Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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You Might Have Missed: Drones, Nuclear Smuggling, and Gun Violence

by Micah Zenko
December 1, 2012

A man watches a U.S. border patrol helicopter from a fence at the border in Ciudad Juarez (Stringer Mexico/Courtesy Reuters). A man watches a U.S. border patrol helicopter from a fence at the border in Ciudad Juarez (Stringer Mexico/Courtesy Reuters).

Craig Whitlock, “Drone Crashes Mount at Civilian Airports,” Washington Post, November 30, 2012.

In Djibouti, five Predators have crashed since the Air Force began ramping up drone operations there to combat terrorist groups in nearby Yemen and Somalia. Many of the mechanical breakdowns have been peculiar to drones.

On May 7, 2011, an armed Predator suffered an electrical malfunction that sent it into a death spiral about a mile offshore from Djibouti City, the capital, which has about 600,000 residents. “I’m just glad we landed it in the ocean and not someplace else,” a crew member told investigators.

Ten days later, another Predator missed the runway by nearly three miles and crashed near a residential area. The aircraft was carrying a live Hellfire missile, but it did not detonate and no one was injured.

In Djibouti, the Air Force drones operate from Camp Lemonnier, a fast-growing U.S. military base devoted to counterterrorism. The base is adjacent to Djibouti’s international airport and shares a single runway with passenger aircraft.

That has led to miscommunications and tensions with Djiboutian civil aviation officials. One unidentified U.S. officer told investigators last year that he often had to sternly remind his fellow troops that civilians were in charge of the site.

“There is a need to understand the urgency that this airport doesn’t belong to us,” he said. “Every time that we cause a delay or they miss flight times and connecting flights, there’s a big backlash and repercussion.”

In addition to the five Predator wrecks in Djibouti, the officer said he had witnessed three emergency landings that narrowly avoided catastrophe. “I have no illusions that this won’t happen again, whether it’s an MQ-1 or otherwise,” he said, referring to the military code name for a Predator.

Meanwhile, U.S. drone crews complained to investigators about the Djiboutian air-traffic controllers, saying they speak poor English, are “short-tempered” and are uncomfortable with Predators in their airspace.


Spencer Ackerman, “For the First Time, U.S. Official Sketches Out End to War on Terror,” Wired, November 30, 2012.

“On the present course, there will come a tipping point,” Jeh Johnson, the Pentagon’s top lawyer, told the Oxford Union in the U.K. on Friday, “a tipping point at which so many of the leaders and operatives of al-Qaida and its affiliates have been killed or captured, and the group is no longer able to attempt or launch a strategic attack against the United States, such that al-Qaida as we know it, the organization that our Congress authorized the military to pursue in 2001, has been effectively destroyed.” At that point, “our efforts should no longer be considered an armed conflict.”


Bill Roggio, “U.S. Drones Kill Three ‘Militants’ in First Strike in Pakistan in More Than a Month,” Long War Journal, November 29, 2012.

U.S. intelligence officials involved in the drone program would not comment on the reasons for the long pause in strikes. One intelligence official contacted by The Long War Journal said that “it certainly wasn’t due to a lack of targets.”

“Pakistan is a target-rich environment,” the official continued. “We’re only scratching at the surface, hitting them in the tribal areas, while the country remains infested with al Qaeda and their allies.”


Tracy Wilkinson, Richard Fausset and Brian Bennett, “U.S.-Mexico Drug War Partnership Under Calderon Broke New Ground,” Los Angeles Times, November 28, 2012.

Though neither side will speak of it publicly, the Department of Homeland Security has dispatched Predator drones based in southern Arizona to fly over Mexico and collect so-called pattern-of-life information that allows authorities to find safe houses and predict drug traffickers’ movements, say current and former department officials.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection oversees a fleet of 10 drones. It works with the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Mexican authorities, streaming live images to the Coast Guard and Southern Command in Doral, Fla., for drug interdiction operations.

Painted gunship gray, the Predators have been scrubbed of the Homeland Security logo that usually appears on the aircraft’s bulbous nose, to allow deniability in the event of a crash.


Seth Robson, “Casualties Down But IED Attacks Continue with Cheap Materials,” Stars and Stripes, November 23, 2012.

JIEDDO reports that, in August alone, 262 devices exploded in countries outside Iraq and Afghanistan, including attacks in Africa, Russia, Turkey and Mexico that killed 347 and wounded 694.


Government Accountability Office, Combating Nuclear Smuggling: Megaports Initiative Faces Funding and Sustainability Challenges, October 2012.

To help decision makers identify and prioritize foreign seaports for participation in the Megaports Initiative, NNSA uses a model that ranks foreign ports according to their relative attractiveness to potential nuclear smugglers. Currently, the model scores 1,100 foreign seaports on the basis of two categories: (1) scannable shipping volume, which accounts for 75 percent of the score, and (2) potential threat, which accounts for 25 percent of the score. Potential threat is determined on the basis of several factors, including the capabilities of terrorist groups within a country, amount of special nuclear material within a country, and the freedom of criminal groups to operate within a country. This information is then combined to provide each port with an overall score. Ports receiving higher scores are considered more attractive to a nuclear material smuggler and, therefore, of potentially higher interest for inclusion in the Initiative. The model is also updated regularly to incorporate new information. After the model produces a ranked list of ports that takes into consideration these factors and assumptions, NNSA officials work with the Department of State to ensure that U.S. diplomatic concerns are considered. For example, NNSA may not pursue ports in countries that do not have diplomatic relations with the United States.


Surviving Gun Violence Project.

(3PA: Among the more remarkable statistics you’ll find on this helpful resource, the United States has 4 percent of the world’s population, and 31 percent of all the world’s guns—270 million out of 875 million.)

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