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From the file

Drones | The assassination of Qasem Soleimani was a sharp reminder of the scale and scope of drone warfare. The use of remote-control weaponry, trialled by George W Bush at the start of the war on terror, and industrialised by Barack Obama, is now in the hands of Donald Trump.

Rise of the swarm

Monday 3 February 2020

The end of the soldier


They were promised to bring precision to the chaos of war – capable of surgical strikes that would help avoid civilian deaths.

But 20 years after they were introduced in America’s war on terror, the shadowy world of drone warfare is slowly becoming clearer, and the promise of bloodless war remains elusive.

Strikes in the Middle East have hit funerals, families – devastating communities in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Campaigns across the world have argued forcefully for governments to curb their use, warning that remote-controlled warfare lowers the threshold for deadly force.

But there is a new frontier – autonomy, killing machines that can think for themselves. Here, we chart the rise of the machines…

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 7 September 2000.

The first unarmed remotely piloted aircraft, the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, crosses into Afghanistan.

A few weeks later, the drone’s pilot, Scott Swanson, spots Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda leader targeted by the CIA who had masterminded the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

But the US Predator drone is still unarmed, and Bin Laden remains unharmed.

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 12 October 2000.

A fibreglass boat carrying explosives and suicide bombers approaches USS Cole, a guided missile destroyer of the US Navy, as it is being refuelled in Yemen’s Aden harbour. The small boat explodes and kills 17 US sailors. al-Qaeda claims responsibility for the attack.

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 11 September 2001.

Orchestrated by Bin Laden, two passenger planes are flown into the World Trade Center towers in New York – the deadliest terror attack ever perpetrated on American soil.

The war on terror begins, under President George W Bush.

A few days after the attack, the US Congress passes the ‘Authorization for Use of Military Force’ law, which is used by subsequent administrations as congressional authority for military operations, including drone strikes.

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 7 October 2001.

America’s first military drone strike ends in failure. In eastern Afghanistan, the CIA fires a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone too early, missing the facility of Taliban commander Mullah Omar and hitting an empty truck.

Omar escapes and survives for more than a decade, dying of tuberculosis in 2013.

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 3 November 2002.

In Sanaa, Yemen, an RQ-1 Predator drone kills al-Qaeda operative Abu Ali al-Harithi, thought to be involved in the USS Cole attack two years earlier.

He is killed along with Kamal Derwish, a US citizen, whose death is the first known case of the US government killing a US citizen during the war on terror.

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 13 January 2006.

Four US Predator drones attack the Pakistani village of Damodola, targeting Ayman al-Zawahiri, second in command of al-Qaeda; the strikes kill 18 local villagers, including five children.

Pakistan erupts into anti-US protests. In Karachi, protesters shout “death to America” and “stop bombing innocent people”.

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 20 January 2009.

Barack Obama is inaugurated into office. He would later admit to authorising 542 drone strikes between January 2009 and January 2017, more than 10 times the 50 or so drone strikes authorised under the Bush administration.

Obama would raise the issue of drone warfare which dominates his tenure in a 2016 interview with The Atlantic: “The truth is that this technology really began to take off right at the beginning of my presidency. And it wasn’t until about a year, year and a half in where I began to realise that the Pentagon and our national-security apparatus and the CIA were all getting too comfortable with the technology as a tool to fight terrorism, and not being mindful enough about how that technology is being used and the dangers of a form of warfare that is so detached from what is actually happening on the ground.”

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 23 January 2009.

Just three days after assuming office, President Barack Obama authorises his first strike with an unmanned Predator drone.

It hits the village of Zharki in Waziristan, Pakistan, but misses the targeted Taliban member, killing several civilians.

In 2009, the CIA conducts more than 100 drone strikes in Pakistan – as the covert war against Islamic extremism ramps up.

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 10 December 2009.

President Barack Obama accepts the Nobel Peace Prize.

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 September – November 2010.

The US carries out 58 drone strikes in Pakistan over the course of just 102 days, according to the Long War Journal, in a relentless attack on al-Qaeda militants.

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 Mid-2011 – mid-2015.

US troop numbers in Afghanistan plummet from 99,800 to just 9,060.

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 30 September 2011.

An AGM-114 Hellfire missile fired by a Predator drone kills Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen believed to be centrally involved in al-Qaeda. Obama calls it “further proof that al-Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world”.

Two weeks later, a separate Predator drone strike kills al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son and several other Yemeni civilians eating at an outdoor restaurant.

During Obama’s re-election campaign the following year, former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs justifies the death of al-Awlaki’s son by suggesting he should have “had a more responsible father”.

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 23 May 2013.

Obama gives a speech at the National Defense University, declaring that “America is at a crossroads” and limiting his drone policy by constraining targets to those who pose “a continuing, imminent threat to Americans”.

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 April 2013.

The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, a collection of NGOs seeking to ban lethal autonomous weapons, is launched in the House of Commons.

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 29 June 2014.

Three weeks after taking the city of Mosul in Iraq, Isis, which emerged out of an al-Qaeda affiliate, announces itself as a global Islamist caliphate, renaming itself the Islamic State and claiming authority over Muslims worldwide.

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 8 August 2014.

The US begins airstrikes, including drone attacks, on Islamic State targets in Iraq before expanding operations into Syria the following month.

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 10 November 2014.

The UK uses an RAF Reaper drone to carry out its first drone strike on Islamic State militants.

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 15 January 2015.

A US drone strike targeting an al-Qaeda compound on the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where counterterrorism efforts are reliant on drone strikes, accidentally kills two innocent hostages, the American Warren Weinstein, kidnapped in 2011, and the Italian Giovanni Lo Porto, captured in 2012.

The White House releases a statement saying that it “had no reason to believe either hostage was present” and adding that “no words can fully express our regret over this tragedy”.

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 21 August 2015.

David Cameron becomes the first UK prime minister to direct an attack by an unmanned drone outside a formal conflict, after an RAF MQ-9 Reaper drone flown from a base in rural Lincolnshire kills Reyaad Khan, a 21-year-old from Cardiff suspected of fighting with the Islamic State, and two other Isis fighters, including a second Briton.

A parliamentary report later assesses that Khan did pose a very serious threat to the UK, but says that there is “a question as to how the threat is quantified” and that it is subjective “whether the actions of Khan and his associates amounted to an ‘armed attack’ against the UK or Iraq”.

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 12 November 2015.

In Raqqa, Syria, two US MQ-9 Reaper drones and a British MQ-9 drone kill Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed by the British and American press as ‘Jihadi John’, a British man who appeared in several Islamic State videos beheading foreign captives.

US Army Colonel Steve Warren later says that the strike turned Emwazi into “a greasy spot in the ground”.

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 4 April 2016.

Azerbaijani forces attack a bus carrying Armenian volunteer soldiers and kill seven people in the first known use of the Israeli-made autonomous Harpy suicide drone in combat.

It is believed that the Harpy didn’t make this attack in its fully autonomous mode.

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 1 July 2016.

Barack Obama issues an executive order requiring the head of the CIA to publish the number of civilians killed by drone strikes in non-combat zones, but the order is revoked three years later by Donald Trump, whose administration calls it “superfluous”.

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 2 October 2016.

The Islamic State carries out its first successful drone attack in combat, killing two Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and wounding two French Special Operations troops in northern Iraq.

In January of the following year the Islamic State announces its inaugural drone unit, named “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen”, thought to be a fleet of small, relatively inexpensive drones modified and equipped with bombs.

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 20 January 2017.

President Donald Trump is inaugurated into office. He authorises 238 drone strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan in his first two years in power, more than the 186 authorised by Obama over the same period.

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 3 November 2017.

US drone strikes target Islamic State fighters in Somalia for the first time, killing several militants.

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 5 January 2018.

In the first known case of a swarm drone attack, 13 homemade drones attack Russian forces at two bases in western Syria.

According to the Russian Defence Ministry, the drones were sent by Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and operated autonomously.

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 1 March 2018 .

Russian president Vladimir Putin uses his annual state of the nation speech to announce a 100 megaton nuclear-powered underwater drone called Poseidon.

Russia claims it can travel thousands of miles and create widespread and long-lasting nuclear contamination on impact.

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 4 August 2018.

Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro survives an alleged assassination attempt when exploding drones detonate above him as he makes a speech at a military event in Caracas.

Some suggest that the incident was a ‘false flag’ operation devised by the government to allow suppression of opposition.

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 December 2018.

A global Ipsos MORI poll finds that 61 per cent of adults across 26 countries oppose the use of lethal autonomous weapons systems.

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 5 April 2019.

For the first time, the US admits to causing civilian casualties in its air campaign in Somalia, in an April 2018 strike. “It was not known at the time that there was a woman and a child present,” says Major General Gregg Olson, the director of operations for Africa Command.

The admission comes just a fortnight after Amnesty International releases a report claiming that 14 civilians were killed in just five strikes carried out by Reaper drones and manned aircraft in Somalia.

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 20 June 2019.

Tensions between US and Iran, already rising under the Trump administration, escalate after the Islamic Revolutionary Guard shoots down a US surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz.

The attack nearly ends in armed conflict after Trump orders a military strike against missile sites, before later backing down.

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 14 September 2019.

A drone strike by Houthi rebels on two Saudi Aramco oil facilities forces Saudi Arabia to shut down half of its oil production, about five per cent of oil production worldwide.

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 19 September 2019.

A US drone strike against Islamic State terrorists kills 30 pine nut farm workers sleeping in tents in a mountainous region of eastern Afghanistan.

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 21 December 2019.

France carries out its first ever drone strike, against militants in Mali, nearly a month after two French helicopters collided in the country, killing 13 soldiers.

Seven militants are killed in the attack.

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 3 January 2020.

The US assassinates Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian commander in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, near Baghdad International Airport with an MQ-9 Reaper drone fitted with Hellfire missiles. It is the first time the US has used a drone to kill another country’s senior commander on foreign soil. Iran’s supreme leader vows “severe revenge” on those responsible for his death.

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Photographs Getty Images, General Atomics, mil.ru

Next in this file

Charting the terrifying rise of the autonomous drone

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