US counter terrorism airstrikes may lead to more terrorism

Before I write one word more I need to emphasise that I am far from a military ‘expert’. I did once work for the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) but to be perfectly honest it was a cover for working for CSE – Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s signals intelligence agency. So my military knowledge is woefully inadequate.

What I do know, meaning what I have read from those who DO know a lot about all things military, is that air superiority is a good thing when you are in a war. He who controls the skies has a better overall chance at winning, or so I understand.

In the stupidly-named ‘War on Terror’ there is no such beast as air superiority because one side – i.e. the terrorists – has no air power to speak of (I know that some terrorist groups have developed a drone capability but even there they are no match for the bigger players). Hence those with air power are pretty much free to do whatever they want.

One such power is of course the US whose air force is really impressive. One of the tactics it has been using against terrorist groups is the use of airstrikes (or drone strikes) to locate, monitor and take out bad guys (see the 2015 film Eye in the Sky for a good drama on this). I have no figures on how many dead terrorists we now have thanks to Hellfire missiles and other weapons reigning down from above but I am sure it is a lot (I read of successful airstrikes in a variety of countries – primarily Afghanistan and Somalia – almost every day).

Look, I am the last guy to mourn the death of a terrorist. Our security intelligence and law enforcement agencies are busy enough with their investigations so the elimination of a few here and there can only help. But are all the victims of these strikes actually terrorists?

The short answer is no. Credible reporting from a number of organisations around the world has documented thousands of deaths of civilians, despite incredulous claims by the US that not one single non-combatant has died in these operations since 9/11.

Our ability to keep track of wayward strikes has taken quite a blow. US President Trump has revoked a policy set by his predecessor requiring US intelligence officials to publish the number of civilians killed in drone strikes outside of war zones, calling the record keeping “superfluous” and distracting. This seems immoral to me: while most strikes probably hit their mark, do we not have a duty to track those that don’t?

Furthermore, a rise in U.S. airstrikes on parts of Somalia over the past two years has prompted increasing numbers of civilians to flee their homes and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis fueled by years of war and extreme weather.

What I fear is being lost in all this is the refusal to accept that airstrikes that go awry is counterproductive. It is highly possible if not likely that those whose family members die in these acts will harbour grievances for years and could themselves radicalise to violence and become terrorists. In this event, the perpetrators simply extend the so-called war into an indefinite future.

The fact remains that the Trump administration will increase, and has already massively increased, anti Al Shabaab terrorists in Somalia. Some will take out some very nasty actors: others will disrupt normal life and in some cases take innocent lives.

For the record, I do not believe that pilots or drone operators deliberately target civilians – in fact I am sure they take every precaution to avoid what is euphemistically called ‘collateral damage’. Still, ‘mistakes’ are made. Should states not be forthcoming in admitting errors and paying compensation?

Terrorists are known not to care who they indiscriminately kill. Shouldn’t we be better than the terrorists?

PS for a longer discussion on this topic see my latest book An End to the War on Terrorism

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.

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