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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How Many Terrorists Have Been Killed by Drones?

by Micah Zenko
February 20, 2013

U.S. Predator drone (Handout/Courtesy Reuters). U.S. Predator drone (Handout/Courtesy Reuters).


Yesterday, Senator Lindsey Graham, speaking to the Easley Rotary Club in Easley, South Carolina, offered a standard defense of drone strikes: “It’s a weapon that needs to be used. It’s a tactical weapon. A drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle that is now armed.” Graham also noted that without drones it would be hard to attack terrorists groups along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, where “terrorists groups like the [Haqqani] network and Al-Shabaab are residing, very remote regions.” Forget that Al-Shabaab has never been reported to be in that region, Graham also maintained that the drone program “has been very effective.”

Graham then added:  “We’ve killed 4,700. Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of Al-Qaeda.” His estimate of the death toll of suspected terrorists and militants by U.S. nonbattlefield targeted killings is higher than any other reported. My report, Reforming U.S. Drone Strike Policies, compiled the averages found within the ranges provided by New America Foundation, Long War Journal, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and produced a number about 1,200 fewer.

It is notable that Graham’s estimate nearly matches the TBIJ’s highest estimated range for “total reported killed” in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia: 4,756. Either Graham is a big fan of TBIJ’s work, or perhaps he inadvertently revealed the U.S. government’s body count for nonbattlefield targeted killings.

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