Murder is Murder: A Brief History of Britain’s Drone Programmes

A BQM 74 remote-controlled drone is launched from the flight deck aboard the guided missile frigate USS Robert G. Bradley (FFG 49).

On 24th May, the BBC news website reported that the Science and Technology Facilities Council and its partners were funding the Ecometrica company’s use of drones. Their aim is to use lasers to help scientists identify invasive species beneath forest canopies. But, as S&C‘s Political Analyst, Dr TJ Coles, documents in the latest edition of his book Britain’s Secret Wars, drones have been developed in the military sector for a less wholesome purpose: US global hegemony. This edited excerpt from the book examines the UK’s supporting role in that campaign.


Most civilians in Europe and the US believe that unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) are being operated abroad, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, in order to defeat ‘al-Qaeda’ and the Islamic State. For this reason, the US public is generally behind drone warfare, although women are less supportive, according to opinion polls.

However, in 1997 (i.e. before 9/11, the event used to justify drone wars), the US Space Command committed America to a doctrine called Full Spectrum Dominance: military superiority over ‘land, sea, air, space and information’ by the year 2020. A year before the 11th September 2001 attacks, the Project for the New American Century, whose members included George W Bush’s administration, stated that their objectives were ‘the preservation of a favorable balance of power in Europe, the Middle East and [the] surrounding energy-producing region, and East Asia’. The project’s policy document argued that drones ‘will make it much easier to project military power around the globe … [Drones] … will allow not only for long-range power projection but for sustained power projection’. This is very much in keeping with the Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine.

In 2015, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism revealed that 2,500 people had been killed by drone operators since 2002. The tacit implication that US forces—Army and/or Central Intelligence Agency personnel—are targeting ‘terrorists’ does not withstand legal scrutiny. In 2010, Philip Alston, the UN Rapporteur on Extra-judicial Killings, published a landmark General Assembly Resolution in which he questioned the legality of drone operations. In an op-ed for the Guardian in the same year, he accused the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) of not yet having ‘establish[ed] accountability mechanisms to show that drone killings are in fact being carried out in accordance with accepted international legal standards.’

According to Alston, even if the United States is permitted or even asked to engage in drone warfare in another country, ‘A State killing is legal only if it is required to protect life (making lethal force proportionate [emphasis in original]) and there is no other means, such as capture or nonlethal incapacitation [emphasis added]’. In no case of drone murder has a victim been in the process of attempting to cause harm to US civilians. Alston concludes that, ‘rather than using drone strikes, US forces should, wherever and whenever possible, conduct arrests, or use less-than-lethal force to restrain [suspects] … [I]t was legally incorrect for the US Bush [and subsequent Obama administrations] to claim that [their] right to conduct targeted killings anywhere in the world was part of [the] “war on terror.”’

Human Rights Watch concurred. In its public letter (also in 2010) to President Obama, it stated, ‘The notion … that the entire world is a battleground in which the laws of war are applicable undermines the protections of international law’. The letter concluded that ‘[t]he deliberate use of lethal force can be legal in operations involving a combatant on a genuine battlefield, or in a law enforcement action in which the threat to life is imminent and there is no reasonable alternative’.


The first explicit reference to Britain’s use of drones in warfare came from then-Secretary of State for Defence, John Spellar, in 1999 (i.e., pre-9/11). When asked what role drones will play in future combat missions, Spellar replied, ‘The planned Airborne Stand-Off Radar, ASTOR, programme, together with the in-service Phoenix unmanned aerial vehicle and future UAV programmes, such as SENDER and SPECTATOR, will form an important part of our integrated Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance, ISTAR, capability’.

Spellar was asked the question in Parliament in March 1999, at a time when SAS forces were secretly operating in Serbia, shortly before NATO illegally bombed Serbia under the pretext of preventing the very ‘ethnic cleansing’ that other Parliamentary records confirmed was not happening. Spellar concluded that ‘[l]ong range surveillance and reconnaissance assets, such as ASTOR and longer range radar and UAVs, will help to cue and subsequently direct medium and short range reconnaissance and target acquisition assets, such as Phoenix, to identify, prioritise and engage enemy targets from long range before they can inflict damage on our and friendly forces’.

In July 1999, with the bombing of Serbia underway, Lord Kennet spoke about Britain’s drone developments and asked, ‘What of the opportunities given to defence firms to test their new systems? Some Kosovo weapons are already being hotly marketed. To some, the war was a commercial opportunity’. Toward the end of the year, Spellar confirmed that British Phoenix surveillance drones, under the command of the Royal Artillery, had been used in Serbia from bases in Macedonia.

The new chapter to the Strategic Defence Review proposed in 2002 (i.e. post-9/11) involved ‘looking at the extent to which [drones] require that offensive capability, as well as the reconnaissance aspect that they already enjoy’, said Geoff Hoon, then-Secretary of State for Defence. Britain began to shift from the design, development and testing of surveillance drones—from Phoenix to Watchkeeper—to offensive drones, hence the UK’s acquisition of (to date) five Reapers. Britain fired its first missile from a drone, a Hellfire, in Afghanistan in May 2008. Reapers remain under the control of RAF 39 Squadron, based at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada. The Ministry of Defence says that the ‘UK Reaper is normally armed with 2x GBU-12 500lb laser guided bombs and 4x AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, although this number can be changed to suit particular missions … RAF personnel have flown more than 44,000 hours providing essential support to NATO ground forces in Afghanistan’.

In 2008, the 39th Squadron fired 27 missiles from its Reapers: 44 in 2009, 70 in 2010, 102 in 2011, and 120 in the following year. Trying to obtain information on fatalities is extremely difficult. In 2013, Labour’s Tom Watson MP asked ‘the Secretary of State for Defence what the (a) type, (b) circular error probability and (c) blast radius is of each variant of the Hellfire precision guided missile employed by the UK Reaper … and if he will make a statement’. Philip Dunne, the Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Defence, replied, ‘I am withholding the information requested as its release would, or would be likely to prejudice the capability, effectiveness or security of the armed forces’.

According to the Guardian in 2012, the MoD claimed ‘only four Afghan civilians have been killed in its strikes since 2008’. That’s four too many. ‘[I]t does everything it can to minimise civilian casualties, including aborting missions at the last moment. However, it also says it has no idea how many insurgents have died because of the “immense difficulty and risks” of verifying who has been hit’, which of course contradicts the statement that ‘only’ four civilians have been murdered. We would raise more than eyebrows if, for example, the government of Afghanistan were targeting jihadis formerly trained by the SAS and MI6 in the 1980s, now living in London and Manchester, and had killed ‘only’ four British civilians in their counterterrorism programme.


The US is currently running two drone programmes: a military operation (headed by the Air Force and Army) and a civilian operation (run by the CIA). The first recorded murder of civilians by drone operators occurred near Khost, Afghanistan, on 4 February 2002. Pentagon spokeswoman, Victoria Clarke, said, ‘We’re convinced that it was an appropriate target, although we do not know exactly who it was’. The appropriate target turned out be civilians gathering scrap metal: Jehangir Khan (age 28), Mir Ahmed (30), and Khan’s cousin, Daraz (31). In November of that year, a CIA Predator operated fired a missile from the US drone base in Djibouti, killing at least six civilians, all of them ‘al-Qaeda’ suspects, led by Qa’id Salim Sinan al-Harithi.

According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, it is possible that SAS troops laid the groundwork for US drone operations in Yemen by providing details on the whereabouts of alleged ‘al-Qaeda’ members. British media reported in the previous year that the MoD had plans for the SAS to conduct ‘pinpoint’ attacks on ‘al-Qaeda’ camps in Yemen, in preparation for US authorisation. In March 2002, the Scottish Herald published reports suggesting that the US did indeed seek the SAS’s ‘unrivalled expertise’ and ‘to defuse growing anti-American feeling’ among Yemeni warlords, some of whom the SAS and CIA had trained in the 1980s. ‘The reports marked the first of many claims that British Special Forces were carrying out counter-terror operations in Yemen’, says the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

Here’s what we can prove:

In 2012, as part of Operation Overhead, Britain and Australia provided information to US military personnel for drones. The giant GCHQ listening post at RAF Menwith Hill, Yorkshire, has long been known to gather intelligence on every citizen across the UK, Europe, and beyond, including their telephone calls, emails, visited webpages, and keystrokes. According to the Edward Snowden leaks, which expanded on what we already knew, GCHQ provides the US with details about the locations of individuals targeted for death.

In 2012, intelligence memos (known as ‘Comet News’) confirmed that Anglo-Australian intelligence had likely led to the killing of two Yemenis, one unnamed, the other identified as Khalid Usama. The attack also killed a 60-year-old civilian, Mohamed al-Saleh al-Suna, and induced shrapnel injuries in six children playing nearby. (Like it or not, ‘al-Qaeda’ members are all, technically, civilians under international law, in the same sense that criminals are civilians, because they do not abide by the Geneva Conventions. The ‘controversy’ is over the fact that the US has classified them, and thus all suspects, as combatants, essentially applying the Laws of War to everyone.)

In the same year, the family of a Pakistani elder, Noor Khan, took the British government to court for alleged complicity in his death. The barristers said that GCHQ operatives could be ‘accessor[ies] to murder’. The judges twice ruled a ‘no’ verdict, for fear that details would compromise British security.

In 2013, the Daily Mail reported that Bosh Global Services ‘is openly recruiting US security-cleared staff to work on American military operations from Britain’ at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire. It was revealed that RAF Croughton, Northamptonshire, is also used as a base. It provides a super-fast, British Telecom-supplied telecommunications link to Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, from which US Predator operators murder civilians in Somalia and Yemen. In March 2012, the Telegraph reported that US-UK drone attacks against Yemen had killed 516 people, in what AlterNet counted as 125 attacks since 2002. ‘Nationwide the figures are comparable to those in Pakistan’, which are causing large numbers of civilian casualties. The Telegraph acknowledged that the operations are conducted from the US base in Djibouti.

In 2013, Wired’s David Axe confirmed that at least 112 Somalis had died in drone and other US strikes, again launched from the British-linked Djibouti base, since June 2011. ‘Under the guise of tracking Somali pirates, the Pentagon negotiated permission to base people and planes on the Indian Ocean island nation of the Seychelles’, Axe wrote. The Seychelles are one of many locations from which drone attacks are mounted. The US Navy ‘also deployed one of its five RQ-4 Global Hawks — Northrop-built spy drones with the wingspan of a 737 airliner — to an unspecified Indian Ocean base to, among other duties, provide air cover for the 5th Fleet off the Somali coast’. The ‘unspecified Indian Ocean base’ is probably Diego Garcia, from which Britain expelled the indigenous population in the late-1960s and ‘70s to make way for a US military base.

In 2014, Tom Watson of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drones, commissioned Jemima Stratford QC to advise the group on the legality of British intelligence-gathering for the US drone programme(s). Stratford wrote, ‘In our view, if GCHQ transferred data to the [US National Security Agency] in the knowledge that it would or might be used for targeting drone strikes that transfer is probably unlawful’. Anna Thomas, an author for the group, paraphrasing Stratford’s conclusion, said that the government must ‘ensure British data and facilities are not used to support activities which would be unlawful in the UK, including drone strikes against non combatants [sic]’.

Tory MP and future (and brief) Brexit Secretary, David Davis, summarised the huge moral problems with drone warfare thus: ‘The phrase extra-judicial killing is a euphemism. What we are talking about here is murder. It may be that you are murdering terrorists and the people are villains, but it is still murder’.

Cover picture: U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Robert Taylor [Public domain] reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.