In a major expansion of his program of targeted assassinations, President Obama has authorized drone strikes on suspected al Qaida militants in Yemen, even when the exact identities of the targets aren’t known. Unnamed officials told The Wall Street Journal that the CIA and the military are now selecting targets based on their “intelligence signatures,” which comprise information from aerial surveillance and human sources. “Signature strikes” will be allowed when there is “clear indication” that an al Qaida member is present. Such strikes have been used in Pakistan for years, and after Obama’s approval, officials said the first one was carried out in Yemen last week.
This is the first time that the Obama administration has officially acknowledged its drone program. “The United States government conducts targeted strikes against specific al Qaida terrorists,” White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said this week. “As a result of our efforts, the United States is more secure and the American people are safer.”
In fact, there’s no evidence that drones make us any safer, said James Joyner in TheNewRepublic.com. “Willy-nilly targeting of low-level militants is quite likely to do more harm than good.” Signature strikes, the government says, killed 10 of the top 20 terrorist leaders in Pakistan. But striking unnamed people we only suspect are militants “radically ups the risk of killing innocents, which, in turn, produces legitimate anti-American anger that terrorist recruiters can exploit.” The collateral damage in Pakistan was so great that the strikes ultimately backfired, turning much of the population against us.
Drones will never wipe out al Qaida, anyway, said Greg Scoblete in RealClearWorld.com. They just make them relocate. See the pattern? The U.S. drove al Qaida from Afghanistan; they set up in Pakistan. It drove them from Pakistan; now they are in Yemen. “It should be clear by now that there’s not going to be a deathblow here.”
There could be—but only if the Obama administration commits enough resources, said Seth Jones in The Wall Street Journal. Al Qaida’s territory is now broader than ever, encompassing an arc from North Africa to the Middle East and South Asia. This is where “U.S. forces—especially clandestine special operations, intelligence units, and law enforcement—must play a critical, long-term role.” Drones are one tool in that effort. But they won’t be enough by themselves.