For a decade now, many of us working in human rights have warned Western nations about the dangers of running covert assassination programs. U.S. drone strikes have terrorized communities, killed civilians and generated hatred.
Don’t care about those impacts? At least think about the new normal you risk creating: a world where other states use the same rationale to take out their enemies.
That risk has become a reality. In comments covered by several Turkish papers, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey recently hinted that he would begin an operation to target and kill Mazloum Kobani, head of the Syrian Democratic Forces and, until recently, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.
Erdogan used the United States’ own drone program as justification: “Some countries eliminate terrorists whom they consider as a threat to their national security, wherever they are. Therefore, this means those countries accept that Turkey has the same right,” he reportedly said. This should have been expected. Turkey is just following our example.
For more than a decade now, the U.S. and its European allies have pioneered the use of drones to target and kill suspected terrorists far from traditional battlefields. Those drone strikes have killed thousands of innocent civilians far outside combat zones — in places like Yemen and Pakistan where, thanks to the drone program, many people’s first and only engagement with the West is when a missile lands on their doorstep.
Sometimes those strikes hit alleged “bad” guys, hundreds of whom are reportedly on a kill list. But nobody outside the U.S. government knows how you get on or off this list. No one on the list is ever charged with a crime or tried in a court of law before they are executed by drone.
Perhaps it’s true to say that nobody is going to mourn the death of Abu Bakr Baghdadi or Ibrahim Asiri (allegedly al-Qaida’s chief bomb maker in Yemen). But for every bad guy hit, reports suggest there may be dozens of innocent people killed, including women and children. An investigation by Reprieve several years ago found that on average these so-called bad guys “die” three times. That is to say: While the drone might be precise, the intelligence steering it is anything but. The same people get targeted over and over — bad intelligence means the targeted individual frequently doesn’t get killed, but many others die instead.
Salem bin Ali Jaber was an imam who delivered a sermon criticizing al-Qaida just days before a U.S. drone killed him, his nephew and three unknown young men who came to speak to him about his sermon. Jaber’s brother-in-law, Faisal, brought a case in Germany challenging the United States’ continued use of Ramstein Air Base for carrying out strikes. In March, the German courts agreed with Faisal: U.S. drone strikes were illegal and Germany was required to prevent its territory being used as a launchpad for illegal action.
The court’s decision is important, but Erdogan’s comments show that we’re already so far down the slippery slope that it’s going to be a difficult climb back up. For years, Germany and other European countries have secretly facilitated the U.S. targeted-killing program, sharing intelligence and allowing the use of their bases.
Others in recent years have gone even further, declaring that they would hunt down and kill their own nationals who had joined Islamic State. “A dead terrorist can’t cause any harm to Britain,” said the then-British defense secretary in 2017. In the French elections, candidates criticized then-President Francois Hollande for talking publicly about assassinating terrorists, not for actually doing it. Such actions, they said, must never be discussed in the light of day.
And that is the problem. Almost two decades into the so-called war on terror, the U.S. and its European allies have abandoned their long-held democratic principles.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Turkey has said: See, they’re doing it; so can we. Which raises the question: If we don’t reverse course, who will be next to follow our lead?
Jennifer Gibson is head of the Extrajudicial Killings Project at Reprieve, an international human rights organization. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.