Targeting the Lifeworld: A Note on Signature Strikes

I am currently reading Daniel Klaidman’s ‘Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency’ with much interest, and will post a summary/review soon. In the meantime, one of the nuggets gleaned so far is Obama’s reluctant (-ish) embrace of UAV ‘signature strikes’ that target ‘patterns of life’. Despite exercising caution, the ‘pragmatic’ streak in the re-elected President has reigned again and again; as has his embrace of the CIA’s ‘kinetic’ tactics.

Signature strikes, which are a controversial form of targeting killing, were first rolled out under the Bush administration. As Derek Gregory writes,

Today signature strikes are frequently triggered not on the fly – a sudden response to an imminent threat – but by a sustained ‘pattern of life’ that arouses the suspicion of distant observers and operators. This depends on persistent surveillance – on full motion video feeds and a suite of algorithms that decompose individual traces and networks – some of which involve a weaponized version of Hägerstrand’s time-geography: see, for example, GeoTime 5 here.

To give a modern contextualization (signature strikes are inherited from surveillance logics constructed in Vietnam), in the summer of 2008, former CIA Director Michael Hayden successfully lobbied President Bush to dispense with drone targeting constraints that are restricted to known individuals. Unlike “personality strikes”, where the person’s identity is located on one of the CIA’s classified kill lists or the White House’s disposition matrix, a signature is constructed from observing and cataloguing a pattern of life—coding the behavior and geography of individuals; targeting their very lifeworld.

This new targeting regime led to a rapid escalation of drone strikes and an increase of the number of people that were killed in Pakistan. Between 2004 and 2007 there were 9 drone attacks, but between the pivot year of 2008 and 2011, this figure leapt to 284. In Table 1, I have calculated the percentages of militant “leaders” killed in drone strikes in order to illustrate the decreasing number of high-level “commanders” that are subject to the CIA’s strikes.

According to the 2012 Stanford and NYU report, ‘Living under Drones‘, a signature strike probably place on March 17, 2011. The CIA fired at least two missiles into a large gathering—a jirga led by a decorated public servant—near a bus depot in the town of Datta Khel, North Waziristan. The U.S. insists that all were militants. And yet, the overwhelming evidence suggests that most of the 42 people killed were civilians. Of the four suspected Taliban militants identified by the Associated Press in this strike, only one has ever been identified by name. As a 2011 Washington Post report notes, “Independent information about who the CIA kills in signature strikes in Pakistan is scarce”. Other officials in the U.S. State Department have complained that the classified criteria used by the CIA to construct a “signature” are too lax: “The joke was that when the CIA sees ‘three guys doing jumping jacks,’ the agency thinks it’s a terrorist training camp”.

In the tribal areas of Pakistan most people killed by U.S. drones have not been al-Qa’ida fighters. In fact, the number of al-Qa’ida militants eliminated has been just 8% under the Obama administration. This means that a far greater number of people who played no part in the attacks of September 11, 2001 have been vaporized by Hellfire missiles. The current UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, went so far as to question whether “killings carried out in 2012 can be justified as in response to [events] in 2001”.

The presumptive “guilt” of many of those killed in Pakistan today is thus constructed around the so-called “immanent” threat they pose to the U.S. Homeland: a pre-emptive, future-oriented biopolitics that exists in an exceptional space outside of centuries of international humanitarian law. These Pakistani “affiliates”—which include Taliban, Pakistan Taliban, and Haqqani Network members, are part of a much wider expansion of who counts as an affiliate in a globalizing drone war.

The Obama administration frequently appeals to the ‘immanent threat’ clause of Article 51 of the UN Charter to launch preemptive drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. And yet, given the extensive surveillance, algorithmic calculation, and bureaucratic deliberation, the ‘immanence’ test is not applicable to signature strikes.

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6 Responses to Targeting the Lifeworld: A Note on Signature Strikes

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