By Scaliger, Charles
The New American , Vol. 28, No. 11
0n the morning of September 30, 2011, a group of travelers in a remote corner of northern Yemen stopped their vehicle to eat breakfast. Among them was American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric known to be a supporter of al-Qaeda, and Samir Khan, a Saudi-born Pakistani American who was the editor of al-Qaeda's English-language web magazine Inspire. As they breakfasted, they spotted a strange aircraft high in the sky, with telltale inverted stabilizer and rear-mounted propeller: an American Predator drone.
Guessing they were being targeted, the men leaped into their car and sped away, apparently hoping to outrun the pursuing air-craft. But they had no chance of outstripping the two Hellfire missiles fired at them by the drone they had spotted and its unseen companion. The vehicle and its occupants were blown to bits, with the two American citizens among the dead. The strike had been carried out by the United States' Joint Special Operations Command. under the direction of the CIA.
Two weeks later al-Awlaki's American-born son Abdulrahman, who had gone to look for his father, was killed in the company of a number of suspected al-Qaeda operatives by another drone strike. In this instance, the U.S. government expressed a measure of regret for the death of an innocent teenage boy, stating that he had been "in the wrong place at the wrong time."
For his part, al-Awlaki was less than a sympathetic figure. With his perfect command of English, he was a valuable tool for al-Qaeda propaganda, having produced instructional manuals and numerous on-line lectures on how to carry out jihad. But he had been convicted of no crime; he had merely been deemed an enemy of the American regime and had been targeted for extrajudicial assassination by President Obama.
The killings of al-Awlaki and Khan raised concerns that the American government was now willing to murder its own citizens under the cover of the War on Terrorism. But of equal concern is the lethality and efficiency of unmanned military drones like the Predator, which have proven a devastating tool of both surveillance and assassination in Afghanistan, Yemen, and other fronts in the war--and which are now being vetted for use in American skies against American citizens.
The development of reconnaissance drones dates back to the early 1980s, when the CIA first began working on the concept. The first unmanned reconnaissance drones deployed in combat saw service over Bosnia in the mid-1990s. By then, the aircraft were equipped with specially designed engines that made very little noise, and had acquired the nickname "Predator"
With the outbreak of war in Afghanistan weeks after 9/11, the U.S. military began to utilize Predators more and more for carrying out tactical strikes, in addition to mere surveillance. By the end of the last decade, the most advanced Predator model, the MQ-9 Reaper, was carrying out many of the functions of traditional ground attack military planes, but without putting American pilots in harm's way. Boasting a 66-foot wingspan and a maximum payload of 3,800 pounds, the Reaper is able deliver a variety of military payloads, including Hellfire missiles and laser-guided bombs. Able to cruise at 50,000 feet at 300 miles per hour, the MQ-9 is as formidable a weapon as any conventional missile or aircraft in the American arsenal.
The military utility of unmanned drones is beyond dispute--so much so that the military has begun replacing certain manned units with fleets of drones. In 2008, for example, the New York Air National Guard 174th Fighter Wing moved to replace piloted F-16s with MQ-9 Reapers. By early 2011, the Air Force was training more pilots to operate unmanned drones than for any other weapons system.
But unmanned drones have not been used exclusively by the U.S. military. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, operates nine MQ-9s equipped with state-of-the-art surveillance systems. …