Targeted killings or assassinations beyond the battlefield remain a highly
charged subject. Most controversial of all is the number of civilians killed
in US covert and clandestine drone strikes since 2002.
The new White
House data relates only to Obama’s first seven years in office – during
which it says 473 covert and clandestine airstrikes and drone attacks were carried
out in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya.
The US claims that between 64 and 116 civilians died in these actions –
around one non-combatant killed for every seven or so strikes. That official
estimate suggests civilians are significantly more likely to die in a JSOC or
CIA drone attack than in conventional US airstrikes. United Nations data for
Afghanistan indicates that one
civilian was killed for every 11 international airstrikes in 2014, for example.
But for Obama’s secret wars, the public record suggests a far worse reality.
to Bureau monitoring, between 2009 and 2015 an estimated 256 civilians have
died in CIA drone strikes in Pakistan. A further 124 civilians are likely to
have been slain in Yemen, with less than 10 non-combatants estimated killed
in Somalia strikes. Similar tallies are reported by the New
America Foundation and the Long
So why have civilians been at greater risk from these covert and clandestine
US airstrikes? Part of the answer lies in who the US kills. Many of those pursued
are high value targets – senior or middle ranking terrorist or militant
group commanders. Bluntly put, the higher the value of the target – and
the greater the threat they represent to you – the more the laws of war
allow you to put civilians in harm’s way.
The CIA also frequently missed those same high-value targets. A 2014 study
by legal charity Reprieve suggested that US drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan
had killed as many as 1,147 unknown people in
failed attempts to kill 41 named targets.
It’s also clear the CIA has been using a very different rule book. In an effort
to lower civilian deaths in Afghanistan, international airstrikes on buildings
and urban locations were mostly banned from 2008. Yet in Pakistan, more than
60% of CIA strikes have
targeted domestic buildings (or “militant compounds”) according to Bureau
Obama apologised for the accidental 2015 killing of US aid worker Warren
Weinstein, he revealed that the US had kept the target building under surveillance
for “hundreds of hours” – yet had never known there were civilians inside.
Many of the women and children credibly reported killed by the CIA in Pakistan
have died in similar circumstances – though few of their deaths have ever
Then there have been the more shocking tactics…