Drones and Counterterrorism

“Yes, the drone strikes hurt the Taliban… but sometimes innocent people also become the victim of such attacks. Take my case… we were living a happy life and I didn’t have any links with the Taliban. My family members were innocent… I wonder, why was I victimized?” --Gul Nawaz, who lost his home and 11 members of his family, including his wife and four children, to a drone strike in Pakistan. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. John Bainter/Released)

Given the covert nature of the drone program in US counterterrorism operations, no one knows the true extent of civilian harm caused by drone strikes in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. It is unclear what precautions are taken to avoid harming civilians and what recourse civilians have when they are harmed. CIVIC’s research in  Pakistan and work by other organizations in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen show that civilian harm exists and that there is a lack of acknowledgement and assistance for such harm.

In April 2015, President Obama admitted that drone strikes in Pakistan mistakenly killed two Western hostages—an American and an Italian—and authorized an investigation and compensation to the victims’ family. This transparency and offer of assistance however, do not seem to apply when non-Western civilians are similarly harmed.   

CIVIC is working to change this. CIVIC has long urged that counterterrorism operations be governed by policies to track, investigate, acknowledge, and assist those harmed irrespective of the covert nature of any operation. We advocate for greater oversight from Congress and greater transparency from the executive branch on the use of lethal force in covert operations. We also support calls for the transfer of all lethal operations from the CIA to the Department of Defense.

We also advocate for an independent review of civilian harm in counterterrorism operations. Such a review would assess whether the 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance on use of lethal force in counterterrorism operations is being adhered to.


Drones and Counterterrorism Publications

Public Acknowledgement and Investigations of U.S. “Targeted Killings” and Drone Strikes 
13 May 2015  |  Joint Letter to President Obama

After the President Obama's administration publicly acknowledged and apologized for the deaths of two civilians—U.S. citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian citizen Giovanni Lo Porto—in a January 2015 strike in Pakistan, CIVIC urged for the adoption of the same approach to all other U.S. counterterrorism strikes in which civilians have been injured or killed—regardless of their nationalities.

Statement of Shared Concerns Regarding US Drone Strikes and Targeted Killings
12 April 2013  |  Joint Letter to President Obama

This letter urges the administration to take essential steps to: publicly disclose key targeted killing standards and criteria; ensure that U.S. lethal force operations abroad comply with international law; enable meaningful congressional oversight and judicial review; and ensure effective investigations, tracking and response to civilian harm. 

See a complete list of our publications on drones and counterterrorism.