What do Reyaad Khan, Ruhul Amin, Samir Khan, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Junaid Hussain and Micah Xavier Johnson have in common? All of these young, brown-skinned males were killed extrajudicially through the use of remote-control technology under authorization by their very own government.
British nationals Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin had traveled to Syria to join up with ISIS (the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in response to Western military intervention in the Middle East. Both were killed by the Royal Air Force (RAF) in August 2015 using lethal drones, even though the British parliament had voted down Cameron’s call for war in Syria. Ironically, in the year of the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, the prime minister chose to deploy missiles to destroy these compatriots without indicting or trying them for crimes. Following the precedent set by US President Barack Obama four years earlier, Cameron claimed to be acting in national self-defense. Obama had authorized the drone killing in Yemen of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, an outspoken opponent of US militarism and an advocate of jihad.
Al-Awlaki was said to be an operational leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but no evidence of his alleged crimes has ever been released by the US government. Shortly after September 11, 2001, the Muslim cleric gave speeches in which he denounced the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks carried out on that day and warned that the US government needed to be careful to avoid being perceived as waging a war on Islam. In the period following 9/11, he himself was harassed by the FBI, and imprisoned for more than a year in Yemen at the US government’s request. Ultimately, Al-Awlaki came to sympathize with the very radical Islamists whom he had earlier decried.
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After being released from the prison where he was detained without charges, Al-Awlaki was eliminated by US drone on September 30, 2011, along with Samir Khan, also a US citizen, who had been putting out pro-jihad propaganda. Two weeks later, Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, who had only just turned 16 years of age (making him a “military age” male) was eliminated by a US drone as well, also in Yemen. Was the son intentionally killed? Or did a missile just happen to land in the remote village where he and his friends were preparing to enjoy their evening meal? The US government has declined to comment on the case, citing State Secrets Privilege under a pretext of national security.
A Retrogression to Medieval Times
Most criticism of remote-control killing abroad has focused on the extent of non-combatant casualties. The lowest estimates derive from the US government’s “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” of July 1, 2016, which claims that somewhere between 64 and 116 civilians were killed by 473 drone strikes in unoccupied territories from January 2009 through December 2015.
Perhaps such implausibly low estimates are to be expected from an administration which gloated in 2011 that no civilians at all were killed by US drones in Pakistan during the previous year, despite vigorous protests against the drone killing and maiming of women, children and innocent men in that very same year. The US government’s explanation for the large disparity between their civilian death toll and those of NGOs, whose numbers range from hundreds to thousands, is that everyone but the killers themselves has been tricked by the propaganda of terrorist factions. Only the drone warriors know who the real terrorists are, the implication being that many of the people thought by locals to have been innocent were in fact guilty as charged of capital crimes.
If this schema of “justice” sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it basically describes the situation in human societies before the 1215 Magna Carta, when modern procedural justice and conceptions of human rights were unheard of. In ancient and medieval times, those in power could decree people to be guilty and “justice” would be meted out accordingly. Transparency, due process, habeas corpus (the right to be charged with a crime before being locked up), and the right to a fair and speedy trial are all modern advances said to be championed by Western democracies. The grand irony of the super-modern technology of remote-control killing is that it has ushered in a moral and legal retrogression to medieval times.
In the early years of the Drone Age, only named suspects or insurgents who posed a threat to soldiers on the ground were targeted with drones. However, President Barack Obama succeeded over two terms in office in normalizing the targeted killing of persons designated as state enemies on the basis of their patterns of behavior. In what are termed “signature strikes,” military-age males have been intentionally hunted down and slaughtered for such behaviors as carrying a rifle in a remote-tribal region or riding around in the back of a truck “in the manner of insurgents.” Allegedly “mortal enemies” have also been identified through drone surveillance by their manner of dress, whether they pray several times a day, and whether they stand or squat to urinate.
It is in some ways difficult to comprehend how President Obama, a brown-skinned American male, came to champion what is tantamount to a flagrant policy of racial profiling. Yet he opted not only to continue but to expand the use of signature strikes to cover more and more territories, including countries such as Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia, with which the United States was not officially at war when he assumed the presidency. What appears to have happened is that every angry dissident in remote tribal regions where jihadists are believed to seek refuge is assumed to pose a threat as grave as that of Osama bin Laden. Yet most of them are poor and may not even possess passports.
The Drone Assassination Assault on Democracy
Since 2001, the US government has struck deals with monarchic regimes in Yemen and elsewhere to effectively cede their country’s sovereignty, allowing the drone “warriors” to kill targets in exchange for military aid. Many tribesmen pegged for death with the assistance of local intelligence operatives are far more likely to be political dissidents than international terrorists, given that they openly oppose their central government authority. These modes of government collaboration can be expected to prevent the democratization of countries run by autocrats with access to lethal drones.
The intentional drone killing of US and British citizens illustrates that the lethal power of the state has dramatically augmented in the Drone Age. Remote-control technology has made it possible to eliminate targets without risking the lives of compatriot soldiers, and this makes it much easier for the president or prime minister to kill. Lethal drones seem to offer the possibility of defending the nation without sacrificing any troops, and have been successfully marketed to politicians as tools of “smart war.” In truth, risk is not being eliminated but transferred to civilians on the ground. The UK human rights group Reprieve has documented that many named suspects were claimed by officials to have been killed multiple times before finally being eliminated by a drone-delivered missile. Who were the people mistakenly killed in their stead?
The persons intentionally executed by lethal drones while living in their own civil societies have been denied all human rights codified in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including Article 11, the “innocent until proven guilty” clause. But their neighbors, many of whom are not even suspected of complicity with terrorist groups, have also been wronged, for they have been terrorized by the specter of unpredictable death delivered by capricious killers who decree territories “outside areas of active hostilities” to be “battlegrounds” before firing missiles upon them. The people living in such places have no way of knowing when, why or against whom the next missile will thunder down from the sky. Small wonder that a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afflicts not only bereft survivors and persons maimed by missiles, but also those who have heard about victims destroyed without warning and for reasons never disclosed.
Westerners tend to assume that collateral damage is exhausted by body count, and arguments over the precise number of dead victims have served to distract from the other, in some ways more insidious, moral and political problems with drone assassination. The fear instilled in tribal communities living under drones, which leads persons to avoid meeting in groups, not only terrorizes and angers entirely innocent people — some of whom are radicalized as a result, along with sympathizers in the West — but also undermines freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, both of which are essential to flourishing societies and cornerstones of democracy.
Acting as Police, Judge, Jury and Executioners
The ongoing denial by officials of the magnitude of harm done to people living under lethal drones underscores what is most troubling of all about this form of state-delivered homicide: the killers act as the police, judge, jury and executioners, while also penning the official story of what they have done. They get the last word. “He said, she said,” but the one with the missile is always right. Does might make right? Throughout history, people in power have presumed as much, but dissidents who rise up to speak truth to power know very well that the annihilation of people who inconveniently disagree in no way demonstrates that they were wrong.
British citizen Junaid Hussain, for example, appears to have understood the conclusions of the government-commissioned 2016 Chilcot Report, which sharply criticized Britain’s role in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Hussain was convicted of having hacked into former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s email. After serving six months in prison, Hussain fled to Syria to join up with ISIS. Characterized by one anonymous military analyst as “a nuisance,” he was perhaps closer to the propagandist Samir Khan than to someone like Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”). Unfortunately, the 21-year-old hacker, whose anger about the 2003 invasion was indeed righteous, came to collaborate with ISIS and to advocate the use of violence to counter violence. He was killed by a US drone, but British intelligence was used to hunt him down.
Given that a primary means to conflict resolution deployed by powerful governments with every tool of diplomacy at their disposal has become homicide, perhaps it should be unsurprising that factions and individuals with no institutional power should take up arms as well. Junaid Hussain was nine years old at the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Do not Western governments bear responsibility for inculcating in such young people the idea that conflicts are best resolved by killing?
US citizen Micah Xavier Johnson, who was said to sympathize with the Black Lives Matter movement, among other activist groups, was killed on July 7, 2016, in Dallas, Texas. Infuriated by the many police-inflicted deaths of African Americans in US cities, Johnson’s confused response was to turn the tables and carry out a shooting spree which culminated in the deaths of five Dallas policemen. The police chief then opted to deploy a robot strapped with explosives to blow up Johnson, as though he were a condemned building — perhaps the most flagrant desecration of a human body ever to be carried out by law enforcement officials in the United States.
The capture of Johnson was said by his killers to be “infeasible,” echoing the justifications of drone warriors. No one appears to have considered the possibility of using tranquilizers to knock out the suspect so that he could be tried for his crimes. Was the perpetrator, a military veteran, temporarily insane as a result of psychotropic medication or PTSD — or both? The case was closed by state execution.
Crushing Dissent With Drone Killing
The United States has from its inception been a constitutional republic grounded, at least nominally, in democratic principles. As a result, complacent citizens take for granted some of their most fundamental rights, including the right to a fair trial and to be convicted of a capital crime before being executed by the state. What the remote-control killers have failed to appreciate is that the very human rights which they proudly claim to champion are being denied whenever a person is stalked and slain. One of the seldom-recognized rights being denied is the right to express dissent from the policies of one’s government.
Micah Johnson, like the British and American men who came to support jihad before being intentionally destroyed by remote control, was protesting state-inflicted homicide in his own misguided way. He followed the grisly example of his own government by killing even more. Because all of these men were annihilated, rather than allowed to stand trial, the basis for their dissent was forever erased — just as happened in the case of Osama bin Laden, who was executed point blank by US Special Forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan, rather than being captured and imprisoned to stand trial.
These violent dissidents all chose the wrong means to protest state killing, which was then used to silence them forever, cementing the government’s account as the history of what transpired. Propaganda lines such as “they hate us for our freedom” are much easier for people to accept than that their taxes are being use to destroy families and terrorize entire communities with the ominous threat of death delivered from the sky. Among the sources of Bin Laden’s own anger were the 500,000 children in Iraq who died as a result of crippling sanctions imposed after the bombing of water treatment facilities during the 1991 Gulf War. More recent advocates of jihad have explicitly cited drone strikes as the reason they decided to fight back.
The recent call by CIA director John Brennan for the removal of all of Anwar al-Awlaki’s sermons from the internet — some of which were critical of Western intervention but did not advocate jihad — suggests that the abandonment of basic principles of justice (transparency and due process) occasioned by the advent of lethal drones will further erode seemingly stable democracies by muffling dissent. The announcement in 2011 by the Pentagon that it would counter cyberattacks using military means signaled a broadening of targeting criteria to include nonviolent dissidents who undertake only to expose war crimes and do not call for jihad. Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly asked whether Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, could not be taken out by a drone. The very threat of military responses to obviously nonviolent dissenters can itself be expected to suppress criticism as well — just as effectively as the harsh punishment of whistleblowers in the United States.
With the drone industry boom now well underway, the capacity to kill by remote-control is spreading all over the globe, to democratic and nondemocratic nations alike. Pointing to the United States, Britain and Israel as their role models, every petty despot is now able to eliminate political dissidents by labeling them “terrorists.” There is no way to check the spread of summary execution in places such as Nigeria and Pakistan, where drones have already been used by the government to kill compatriots in their homeland. Those in power naturally say that enemies of the state deserve to die, but the summary execution without trial of persons who disagree is the modus operandi of tyrannical not democratic regimes.
Drone Assassination as Politics by Other Means
We should expect to see a further expansion of remote-control killing both at home and abroad as politicians awaken to the idea that dissidents need not be violent in order to endanger the status quo privilege of power elites. When drones come to be used in domestic contexts to eliminate “nuisance” hackers akin to Junaid Hussain, then not only will this technology prevent other countries from developing into democracies, it will also degrade those already in existence, as dissidents’ rights continue to be denied primarily as a means of preventing them from expressing dissent. Drone assassination is not merely a tactic or tool used to fight terrorism. It has become “politics by other means”, destroying not only people but also the possibility of change.
Moral indignation leads far more often to activism and the vocal expression of dissent than it does to murder. We do not know that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki would have taken up arms to avenge his father’s death. If in fact he was intentionally targeted, then he was snuffed out under the racist assumption that he would develop into a radical Islamic terrorist and seek violent revenge for his father’s extrajudicial execution by the US government. He might, instead, have made history by calling for a halt to the madness of killing on both sides.
The nihilistic use of drones to destroy brown-skinned suspects who might possibly decide at some point in the future to undertake jihad in response to the unjust killing of states represents a disturbing devaluation of human life.
The elimination of young people who follow the example of political leaders in advocating violence as a form of conflict resolution will continue to remove some of the best and brightest from Muslim and black communities. Western governments have failed these young men not only by stripping them of all of their rights, but also by teaching them to counter homicide with more homicide. And then killing them for following their advice.