Inside the Murky World of 'Signature Strikes' and the Killing of Americans With Drones

For those who are not versed in the complexities of the CIA's drone war in "non-declared battle zones," Holder's statement would seem to indicate that the Obama administration has either killed three Americans on accident, or is simply lying about the other three killings which were actually intentional.
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US President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama speaks about his administration's drone and counterterrorism policies, as well as the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, at the National Defense University in Washington, DC, May 23, 2013. AFP PHOTO / Saul LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

At last, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged on May 22nd that the CIA has carried out the extrajudicial drone assassination of four Americans since 2009 (when one includes the one American killed by a drone in Yemen in 2002 that brings the number to five U.S. citizens who have been turned into what the CIA euphemistically calls "bugsplats"). In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder attempted to shed light on this murky process that would have been inconceivable prior to 9/11. Holder wrote "Since 2009, the United States, in the conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa'ida and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostilities, has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen." That U.S. citizen was Anwar al-Awlaki, Al Qaeda's head of external operations whom I have written about previously. al-Awlaki was known as the "Bin Laden of the Internet" and had been involved in plots to blow up planes flying from Yemen to the U.S. and in the so-called Underwear Bomber Plot. For all these reasons al-Awlaki was "specifically targeted" for a drone strike.

But then Holder, who claimed to be shedding light on this murky topic so U.S. citizens can "make informed decisions and hold their government accountable," used language that brought up more questions than it answered by stating, "The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same time period. These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States."

This remarkable statement could not have been better crafted to raise the hackles of anti-war pacifists on the left who claim drones are almost exclusively killing only innocent civilians and those on the right who fear that drones and black hawk helicopters will come for them next. For those who are not versed in the complexities of the CIA's drone war in "non-declared battle zones" like Somalia, Yemen and Pakistan, Holder's statement would seem to indicate that the Obama administration has either killed three Americans on accident, or is simply lying about the other three killings which were actually intentional.

The truth is probably more convoluted than Holder's words or either of these alarmist scenarios suggest and deserves an explanation. It hardly seems to be a coincidence, for example, that one of those Americans who was "not specifically targeted," Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki, the son of the above-mentioned Anwar al-Awlaki, was killed by a drone just two weeks after his father's assassination. Especially since the younger al-Awlaki was killed after he had traveled to the remote Shabwa province of Yemen where the Al Qaeda insurgents had protected his father. It is more than likely that the younger Awlaki was killed because he was "in the right place at the right time" for a so-called "signature strike."

An explanation of the difference between a "signature strike" and "personality strike" will help explain the younger al-Awlaki's death. If we accept the proposition that Holder was not lying when he claimed that the younger al-Awlaki was "not specifically targeted," then he was not killed in a so-called "personality strike" (i.e. a strike on known terrorists who are "nominated" to be on a "kill list" approved by President Obama and his advisors in teleconferences). On the contrary, he was killed in a "signature strike" which is a broader category of strike. A signature strike is a drone strike on suspected terrorists or militants whose identities are not known, but whose "pattern of life activity" would seem to indicate that they are involved in some militant/terrorist activity. These activities could range, for example, from associating with known terrorists in an Al Qaeda hujra (guest house) to sneaking across the border into Afghanistan from Pakistan's Taliban-controlled tribal zones with a group of Taliban insurgents.

Intelligence for these wider types of strikes is less specific than it is for those who have been vetted and chosen for the distinction of being placed on the president's kill list. This does not mean, however, (as some anti-drone activists have erroneously stated) that "every man in the tribal zones is a terrorist and is therefore in the drones' target sights." All drone strikes, including the lower threshold of evidence "signature strikes," must be supported by two sources of corroborating intelligence (for example a report from the vast spy networks the CIA has operating in Yemen and Pakistan, a communication intercept, a visual from a drone of militants training at a camp etc.) The permission to carry out signature strikes is not a carte blanche to declare war on the tens of thousands of armed males in Pakistan or Yemen's tribal zones where owning a gun is a sign of manhood. A potential target for assassination has to be engaged in suspicious activity (i.e. have a suspicious "signature") that makes him stand out enough to be selected by the CIA to be killed in a signature strike. In most cases the evidence for a signature strike would seem to be based on a combination of humint (human intelligence, i.e. spies) and techint (technological intelligence, i.e. surveillance from a drone, the use of a homing beacon placed on vehicles of militants or compounds, eavesdropping on cell phone conversations, etc.).

This fact seems to be born out by the nature of the Americans who were "not specifically targeted" on a kill list, but were nonetheless killed in Predator/Reaper drone strikes in suspicious settings. For example, the very first American killed in a drone strike back in 2002, Kamal Derwish, was killed in Yemen while traveling in an SUV carrying an al Qaeda lieutenant who was involved in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Kamal Derwish had previously fled the U.S. after eluding a manhunt for him in connection with his involvement in the Lackawanna terrorist plot in up state New York. U.S. government officials later claimed that they had not known in advance that Derwish was in the targeted SUV, but as one official dryly put it "it would not have made a difference. If you're a terrorist, you're a terrorist." Clearly Derwish was more than just an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time, he was associating with terrorists who had been tracked by CIA spies and was thus in the right place at the right time for a drone strike. Never has the warning "beware of the company you keep" been more apropos.

The same holds true for next American killed, "but not specifically targeted," in a drone strike, Samir Khan. Khan was a Pakistani-American who was the creator of Al Qaeda's online magazine Inspire. Khan claimed to be "proud of being a traitor to America" and posted the online directions how to make a bomb like the one used in Boston on April 15th. He was killed in the same strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki. Once again it was no mere coincidence he was killed; the two slain men were both involved in Al Qaeda's operations in Yemen. The intel on his suspicious "signature" appeared to be correct, even if the Americans did not know specifically who he was at the time of his assassination.

Then there was the case of the younger al-Awlaki, Abdul Rahman. Far from being an average American 16-year-old, he had fled to an Al Qaeda-dominated breakaway region in Yemen. There a Yemeni source said that the local Al Qaeda members in the Arabian peninsula referred to him as "Usayyid," or the Lion's Cub, in honor of his relation to his terrorist father. They also intimated that Abdul Rahman would one day replace his father as the new English-speaking face of Al Qaeda on the Internet.

Stating his future intentions he also said he wanted to one day be a "martyr."

If these reports are accurate then Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki had certainly begun to associate with Al Qaeda and it was this association with terrorists that brought him to the attention of the CIA's spy networks. Even if the CIA did not know who he was, his "signature" had gone hot and he was quickly killed in a strike based on his proximity to known terrorists who were presumably being tracked. The other alternatives are A) that he was killed in a "personality" strike, which would mean that Holder lied and Abdul Rahman was tracked and killed on purpose or B) that he was killed totally at random in a country twice the size of Wyoming with a population of 18 million.

Finally there is the case of Jude Kenan Mohammad whose death at the hands of a drone was suspected, but not confirmed, until it was revealed in Holder's letter. His case is a perfect example of a signature strike. As early as February 2012, a Raleigh, North Carolina newspaper in Mohammad's home state had speculated that he had been killed in a drone strike.

This speculation came after Mohammad had fled authorities to Pakistan after being involved in a plot to attack the Marines base at Quantico, Virginia. Once in Pakistan, Mohammad drew suspicion when he tried entering the off limits FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Agencies) region of Mohmand which is controlled by Taliban militants. He was subsequently arrested by Pakistani officials at the border while he was carrying a dagger, Islamic books and a laptop. But Mohammad fled before his court date and apparently succeeded in making his way into the Taliban-controlled tribal areas. There his name came up again in relationship to an Al Qaeda plot to bomb targets in Washington, D.C. and New York and he was put on the FBI's Most Wanted List. The American-born Muslim probably stood out in the FATA and came to the attention of CIA spy networks that had previously had remarkable success in tracking British and German Muslim extremists (who had traveled to the remote region to join the Taliban and Al Qaeda) and providing their coordinates to drones which killed them.

Presumably that is what happened to Mohammad. He was in the right place at the right time with known Taliban or Al Qaeda militants and acting suspiciously when a drone struck and killed him along with eleven other men in 2011. The odds are astronomical that his death was random. Thus Khan, whose signature had grown hot, was not "specifically targeted" but was assassinated for his pattern of life activity which probably led CIA spies and informers to conclude he was a militant/terrorist. While critics of Obama's signature strike policy claim that it leads to the broad targeting of all tribesmen in the FATA and Yemen, the fact that Mohammad, hardly an innocent tribesman, was killed in just such a strike would seem to offer confirmation that this policy is more accurate and effective than the critics would suggest.

Certainly Holder and Obama don't see the signature strike assassinations of all the above American citizens in Pakistan and Yemen as mistakes. Rather they are seen as vindication of the accuracy of the drone program's spy and techint intelligence which led them to kill five Americans whose activities in remote Al Qaeda and Taliban-controlled regions of Yemen and Pakistan had raised alarms, even if the CIA did not know who they were specifically. The lesson would seem to be that if it is easy for American extremists to find the terrorists in this region and link up with them, then it is easy for the CIA's spies to find them and report their coordinates to the drones.

As for those who are reading the tea leaves from Obama's recent May 23rd speech at the National Defense University and searching for some sort of indicators that the parameters of the CIA's "wide net" drone strike polices will be narrowed, here is what Obama had to say on the issue. He said he would limit the drone strikes to "terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people." This open statement does not, however, really say much about signature strikes since it could be argued that anyone whose signature was hot could be defined as a threat to the American people.

Then Obama spoke in broad terms saying about the overall drone operations, America's largest assassination campaign since the Vietnam War, saying;

To begin with, our actions are effective. Don't take my word for it. In the intelligence gathered at bin Laden's compound, we found that he wrote, "we could lose the reserves to the enemy's air strikes. We cannot fight air strikes with explosives." Other communications from al Qaeda operatives confirm this as well. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers, and operatives have been taken off the battlefield. Plots have been disrupted that would have targeted international aviation, U.S. transit systems, European cities and our troops in Afghanistan. Simply put, these strikes have saved lives.

In the Afghan war theater, we must support our troops until the transition is complete at the end of 2014. That means we will continue to take strikes against high value al Qaeda targets, but also against forces that are massing to support attacks on coalition forces. However, by the end of 2014, we will no longer have the same need for force protection, and the progress we have made against core al Qaeda will reduce the need for unmanned strikes.

While the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan by December 2014 might thus lead to a tamping down of "force protection" drone strikes on Taliban insurgents seeking to enter Afghanistan from Pakistan and attack U.S. forces, the Obama administration may still feel the need to carry out signature strikes on those suspected terrorists whose identities are not known, but whose profile would seem to indicate that they are up to no good. As long as some of these people with suspicious signatures are American citizens who have joined Al Qaeda or the Taliban, this means that CIA may continue to partake in extrajudicial killings of Americans. On this last point Obama could not be clearer when he summed up his administration's unforgiving policies stating:

When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America -- and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens -- and when neither the U.S. nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot -- his citizenship should not serve as a shield.

For the time being at least, it would thus seem that it is still open season on those suspected terrorists, American or not, whose suspicious signatures bring them to the attention of the CIA's remote control hunters.

For more on the CIA's murky drone assassination campaign in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia see: Brian Glyn Williams' "Predators. The CIA's Drone War on Al Qaeda." Washington DC; Potomac Press. 2013.

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