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Civilian casualties from U.S. drone strikes

Since the September 11 attacks, the United States government has carried out drone strikes in Pakistan (see drone strikes in Pakistan), Yemen (see drone strikes in Yemen), Somalia (see drone strikes in Somalia), Afghanistan, and Libya (see drone strikes in Libya).[1][2]

Drone strikes are part of a targeted killing campaign against jihadist militants; however, non-combatant civilians have also been killed in drone strikes.[1][2] Determining precise counts of the total number killed, as well as the number of non-combatant civilians killed, is impossible; and tracking of strikes and estimates of casualties are compiled by a number of organizations, such as the Long War Journal (Pakistan and Yemen), the New America Foundation (Pakistan), and the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism (Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan).[1] The "estimates of civilian casualties are hampered methodologically and practically";[3] for example, "estimates are largely compiled by interpreting news reports relying on anonymous officials or accounts from local media, whose credibility may vary."[1]


Total numbersEdit

According to the Long War Journal, which follows US anti-terror developments, as of mid-2011, drone strikes in Pakistan since 2006 had killed 2,018 militants and 138 civilians.[4] The New America Foundation stated in mid-2011 that from 2004 to 2011, 80% of the 2,551 people killed in the strikes were militants. The Foundation stated that 95% of those killed in 2010 were militants and that, as of 2012, 15% of the total people killed by drone strikes were either known civilians or unknown.[5] The Foundation also states that in 2012 the rate of known civilian and unknown casualties was 2 percent, whereas the Bureau of Investigative Journalism say the rate of civilian casualties for 2012 is 9 percent.[6] The Bureau, based on extensive research in mid-2011, claims that at least 385 civilians were among the dead, including more than 160 children.[7] The Obama administration estimated in June 2016 that US drone strikes under Obama had killed 64 individuals conclusively determined to be non-combatants, in addition to 52 individuals whose status remained in doubt.[8]

It has been reported that 160 children have died from UAV-launched attacks in Pakistan[9] and that over 1,000 civilians have been injured.[10] Moreover, additional reporting has found that known militant leaders have constituted only 2 percent of all drone-related fatalities.[11] These sources run counter to the Obama administration's claim that "nearly for the past year there hasn't been a single collateral death" due to UAV-based attacks.[12]

The New America Foundation estimates that for the period 2004-2011, the non-militant fatality rate was approximately 20%.[13]

President Donald Trump, on March 6, 2019, signed an executive order revoking the requirement that U.S. intelligence officials publicly report the number of civilians killed in drone strikes and other attacks on terrorist targets outside of war zones. The Trump administration had previously ignored a May 2018 deadline for an annual accounting of civilian and enemy casualties required under Executive Order 13732[14] signed in 2016 by Barack Obama.[15][16]


After more than 30 UAV-based strikes hit civilian homes in Afghanistan in 2012, President Hamid Karzai demanded that such attacks end, but the practice continues in areas of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has criticized such use of UAVs: "We don't know how many hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed in these attacks ... This would have been unthinkable in previous times."[17]


In October 2013, the Pakistani government revealed that since 2008, civilian casualties made up 3 percent of deaths from drone strikes. Since 2008, it alleges there have been 317 drone strikes that killed 2,160 Islamic militants and 67 civilians. This is less than previous government and independent organization calculations of collateral damage from these attacks.[18] S. Azmat Hassan, a former ambassador of Pakistan, said in July 2009 that American UAV attacks were turning Pakistani opinion against the United States and that 35 or 40 such attacks killed 8 or 9 top al-Qaeda operatives.[19]


An attack by the US in December 2013, in a wedding procession in Yemen, killed 12 men and wounded at least 15 other people, including the bride. US and Yemeni officials said the dead were members of the armed group Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch the casualties were civilians. Witnesses and relatives told Human Rights Watch that no members of AQAP were in the procession and provided names and other information about those killed and wounded. They said the dead included the groom’s adult son and the bride received superficial face wounds. The local governor and military commander called the casualties a “mistake” and gave money and assault rifles to the families of those killed and wounded – a traditional gesture of apology in Yemen. A few days after the incident, Yemeni MPs voted for a ban against the use of drones in Yemen, though it is unclear what effect this will have on drone usage.[20][21]


There are a number of vocal critics of the use of UAVs to track and kill terrorists and militants. A major criticism of drone strikes is that they result in excessive collateral damage. David Kilcullen and Andrew Exum wrote in the New York Times[22] that drone strikes "have killed about 14 terrorist leaders". It has also killed an unknown number of militants. But, according to Pakistani sources, they have also killed some 700 civilians. Grégoire Chamayou’s analysis, of one three hour long surveillance and attack operation on a convoy of three SUVs that killed civilians in Afghanistan in February 2010, shows a typical, if notorious, case. Throughout the operation there is a sense of the drone controllers’ desperation to destroy the people and destroy the vehicles — whatever the evidence of their clearly civilian nature. The transcript is full of statements like “that truck would make a beautiful target”; “Oh, sweet target!”; “the men appear to be moving tactically”; and “They’re going to do something nefarious”.[23]

It is difficult to reconcile these figures because the drone strikes are often in areas that are inaccessible to independent observers and the data includes reports by local officials and local media, neither of whom are reliable sources. Critics also fear that by making killing seem clean and safe, so-called surgical UAV strikes will allow the United States to remain in a perpetual state of war. However, others maintain that drones "allow for a much closer review and much more selective targeting process than do other instruments of warfare" and are subject to Congressional oversight.[24] Like any military technology, armed UAVs will kill people, combatants and innocents alike, thus "the main turning point concerns the question of whether we should go to war at all."[24]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d Cora Currier, Everything We Know So Far About Drone Strikes, Pro Publica (February 5, 2013).
  2. ^ a b Obama’s covert drone war in numbers: ten times more strikes than Bush, Bureau of Investigative Journalism (January 17, 2017).
  3. ^ Counting Drone Strike Deaths, Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic (October 2012).
  4. ^ Roggio, Bill, and Alexander Mayer, "Charting the data for US airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004 – 2016", Long War Journal, 5 July 2011. Retrieved 11 July 2011. Archived February 18, 2015, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Out of the blue". The Economist. 30 July 2011. Retrieved 16 December 2011.
  6. ^ Counting civilian casualties in CIA's drone war Archived 2012-11-04 at the Wayback Machine, Foreign Policy
  7. ^ Woods, Chris (10 August 2011). "Drone War Exposed – the complete picture of CIA strikes in Pakistan". Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Retrieved 16 December 2011.
  8. ^ "White House releases its count of civilian deaths in counterterrorism operations under Obama". Washington Post. Retrieved 2016-07-02.
  9. ^ Woods, Chris (11 August 2011). "Over 160 children reported among drone deaths". The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  10. ^ Woods, Chris (10 August 2011). "You cannot call me lucky – drones injure over 1,000". The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  11. ^ Bergen, Peter (19 September 2012). "Drone is Obama's weapon of choice". CNN. Retrieved 16 December 2016. Since it began in 2004, the drone campaign has killed 49 militant leaders whose deaths have been confirmed by at least two credible news sources. While this represents a significant blow to the militant chain of command, these 49 deaths account for only 2% of all drone-related fatalities.
  12. ^ Muhammad Idrees Ahmad (30 July 2011). "Fighting Back against the CIA drone war". Al Jazeera. Retrieved 20 September 2011.
  13. ^ Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann. "2004–2011". New America Foundation. Archived from the original on August 30, 2011. Retrieved 10 September 2011.
  14. ^ "Executive Order -- United States Policy on Pre- and Post-Strike Measures to Address Civilian Casualties in U.S. Operations Involving the Use of Force". 2016-07-01. Retrieved 2019-02-09.
  15. ^ "Executive Order on Revocation of Reporting Requirement". 6 March 2019.
  16. ^ "Trump Cancels U.S. Report on Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes". Bloomberg News. 6 March 2019.
  17. ^ Carter, Jimmy (24 June 2012). "A Cruel and Unusual Record". New York Times.
  18. ^ Sebastian Abbot and Munir Ahmed (31 October 2013). "Pakistan says 3% of drone deaths civilians". USA Today. Associated Press. Retrieved 8 January 2015.
  19. ^ Newsweek, 8 July 2009. Anita Kirpalani, "Drone On. Q&A: A former Pakistani diplomat says America's most useful weapon is hurting the cause in his country." Retrieved on 3 August 2009.
  20. ^ "US: Yemen Drone Strike May Violate Obama Policy". Human Rights Watch.
  21. ^ "The Aftermath of Drone Strikes on a Wedding Convoy in Yemen". The New York Times.
  22. ^ Kilcullen, David, and Andrew Exum (16 May 2009). "Death From Above, Outrage Down Below". The New York Times. Retrieved 5 November 2016.
  23. ^ "Drone: Robot Imperium – Longreads". Retrieved 2016-11-03.
  24. ^ a b Etzioni, Amitai (March–April 2013). "The Great Drone Debate" (PDF). Military Review. Archived from the original on 22 May 2013.