British Drone Strike Targets in the Light of the Chilcot Report

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On July 6, 2016, the Report of the Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, was finally published after more than six years of work by Chair of the Inquiry, Sir John Chilcot. The aim of the study, which began in 2009 and was initiated by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown, was to consider the UK’s policy on Iraq from 2001 to 2009 and to “identify lessons for the future” by answering two key questions:

  1. Whether it was right and necessary to invade Iraq in 2003, and
  2. Whether the UK could—and should—have been better prepared for what followed

The study ended up taking four years longer than the projected two years, and it cost more than £10 million to carry out. The conclusions have been widely affirmed as damning of Tony Blair, the prime minister who chose to ally the United Kingdom with the United States in its invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq.

The report spans multiple volumes, but The Guardian has put together a nice summary of the most important points, a few of which I’ll paraphrase here:

–The war was not a last resort. The UK joined the war effort before peaceful options had been exhausted.

–PM Tony Blair deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. There was no imminent threat. Furthermore, Britain’s intelligence agencies produced “flawed information”, skewed by a confirmation bias that Saddam Hussein possessed WMD (weapons of mass destruction). Essentially, British intelligence accepted the burden of proof put forth by the US government: that Iraq needed to demonstrate that it had no WMD. (NB: such negative proofs are logically impossible. Try proving the nonexistence of Santa Claus–or God, for that matter.)

–Blair assured US President George W. Bush that he would join the war effort without fail: “I will be with you, whatever.”

For the most part, the six year, £10 million+ study basically concluded what millions of antiwar protesters had no difficulty recognizing back in 2002.

TonyBlair

Now that the UK government itself has concluded that Blair made serious errors while acting in the capacity of prime minister, many people have called for his criminal indictment. The most promising charge would have to be that he misled, and therefore coerced, the British people into participating in a war against their own national interest. In the wake of the report, Blair has stood by his decision to embroil the UK in the war in Iraq, claiming that he meant well. Once again we find that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (See: just war theory for more on that…)

One topic which has not been addressed by any of the many commentators on the Chilcot Report—at least not to my knowledge—is whether it does not also mandate a reconsideration of the treatment of Britain’s allegedly treasonous enemies, young men who have turned against the UK government as a direct result of its complicity in the destruction of the country of Iraq, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, and the harm to millions more, many of whom were forced to flee their homeland as a result of the postwar violence and insecurity.

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Junaid Hussain

I am interested specifically in the cases of three young British nationals, Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussein, all of whom were incinerated by lethal drone while living in Syria, to which they fled in order to join the ISIS effort. The reason why the stories of these young men, denounced by the UK government as “evil terrorists” and threats to national security, trouble me is because they were deliberately destroyed by their own government without ever having stood trial or even been indicted for their alleged crimes.

 

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Ruhul Amin

Two of the targets, Ruhul Amin and Reyaad Khan, were taken out on August 21, 2015, by missiles fired from drones by the RAF under the authorization of then-Prime Minister David Cameron. The third target, Junaid Hussein, was eliminated on August 25, 2015, by a US drone with the help of British intelligence. (Other persons were killed in a previous strike aiming for him.) All in all, August 2015 was a precedent-setting month for Britain, a nation in which capital punishment has been outlawed and which was not officially at war in Syria, where these British nationals were hunted down and killed.

 

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Reyaad Khan

Two of the three alleged enemies of the state were 21 years of age at the time of their death; the third was 26 years old. They all died in late 2015, which implies that two of the targets were 9 years old when the UK government joined the ill-advised war on Iraq; the third was 14 years old. This means that they were children or young adolescents at the time of the invasion of Iraq. Their entire worldview was obviously affected by the war on Iraq, for they later decided to team up with whoever was fighting those responsible.

In other words, if Britain had not joined forces with the United States, which would have made it very, very difficult for the war to proceed, as there would not have been a “coalition of the willing” but only a rogue aggressor state, then in all likelihood Iraq would not have been destroyed, and the group which came to be known as ISIS would not have grown and spread from Iraq to Syria.

These are all counterfactual conditionals, of course. My point is only that if ISIS never came to be in its present form, because the people of Iraq were not subjected to oppression and lawless aggression—night raids, summary executions, detentions and torture—then the British drone strike targets destroyed with the blessing of David Cameron could not and would not have joined forces with the group now known as ISIS.

I therefore find that, in addition to being responsible for all of the death and destruction in Iraq, Tony Blair bears responsibility not only for the deaths of Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan, and Junaid Hussain, but also for Prime Minister David Cameron’s summary execution without trial of these men. In saying this, I do not mean to absolve Cameron for his mistake, for he himself identified his victims as enemies of the state and arguably violated both British and international law by assassinating them. Cameron should never have followed US President Obama’s misguided precedent in summarily executing without trial his fellow citizens.

However, Tony Blair is equally culpable, in my view, for having contributed to this return to a medieval, pre-Magna Carta framework of justice being perpetrated by unjust warriors as necessary only because of their own prior crimes and the existence of a sophisticated modern technology, the unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), without which none of these deaths would have occurred (see: We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age).

It is tragic that so many young Muslim men are being annihilated for reacting violently to what they correctly identify to have been atrocious crimes committed in a misguided war (see: Chilcot Report). The state warriors and the factional terrorists sadly all embrace the same confused premise: that conflict can be resolved by obliterating anyone who disagrees. Ruhul Amin, Reyaad Khan and Junaid Hussain are graphic illustrations of how young people are being molded into jihadists by their witness of state-perpetrated war crimes, and their heartfelt desire to stop them.

ReyaadKhan

 

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Lessons from Tina, RAF Reaper Drone Operator Who Likens ISIS to the Nazis

I have been meaning to discuss an article from the 4 May 2016 edition of The Sun for almost a month, but I have put it off in part because the whole issue is so utterly depressing. There have been a few different short pieces in mainstream media outlets featuring the perspectives of drone operators, some of whom are females. Yes, for the first time in history, women can hope to achieve full equality in the military realm, because physical strength is no longer a requirement for active combat duty. Pushing buttons and manipulating joysticks to annihilate human beings is an equal opportunity vocation.

In the article in The Sun, a female Royal Air Force Reaper drone operator shares her view of what she is doing as she facilitates the execution of persons located thousands of miles away. When asked to elaborate upon their role, drone operators generally fall into one of two camps: either they have abandoned the profession and now regret what they did, or they are still “lighting up” targets in good conscience and believe themselves to be saving the world from evil. Both Canadians and Americans have expressed reservations about what they were asked to do while serving as drone operators. Unsurprisingly, given the normalization of drone warfare under US President Obama, there are also quite a few targeted killing enthusiasts.

Tina, a British drone operator, certainly falls into the category of enthusiast. For those who fail to grasp the importance of what she is doing in using drones to annihilate suspected members of ISIS, she offers the following explanation:

“I compare these guys to the Nazis, the way they came along and treated people and tried to enforce their beliefs on people. They’ve got to be stopped. If we weren’t doing what we are doing now this could spread across the whole world. We’re here to maintain the freedom of the people and protect the people.”

Well, Tina, I’ve got a nice parcel for you down by Alligator Alley. ISIS is nothing like the Nazis, first and foremost because they have no nation state. As a nonstate organization, ISIS is entirely devoid of a military industry and has depended on weapons supplies from the very countries which claim to be their adversaries. That’s right, Tina: from 2012 to 2013, 600 tons of weapons were provided covertly by the CIA to “appropriately vetted moderate rebels”.  The result of that provision? A massive takeover by ISIS of large swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq.

Now the radical Islamist group has made inroads into Libya as well. How could that be? Because NATO deposed the central government authority of that nation in 2011, leaving a power vacuum behind, just as Western powers had done in Iraq back in 2003. While we’re on the topic, the coalescence of ISIS into an identifiable enemy came about only because of the invasion of Iraq. A short history of ISIS can be found here (for those who missed the most visited page at this blog).

Earlier this year, President Obama identified the poor planning of the Libya intervention—what to do post-Gaddafi—as his biggest foreign policy mistake. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in contrast, has characterized the Libya intervention as a shining example of “smart power at its best”. But I digress.

The point, dear Tina, is that whatever military power ISIS has managed to use to oppress and kill the people whom you take yourself to be defending was provided to them by the US, UK and other governments. No doubt it may make it easier for you to sleep at night in the belief that your hitman-like role is for the good of humanity, but I regret to inform you that Nazi soldiers believed the very same thing, mutatis mutandis. They, too, were told that they were fighting to save people from The Evil Enemy.

Ironically, if any analogy between Nazi Germany and the drone program holds it is that a bureaucratic institution of homicide is being run by the likes of Adolf Eichmann all over again precisely and only because of the willingness of people like you, Tina, to follow their orders to kill unarmed persons who could not possibly harm you, even in principle, because they have no idea who or where you are.

Nazis

The False Dichotomies of Drone Warfare: Drone Strike (2013), directed by Chris Richmond

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I have long believed that well-made films offer a rich source of moral insight, and Drone Strike, directed by Chris Richmond, is no exception to the rule. It’s a very short film, less than twenty minutes long, but like a carefully crafted short-story, it packs a mighty punch. The primary means of conveying its message is to switch back and forth between two families in two very different contexts: a white-skinned family living amidst all of the modern conveniences in the United Kingdom, and a brown-skinned family living with hardly any modern conveniences in Afghanistan.

The father and husband in the UK, Will Brydon, is a Royal Air Force (RAF) drone operator. He dons a uniform, grabs a quick breakfast with his family, kisses his wife goodbye, and drives his car off to work, dropping his son off at school along the way.

Brydon’s office is a trailer, not unlike those at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Like his analogues in the United States, he spends his day sitting before a screen, joystick in hand, ready to “engage” targets as orders are transmitted to him by a radio dispatcher. Brydon has no direct access to the intelligence being used by analysts and commanders to determine whom to kill, but he is able to see the targets before firing on them. When he and his comrade, the laser operator, are given clearance to eliminate a target, they go through a series of steps to lock on with a laser before taking the shot.

The father and husband in Afghanistan is a brown-skinned adult male, empirically indistinguishable from an “evil terrorist”, as far as the drone program analysts are concerned, although they have no idea who he really is. He is about to be made the victim of the latest “signature strike”, the targeting of a brown-skinned male of military age whose behavior coincides with a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors.

On the fated day depicted, the “suspicious-looking” man has driven his truck to a place thought to be frequented by “evil terrorists” and is on his way home. What was he doing, rubbing elbows with suspected terrorists? He was filling up the bed of his truck with rocks to use back at his dirt-floored home. Judging by their somewhat surly exchange, he was not on particularly good terms with the men from whom he was buying the rocks. Clearly his “association” with these people involved no more than a simple business transaction.

On his way home, the loud sound of a missile strike off in the distance disrupts his concentration, causing him to drive over a gaping hole in the road. As a result, one of his tires goes flat, and he needs to fix it in order to continue his journey.

The rest of the story is all too familiar to anyone who has read NGO and human rights reports on the drone campaigns: the British father and husband uses the latest and greatest military technology to obliterate the Afghanistan father and husband, who is out in the middle of nowhere fixing a flat tire. He had the misfortune of being spotted by analysts behind the scenes whose job it is to locate suspected terrorists to kill. To do their job well, they must deliver. Better safe than sorry! they decide on the basis of their drone footage, in some cases supplemented by the bribed testimony of locals.

The RAF drone operator initially questions the identification of this man as a terrorist, and vocalizes his impression that it just looks like a guy with a broken-down truck. The laser operator scoffs at his comrade, crowing “Guilty as Charged!” and seems excited about the opportunity to “get some”. Together the two soldiers fire on the suspect, and the laser operator cheers when the missile obliterates the target, calling him a “mother fucker”.

Later, after returning home to his family, Bryson begins to reflect upon what he may have done, as doubts are bubbling up again in his mind. Perhaps the man by the truck really was an innocent husband and father out gathering rocks to shore up the walls of his crumbling home. The naggings of conscience begin to creep into Bryson’s consciousness, likely never to be fully expunged. Over time, his skepticism may develop into regret and feelings of guilt and shame about the day when an innocent man’s life was ended because he capitulated to peer pressure and suppressed his skepticism in the moments prior to launching the missile.

The British family has no idea what the soldier has done, but the survivors in Afghanistan are plunged into grief upon the loss of the head of their household. If the drone operator continues on in this profession, he may eventually develop PTSD.

In the final shot of the film, the young son of the slain father is shown in a visible state of rage, his face illuminated by light on one side, and shrouded by darkness on the other. The implication is clear: this is precisely how fledgling terrorists are made. They are reacting to their own experience or witness of crimes by the enemy against which they vow to retaliate.

A car destroyed by a US drone strike in Yemen

The power of Drone Strike inheres in its ability graphically to display a number of undeniable truths which are violated by the drone warriors each and every day:

  1. “Signature strikes” involve explicit racial profiling. If the man with the flat tire had been white-skinned, he likely would not have been killed.
  2. White-skinned people are not more valuable than brown-skinned people. To sacrifice a brown-skinned person in order to save a white-skinned person is racism pure and simple.
  3. Wearing a uniform and following orders does not preclude a soldier’s commission of crimes. Orders in violation of the Geneva Conventions should not be followed. Unarmed persons do not pose an immediate and direct threat to anyone.
  4. Following the orders handed down by an anonymous authority does not absolve the agent from responsibility for what he has done.
  5. Following even legal orders does not insulate a soldier from the psychological trauma of having to live with the memory of what he has done for the rest of his life.
  6. If suspects are innocent until proven guilty, then this applies no less to brown-skinned persons in Third World countries than it does to white-skinned persons in First World countries.
  7. Brown-skinned fathers and husbands are no less important to their children and spouses than are white-skinned fathers to theirs.

DroneStrike

This short but thought-provoking film can be watched through Amazon Prime. It might also be on YouTube somewhere, but I was unable to find it, given the preponderance of videos which come up upon searching for “Drone Strike”…

 

An automated assassin is an automated assassin by any other name

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British Prime Minister David Cameron recently got in on the drone killing game by dispatching two of his countrymen and labeling the homicides acts of “national defense”. Would the homicides have been accepted without protest if the Prime Minister had enlisted a contract killer to sneak into the homes of British nationals and use strangulation wires to eliminate them while they were lying in bed asleep? Or would that not obviously constitute extrajudicial execution, doubly illegal under British law and the EU Charter, both of which prohibit capital punishment?

Now that Cameron has succeeded in strapping on his Hellfire missile holster with little response from the British public, he has decided to acquire even more lethal drones, doubling the country’s current arsenal. He will switch out the Reaper drones now in the RAF armory to make room for a new model. To ensure that no one puts up a fuss, he’s decided to call them “Protector” rather than Predator or Reaper drones, whose name unequivocally expresses their intended purpose: to kill human beings.

These machines are used not only to fire on targets, but also to hunt them down, making it impossible for them to escape alive. The targets are not permitted to surrender, as soldiers on the ground would be required to allow enemy soldiers to do. “No immediate threat” means “no killing” for a human combat soldier, who is subject to court martial and criminal charges when he opts to slay a person posing no clear and present danger to any person present.

In the Drone Age, the warriors “take no prisoners”, following the lead of US President Barack Obama, whose signature policy is “kill don’t capture”. The suspected targets (militants, insurgents, terrorists or just plain allegedly “evil” people) are incapable of laying down their arms before their killer, the drone lurking over their head, in most cases because they are not bearing any arms at all when they are obliterated. They are typically not threatening other human beings with death and so could not be legally terminated by another human being on the ground. The question therefore must be addressed: how can it be right to kill people using lethal drones, if it would be wrong for a human contract killer to do the same to unarmed persons walking down the street?

The practice of remote-control killing became a standard operating procedure because it was normalized by the US government after years of covert actions, which, carried out under cover of State Secrets Privilege, were never the subject of debate. The time has arrived for the populace of countries whose leaders wield or condone the use of lethal drones (as the German government does by permitting drone killing to be orchestrated from Ramstein Air Force base) to wake up to the reality of what is being done with their money under a pretext of national defense.

Calling summary execution without trial “protection” merely masks the reality, making it more politically palatable, just as calling the unintended victims “collateral damage” hides from the people paying for the deaths the horror of what has been done in their name.

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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 10: Death and Politics; Chapter 11: 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.

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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