Written by Cora Currier
You might have heard about the “kill list.” You’ve certainly heard about drones. But the details of the U.S. campaign against militants in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia — a centerpiece of the Obama administration’s national security approach – remain shrouded in secrecy. Here’s our guide to what we know—and what we don’t know.
Where is the drone war? Who carries it out?
Drones have been the Obama administration’s tool of choice for taking out militants outside of Iraq and Afghanistan. Drones aren’t the exclusive weapon – traditional airstrikes and other attacks have also been reported. But by one estimate, 95 percent of targeted killings since 9/11 have been conducted by drones. Among the benefits of drones: they don’t put American troops in harm’s way.
The first reported drone strike against Al Qaeda happened in Yemen in 2002. The CIA ramped up secret drone strikes in Pakistan under President George W. Bush in 2008. Under Obama, they have expanded drastically there and in Yemen in 2011.
The CIA isn’t alone in conducting drone strikes. The military has acknowledged “direct action” in Yemen and Somalia. Strikes in those countries are reportedly carried out by the secretive, elite Joint Special Operations Command. Since 9/11, JSOC has grown more than tenfold, taking on intelligence-gathering as well as combat roles. (For example, JSOC was responsible for the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.)
The drone war is carried out remotely, from the U.S. and a network of secret bases around the world. The Washington Post got a glimpse – through examining construction contracts and showing up uninvited – at the base in the tiny African nation of Djibouti from which many of the strikes on Yemen and Somalia are carried out. Earlier this year, Wired pieced together an account of the war against Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group and the U.S.’s expanded military presence throughout Africa.
The number of strikes in Pakistan has ebbed in recent years, from a peak of more than 100 in 2010, to an estimated 46 last year. Meanwhile, the pace in Yemen picked up, with more than 40 last year. But there have been seven strikes in Pakistan in the first ten days of 2013.
How are targets chosen?
A series of articles based largely on anonymous comments from administration officials have given partial picture of how the U.S. picks targets and carries out strikes. Two recent reports – from researchers at Columbia Law School and from the Council on Foreign Relations– also give detailed overviews of what’s known about the process.
The CIA and the military have reportedly long maintained overlapping “kill lists.” According to news reports last spring, the military’s list was hashed out in Pentagon-run interagency meetings, with the White House approving proposed targets. Obama would authorize particularly sensitive missions himself.
This year, the process reportedly changed, to concentrate the review of individuals and targeting criteria in the White House. According to the Washington Post, the reviews now happen at regular interagency meetings at the National Counterterrorism Center. Recommendations are sent to a panel of National Security Council officials. Final revisions go through White House counterterror adviser John Brennan to the president. Several profiles have highlighted Brennan’s powerful and controversial role in shaping the trajectory of the targeted killing program. This week, Obama nominated Brennan to head the CIA.
At least some CIA strikes don’t have to get White House signoff. The director of the CIA can reportedly green-light strikes in Pakistan. In a 2011 interview, John Rizzo, previously the CIA’s top lawyer, said agency attorneys did an exhaustive review of each target.
According to the Washington Post, the Obama administration’s recent effort to impose more stringent requirements for kill lists and signature strikes exempts the CIA’s campaign in Pakistan. The CIA will have at least a year to continue strikes in Pakistan according to its own protocols.
Drone War Jargon
AUMF The Authorization for Use of Military Force, an act of Congress passed days after the 9/11 attacks, giving the president authority to take “all necessary and appropriate force” against anyone involved in the attack or harboring those who were. Both Bush and Obama have claimed broad authorities to detain and kill terror suspects based on the AUMF.
AQAP Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the Yemen-based al Qaeda affiliate tied to the attempted Christmas Day airplane bombing in 2009. Over the past year, the U.S. has ramped up strikes against AQAP, targeting leaders as well as unspecified militants.
Disposition Matrix A system for tracking terror targets and assessing when – and where – they could be killed or captured. The Washington Post reported this fall that the Disposition Matrix is an attempt to codify for the long haul the administration’s “kill lists.”
Glomar A response rejecting a request for information on a classified program asserting that the information’s mere existence can neither be confirmed nor denied. The name comes from 1968, when the CIA told journalists it could neither “confirm nor deny” the existence of a ship called the Glomar Explorer. The CIA has responded to information requests about its drone program with Glomar responses.
JSOC Joint Special Operations Command is a secretive, elite segment of the military. JSOC squads carried out the Bin Laden raid and run the military’s drone programs in Yemen and Somalia and also conduct intelligence gathering.
Personality Strike A targeted attack on a particular individual identified as a terrorist leader.
Signature Strike A strike against someone believed to be a militant whose identity isn’t necessarily known. Such strikes are reportedly based on a “pattern of life” analysis – intelligence on their behavior suggesting that an individual is a militant. The policy, reportedly begun by Bush in Pakistan in 2008, is now allowed in Yemen.
TADS Terror Attack Disruption Strikes, sometimes used to refer to some strikes when the identity of the target is not known. Administration officials have said that the criteria for TADS are different from signature strikes, but it is not clear how.
Next page: Doesn’t the US sometimes target people whose names they don’t know?
U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Stanley Thompson
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