Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Keep Adding. on Kill Lists, Drone Warfare and the Politics of Databases

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Keep Adding. on Kill Lists, Drone Warfare and the Politics of Databases

Article excerpt


Alongside drones and Special Forces, the 'disposition matrix'--a kill/capture list and database--is a key device in the US government's global 'war on terror', in which targeting individuals has become increasingly institutionalized. The majority of studies to date have focused on the human world of the military, insurgents and policy makers with a limited access to reliable knowledge. Using insights from technoscience and software studies, I seek here to develop a material-based perspective focusing on the neglected non-human world of software artefacts, which codify, standardize and sort our world. I will first present available knowledge about the 'disposition matrix' and the 'targeting methodology'. Second, I will elaborate on the materiality of databases and data mining algorithms, showing how their technorationality is built on recombination, which fosters the production of possible future targets for a data-driven killing apparatus, in which human and non-human decision-making processes are intimately intertwined. In the third part of my article, I will discuss how computational actors make the messy targeting process more opaque and less traceable--not at least because of their underlying technorationality with its open-ended search heuristics--which advances a possibilistic, preemptive culture of technosecurity.


Database, data mining, kill list, post-Newtonian rationality, algorithm, drone warfare

The magic of modern technoscience is a lot of hard work, smoke-filled rooms, and boring lists of numbers and settings. Tyranny or democracy, its import on our lives cannot be denied. (Bowker and Star, 2000: 50)

The 'disposition matrix': Kill lists, databases and the production of targets

Since 9/11, the number of US kill and watch lists is constantly growing, and they are playing an ever more crucial role in the politics of targeted killing. This article explores the material agency and epistemological dimensions of the 'disposition matrix', the key database of diverse kill lists in the US 'war on terror'. Its aim is to understand how sociotechnical artefacts such as databases and algorithms are intertwined with human decision-making processes in the production of targets. Analysing the cultural logic of data-driven warfare, I want to make visible the non-human sociopolitical actors, which emerge from a postNewtonian technorationality of recombination and (cor)relation which resources the unpredictable and advances a preemptive culture of technosecurity.

The 'disposition matrix', the US government's main kill list, was devised in 2010 by CIA director John Brennan (formerly Barack Obama's counterterrorism adviser) and merges the diverse kill lists maintained by the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Some critics speculate that the 'disposition matrix' was introduced to regulate and thereby streamline the kill/capture process between the diverse organizations and to bypass the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Miller, 2012). But, it will become obvious that the 'harmonization' of these different kill lists is also a result of the dynamics of data analytics.

Most information about the 'disposition matrix'--as well as about other 'terrorist' kill or watch lists--is secret or classified. There are very few documents available, produced by government-friendly as well as by critical researchers, investigative journalists or NGOs, that provide a limited amount of information about the discourses and practices of the 'disposition matrix'. Its existence was publicly disclosed in 2012 by a series of Washington Post articles based on pronouncements made by senior members of the Obama administration (Miller, 2012; de Young, 2012; Whitlock, 2012). (1)

Databases such as the 'disposition matrix' as well as other watch or kill lists are devices for profiling terrorists or suspects based on human intelligence (HUMINT) and, especially, on signals intelligence (SIGINT). …

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