Since coming to office Donald Trump has overseen an unprecedented rise in drone strikes often at great cost to innocent civilian lives. Foreign Editor David Pratt looks at growing concern over what human rights groups say is the 'normalisation' of targeted killings

From my accommodation hut adjacent to the runway at Jalalabad airfield in Eastern Afghanistan, I would often watch them coming and going.

Locals sometimes referred to them as “bangana”, a Pashto word for “wasp”. A few years ago, at the height of the “war on terror” against Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, the Predator and Reaper drones with their buzzing engines were a common sight.

Sitting close to the Pakistan border, Jalalabad airfield was a key staging post for the covert war against the cadres of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters that inhabited the deserts and mountains of this frontier region.

Some of the drones went out on surveillance missions to watch and listen, others fully armed with Hellfire missiles went out to kill.

If the attack drones were a common sight, then the shadowy US personnel who helped orchestrate the strikes at selected human targets were only occasionally visible.

I remember one afternoon watching as some ageing unmarked Vietnam-era Huey helicopters came sweeping in off the mountains, dropping down on to the airfield at Jalalabad.

Disembarking from the helicopters, a handful of men – some armed with M4 carbine rifles and all wearing dark sunglasses – stepped on to the tarmac. None of them wore a uniform – only body armour – but they carried a certain military bearing about them, made all the more pronounced by their mysterious anonymity.

“Who are those guys?” I recall asking the off-duty American military helicopter pilot who sat next to me outside the hut smoking a cigar.

“You don’t want to know,” the pilot replied with a wry smile, before slowly mouthing three staccato letters: C-I-A.

Predator drones and CIA operatives were the two key components in a programme of so-called “targeted assassinations” that all these years later are more active than ever.

Just last week the White House confirmed that some time over the past few months the US had killed Qasim al-Raymi, the Yemeni leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in a counter-terrorism operation ordered by President Donald Trump.

This was the latest in a growing number of such high-profile targeted killings that have recently also included the leader of the Islamic State (IS) group Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Iran’s top military commander, Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani.

“Trump wants trophy kills,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA employee who worked in the region, was quoted as saying by the Financial Times following last week’s announcement that al-Raymi had been targeted.

Riedel said the Yemeni operation appeared to occur around the same time that AQAP claimed credit for a terrorist attack by a Saudi aviation student that killed three sailors at a US navy base in Florida in December.

Despite his distaste for US overseas military engagements, Trump has consistently backed targeted killings, especially in retaliation for the death of American personnel. According to human rights group Reprieve, during his first year in office Trump oversaw a dramatic increase in drone strikes in Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia – all countries against which the US is not officially engaged in a war. Others back these figures up, among them the New America Foundation which says that in the past three years Trump has launched at least 262 attacks, an year-on-year increase of 20%.

During that time, Trump has also ripped up an executive order signed by Barack Obama in 2016 that required the CIA to publish an annual total of civilian drone strike casualties in non-combat zones. The rule, according to Trump officials, was “superfluous” and distracting.

Just as Obama was under pressure to be more transparent, so Trump appears determined to be as opaque as possible while the casualty tally of innocents grows. But just as the rate of strikes has increased, so have the criticisms from rights groups and civil liberties advocates who argue that targeted killings – mainly though not exclusively via drone strikes – have become progressively normalised with the help of official secrecy and propaganda.

These points were made in a recent report entitled In The Frame, published by the small but vociferous UK-based pressure group Drone Wars, which says that “an easy narrative for targeted killing” had been constructed by the US and the UK, especially as a result of the conflict with the Islamic State group.

“It is surely unarguable now that drones have enabled and normalised a culture of targeted killing which is eroding international law norms and making the world a more dangerous place,” says Chris Cole, the director of Drone Wars.

For many human rights activists, among the most consistent and vociferous points of contention has been the legal basis for targeted killing.

Perhaps no foreign-policy concept causes – indeed relies on – more confusion about the nature of international law than the practice of targeted killings, which is what the US deliberately calls its strikes against alleged terrorists abroad. That is because, in contrast to assassination and extrajudicial execution, there is no such concept in international law.

“The terms ‘assassination’ and ‘targeted killing’ were once legally distinguishable. Until 2001, most people accepted a distinction between illegal assassinations of political figures during peacetime and lawful targeting of those who were an imminent threat in an armed conflict,” says Audrey Kurth Cronin, director of the Centre for Security, Innovation and new technology at the American University.

Since 9/11, however, under the framework of global counter-terrorism, these differences have become a matter of semantics.

“Any killing the president orders is now apparently lawful,” Cronin explained in a recent article entitled The Age of Open Assassination.

Prohibitions against assassination began to break down after 9/11, when the George W Bush administration conceptualised the fight against a group of terrorists as a war. In this new struggle fought not against states but networks, the old rules of war, including policies on torture and assassination, were argued not to apply.

The resulting bottom line here is that today the killing programme requires no clear evidence that an attack by terrorists will take place, meaning due process is all but ignored and there is rarely any scrutiny or accountability for US actions.

“The concept of imminent attack has been stretched so far that it has become meaningless,” Ken Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch recently told The New Yorker

“It’s meant to be: ‘I’ve got a gun pointing at the hostage, and the only way you can save the hostage is by shooting me’. The US has turned that into: ‘This is a terrorist, and he may have, at some point, been plotting a terrorist attack. We wouldn’t be able to stop him, so let’s just kill him’,” Roth added.

This vagueness and the prevailing semantics surrounding targeted killings have clearly proved convenient.

Political assassination has long been seen as taboo in war and is explicitly prohibited by the 1907 Hague Convention, which set out the basic laws for the conduct of hostilities, and 1998 Rome Statute, which articulated which war crimes could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court.

In peacetime, too, the extrajudicial execution of political opponents, or anyone else, is illegal. It is considered a violation of the human right to life enshrined in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

All this, though, has done little to stem the tide of targeted killings that so often also takes the lives of innocent civilians. The language of targeted killings implies precision and accuracy, but in reality an estimated 90% of the deaths they cause are among civilians.

One stark example of this was the 2017 raid on the rural village of Yakla in Yemen which, though planned for months, is said to have been casually approved by Trump over dinner one night.

The operation was reportedly aimed at capturing or killing Qasim al-Raymi, the same AQAP leader who was finally confirmed dead last week from the targeted strike in December. Back in 2017, however, al-Raymi escaped that first attempt by US Special Forces to kill him but not before 23 innocent people were killed by the operation in Yakla in which even US administration officials admitted “almost everything went wrong”.

Among those who did die were 10 children aged 12 and under, and an elderly man of 80.

The Yakla debacle highlighted what Maya Foa, the director of human rights group Reprieve, says is a killing programme that turns out to be anything but targeted.

According to Reprieve, the CIA’s own leaked documents concede the US often does not know whom it is killing, and that militant leaders’ account for just 2% of drone-related deaths. In the course of these operations alone in Pakistan and Yemen over 250 children have been killed.

“More than 80% of those killed have never even been identified by name.

In numerous attempts to kill one individual, the CIA killed 76 children and 29 adults, while totally failing to assassinate their target,” wrote Foa in an article on the Reprieve website entitled “Trump’s Secret Assassinations Programme”.

Rights groups say that in order to get around the problem of civilian casualties, everyone in a strike zone was classified as a combatant.

Those who argue in favour of targeted killings insist on the tactical benefits of keeping terrorist leaders perpetually on the run and disrupting or neutralising their plots. The benefits, however, seem to end here.

The downside factors are considerable. Not only can they significantly add to terrorist propaganda turning terrorist leaders into martyrs, but force groups to metastasise across larger areas, as well as angering local populations.

Way back in another era around 1954, during a mission to dislodge the president of Guatemala, the classified CIA how-to manual called “A Study of Assassination” detailed what it called an “extreme measure”.

It described how “a length of rope or wire or a belt will do if the assassin is strong and agile” but noted that “Persons who are morally squeamish should not attempt it”.

In today’s world the “push-button” anonymity of targeted killing could not be more different. This is a world where “kill lists” are compiled and following the tradition of using sinister euphemisms to conceal wrongdoing they are dubbed “the disposition matrix”.

It’s a world where the exchange of intelligence leads to “nominations” for “death-marked finalists” leading to the “personality strikes” that kill them.

Watching those drones come and go from Jalalabad airfield all those years ago, I couldn’t help wondering what must go through the minds of those “reachback operators” at CIA headquarters in Langley.

Once the electronic controls of their Reapers and Predators are “slewed over” to them and they launch their missiles for their “signature strikes” or “crowd kills,” do they ever stop to think of what the consequences might be for those innocent people who accidently get in the way of their targeted killing?

Ultimately, many human rights groups and scholars have concluded that targeted killing is at best problematic if not outright illegal. In polls, a large majority of Americans say they support targeted killings, while in most other countries the majority is firmly against them.

Whether it be using a length of wire or rope or dispatching a hellfire missile the shadowy world of targeted assassination still boils down to the dame thing – killing.

Removing those with evil and violent intent is one thing, but doing so at the callous cost of innocents is something else entirely.

Not that Donald Trump will care one bit. It’s trophy kills that really matter, after all.