Home > AF-PAK strategy, AQ General, Commentary > Some thoughts on the implications of using drones

Some thoughts on the implications of using drones

This little snippet from the MOD report, as covered by The Guardian, caught my eye, particularly in light of Abu al-Walid al-Masri and Sayf al-Adl’s dialogue and the discussions currently going on within AQ about targeting strategies.

The insurgents “gain every time a mistake is made”, enabling them to cast themselves “in the role of underdog and the west as a cowardly bully that is unwilling to risk his own troops, but is happy to kill remotely”, the report adds.

This raises a very important point that I don’t feel is adequately addressed in debates about the effectiveness of using drones, and in particular, the unintended consequences of their use. So below are my sleep deprived, off the top of my head thoughts about the issue.

I’m adding this to the pile of things I hope to write about in a more considered way next month, when I am finally free of the thesis. YAY! Well I’m actually free of it next week, but need a small break before leaping into writing again.  In the meantime, here goes with the sleep deprived thinking out loud, off the top of my head effort….

Using drones does exactly as this report notes; it allows the presentation of a narrative that the west is unwilling to risk troops but will kill remotely.  There is a lot of talk about how the use of drones plays into radicalisation, but very little talk about how this feeds into AQ’s ability to ‘sell’ to other groups its external operations and targeting of citizens away from the battlefield, and the operational implications of this.

I’m not talking here about radicalisation at the grassroots level inasmuch as I am about AQ’s standing with other groups, how it interacts with them, how it influences (or not) their targeting strategies, and how it deals with criticism of its MO of targeting civilians off the battlefield.

In other words, in all of the talk about drones and their effectiveness, there has been a failure to address or consider that the west’s use of drones gives AQ an ‘out’ when encountering criticism of its MO from within its own milieu, and allows it to militate against such criticism—by using the argument noted by the report.

But more importantly, I haven’t seen any studies that look into the potential consequences of the use of drones in terms of empowering AQ to advertise its MO, and encourage others to use the same strategy (and here radicalisation of grassroots groups and what MO they adopt if they operationalise does come into it).

I think serious attention needs to paid as to whether a sustained use of drones could see the strategy of external attacks against civilians off the battlefield become the dominant tactic in the militant salafist milieu.

And here I’d note that it currently is not. Not all groups agree with AQ about targeting civilians off the battlefield, some even within AQ may not agree with how its targeting has evolved (as we are seeing in the various debates and releases at the moment). After all, most who are radicalised still want to go off and fight armed jihad. What do they do if there are no soldiers? So there are very real implications on relying on remote warfare to combat external operations by AQ, namely that has a very real potential to  drive an increase in this MO as a means of hitting back at the west in a reciprocal manner. I don’t know what the answer is to this, but I do know that the consequences of using drones as a substitute have not been adequately addressed.

At a time when AQ’s external operations are coming into question through various international events and internal discussions (both within the group and the broader milieu) serious thought needs to be given as to how using drones might allow AQ breathing room, because it adds to the justification of external operations as a way of evening the battlefield. In other words, AQ can justify, in a cloak of legitimacy, external operations as its own reciprocal form of ‘remote’ warfare.

This has implications for not only radicalisation but also the operational uptake of the MO across a broader swathe of groups, particularly if the MO is sanctioned by new fatawa.

Following on from this, there has been no consideration as to whether the use of drones is going to drive (or has driven?) stronger ‘shariah’ justifications  from within the militant salafist milieu for the use of external operations against civilian targets.  In this respect, there has been, to my knowledge, very little, if any consideration of how the west’s use of drones may in fact drive (or have driven) the issuing of a number of new fatawa, particularly since militant salafists could draw from their own exegesis of stipulations relating to reciprocity in warfare.

Of course adopting or choosing a course of action based on what the other side is going to do is not always reason enough to stop or start something, but the point I fear I am rather badly making is that these real and potential consequences of the use of drones have not been examined, and are not being addressed.

Instead, we find the ubiquitous argument that drone strikes are effective in preventing AQ from launching attacks. This is not an argument that can stand up to close scrutiny, particularly if we look at the variables that impact upon capacity, capability and planning to operationalisation dynamics. Simply put, this can not be proven, only assumed. And that assumption goes straight out the window when an attack coordinated or directed from the region takes place, or is foiled.

Here I’d also note the planning has not stopped, or the operational tempo necessarily slowed down. What has changed is that more plots are being foiled. And the role of drones in foiling plots is questionable. Law enforcement and intelligence work foil plots.  And as I noted earlier, arguing that drones have reduced capability, based on the argument that senior leaders have been taken out, or trainees killed, overlooks a number of other variables and is not something that can be easily proven.

But anyway, even assuming the argument that drones have reduced AQ’s capability and capacity is correct and verifiable ( that is, to say that AQ’s intent to attack remains, but its ability is restricted) what then if drone attacks actually drive a broader adoption of the MO of external attacks? (Here I’m thinking of the foray into external operations by the Pakistan Taliban, as a case in point.) What if fatawa are released that sanction external attacks based on the notion of reciprocity of ‘remote’ attacks?

If we consider how AQ exercises command and control via its manhaj and ideology, and then we look at a potential spread of the MO, ‘sold’ as a means of evening the battlefield and reciprocity of action, the argument for what makes drone strikes effective tends to go out the window.

Why? Because there is a diffusion of the MO, sanctioned, incorporated into strategic guidance, and not necessarily requiring the input or support (beyond broad strategic direction) of the senior leadership. I’m sure there’s an analogy for this somewhere. I just can’t think of one right now, so instead let’s move onto the counter-argument.

While the counter-argument to this is that AQ is likely to find any excuse to attack, relying solely on this argument overlooks a broader dynamic at play.  The more remote warfare is used, the more AQ’s narrative and justification is reinforced, as the above snippet from the report highlights. That means  more ‘justification’ for AQ to exercise  reciprocity of  ‘remote’ attacks ( Translation: external operations against civilian targets in the west). If this is accompanied by new fatawa, which  justify external operations in this context, the MO spreads.

It spreads to grassroots groups following AQ’s manhaj and who seek to implement its strategic guidance by carrying out external operations. And it has the potential to spread to other groups.

More importantly, it weakens the position of those in the milieu who stand for jihad being restricted to the battlefield. And more importantly again, it weakens those who are trying to combat the spread of such an ideological position. This in turn has implications for combating the spread of the ‘grassroots’ phenomena and for CT prevention strategies in the west, particularly those targeted at vulnerable groups and the means used to argue against using such MO.

Whew. So there you have it. That was what went through my mind when I read that snippet. It was basically a very long winded and stream of consciousness way of saying that much more attention needs to be paid the consequences of using drones, particularly over the long term. It may seem like an attractive solution, and it’s all fine and good to talk about how effective they are, but if you’re not considering these consequences I don’t see how you can make that argument.

Update: thanks for @azelin for pointing out spelling error, perils of writing while tired.

  1. 04/18/2011 at 11:35 pm

    i always note that while drones may scare some and disrupt some plots, there are still ones that are getting through. For example, Najibullah Zazi, the Pathway lot in northern England and Faisal Shahzad. All of them went through camps in Waziristan while drones were hammering away. so they are not infallible.

  2. davidbfpo
    04/25/2011 at 7:11 pm


    An excellent comment which raises issues I doubt officialdom will want to discuss openly. Perhaps now the Washington Post has published a report there will be reaction, note written after an IISS (Washington) meeting: http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/are-predator-drones-a-technological-tipping-point-in-warfare/2011/04/19/AFmC6PdE_story.html?hpid=z2

    Small Wars Journal has picked up the WaPo story, so perhaps that will get some comment too.

    • Leah Farrall, Australia
      05/11/2011 at 9:24 am

      Thank you!

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