Who does not remember the time when President Obama was elected and finally inaugurated on 20 January 2009? I happened to be in Uganda on fieldwork with a group of Masters students in International Development at the University of Manchester. And as Uganda lays claim to be the real place of origin of Obama (rather than Kenya), the whole of Kampala was celebrating this historic day.
Obama was not only the first Black US-President, he also symbolized hope for a better world. He for example promised to close Guantanamo Bay and was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize for his ‘extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples’. In his acceptance speech he invoked the trope of ‘just war’, not only commenting on the paradox that the commander in chief of a nation that at the time was escalating its military efforts in Afghanistan received an award for peace. He was equally embracing the concept of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States has a special role as a defender of liberty, and that ultimately this required the use of force, not only as necessary but as morally justified.
Since an anonymous whistle-blower from within the US security complex gave details about secret internal documents of the US drone war to The Intercept, who published them as The Drone Papers, the idea of just war and morally justified action becomes rather absurd. The papers, centred on the years 2011-2013 during which the drone war gathered pace, reveal that in fact from the very start of the Obama administration, the drone became an important weapon of choice, used to hunt down and kill people worthy of execution, without indictment or trail.
The first drone strike that we know about was carried out in November 2002 when six so-called ‘al-Qaeda suspects’ were killed in Yemen. It subsequently took until May 2013 for the White House to release a set of standards and procedures for carrying out such strikes, and those remain purposefully vague. What we learn from the publication by The Intercept reads more like a deadly video game – but is in fact a deadly reality with a command chain that in various ways goes up to President Obama himself. The London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism demonstrates that the Obama administration had killed at least 2.500 people in drone strikes by January 2015. And from The Intercept it emerges for example that for one person on a kill-list in Afghanistan nine people may be executed – who posthumously mutate into enemies who have died in action.
The wealth of information available via The Intercept shall not be repeated here in detail: the baseball cards used to transform human beings into ‘targets’ with the order to ‘find, fix and finish’ them; the often inaccurate metadata from phone and computer communication intercepts that help in the creation of ‘targets’; the 60 days that, after all concerned including top people in government (the kill-chain is exposed in quite some detail) have agreed on a ‘target’, are given to eliminate ‘it’. Anybody interested in the details can read it on The Intercept for themselves.
The question we should ask ourselves is about the complicity of ‘our’ governments. While these recent revelations might take place in a far away land that some of us might always have been suspicious about, the US and its unaccountable layers of military and secret service institutions, there are multiple layers of complicity within countries like the UK. Remember Bilal el Berjawi? He was of British-Lebanese citizenship and travelled for years between the UK and Somalia. During his travels he was under US surveillance and there were multiple opportunities to arrest and interrogate him of suspected terrorist involvements. What happened instead was that his British citizenship was revoked – and he was subsequently killed in a US drone strike in Somalia in January 2012. No interest in a fair hearing and due process, but naked execution.
In September 2015 the niceties of first stripping a person of his UK citizenship and then leave it to the US to do the dirty work had finally been abandoned. Then, UK drones killed two British citizens, Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, who were fighting with so-called Islamic State in Syria. Similar to the US, Cameroon defended the strike as ‘necessary and proportionate for the individual self-defence of the UK’. The attack was actually aimed at just one of them, Reyaad Khan, thus a targeted assassination. Ruhul Amin was ‘collateral damage’, bad luck for him and another, un-named non-British victim, to be travelling in the same vehicle. The three of them might indeed have been unpleasant characters engaged in enticing others to join a Jihadist war – but this was still an extra-judicial killing.
It should make us all stand up in protest and the Nobel Committee should recall its Peace Prize, if that were possible. The global assassination campaign that has become US policy and increasingly extends to other nations is neither ‘just’, nor a ‘war’. And it can certainly not be morally justified. Dehumanising human beings and transforming them into ‘targets’ is in fact a potent symbol of complete moral bankruptcy.