Are drones a good counter terrorism tool?

I have just finished watching ‘Eye in the Sky’, a recent film about the use of drones as a counter terrorism tool.  The movie shows an operation where an Al Shabaab cell in Nairobi is located and targeted for killing, before it can carry out suicide attacks, all while shedding some light on the decision-making process (legal and political) that runs in parallel to the military decision.  In this plot, things are complicated by the presence of innocent civilians in the ‘kill zone’ and the fact that two governments, the UK and US, are involved in the affair. The acting is good and the story is riveting.

I have no idea whether this film is an accurate reflection of what really happens when states opt to kill people from the air.  I have read that there are multiple safety checks in place and that everything possible is done to minimise civilian casualties (‘collateral damage’).  This film does a very good job of showing the emotional angst surrounding a decision to kill and the arguments and counter-arguments that crop up.

Assuming that it is true that those with the power to launch Hellfire missiles do indeed exhaust every alternative before resorting to lethal force, there are nonetheless several issues that need to be unpacked when discussing the utility of drones.

There is little question that from a military standpoint drones are a very valuable tool.  They can fly for days and access areas not accessible to humans.  They minimise the loss of life, at least for one’s own forces which do not have to enter fire zones.  And they can take out targets who, if left to act, can kill and maim many more innocent people.

From the moral perspective, things are a little murkier.  The argument that killing a terrorist cell and also killing innocents in the vicinity is preferable to letting them go to cause more carnage recalls the fat man and the trolley scenario.   This philosophical dilemma about whether it is ok to sacrifice one life for many has been summarised as follows (or if you prefer Star Trek, Spock in The Wrath of Khan famously said: “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few..or the one”):

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move.                   The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the                    trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is a fat person on the side track. You have two options:                   (1)   Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where                it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?

Most people would pull the lever.  When the scenario is altered whereby you have to push someone onto the track, people are less inclined to act.  Innocent civilians are the fat men in drone strikes.

In addition, we must take into account whether the use of drones is, in the long term, a good practice from a propaganda, hearts and minds angle.  There is already good data that shows that drone warfare and targeted killing have a huge unsettling effect on communities and may in fact lead to more terrorism as populations seek revenge for what are perceived as soulless, unjustified slaughter.  In the movie one of the characters notes that if Al Shabaab kills 80 in a market through a suicide attack we win the propaganda war but if a drone kills one innocent girl, they win.

What should we make of the waging of war from the comfort of a chair, a computer screen and a joystick?  Yes, the potential losses to one’s one people are eliminated, but does the impersonal nature of killing not make it easier?   Do we want to make death and destruction antiseptic?  Shouldn’t those we ask to kill confront the victims of their actions?  Do we really want to see a future where war is waged entirely by machines?

I do not have easy answers to any of these questions.  I think that the elimination of a terrorist is a good thing as it means we have one less terrorist to worry about and a dead terrorist can’t kill anymore.  At the same time I worry that we are sacrificing the huge advantage we have – our free, secular, democratic, multicultural societies – when we opt to kill from the sky.

As on most things, careful consideration must apply  If indeed drone strikes are the ONLY way to eliminate serious and significant terrorist threats, and everything has been done to avoid the concomitant deaths of innocents, we should go ahead.  I hope we are making the right decision and that years from now we will not look back and bemoan what we have done.  As in medicine non nocere  – do no harm.  Let’s pray this is true.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

Leave a Reply