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‘Military Age Males’ in US Drone Strikes

“It’s not about me. It’s about every civilian who has been killed in Waziristan.”

These are the words of Faheem Qureshi, speaking to The Guardian in 2016. Faheem was one of the first casualties in President Obama’s drone campaign when, seven years before, on 23 January, 2009, his family home in North Waziristan was hit by a missile. His family were decimated by the attack. Two of Faheem’s uncles, Mohammed Khalil and Mansoor Rehman, were killed, along with his 21-year-old cousin, Aizazur Rehman Qureshi. This strike happened just three days into Obama’s presidency.

They are words that reveal a much wider harm than the one just Faheem suffered. While the White House under Obama were keen to maintain drone strikes as ‘exceptionally surgical and precise’, the reality was less clear cut. The U.S. drones programme may have begun under President Bush, but it was under his successor – Obama – that saw the world witnessing a rapid increase in their use. The Bush Administration authorised around 50 drone strikes in eight years; the Obama Administration over 500.

To some degree, this rise is understandable. Drones provided a modern and compelling opportunity to those who seek to wage conflict. Drones allowed the administration to perpetuate their war against al-Qaeda, while simultaneously withdrawing US troops from unpopular and costly conflicts. Drone strikes have increased even more rapidly since President Trump was elected. The Trump administration has authorised 176 strikes in Yemen in just two years, compared with 154 during Obama’s entire 8 year presidency.

Yet, despite the US massively ramping up their use of weaponized drones post-9/11, the programme remains shrouded in secrecy. The political, military, and intelligence communities within the US have released very little information about drones. And this secrecy has recently escalated under Trump when, in March 2019, he revoked a requirement that his government provide annual aggregate statistics on counterterrorism strikes.

This lack of transparency around armed drones makes it difficult for observers to determine both the casualties and decision-making processes behind these strikes. However, there are some indicators, whether from leaked classified documents, investigative journalism, or interviews with former intelligence officials, as to how the US drone programme operates.

Gender, however, is often omitted in these discussions. AOAV has previously published articles on how the proliferation of weaponised Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has impacted conceptions of heroism and masculinity. Yet given the importance of ‘Military-age Males’ as a category for drone operations, the wider issue of the casualties of such strikes has received surprisingly little critical attention, especially through a gendered lens.

There is also little casualty recording data on drone strikes that is disaggregated by gender. The main exception to this is The Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s (TBIJ) ‘Naming the Dead’ project, which aims to identify by name the people reportedly killed by CIA drone strikes in Pakistan since 2004.

So far, the project has identified 732 people reportedly killed by drone strikes in Pakistan between 2004 and 2016. Of those where gender was stated, 607 were adult males, 3 were adult females, the rest were children (101). In short, men have made up about 99.6% of all those killed in Pakistan from US drone strikes, where gender is known.

Although this a small sample set, it suggests that gender does indeed play a central role in drone targeting.

Personality Strikes and Signature Strikes

There are, essentially, two categories of drone strikes deployed by the US: Personality Strikes and Signature Strikes. Personality Strikes are directed towards individuals engaged in hostile activities. The Intercept have published extensive reports into how Personality Strikes are authorized. This process involves US intelligence officials (part of the Joint Special Operations Command) compiling a case for striking an individual. This information is then passed on to the executive and President, who authorizes a strike. The US has often used these strikes to target high-profile and high-ranking members of jihadist terrorist groups. For example, in 2017, Ibrahim al-Asiri, suspected to be al-Qaeda’s chief bomb maker in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in a US drone strike in Yemen. While this category of strikes has raised issues of due process, mistaken identity, and extrajudicial killings, they remain ultimately less controversial than Signature Strikes.

Signature Strikes are of a notably different nature. According to Kristina Benson, these strikes depend on a “pattern of behaviour – or ‘signature’ as a proxy for determining if that individual is engaging in a ‘continuous combat function’ or is directly participating in hostilities.” The exact identities of these individuals are often unknown when the strike occurs, and are not revealed in a post-strike analysis. Signature Strikes often end up killing individuals prior to them actually or possibly actively engaging in combat. They are killed based on a pattern of behaviour which purportedly indicates the likelihood of their future engagement in a combat function. It is, in a sense, a form of ‘Minority Report’ justice – where individuals are deemed a threat, even if they have not carried out such hostilities. And it is to this pre-emptive justice we turn a gendered lens.

Gender Targeting in Signature Strikes

What behaviours or characteristics make an individual a target of a Signature Strike? As with much of the US drone programme, the precise details remain unclear. In 2012, an article by The New York Times attempted to shed light on this decision making process. The metric of deciding who is a legitimate target “in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.”

Military-age males refers to all boys and men over the age of 16, irrespective of whether or not they are actually participating in hostilities. It is important to note that this does not automatically equate all boys and men with combatants. However, it demarcates boys and men for different treatment in conflict.

Gender is one of several characteristics and behaviours which are used to assess the legitimacy of drone targets. Others include travel, phone calls, and location, but gender remains one of the most important. Dr Sarah Shooker has argued that while proximity to a target is important in determining guilt in the collateral damage count, it is only relevant if you are a man or a boy. This means that military-age males geographically close to suspects when the drone strikes are not even included in civilian casualties. Their gender forces them, in death, into the role of the accused combatant.

This differentiation of military-age males also changes the decisions of drone operators and intelligence officials as to whether they should carry out a strike. One official provided an example of such – when the CIA were targeting Abu Ali Al-Harithi, allegedly involved in the USS Cole bombing, in Yemen, the unidentified women and children amongst his associates got into a separate car leaving his compound. This meant the CIA were able to launch their strike. In the absence of women and children, everyone else was deemed a target.

It was a policy reflected in remarks made by the former US ambassador to Pakistan, Cameron Munter, who commented “My feeling is one man’s combatant is another man’s – well, a chump who went to a meeting.”  Being a ‘chump’, it seems, can sign your death warrant.

Despite the obvious concerns this broad-brush targeting raises, the US has not given precise details relating to military-age males, targeting, and collateral damage counts.

Casualty Counting

Much has been written about the inaccuracy and inadequacy of US policies on collateral damage counts. John Brennan, one of Obama’s counterterrorism advisors before he became the Director of the CIA, claimed that civilian deaths from drone strikes were ‘exceedingly rare’. Obama himself stated that the drone programme ‘had not caused a huge number of civilian casualties’. There is also a tendency for supporters of drone warfare to claim that, irrespective of reported civilian casualties, these numbers are far fewer than if traditional weapons types were relied upon. However, it is impossible to make these claims if the counts themselves are inaccurate.

A critical component of this inaccuracy is the reliance upon military-age males as a category. One former official told The New York Times that the emphasis on ‘guilt by association’ had distorted collateral damage counts. They stated, ‘it bothers me when they say there were seven guys, so they must all be militants. They count the corpses and they’re not really sure who they are.’

In Signature Strikes, the precise identities of drone targets are not known. In these strikes, intelligence officials use the category of military-age males to both target individuals and assess collateral damage afterwards. This creates an almost self-fulfilling prophecy as the same assumptions about militarised masculinities become reproduced. Within this loop, there is little space for intelligence officials to actually interrogate whether men killed by drone strikes are indeed combatants or civilians.

This lack of transparency means that journalists and analysts who have tried to count civilian deaths from US drone strikes have often produced divergent figures. In 2016, the US admitted their civilian casualty count from 2009 to 2015 in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya was between 64 and 116. In contrast, TBIJ estimated that civilian deaths are as many as six times higher than this, between 380 to 801 civilians.

Overall, the US counted 2,436 dead persons (including civilians) and TBIJ counted 2,753, in total. But TBIJ did not use ‘military-age males’ as an analytic category. Their methodology, therefore, does not suppose a presumptive link between masculinity and militancy. And so, by rejecting military-age males as a presumptive category, it produces a very different casualty count, suggesting that dozens of young male civilians are being killed by US drones.

Concluding Remarks 

The US drone programme has inflicted severe damage on communities, families, and lives across the globe. This impact is compounded by assumptions about masculinity and militancy. The category of military-age males obfuscates and prevents proper oversight of US counterterrorism policies. It denies victims and their families the status of civilians. The US’ dependency on militarised masculinities for both targeting and casualty assessments also prevents legitimate oversight from happening. Only when civilian casualties are properly counted, including data on gender and age, can we really scrutinise the whole ethical and legal impacts of modern drone conflicts.