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The U.S. and Israel Aren’t the Only Countries Killing People With Drones
The United Kingdom and Pakistan announced deaths by drone strike this week, joining a growing group of countries that use armed UAVs to strike.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s disclosure that his military used a drone to kill two British jihadis in Syria puts the United Kingdom into an exclusive but growing club of nations that acknowledge using unmanned aircraft to target their own citizens.
Speaking to his Parliament on Monday, Cameron said an armed drone had targeted Reyaad Khan and had also killed Ruhul Amin, both British citizens, and had killed a third Islamic State militant who was with them at the time of the August strike. The same day, Islamabad announced that a Pakistani drone strike killed three militants near the Afghan border.
Although the United States has launched more than 400 drone strikes against militants in Pakistan since 2004, Monday’s announcement marked the first time the Pakistani government has admitted to carrying out a lethal strike with its own drone. The military’s spokesman, Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa, described the dead men as “high-profile terrorists” but offered few other details.
Cameron and his top aides say their government decided to launch the attack after gathering intelligence that indicated the two Britons, who had joined the Islamic State in Syria, were a direct threat to the U.K. Speaking to BBC Radio on Tuesday, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the British military would not shy away from carrying out a similar attack in the future. “There are other terrorists involved in other plots that may come to fruition over the next few weeks and months, and we wouldn’t hesitate to take similar action again,” he said.
Thomas Joscelyn, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said countries like Pakistan that face ongoing threats from extremists threatening to overrun the central government see drones as “just another tool for them to use in that campaign [against militants].”
“There’s a stigma around drones, but the drones are just a tool of warfare,” he told Foreign Policy.
And they’re a tool of warfare that more and more countries are putting into their arsenals.
According to the New America think tank, 86 countries have drone capabilities, but the vast majority use them only for surveillance purposes. Israel, Pakistan, the U.K., and the United States are the only countries known to have killed enemies with drones, though a long list of other countries are poised to do so. China, Iran, Somalia, South Africa, and Nigeria all have armed drones, but have yet to use them on the battlefield. Russia, India, France, Sweden, Turkey, and a handful of other countries are currently developing armed drones of their own.
In 2013, it was made public that China contemplated using a drone to take out Burmese drug lord Naw Kham, who was responsible for the murders of 13 Chinese sailors in a brutal 2011 attack. China opted instead to use surveillance drones to track him down in Laos in 2012 and then extradite him to China for trial.
Had it gone ahead with the strike, Beijing would likely have faced criticism like that lobbed at Cameron by Amnesty International, which said the August strike amounted to “summary executions from the air” and accused the U.K. of “following the United States down a lawless road of remote-controlled summary killings from the sky.”
Still, Joscelyn said the U.K.’s flow of foreign fighters made the use of drones to target individuals in Syria almost inevitable. Most foreign fighters, he told FP, will get wrapped up in combat on the ground and not pose a serious threat to the country they left.
But others, like the two killed by the British strike “painted targets on their own backs because of what they were doing.” One of them, he said, was using social media to encourage attacks in the U.K. “He’s basically at that point asking for authorities to do something to try and get him,” Joscelyn said.
Photo credit: John Moore/Getty Images