Suspects versus Combatants: How Self-Styled Drone Warrior US President Barack Obama Normalized War Crimes (Part 2)


It’s official: the US government has now confessed to having intentionally and premeditatedly killed at least 2,372 persons in places where US force protection was not the reason for the acts of homicide. They also admit to having unintentionally killed at least another 64 persons who were doing nothing other than going about their lives in their civil societies. These are remarkable admissions. Why? Because the approximately 2,400 acts of homicide are openly and unselfconsciously acknowledged to have taken place not where the lives of US military personnel or other citizens were at stake, but “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”.

Persons killed “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” were living in places which were not war zones. There were no “active hostilities” underway. The targets slain by lethal drones in such places were not directly threatening any other human being with death at the moment when they were killed. The more than 2,400 recently confessed homicides were committed in the victims’ civil societies. In other words, the stalking and hunting down of these people constituted acts of assassination, not acts of war. These were extrajudicial executions, authorized by the US president in the name of national self-defense.

The equivocation between criminals and soldiers began under the Bush administration, which waged full-scale wars on Afghanistan and Iraq in response to the crimes of September 11, 2001, instigated by a relatively small group of persons most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, which strangely (or not) received a “get out of jail free” pass from the US government.

In the case of the targeted killing program using lethal drones, the US government under Obama also wishes to have it both ways, treating the targets as convicted criminals whose just desert is death, while simultaneously invoking Article 51 of the United Nations Charter and a state’s “inherent right to self defense” as the reason for killing all of these people, with the innocents written off as “collateral damage”.

Scholars of international law have repeatedly observed that Article 51 is only relevant when the nation against which military action is taken has actively initiated hostilities against the nation claiming to defend itself. In other words, Article 51 is inapplicable to these acts of homicide, because, by the US government’s own acknowledgement, they have taken place “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities”. A war zone is a site of active hostility. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are identified as “areas of active hostilities” in the US government’s recently disseminated “Summary of Information Regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes Outside Areas of Active Hostilities.”

The persons reported on in the July 1, 2016, document were killed between January 20, 2009, and December 31, 2015, and resided in remote territories of tribal regions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Libya, and possibly other places as well—the countries are not named because the homicides perpetrated outside of active war zones are being carried out under the authority of the CIA, not the Pentagon, and so count as covert operations.

The transparency infamously championed by Obama ends up amounting to this:

We will admit to having killed these people, but we won’t tell you who they were, when they were killed, or why (beyond the fact that we have decided that they were enemies of the state). All of that sort of information is classified. Just trust us, we know what we’re doing.

Even if the US government somehow became willing to divulge the names of their targets, it turns out that most of the names are not known anyway. The question, therefore, most be posed: How did the US government know that they were terrorists? The answer, I regret to say, is: They did not.


The victims were all suspected terrorists, just like the persons interned at Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of whom were later determined to have had no connections to terrorist groups. They may have looked like terrorists. They may have dressed like terrorists. Their comportment may have matched the “disposition matrix” of behaviors typical of terrorists—carrying weapons, wearing turbans, hollering out in anger at the invaders of their land—but most of those men, incarcerated under the authority of President George W. Bush, were not terrorists at all. They were suspects who turned out to be innocent.

The Obama administration’s manner of dealing with persons suspected of complicity with terrorist groups has been summarily to execute them all: “Kill don’t capture” or “Take No Prisoners” is, sad to say, the Obama administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Once the persons killed by drone strikes are dead, they are categorized as “enemy killed in action”, or EKIA, which we know not from the July 1, 2016, report but from classified US government documents made public by The Intercept thanks to a whistleblower.

It is impossible to overemphasize the importance of this fact, so let me reiterate it as plainly as I can: The persons killed by Obama “Outside Areas of Active Hostilities” have precisely the same status as the persons imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. Obama’s terrorist suspects have been executed rather than rendered to secret torture facilities and held without charges for many years, but that certainly does not imply that they were guilty. Instead, it implies that Obama has committed war crimes. He has executed thousands of human beings on suspicion of their potential for possible complicity in future possible terrorist plots.

When will the Obama apologists finally open their eyes to the atrocities committed by him in their name?


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2016 paperback edition with a new foreword available for pre-order at Amazon:

The Pentagon Now Dispatches Hackers by Drone: Caveat Edward Snowden

The Pentagon first announced back in 2011 that they would regard cyberattacks as bona fide acts of war, to which a military response would be appropriate. That sounded like a policy statement to me, which educated citizens of a constitutional republic might have thought should be issued by political leaders, not warriors. Everyone in the mainstream media pretty much yawned and went on with whatever they were doing, mostly parroting Pentagon announcements about “suspects reportedly slain” touted as “victories” in the eternal “war on terror”.

The Pentagon recently boasted that they had eliminated twenty-one-year old Junaid Hussain, a British national and “top” hacker for ISIS—a “high-value target”—so now they have put their missiles where their mouth is and demonstrated that they meant what they said: hackers, too, are “unlawful enemy combatants” and therefore legitimate targets for annihilation. Here’s hoping that Edward Snowden heeds the dictates of prudence and stays put, under the circumstances.

It all started with the attacks of September 11, 2001, which were responded to as though acts of war waged by a formal state, even though they were planned and carried out by a relatively small group of people, most of whom hailed from Saudi Arabia, not from Afghanistan or Iraq. Once Osama bin Laden and most of the perpetrators had been killed, the military set its sights on other people, who looked a lot like Bin Laden but possessed nothing like his power to orchestrate attacks on US soil.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama, despite having been elected on the promise of “hope and change”, has essentially signed-off on whatever the Pentagon and the CIA want. The US has been sliding down a very slippery slope since the events of September 11, 2001, waging preemptive wars, rendering suspects to torture-friendly countries and no-law zones, and redefining the meanings of previously well-understood terms such as defense, imminent, and last resort.

Obama, going well above and beyond the call of MIC duty, transformed his own authority to wage war into a blanket power of summary execution, and then proceeded to confer it on the self-styled czar of targeted killing, John Brennan, before appointing him director of the CIA in 2013. Under Brennan’s drone warfare watch, Anwar al-Awlaki had been successfully branded as “the Bin Laden of the internet”, and many Americans concluded that the extrajudicial execution of a US citizen, too, was therefore just. No matter that Al-Awlaki’s complaints about the US war on Islamists were not without substance. No matter that Al-Awlaki appears to have shared the US government’s conviction that death is the solution to political conflict and revenge killing fully justified.

As the probability of big inter-state wars à la World War I and World War II has become ever more remote, given the disproportionate size and wealth of the US military, and as 9/11 fades from memory, dwarfed by the carnage committed in retaliation to those crimes, it should start to seem obvious why unbridled military responses are being made to any- and everything. Financial supporters of dissident groups have been targeted, as have “propagandists”, and now hackers. In the olden days, such persons would be considered criminals, not warriors, for they bear no arms. In the Drone Age, they are being executed without trial. Presumption of innocence is so twentieth century.

Playing the Bin Laden card may work politically as a public relations strategy for the people paying for drone strikes. It is much less effective for the people of other lands who witness the extent of damage caused and are traumatized by the killing machines hovering above in the sky. But there’s no need for policymakers to regroup and, say, read the Stimson Center report. Why not? Because killing people is much easier than doing anything else. Simple, satisfying and, above all, excellent for politicians’ ratings.

Junaid Hussain was about six years old on September 11, 2001. He was about eight years old when the United States, with Britain’s blessing, waged a preemptive war on a sovereign nation at peace. Somehow during his adolescence, Junaid Hussain became an accomplished hacker and allied himself with ISIS, a group which did not even exist until after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Clearly this young man was intelligent and talented—that’s why he was labeled a “high-value” target. But why did he direct his considerable talent to the cause of ISIS?

The same question can be asked of Anwar al-Awlaki, who publicly decried the attacks of 9/11. A decade later, he was taken out by a drone, as was his son, Abdulrahman, just after his sixteenth birthday. No one claimed that Abdulrahman was a “high-value target”, so perhaps he was killed preemptively, to avoid his transformation over the next five years (when he would have been Junaid Hussain’s age) into a sympathizer with radical Islamist groups such as ISIS. Or maybe it was just a mistake. “Mistakes are made.” “This is war.” Well, sort of.

The reasoning of the people running the US drone program appears to be that, if killing innocent people in attempts to kill evil people ends by causing the ranks of terrorists and their sympathizers to swell, then so be it. They will be killed as well. There will always be plenty of Hellfire missiles to go around, so long as someone profits from their production. Many people have issued warnings about what has grown to be the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. I would suggest that we have now moved beyond oligarchy and plutocracy to something closer to necrocracy: rule by death.

Not satisfied with simply eliminating the architects of 9/11, the Pentagon continues to cast about for more and more people to kill. Why? Because that’s what they do: kill people. Hackers? Been there, done that. Who will be next? Antiwar protestors? Or perhaps they’ll come over to William Bradford’s way of seeing things and target legal scholars who step out of line.


For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 5: Strike First, Suppress Questions Later; Chapter 9: Death and Politics; Chapter 10: Death and Taxes; and Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants do