Killer App: Drones Are Lynchpin of Obama's War on Terror

By SPIEGEL ONLINE Staff

CIA drones are killing terrorists -- and civilians -- in Pakistan almost every day. The unmanned aircraft are becoming the weapon of choice in the fight against al-Qaida and its allies. But the political, military and moral consequences are incalculable. SPIEGEL ONLINE has investigated Barack Obama's remote-controlled campaign against terrorism.

An image of a potential target relayed by a US drone. Zoom
Getty Images

An image of a potential target relayed by a US drone.

What is the cost of rendering a terrorist harmless once and for all by killing him? During the course of 14 months, the CIA used unmanned and heavily armed small aircraft known as drones to stage 15 strikes against the presumed locations of the leader of the Pakistani Taliban. On Aug. 5, 2009, on the 16th try, the drones finally managed to kill Baitullah Mehsud.

On that day, a Predator drone was hovering about three kilometers (2 miles) above the house of Mehsud's father-in-law, somewhere in the Pakistani province of South Waziristan. The drone's infrared camera sent remarkably sharp images in real time to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The images showed the Taliban leader sitting on the roof of his house, in the company of his wife, his uncle and a doctor.

Photo Gallery

11  Photos
Photo Gallery: Waging War with the Click of a Mouse
At that very moment, thousands of miles away in the United States, someone pressed a button, and two Hellfire missiles shot from the drone. Mehsud and 11 others were killed.

This incident is so well documented because it was reconstructed for an article in The New Yorker. But the hunt for Mehsud cost the lives of far more than 11 people. According to estimates, between 207 and 321 people died in the course of the 16 attempts to eliminate Mehsud -- and it is certain that not all of them were Taliban fighters.

Obama, Prince of Peace and King of the Drones

So what is the value of eliminating a terrorist? The US's drone war has been expanded dramatically in the last year and a half, an escalation that began under former President George W. Bush. But his successor, Nobel Peace Prize winner Barack Obama, has not just continued the program. He has elevated it to the preferred method for killing al-Qaida and its allies.

More missiles have already been fired from drones in the 13 months since Obama has been in office than in the entire eight years of the Bush presidency. Dozens have been fired since the beginning of the year, and this year the US military will, for the first time, likely train more drone pilots than fighter pilots, says P.W. Singer, an expert on modern warfare at the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution. According to Singer, as many as a third of all aircraft the military acquires in the future will be unmanned. At any given moment each day, several unmanned aircraft are in use against terrorists in the skies above Pakistan. Others are in the skies over Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The CIA program has in fact had a number of successes so far:

  • Najmiddin Jalolov, leader of the Islamic Jihad Union which is active in Afghanistan and whose German members planned to set off a series of bombings in Germany, was killed by a drone.

  • Hakimullah Mehsud, Baitullah's successor as the head of the Pakistani militant group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, was presumably also killed by a drone, even though the Taliban deny it.

  • Abu Laith al-Libi, a senior al-Qaida leader with connections to terrorist groups throughout Asia, was killed by a drone.

And the list goes on. Experts believe that only 50 truly important al-Qaida leaders are still alive. The drones are seen as the most effective weapon against them.

Photo Gallery

3  Photos
Graphics Gallery: The Use of Drones
Not surprisingly, the use of drones is making militants increasingly paranoid, and they are trying to make themselves even less conspicuous. They are also hunting down local informants who have been marking the targets, and are executing anyone they suspect of collaborating with the Americans. Only two weeks ago, two suspected spies were savagely killed in Pakistan.

There is no question that the CIA's drones have literally given wings to the so-called global war on terror.

Agonizing Questions and Growing Resistance

But other questions remain -- or are being newly raised. Is it right for a democratic, constitutional state to kill with the click of a mouse? Who monitors the CIA agents involved and the private companies to which a portion of the dirty work is outsourced? On what authority are the hit lists prepared, which are now believed to contain the names of 367 terrorists, plus about 50 Afghan drug lords who apparently have also been declared targets?

Criticism of Obama is mounting. Is he truly a prince of peace? The left wing of the Democrats doesn't think so, and neither do many legal scholars and human rights activists. Besides, no one can say how many civilians are dying along with the terrorists -- or in place of the terrorists if they have already changed their location.

Photo Gallery

8  Photos
Photo Gallery: Prominent Victims of Drone Attacks
Estimates of the percentage of civilian casualties in drone attacks vary widely, from 10 percent to 90 percent. Peter Bergen, an analyst at the New America Foundation, estimates that about a third of the dead are innocent civilians. Is this number acceptable? Bergen's somewhat unsatisfactory answer is that the drone program is the US's "least bad option."

One of the reasons this option is problematic is that it carries a high political price. The United States forces the government of Pakistan to walk a tightrope between secretly helping the CIA and publicly criticizing the Americans. This balancing act is becoming ever less credible, while the terrorists do everything they can to further discredit Islamabad.

Finally, is killing terrorists actually effective? Any information they have is lost once they are dead. In addition, they are quickly replaced, and their successors may be just as experienced, uncompromising and hard to locate.

A Shady War of Quick Successes

About eight years ago, in 2002, the United States killed a terrorist with a drone for the first time. Abu Ali al-Harithi, an al-Qaida member, was eliminated in Yemen, together with five other suspected terrorists.

What was a sensation at the time is established practice today. The CIA's drone program has become firmly established. The US Army has also been using drones in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, albeit primarily for reconnaissance purposes. Obama seems determined to continue using this weapon, and he isn't alone. The British also use drones in Afghanistan, and the German military, the Bundeswehr, relies on the services of US drone pilots.

This method of warfare is being massively expanded under the leadership of the Americans. It's a war of quick successes and of decisions made in the shadows. A war that appears to be clean and yet amounts to government-ordered murder. It is a war that will undoubtedly expand in the coming years.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

SPIEGEL ONLINE correspondents have investigated this new method of warfare and conducted research in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Germany. Read about Obama's drone campaign against terrorism in the following articles.


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The Most Important Drone Models
MQ-1 Predator
The MQ-1 Predator was the first drone put into operation. It was introduced in 1995 by the US Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit Price: About $4.5 million
Armament: Two air-to-surface AGM-114 Hellfire missiles
Dimensions: 8.23 meters long, 14.84-meter wingspan
Range: 3,704 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 7,620 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
MQ-9 Reaper
The MQ-9 Reaper (formerly Predator B) is based on the same technology as the MQ-1 Predator. However, it can carry 10 times more weaponry than its predecessor. It is used by the US Navy and Air Force.

Manufacturer: General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Unit price: $10.5 million
Armament: Up to 1,351 kg (e.g. AGM-114 Hellfire and AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles or the GBU-12 Paveway II and GBU-38 DAM bombs)
Dimensions: 10.97 meters long, 20.12-meter wingspan
Range: 5,926 kilometers
Maximum Altitude: 15,400 meters
Control: Remotely controlled by a pilot
RQ-7 Shadow 200
The RQ-7 Shadow 200 is used by the US Army and US Marine Corps for reconnaissance. It has been in operation since 2003 and is not capable of flying attack missions.

Manufacturer: AAI Corporation
Unit Price: $275,000
Armament: none
Size: 3.4 meters long, 3.9-meter wingspan
Range: 125 kilometers
Maximum altitude: 4,600 meters
Control: Autonomous, with GPS

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