Shaker Aamer and the Spectre of “Kill Don’t Capture” Drone Policy


There has been an exciting flurry of activism surrounding the impending release of Shaker Aamer, a former British resident mistakenly imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay way back in 2001 and detained ever since, even after having been cleared for release years ago and on multiple occasions. Vigils have been held in the hopes that the US and British governments will follow through with the announced release of Mr. Aamer.

Not all of the detainees in Aamer’s circumstances have survived. Some of them died in prison. These people, denigrated by Bush administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as “the worst of the worst”, had been rounded up by bounty hunters in exchange for large sums of cash. Is it tautological to state that “bounty hunters” are invariably mercenaries, motivated first and foremost by the prospect of financial gain?

Those who defend the US government’s various efforts as well-intended, if not always obviously effective, may reply: How else can suspects be fingered in lands where the people speak a different language than the only one spoken by most soldiers and intelligence agents? Are we not ultimately dependent upon such mercenaries to provide essential information about threats and crimes?

Certainly bribed informants have continued to play a key role in the selection of terrorist suspects under President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, an important component of Obama’s approach to counterterrorism has been to “kill don’t capture” the suspects. If Shaker Aamer had been pegged as a terrorist suspect in 2011, rather than 2001, it grieves me to say, he would now be dead.

We must, therefore, ask: How many of the military-age male targets located in areas thousands of miles away (from US soil), in territories deemed “hostile” by the US government, have been closer to Shaker Aamer than to Osama bin Laden? I’d venture to say that a good number of them, about the same proportion of the detainees held erroneously at Guantánamo Bay, have been innocent.

The percentage of “the worst of the worst” who ended up being altogether innocent was a frightening 86%. Even if the Obama administration has been “more careful” in selecting named targets than the previous administration (which was fighting two wars in two different countries simultaneously), the identification of targets in “signature strikes”, against unnamed suspects, has also depended crucially upon the testimony and collaboration of bribed informants on the ground.

Given that the source of human intelligence (HUMINT) remains the same–bribery–we have rational grounds for concluding that many men morally equivalent to Shaker Aamer who were pegged as “suspected terrorists”—or militants or insurgents (these categories have been persistently conflated throughout four US administrations)—have been innocent. So while we celebrate the release of Shaker Aamer, we should at the same time pause to mourn the men killed on the basis of hearsay and circumstantial evidence in misguided attempts to persuade the people paying for the deaths that they are being kept safe and that justice is being served. Nothing could be further from the truth.

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 5: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; and Chapter 10: Death and Politics