Drone strikes a growing threat to African civilians


Since 2016, Donald Trump has loosened the reins on the US drone programme by lowering the standards for who can be targeted and where. This has severe consequences for counter-terrorism operations in Africa – particularly in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

On the eve of the 2016 US presidential election, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) speculated about what a Trump presidency might mean for Africa. Among the issues noted was a potential spike in the proliferation of drone attacks.

This appears to have been justified. In September 2017 it was reported, though never formally announced by the White House, that the Trump administration had rescinded changes made by Obama’s government regarding drone use.

The new Principles, Standards and Procedures (PSP) adopted by the Trump administration has begun to reveal itself. On 31 January 2018, US special forces launched air attacks on suspected al-Shabaab militants in Somalia, killing 24. Earlier in January, a US-led strike in that country killed 52 alleged terrorists.

During his eight years as president, Barack Obama racked up about 300 casualties from drone strikes in Somalia. In roughly a quarter of the time, Trump has nearly tripled that total according to New America. While the impact on civilian casualties is becoming clear, the changes in the PSP are subtle and have several layers.

Along with more casualties, Trump has exponentially increased the pace of drone strikes in Somalia

For one, the new PSP lowers the threshold for lethal or ‘kinetic’ action. Alleged terrorists no longer need to pose a ‘continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons’ to become the target of a drone strike – a threshold many suggest is already highly subjective.

The new guidelines reportedly permit strikes against low-level foot soldiers without any ‘unique skills or leadership roles’ and who do not have to meet any threat criteria. This has echoes of the Bush administration’s ‘preventive war’ doctrine and almost assuredly contravenes international law.

The PSP also scraps the thorough interagency review process that used to determine which US operational theatres are designated for kinetic drone strikes. Previously this included only areas of ‘active hostilities’ – meaning Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. However, in 2017 Somalia and Yemen were added to the list and it appears that Libya may now be a target as well.

In any case, the current Authorization for the Use of Military Force – introduced after 11 September 2001 – permits the president to take military action against any alleged terrorist group. This includes groups that have not directly attacked the US homeland, like al-Shabaab and Islamic State. So formally declaring a country an area of ‘active hostilities’ may just be seen by the Trump administration as additional red tape subject to unwanted scrutiny.

The PSP also moves more of the collective weight of US drone operations from the Department of Defense back to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This is a significant departure from the Obama-era policy of increasing transparency by shifting responsibility to the Department of Defense. The important distinction is that the military is required to report civilian casualties to Congress, while the CIA is not.

The Trump administration has quickly and quietly escalated the severity of the US drone programme

These developments do not bode well for civilians caught in the crosshairs of US drone strikes. And, aside from the January 2018 salvo, evidence from Somalia indicates that the US drone programme is rapidly expanding.

Data from New America suggests that along with more casualties, Trump has exponentially increased the pace of drone strikes in Somalia. In just two years, Trump (83 strikes) has more than doubled the number of attacks that took place under Barack Obama (31 strikes) and George Bush (10 strikes). New America also reports that, according to the Pentagon, Trump’s counter-terrorism strikes ‘exceed what is represented here’, due to the lack of accountability in the CIA programme.

A White House spokesperson told the Washington Post there was ‘no change in the U.S. commitment to protecting civilian life’. But the annual report on civilian causalities doesn’t meet the standard of watchdog groups. According to Human Rights First the 2018 Department of Defense report shows ‘blatant disregard for statutory requirements’ and excludes about 450 reports of civilian casualties since 2017. Again, this does not include the newly beefed-up CIA drone programme.

Finally, the US drone programme may be increasing its capacity in Africa. In September 2018, the New York Times reported that the CIA was moving aircraft to a remote corner of Niger, where satellite imagery reveals that the local airport has expanded significantly in recent months.

African leaders must balance genuine security concerns with policies that promote human development

The Department of Defense told the Times that they do not operate drone flights out of the airbase, and the CIA spokesperson declined to comment. Niger’s interior minister could only confirm that ‘all I know is that they’re American’. But the New York Times reported that the drones flying from the base were consistent with the size and shape of a predator drone, which the US Air Force discontinued in favour of the larger Reaper drone last year.

In other words, if they are American and not Department of Defense, then they must be CIA. One American official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says kinetic strikes have not been launched from Niger yet, but certainly would, given growing instability in Libya.

Obama was widely criticised, and rightly so, for the clandestine nature of his drone programme. He responded in 2013 by introducing a framework to clearly define the areas of engagement and an ostensible threshold for ensuring the protection of civilians. The ISS has argued, and maintains, that these protections were insufficient. But they were an improvement.

By rolling back these guidelines, the Trump administration has given itself latitude to quickly and quietly escalate the severity of the US drone programme. The construction of an airfield in Niger suggests they may also be expanding the scope.  

A poorly articulated drone policy, which violates human rights and other international norms, sets a dangerous precedent as the technology evolves and becomes more accessible. African governments that support overly militaristic responses exacerbate the problem. Leaders on the continent need to balance genuine security concerns with policies that promote human development as a viable alternative to violence and extremism.

Zachary Donnenfeld, Senior Research Consultant, African Futures and Innovation, ISS

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