Slippery slopes and the case of Mohammed Emwazi

JihadiJohn

You know that the war on terrorism is waning in popularity when the summary execution without trial of a single young British man believed to be an executioner makes all of the major headlines, even as the reports are qualified with terms indicating their complete lack of ‘near certainty‘ that the strike destroyed the intended target:

NYT: Pentagon Says ‘Jihadi John’ Probably Killed

BBC: Jihadi John: US ‘reasonably certain‘ strike killed IS militant

Washington Post: US strike believed to have killed ‘Jihadi John’ Islamic State Executioner

This latest act of premeditated, intentional, stealth homicide is being trumpeted as an important victory, just as so many earlier reports before touted “suspected militants slain” and “no. 2 Al Qaeda leader defeated”. All of the other able-bodied males killed in the stead of intended, named targets become immortalized as “suspected militants slain”. The women, children and elderly men are generally not mentioned, unless they happen to be Westerners, in which case they are labeled ‘collateral damage’ and blamed on the evil enemy.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Mohammed Emwazi, better known as “Jihadi John”, is dead and that he in fact murdered people and so was guilty of capital crimes. He was killed by a US drone, with the aid of UK intelligence. British Prime Minister David Cameron made a public statement to let everybody know about his belief in the reasonable certainty that “Jihadi John” was probably another feather in his cap. Or a war trophy. Britain is not officially at war with Syria, but Cameron’s government has been following Obama’s lead in doing whatever they like, whenever they like, and wherever they like.

Cameron appears to be in the midst of a whirlwind effort to accrue big-time drone warrior creds, having already authorized the execution of two other British nationals, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, in August 2015. He also recently purchased a slew of new drones which he has christened “Protectors“. That slick maneuver brought him quickly up to speed with the longstanding Orwellian rebranding game. Is Cameron moving forward, or is he sliding down a slippery slope to a dark and dismal place, while taking Britain with him?

An editorial in The Guardian on the legality of the strike argues, with Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, that the latest drone killing of a British citizen cannot be rationalized under Article 51, the national self-defense clause, of the United Nations Charter. The sudden and quite vocal expression of concern surrounding the legality of the killing of Mohammed Emwazi strikes me as a bit tardy. How in the world were the assassinations of Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin any better on that count? Or perhaps the assumption among many at the time was that those two homicides would be rare exceptions, not the beginning of Britain’s own full-fledged Drone Age, complete with new ways of interpreting old laws.

These have all been small but significant steps down a path which can only end in summary execution without trial in the homeland. Not possible? Implausible? Improbable? I believe that we can be reasonably certain that this is probably where all of this will end. It will only take a leader capable of recognizing the arbitrariness of the location of a suspect, and also the implement of homicide–using a pistol or a poison would be illegal, but a missile is permissible?–before summary execution without trial will become standard operating procedure at home as abroad.

The Obama administration’s sad legacy will be the further erosion of the rule of law and a full-on attack on the very idea of human rights. Was Jihadi John destroyed in the strike? Or was it some other young male who wound up in the wrong place at the wrong time? If so, this fact may be discovered later on, but the designation of the victims as legitimate targets will not change. The military-age males destroyed by drone strikes are defined as guilty until proven innocent, which is of course impossible for them to do.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, the US government decided to pursue the perpetrators by ordering full-scale invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. When large-scale preemptive war did not work, they added on smaller-scale targeting of individuals in lands where war had never been waged. From killing only foreigners, the drone warriors moved “ahead”, in a misguided show of cosmopolitanism, to target nationals suspected of treason as well. Obama authorized the execution of Anwar al-Awlaki, and the rest is British history.

Hackers and propagandists, both nationals and nonnationals, have been hunted down abroad and killed just as though they were weapon-bearing militants. The next natural step in this progression will be the elimination of political dissidents within the homeland. If it seems as though that would be breaking a law or two, no matter: just redefine a term or two, and we’ll have achieved Orwellian’s ultimate nightmare: when “democracy” becomes indistinguishable from tyranny.

Gallows

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do

Why does Italy Need 156 Hellfire Missiles? Or: Lethal Creep 5.0

Italy

The latest beneficiary of DARPA’s ingeniousness and US taxpayer largesse appears to be the government of Italy, which has been clamoring for lethal drones since 2012, and was recently reported to be next in line to receive a cache of some of the latest and greatest implements of homicide developed by the United States. These munitions were produced for use in what the killers continue to refer to as “war”, despite the fact that drone operators run no risk of physical harm when they dispatch suspects in lands far away.

Yes, the US government has acceded to the Italian government’s request and will be furnishing them with 156 Hellfire missiles, which can be attached to their two Reaper drones (UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles) to realize the potential implied by the very name ‘Reaper’. Yes, now Italy, too, along with the United States and Britain, will be among the Western states “blessed” with lethal drones and prepared for … what exactly?

One has to ask: why does Italy need to have 156 Hellfire missiles ready to deploy by Reaper drones? Is Italy at war with any other nation? Or will the Italian government be using these slick implements of homicide to follow the examples of US President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron, who eliminated countrymen deemed by their analysts behind closed doors “evil terrorists” and “high-value targets”? No need to capture, contain, indict and try suspects for treasonous crimes in the Drone Age. Due process and the separation of government powers are so twentieth century!

By the fall of 2011, President Obama had authorized the execution by lethal drone of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (among others) located in Yemen. By August 2015, Prime Minister Cameron had authorized the execution of British citizens Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, located in Syria, despite the fact that capital punishment is prohibited by British law and the EU Charter. Not that Cameron had much to worry about, with the US government standing by his side (remember the bond of brothers Tony Blair and George W. Bush?) and praising the fact that Cameron, too, had now effaced the line formerly distinguishing blacks ops from “just war”.

These days it’s simple to transform an illegal act of assassination—undertaken by deniable operators before the Drone Age—into what politicians the world over are willing to call an act of war. It suffices to deploy a missile rather than a strangulation wire, an exploding cigar, a poisoned meal, or a good old-fashioned pistol! One must own that this has been quite a feat of political léger-de-main.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once asked Colin Powell (a top military official at that time): “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” It’s an incontestable maxim of practical rationality that one not squander large sums of money on useless stuff. In the case of munitions, there’s no point in having them at all unless one is ready and willing to use them, particularly when they have no power to deter anyone from doing anything—as in the case of nuclear warheads, at least according to advocates of their development throughout the Cold War.

Weaponized drones do not and cannot deter anyone from doing anything—aside from talking with other community members or perhaps associating in groups for public events such as weddings and jirgas—because they are deployed at the culmination of secretive deliberations wholly immune from critique. Virtually anyone could be on the hit lists generated by government-contracted analysts and based on hearsay from shady, bribed informants and circumstantial evidence derived from cell phone data and SIM cards, etc. As Ernest Hemingway once said about cats: “One [associate] just leads to another…”

So what will Italy do with its Hellfire-missile-equipped Reapers? No doubt they will do their best to find some Italians holed up somewhere in a tribal region of some hotbed of conflict—Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Mali, the Philippines, Somalia, Syria, Egypt, … the list continues to lengthen—and seize this historical opportunity to do what in centuries past was deemed illegal: to execute citizens without trial and without even charging them with crimes. In the Drone Age, political leaders are capitalizing on the latest military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex boom: the creation of lethal drones which must be used in order to rationalize their purchase.

Political leaders with access to lethal drones kill because they can, and also because this form of homicide has been christened “smart war” by the first Drone Nation, the United States of America. The members of the once small club of nations whose leaders succumb to the temptation to dispatch annoying dissidents with no judicial process whatsoever can be expected to continue on until nearly everyone in the Western world is complicit. Ximena Ortiz has incisively termed this strange twenty-first-century phenomenon “the Third Worldization of America”, and it is has already infected Britain. Italy is next in line.

The more nations complicit, the more difficult it will become—reaching eventually the point of being impossible—to bring any of the lot before the International Criminal Court in the Hague for violating international law. Among the protocols essentially abandoned by the self-styled drone warriors are the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, according to which persons suspected of wrongdoing must be provided with the opportunity to defend themselves against the claims made by persons in positions of power that they deserve to die.

It’s a slippery slope, and the Italian government, which admirably took to task the CIA for their illegal rendering and torture of Osama Mustafa Hussan, finding the perpetrators guilty as charged back in 2009, appears poised to let bygones be bygones in the case of summary execution without trial. Surely someone in Italy recognizes that the remote-control killing of suspects is infinitely worse than prolonged detention without charges and “enhanced interrogation”. The persons detained at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba were horribly wronged, but they were not whacked with impunity by “drone warriors” under the preposterous presumption that all suspects are guilty until proven innocent, not the other way around.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone, maintained by the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, is ready for take off at Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan in this June 29, 2011 file photo. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files
REUTERS/Baz Ratner/Files

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 1: Drone Nation; Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do

It’s Official: David Cameron is now Barack Obama’s Poodle

By ordering drone strikes against British nationals, Prime Minister David Cameron has followed in the ignominious footsteps of Tony Blair by effectively becoming the “poodle” of the current US president. Blair notoriously went along with the Bush administration scheme to wage a preemptive war against a sovereign nation at peace in 2003, violating international law, directly causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the exodus of millions of others, and wrecking Iraq, which remains in shambles still today.

Self-styled “drone warrior” Obama’s signature policy, “Kill don’t capture”, was implemented when he found it politically difficult to house detainees suspected of complicity in terrorism. Never troubled by the high proportion of innocent suspects found among the men imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay, Obama decided to deal with the problem of suspects “lawyering up”—as former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney used to say—by killing them all, and inverting the burden of proof.

Terrorist suspects, in the Obama administration world view, are guilty until proven innocent, which no one is able to do pre-posthumously because targets are not informed that their names have been placed on secret kill lists. The Obama approach is slick, simple and politically satisfying: light them up with a Hellfire missile! No more embarrassing human rights issues arise over detainees mistreated and held without charges. No more nagging lawyers, no more hunger strikes.

Not content with simply “taking out” suspected militants/insurgents/terrorists (all of which have been conflated for years, following Bush) in countries such as Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Libya, where war was never formally waged, Obama went one step further. He authorized the extrajudicial execution of Anwar al-Awlaki and other US nationals, including Al-Awlaki’s sixteen-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was assassinated two weeks after his father. According to bureaucratically crafted rules of engagement (ROE), Abdulrahman was a “military-age male” and therefore fair game for slaughter in any territory labeled “hostile” by the “kill committee”. Painting himself as “strong on defense,” Obama proudly revealed himself to be a member of that committee during his 2012 election campaign.

ObamaCameron

British Prime Minister David Cameron has consistently stood by Obama during his various bellicose initiatives. Cameron was ready and willing to support Obama when he called for war on the Syrian government in 2013, and then again on the Syrian government’s worst enemies (ISIS) in 2014.

DavidCameronPoodleHowever, Cameron no longer simply applauds the Obama administration’s calls for war, including the drone strikes used to dispatch suspects who might possibly pose an imminent danger (though it need not be immediate). Now Cameron, too, selects British citizens for summary execution according to unknown criteria determined in secret proceedings, all said to be necessary for state security. Cameron, who authorized the drone killing by the RAF of Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, is now a card-carrying member of the “kill committee”.

And, yes, Barack Obama’s poodle.

WeKillBecauseWeCanLaurieCalhoun

For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 5: Strike First, Ask Questions Later; Chapter 6: The New Banality of Killing; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do