A History of the World’s First Drone War

tags: drones



Brian Glyn Williams is Professor of Islamic History at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has worked for the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center and NATO in Afghanistan and is the author of Predators. The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda (Washington D.C., Potomac. July 2013) which provides the first history of the CIA’s murky drone assassination campaign in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere.


Credit: Wiki Commons

With little real debate in Congress or among the American people, the Bush and Obama administrations have commenced an overseas assassination campaign that has led to the deaths of more than 3,000 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It has been the most extensive assassination campaign since the Vietnam War era, but has elicited much less controversy among Americans than other aspects of what was once called the “War on Terror” (such as NSA wire-tapping, water-boarding, Gitmo etc). The story of how this high tech campaign being waged by Predator and Reaper drones, which was inconceivable prior to 9/11, came about is understood by few. Below is an effort to “historicize” this extraordinary story of spy networks, complicit governments in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, tribal militias and terrorists in remote regions, and the world’s first remote-control war.

The Origins of a Killer

The primary weapon in the drone campaign is the MQ-1 Predator which was developed as a spy platform by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the U.S. Air Force in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The first primitive Predators, which were unarmed at the time, were used to spy on Serbian positions in the NATO-led campaigns of 1995 and 1999 in Bosnia and Kosovo. Unlike satellites, which relied on fixed orbits and could not see through clouds, the drones could fly under clouds and follow their targets closely for up to twenty four hours. These relentless “eyes in the sky” could then lase targets for manned fighter-bombers or Tomahawk cruise missiles.

As it became obvious after the Al Qaeda bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the USS Cole bombing in Yemen in 2000 that bin Laden’s Afghanistan-based terrorist network was a threat, the CIA acquired a fleet of its own Predators to be flown remotely from CIA HQ, Langley to spy on Al Qaeda. This program known as “Afghan Eyes” flew drones from Uzbekistan over bin Laden’s bases in Taliban-controlled southeastern Afghanistan in an effort to locate the Al Qaeda amir. On one occasion in 2000 a high-flying drone spotted bin Laden at a camp in the south but was unable to kill him since it was unarmed.

In response to this lost opportunity the U.S. Air Force urgently worked to arm the glider-like, propeller-driven Predator. Finally, on February 16, 2001, Predator number 3034 took off on a test flight and successfully fired its Hellfire missile at a tank at a test site in Nevada. It was a revolutionary moment in the history of aerial warfare. The unmanned reconnaissance drone had become a killer.

At the time, however, neither the U.S. Air Force nor the CIA wanted to assume control of this new technology whose ramifications were not fully understood. In light of the previous ban on assassinations going back to President Ford, CIA head George Tenet fretted about the ramifications should “Arab terrorists in Afghanistan suddenly start being blown up.” 9/11, however, transformed the CIA from an organization focused primarily on spying to one that was aggressively engaged in counter-terrorism. In the aftermath of 9/11 a senior US official summarized the new attitude of the U.S. government when he stated “The gloves are off. Lethal operations that were unthinkable pre-September 11 are now underway.”

It did not take long for the Predator to make an impact in Afghanistan. In November 2001 a drone tracked down the number three in Al Qaeda, Mohammad Atef, and killed him with a Hellfire anti-tank missile (the primary ordinance of the Predator). While this strike did not make headlines, the killing of an Al Qaeda operative named Qaed Senan al Harethi, one of the bombers of the USS Cole, in a November 2002 drone strike in Yemen did. At the time the notion of a remote control CIA plane turning a terrorist to carbonized body parts somewhere across the world was ground-breaking news. But it was not to be in Yemen that the drones would have their greatest impact, but Pakistan.

Drones Over “Talibanistan”

In October-December 2001’s Operation Enduring Freedom thousands of hardcore Taliban fighters and Al Qaeda terrorists escaped the withering U.S. bombing campaign and horse mounted charges of General Dostum’s pro-American Northern Alliance militias into the remote FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) region in Afghanistan’s neighbor, Pakistan. As it transpired the Afghan Taliban were ethnic Pashtuns and the tribesmen living in the FATA region of Pakistan were also Pashtuns who offered their Afghan kin melmastiia (sanctuary). In this autonomous Pashtun tribal region which had never been entered by the Pakistan army, the Taliban and Al Qaeda found a sanctuary to regroup and ultimately plan new terror attacks against the West and mount an insurgency in neighboring Afghanistan. While the U.S. pressured the Pakistani Army to invade the FATA and crush the Taliban remnants, they proved incapable of destroying the increasingly powerful Pakistani and Afghan Taliban. The leader of the Pakistani branch of the Taliban was a warrior named Nek Muhammad who operated with seeming impunity in his remote tribal zone sanctuary often known as “Talibanistan.”

Then on June 19, 2004, Nek Muhammad blew up in a mysterious explosion that proved to be the first of many drone assassinations. While the Pakistani military attempted to claim the strikes as their own, the CIA’s role was revealed when local tribesmen began to find remains of missiles with the words Hellfire on them in English at drone strike sites. Clearly the killings of Pakistani citizens on Pakistani soil by a distrusted foreign intelligence agency from a predominantly Christian country around the world created a conundrum for the Pakistani authorities. While they saw the Taliban, who had declared a terror war on their state which would lead to up to 3,000 deaths a year, as an enemy, they wanted to be perceived by their own people as defending them and their nation’s sovereignty from the distrusted Americans.

To compound matters the Pakistani media (often aped by uncritical U.S. sources) began to publish anti-American articles which claimed that the drones were killing hundreds of civilians for every Taliban or Al Qaeda terrorist killed. Recent studies by the Jamestown Foundation (as well as the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. and the highly respected Long War Journal), however, have shown that approximately 5 percent of those killed by the Predator and more advanced Reaper drones which came into service in 2008 are civilians. This uniquely-precise-in-history bombing campaign stems from the fact the drones can patiently fly for up to forty-eight hours tracking their targets’ “pattern of life movements” then fire on them when they leave crowded areas. Increasingly the drones rely on prathrais (small homing beacons) placed on cars or SUVs by CIA spies who operate extensively in the FATA to direct increasingly small missiles (such as the Scorpion missile which creates a small explosion thus lessening the risk of killing civilian bystanders) precisely at Taliban and Al Qaeda vehicles when they leave populated areas.

As of September 2013 approximately 344 drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan’s FATA region which have killed 2,538 Taliban/Al Qaeda operatives and 153 civilians since the campaign heated up in 2006. Scores of top Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders have been killed in the strikes by what the tribesmen call machays (wasps) and the terrorists/militants are forced to live in hiding from the ever present drones which have decimated their ranks.

The drone campaign in Pakistan has, however, tampered down in 2013 due to public Pakistani protests and has shifted to Yemen where Al Qaeda’s most dangerous branch known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula operates. As of the beginning of September 2013 there have been 81 drone strikes in Yemen which have killed approximately 389 people, of whom 84 are listed as civilians by the Long War Journal. The Yemeni drone campaign has received greater public support from the Yemeni government than in Pakistan where there have been regular public criticisms from the authorities of CIA “violations of sovereignty” (this despite the fact that CIA drones were actually flown from a secret base in Pakistan with the secret consent of the Pakistani authorities until recently). The drones have also been used to kill smaller numbers of Al Qaeda terrorists and local Shabab militants in Somalia since 2011.

What is most surprising has been Obama’s embrace of the drone campaign which was begun by his predecessor Bush. This has earned him the wrath of the anti-drone movement which has protested against the “roboticization” of warfare (the drones are of course not robots, they are flown by CIA pilots at Langley). Critics claim that the drones desensitize governments to killing and lead to a “play station mentality” towards assassination. The drones, for all the advantage they give the Americans (and Israelis, who are the only other country to operate armed drones), however, comply with international law and offer unparalleled discrimination in killing enemies who are planning mass casualty terrorism. Today there are more pilots training to be drone operators than to fly manned aircraft and the US military (which operates its own separate drone fleets) and CIA drone budgets have skyrocketed in recent years even in a time of military cutbacks elsewhere. Clearly drones are the way of the future in limited counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency operations for an America that has experienced war fatigue from large-scale military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.



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