Assessing Drone Strikes in U.S. Foreign Counter-terrorism Operations – Sam Cohen


MQ-1 Predator
(U.S. Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt)

Sam Cohen

(M.S. Candidate Defense and Strategic Studies (Beginning Fall 2017) – Missouri State University’s Washington. D.C. Graduate Campus)

The use of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), commonly referred to as drones, as weapon platforms for carrying out strikes against individuals supporting terrorist networks in foreign countries has become an increasingly popular trend in the post 9/11 War on Terror. These targeted killing operations have resulted in concerns among U.S. domestic officials and the public, while also eliciting negative responses from foreign governments largely due to the immediate and deadly outcomes of drone attacks on local populations. Whether the criticism arises from domestic or foreign actors, and whether those actors are members of the public or are government officials, the common argument being raised is that U.S. drone policy fails to meet appropriate levels of transparency, legality and proportionality relating to collateral damage. Although the discourse surrounding the negative attributes of American drone programs in the Middle East and North Africa have been discussed in a more mainstream fashion than the positive, this article will offer a perspective less well known to public discussion: the tactical and operational benefits of drone strikes.

Considering the most tactically controversial drone usage stems from UCAVs and their targeted killing operations, it must be noted that this article identifies targeted killings as the primary and most significant issue in the drone debate surrounding counterterror operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Therefore, when discussing the benefits associated with American drone policy in these regions, the article will primarily raise points relating to targeted killings, as other more traditional functions of drones, such as surveillance, are not as harshly challenged—at least tactically.[1]

Three primary outcomes can be identified from America’s targeted killing operations in the Middle East and North Africa: deterrence, degradation and disruption. The combination of these three factors and their influence on the behavior and the capacity for terrorist organizations to project messages or attacks outward reflects the importance of targeted killing in America’s current regional counterterror strategy and subsequently America’s regional drone program.


Targeted killing certainly imposes costs on terrorist organizations for continued operations, being that joining the organization or continuing to work with the organization can subject an individual to a strike resulting in death or injury.  Since militant groups’ continued survival and operation relies on recruiting new members, the ability for the fear of drone attacks to turn away new recruits can severely obstruct an organization’s attempt to grow or maintain adequate participation for daily operations.[2]

Further to this, the ability to deter does not only apply directly to new recruits, but also to those who support terrorist groups throughout the Middle Eastern and North African region. For example, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) FY2012 included the term “associated forces” with regard to detentions of terrorist suspects.[3] Since then, military authorities and agencies in conjunction with the executive branch have adopted the term to coincide with the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)—the congressional authorization for the use of military force against those who perpetrated or provided support for the 9/11 attacks—to justify broader authority for military action against loosely affiliated groups covering multiple regions.[4] The result has been the targeting and subsequent deterring of individuals, groups and networks that have provided materials or financed organizations such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban in countries across the Middle East and North Africa.[5] Subsequently, the U.S. drone program in these regions has and continues to deter both terrorist organization supporters and recruitment efforts, culminating in severe daily operation limitations and long-term planning restrictions.

American drone policy’s utilization of targeted killing is a key feature of the overall U.S. counterterror strategy attempting to degrade terrorist networks and their primary nodes. Considering many of the terrorist organizations operating out of the Middle East and North Africa have key spaces of influence and control, it tends to be in these places that recruitment efforts, strategic planning and resource building occur with the greatest frequency.[6] As such, American security officials have identified these spaces as primary nodes in larger terrorist networks that if degraded would likely have compounding and resonating effects throughout the entire organization. It is no coincidence that these nodes typically represent the location of high-ranking members of the organization’s command structure, as these high-ranking individuals typically require the resources associated with recruitment, attack planning and logistics at the node to yield effective overall management.[7] Even though committing drone strikes in these ‘hot-bed’ spaces to target militant leadership would logically diminish the material outputs of any organizational node in a terrorist network, a deeper analysis into the targeted killings of terrorist leaders as part of a degradation tactic is necessary to reveal its full implications and benefits.


The striking of militant leadership is degrading to the extent that eliminating experienced, skilled, or charismatic leaders handicaps an organizations operations. The issue with this rationale is that it assumes a high degree of difficulty or a significant amount of time required for replacing a militant leader with an equally effective successor, be it skill, charisma or experience based.[8] Although this critique is accurate and challenges the notion that targeting militant leadership in the long-run as a strategic policy is effective, the critique holds less valid in the short-term when evaluated as a tactical approach to dealing with an immediate security issue. Even though every militant leader killed may not take a long period of time to be replaced—perhaps a trainee was already in position to take over, or perhaps an even more capable leader steps into place—the targeting of militant leadership has proven to degrade the morale and posture of terrorist organizations in the short-term.[9] Particularly, in circumstances when the strike is on a leader or high-ranking member with a unique skill set, such as bomb maker, or a strategic financer or supplier of the organization, terrorist groups such as the Taliban and Al Qaeda rarely retain the capacity to overcome the strike and continue daily operations or operations that were already in sequence. That is not to say that each strike constitutes a long-term strategic victory, but rather the culmination of all the short-term posture and morale degradation results in an overall less effective output from the organization.[10]

The extent to which targeting low-level militants, as opposed to senior leadership or high level operatives, degrades organizations varies depending on the context, organization and importance of an individual. For example, according to sources from the U.S. Army’s Strategic Studies Institute and National Defense University it is much easier for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—places like Yemen and Oman—to replace killed members than it is for Al Qaeda to replace members in Pakistan.[11] The institutes’ analysts and active military officers attribute this to a range of factors, with all the variables highlighting favorable conditions for recruitment and training in the Arabian Peninsula compared to a region such as Northern Pakistan. The key variables identified were competition among local terrorist and militia organizations, available resources, geographic isolation and complex relationships with respective governments.[12] Although drone strike degradation tactics targeting low-level militants do experience more volatile ranges of success depending on local contexts, the same does not hold true for senior level strikes.

The analysts and officers from the Institute explain that the factors contributing to easier and larger pools of recruitment in the Arabian Peninsula do not persist when it comes to the amount and rate of high experience recruitment occurring in the same region or other places such as Northern Pakistan or remote spaces in Libya or Somalia. This means that when evaluating American drone strikes and its degradation effects across the Middle East and North Africa, it is accurate to state that the culmination of drone strikes on senior leadership consistently deteriorates the output from a terrorist organization’s operations while the low level targets—which largely occurred in the early years of the Obama administration—are less effective.[13] This is in large part why American drone strikes across the Middle East and North Africa have undergone tactical selection to remove out the inefficiencies of the overall counterterror strategy, including the targeted killing of low-level militants. Conversely, the policy now promotes and supports the notion of targeting senior leadership due to the degrading effects it has on daily operations or operations that were already in sequence.


Targeted killing disrupts to the extent that it forces terrorist organizations to spend time trying to prevent or recover from targeted killings that they would otherwise have devoted more efficiently to plotting and executing their attacks or daily management operations. The logic for disruption is straightforward, to limit the amount of effective strikes against the organization, the organization will be forced to adapt and implement more clandestine, less efficient modes of communication, transport and financing.[14] The objective from the organizations perspective is to reduce the effectiveness of U.S. and allied Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) gathering. Empirically, evidence collected during the Abbottobad raid in Pakistan when Bin-Laden was killed by a team of U.S. special forces, stated that Bin-Laden and his highest ranking lieutenants were having difficulty overcoming the disruptive nature of the drone strikes and that the organization was seeking to construct new platforms for enhancing inefficient communication methods.[15]


All together, the qualitative analysis this article has presented highlights the disruptive nature drone operations have had on terror groups operating in the Middle East and North Africa. Although policy reevaluation and reform, often advocated for by legal and human rights activists, should not be omitted from the drone debate, officials must recognize the positive features American drone policy has induced and what the negative outcomes may be for current counterterrorism efforts abroad should policy reform occur.

List of References

Bergen, Peter and Katherine Tiedemann. “Washington’s Phantom War: The Effects of the U.S. Drone Program in Pakistan.” In Foreign Affairs 90, no. 4 (2011): 12-18.

Campaign Committee for Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. “National Defense.” Donald J. Trump for President. Accessed March 17, 2017.

Carvin, Stephanie. “The Trouble with Targeted Killing.” In Royal Holloway’s Security Studies 3 (2012): 1-22.

Federation of American Scientists. “An Overview of the United States Intelligence Community for the 111th Congress.” Congressional Research Report Series (2009): 1-26.

Foust, Joshua. “Understanding the Strategic and Tactical Considerations of Drone Strikes.” American Security Project: Perspective Series (2013): 1-18.

Gartenstein-Ross, Daveed. “Al Qaeda’s Resurgence.” In Foundation for Defense of Democracies. February 27, 2008.

Gunneflo, Markus. Targeted Killing: A Legal and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Harnisch, Christopher. “Drones: A Tactic, Not A Strategy.” Yale Journal of International Affairs 8 no. 2 (2013): 128-131.

Hinckley, Barbara. Less Than Meets The Eye. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Jensen, Eric T. “Future War and the War Powers Resolution.” Emory International Law Review 29 (2015): 501-555.

Judd, Terri. “US Drones Target Low-level Militants Who Pose No Threat.” UK Independent. April 10, 2013.

Llenza, Michael S.  “Targeted Killings in Pakistan: A Defense.” Global Security Studies 2, no. 2 (2011): 47-59.

Lohaus, Phillip, Daniel Schuman and Mandy Smithberger. “Improving Congress’s oversight of the intelligence community.” The Hill. September 24, 2017.

Lynch III, Thomas F., Michael Bouffard, and Kelsey King, “The Return of Foreign Fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy.” Institute for National Strategic Studies: National Defense University’s Strategic Perspectives 21, (2016): 1-33.

Scharre, Paul. “Do Drones Have A Future.” War on the Rocks. October 7, 2014.

Shkolnik, Michael. “The Drone Threat To Israeli National Security.” War on the Rocks. January 10, 2017.

Tecott, Rachel. “Targeted Killing: Thinking Through The Logic.” War on the Rocks. September 28, 2016.

Vavrichek, Diane. “How toImprove Drone Strike Policy.” The War on the Rocks. October 2, 2014.

Walsh, James and Marcus Shulzke. “The Ethics of Drone Strikes: Does Reducing the Cost of Conflict Encourage War?” U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute (2015): 1-37.

Weed, Matthew C. “2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force: Issues Concerning Its Continued Application.” Congressional Research Service, R43983 (April 14, 2015): 1-16.

Zenko, Micah. “Obama’s Embrace of Drone Strikes Will Be a Lasting Legacy.” The New York Times. January 12, 2016.

Zimmerman, Katherine. “The Al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy.” American Enterprise Institute (September 2013): 1-55.

[1] Diane Vavrichek, “How to Improve Drone Strike Policy,” in The War on the Rocks, October 2, 2014,

[2] Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington’s Phantom War: The Effects of the U.S. Drone Program in Pakistan,” in Foreign Affairs 90, no. 4 (2011): 13-14.

[3] Matthew C. Weed, “2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force: Issues Concerning Its Continued Application,” Congressional Research Service R43983 (April 14, 2015): 15.

[4] Ibid., 1, 12-13.

[5] Michael S. Llenza, “Targeted Killings in Pakistan: A Defense,” Global Security Studies 2, no. 2 (2011): 47-48.

[6] Katherine Zimmerman, “The Al Qaeda Network: A New Framework for Defining the Enemy,” American Enterprise Institute (September 2013): 12-13.

[7] Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, “Al Qaeda’s Resurgence,” in Foundation for Defense of Democracies, February 27, 2008,

[8] Joshua Foust, “Understanding the Strategic and Tactical Considerations of Drone Strikes,” American Security Project: Perspective Series (2013): 6-7.

[9] Diane Vavrichek, “How toImprove Drone Strike Policy.”

[10] Christopher Harnisch, “Drones: A Tactic, Not A Strategy,” Yale Journal of International Affairs 8 no. 2 (2013): 128-130.

[11] Thomas F. Lynch III, Michael Bouffard, and Kelsey King, “The Return of Foreign Fighters to Central Asia: Implications for U.S. Counterterrorism Policy,” Institute for National Strategic Studies: National Defense University’s Strategic Perspectives 21, (2016): 1-3, 10.

[12] Ibid., 4, 12-13.

[13] Terri Judd, “US Drones Target Low-level Militants Who Pose No Threat,” UK Independent, April 10, 2013,

[14] Michael Shkolnik, “The Drone Threat To Israeli National Security,” War on the Rocks, January 10, 2017,

[15] Ibid.

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