US Forces in Somalia

Library image of an armed Reaper drone, December 2019 (US Air Force/ Senior Sergeant Haley Stevens)

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Published

January 19, 2018

Written by

Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

President Donald Trump launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office, the Bureau’s latest figures show – more than triple the number carried out the year before.

This means there were over 100 times more strikes in Yemen and more than 30 times as many strikes in Somalia during President Trump’s first year in office than during his predecessor, Barack Obama’s.

Obama carried out a single strike in Yemen and one in Somalia during his first year as president. However, by the end of his two terms, Obama had embraced the US drone programme and carried out far more strikes than his predecessor President George W Bush. Strikes in Pakistan were in their hundreds, and yearly strike totals in Yemen and Somalia had reached double digits.

President Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from Obama. His administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous administration.

The vast majority of the 126 strikes that have hit Yemen since Trump’s inauguration followed reports in March 2017 of the Trump administration declaring parts of the country areas of “active hostilities”.

This effectively side-stepped measures introduced by Obama that meant strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. In Yemen, 30 strikes hit within a month of the declaration being reported – nearly as many as the whole of 2016.

Strikes in Yemen

In Somalia, the Obama administration officially designated the al Shabaab group as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November 2016, essentially widening who could be targeted. In March, it was also reported that parts of Somalia had been declared areas of “active hostilities”, but there was no increase in strikes until July 2017, with 33 of the 35 strikes carried under President Trump taking place since then.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge, despite combat operations officially ending in December 2014.

In November last year, US forces began hitting Taliban drugs labs in Helmand. General Nicholson, commander of US Forces – Afghanistan, said the strikes were carried out under new authorities provided under President Trump’s eagerly awaited South Asia strategy.

The Bureau counted five strikes confirmed in Pakistan during Trump’s first year in office. At least four air operations were also reported along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October and November, although it was unclear on what side of the border they fell.

At its height in 2010, the CIA drone programme hit 128 targets in Pakistan. Strikes fell with each passing year after that, falling to just three in 2016.

Country Strikes since Trump’s inauguration
Yemen 126
Somalia 35
Pakistan 5

To read more on what happened last year in the countries we cover, click here.

Main photo: President Trump on the South Asia strategy during a press conference on August 21 2017. (DoD photo by Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith)

Published

December 19, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The number of US air strikes jumped in Yemen and Somalia in 2017, pointing to an escalation of the global war on terror.

President Donald Trump inherited the framework allowing US aircraft to hit suspected terrorists outside of declared battlefields from his predecessor, Barack Obama. Bar some tinkering, his administration has largely stuck within the framework set by the previous one.

However, the quantity of operations has shot up under President Trump. Strikes doubled in Somalia and tripled in Yemen.

In Afghanistan, where the Bureau has been monitoring US airstrikes since it was officially declared a noncombat mission at the end of 2014, the number of weapons dropped is now approaching levels last seen during the 2009-2012 surge.

Meanwhile, there are signs that the drone war may be returning to Pakistan, where attacks were also up, compared with 2016.

Strikes in Somalia since 2007 via the Bureau

“We should keep a close eye on the increase in strike volume, as it does suggest a more aggressive approach, but it’s not yet clear to me that it represents a truly gloves off approach,” said Luke Hartig, a former counterterrorism advisor in the Obama administration and now a fellow at the New America Foundation, a US thinktank.

Hartig told the Bureau he was concerned that there had not been any significant public explanation of what the US government was now trying to achieve: “we don’t have any real basis to assess, for example, why strikes have doubled in Somalia, or if any of these operations are being conducted in direct support of partner forces on the ground rather than as unilateral actions against the threats we face as a nation.”

The Trump administration paved the way for the dramatic increase in the number of strikes in Yemen and Somalia when, in March this year, it was reported that parts of both countries had been exempted from targeting rules brought in by Obama to prevent civilian casualties. 

In 2013, Obama introduced measures that meant that strikes in areas of countries that were not active war-zones, such as Pakistan and Yemen, had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. 

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

General Thomas Waldhauser, the man in charge of US military operations throughout Africa, told journalists in April 2017 that though he now had leeway to order strikes without clearing them with the White House, he would be retaining the criteria introduced by Obama that a strike could only happen if there was a near-certainty that no civilians would be harmed.

In Somalia, the Obama administration had officially designating the al Shabaab group as an al Qaeda affiliate at the end of November 2016, essentially widening who could be targeted. But there was no increase in strikes until July 2017, with all but 2 of this year’s 32 strikes carried out since then. 

In Yemen, 30 strikes hit within a month of the declaration being reported – nearly as many as the whole of 2016. 

In August, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy. The new plan deepened America’s commitment in Afghanistan, with additional troops deployed and an increase in strikes.

US strikes accounted for 177 civilian casualties in the first nine months of the year, up from 97 in the same period the previous year, the UN mission in Afghanistan found.

But as air operations in Afghanistan have intensified, and with indications civilian casualties are on the up, US transparency appears to have decreased. In September 2016, Resolute Support, the Nato mission through which the US conducts its operations in Afghanistan, started providing us with monthly data on strikes. However the flow of this crucial information has stopped as of October 2017.  

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Trump’s speech announcing the new Afghan strategy prompted further speculation that drones would return to the skies of Pakistan. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe haven for terrorist organisations,” he said. At its height in 2010, the CIA drone programme hit 128 targets. Strikes fell with each passing year after that, falling to just three in 2016.

The Bureau counted fives strikes in Pakistan in 2017. At least four air operations were reported along the Afghan-Pakistan border in October and November, although it was unclear on what side of the border they fell.

US operations in Yemen since 2002 via the Bureau

In March Trump gave the US military’s Africa Command (Africom) greater freedom to carry out strikes without having to run them by the White House first. However, this did not presage an immediate surge in strikes as expected – most strikes this year came after the end of June.

While Africom will not say how many ground operations it has carried out in Somalia, details of some have emerged. One operation ended with a US fatality after American and Somali troops were ambushed on their way to their target. 

Another operation left 10 civilians dead. There is substantial evidence indicating they were killed by American troops who had been told they were al Shabaab fighters, the insurgent group linked to al Qaeda. 

Most US operations this year have focused on al Shabaab, which the US has been targeting since January 2007. The US also carried out five airstrikes against a band of fighters from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland who split from al Shabaab in 2015 and announced it was now loyal to the Islamic State group.

Al Shabaab marginalised the IS loyalists to a mountain range in Puntland, successfully suppressing any major schism. The IS-supporting faction has managed to flourish nonetheless. Recruiting scores of fighters, it has grown from approximately 24 fighters in 2016 to as many as 200 by the summer of 2017, according to a UN monitoring body.

More US strikes hit Yemen this year than the past four years combined.

Most of the 125 strikes in 2017 hit in central Yemen, where the US military’s Central Command (Centcom) vigorously pursued fighters from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In March 2017 the US designated parts of Yemen as an “area of active hostilities”, covering several unspecified Yemeni provinces in the country’s centre, essentially laying out the ground for anunprecedented aerial bombardment.

The US also started targeting fighters loyal to Islamic State – Centcom reported it carried out at least nine strikes targeting the group.

US Special Forces carried out two ground raids this year as well, the first such operations in Yemen to be publicly reported since December 2014. Both operations targeted what the US believed were AQAP positions. Both resulted in civilian casualties.

On 29 January 2017 American Navy commandos with UAE troops in support attacked a village in the central province of Bayda. The US initially claimed no civilians had been killed in the raid, but the Bureau found nine children under the age of 13 had died. NBC News later reported that the Pentagon did not dispute our numbers. 

The second raid, in May, targeted an “AQAP associated compound” in Marib province. The raid was the “deepest the military has gone into Yemen to fight al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula”, according to a Pentagon spokesperson. The operation left seven AQAP fighters dead, Centcom said, but five civilian tribesmen were also killed, according to the journalist, Iona Craig.

Strikes doubled in Afghanistan in 2017 compared to the year before. 

This trend looks set to continue. President Trump announced in August 2017 that the US commitment in Afghanistan would deepen. General John Nicholson, the top general in Afghanistan, confirmed that this would include a ramping up of air support.

As part of this strategy, US forces in Afghanistan were given new authority to target the Taliban’s revenue streams. These did not come to light until November 20 2017 , when General Nicholson announced a number of strikes on Taliban drugs labs in southern Helmand.

For the Bureau, Trump’s August speech confirmed what our data had already showed. For months, we had been tracking a high number of strikes. This was made possible by key data provided to us by Resolute Support, the Nato mission in Afghanistan. We began getting monthly strike totals in September 2016. In July and August, we also received a breakdown of US strikes in Afghanistan by province.

However, the provincial data has since stopped with Resolute Support citing “capacity” issues. In October and November this year Resolute Support also failed to provide the monthly strike figures to the Bureau. It is unclear whether the US will continue to withhold this information next year. 

Despite the increasing strikes, the Taliban continued to put pressure on the Afghan security forces in 2017. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s branch of Islamic State has proved difficult to dislodge from its eastern stronghold, despite a concerted air campaign against the group.

As strikes have risen, so have civilian casualties. The UN mission in Afghanistan has found a nearly 50 per cent increase in the number of civilians killed and injured by US strikes in the first nine months of 2017 compared to the year before.

This year we continued our Naming the Dead project, collecting the names of over 150 casualties in Afghanistan in 2017.

Strikes resumed in Pakistan in March 2017, nearly two months after President Trump came into office, following a nine-month hiatus. Strikes since then have been sporadic, and none of them have been acknowledged officially by the US.  

Tensions between Washington and Islamabad escalated this year, following reports that the US administration was exploring ways to harden its approach to Pakistan, with drone strikes one of the measures being considered. In June 2017, a rare strike hit outside Pakistan’s tribal regions – only the third in 429 strikes since 2004 – angering Pakistan’s military chief. The Pakistan military has historically stayed tightlipped about such operations.

In August 2017, President Trump announced his South Asia strategy, which further angered Islamabad. In his speech, the president accused Pakistan of sheltering terrorists and threatened tougher action. This only fuelled concerns that drones would return to Pakistan’s skies.

However, only one strike has been confirmed since the President Trump’s speech. A glut of strikes were reported along the border, but it was unclear whether they hit on Pakistan or Afghan soil. 

Photo of Donald Trump greeting reporters in the spin room following a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit, Michigan, by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

https://vimeo.com/247810752247810752

Stories from the Drones team in 2017

Published

December 12, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

US strikes in Somalia shot up in November, with American planes carrying out five times as many strikes as they did in the previous month.

Nearly half of these strikes targeted Islamic State, with the US hitting the group in Somalia for the first time at the beginning of the month.

A band of fighters from the semi-autonomous region of Puntland pledged loyalty to the Islamic State group in 2015, breaking their ties to al Shabaab. Last year the group numbered just a few dozen fighters but has since grown to as many as 200, according to a UN monitoring body.

The fact that the US now has two targets in Somalia could mean a rise in US air operations. A record 31 strikes have hit Somalia this year, with a third of these taking place solely in November.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had already escalated strikes in Somalia to 14 in 2016, reflecting the growing number of attacks by al Shabaab insurgents.

However, since Trump came to office the rate of drone strikes in the East African country has doubled.

This partly reflects new rules introduced by the Trump administration in March 2017 which exempted swathes of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”. This has given commanders a freer hand to launch strikes.

Main photo: An MQ-9 Reaper (John Bainter/US Air Force)

Published

November 19, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Last week’s US air operation in Somalia took the total number of strikes carried out in 2017 to a record 29, raising the possibility of an expansion in military operations outside of conventional battlefields under President Donald Trump.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama had already escalated strikes in Somalia to 14 a year, reflecting the growing number of attacks by al Shabaab insurgents.

However, since Trump came to office the rate of drone strikes in the East African country has doubled. This partly reflects new rules introduced by the Trump administration in March 2017 which exempted swathes of Somalia from restrictions on targeting procedures introduced by Obama in response to concerns about civilian casualties. 

In 2013, Obama brought in measures that meant that strikes in areas that were not active warzones – places like Pakistan and Yemen – had to go through an elaborate sign-off process with the White House. 

The Trump administration effectively side-stepped the restrictions by declaring parts of Somalia and Yemen to be areas of “active hostilities”.

Somalian President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed seen here with commander US Marine Corps Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser earlier this year via Africom

This does not necessarily mean that Obama-era measures designed to protect civilians from harm have been thrown out of the window.

General Thomas Waldhauser, the man in charge of US military operations throughout Africa, told journalists at the time that though he now had leeway to order strikes without clearing it with the White House, he would be retaining the criteria introduced by Obama that a strike could only happen if there was a near-certainty that no civilians would be harmed.

But the change of rules does seem to have paved the way for greater US military activity in Somalia, the consequences of which are unclear.

The US’s counterterrorism activities in Africa have traditionally been a fraction of those in other parts of the world. Even the record number of strikes launched in Somalia this year amounts to less than a quarter of the number to hit Yemen.

But the US’s involvement appears to be gradually deepening, and not just through air strikes.

The US has around 500 soldiers stationed in Somalia, including special forces advisers that accompany Somali troops and Amisom – the African Union mission in Somalia – on operations. On several occasions this year, the US has been compelled to provide them with close air support when they have come under attack from al Shabaab insurgents.

There is also a coordination cell in Mogadishu staffed by American officers who coordinate operations with Somali and Amisom commanders. US drones and jets are based in Djibouti to the north of Somalia, where Africom runs its operations across East Africa.

It is hard to say how extensive the US’s operational activity on the ground is and whether or not it is increasing. Officials won’t say how often US forces have carried out “partnered ground operations” this year, though will confirm US involvement when questioned about individual incidents. In addition to the four partnered ground operations that needed air support, three others have come to light in 2017. Two proved controversial: they caused either American or civilian casualties.

On 25 August 10 civilians were reportedly killed in a US-Somali operation in Bariire, southern Somalia. Villagers had spotted they were under surveillance had told the Somali military that they were civilians and there was no Shabaab there, fearing an assault.

On 5 May a US Navy Seal died in an operation against al Shabaab. The SEALs and their SNA partners were flown in by helicopter, but came under fire “in the early phase of the mission” after landing near an al Shabaab compound, the target of the mission. Senior Chief Special Warfare Operator Kyle Milliken was killed in the ambush.

The increased US military activity in Somalia of course does not occur in a vacuum – al Shabaab have launched bold and ruthless attacks over the course of the year. 10 of this year’s 29 strikes have been carried out since 14 October when an al Shabaab bomber detonated a truck bomb on at a busy intersection in Mogadishu, killing more than 350 people and wounding as many more.

Somali officials have connected the increase in air attacks with the October suicide bombing, though the US command in Africa would not confirm this.

Main picture, of a Reaper drone, courtesy of USAF.

Published

September 25, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The Bureau has decided to change how it presents its data on Yemen and Somalia to make our datasets more user-friendly.

Our database records all reported US counter-terrorism operations in the two countries, dating back to November 2001 in Yemen and January 2007 in Somalia.

Many of these were reported as drone strikes, whilst others are more ambiguously described merely as “strikes”. The US has also carried out several ground raids with special forces and at least two attacks with cruise missiles. In Somalia, a US gunboat also bombarded al Shabaab fighters on the shoreline.

We had been pulling all air strikes reported to have been carried out by drones into their own year-by-year summaries in the datasets for the two countries. All other strikes would then fall into the category of “other US operations”.

However, events this year have made it evident that our method could be tweaked to give a clearer picture of the air war in these countries.

For example, during the massive US bombardment in Yemen in March and April, the US announced how many strikes it had carried out, but did not specify whether they had used a drone in most of these cases. This means that 95 per cent of the strikes were presented as operations in our year-by-year summaries, giving the casual viewer the impression we had omitted them from our tally entirely.

Because of this, we have decided to re-organise how we aggregate the individual strike figures. We are now pulling all air strikes, including those reported to have been carried out by a drone, into the same tally.

We have also added another year-by-year summary into the Somalia dataset, which pulls in all possible strikes. Prior to this, we had a single summary which included confirmed strikes as the minimum number of strikes and possible strikes included in the maximum.   

The “other US operations” category will now tally ground operations, such as special forces raids, and the naval bombardment and the cruise missile attacks.

Published

September 6, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle and Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The US military is investigating allegations that two separate operations involving American troops killed at least 22 civilians in the space of a week. 

The US military has confirmed it supported a Somali operation during which 10 civilians, including three young children, were reportedly shot dead. Reports suggest the raid targeted a farm in Bariire in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region on August 25. The extent of the US role is not yet clear. 

The UN mission in Afghanistan has found strikes killed at least 13 civilians and injured 12 others – all women and children – in Logar province, south of Kabul, on August 30. The US has launched an official investigation into the incident. Reports suggest possible US strikes targeted Taliban insurgents using a civilian compound to attack an aircraft.

The allegations come at a time when the US is increasing operations in both countries. Analysts fear that as the number of strikes and raids rise, so will civilian casualties. 

In Afghanistan, additional US troops are already arriving, with more to follow over the next few months. The further escalation of the war announced by US President Donald Trump will also include a continued ramping up of air strikes. In August, there were 387 strikes, US data shows, a steep increase from the 80 carried out in the same month last year.

Meanwhile, strikes in Somalia have also been on the up. In March, President Trump approved a Pentagon proposal to declare certain parts of Somalia an “area of active hostilities”, freeing up commanders to carry out strikes and raids without going through the White House bureaucracy.

Despite the new authorities, there were no strikes in Somalia until June. With each passing month since then, strikes have however increased. The March authorities may expire at the end of September, meaning the uptick could be short-lived. 

Photo: F-16 Fighting Falcons at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, Aug 31 2017. 

Published

January 20, 2017

Written by

Jessica Purkiss
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

The outgoing Obama administration said on Thursday the US had conducted 53 strikes outside areas of active hostilities in 2016, killing one non-combatant.

This contrasts slightly with reports collated by the Bureau – we recorded 49 counter-terrorism strikes in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan in 2016, killing four to six civilians.

The White House began publishing casualty data on its counterterrorism operations last year amid calls for more transparency from civil society organisations including the Bureau.  The numbers are not broken down by country however, making it hard explain differences between official figures and our data.

The Director of National Intelligence (DNI) statement did not specify where 2016’s strikes occurred, but said that areas of active hostilities included Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

One of the civilian deaths recorded by the Bureau took place in the restive Pakistani region of Balochistan. According to the victim’s family, a drone hit taxi driver Mohammed Azam while he transported Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, unaware of Mansour’s identity. Azam’s family launched a criminal case against the US demanding accountability for his death.

The Bureau also recorded reports of three civilians killed in an attack on what the US described as an al Shabaab camp in Somalia on April 11-12. Witnesses and local officials said the strikes actually hit a village under the control of the militants.

The Bureau put this version of events to a Pentagon spokesperson at the time but were told there were no reports of civilian casualties.

The DNI statement said that “no discrepancies” were identified between its post-strike assessments and credible reporting from non-governmental organisations about civilian deaths resulting from these strikes.

The Bureau recorded the deaths of 362-507 people, including the four to six civilians, as a result of US strikes outside areas of active hostilities last year. The US government put the figure of “combatants” killed in counterterrorism strikes at 431-441.

Follow the Bureau’s dedicated drone war Twitter feed: @dronereadsFollow the Bureau’s Twitter feed tracking each strike when it happens: @latest_strike

Photo of unmanned US predator aerial vehicle with a hellfire missile attached via US Air Force

Published

January 19, 2017

Written by

Jack Serle
This page is archived from original Bureau of Investigative Journalism reporting on US military actions in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Barack Obama’s foreign policy legacy is often discussed in terms of things he didn’t do: intervene in Syria, reset with Russia, get out of Afghanistan.

In one area however, Obama developed and expanded a defining policy architecture which his successor Donald Trump now inherits: the ability to kill suspected terrorists anywhere without US personnel having to leave their bases.

While his administration lauded the drone programme for being so “surgical and precise” it could take out the enemy without putting “innocent men, women and children in danger”, human rights groups lambasted it for doing just that – hundreds of civilians were reported killed outside active battlefields during Obama’s eight years in power.

As his presidency progressed, Obama put restraints in place aimed at reducing civilian casualties – but experts are now worried those limitations will be swept away by Trump in favour of an “anything goes to get the bad guys” approach.

Armed drones were first used under George W Bush. But it was Obama who dramatically increased their use. Responding to evolving militant threats and the greater availability of remote piloting technology, Obama ordered ten times more counter-terror strikes than his predecessor over the course of his term.

These operations have resulted in the deaths of senior terrorists such as Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, and Nasser al Wuhayshi, the commander of the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda. But they have also killed civilians, stoked resentment, and helped establish what civil liberties advocates say is the template for an unaccountable forever war.

Demand for drones has been so high under Obama that the Air Force has struggled to train enough new pilots to keep up with the burnout rate. This year it introduced $35,000 a year retention bonuses to try to persuade more drone pilots to stay on, working long hours in windowless rooms.

Secret operations

It is not just that Obama has put more of a certain type of aircraft in the skies. The low-footprint nature of drone strikes – which can be carried out without having personnel in the country being hit – made it politically easier for the US to mount operations in countries with which it was not technically at war.

The Bureau has recorded 546 strikes against suspected terrorists in Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan since Obama took office.

These operations have been run by highly secretive organisations – the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s Joint Special Operations Command – and have been much less accountable to public scrutiny than conventional military operations. In Iraq and Syria, the Pentagon releases data on most of the strikes it carries out. But the US would neither confirm nor deny the existence of operations in Pakistan until a drone accidentally killed an American civilian in Pakistan in 2015.

The legal justification for these operations comes from one sentence in the piece of legislation passed in the wake of 9/11, which authorised action against the perpetrators and those who helped them. The president was authorised “to use all necessary and appropriate force” against the nations, organisations and people who planned and abetted the attacks, “in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States,” the resolution stated.

In the following 15 years that authorisation was stretched to justify US action as far afield as Libya and Somalia. Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) national security programme, says that the drone campaign has “no meaningful temporal or geographical limits”.

The drone programme has consistently enjoyed popular support among broad swathes of US society. Its advocates say it has saved American lives and reduced the need for messy ground operations like the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Outrage over civilians deaths

But it has also caused outrage. Drones have hit hundreds of ordinary civilians going about their everyday life. Towards the peak of the covert drone war, the Bureau found reports of at least 100 civilians killed during Obama’s first year in power in Pakistan alone. Across his eight years in power the Bureau has recorded between 384 and 807 civilians killed by drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. (The Obama administration insists the drone war civilian death toll is substantially lower than that recorded by the Bureau and other civil society organisations.)

Experts warned the civilian casualties could have a radicalising effect on the very societies US drones are trying to eliminate extremists from, and human rights organisations lambasted the targeted killing programme for its “clear violations of international humanitarian law.”

Following such criticisms, drone strike procedures seem to have changed. In 2013, Obama announced that he had signed a piece of Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG), formal policy governing kill or capture missions outside declared battlefields, including drone strikes.

It was the product of four years work, the president said in his 2013 announcement, applying a framework of “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability” to the drone war. This was lacking during the early years of his presidency, Obama said in April last year, when the US drone campaign in Pakistan peaked and the attacks were increasing in frequency in Yemen.

“Continuing imminent threat” rule applied

According to these guidelines, parts of which were published in 2016 after years of legal pressure from the American Civil Liberties Council, strikes were only approved when it had been determined that the targeted individual constituted a “continuing imminent threat”, that there was no way of capturing them, and there was near-certainty that no civilians would be killed.

Reports of civilian casualties in Pakistan plummeted from 52 in 2011 to zero by 2013, suggesting the rules Obama officially announced that year had gradually been adopted in the preceding years.

Ongoing civilian casualties in Yemen suggest the new procedures were not always robustly applied in practice. But they were cautiously welcomed by civil liberties groups as being better than no restrictions at all.

In a further bid to embed policies preventing civilian casualties before leaving office, Obama also issued an Executive Order in 2016. The order called for transparent reporting of civilian casualties in US military operations, including those outside of declared battlefields. White House insiders said the move was a direct response to continued pressure by the Bureau and other organisations which collect and publish data on drone war deaths.

The problem, as Hina Shamsi points out, is that the constraints on the drone programme instituted by Obama are “recognised as a matter of policy not of law.” This means they could be overturned by the Trump administration.

Constraints could be dismantled

Luke Hartig, formerly senior director for counter-terrorism at the National Security Council and now a fellow at the New America Foundation, identified two elements of the PPG as specifically vulnerable.

One is “the continuing, imminent threat” standard, an overarching principle that stipulates a terrorist can only be targeted if their activities pose a real and immediate danger to US citizens.

It could be scrapped because “it speaks to what some critics would say is a legalistic approach from the Obama administration,” Hartig said.

He suggested that the “near-certainty” standard might also be changed – a rule whereby a terrorist can only be taken out if there is near certainty no non-combatants will be killed or injured (except in extraordinary circumstances).

“If you’re in the Trump administration and you’re saying you’re going to be tough on terrorism, some of these standards could be perceived as tying your own hands,” Hartig said.

Hartig stressed however that the PPGs were not the only constraints on drone strikes.

“The PPG also reflects pragmatic realities about civilian casualties, the diplomatic realities surrounding the use of force, and what our operators know based on 15 years of fighting terrorist and insurgent networks,” he said.

“If you loosen the standard on civilian casualties, you may see an increase in such incidents, but it won’t be off the charts because our operators have become so good at preventing collateral damage.”

This caveat was echoed by Christopher Kolenda, a former US military commander in Afghanistan and co-author of a June paper for the Open Society Foundation on civilian casualties in the country.

“I frankly don’t see a doomsday scenario in the near term,” he told the Bureau. “This generation of senior leaders has all experienced Iraq and Afghanistan, and have all experienced the consequences of civilian harm that occurs within laws of armed conflict.

“I can’t see them taking a different approach than what they know to be right.”

Kolenda is worried about the long term however. People retire or move on and “if you don’t have things institutionalised as doctrine some of those lessons are at risk.”

What Trump is planning is anyone’s guess

No-one knows exactly what Donald Trump’s intentions are for the drone programme.

He has selected as National Security Advisor a retired general who has said the religion of Islam is a “cancer”. Michael Flynn was at the heart of the US counter-terrorism campaigns in Pakistan and Afghanistan that saw widespread use of drones. However he was also one of the voices warning that careless drone strikes only served to radicalise populations.

The President-Elect himself has made inflammatory statements while campaigning that could indicate how he will act. He told ecstatic crowds of thousands at his rallies that he would “bomb the shit” out of Islamic State.

In an interview with the Daily Mail last May he suggested he would continue the covert drone war.

“As far as drones are concerned, yes. To take out terrorists,” he said. “The only thing is, I want them to get it right. But to take out terrorists, yes, I would think that that is something I would continue to do.”

What this means in practice however remains unclear.

“I don’t want to talk about it because I do want to be unpredictable in a sense,” said Trump. “I don’t want the enemy to know exactly where I’m coming from.”