Do Drones Degrade al Qa’ida?

On April 23, the White House announced that one of their drone strikes had killed two al Qa’ida hostages, one Italian and one American.

A few weeks back I discussed the evidence regarding drones and civilian casualties. I argued that, as opposed to being “surgical instruments” capable of eliminating terror groups while minimizing damage to civilians, drones may in fact be worse at reducing “collateral damage.”

Civilian casualties are not the only talking point when it comes to drones. One area of particular interest involves drones’ supposed ability to eliminate al Qa’ida and other terrorist groups more effectively than other means. Nowhere is this idea more clearly demonstrated than in President Obama’s 2013 address on drone policy.

[Drones] are effective…. Dozens of highly skilled al Qaeda commanders, trainers, bomb makers and operatives have been taken off the battlefield…. [T]he primary alternative to [drones] would be the use of conventional military options…. Conventional airpower or missiles are far less precise than drones.

So, are drones really more precise than conventional air power? Has the increased use of drones over the past several years worked to degrade and dismantle terror groups?

If you were expecting a resounding “yes,” I’m sorry to disappoint. Available evidence indicates that drones are not inherently better than other means at taking out terror threats. In fact, drones may have led to an expansion of terrorism activity domestically and abroad.

Proponents of drone use often credit drones as a tool for eliminating “high level” fighters, or leaders of terrorist groups. These targets are particularly important from the perspective of the military. The idea is that by eliminating the leaders of terrorist groups, the structure of the group will weaken and eventually dissolve.

However, drones may not be eliminating these “high value” targets. Reports state that since 2008, drone strikes have killed very few terrorist leaders. Researchers at Stanford and NYU, for example, found that such targets comprised a mere two percent of total casualties. Government reports have shown that drones have killed twelve times as many low-level to mid-level fighters than leaders of al Qa’ida and the Taliban.

As opposed to eliminating these groups, there is evidence that these strikes may be increasing the recruiting ability of terrorist groups. To give just one example, one researcher found that countries in which these strikes have been conducted have seen significant jumps in terror attacks, as much as 58 percent in some cases. Similarly, other research has found that drones strikes not only fail to eliminate al Qa’ida recruitment, but lead to an increase in propaganda output.

This evidence leads to a much broader policy question: Are offensive strikes the best way to eliminate terrorists in the first place? Again, evidence suggests we may want to look to other means to degrade terror groups. It’s been found that most terrorist groups (43 percent) break apart as members of the group decide to pursue changes via their state’s political process. Other groups (40 percent) are broken apart by local operations. A mere seven percent of terror groups are actually ended by military force.

Just as the issue of civilian casualties is important when discussing the U.S. use of drones, it is important to examine whether or not drones are actually achieving the stated objectives of thwarting terrorists. While it appears that strikes have taken out some high-level targets, this group is incredibly small compared to the overall number of casualties. As opposed to eliminating terror, U.S. drone strikes may have the opposite effect.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
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