It’s been a fact of war since time immemorial that when two sides fight, the innocent and the helpless bystanders, in addition to the combatants, often get killed. Probably since the first group of cavemen saw some guys on the other side of the valley and decided that their cave was better, some poor dude who was just minding his own business by the fire got brained with a rock. As the human race got better and better at killing each other in wars, more and more civilians got killed in episodes of mass destruction. In World War II, it was the Nazis bombing London (and everything else they did), the British fire-bombing Dresden, and America, of course, dropping the big ones on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In Vietnam, it was us again, napalming whole villages on the hint of a Vietcong guerilla or two. In the Gulf War and the Iraq War, Saddam sent Scud missiles at unarmed civilians in other countries, and our own “precision-guided” missiles often took out whole city blocks.
All of this brings us to the present day: the war on terror and drone strikes. Drone strikes, which are supposed to be the mother of all precision weapons, able to take out a solitary enemy target (i.e. terrorist) from a launch dozens of miles away, first became popular under President Bush (the 2nd one) when he declared the War on Terror. President Obama stepped up the drone game significantly, and President Trump hasn’t been shy about using them either in his first few months in office. But are drones always as reliable as those who order their use claim? We take a look at the 15 drone strikes that caused the most destruction. You be the judge.
15. January 2, 2009 Strike – Abandoned Girls’ School
This day marked the final drone strike of Bush the Younger’s presidency, and boy, did he go out with a bang. Sorry, I couldn’t resist that one, especially since, for once, and almost miraculously, the U.S. drone program got one absolutely right — something they haven’t really been able to say since. The strike hit an abandoned girls’ “primary School” that had actually been converted to an Al-Qaeda training base. Inside were Al-Qaeda’s chief of operations, Usama al-Kini, and his second in command, Sheikh Ahmed Salim Swedan. The two men were partially responsible for the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Africa (as seen above). Two other Al-Qaeda operatives were killed, and three to five local “militants” were wounded, making this one pretty darn successful. The attack was actually personally ordered by the then-director of the CIA. I guess it probably made as good a going-away present for President Bush as any!
14. October 20, 2011 – Strike Kills 16-Year-Old American Boy
On this day, a fairly horrible idea by the U.S. intelligence community seems to have gone awry. The ordered drone strike in Yemen was supposed to have killed Al-Qaeda operatives on the Arabian Peninsula but instead managed to kill a 16-year-old American boy. The boy in question undoubtedly had a strange upbringing, as he was the son of the American Muslim cleric and extreme Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, but he was still just a 16-year-old boy with a Colorado birth certificate. The initial U.S. government reports were that the boy was much older and a militant himself, but members of his family, including his grandfather, disputed those claims and said he was just attending a barbecue when the drones struck. One wonders what would happen in the U.S. itself if a kid were killed by another country’s “secret” bombs. We may never know if the boy had any political or radical leanings at all. Eight other people, including his cousin, were killed in the strike.
13. December 13, 2013 – Wedding Targeted
A U.S. drone strike in Yemen killed anywhere from 10 to 17 people and may have injured upwards of 30 more. The scary part is that this strike apparently targeted a wedding convoy and was not as precision-based as our government usually claims drone strikes are. According to some, everybody in the convoy was an innocent civilian, and the bombing was a terrible mistake — a “horrible accident,” in a sense. In fact, many sources at the time claimed that there were at least two Al Qaeda leaders in the convoy, perhaps more, and that’s why we bombed it. Supporters of this theory believe that our drone strike was held back until the convoy was leaving the wedding and support their position by the fact that no women or children were killed — it was all men, which is pretty strange for a “wedding.” It’s also a known fact that our drones have sophisticated imaging systems supporting them — we should have been able to tell if this was just an everyday wedding celebration. No matter the reason, many, many people were killed that day, at least some of them, probably innocent.
12. November 7, 2008 – The CIA Kills Americans Again
This late Bush-era strike by drones was intended to destroy a Pakistani training facility for terrorists and was done with the full cooperation of the Pakistani government. At first, the CIA claimed that it had killed as many as 16 extremists. But later word began to filter out that not only had the CIA not killed only terrorists, but also that it had actually killed five “foreigners,” some of whom were Americans! According to Bob Woodward, one of the reporters who broke the Watergate scandal years ago, “The CIA would not reveal the particulars due to the implications under American law. A top-secret CIA map detailing the attacks had been given to the Pakistanis. Missing from it was the alarming fact about the American deaths . . . . The CIA was not going to elaborate.” As far as we know, they never have, even though Pakistan later condemned this attack.
11. March 9, 2012 – Drone Targets Yemeni Militants, But Kills Civilians
You might notice a bit of a trend here — there are a lot of drone strikes in certain regions of Yemen. That’s because U.S. intelligence, regardless of what the locals or others may say, firmly believes that Yemen has become somewhat of a haven for Al-Qaeda. There’s no other rational explanation for the number of drone strikes in that country. On this day, in the al-Baydah province (yup, again), a missile strike killed 23-34 people. U.S. intelligence officials say they were after a military-style training cadre and killed a commandant as well as over 20 recruits. Other observers, including a report by the Washington Post that interviewed survivors and human rights organizations, claim that everybody who was killed was a civilian. It’s always extremely hard to tell which side is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in these incidents, but certainly, there is plenty of room here for either side to make their claims.
10. December 17, 2009 – Pregnant Women Caught In The Crossfire
Here’s a strike that is rife with controversy to this day — not that any of these are completely spotless from any side you care to view them. On this day, drone cruise missiles, launched by the U.S., with the full knowledge and support of the Yemeni government, hit a Bedouin tribal camp in the village of al-Majalah. The U.S. claimed, after trying to pretend it had no idea what had happened, that they had killed many Al-Qaeda fighters and had also been after a senior leader, Qasim al-Raymi, who (of course) survived the attack. Eventually, the death toll of militants was put down as 14 men. That wasn’t the problem though — everybody on every side agreed that they were militants. It was the 41 civilians — 14 of them women (some pregnant) and 21 of them children — who also died in the attack, that drew the ire of the international community. A surgical strike this was not.
9. January 29, 2017 – Trump’s First Drone Strike
The first Trump administration drone strike also involved the infamous Seal Team Six that hunted down and assassinated Osama bin-Laden. It was actually a combined operation with armed “Reaper” drones providing the cover for the Seal team as it stormed a compound that held suspected Al-Qaeda operatives in Yemen. The operatives included the brother-in-law of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Islamic cleric who became an extreme militant. Al-Awlaki himself had been killed in a previous drone strike in 2011, and this operation by the Joint Special Operations Command was supposed to gather more intelligence on Al-Qaeda. Instead, a firefight erupted, and a U.S. commando was killed. Initial reports on the firefight stated that 14 Al-Qaeda militants had been killed also. However, also killed were a reported 30 civilians, including the eight-year-old daughter of al-Awlaki, herself a U.S. citizen. There were also reports that at least ten of the non-combatants killed were women and children.
8. March 14, 2010 In Yemen – The Innocent
One of the problems with drone strikes is that everybody always disagrees about who was killed, how many were killed, and why they were killed. Such was the case on this day in March back in 2010 in Yemen, which has been long suspected of being a harbor for Al-Qaeda leadership and “militants” (ordinary soldiers). That’s when a Joint Special Operations Command (that’s the same people who organized the Seal Team Six raid on Osama bin-Laden) drone strike killed two “suspected” terrorists in the Abyan province at night. Or so says the Joint Special Operations Command. Other witnesses, however, who were mostly local villagers, told the international and supposedly impartial news agency Reuters that as many as twenty people were killed, all of them “innocent.” There’s the rub — were only two terrorists, bad dudes all-around, killed? Or twenty people who should still be alive? Or, even worse, morally, ask yourself whether the death of 18 innocents is worth the death of two not-so-innocents…
7. January 22, 2013 – Said al-Shehri
After the U.S. somewhat successfully drove Al-Qaeda out of its mountain strongholds in Afghanistan and massively reduced its presence in Pakistan by a little something called “the death of Osama bin-Laden,” the terrorist organization restructured itself and opened up a new group called Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One of the major leaders of this movement in Yemen was a guy by the name of Said al-Shehri. This leader survived multiple attempts by the U.S. to take him out, including the missile strike on this day that missed him but killed three to five others who may not have had anything to do with him. Or may have. It’s a murky world sometimes. Al-Shehri was finally killed in July of that year. But as one of President Bush’s former state department experts has said about these strikes, “Given Yemen’s tribal structure, the US generates roughly forty to sixty new enemies for every AQAP operative killed by drones.” So we might have gotten this guy but guess what — at least 120 other guys, and maybe quite a few more, hate us just as much now for killing their tribal members that day.
6. October 11, 2008 – The Abandoned House
On this day, an “abandoned” house that was part of an Afghan refugee camp was drone-struck in Machis, North Waziristan, Pakistan. What’s interesting about this one is that the Afghan refugee camp actually seemed to be a staging area for fleeing Taliban fighters inside Pakistan, and the U.S. was successful in its attempts to take out some of those fighters. A reported five militants were killed by the strike, all of them foreigners (meaning local Afghans) and “guests,” a term which had the double meaning of “militants” to Pakistani tribesmen in the area. What’s even more interesting is that, for once, every person interviewed at the scene concurred that those killed were simply terrorists. Now that’s unusual! A U.S. intelligence official even said, “Five militants were killed in the attack on a house in a shanty neighborhood known as Machis Colony. There were foreigners also among those killed, and their number and nationality had not yet been ascertained . . . . The mud-walled house has long been used by the guests as their abode.”
5. June 17, 2004 – The Very First Strike In The War On Terror
Many experts consider this to be the very first drone strike in the War on Terror, ordered by President Bush as he escalated his attempts to bring Osama bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda to justice. The supposed target was a Taliban leader named Nek Mohammed, who had literally just lost his amnesty in Pakistan. Coincidence? I think not. Unfortunately for the U.S. and our “surgical strike” policy, in addition to Mohammed and four Taliban fighters, two underage children of the owner of the house he was hiding out in were also killed. This is the sort of thing that perhaps makes more enemies than it destroys and has been a constant and unfortunate side effect of the “Drone War.” One of the boys was 14; the other just eight-years-old. The fact that Mohammed had been a Taliban leader and involved in plots to assassinate Pakistan’s president, General Musharraf, has to be held against the reality of little kids dying.
4. July 14, 2011 – Police Station
This time, we visit the Abyan province of Yemen for a drone strike that actually targeted a whole building rather than just an individual in a car or convoy. On this day, drone missiles were launched against a police station in the area. The reason behind this, for the U.S. intelligence community, was pretty straightforward. The police station was no longer operating as a police station but had been taken over by Al-Qaeda as another operating base for their militants. So we bombed it. CNN reported at the time that as many as 30 people might have been killed in the attack. Yemeni officials claimed that there was such a high casualty rate because those Al-Qaeda soldiers in the station had brought family with them. Whatever the reason, a lot of people died, and who knows how many died senselessly as opposed to being actual terrorists? Probably no one at this far remove.
3. September 2, 2012 – 12 Civilians Are Killed
We go back in time to the same place of our first entry, the al-Baydah province of Yemen, near the city of Radaa. On this day, a U.S. drone apparently missed its target, which was a single car carrying a suspected Al-Qaeda member. Instead, the drone missile exploded, killing twelve civilians. The man suspected of being the target, a local tribal leader called Ahmed Said Al-Dhahab, told human rights organizations that he and others had been working for peace in the area, not for Al-Qaeda, and that “every time we come to a solution, they come to us with airplanes. These are aircraft that aim to seed discord, not just to spy.” Supposedly, the U.S. had been monitoring the area for over a year and still didn’t get the right guy. Or at least the guy they intended to get. Dhahab’s driver even claimed to have seen a plane flying over immediately before the strike.
2. March 7, 2016 – Death To al-Shabab
Compared to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIL, we don’t hear very much about al-Shabab, but this Somalia-based Islamic militant organization is hell-bent on overthrowing the legitimate U.N.-backed government in that country. A little over a year ago in that country, U.S. intelligence noticed a buildup of militants in one of their training camps outside of Mogadishu, that country’s capital. Working in concert with the U.N., U.S. peacekeeping forces ordered a massive airstrike that ended up killing over 150 of the al-Shabab terrorists. According to an American military spokesman, a “large-scale” attack was being planned by the group, and “we knew they were going to be departing the camp and they posed an imminent threat,” Captain Davis said. “Initial assessments are that more than 150 terrorist fighters were eliminated,” he added. So yeah, now you know about al-Shabab. Yay.
1. The Future
Guess what? We’ve spent all of this time talking about the U.S. drone campaigns against Islamic terrorism in the Middle East and Africa. But what if those selfsame Islamic terrorists started a drone campaign of their own? That’s what seems to be the case with the ever-present and truly awful ISIL, who are now supposedly using commercial drones — you know, like the ones the kid down the block flies and Bill Belichick uses to spy on other NFL teams — to drop grenades, small bombs, and even chemical weapons in their bid for supremacy in Syria and Iraq. If you can imagine that, then you can see where such a thing might go. The U.S. has been no angel in its use of expensive, military grade drones, but imagine dozens or hundreds of drones being used in a terror strike in Washington D.C, London, or Tokyo. It could happen, and it could be worse than everything else we’ve seen in drone warfare before it.