Sept. 30 marks four years since the Obama administration assassinated the first American citizen with a drone. Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born Muslim cleric, became known in the aftermath of 9/11 as a spokesperson for the Muslim community, but over the years began spreading radical Islamic ideology in magazines and YouTube videos. He was deemed an “imminent threat” by the U.S. military and killed in Yemen in 2010. The current Islamic terrorism threat, which continues despite al-Awlaki’s death, underscores the misguidedness of American drone strikes. These strikes serve only to undermine stability in the regions they target and incite hatred of the West, all while ignoring its targets’ rights.
The appeal of using drone strikes to target national threats is understandable, as they shield pilots from danger. However, the ineffectiveness of these attacks outweighs the appeal significantly. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of Al Qaeda, was targeted for drone strikes twice in ten months. 76 children and 29 adults were killed in these two strikes, but eight years later, Zawahiri continues to lead the terrorist group.
As the target of a government execution without trial, Al-Awlaki was denied his constitutional right to due process. Despite senior White House officials referring to al-Awlaki as a “senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen,” the Obama administration never provided evidence of his ties with the organization. Additionally, Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, his 16-year-old son, was killed by mistake two weeks later, a move excused by the former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs as being caused by a lack of good parenting. This blase attitude and shroud of secrecy undermines the country’s democratic foundation and is morally indefensible. The U.S. cannot act outside the bounds of the Constitution with vague, unsubstantiated justifications of “imminent threats.”
The drone program’s track record has been abysmal. According to a Massey University report, only 17 percentt of drone strikes even hit their intended area of attack. Moreover, the University of Massachusetts reports that for every al-Qaeda member killed by a drone strike, 50 civilians are inadvertently killed, while the University of Nebraska found that for every strike, there is an increase of more than five terrorist attacks the following week. These indiscriminate killings only give terrorists justification, making martyrs of the dead.
The U.S. must revisit its drone policy in light of the anniversary of al-Awlaki’s death. The Obama administration needs to be more transparent when justifying its targets, and the ease of drone strikes must not supercede the rights of U.S. citizens to a trial. The only way the U.S. can claim to be using its drones responsibly is when civilian casualties are reduced to zero.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, September 28 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]