Buried in the news last Friday, behind the dreadful stories streaming from Paris, was word that a drone attack in Raqqa, a desolate town in northern Syria, had probably killed Mohammed Emwazi, notoriously known as Jihadi John, the brutal Islamic States’ terrorist of the horrendous beheading videos.
An Army press officer explained that Emwazi was the target of the attack, and confirmed that the drone missiles hit the target and that personnel – that’s plural – were killed. An unofficial report says there were three vehicles blown up, another says that at least three other individuals were in the targeted vehicles.
Although the drone can zoom a video in on a selected target close enough to read a license plate, this is all that has been released thus far. But this just begs more questions. In particular, who besides Emwazi were killed? Other members of Islamic States? Innocent civilians? Maybe women or children? Not clear.
There is an elaborate command structure for authorizing drone strikes, running from the lowest field commander up through the complete chain of command to the White House. Everybody up the ladder has to approve. One veto anywhere up the line, and the proposal is scrapped. Once it makes it to the White House, the President signs off on every concept plan -- who the target is, why it is thought that the target is where it is said to be, where it will take place, etc., and what the collateral damage estimate is. The approval up the chain of command to this point is of the operation in concept or a CONOP. The actual go-ahead for a given shoot must be based upon a fully approved CONOP, and is by a smaller designated committee within the military; again, it has to be unanimous, but the President is not involved in the actual operations decisions.
For the targeting window to be considered suitable, whether for the operations concept or the specific shoot, there must be current, reliable intelligence reports that indicate a “low CDE,” meaning a low estimate of “collateral damage.” This is the military term for the women, children and other incidental civilians that might be in the path of the military operations. There is an actual international law compact on the issue of collateral damage that says, in effect, it is permissible for the military to conduct an attack that knowingly includes civilians within the target operations area where the expected loss of civilian life is not “clearly excessive” to the anticipated military gain. The compact does not quantify the term – it does not say exactly how disproportionate the mix has to be before it is permissible to intentionally include women and children in the attack zone.
Although John Brennan, current CIA director, says drone strikes are only used to apply “targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us,” Leon Panetta, a previous director of the CIA, explained it this way: “If you can isolate the individual and take the shot without impacting on women or children, then do it. But if you have no alternative and it looks like he might get away, then take the shot.” In other words, notwithstanding Brennan’s doubletalk, it is okay to take out a few women and children if the bad guy is about to get away.
All of this is shrouded in secrecy, and exact numbers are difficult to find and very hard to verify. From the reports available online, some from admittedly biased groups, it appears that when we target a specific individual, we kill far more additional people, including uninvolved civilians and even children, than we do in more generic attacks. The worst example may be our attempts to kill al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri in 2006. Then, in two targeted drone strikes, we managed to kill 76 children and 29 adults, but not Zawahiri. In Pakistan several years later, we fired six separate drone attacks over a two year period in an attempt to kill one man - Qari Hussain, an al Qaeda Taliban leader - before bringing him down in October of 2010. In the effort, 128 people were killed, including 13 children. In a more recent compilation published in November of 2014, The Guardian reported that attempts to kill 41 designated targets to date resulted the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people as of November of 2014. This meant we were killing an average of 128 people in drone attacks for every targeted individual we went after. Serious questions are raised over just exactly how we define terms like “clearly excessive,” “surgical accuracy,” and “precise.”
None of this takes even one iota away from how horrible the terrorist attack on Paris was, nor justifies nor explains the atrocities it has brought to the French and the unbelievable grief suffered by the innocent victims’ loved ones there. But as we ponder the circumstances in Paris, answer this:
What do you suppose the going rate in collateral damage is today for a drone strike on a terrorist leader of the caliber of Emwazi – maybe two kids and a pregnant woman?