Opinion: Donald Trump is the latest US president to use deadly drone strikes to continue the war on terror

In recent months, news around United States' president Donald Trump and the US armed forces' national security priorities have centred around plans to build a border wall between the US and Mexico, and the military’s shift in focus from terrorism to "great power" competition with China and Russia. But the "war on terror" is not over - and neither is the targeted killing programme.

Since taking office, Trump has expanded the US targeted killing programme into Niger and has rapidly escalated the number of strikes in Somalia, which have more than doubled since 2016. The Trump administration has expanded the CIA’s strike authority in Africa, after the agency had its responsibilities curtailed by the Obama administration.

Trump has also rolled-back many Obama-era rules on drone strikes, some of which aimed to increase transparency. These decisions chime with Trump’s promise on the 2016 campaign trail to "bomb the shit out of ‘em" when asked how he would deal with terrorists. The number of civilian casualties has risen accordingly. In Yemen, for example, around a third of those killed in US drone strikes in 2018 are believed to have been civilians.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Marian Finucane Show, security analyst Declan Power talks about the US drone strike that killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor in 2016

The US targeted killing programme identifies individuals or groups of individuals as members of non-state armed groups (such as al-Qa’eda or ISIS) who pose a potentially imminent security threat to the US. Targeted killings are carried out under two primary categories: personality strikes and signature strikes. In a personality strike, the US believes that it knows the identity of a specified individual. In a signature strike, an individual or a group of people are identified as a threat based on a set of behavioural "signatures" – such as gatherings of men travelling in convoy - which are equated with terrorist activity.

Once the individuals or groups of individuals are identified as a threat, they are targeted and killed in drone strikes. These strikes kill identified or suspected militants, and also civilians, while drone pilots sit safely ensconced in locations some 13,000 kilometres away, such as at the Creech air force base in the Nevada desert.

A cockpit used to control remotely piloted aircraft at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Photo: Getty Images

Government statements and news reports regarding the targeted killing programme tend to focus on drones and the missile strikes they perform. These strikes are described as "precision strikes", essentially erasing the significant destructive impact of the missiles deployed in drone strikes and the impact they have had on civilian populations.

Aside from injury, death and damage to infrastructure and the wider environment, drones also have a detrimental psychological effect on the communities over which they hover. For instance, the Reaper drone has an endurance time of over 27 hours, allowing it to loiter for substantial periods over a specific area. Aside from the effect that the noise of the drones has on those below, this loitering capacity has affected community and familial relationships and social cohesion. Communities have described reducing the time they spend socialising, avoiding large family and other gatherings and feeling afraid to go to mosques.

While the programme began under the presidency of George W. Bush in 2002, it was essentially industrialised during the course of the Obama presidency when at least 563 strikes were carried out in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. An enormous number of strikes were carried out in Afghanistan, with further strikes in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Although drone strikes were characterised by the Obama administration as being exceptionally precise, thousands of civilian deaths were reported as resulting from these strikes. There are numerous recorded instances of funeral convoys and wedding gatherings being identified as militant activity and targeted by drone strikes.

From RTÉ News, UN says all parties in Yemen conflict may have committed war crimes

Under Trump, the need for higher-level government involvement in personality strikes has been eliminated, with more responsibility over strikes given to the Pentagon and the CIA. Furthermore, the requirement that those targeted in strikes be considered an "identified high-value terrorist" or a terrorist that poses a "continuing, imminent threat" has also been removed, meaning that it is now easier than ever to target an individual or group of individual, regardless of whether or not they constitute an imminent threat to US national security.

What about the lawfulness of the targeted killing programme? The US has consistently asserted that the targeted killing programme complies with both international law on the use of force and international humanitarian law, also known as the law of armed conflict. It argues that targeted killings are carried out in self-defence according to Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, that strikes are targeted only against individuals who are members of non-state armed groups and that they are both militarily necessary and proportionate. Needless to say, in many instances, drone strikes are none of these things.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that the war on terror is at an end - we’re just much less able to see it in this part of the world

The shift in focus from anti-terror operations such as drone strikes to great power competition and immigration risks entirely overshadowing what little attention is currently being given to the targeted killing programme, all while the programme continues unabated, with next to no accountability. The substantial increase in drone strikes in a number of countries, coupled with an increase in CIA authority, further demonstrate that oversight and transparency are of very little concern to the Trump administration.

As the Trump administration continues to shift its attention in speeches and policy documents away from terrorism and drone strikes and onto Iran, Russia, China, and immigration, don’t be fooled into thinking that the war on terror is at an end. Almost 20 years in, it’s not going away - we’re just much less able to see it in this part of the world, but many others are not so lucky.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ