The American political commentator and author Noam Chomsky has described the United States’ drone campaign as ‘by far the biggest terrorist campaign in the world’. The statistics make it difficult to argue with this assertion. The drone campaign, part of the US’ global War On (or of) Terror, began under President Bush, but has increased exponentially under President Obama. Despite Obama’s claim that civilian casualties would be minimised, it is clear that hundreds of innocent civilians in Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan have been killed by drone strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which records all reported and confirmed US drone strikes in the three aforementioned countries, estimates that between 556 and 1,179 civilians have been killed since the program begun. The Bureau’s methodology for determining civilian casualties is widely considered to be conservative, and the true figures are likely to be much higher. Estimates for civilian casualties are as high as 98 per cent, that is, one militant killed for every 49 non-combatants.

The figures are also distorted by the fact that all ‘military age’ males killed are automatically classified as a militant rather than a civilian. Targets are often identified by unreliable metadata analysis and cell phone tracking. The drones are allegedly authorised to earmark for assassination ‘men believed to be militants associated with terrorist groups, but whose identities aren’t always known’, in what have been labelled ‘signature strikes’. Frequently, the US has patently targeted civilians rather than militants, such as a cruise missile attack on the village of al-Majalah in Yemen in 2009 that killed 41 civilians, or its repeated targeting of wedding parties and funerals. Carried out in conjunction with so-called night raids conducted by the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC, see Jeremy Scahill’s film Dirty Wars), the drone strikes alienate and radicalise the populations of the areas in which they are deployed and create far more potential terrorists than they remove. The killing of innocent civilians provides previously benign locals with an incentive to take revenge against the United States, and increases, not reduces, the risk of terrorism to people in the West.

An Obama administration memo disclosed in June 2014 authorises the killing of innocents in drone strikes as ‘collateral damage’ and justifies the extrajudicial killing of enemies – even if they are American. Indeed, four American citizens have been killed as a result of the drone program, including a 16-year-old boy, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. The latter was also killed, two weeks before his son. These assassinations, illegal and unconstitutional in their own right, also set a dangerous legal precedent for any country to justify assassination of its own citizens and extrajudicial killings abroad. The Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution, which guarantees the right of Americans to due process before they can ‘be deprived of life, liberty of property’, is being systematically violated. Former Attorney General, Eric Holder even rewrote the amendment in 2012 to justify the assassination of American citizens. In true Orwellian fashion, the US government is redefining words and laws in order to circumvent supposed legal restrictions on its activities. In theory, the US government could now claim to be able to legally justify the assassination of any person, in any place, at any time, without ‘due process’, as it is commonly and publicly perceived.

A White House fact sheet, published in May 2013, says: ‘lethal force may only be used to prevent or stop attacks against US persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively’. Contrary to this, the US does not in reality even attempt to pursue other options to assassination, which is its first resort, rendering half of the title of the program, kill or capture, obsolete. A pre-emptive attack no longer requires the US ‘to have clear evidence of a specific attack on U.S. persons and interests in the immediate future’ because al-Qaeda is ‘continually planning attacks’, according to an undated white paper. The US is in violation of even its own limited curtailments, not to mention of international and human rights laws. The United Nations Human Rights Council has voted to probe the legality of the United States’ drone campaign.

Already in 2015, drone strikes have been conducted in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, and continue in Afghanistan. They are also in operation in Iraq and Syria. With Libya included, Obama has now bombed seven countries in six years as President. He has a Nobel Peace Prize.

A unanimous vote in the Yemeni parliament in December 2014 called for the cessation of the drone program in that country. There has since been a coup in Yemen, yet the US still claims legal justification for its drone strikes there because of authorisation by the now non-existent Yemeni government. A 12-year-old boy was killed earlier this month. On the 31st of January of this year, two drone strikes were conducted in Somalia, killing 42-69 people in total. The first of these, which the US denies involvement in, would, if confirmed, represent the most lethal drone strike since June 2009 when an attack killed at least 60 people in Pakistan. A US-led coalition air strike in Northern Syria in December 2014 killed at least 50 civilians, adding to a minimum of 40 civilians already killed by the US campaign that began in September.

The only countries other than the US that are confirmed to be using military drones are Britain (over 100 armed missions in Iraq up until the 31st of December, 2014) and Israel (against Palestinians in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon). Many other countries possess or are seeking to possess these unmanned flying vehicles, and, given the uses to which they have already been put by so-called defenders of freedom, the future can only be bleak.