Hostage Deaths Bring New Attention to Drone War’s Civilian Toll

Unidentified Victims Often Remain Unidentified

The announcement that a January drone strike killed a pair of Western civilians, both hostage aid workers held by al-Qaeda, has brought some uncomfortable attention to the Obama Administration’s worldwide drone war, and the massive civilian death toll it is causing.

Hundreds of civilians are known to have been killed in US drone strikes, though the real toll is likely far higher than the known toll, since so many of the people slain by drone strikes remain forever “suspects.”

In the main drone war hubs, both the Pakistani tribal areas and rural Yemen, officials routinely refer to anyone slain as a “suspected militant” entirely based on the notion that the US wouldn’t have attacked them unless they did something.

Yet the use of “signature strikes,” a policy of attacking targets without any idea who the people are simply because they’re doing something that looks conceivably suspicious has often left random people killed, as with a December 2013 strike in which US drones attacked a “suspected al-Qaeda convoy” on the basis that there were a lot of cars driving together near a town al-Qaeda is active in. It was a wedding party, and 14 died.

But in smaller strikes, with 3-4 victims, we rarely get these sorts of accounts at all, and except for the occasional lawsuit from a Pakistani tribesman whose family was killed, the entire process is totally anonymous, and never resolved.

Thousands have died in the drone war, and officials have relied on this cloak of anonymity to avoid recriminations for the civilian toll. Even when civilian deaths are confirmed they dismiss these as isolated incidents. The isolation, however, is in how often they are questioned about killing the civilians, because the killings happen with alarming regularity.

Author: Jason Ditz

Jason Ditz is news editor of