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Drone attacks are state-sponsored terrorism

On 17 March 2011 some 40 individuals – including 35 government-appointed tribal leaders known as maliks, as well as government officials – gathered in Datta Khel town centre in North Waziristan in Pakistan.

They were there to attend a jirga – the principal social institution for decision-making and dispute resolution in Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). On the agenda was a dispute over a nearby chromite mine. Four men from a local Taliban group were also reportedly present, as their involvement was necessary to resolve the dispute.  

Though drones were hovering daily over North Waziristan, those at this meeting said they felt “secure and insulated” from the threat of drones, because in their assessment at the time, “drones target terrorists or those working against the government.”      

At about 10.45 am, as the two groups were engaged in discussion, a missile fired from a US drone hovering above struck one of the circles of seated men. Several additional missiles were fired, at least one of which hit the second circle. In all, the missiles killed a total of at least 42 people.  

When President Bush left office in January 2009, the US had carried out at least 45
drone strikes.  Since then, President Obama has reportedly carried out more than five times that number: 292 strikes in just over three and a half years.

A key feature of the Obama administration’s use of drones has been a reported
expansion in the use of “signature” strikes based on a “pattern of life” analysis. Presumably that included the meeting outside the bus station in Datta Khel, which local military commanders had been informed of in advance.

The results of this particular drone attack are among the many documented in an exhaustive report into the practice and legality of drone strikes. It is the result of nine months of research  by the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic of Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at New York University School of Law. Drones hover 24 hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. The report concludes:

Their presence terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they’re powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behaviour. The US practice of striking one area multiple times, and evidence that it has killed rescuers, makes both community members and humanitarian workers afraid or unwilling to assist injured victims. Some community members shy away from gathering in groups, including important tribal dispute-resolution bodies, out of fear that they may attract the attention of drone operators. Some parents choose to keep their children home, and children injured or traumatised by strikes have dropped out of school. Waziris told our researchers that the strikes have undermined cultural and religious practices related to burial, and made family members afraid to attend funerals. In addition, families who lost loved ones or their homes in drone strikes now struggle to support themselves.

Closer to home, the UK has begun work to open up its civilian airspace to unmanned drones for a variety of activities. While 76 countries are known to possess so-called unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, the UK is one of only three countries (along with the US and Israel) currently using armed drones, in its military operations in Afghanistan. A report by Drone Wars UK says the UK has spent or committed over £2 billion on purchasing, developing or researched UAVs since 2007.
Drone attacks are a form of state-sponsored terrorism, although the US report limits itself to suggesting that they undermine respect for the rule of law and international protections. But those went out of the window with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drone attacks are their illegal continuation in another form. They are among Obama’s greatest “achievements” in four years in power.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
28 September 2011

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