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Signature Strikes: A Necessary Evil?

In this extract, Nicholas Grossman looks at the rise of ‘signature strikes’, a controversial technique that is dividing opinions on its efficiency.

Nicholas Grossman’s book “Drones and Terrorism” illustrates the emergence of a new era characterized by the use of commercially available drones for advanced reconnaissance and potentially lethal bombings in conflict zones. It underscores the prevalence of asymmetric warfare, where major states engage in battles against smaller terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, particularly in the Middle East. Grossman delves into how these groups are integrating drones into their tactics, signaling the onset of what he terms the age of drone terrorists.

Grossman’s analysis will delve into how the United States, Israel, and other technologically advanced militaries employ aerial drones and ground-based robots against non-state actors such as ISIS, al Qaeda, and insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will also explore how these groups, along with individual terrorists, utilize readily available commercial drones against more powerful state adversaries. This examination of robotics carries significant implications for future security, terrorism, and international relations, making it a crucial resource at the intersection of terrorism and drone warfare.

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Key Event In June 2015

In June 2015, the most significant achievement of the American drone campaign occurred as it successfully targeted Nasir al Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP, in Yemen. Al Wuhayshi played a pivotal role in consolidating jihadists in Yemen and Saudi Arabia under the Al Qaeda banner, thereby elevating the group’s status to a formidable force both locally and internationally.

AQAP, besides publishing Inspire, has been responsible for more attempted attacks against Western targets since 2008 compared to Al Qaeda Central. In addition to providing support to the underwear bomber, AQAP orchestrated an incident in 2010 where they concealed three bombs crafted with PETN, a challenging-to-detect plastic explosive, within printer cartridges aboard cargo planes destined for Western cities.

One of the bombs ignited a fire on a UPS flight shortly after departing from Dubai en route to Cologne on September 3, 2010, resulting in the deaths of two crew members. Acting upon information provided by Saudi intelligence, authorities discovered the remaining two bombs on planes destined for Chicago on October 29.

The explosives seemed intended to detonate mid-flight as the aircraft approached their destinations, causing them to disintegrate and scatter debris onto the ground below.

Controversial US Action: Al Wuhayshi Killed Through “Signature Strike” Technique

The United States employed a contentious tactic known as a “signature strike” to eliminate Al Wuhayshi. Unlike operations where American intelligence identifies and targets specific individuals intentionally, signature strikes focus on individuals whose behaviors and whereabouts align with predetermined patterns associated with militant activity, according to US criteria.

Critics contend that while such strikes may result in the deaths of members of terrorist organizations, they raise moral concerns because many of the individuals killed are not specifically targeted and their identities are unknown to the government.

Furthermore, some argue that signature strikes lead to substantial backlash, particularly in targeted nations like Pakistan, thereby diminishing the likelihood of cooperation with the United States and fueling terrorist recruitment.

Nonetheless, while public sentiment research indicates significant resentment in Pakistan towards the American drone program, there is no conclusive evidence suggesting that this resentment specifically stems from objections to signature strikes as opposed to a broader objection to the United States’ practice of conducting lethal operations within Pakistani territory.

Addressing Information Disadvantage: Rationale Behind Signature Strikes

Signature strikes are an attempt by the United States to address its informational disadvantage in comparison to Al Qaeda. While Al Qaeda possesses knowledge of the identities and locations of its members, the United States lacks this information. Although drones can provide aerial intelligence, identifying specific individuals from high altitudes poses challenges.

Therefore, to supplement efforts targeting known individuals, the United States resorts to monitoring regions with militant activity and conducting strikes based on observed behavior rather than individual identities.

While this approach has resulted in successes, such as the elimination of al Wuhayshi, it has also led to notable failures, such as an August 2012 strike in Yemen that mistakenly killed an imam involved in dismantling Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Challenges And Benefits Of Signature Strikes In Counterterrorism Strategy

The act of killing innocent individuals poses moral challenges and, in this context, represents a significant strategic setback. Religious leaders within the Muslim community who speak out against jihadist organizations play a crucial role in countering their ideological appeal.

Furthermore, because signature strikes focus on behavior rather than specific individuals, they often result in the deaths of low-ranking militants who can be easily replaced, offering only marginal benefits compared to the risk of civilian casualties or harming potential allies like the Yemeni imam.

However, despite these drawbacks, the capability of signature strikes to eliminate high-value targets such as al Wuhayshi and Adam Gadahn provides sufficient benefits for the United States to likely continue using the technique, albeit to a certain extent.

Nicholas Grossman holds the position of Assistant Teaching Professor of International Relations at the University of Illinois and serves as Editor-at-Large for Arc Digital. He specializes in areas such as robotics, drones, terrorism, insurgency, and US foreign policy. His work has been featured in Arc, National Review, CNBC Opinion, and others.

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