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Thanks to Reliance on “Signature” Drone Strikes, US Military Doesn’t Know Who It’s Killing

High-tech weaponry is killing thousands of unidentified people worldwide and maintaining the US permanent war machine in a new form.

A "signature strike" takes place when a drone hits a target based on a target's patterns of behavior - but without knowing the target's identity. (Image: Predator drone via Shutterstock)

Last month, on June 9, the United States launched a drone strike that killed Nasir al-Wuhayshi, a high-ranking leader in the Islamic militant group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). What makes the strike notable is that it was a coincidence: The CIA – the agency that pulled the trigger – had no idea al-Wuhayshi was among the group of suspected militants it targeted. Al-Wuhayshi’s death at the hands of a US drone reveals that the United States continues to fire drone missiles at people whose identities it does not know.

Government officials confirmed the June 9 strike was a “signature strike” to The Washington Post. A signature strike takes place when a drone hits a target based on a target’s patterns of behavior, but without knowing that target’s identity. Thus, a US drone, in a signature strike, will target an area the government believes is filled with militant activity but will not know who exactly they are killing. While signature strikes have been happening for a while in the global war on terror, they signify a serious shift in US war-making. American warfare is increasingly placing a greater emphasis on big data, advanced computing, unmanned systems and cyberwarfare. While this approach may seem “cleaner” and more precise than previous tactics (particularly in contrast the drawn-out and bloody occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan), it is not. High-tech militarism is far from “accurate.” Even more importantly, it inflicts serious human suffering and perpetuates the US permanent-war machine.

Signature Strikes

Signature strikes began during the Bush years, in January 2008, as the US intensified drone strikes in Pakistan. When Obama entered office in 2009, his administration picked up where Bush left off and exponentially increased the number of drone strikes. During his eight years in office, Bush launched 51 drone strikes in Pakistan and killed between 410 and 595 people. Obama, so far, has launched 419 drone strikes in Pakistan, alone, and killed over 4,500 people in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia since 2009.

When a drone strike takes place, the US government “counts all military-aged males in a strike zone as combatant” unless posthumous intelligence proves them innocent, according to a May 2012 New York Times report. A White House fact sheet says this is “not the case.” However, that contradicts what government officials leaked to the media outlets like The New York Times and ProPublica. As the Times report notes, “Counterterrorism officials insist this approach is one of simple logic: People in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.”

In fact, US drone strikes have killed teenagers in countries like Pakistan and Yemen. One example is 16-year-old US citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (son of Islamic militant preacher Anwar al-Awlaki, also a US citizen killed in a US drone strike) in 2011. Then-Attorney General Eric Holder said Abdulrahman was not “specifically targeted.” Another is Mohammed Tuaiman, a 13-year-old Yemeni boy who was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen last February. Drones had killed his brother and father beforehand.

Some State Department officials complained to the White House that the CIA’s criteria for signature strikes was “too lax,” according to The New York Times report. “The joke was that when the C.I.A. sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it is a terrorist training camp, said one senior official. Men loading a truck with fertilizer could be bomb makers – but they might also be farmers, skeptics argued,” the report says.

Drone strikes are launched by the CIA and the US military’s Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), an elite military unit that carries out specialized, risky missions – or “special operations” – such as manhunts, “targeted killings” and rescues. Underneath JSOC’s umbrella are special mission units that directly perform the operations. Those units include the Army’s Delta Force, the Air Force’s 24th Special Tactics Squadron and the Navy’s SEAL Team Six, which killed Osama bin Laden in 2011.

The CIA has a similar paramilitary unit, known as the Special Operations Group (SOG). SOG operates under the CIA’s Special Activities Division – the division that carries out covert operations – and often selects operatives from JSOC. JSOC’s activities are distinct from conventional troops in the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps. The US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) oversees JSOC and all special operations units within every military branch. JSOC also answers directly to the executive branch, with little to no oversight from Congress. Its missions are secret. The CIA is subject to some congressional oversight but still largely answers to the executive branch. This means JSOC and the CIA’s paramilitary unit are virtually the president’s private armies.

The CIA has no drone bases in Yemen, but flies drones out of bases in Saudi Arabia and Djibouti. Last year, the United States signed a new, 20-year lease on its military base in Djibouti, Camp Lemonnier, which is a key hub in the US’s counterterrorism wars in the Horn of Africa. The US flies surveillance and armed drones out of Camp Lemonnier to spy on and kill militant groups in Somalia and Yemen. Recently, Foreign Policy magazine reported that the US has two military bases in Somalia, from which JSOC operates. The bases are used to carry out counterterrorism operations and surveillance, as well as lethal drone missions.

In order to know where to launch a drone strike or other lethal operation, the US needs intelligence. For drone strikes, the main source for that intelligence is electronic – it’s known as “signals intelligence,” as it is the result of monitoring anything with an electronic signal. Targeting for US drone strikes and other extrajudicial operations is based on a complex analysis of metadata and tracking of cellphone SIM cards.

Metadata is data about data – such as who called whom at what time, what day, and for how long – rather than the data’s actual content. Analyzing electronic intelligence can help analysts connect the dots and map a person’s activity, though often not the purpose or substance of that activity. In an earlier email interview, former CIA case officer Robert Steele explained, “Signals intelligence has always relied primarily on seeing the dots and connecting the dots, not on knowing what the dots are saying. When combined with a history of the dots, and particularly the dots coming together in meetings, or a black (anonymous) cellphone residing next to a white (known) cellphone, such that the black acquires the white identity by extension, it becomes possible to ‘map’ human activity in relation to weapons caches, mosques, meetings, etcetera.”

According to The Intercept, “Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.” The NSA will typically pinpoint the location of a suspected terrorist’s cellphone or handset SIM card and feed that information to the CIA or JSOC, which will either launch a lethal drone strike or conduct a raid. JSOC used a similar approach when it conducted raids in Iraq and Afghanistan. To capture or kill militants in Iraq and Afghanistan, JSOC analyzed insurgent networks through surveillance drone imagery and the tracking of cellphone numbers.

However, that approach often leads to killing the wrong people. Because the US government is targeting cellphone SIM cards that are supposedly linked to individuals, rather than the individuals themselves, innocent people are regularly killed. Sometimes Taliban leaders in Pakistan – aware of the US government’s tracking methods – will randomly distribute SIM cards among their fighters to confuse trackers. People who are unaware their phones are being tracked will often “lend their phone, with the SIM card in it, to friends, children, spouses and family members,” according to The Intercept.

Lethal Impacts

The use of signature strikes poses serious legal, strategic and moral questions. The recent Houthi rebellion in Yemen overthrew the US-backed Yemeni government, which the United States relied on to help wage its covert counterterrorism war in the country. As a result, the US has fewer operatives and on-the-ground intelligence sources in Yemen. According to Reuters, the US “will now be forced to rely more on surveillance drones, spy satellites and electronic eavesdropping, as well as their own ‘human intelligence’ sources on the ground.” Thus, the government will defend drone strikes and signature strikes on the basis of convenience and efficacy. The Washington Post reported that “CIA officials have staunchly defended the targeting approach [of signature strikes], saying that analysts poring over drone footage and other surveillance have become adept at detecting patterns – such as the composition and movement of a security detail – associated with senior al-Qaeda operatives.” The government also claims that signature strikes have killed many high-value al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan.

So far this year, there have been between 14 to 15 confirmed US drone strikes in Yemen, which have killed 46 to 69 people, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s (TBIJ) figures. In 2014, there were 13 to 15 confirmed US drone strikes in the country, killing between 82 to 118 people, along with 3 additional US attacks that killed 21 to 22 people. TBIJ’s figures don’t differentiate between who was and was not a “militant,” however; that is hard to determine since many drone strike victims are unknown people. The US government largely does not know who it is killing in drone strikes.

Overall, US drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations have, so far, killed between 3,155 and 5,285 people, including around 563 to 1,213 civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, according to TBIJ’s numbers. A report by the human rights organization Reprieve found that US drone strikes kill 28 unknown people for each intended target. Only 2 percent of those killed by drone strikes in Pakistan are top-level al-Qaeda leaders. The rest of those killed are either lower-level fighters who pose little existential threat to the US, or else they are simply civilians or other unknown individuals.

Stanford and NYU Law Schools released a joint report in late 2012 revealing that not only do drone strikes cause physical harm, they also “[terrorize] men, women and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities.” Because of the harm, terror and anxiety they inflict, drone strikes breed anti-American resentment and are a useful recruitment tool for militant groups to bring people into their fold.

Jack Serle, a data journalist for TBIJ’s Covert Drone War team, who also works on the organization’s Naming the Dead project (which names people killed by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan), told Truthout that signature strikes are very imprecise. He said, “Signature strikes, as a concept, is an incredibly imprecise method of carrying out, what we are told are surgically-precise attacks that destroy the cancer of al-Qaeda, whilst leaving the rest of the tissue in fine fettle. Actually, what they’re doing is using patterns of behavior that aren’t necessarily far from the norm to target groups of people where what the US would consider combatants and would consider noncombatants look pretty much the same and act pretty much the same.”

For example, it is fairly common for men in areas of Pakistan to carry rifles for protection, given the region’s instability and insecurity. That does not mean that they are necessarily “combatants” or members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda. “The core issue here is, actually, the CIA doesn’t really know who they’re killing, and they’re using a tactic which exacerbates that problem,” he added.

Serle pointed out that even though drones have killed some top-level Taliban and al-Qaeda militants, they have not helped stabilize a country like Yemen, which is currently experiencing a civil war. This situation “could well provide AQAP with the space to establish themselves once again like they did in 2011 and 2012.” Bombing people in eastern Yemen “isn’t the best way to resolve the current crisis,” Serle said.

However, alternate ways of addressing terrorism have receded into the background, despite the fact that diplomacy is often the most effective tool for long-term resolution. A RAND study that analyzed 268 terrorist groups worldwide between 1968 and 2006 found that 43 percent ended through a “peaceful political resolution with their government,” 40 percent “were penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies,” while only 7 percent were eliminated by military force.

Beyond their ineffectiveness, Naureen Shah, director of security and human rights at Amnesty International USA, told Truthout that signature strikes are potentially illegal under international law. She explained, “The same rules … apply to signature strikes as [would apply to] any other strike. If it’s happening inside an armed conflict then there are rules about distinction and proportionality. The US has to be distinguishing between combatants – people who can be lawfully directly targeted – and people who are civilians who aren’t participating in hostilities. The concern about signature strikes is if you do not know if the people that you’re targeting are lawful military targets because you don’t know their identity then the strike could be unlawful.”

Under international law, combatants and lawful military targets can include members of a state’s armed forces and militia groups. Shah said that the US’s approach of counting military-age males in a strike zone as combatants is “contrary to international humanitarian law – that is the laws of war – [and] it’s also contrary to US military manuals that require positive identification of targets prior to any strike.”

Shah added there are situations in armed conflicts “where you don’t know the precise identity of the people but you could still know that they were a lawful military target or that they were combatants or that they were civilians participating in hostilities.” But this assumes that there is a legally declared war taking place. And, of course, the US would still have to abide by international regulations regarding distinction and proportionality in combat.

The entire premise of the US global war on terror is legally unsound. The United States claims it is engaged in an armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces” – a term the US created to mean co-belligerents with al-Qaeda, such as AQAP. As a result, the US asserts it has the right and duty to engage in extrajudicial killing operations against those groups, even in countries where the US has not declared war, like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

However, terrorist and militant groups like al-Qaeda are too loosely organized and disparate to constitute legitimate parties in an armed conflict under international law. For example, AQAP is not the same organization as al-Shabaab or the Taliban. Terrorist groups are more like criminal gangs or drug cartels than armies, paramilitaries or guerrilla fighters. Thus, a so-called “war” against terrorist groups violates the basic tenets of international law.

Future of US Warfare

The advanced computing and intelligence-gathering required for drone strikes signifies what the future of US war-making will look like. To institutionalize the extrajudicial killing program for an indefinite future, the Obama administration created a massive database of terrorism suspects for kill-or-capture operations called the “disposition matrix.

According to the Washington Post, which exposed the matrix’s existence in 2012, the “continually evolving” database catalogues “biographies, locations, known associates and affiliated organizations,” along with “strategies for taking targets down, including extradition requests, capture operations and drone patrols.” The Post notes that “the government expects to continue adding names to kill or capture lists for years,” meaning that drone strikes and high-tech military and other lethal operations are becoming a solid fixture in the American war machine.

According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the military’s intelligence-sharing system, “A key challenge facing the military services is providing users with the capabilities to analyze the huge amount of intelligence data being collected.” Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) systems collect and analyze intelligence for numerous military and national security operations. ISR systems include satellites, manned aircraft like the U-2, unmanned drones, ground-based sensors, human intelligence teams, and other ground, air, sea, or space-based equipment. Intelligence can be drawn from numerous sources – publicly available information known as “open-source intelligence,” people including spies or informants (human intelligence), maps and imagery called “geospatial intelligence,” and electronic data and communications known as “signals intelligence.”

The proliferation of drones, growth of new technologies and sensors, expansion of advanced ISR systems (particularly to support the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan), and the changing nature of military operations – with an emphasis on counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and counterterrorism in countries like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – “changed some of the traditional ways intelligence information was used.” As a result, “The need to integrate the large amount of available intelligence data, including the ability to synthesize information from different types of intelligence sources (e.g., HUMINT, SIGINT, GEOINT, and open source), has become increasingly important in addressing, for example, improvised explosive device threats and tracking the activities of certain components of the local population.”

A report by the think tank Center for a New American Security (CNAS) argued that “the next several decades may see a period of discontinuous change in both technology and warfare,” also known as a “military-technical revolution” or “revolution in military affairs,” which is a revolution in “new military technologies, operational concepts and organizations.” A simple example would be the shift from bows and arrows to gunpowder. The proliferation of drones and other unmanned systems in the United States and around the world contributes greatly to this change.

According to the GAO report, “From 2002 to 2010, the number of unmanned aerial systems in DOD’s [Department of Defense] inventory has increased about forty fold, from about 170 to 7,500 aircraft.” The CIA has over 80 Predator drones, while the Air Force has 468 Predators and the Army has 110, according to an October 2014 War Is Boring piece – based on General Atomics’ (company that makes Predator drones) numbers – on drone fleet figures.

Finding and killing insurgents and terrorists is difficult, because they know how to mix with (or are part of) the local population, as P.W. Singer explains in his book Wired for War. Drones and other robotic weapons are attractive because they can hover over territory for a long time, surveil and gather intelligence, and fire missiles on command without risking the lives of US troops. However, there are always still people in “harm’s way”: those at the receiving end of the missile.

Drones are not the only harbinger of a military-technical revolution. The CNAS report says that “[o]ther emerging technologies may disrupt the global military balance as well, such as offensive cyber warfare tools; advanced computing; artificial intelligence; densely interconnected, multi-phenomology sensors; electric weapons such as directed energy, electromagnetic rail guns and high-powered microwave weapons; additive manufacturing and 3-D printing; synthetic biology; and even technologies to enhance human performance on the battlefield.”

During the Cold War, the US government funded research and development into advanced technologies that led to “missiles, guided munitions, computer networking, satellites, global positioning” and stealth technology. However, this military-technical revolution, the report says, “is not being led by the American military-industrial complex.” Instead, “companies focused on producing consumer goods and business-to-business services are driving many other key enabling technologies, such as advanced computing and ‘big data,’ autonomy, artificial intelligence, miniaturization, additive manufacturing and small but high density power systems.” This means the private sector, particularly Silicon Valley, is driving this military-technical revolution. The report asserts, “All of these technologies – largely evolving in the thriving commercial computing and robotics sectors – could be exploited to build increasingly sophisticated and capable unmanned and autonomous military systems.”

In fact, the US war machine is already building strong ties with Silicon Valley. Google, for example, sells its technologies to numerous US military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA and NGA. The company has a contract with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) – which provides geospatial intelligence like maps and satellite imagery to the military and other intelligence agencies – that allows the agency to use Google Earth Builder for geospatial intelligence purposes. According to a press release, the contract “allows NGA to customize Google Earth & Maps to provide maps and globes to support U.S. government activities, including: U.S. national security; homeland security; environmental impact and monitoring; and humanitarian assistance, disaster response and preparedness efforts” (emphasis added).

Google also has partnerships with two of the country’s biggest defense contractors – Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Google worked with Lockheed in 2007 to design geospatial technologies, particularly a Google Earth product for the NGA’s activities in Iraq during the 2003-2011 war. Google also partners with military/intelligence contractors like Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and Blackbird Technologies. Blackbird supplies locators that track, tag and locate suspected enemies to the US military, particularly the US Navy and SOCOM. Some Blackbird employees were also sent as armed operatives to join US special operations forces on secret missions. Blackbird’s vice president is Cofer Black, a former CIA operative who ran the agency’s Counterterrorist Center before 9/11 and helped create the torture program when the war on terror began.

Palantir is another tech company with deep ties to the national security state. The Palo-Alto-based company makes and sells data-mining and analysis software to multiple branches of the US military, as well as intelligence and law enforcement agencies: Its customers include the US Marine Corps, SOCOM, CIA, NSA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), and New York Police Department (NYPD). According to the Wall Street Journal, Palantir’s software is unique because it can quickly scan and categorize – via a ” ‘tagging’ technique similar to that used by the search functions on most Web sites” – multiple sources of incoming data, like a first or last name or phone number. This helps analysts “connect the dots” among large pools of information.

As a result, the US military and many police and intelligence agencies want Palantir’s software in their arsenal. US Marines and special operations forces used Palantir’s software and found it useful to locate insurgents who made homemade bombs, and for their other missions.

Even if Palantir’s technology is useful in certain situations, the real question to ask is to what end is that technology being used. When the US war machine’s primary goals are full-spectrum dominance and global hegemony, advanced technology will be used to advance them. Protecting lives takes a backseat to the US’s overarching goal of maintaining its global hegemony, especially with respect to technological advances. If any other nation gains a military technological advantage over the United States, then that undermines the US hegemony in the international system. This is more about power projection and protecting US economic and geopolitical interests than “defense.” On top of that, making fancy technological tools for the US military and other intelligence agencies is a massive cash-cow for the private sector – from defense/intelligence contractors like Booz Allen Hamilton to Silicon Valley companies like Google.

Futuristic, high-tech militarism is not as “clean” nor “precise” as it is marketed. Drone strikes, particularly signature strikes, are very imprecise, kill thousands of people, and inflict serious harm, suffering and injury. What this new form of militarism does do, however, is maintain the US’s permanent war machine in a new form. The US’s goals of global hegemony and full-spectrum dominance remain the same. This latest military-technical revolution is simply another – more sophisticated and less visible – way of achieving it.

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