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Terror Tuesday: Adding many more drones to the volatile mix

How can a tawdry, doltish video posted on YouTube inflame so many people in more than twenty countries?

There’s the match and then there is the fuel.

Al-Qaeda has claimed that the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi was undertaken to avenge the killing-by-drone of Sheikh Abu Yahya al-Libi.

But the span and staying power of the protests suggests that although political groups may in some countries be shaping public reaction, “Innocence of Muslims” should be seen as a spark tossed into a tinderbox of diverse, accumulated grievances, with Western invasions, occupations, support for dictators, theft of resources, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, the desecration of bodies and the Koran, and decades of humiliation forming a combustible mix.

The Abu Dhabi Gallup Center has researched Muslim attitudes to the West over the years. The primary finding of its 2010 report, Measuring the State of Muslim-West Relations: Assessing the ‘New Beginning,’ must have confounded the Western media which before the ‘Arab Spring’ seldom gave Muslims a voice:

“It was politics and not religious differences that roused Muslim anger toward the US.”

With the election of President Obama, a striking change of attitudes was in the air. For instance, only 6 percent of Egyptians had approved of US leadership in 2008; that reached 37 percent after his Cairo speech in August 2009, only to decline precipitously in the months that followed. By February 2010 the Egyptian approval rating of the President was back down to 19 percent. Only 28 percent of Muslims believed that the West respected them.

The report states:

In 2010, Obama’s approval rating decreased in several countries in this region. Building on our finding that showing respect for Islam was an important component of improving Muslim-West relations, we found that this meant not only Westerners refraining from desecrating religious symbols, but also demonstrating fairness in Western government policies.

President Obama speaking at Cairo University on June 4, 2009.

The Pew Research Center has tracked a similar trajectory. A June 2012 Pew Research survey of “global attitudes” in 21 Muslim and non Muslim nations shows that four months before the storming of the US embassies in Cairo and Libya, some 76 percent of Egyptians told Pew they opposed Obama’s re-election.

Even in Jordan, which is generally taken for granted as a pliant American ally, that number was 73 percent. In Pakistan, the opposition to Obama weighed in at 93 percent.

As Pew points out, this represents a massive turnaround from its 2009 poll, when people believed that Obama “would act multilaterally, seek international approval before using military force, take a fair approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The Administration’s drone strikes appear to have hit a particularly sensitive nerve around the world. Only in the US did a majority of the population approve of the drone strikes. In Greece 90 percent disapproved, and the disapproval rating was nearly as steep in Egypt and Jordan.

If drones represent a substantial public relations problem for the US today, an even bigger headache is on the horizon.

In July 2012, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released Nonproliferation, an unclassified version of a report about the proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) systems first issued in February 2012.

The report reveals that since 2005, the number of countries that have acquired drones has nearly doubled, from about 40 to more than 75. That means more than a third of the countries in the world now operate UAV systems, among them Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Libya, Jordan, Malaysia, Syria, the UAE and Pakistan.

It states that the US has built up the drone capability of key allies, with the UK and Italy using drones purchased from the US to conduct surveillance in Afghanistan. Israel is the world’s other leading supplier of UAVs, while Austria, South Africa and Italy also now export UAV systems.

So what is the downside according to the GAO?

The United States likely faces increasing risks as countries of concern and terrorist organizations seek to acquire UAV technology. Foreign countries’ and terrorists’ acquisition of UAVs could provide them with increased abilities to gather intelligence and conduct attacks against US interests.

It sounds as if the possibility of drones falling into the “wrong hands” is a real life problem, and that the US is not having much luck getting other countries to see things its way, since we are told that the unclassified report “omits sensitive information about efforts by countries of concern and terrorists to obtain and use sensitive UAV technology, as well as details about the US proposals that multilateral regimes did not adapt.”

Meanwhile, as the use of UAVs by the US military has grown from 10,000 flight hours in 2005 to more than 550,000 flight hours in 2010, with the Obama Administration conducting seven times the number of targeted killings as its predecessor, foreign militaries across the globe are seeking “to expand the uses for UAVs, particularly in the area of armed strike missions.” They include the militaries of some of those unnamed “countries of concern.”

The proliferation of drone technology is a swiftly growing problem without a solution in sight.

The US does not even know how much UAV technology it has authorized for export. A number of different federal agencies are involved in licensing and transfer agreements, but “there is not a formal mechanism to ensure that licensing agencies have relevant and timely intelligence information when making licensing decisions.” Furthermore, the government has no efficient way to query databases to identify UAV-related licenses.

But even if the government had a better sense of what was going where, it might not be in a position to slow down the transfer of drone technology.

Over 50 countries are now developing their own drone systems “to compete economically and militarily in this emerging area,” and the American arms industry is reluctant to cede this ground.

“According to private sector representatives, UAVs are one of the most important growth sectors in the defense industry and provide significant opportunities for economic benefits if US companies can remain competitive in the global UAV market.”

How can the US remain in front of the pack, for a short time at least? One way is by developing “lethal autonomy” where no human pilots are needed to launch strikes from thousands of miles away.

In the words of Daniel Suarez, who has developed software for the defense industry, “killing by algorithm” is now on the agenda.

That’s no longer science fiction. Not only has it become technologically possible but increasingly likely to occur, if not here, then overseas. For some, the advantages of automation in human conflict are just too great a temptation. That’s a fundamental shift that could very well change our geopolitical landscape.

Suarez calls for the establishment of an international legal framework “for the use and development of combat robotics.” But such a framework seems farfetched when the Obama Administration will not even divulge the legal framework underlying its lethal drone strikes.

Unless there is a fundamental shift of direction and priorities, the anti-West turmoil we are now seeing in so many Muslim countries may be only the beginning. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.