Study Says Drones Generate More Terrorism

Using lethal drones to kill “bad guys” on the other side of the planet is offensive to many people on moral grounds, but a new study finds it is also ineffective in reducing terrorism, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A recent study by Emily Manna about drone strikes and terrorism in Pakistan warrants attention as a useful contribution to discussion of the effectiveness of such strikes as a counterterrorism tool.

The issue of just how useful the firings of missiles from unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, are in killing suspected terrorists on the ground, has multiple dimensions. Larger legal and moral questions arise with this form of remote-control violence being inflicted in disparate places ranging across many international boundaries — especially in the absence of any well-defined and up-to-date congressional authorization for the overseas use of force.

Done "pilots" launch an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle for a raid in the Middle East. (U.S. military photo)

Done “pilots” launch an MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle for a raid in the Middle East. (U.S. military photo)

A narrower question of effectiveness concerns how much the killing of individual members, including even leading members, leads to the weakening or demise of any existing terrorist group. The tactic is only one of several approaches toward trying to eliminate a terrorist group, and not necessarily one of the more effective ones.

Groups with a well-developed internal structure, which also tend to be the more formidable and sophisticated groups, are adept at filling vacancies. Sometimes the replacement turns out to be more able than the leader who was bumped off. This was true when Israel’s killing of Hezbollah secretary general Abbas Musawi led to the succession of the more capable Hassan Nasrallah. It also was true when the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, cleared the way for the more adept Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to take over and to expand the group into what we now know as ISIS.

Another set of issues that are just important concerns hostile reactions to this use of force by the United States, leading to anger and resentment that pushes some people across the line into extremist violence and thus breeding more terrorists than there were before.

There is some reason to believe that most such counterproductive effects occur at some remove from the location of drone strikes; word of the destructive application of U.S. power can spread quickly and widely, but any favorable effects of removing a bad guy from the neighborhood would tend to be more local. If net positive effects are to be observed, they would more likely be relatively close to the scene of a drone strike.

Manna’s research suggests that, at least in Pakistan, the effects are negative even in the neighborhood of a drone strike. Her methodology involved looking at individual provinces and correlating terrorist activity in the same month as, and the month following, drone strikes. The principal finding was a statistically significant rise in terrorist attacks in a province after it became the target of U.S. drone strikes.

The U.S. program of drone strikes never was the result of a calculated process of analyzing the effects of different counterterrorist tools and choosing this tool as more effective than some others. Rather, the tool was seized on because it was the only way to reach some suspected terrorists in remote areas, at least short of staging a major military ground expedition into those areas.

But if the result of a tactic — in counterterrorism or any other endeavor — is a net minus rather than a net plus, then it ought not to be used even if it is the only tactic available. As more analyzable data from the drone program become available, they ought to be used to take fresh looks at the rationale for the entire program. And political leaders need to resist the temptation to seize upon certain tactics as a way of responding to popular demand to “do something” about terrorism.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies and author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Study Says Drones Generate More Terrorism

  1. N. Joseph Potts
    July 26, 2016 at 10:11

    Except for their economy and ease of use, drones aren’t QUITE the issue: bombs, missiles and bullets are the issue. If the same bombs, missiles and bullets were fired from MANNED aircraft, or even vehicles on the ground, the effect on terrorism would be quite the same.

    Insofar as the victims are concerned, drones are NOT “stealth” in any way. Assume drones are invisible and manned aircraft or vehicles ARE visible. It doesn’t matter. When a bomb, missile or bullet arrives, witnesses KNOW it’s Made in USA. The delivery vehicle does NOT have to be seen.

  2. Steve
    July 25, 2016 at 05:40

    “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s really an easy way: Stop participating in it.” — Noam Chomsky

    • John
      July 25, 2016 at 15:43

      I like it. Eloquent and accurate. Noam can really impress me at times. If you get a chance could you post a link to the speech or article where Noam said this so that readers here can read it in context? Thanks.

  3. mary
    July 24, 2016 at 15:07

    This drone tactic really does seem to be a net minus rather than a net plus. Still, the wanton killers of innocents must be thwarted. Three BOOs for our past & present “leaders” for their part in enabling it to get this “thick”. Is that why Hillarys butt is so big– all the gold stuffed in there from her overseas partners, at the cost of so many innocents? Not worth it, Hillary. If you were really smart, you would know that by now.

  4. Drew Hunkins
    July 23, 2016 at 17:21

    Andrew Cockburn’s book ‘Kill Chain’ touches on this topic in certain sections. The book is remarkably detailed and definitely worth a look. Myriad pages of my copy are duly highlighted.

    • Bart Gruzalski
      July 23, 2016 at 19:45

      Hi Joe and Drew,
      I’ve had a “leaf of absence” but my brain is still working.
      My favorite book on the topic of drones is Media Benjamin’s–she has lots of good stuff and even a couple of things I didn’t know. I wrote a book on Gandhi in 2000 and I had been doing a column at the request of the local editor in Redway, California, but he wasn’t putting my stuff in more frequently than every third week and we had become blood brothers as we shouted before a full moon (crystally clear skies out that way, at least if your a mile out of town–the milky was comes down and scares away the misquotes if they dare stay our much after dark).

      So I said to myself, fuck it, I’m done writing for this less than appreciative editor — even though I had a lot of people who’d read my column whenever it came out. This was in the time Amy Goodman was preaching to me every day at Noon…. I was a big fan then (although she’s just brought into the Establishment hook-line-sinker and it was the first thing in since the Supremes identified Bushie as president so why keep counting? Check out this sickening betrayal of decent journalism: Democracy Now! I couldn’t believe it, my guru from East Coast Ph.D. blue blood in Boston academic to progressive thinking. And now even she’s been sucked in,
      or bribed with ten new stations, or, most likely, now that she’s a continent away from where she started her radio/TV work, she did the opposite of me: I went into anarchistic off-the-grid wild country and listened to her every day, often discussing what she’d focused on that day, and she moved east, dropping off progressive values and replacing them with a high level circuit of people who nod their heads in administration as she walks slowly out of her office in a suit that I saw today she never ever ever wore when she was teaching me that we’ve met the enemy and it’s us.

      No it really really pissed me off. I’ve taught grief and the general steps (we express them differently and we can go from one to two back to one to fire through three….SHOCK, DENIAL, BARGAINING, ANGER, DEPRESSION, ACCEPTANCE. All you folks on this page are bright and likely know what those “stages” are and that there really aren’t any, it’s just a way to discover what’s going on and whether you’re stuck (BAD TO BE STUCK IN ANY OF THEM BUT IF YOU GET STUCK IN DEPRESSION IS WHEN FOLKS TEND TO COMMIT SUICIDE). I know the stages, intellectually as well as a guide for some others, and also a teacher of university classes [very frustrating since the students think when they memorize something they know it, overlooking the crucial disctintion between knowledge by acquaintance–Hmmmmmmmmmmm, those eggs really tasted great, flipped over sunny sides–the texture of the yolk, not hard and not soft but the entire egg can be sliced up with a fork and…. knowledge by description. You can’t even tell a person born blind what it’s like to experience light–I remember in a movie the young troubled genius-level punk throws his shrink into a down place until the shrink realizes the young guy can describe the Sistine Chapel but does not know how it changes as the light changes or the smell of it in the morning and so he begins to realize how lonely the smart kid is and feels sorry for him and urges him to drop out and become kinda a hippie kid living in such a way that he’ll get a chance to eat his peck of dirt so he can die.

      Back to the stages of grief: SHOCK tends to happen once and DENIAL is a natural protection until our inner resources kick in. You can’t skip a step, though people try, and that always makes things badder. I’ve worked through, with you patience, SHOOK AND DENIAL, my bargaining was a few minutes of conceptual dissonance followed by looking for a better story than to have AMY join the ranks of the elite behind the scenes Establishment, which I now think she’s done. What other explanation? You watched me work though bargaining, anger (it’s gone), and glide up into acceptance. People do well in the last stage if they can continue the work of the deceased, or carry on their values, and I guess I’ll be doing that by submitting a piece on Amy’s disgustingly biased show.

      Still a bit of rumbling.

      Back to the article, I was asked on 9/11 to write a long piece for the paper, so I went over to a friend who had a TV so I could see what most of the country was seeing. I did write a 900 word piece and I couldn’t improved much on it if I wrote it today. I had written a book on Gandhi about a year earlier, I was a well trained (or lucky) nonviolent peace keeper at rallies where the other side were not committed to nonviolence and where there were no TV media cameras, because we were very far northwards in California and there was no place to leave a vehicle to follow that 1200 or so who had determined to get arrested, and they did.

      I lectured across the US and the heart of Gandhi’s approach (in writing) was to be a witness and never strike back. I realize now that there is a missing step that I learned about in my own interactions. The main way to avoid violence is not to be violent in the first place, as the article above says in its own way.

      There is one absolutely wonderfully three minute youtube piece, put together by Ron Paul, that is hard to sidestep intellectually. You’ll be both delighted and sad that everyone in the country did pay attention to these issues (folks did write about this [ex-CIA Michael Scheuer who was not allowed to use his name in the books so there were for years authored by Anonymous and the book “Dying to Kill.” The information and the knowledge was there, and every president beginning in 2000 knew that our policies would allow us to have perpetual war. So a study? After millions of young people only know us as the killers of their families, their herds….
      grab a cup of tea, smoke a joint, a shot glass of good Irish Whiskey, even have a house gathering that would begin with this 3 minute video—– —– and then end with the delightful movie, BULLWORTH staring Warren Beatty. As the saying goes, you’ll be glad you did (but not the Krugmans and Chomskys who want you to keep Trump out of the White House, and put warmonger crown princess from the Clinton Dynasty into the top job of Commander-in-Chief).

      What does Krugman get out of this? He’s old his sell-out soul and become a shill for Hillary so he can rise to the top of the liquefied cow shit and hang out with the other dungers. (I acknowledge Robert Parry for pointing out Krugman’s quid quo pro). Thanks–an angle I hadn’t taken into mind.

      Here’s a relevant passage from a reflection on R.D. Laing. What is see being addressed is Amy Goodman’s selling out without going crazy in a world where none of her work has made any obvious difference in matters of peach and war.

      “A sane response to an insane situation(AMY discretely the Establishment position). This is [R.D.]Laing’s comment about what “going crazy” entailed. Applying Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double bind, in which anything a person does leads to one or another kind of punishing consequence, he observed that some children are faced with the dilemma of having an identity defined for them that is fundamentally different from who they experience themselves to be. [People with a fairly objective perspective on the political situation which, in our case, that the economy has died and the markets will soon after and then, because of nuclear war or a Climate warming “event” (Big glaciers slide into the ocean in a two week period, for example, raising the ocean levels nine inches). Their alternatives are to either give up the parental approval and care taking they [think] need to survive, in order to be truly themselves, or to give up their own sense of their identity and comply with parental [top down] demands [with the controlling old money who’ve been in control for many hundreds of years]. Faced with this dilemma, most people choose to give up their own identities and adopts those that are handed to them by parental figures.[Move from being Citizens and somewhat independent to being full-throttled consumers who don’t even complain if they buy a loaf of bread and notice it’s moldy inside.] In some people faced with this situation, the response is to “go crazy.”[I went pretty crazy for a couple of minutes–I might well have smashed some cups or something glass, but since my CFO is here, my wife, I didn’t]. This is analogous to being inside a tunnel which represents what are normally considered “sane” thoughts, actions, and feelings, finding that moving in either direction leads to painful experiences (giving up self, or giving up the other), and in response breaking through the ceiling of the tunnel into what is considered insanity.”

      That’s where the quote ends and it’s been a useful exercise for me to put my huge disappointment in a bigger context. [The R.D. Laing reflections are at: ]

      I certainly didn’t begin taking Trump at all seriously. I was struck with “America First”–partly because I’d been in the woods with Earth First!er friends. The concept didn’t belong to anyone so I begin noticing what an amazing criterion it was for domestic and foreign policy. I’ll end this note and try to write an article for Parry that you can all comment on and spread far and wide (not the article but the ideas which belong to no one or everyone, you’re choice).

  5. Joe Tedesky
    July 23, 2016 at 10:48

    I hate to be the devils advocate, but if more drone strikes cause more terrorism, wouldn’t this be good business for the arms industry?

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