The Drone Papers Digested: The “Assassination Complex”

In what follows, I want to summarize the main findings from the release of the “drone papers” by the Intercept in late 2015. These documents, from a 2013 Pentagon report, offer a snapshot of U.S. manhunting by JSOC Special Forces in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan over 2011 and 2012. While much of this information is well-known–a result of leaks over the years, which already outlined the centrality of targeted killings to  White House policy (recall the disposition matrix, terror tuesdays, and Brennan’s playbook–they are nonetheless an interesting set of resources, particularly since they include a multitude of slides, charts, and diagrams. My aim here however, is just to provide key points.

Article 1. The Assassination Complex. Jeremy Scahill, October 15 2015. The Intercept.

ISR Task Force.gif

In the first article of the “Drone Papers,” a cache of classified U.S. national security documents obtained by the Intercept, Jeremy Scahill outlines the contours of what he calls the “assassination complex.” These documents cover the U.S. military’s kill/capture operations between 2011 and 2012, and are mainly centered on reviewing JSOC drone strikes (and raids) in Yemen and Somalia  by Task Force 4-84.  In terms of the global drone war, the CIA and JSOC operate parallel drone-based assassination programs. According to the leaked documents, both agencies were involved in an internal “turf war” over the targeted killing program.

The first drone strike outside of a declared war zone was conducted more than 12 years ago, yet it was not until May 2013 that the White House released a set of standards and procedures for conducting such strikes. Those guidelines offered little specificity, asserting that the U.S. would only conduct a lethal strike outside of an “area of active hostilities” if a target represents a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons,” without providing any sense of the internal process used to determine whether a suspect should be killed without being indicted or tried. The implicit message on drone strikes from the Obama administration has been one of trust, but don’t verify.

ISR report

The leaked documents come from a February 2013 study (and a later May executive summary) conducted by the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaisance Task Force, headed by Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. The ISR Task Force, which looked into JSOC drone strikes between Jan 2011 and June 2012 , recommended capturing more suspects rather than killing them, as well as increasing (drone) surveillance capacities. According to Scahill, the documents thus conclude that:

Washington’s 14-year high-value targeting campaign suffers from an overreliance on signals intelligence, an apparently incalculable civilian toll, and — due to a preference for assassination rather than capture — an inability to extract potentially valuable intelligence from terror suspects.

The major findings are as follows – and most of these are already implicitly known (and have been for some time). The subsequent papers (2-8) are all focused on different elements of these main findings.

  • As previously reported, President Obama directly approves HVT for inclusion on the kill-list. This kill-chain is composed of “baseball cards” of biographic information on a target, which are bundled together with operational data to form “target information folders” that are sent to higher echelons of command. On average, it took 58 days for the president to sign off a target – from which US forces subsequently have 60 days to execute.
  • Assassinations depend upon the fallible capacities of human intelligence – no surprises there. Perhaps more interesting is the contention that metadata from phones and computer, as well as other signals intercepts, is described by the ISR study as an inferior method of “finding, fixing, and finishing” targeted people. The SIGINT capacities in Yemen and Somalia are described as poor.
  • Drone strikes often kill more than the intended target. What’s more, “The military labels unknown people it kills as ‘enemies killed in action'” or EKIA.
  • As of June 212, 16 people in Yemen and 4 people in Somalia had been signed off for killing by Obama, approved under the 2001 AUMF. Yet many more – hundreds more in the case of Somalia – were killed in 2012 according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. So what explains the discrepancy?
  • Geography impacts the kill-chain. In declared war zones – such as Iraq- approvals for assassination are much quicker than undeclared battlefields in Yemen and Somalia. This is down to a much more bureaucratic nexus involved in extrajudicial kills. Moreover, the documents cite the “tyranny of distance” as responsible for divergences in the timescale of killing.

In Iraq, more than 80 percent of “finishing operations” were conducted within 150 kilometers of an air base. In Yemen, the average distance was about 450 kilometers and in Somalia it was more than 1,000 kilometers. On average, one document states, it took the U.S. six years to develop a target in Somalia, but just 8.3 months to kill the target once the president had approved his addition to the kill list.

Article 2. A Visual Gallery. Josh Begley, October 15 2015. The Intercept.

Some interesting pieces of terminology unveiled:

  • People being hunted are called “objectives”
  • When drone operators hit an objective, it is known as “jackpot”
  • When drones target SIM cards/mobile phones, rather than known individuals (as they often do), it is known as a “touchdown”
  • EKIA – enemy killed in action – is the term for unknown individuals killed in a jackpot
  • Baseball cards detail a target’s “pattern of life”
  • A “blink” occurs when a drone has to reposition, thereby momentarily halting its surveillance of a target
  • Footprint. As of 2012, JSOC had bases in Djibouti, Kenya, and Ethiopia, operating 11 Predators and five Reaper drones over the Horn of Africa and Yemen.
  • GILGAMESH is a “simulated cell tower” that can be attached to a drone to  force a target’s phone to lock onto it, and subsequently use the phone’s signals to geolocate the target. This information is fed into a watchlist.

Article 3. The Kill Chain. Cora Currier, October 15 2015. The Intercept.

This article explores the lethal bureaucracy that stands behind the U.S. program of targeted killing.

Step One: This  is the first of a two-part process, and involved “Developing a Target” to “Authorization for a target.

Step Two: “Authorizing to Actioning”.

According to the slide, intelligence personnel from JSOC’s Task Force 48-4, working alongside other intelligence agencies, generating a “baseball card” on the target, which was then passed to the regional command (CENTCOM for Yemen, AFRICOM for Somalia). From there it went to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed by the Secretary of Defense. It was then “examined by a circle of top advisers known as the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, and their seconds in command, known collectively as the Deputies Committee.” Obama then signs off on the target. JSOC then had 60 days to hit the target, at the time of the study.

Chain of Command.png


Since the first drone strike in Yemen in 2002, hundreds of people have been killed in U.S. operations in Yemen and Somalia, many of them innocent civilians. The tallies shown here were compiled by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism from reports of both CIA and JSOC drone strikes and other operations. The large range in the estimates is due to the inherent difficulties of collecting data on airstrikes in war zones. The identities of the “people killed” were often unknown and may include civilians as well as suspected terrorists or militants. The U.S. almost never publicly acknowledges individual operations. Graphic: The Intercept

Article 4. Find, Fix, Finish. Jeremy Scahill, October 15 2015. The Intercept.

Under Obama,

a new global architecture of assassination was called for, and that meant navigating an increasingly tense turf war between the CIA and the Pentagon over these activities.

While the CIA played the central role in targeting militants in Pakistan with drones (from 2004 onwards), in terms of the global drone war, the military soon pressed for a more prominent position – particularly in Yemen and later Somalia.

In September 2009, the former CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus issued a Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order. This laid the groundwork for global Special Forces operations. By December 2009, and after the failed “underwear” bomb plot –linked to AQAP– the Obama administration green lit the first covert airstrike in Yemen (cruise missile). After that strike, JSOC drones would fuel clandestine operations in the region.  By August of 2015, more than 490 people had been killed in drone strikes in Yemen alone. Based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti,

The tip of the spear in the Obama administration’s escalated wars in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula was a special operations task force known as TF 48-4, according to secret documents provided to The Intercept.

The task force utilized “a maritime drone platform and a surveillance apparatus positioned in the Arabian Sea” for intercepting data, and hunted AQAP and al-Shabab members with drones and fixed-wing aircraft.  As Yemen’s status rose in U.S. national security priority, a simmering turf war between the Pentagon and the CIA boiled over. In 2011, the CIA began using a Sauid Arabian drone base to target Yemenm, which meant there were parallel and competing target lists “and infighting over who should run the drone war in Yemen.” This issue – over who controls the global drone war – persists today.

Article 5. Manhunting in the Hindu Kush. Ryan Devereaux, October 15 2015. The Intercept.

This article explores Operation Haymaker. Between 2011 to 2013, special forces, supported by the CIA and the IC, set out to destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces along the mountainous ranges and valleys of the Hindu Kush, along Afghanistan’s northeastern border with Pakistan. It was a model for a dronified form of manhunting. Yet its success was largely limited, despite the high-tech, networked nature of the conflict – which included drone strikes, raids, and informants on the ground.

The documents show that during a five-month stretch of the campaign, nearly nine out of 10 people who died in airstrikes were not the Americans’ direct targets. By February 2013, Haymaker airstrikes had resulted in no more than 35 “jackpots,” a term used to signal the neutralization of a specific targeted individual, while more than 200 people were declared EKIA — “enemy killed in action.”

As Devereaux notes,

The secret documents obtained by The Intercept, which include a slide on “Manhunting Basics,” reflect the combination of U.S. military personnel and spies who have hunted targets along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan for years. According to one of the slides, the Haymaker “functional teams” included the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the NSA, and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. The Air Force’s uniquely designed 11th Intelligence Squadron also played a role. The Florida-based squadron was reactivated in August 2006 for the express purpose of supporting “find, fix, finish” operations to capture or kill targets through analysis of aerial intelligence.

The long-term success of this networked, light-footprint manhunt, despite being a cutting-edge model of counterterrorism, remains to be seen.

As slides detailing its effectiveness noted, Haymaker’s impact on al Qaeda and Taliban enablers in Kunar and Nuristan was “considered temporary without a long-term, persistent campaign.”

Article 6. Firing Blind. Cora Currier. October 15 2015, The Intercept.

This article looks at some of the “shortfalls” of current drone technology. In particular, surveillance flights are limited by the amount of fuel a drone can carry, together with the location of a drone base. This leads to frequent surveillance “blinks” – when no drone optics are covering an area.

One of the most glaring problems identified in the ISR study was the U.S. military’s inability to carry out full-time surveillance of its targets in the Horn of Africa and Yemen. Behind this problem lies the “tyranny of distance” — a reference to the great lengths that aircraft must fly to their targets from the main U.S. air base in Djibouti, the small East African nation that borders Somalia and sits just across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen.

Another shortcoming is that drone strikes truncate the intelligence operation. The find, fix, finish kill chain is known in the military as FFF, or F3. But just as critical are two other letters: E and A, for “exploit and analyze,” referring to the use of materials collected on the ground and in detainee interrogations. Human intelligence, in other words. But with drone strikes, there is no E and A – which means that officials must rely on the poverty of signals intelligence.

Deadly strikes thus truncate the find, fix, finish cycle without exploitation and analysis — precisely the components that were lacking in the drone campaign waged in East Africa and Yemen. That shortfall points to one of the contradictions at the heart of the drone program in general: Assassinations are intelligence dead ends.

Article 7. The Life and Death of Objective Peckham. Ryan Gallagher, October 15 2015. The Intercept.

This article looks at the killing of Bilal el-Berjawi by a secret U.S. drone strike, a man whose British citizenship was first revoked.

Article 8. Target Africa. Nick Turse. October 15, 2015. The Intercept

All types of bases, of various shapes, sizes, and materials, have one mission in common: to eradicate what the military calls the “tyranny of distance.” These facilities allow U.S. forces to surveil and operate on larger and larger swaths of the continent — and, increasingly, to strike targets with drones and manned aircraft.

Map of U.S. Drone Bases in Africa 1Map of Drone Bases in Africa 2Sources: 1) ISR study; 2) ISR study; 3) ISR study; 4) ISR study; 4) ISR study; 6) Foreign Policy; 7) The Washington Post; 8) Foreign Policy; 9) The Washington Post; 10) The Washington Post; 11) The Washington Post; 12) The Washington Post; 13) The New York Times; 14) The Washington Post


According to an internal 2013 Pentagon study obtained by The Intercept on secret drone operations in Somalia and Yemen between January 2011 and summer 2012, a secretive unit known as Task Force 48-4 carried out a shadow war in the region. The task force, with its headquarters at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, operated from outposts in Nairobi, Kenya, and Sanaa, Yemen. The aircraft it used — manned and remotely piloted — were based out of airfields in Djibouti, Ethiopia, and Kenya, as well as ships off the coast of East Africa.

Camp Lemonnier Aircraft.png


This entry was posted in CIA, Jeremy Scahill, JSOC, Middle East, Terrorism and Counterterrorism, White House Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

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