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The Pros & Cons of Drones in Counterterrorism

A discussion of the practical, legal, and ethical questions behind the growing use of drones in counterterrorism emerged in a Distinguished Author Series event at IPI on February 18, 2016 featuring Scott Shane, author of Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, and the Rise of the Drone.

The book explores the subject by examining President Obama’s decision in 2011 to order the targeting and remote control killing by a drone of the Yemen-based American jihadi Anwar al-Awlaki. By that time, Awlaki had become a highly influential English language recruiter and bombing plot organizer for al–Qaeda and an outspoken advocate for the mass killing of Americans.

His assassination was to give him the added distinction of being the first American to be hunted down and killed deliberately and extra-judicially on orders of an American President since the Civil War.

Mr. Shane said he set out to write the book to answer “vexing” questions raised by the incident. “What makes a terrorist? What drives someone to want to kill large numbers of his fellow human beings? What brings a person to that point?” he said. “The case of Anwar al-Awlaki seemed to pose that question in a particularly acute form, as he had begun life very much the opposite of a terrorist, and was an American, and yet devoted his last years to the killing of Americans.”

A theme for Mr. Shane throughout this book is an exploration of the backlash to American counterterrorism policies, something he had wondered about throughout his years on the counterterrorism beat as a New York Times Washington-based National Security Correspondent in a period which spanned the 9/11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan & Iraq, CIA “enhanced interrogation” techniques, and finally the drone program.

“We have ended up, I think today, probably a lot safer from a 9/11-style attack than we were in 2001,” he said, “but I think it is also fair to say that there are far more people in the world today who believe in the cause of al-Qaeda, and the cause of ISIS, and believe that attacking the US, and some of the European powers, is completely legitimate and in fact a religious obligation.”

Mr. Shane referred to the time when officials decided to arm surveillance drones. “Intelligence analysts were reviewing video from a drone over Afghanistan in 2000, and they saw a very tall guy with a beard and people seemed to be deferring to him, and they thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s Bin Laden. If only we could take a shot at him instead of just taking a shot of him,’” he said.

Qualms about using the technology quickly dissolved after 9/11, and the armed drone was folded into the American counterterrorism arsenal.

Mr. Shane’s interest in drones grew as the technology became “the United States’ anti-terrorism weapon of choice” after President Obama assumed office. Drone strikes had been used by the military in conventional theaters of war like Afghanistan and Iraq, and later became key to a CIA-led program in Pakistan as the Bush presidency was winding down.

The program scaled up when Obama came into office, to the surprise of both his supporters and detractors. However, by Mr. Shane’s analysis, this enthusiasm for drones was unsurprising, as the tactic was consistent with Obama’s pragmatic approach, he said. The President had to balance a need to protect the country while making good on his campaign promise not to commit American troops to ground operations in the Middle East. With an American pilot operating the drone remotely, and with the technology’s alleged precision, casualties would be minimized, and Obama seemed to have found a way to keep his promise of fighting terror without violating American values.

Mr. Shane criticized the extreme secrecy surrounding the drones program, stating, “Unfortunately, this whole program is under a huge blanket of secrecy which I think has hampered not only public scrutiny, but the kind of corrections that you could make in a program like that.”

A level of secrecy from the public is to be expected about sensitive operations, he conceded, but in the drone program’s early days, details were kept from interested members of the government. Catalyzed by Awlaki’s death and the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, “Congress broke the bonds of secrecy and said, ‘You know what, we are going to talk about this,’ and had some hearings,” Mr. Shane said.

This pressure forced a response from the Administration, including a commitment to report strikes to the relevant Congressional committees, and the release of a limited explanation of the US targeting methodology. Even this, however, left questions about who is considered a legitimate target, Mr. Shane said. “We don’t know enough about proportionality, discrimination, and the other rules of warfare, laws of warfare and how it applies to the drone strikes, because secrecy protects a lot of things, including incompetence, as we all know.”

He said the drone strike on Awlaki brought two questions to the fore—“whether it was legal to do this,” and what was the “operational effect of killing this guy.” Justice Department lawyers concluded Awlaki was a legitimate target because he was “an operational terrorist, and not just a propagandist.”

Contrary to expectations, the strike proved that in the Internet age, a propagandist’s operational value could never be truly eliminated. In fact, Awlaki, in death, gained greater lasting relevance. “Ultimately, his real home was on YouTube, and it is today,” Mr. Shane said, citing the 67,000 videos to his name on the site, ranging from a 53-CD set on the life of the Prophet Mohammed to one entitled “the Cult of Jihad.”

“Killing the messenger by no means kills the message,” he said. “He speaks from the Internet today with greater authority than when he was alive, because like Christianity, Islam has a tradition of martyrdom, and if you look at the stuff his fans post, they often call him ‘the martyr Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki.’ His influence has been absolutely remarkable.”

The book observes the great lengths the Administration goes to in considering the legality of the drone-strike on Awlaki; complicated by a number of unique factors like his American citizenship and his safe haven in Yemen. Obama’s lawyers held that the strike violated neither the Constitution nor the Foreign Murder Statute. Mr. Shane was able to see heavily redacted versions of two of the Office of Legal Counsel documents, but only after a Freedom of Information Act request and 4 years in court. “The idea that the legal arguments that justify a drone strike should be secret seems to me very un-American,” he said.

The 40-year-old Anwar al-Awlaki ended up spending half his life in the US. When he suddenly left in March of 2002, it surprised many. Married with three children and an Imam at a Washington mosque, he was ambitious and had become something of a media superstar. His American English made him the go-to moderate Muslim voice for the press in Washington. Most people assumed he had departed because of the increasing scrutiny on the US Muslim community. He had recently criticized a number of heavy-handed raids in a fiery sermon. He had said he preferred to classify the so-called “War on Terrorism,” for what it was becoming: “War on Muslims.”

But more than Muslim persecution motivated his abrupt departure. The FBI had been surveilling Awlaki because two of the 9/11 hijackers had attended a mosque he led in San Diego. By monitoring him 24/7, the FBI had concluded that he was not, at that time, affiliated with al-Qaeda. They had, however, observed his un-Islamic secret—that he enjoyed the regular company of prostitutes. His fear of being discredited before his conservative followers was the greatest influence in his decision to leave, Mr. Shane learned from Awlaki’s brother and newly declassified documents. Awlaki discovered the FBI had found him out from a Washington madam, who called him to complain he had brought scrutiny upon her business.

“He couldn’t take that kind of humiliation, so he took off, and [that] was not intended by the FBI,” Mr. Shane said. He added: “Talk about unintended consequences. This guy could have been part of the discussion here, in the tent, ended up very much outside the tent and a very dangerous character.”

In answer to questions, Mr. Shane said he was conflicted about the ultimate value of drones. “I think drones have not turned out to be the panacea,” he said. “The arguments for drones as counterterrorism weapons are pretty strong, certainly compared to occupying another country with 100,000 troops for 10 years, which is a model that does not have a lot of appeal any more.”

Describing the thinking of many in the counterterrorism community, he reasoned, “If you could have prevented 3,000 from dying on 9/11/2001, that’s a real achievement, right? So [for] the counterterrorism people, there’s a moral element to their work, a protective element to their work, they get a bad rap, from Lord knows, people like me, but there’s something to be said for that.”

To answer, “What’s the net effect of drones?” he said, “I would go back to the question of have we actually radicalized more people than we have killed, in which case you may be losing the fight in the long run.”

IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations, Warren Hoge, moderated the conversation.

Watch event video: