President Donald Trump is (almost) out of office. Yet, there still needs to be reckoning with his record on drone strikes, assassination and militarism. As Trump plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, some may imagine Trump is a less militaristic president than his predecessors. But the reality is that Trump continued the perpetual war machine, especially the targeted killing program created by George W. Bush and greatly expanded by Barack Obama.
Remember Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S. citizen that the U.S. government, under Obama, accused of being a terrorist and assassinated with no due process in 2011 — killing his teenage son afterward? At that time, progressive and civil libertarian critics of Obama’s assassinations warned that this program would not remain in the hands of an ostensibly benevolent, liberal constitutional lawyer like Obama. The war powers established by one president are transferred to their successor. The “kill list” inevitably wound up in a Republicans’ hands. That list is now in Trump’s hands and U.S. citizens are still in its crosshairs.
In fact, another U.S. citizen is reportedly on the U.S. government’s kill list. This person is a freelance journalist named Bilal Abdul Kareem. In late September 2019, a federal judge, U.S. District Judge Rosemary Collyer of the District of Columbia, dismissed Abdul Kareem’s lawsuit challenging his alleged placement on a U.S. government kill list. Abdul Kareem had already survived and escaped five U.S. airstrikes while he was working in Syria.
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The year prior, in June 2018, Judge Collyer actually refused to dismiss Abdul Kareem’s lawsuit, which allowed his legal challenge to move forward. This is the complete opposite of her most recent judgment on Abdul Kareem’s case. According to The Washington Post, Collyer’s ruling in 2018 allowed Abdul Kareem “to seek answers and try to clear his name after what he claims were five near-misses by U.S. airstrikes in Syria after he was mistaken for a militant because of his frequent contact with al-Qaeda-linked militants.” When government lawyers asked her to dismiss the lawsuit, Collyer argued that while Abdul Kareem could not challenge the assassination program as arbitrary or illegal, he had “birthright” as a citizen to assert his constitutional right to due process.
The federal government did not confirm or deny that Abdul Kareem was designated a national security threat. Justice Department attorneys “argued that if Abdul Kareem’s near miss experiences were true as alleged, they were more likely due to his choice to work as a journalist amid Syria’s brutal, multisided civil war, or actions by other combatants,” The Post reported.
In 2019, Collyer changed her mind and dismissed Abdul Kareem’s case. Her switch was prompted by the U.S. government’s invoking of state secrets authority to protect its assassination program. The Washington Post reported, “[A]fter talks between Abdul Kareem’s lawyers and U.S. authorities broke down, the government tapped the rarely invoked state secrets authority, saying Abdul Kareem sought information revealing ‘the existence and operational details of alleged military and intelligence activities directed at combating the terrorist threat to the United States.’” The invocation of state secrets authority was enough to make Collyer acquiesce to the U.S. government’s demands.
Government prosecutors claimed that disclosing whether Abdul Kareem is on the kill list would reveal or compromise intelligence sources and methods and allow him to escape any possible U.S. action, The Post reported. Abdul Kareem and his lawyers are currently appealing this decision.
Abdul Kareem is a New York City native, former stand-up comic, and a Black Muslim who, for nearly a decade, has been a freelance reporter working in the opposition-held territory in Syria. He has provided on-the-ground commentary for major networks like CNN. Because of his ability to move around Syria and directly speak to al-Qaeda-linked militant groups, U.S. intelligence agencies most likely pinged Abdul Kareem as an affiliate with al-Qaeda-linked militant groups — essentially, guilt by association.
In an interview with journalist CJ Werleman, Abdul Kareem says he is able to move freely among these openly anti-American militant groups because he has been able to establish “mutual respect.” War reporting often puts journalists in situations where they interview or come into contact with unsavory groups and individuals to get their stories. This is similar to how the late British journalist Robert Fisk was able to interview Osama bin Laden three times.
When asked about the possibility that the U.S. government is pinging him as an al-Qaeda affiliate, Abdul Kareem said, “I have no idea and never had any idea.” He added, “My point is this: I have no idea what the US Government saw or didn’t see, but now there is no legal recourse for me. No true day in court. No opportunity to show the people the reality.”
Abdul Kareem denies he has any link with or membership in al-Qaeda or similar group and rejects accusations of being an “al-Qaeda apologist.” Moreover, Abdul Kareem said he has not received any money from any U.S.-designated “terrorist” groups.
Last August, Abdul Kareem was arrested in Syria’s opposition-held Idlib Governorate by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militant group. As of this writing, he is still being detained by HTS in an unknown location with unclear reasons for his detention.
Trump’s War Machine Has Dropped More Bombs and Killed More Civilians
Within the first two years of his administration, Trump launched far more drone and lethal strikes than Obama. According to a Daily Beast analysis, Trump launched 238 drone strikes in 2017 and 2018. During Obama’s first two years in office, in 2009 and 2010, his administration launched 186 strikes. As of this writing, according to Airwars, Trump has launched 205 declared strikes in Yemen and 196 in Somalia. In fact, a recent Airwars report suggests that Trump may have ordered more attacks in Yemen than all previous U.S. presidents combined, with anywhere between 86 to 154 civilians killed.
Just as Trump entered office, he relinquished constraints on the U.S. military and CIA to conduct air and drone strikes and raids around the world as part of the “war on terror.” In March 2017, the Trump administration gave the CIA new authority to launch drone strikes against suspected terrorists without permission from the Pentagon or the White House. This departs from the Obama administration’s approach, particularly in the later years, when the CIA typically used drones to locate suspected terrorists and the U.S. military launched the actual strikes. Before Trump, Pakistan was the one country where the CIA had a near monopoly to launch drone strikes.
Along with the CIA, the U.S. military has fewer constraints when it comes to doing damage around the world. The United States has been conducting lethal strikes in Yemen and Somalia for the past decade. However, the U.S. never officially declared war against either country. They lie outside the conventional battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, which the United States actually invaded and occupied.
In March 2017, however, the Trump administration declared parts of Yemen and Somalia to be areas “of active hostilities” for at least 180 days. This gave the military wider latitude to conduct offensive strikes in both countries and loosened protections for civilians.
Trump also removed the Obama-era rules that required a “near certainty” of no civilian deaths for drone strikes launched outside of official war zones. On top of that, Trump recently removed, via executive order in 2019, the U.S. government’s reporting on civilian deaths by drones.
Trump’s loosening of restrictions exacerbated a set of already-hawkish policies. While Obama had some constraints, his administration still gave ample authority to the CIA and military to launch drone and other lethal strikes around the world.
What Obama did was further cement and institutionalize the war on terror framework established under President Bush after 9/11. For example, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which allows the president to use force against suspected terrorists around the world and “associated forces,” (a phrase not included in the original text) was added in subsequent interpretations and stretched by the Obama administration to include newer “co-belligerents” of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. This gives the president power to launch attacks against terrorist groups, like al-Shabaab, that were founded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In addition, Obama created a “disposition matrix” — a massive database of people suspected of terrorism ties that the U.S. government intends to capture or kill (in most cases, kill). Essentially, the “disposition matrix” is a massive kill list that is now in Trump’s hands.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did write a draft authorization to replace the 2001 AUMF. However, it does not restrict or eliminate the president’s perpetual war powers but, rather, reaffirms them. The main update is that the authorization explicitly includes the groups the United States is already fighting against — the Taliban, al-Qaeda, ISIS and the catch-all phrase “associated forces” that includes terrorist groups fighting alongside al-Qaeda.
The constraints placed under Obama did little to rein in the war machine’s carnage. During his two terms in office, Obama launched 563 lethal strikes, mostly by drones, in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, killing anywhere between 384 to 807 civilians. Bush, on the other hand, launched 57 drone strikes during his two terms; in comparison, Obama launched 10 times more drone strikes than Bush. Since tracking civilian deaths is difficult and the U.S. government is not transparent about the civilians it kills in drone strikes, those numbers are a conservative estimate.
As a result of these looser rules, the U.S. war machine under Trump has been dropping more bombs and killing more civilians. The Pentagon estimated that 499 civilians were killed in U.S. military operations in 2017, but that’s an undercount. Within the first six months of Trump’s presidency, the U.S. killed more civilians than Obama in the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. According to an Airwars investigation, U.S.-led coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria killed around 2,200 civilians by July 2017, or 360 civilian deaths per month. In comparison, under Obama, from mid-2014 (when the U.S.-led war against ISIS began) to the end of 2016, coalition strikes killed at least 2,300, or 80 civilian deaths per month.
According to a United Nations report, U.S.-backed forces in Afghanistan killed more civilians in the first three months of 2019 than the Taliban and ISIS did. From January 2019 to March 2019, Afghan and a U.S.-led coalition of Western military forces killed 305 civilians, while anti-government elements — such as the Taliban, the Afghanistan branch of ISIS and other militants — killed 227. The previous year saw the largest number of civilian deaths in the war in Afghanistan. In 2018, 3,804 civilian deaths occurred due to fighting between the Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition forces on one hand, and the Taliban and ISIS on the other, according to the UN. More civilians were killed in 2018 than in previous years of the war and, during this decade, over 32,000 civilians have been killed in the Afghanistan War.
Trump’s troop withdrawal plan has devils in its details. While U.S. troops will be reduced in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, according to The New York Times, “The plan under discussion to pull out of Somalia is said to not apply to U.S. forces stationed in nearby Kenya and Djibouti, where American drones that carry out airstrikes in Somalia are based.” In fact, under Trump, the U.S. military sought new authority to expand drone strike operations in Kenya.
Meanwhile, a U.S. citizen is still, allegedly, on the government’s kill list as Trump makes a not-so-smooth transition from White House and hands the keys of death to President-elect Joe Biden.
Where does that leave Biden and where does he stand? Biden has largely been silent about drone strikes. Biden never publicly criticized Obama’s drone war legacy nor has Biden clarified his own stances on the policy of targeted killing. On his campaign site, Biden makes no mention of targeted killing and drone strikes. He does promise to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East,” but adds he will “narrowly focus our mission on Al-Qaeda and ISIS.” He does not spell out what “narrowly focus” actually looks like on his site.
However, during the campaign, Biden and one of his advisers admitted that he plans to keep special operations forces — who, along with drones, have carried about targeted killing operations in secretive overseas counterterrorism missions — in the Middle East and Afghanistan. If Biden plans to keep special operations forces on the ground, then it is very unlikely he will scale back drone strikes. This indicates that Biden will pick up where Bush, Obama and Trump left off — continuing a sophisticated program of global targeted killing under the guise of “fighting terrorism.” He will “end” the forever wars without truly ending them.