Analyzing the Impacts of Targeted Killing: Lessons for the United States

AuthorMitt Regan
PositionMcDevitt Professor of Jurisprudence, Co-Director, Center on National Security, Georgetown Law Center; Senior Fellow, Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, United States Naval Academy
Analyzing the Impacts of Targeted Killing: Lessons
for the United States
Mitt Regan*
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.
Most commonly attributed to Mark Twain. It Ain’t What You Don’t Know That Gets You Into
Trouble. It’s What You Know for Sure That Just Ain’t So, QUOTE INVESTIGATOR (Nov. 18, 2018), https://
A prominent instrument of U.S. counterterrorism efforts over the past twenty
years has been the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to target members
of al Qaeda and groups associated with it (which I will refer to as al Qaeda for the
sake of brevity). Operations that have generated the most debate are targeted
strikes against al Qaeda leaders outside war zones or what are legally called areas
of armed conflict. Most of the latter strikes have been in northwest Pakistan in the
Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in Yemen, and in Somalia
(although some strikes in Yemen and Somalia have occurred during armed
For various reasons, something as basic as determining the number of strikes
in these areas is challenging, not least because the United States does not always
acknowledge when it conducts a strike. Based on information from major organi-
zations that have local sources and conduct investigations in these areas, the best
estimate is that from 2002-2021, the United States conducted roughly between
900 and 1,100 targeted strikes in these countries. Determining the number of
deaths is even more challenging, but the best estimates are between 4,000 and
These operations have sparked intense debate about whether strikes are lawful
or unethical, whether they are effective in combatting terrorist groups, and how
much harm they cause to civilians. One unfortunate feature of this debate is that
some parties on both sides tend to make sweeping factual claims. Only rarely,
however, do they attempt to provide empirical evidence to support them. When
* McDevitt Professor of Jurisprudence, Co-Director, Center on National Security, Georgetown Law
Center; Senior Fellow, Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, United States Naval Academy. © 2023,
Mitt Regan.
(2022) [hereinafter DRONE STRIKE].
they do, they tend to be selective in pointing to research that supports their view.
As Patrick Johnson and Anoop Sarbahi observe:
As the debate over the use of drones for counterterrorism efforts intensifies,
participants resort to anecdotal evidence to support their positions. This is
unfortunate, as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their lethal targeting
capabilities will likely remain a critical aspect of current and future counterter-
rorism efforts.
In my recent book Drone Strike: Analyzing the Impacts of Targeted Killing, I
review and evaluate quantitative and qualitative evidence on the effects of U.S.
targeted strikes on terrorist groups and civilians outside war zones.
clarity on empirical questions will not by itself resolve a debate that has an impor-
tant normative dimension. That debate, however, should not occur in an empirical
vacuum. Understanding what targeting is able to accomplish, and at what cost to
whom, can help ensure that our policy decisions and normative judgments are as
fully informed as possible.
The major findings from my research are as follows. First, with respect to
impacts on al Qaeda, strikes against al Qaeda leaders have not caused the organi-
zation to decline nor to reduce the number of attacks that it conducts worldwide.
Second, while the evidence is not unequivocal, it suggests that strikes reduced the
number of terrorist attacks in areas where they occurred for a period of up to four
weeks. Unless additional ongoing strikes occurred, however, attacks eventually
resumed at a roughly similar level. Finally, it is reasonable to conclude that
strikes against top al Qaeda leadership known as al Qaeda Core (AQC) in the
FATA helped reduce the risk of major attacks on the United States, although
stronger counterterrorism defenses likely were the main reason for this reduction.
With respect to impacts on civilians, estimates are that civilians may have con-
stituted more than 20% of persons killed from strikes from 2002-2012.
2013-2021, however, estimates are that this percentage dropped to between 3.5%
and 4.4%.
At the same time, the United States has struggled to meet its own
standard of near certainty of no civilian casualties because of the failure to institu-
tionalize prevention and mitigation of civilian harm.
Finally, while the evidence is not uniform, it generally indicates that drone
strikes cause resentment toward the United States in areas where they occur.
Evidence does not, however, support the claim that such resentment results in
greater sympathy for terrorist causes, or increases in recruitment to terrorist
3. Patrick B. Johnston & Anoop K. Sarbahi, The Impact of U.S. Drone Strikes on Terrorism in
Pakistan, 60 INTL STUD. Q. 203, 203 (2016).
4. DRONE STRIKE, supra note 2.
5. DRONE STRIKE, supra note 2, at 252.
6. DRONE STRIKE, supra note 2, at 252.

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT