Long read: Six strikes that show the reality of drone warfare today

3 December 2021 — Drone Wars

Chris Cole

Weddings. Hospitals. Refugee camps. Aid workers. All have become the target of lethal strikes this year due to the spreading use of drones by a growing number of states.  Here we detail six particular strikes and, below, reflect on what they show about the reality of drone warfare today.

1. January 3, 2021: French strike targeting a gathering of people, Mopti, Mali

Charred ground where French strike occurred according to UN investigation report.

Following surveillance by a French Reaper drone “spanning several days”, two French Mirage jets operating in conjunction with the drone fired three laser guided bombs at what was said to be a gathering of around 40 armed militants. French military spokesperson Col. Frederic Barbry told Associated Press that the strike followed an intelligence mission which showed a “suspicious gathering of people.”

The gathering, however, was a wedding party and, according to a subsequent UN investigation, 19 civilians, including the father of groom were killed. The detailed report concluded that around 100 people were at the wedding celebration including 5 men who were alleged to be members of an armed group, only one of whom visibly carried a weapon. The report stated:

“Of the 22 people killed, 19 were directly killed by the strike, including 16 civilians, while the three other civilians died of their injuries during their transfer for medical treatment. At least eight other civilians were injured in the strike.  The group affected by the strike was overwhelmingly composed of civilians who are people protected against attacks under international humanitarian law.“

France rejected the results of the UN investigation and continues to dispute that any civilians were killed in the strike.  [Further details.]

 2. May 4 2021: US strike targeting vehicle and occupant, Deir Ezzor, Syria

A US Reaper drone strike targeted the occupant of a vehicle in eastern Syria with the man killed instantly. The Coalition tweeted:

“CJTFOIR conducted an air strike removing a Daesh terrorist from the battlefield near Dayr az Zawr, Syria today. Coalition and our partners will continue our mission to defeat Daesh, disrupt their resources and eliminate Daesh remnants.”

However, locals disputed that the man killed, identified as Bassem Atwan Al-Bilal, was involved with ISIS or any other militant group, stating that he worked in the gas industry, refining oil.  They also revealed that the man had only bought the vehicle two days previously and suggested that target of the drone strike was likely to have been the previous owner.

Airwars, the civilian casualty monitoring organisation, reported the civilian casualty allegation to the Coalition. However, the Coalition then denied that it had in fact carried out any air strikes in the area that day, contradicting its previous statement.  [Further details.]

3. May 17, 2021: Israeli targeted killings of Palestinian militants, Gaza

Israeli strike which killed Hussam Abu Harbeed

During an eleven day surge in violence, at least 253 Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza, including 66 children, while 12 people, including two children, were killed in Israel by rockets fired by armed groups. During this time, Israel launched a number of strikes targeting the homes and vehicles of alleged leaders of Palestinian militant groups in an acknowledged campaign of assassination.

On 17 May, a strike by the IDF on a car in Gaza City killed Hussam Abu Harbeed, leader of Islamic Jihad in Northern Gaza.  Pictures of the car show damage remarkably similar to that caused by the new R9X Hellfire missile used by US drones.  This uses steel blades rather than explosives to kill the target.  While it is unlikely that Israel is using R9X missiles, they appear to be using a similar type of non-kinetic missile.

These strikes were part of a wider Israeli bombing campaign that included attacks on buildings occupied by international media organisations. Human Rights Watch documented three separate Israeli strikes that killed 62 Palestinian civilians where there were no evident military targets in the vicinity. [Further details.]

4. June 5, 2021: Turkish drone strike targeting an individual in Makhmour Refugee Camp, Iraq

An airstrike believed to be from a Turkish Bayraktar drone targeted an individual in a children’s playground in Makhmour Refugee Camp near Erbil, northern Iraq. Three people were killed and 4 injured in the strike. In a speech the following day, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan congratulated the National Intelligence Organisation, which operates Bayraktar drones, for killing Selman Bozkır, who he alleged was a leader of the PKK as well as the general manager of refugee camp.

However locals in the camp disputed that those killed were connected to any militant group and said all were civilians.  Unusually, US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, spoke out on the attack urging Turkey to respect the rights of refugees.  However, Turkish drones returned and launched a second strike on the camp 5 days later. Turkish media again alleged that a senior member of the PKK was killed, but residents denied anyone was killed in this strike. [Further details.]

5. August 16/17, 2021: Turkish drone strike on vehicle and follow up strike on injured at hospital, Sinjar, Iraq

Funeral of Dr Mukhlisat Sidar, one of the medics killed in drone strike on hospital in Sinjar.

A Turkish drone strike targeted a vehicle in Iraq taking a group of YBS (Yazidi militia) delegates to a meeting with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, during his visit to the region.  Two people were killed in the strike on the vehicle and the injured were transported to a local medical clinic.

The following day, Turkish drones returned and launched 3 attacks on the clinic where the injured were taken, apparently targeting the survivors of the first attack.  Eight people were killed in this second strike; four injured militia members receiving medical treatment and four medical staff. A number of other civilians were also injured. The deputy mayor of Sinjar, Jalal Khalaf Basso, told AFP that “the hospital was subjected to three raids with drones that destroyed the entire building.”   [Further details.]

 6. August 29 2021: US strike targeting a vehicle and occupant, Kabul, Afghanistan

A US MQ-9 Reaper drone launched a hellfire missile at a vehicle following eight hours of surveillance.  The strike supposedly targeted an ISIS facilitator driving an explosive-packed car bound for the airport. Instead, the car was being driven by 43-year old Zamarai Ahmadi, a local who worked for a small NGO called Nutrition and Education International. The strike which occurred just after Ahmadi arrived home, killed Ahmadi and 9 members of his family, including seven young children.

Reports of civilian casualties circulated very quickly after the strike, which the US robustly refuted.  When evidence mounted, however, it was stated that secondary explosions (from the explosives in the car) could be seen in the drones video footage, and these secondary explosions were the cause of any civilian casualties. It was a “righteous strike” said General Mark Milley, Chair of US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

As is now well known, detailed investigations by the New York Times and the Washington Post, confirmed that Ahmadi was no ISIS facilitator and his car was full of water containers not explosives.  Indeed there had been no secondary explosions.  After such overwhelming evidence, the US announced an investigation, and then later confirmed that Zamarai Ahmadi and his family were civilians, calling the strike a “tragic mistake.”  [Further details.]

***

These are only a handful of a much larger number of air strikes that caused significant death and destruction around the globe this year. Anyone thinking of suggesting that such air strikes are to prevent death and destruction should spending just a few minutes scrolling through Airwars’ documentation of civilian casualty incidents in just the few conflicts they can cover.  These six strikes show, we would argue, three important aspects of drone war today.

Denial of responsibility for civilian harm

Denial is ever present in these strikes in two separate ways.  Firstly, and most obviously, in the sense that the immediate reaction of those carrying out such strikes is denial of both the fact of – and responsibility for – the deaths of innocent civilians  All operators insist when challenged about a particular strike that anyone killed is ‘a terrorist’.  Where there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary – and it has to be overwhelming to have any impact – the second reaction is, again, denial. Sources, we are told, either have an ‘agenda’, or the casualties were killed by ‘secondary explosions’.  Only on extremely rarely occasions when resources are available for an in-depth, on the ground investigation, reports of civilian deaths may be accepted. But even then – as in the case this year of the UN’s investigation into the French strike in Mali and Israel’s strikes in Gaza by Human Rights Watch – even then, denial continues.  On the even rarer occasion then, when civilian deaths are accepted, as in the case of the strike resulting in the death of Zamarai Ahmadi and 9 members of his family, the strike is put down as an exception, an aberration, a ‘tragic mistake’.  Something about which nothing can be done.

Drones dispelling or adding to the fog of war?

But there is denial here on a deeper level too. Denial of the fact that the fundamental assumptions which are said to underpin drone warfare are flawed.  Through drones, we are told, commanders are able to see precisely what is happening on the ground and to make careful, calm decisions before a strike. The fog of warfare which bedevilled military officers in the past is dispelled through the availability of drones with their full-motion video working in conjunction with up-to-the-minute intelligence via a variety of data feeds.  From low-lit, high-tech control rooms, hundreds or even thousands of miles away, commanders believe they know precisely what is happening on the ground and are in control of the situation.

The reality, however, as we have seen in these strikes, is commanders see want they want to see.  A village gathering for a wedding in Mali is a meeting of armed militants.  An aid worker going about his daily routine in Kabul is a suicide bomber. A hospital in Syria to which injured are transported is a terrorist headquarters.  Time and time again, the situation turns out to be completely different from what commanders thought they saw through the drone’s lens.

And as so often, ‘intelligence’ behind strikes is simply wrong.  A drone watches a car drive along a dusty road in eastern Syria. Intelligence gleaned from databases shows that the car belongs to ‘X’, and it is believed that a precision strike on the car and its occupant will make the world safer by ‘removing a terrorist from the battlefield.’  But if the occupant of the car is not who the intelligence says it is, if the car is being driven by someone who bought the car just recently, then no matter how precise the missile strike, we are in no way made safer.  Just the opposite in fact, as friends and family of yet another innocent victim of the drone wars will join those who have reason to hate.

We are repeatedly told that in the aftermath of these strikes that they are  aberrations, ‘honest’ or ‘genuine’ mistakes.  But when ‘mistakes’  happen again and again, not to see the systemic failure is to be in denial.

The impact of proliferation

These strikes also show another important aspect of drone war today: the impact that proliferation is having on civilians. While until relatively recently only the US, Israel and the UK were using drones to launch strikes, a number of other states have now adopted their use.  Turkey, in particular, is using them for strikes against those it labels as terrorists, both internally and across their border in Iraq and Syria. It is hard to escape the fact that drones are making it much easier for states to carry out armed attacks and are lowering the threshold for use of force.

Armed Bayraktar drones are being exported from Turkey to a number of countries

But it’s important to realise that is not just the kit – the physical drone itself – that is proliferating but also the way they are being used. Turkish drone company, Bayraktar, for example, is exporting armed drones to a number of countries, but also training the armed forces of those states that acquire its drones, and apparently, even at times operating the drones as well.

There have been numerous reports of civilian casualties resulting from Turkey’s use of armed drones over the past year. Strikes on a refugee camp in Iraq and a hospital in Syria treating wounded from a previous strike – in which four medical personnel were killed – drew particular condemnation. Apparently aggrieved by the blatant disregard for civilian lives, the US Ambassador to the UN spoke out, insisting that Turkey should uphold international law and respect human rights. However, as some pointed out, it is more than a little hypocritical for the US to lecture on this issue. States who have helped to erode international law in this area can’t then expect others to not follow suit. The only way of putting that genie back in the bottle, as we and other civil society groups continue to argue, is a proper international agreement controlling the proliferation and use of these systems.  Until then, the continuing proliferation of armed drones will only lead to increased civilian harm.

Accountability becoming harder

Drone warfare can be said to be metastasizing as it spreads and changes. New types of munitions used by drones – such as the R9X Hellfire missile and unknown types as used by Israel in their targeted killing strikes in Gaza – foreshadow a wider change, including the use of drone swarms and so-called ‘loyal wingman’ drones.  While advocates for the use of such technology insist that it is aimed at reducing casualties, the reality is that it will do the opposite by falsely persuading commanders and political leaders that such strikes are possible even in the most densely populated civilian areas.

Drone attack on Iraqi PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

While we have seen the use of drones spread among states, non-state groups too are increasing using them. While there are very significant and important differences between state and non-state use, we have seen a ratcheting up of the use of so-called ‘suicide drones’ (that is non-reusable, perhaps more akin to missiles than drones) to conduct strikes with virtual impunity.  Two significant drone attacks by non-state groups stood out this year; the assassination attempt on the Iraq Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, which injured six security personnel, and the attack on the merchant oil tanker Mercer Street, near the coast of Oman, which killed two civilians including a British national.

One thing, however, that the use by state and non-state groups does have in common is the increasing difficulty of working out who is accountable for such strikes.  As David Hambling’s analysis of the strike on the Mercer Street showed, discovering what type of drone carried out the attack doesn’t always help with identifying the perpetrator.  The same is true for state use.  As we have seen even though solid investigation show that civilian harm is cause, perpetrators simply deny it. As the use of US Reaper, Chinese CH-4 and Turkish Bayratar armed drones spreads, with various states using the same drone  – sometimes even in the same conflict – accountability is becoming even more difficult.

As the use of drones fades from the headlines, causing some to even suggest that it is all over, the reality is it that the perceived advantage of using armed drones – enabling states and non-state groups to use lethal force with virtual impunity – means that we will continue to see serious civilian harm unless and until the cost of drone warfare on the ground and the voice of its victims is taken into account.

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