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The first bomb dropped from an airplane exploded in an oasis outside Tripoli on November 1, 1911 (1). While flying over Ain Zara, Libya, Lieutenant Giulio Gavotti leaned out of his airplane, which looked like a dragonfly, and dropped a Haasen hand grenade. It landed “in the camp of the enemy, with good results”.
One hundred years later, the bombing is done by pilotless planes. They are controlled remotely, often half a world away. We have come to call them “drones”. On the inside, people call them “birds”.
Operators can watch their targets for hours, often from air-conditioned rooms, until they receive the order to fire. When the time is right, a room full of people watch as the shot is taken. This is where they sit.
Most of the time, drone operators are trying to kill someone specific. They call these people —the people being hunted— “objectives”. What does an objective look like ? Here’s an example.
This timeline was for a man named Bilal el-Berjawi. Intelligence agencies watched him for years, then the British government stripped him of his citizenship. After calling his wife, who had just given birth in a London hospital, Berjawi was killed by an American drone strike. Some people thought the call might have given away his location, but the drones already knew where he was. This was his car.
When drone operators hit their target, killing the person they intend to kill, that person is called a “jackpot”. When they miss their target and end up killing someone else, they label that person EKIA, or “enemy killed in action”.
Over a five-month period, U.S. forces used drones and other aircraft to kill 155 people in northeastern Afghanistan. They achieved 19 jackpots. Along the way, they killed at least 136 other people, all of whom were classified as EKIA, or enemies killed in action.
Note the “%” column. It is the number of jackpots (JPs) divided by the number of operations. A 70 percent success rate. But it ignores well over a hundred other people killed along the way. This means that almost 9 out of 10 people killed in these strikes were not the intended targets.
Hellfire missiles —the explosives fired from drones— are not always fired at people. In fact, most drone strikes are aimed at phones. The SIM card provides a person’s location —when turned on, a phone can become a deadly proxy for the individual being hunted. When a night raid or drone strike successfully neutralizes a target’s phone, operators call that a “touchdown”.
“Baseball cards” (BBCs) are the military’s method for visualizing information —they are used to display data, map relationships between people, and identify an individual’s so-called pattern of life. This isn’t quite what a baseball card looks like, but they are said to include much of the following information.
A “blink” happens when a drone has to move and there isn’t another aircraft to continue watching a target. According to classified documents, this is a major challenge facing the military, which always wants to have a “persistent stare”.
The conceptual metaphor of surveillance is seeing. Perfect surveillance would be like having a lidless eye. Much of what is seen by a drone’s camera, however, appears without context on the ground. Some drone operators describe watching targets as “looking through a soda straw”.
Drones are not magic. They have to take off from somewhere. Increasingly that somewhere is on the continent of Africa. But where exactly ? As of 2012, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had bases in Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia. They operated 11 Predators and five Reaper drones over the Horn of Africa and Yemen.
After crashing multiple Predator drones near Camp Lemonnier, the U.S. military moved operations to a more remote airstrip in Chabelley, Djibouti.
Here’s a snapshot of how the U.S. views its surveillance capabilities on the continent of Africa more broadly.
The military worries about what it calls the “tyranny of distance”. Compared to the traditional battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. drones have to travel farther to reach their “named areas of interest”, or NAIs, in Yemen and Somalia.
Here’s where the U.S. appears to have “finished” people in Yemen.
For many years, lawyers and human rights advocates have wondered about the chain of command. How are non-battlefield assassinations authorized ? Does it fall within the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), or through some other authority ? The documents we have are not comprehensive, but they suggest a linear chain —all the way up to the president of the United States (POTUS).
As we reported last year, U.S. intelligence agencies hunt people primarily on the basis of their cellphones. Equipped with a simulated cell tower called GILGAMESH, a drone can force a target’s phone to lock onto it, and subsequently use the phone’s signals to triangulate that person’s location. Here is what a watchlist looks like.
In the end, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) is about continuing a cycle : Find a person, Fix a person, Finish them. But there are two other steps in the process : Exploit and Analyze.
Colloquially referred to as “F3EA”, the cycle feeds back into itself. The whole process amounts to human hunting. As soon as a target is finished, the hunt for a new target begins.
(1) With thanks to Sven Lindqvist’s A History of Bombing, which served as a template for this narrative. Additional design and illustration by Evan Bissell.