The first year of Donald Trump’s presidency has seen a grotesque escalation of the United States‘ targeted assassination program, originally developed under the George W. Bush administration and continued with enthusiastic fervor by the Barack Obama administration. Following the nightmarish brutality and horror of Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)’s secret extraordinary rendition and torture program, the Bush administration subsequently resolved to simply do away with the discomfort and inconvenience of detaining people. In an attempt to avoid public scrutiny, legal accountability, and global condemnation for its barbaric practices, the US decided to covertly murder people from the skies instead.
Once a week, President Obama would chair a counter-terrorism meeting in the White House situation room — a ritual that has become known as Terror Tuesday — during which a ‘Kill List’ would be compiled of suspected enemies to be targeted for assassination. In line with the US government’s Orwellian habit of using sinister euphemisms to conceal wrongdoing, it was named ‘the disposition matrix’.
But the “targeted” assassination program turned out to be anything but targeted, killing over 250 children in Pakistan and Yemen. The CIA’s very own leaked documents revealed that the US often does not know whom it is killing, and that militant leaders account for just 2% of drone-related deaths. More than 80% of those killed have never even been identified by name.
In numerous botched attempts to assassinate just one individual, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults, while totally missing their target. To get around the problem of civilian casualties, everyone in a strike zone was classified as a combatant.
Under President Trump, the drone campaign has expanded exponentially in scale, inhumanity, and recklessness. The pace of lethal drone strikes and special forces raids more than quadrupled from one every 5.4 days under President Obama to one every 1.25 days under President Trump, according to Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations. The already lax restrictions set by the Obama administration, intended to protect civilians and maintain a rudimentary semblance of transparency, have been ripped up and discarded, resulting in an unparalleled number of civilian deaths. In late September, The New York Times reported that the Trump administration was loosening Obama-era safeguards on who can be targeted and removing a requirement that signature strikes undergo high-level vetting before they’re carried out. According to the report, the new rules would also “ease the way to expanding such gray-zone acts of sporadic warfare” into new countries, extending the program’s already global footprint.
The program requires no clear evidence of an imminent threat, due process is laid to waste, and there is no scrutiny or accountability for US transgressions.
As the “War on Terror” enters its seventeenth year with no end in sight, the US drone war has become a program of global, industrial-scale assassinations.
The first year of the Trump administration has led to more loss of life from drone strikes than all eight years of Obama’s presidency.
Under President Trump, US drone strikes have increased in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen – all countries against which the US is not officially at war.
Since January 2017, there have been at least 124 drone strikes in Yemen, a five-fold increase, and at least two ground raids, resulting in at least 163 deaths. This is a 287% increase in strikes from 2016. In 2017 in Somalia there were 33 drone strikes and at least 196 were reported killed, more casualties than all the strikes the US took in Somalia over the previous fifteen years.
The international human rights law that governs the use of lethal force outside of armed conflict permits the use of lethal force only in very narrow circumstances: specifically, only where it is “strictly unavoidable” in order to defend against an “imminent threat of death.”
But Trump’s raids and strikes across the globe exhibit a disturbing pattern of ill-considered and legally questionable operations.
Under Trump, America’s illegal drone war has expanded further across the globe. In October it was reported that his Administration was seeking to use armed drones in Niger – another country where the US is not engaged in an armed conflict. This followed widespread reports of a secret US counter-terror operation in Niger, which cost the lives of US Special Forces personnel. Most senators – including serving members of the Senate Armed Services Committee – had not previously been briefed on the current US military presence in Niger.
Before leaving office, President Obama restricted and reduced the CIA’s role in the drone program, limiting their involvement in Yemen and prohibiting any CIA drones from flying over Syria. Since coming in to office, President Trump has worked to systematically roll back these safeguards.
In March, Trump reauthorized the CIA to conduct drone strikes, and in the same month declared areas of Yemen and Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, allowing safeguards to be bypassed. In September, the Trump administration began to further dismantle Obama-era restrictions by expanding the list of who could be targeted in strikes. Now, even individuals not considered to pose a “continuing and imminent threat” can be targeted for death without trial.
January 2017 saw the launch of President Trump’s first major operation, a midnight raid and drone strike on the village of al-Ghayil in the Yakla area of Yemen. The raid was approved by Trump casually over dinner at the White House, with his top three advisors at the time — chief of staff Reince Priebus, senior adviser Jared Kushner, and chief strategist Steve Bannon — in attendance. Concerns about the quality of the intelligence and legality of the operation, which the Obama administration had rejected as too insufficient and risky, would later prove to be warnings he should have heeded, but President Trump issued the order anyway.
Military officials said the raid veered off-track from the start, resulting in the deaths of a US Navy SEAL, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, and 25 civilians, including 8 women — one of whom was pregnant, an 80-year-old man, and 10 children aged 12 and under, one of whom was the 8-year-old American daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki (Al Qaeda propagandist killed by an Obama signature strike), and the youngest only 3 months old, according to the London-based NGO Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ).
The raid failed to take out its ultimate target, reportedly Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) chief Qasim al Raymi, who apparently was not even in the village at the time of the raid, and it didn’t yield any significant intelligence. Additionally, the U.S.’s $75 million Osprey aircraft had to be destroyed after a crash landing.
The elusive AQAP leader issued a mocking response to Trump’s first major foreign policy decision in an 11-minute audio message: “The new fool of the White House received a painful slap across his face.”
Nevertheless, President Trump insisted on declaring the raid was a “win”.
In May 2017, a second raid in Yemen was carried out by US forces. A Reprieve investigation revealed that five civilians were killed during this operation, and six were seriously injured. One of those killed was Nasser al-Adhal, who was around 70 years old and partially blind. So far, the Trump Administration has yet to acknowledge a single civilian casualty.
The Trump Administration conducted a secret internal review of the operation, which ignored eyewitness accounts, labelled innocent children as combatants, and underestimated the number of civilian casualties. The review concluded that there were no lapses in judgement surrounding the operation.