the heart of New York City, he admitted that one of the reasons he targeted the busy Times Square neighbourhood was to "injure and kill" as many people as possible.

The presiding judge, Miriam Goldman Cedarbaum, asked the suspect, Faisal Shahzad, 30, whether he was conscious of the fact he would have killed dozens of civilians, including women and children.

"Well, the (U.S.) drone-hits in Afghanistan and Iraq don't see children; they don't see anybody. They kill women, they kill children. They kill everybody. And it's war," he said, at his arraignment last week.

Describing himself as a "Muslim soldier", Shahzad also told the judge one of the reasons for his abortive act of terrorism was his anger at the U.S. military for recklessly using drones, which have claimed the lives of scores of innocent civilians, along with suspected insurgents, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

The United States calls the inadvertent killing of civilians "collateral damage" while critics describe it as "collateral murder".

A New York Times columnist last week quoted the outgoing U.S. military commander in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, as defining the "insurgent math" in Afghanistan: for each innocent you kill, you make 10 enemies.

But whether they needlessly kill civilians or not, the remote-controlled drones, being guided mostly by computers located at the far-away headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia, are the weapons of the future, say military analysts.

Since they are unmanned, they are weapons that the U.S. military can deploy to kill without any risk to its own forces.

Also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), drones are being increasingly used to patrol the Texas-Mexico border to prevent drug trafficking and stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States.

Siemon Wezeman, a research fellow at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS that more and more countries are acquiring UAVs, either from national sources or imported.

"It has been a market with significant growth in the last decade and that growth is widely expected to remain in the coming years," said Wezeman, who also did research on UAVs for a report to the European Parliament in 2007-2008.

He pointed out that a recently released U.N. report correctly mentions that over 40 countries currently have UAVs in service.

As the report states, the main appeal of using UAVs to carry out targeted killings in hostile territory is the lack of risk to the forces of the state doing the killing - there is no pilot or other personnel anywhere near the hostilities; no dead troops to explain; no dangerous rescues to think of; no embarrassing capture of assassins.

As a secondary appeal - and the report doesn't mention this - one can count plausible deniability, Wezeman said.

In case things go as planned, there is very little evidence of who did the deed - no immigration papers; no fingerprints; and no television footage, (unlike the recent killing of a Hamas leader, Mahmoud al-Mahboub, in a Dubai hotel by a Mossad hit squad that was captured on closed circuit TV).

"And if things go wrong, at worst the 'enemy' can show the remains of a UAV - ownership of which can be denied by the actor that used it (no captured pilot or dead pilot to show)," Wezeman said.

Lastly, there is no need for expensive logistics and training to carry out long-range assassinations in hostile territory, nor does one have to organise and explain (or cover) special forces doing dirty work.

Oxford Analytica, an independent strategic-consulting firm which draws on a network of more than 1,000 scholar-experts at Oxford and other leading educational institutions, says the market for unmanned aircraft systems "has surged over the last decade, driven by proven operational successes in Iraq and Afghanistan and by Israel's extensive usage".

The worldwide market for such systems is expected to be worth about 55 billion dollars through 2020.

The United Nations, which released a report last month criticising the use of drones for "targeted killings" by U.S. military forces, has warned that more than 40 countries either possess UAVs or are armed with the technology to manufacture it.

These include Israel, Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, Britain and France.

Authored by the special rapporteur on extra-judicial killings, Philip Alston, the study said the first "credibly reported" CIA drone killing took place in Nov. 2002 when a Predator UAV fired a missile at a car in Yemen. That attack killed Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, an al Qaeda leader allegedly responsible for the bombing of the U.S. warship 'Cole' in Yemeni waters.

Since then, said the study, there have reportedly been over 120 drone strikes, "although it is not possible to verify this number".

According to the U.N. report, drones were originally developed to gather intelligence and conduct surveillance and reconnaissance. But the use of drones for "targeted killings" has generated significant controversy.

"Some have suggested that drones as such are prohibited weapons under international humanitarian law because they cause, or have the effect of causing, necessarily indiscriminate killings of civilians, such as those in the vicinity of the targeted person," the report said.

"The appeal of armed drones is clear: especially in hostile terrain, they permit targeted killings at little to no risk to the state personnel carrying them out, and they can be operated remotely from the home state."

It is also conceivable that non-state armed groups could obtain this technology.

SIPRI's Wezeman told IPS there is a strong possibility that non-state groups could also acquire such systems, noting that Hezbollah, the militant Islamic group in Lebanon, has used UAVs against Israel.

However, the killings by drones are not supposed to lead to increased civilian deaths and/or indiscriminate killings, but rather the opposite. As in all targeted killings, the idea is to get the enemy leadership and to decapitate enemy forces.

He said targeting the enemy's leadership has almost never been a popular policy among states fighting other states or non-state groups - probably including for fear of retaliation and a sense of 'that is not done' - but the merits both for winning a fight and reducing the cost of the fight are obvious. Thus the potential for such attacks on the enemy's leadership may actually be a positive thing, he said.

One alternative is to 'execute' specific persons that are out of reach or hiding in another country.

Until now, Wezeman said, those targets have been labelled 'terrorist' and the actions were part of a 'war', and as such somehow defensible. However, one could imagine similar attacks on drug lords and other 'criminals' who are impossible to get at in another way. The trouble there, of course, is that the order for execution may not be given by a court after proper trial, he added.

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