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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Tracking U.S. Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko
December 31, 2013


In January 2013, we released a report that called on President Obama to reform U.S. targeted killing policies in non-battlefield settings. Included in that report was a chart that estimated the number of strikes, total fatalities, and civilian fatalities through the end of 2012. The data was based on averages within the ranges provided by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Long War Journal, and New America Foundation.  We have updated our chart to display all known U.S. targeted killings in non-battlefield settings from the first one on November 3, 2002, through the end of 2013.

Estimated U.S. Targeted Killings

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by CharlieSeattle

    Considering the terrorists hide behind civilians, that is an outstanding display of restraint!

    Shiite’s turn in Sunni’s as terrorist targets.
    Sunni’s turn in Shiite’s as terrorist targets.
    Both turn in Kurd’s as terrorist targets.

    The terrorists target mostly civilians, but that gets no press???

    One sided article, is it not?

  • Posted by Bashy Quraishy

    Thank you Council on Foreign Affairs for updating this statistic on Drone attacks, high number of civilian deaths and advising President Obama to reform U.S. targeted killing policies in non-battlefield settings.
    While I appreciate your effort, I also need to ask you as to what you mean by; non-battlefield settings. Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have never declared war nor are these countries at war with USA or any other country.
    These targeting killings are illegal, against international laws and totally immoral.
    So please ask Obama to stop these attacks all together. That would be the correct thing to do.

  • Posted by Jeff

    How do they define “civilians”? Anybody who is not carrying a weapon? If so, I reckon there are very few “civilians” in the United States.

  • Posted by MichaelOriental

    Any combat operation in which 11% to 22% of deaths are civilians fails any rational test of legality. One must remember that the US official definitions of “civlian” and “combatant” are themselves based on a premise that is itself flawed as a matter of the law of war. Beyond that, these definitions are then applied based on intelligence information that is often wrong.

  • Posted by Eric

    I remember reading an article called the deadliest president which claimed that insurgents were defined as (something like(google the article)) any male bw the age of 14-55

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    This whole debate requires the Obama administration to force the CIA/DOD to provide a detailed list of imminent attacks that have been specifically foiled by the use of targeted killing using drones on a case by case basis since the first anti-terrorist drone strike. Without knowing any part of that data-set, with respect to writers here and elsewhere doing great work on the drone strikes, there can’t be any true opinion expressed that are not inherently flawed. Imminence is necessary to support self-defense. But Orwellian Doublespeak has been used to change the basic meanings of things…. from civilian to battlefield to proportionality etc etc etc We all know what’s wrong with the picture but the lack of this data-set and their use or doublespeak defense and shameless 9/11 fear-mongering dilutes all attempts to face up to what has gone on… to the pint that writers fear really challenging the status quo because although they know they’re right – they can be easily defended against using the aforementioned tactics and ultimately their rep and the rep of their outlet is on the line hence the dilution of even the more respected and knowledgeable journalistic opinion in the knowledge-place.

    How many strikes stopped how many terrorist attacks Mr Director? Am I speaking Chinese or something?

    The entire argument FOR drone strikes has always been ‘framed’ around AQ and polityically-funded by the shameful milking of 9/11 tears and yet nobody here in one of the leading think tanks on earth has been able to write about the X-number of terrorist attacks that were averted using drone strikes… hmm what is it Sherlock says ‘whatever remains, however improbable’ etc

    They don’t wave the attacks they have foiled using drone strikes because there are few.. if any! That is the logical conclusion when all is taken into account, am I wrong? Do we really believe that we don’t know about the drone strikes which saved the world because all of that would compromise nat sec. C’mon.

    The threat of another 9/11 has been the corner stone of all argument for drone strikes or at least as far as people ‘think’. And this is important – It is the meme most commonly associated with the reasoning for drone strikes, and without sounding overly conspiratorial that has not been by chance. Misdirection of the mob has been a central part to this drone strike story so far.

    In reality those of us who have looked at this thing hard enough know it isn’t, and never was, about killing an evil KSM-like terrorist planner, leaning over a map, tweeking his beard considering how to nuke the white house using an invisible blimp or some plot similarly insane to 9/11.

    This is a story of shades of grey and there is a lot of data which can never come out – Strikes that went so wrong that men would end up in front of the Hague if people could see the files. The hardline military heads would say no omelet without broken eggs etc and that we civilians and journalists and activists just don’t realize how dangerous the world is and how they defend our freedoms etc etc.. well 3-4000 dead and nobody has a bloody clue how many were ‘REALLY’ civilians… in the way most people would categorize one. You know – somebody who isn’t a terrorist, a wife, a child, a grandmother, a neighbor… not merely male, 15 or older living in an area which might have some would-be terrorists living there… because if that’s how we’re playing this game… then what the hell are we fighting for in the first place?

    I had an usual moment of clarity brought upon by an unlikely series of events in the last 48 hours. I happened to watch the ‘Lone Survivor’ movie recently and then serendipitously bumped into an ex ranger who was actually on the scene to secure the site after that actual famous Seal Operation which went horribly wrong, sadly, for the 17 Seals who died. This was by total chance in a pub and it was a surreal experience to hear it being told by somebody who has first hand experience weighing life and death in the field on an Op. Without going into any detail of any previous Ops he was party to we discussed the issue of the goat herders conundrum (those who know the story will know) and what would we each do in that scenario and we found ourselves as a group standing in a pub all caught up in the grey area – And I get that. It was only after we finished that particular discussion that he said something along the lines of ‘you know how many guys meet those grey areas on an Op and spend considerable portions of their lives thereafter considering the whole point to the thing’ and I empathized completely with him and simply said ‘you are/were a sophisticated an sharp tool at the behest of those are are supposed to know WHY you are out there doing X Op… You should trust in that process but how can you trust in that most important structure if there is so much evidence for it having gone wrong so many times?’.

    I get that there aren’t black and whites and most of the time in the field things are in the grey. But that is battle – live battle in real time reacting to changing circumstances under conditions of combat.

    Terror Tuesdays – where Obama green-lit so many specific drone strikes which in many instances killed 10, 20, 30 people needs to be examined in detail, down to the last period, in each file and examined for war crimes and incredible irresponsibility and contraventions of The Laws Of Conflict and IHRL Law.
    This will of course happen at some point when a sufficiently motivated senator or congressman/woman takes on the task at which point, no matter how Koh or Holder or any of the other ‘deflectors’ think they may have insulated POTUS from blame, guilt, misconduct, irresponsibility, negligence etc etc surely there will come a day when Obama must stand before a closed committee with access to these files and surely even if they cannot prosecute him his entire ‘drone team’ from Brennan to actual commanders standing behind drone Operators and everybody who played a part in any Bad Op – the massacres will be brought to light. I imagine almost all the secondary evidence in such a hearing would include work from the TBIJ, LWJ and the other bodies who have devoted resources to analyze the drone strikes.

    The point is… it started small…got out of control…then the signature strikes started… then there was 2010 when the gloves came off and it all went o hell… then respected writers made a fuss, the reports came out from TBIJ, NYU, LWJ etc etc and now we’re looking at the gloves going back on and the rage subsiding and the analysis in the media of the whole JSOC ‘sharp end of the stick’ movement. The story will be told one day. I hope that there is enough unsanitized data somewhere which will show how many strikes unjustly massacred innocents and how many saved lives and I hope the worst strikes put those responsible in the public blame-light, even for a day.

    Again it’s all about data. They won’t give it up because there are reasons (not pertaining to nat sec) which prevent them from doing so. Whta do you think those reasons are? That’s where the work should be focused, that’s what those cowardly WH press questions should be about.

    But nobody has the cahonas anymore.

  • Posted by Jacob Rempel

    All the many criticisms of methods of killing in the several wars in Asia and Africa are valid, but they all miss the real error in policy and implementation. All military personnel and equipment should be brought home from every country including my country of Canada, which regretfully has joined in all these war follies, including war equipment industry. Countries which in the past had empire, and now do not, continue to prosper. The prosperity of our oil and other corporations in foreign lands does not bring profits home to the people. The corporations simply continue to expand abroad with the support of our war machines, which should all transition now to green technology for domestic sustainable prosperity. —Jacob Rempel

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