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Kill chain

The beauty about America is that it lets you rant against it. Otherwise I’d have been dead from a drone strike by now.

What? Of course the US could launch a strike on me here in Canada. In fact, there was a whoosh and a crack of thunder the other night when I was out on a walk, to digest the alu parathas I’d gorged on. Beer doesn’t mix with alu parathas. Right after the crash, I saw a bush catch fire nearby. I’m no Moses so it couldn’t have been the Almighty. I distinctly heard a gravelly voice from the ether yell,”Shit, f–kin’ missed.” Please, America, I’m trying ta find something nice ta write about you, honest. My next post will be gooey nice, I swear.

Oh yeah, America can kill anyone anywhere. And it does, with apparent impunity.

In Iraq and Afghanistan and in combating ISIS, drones have become central to US counter-terrorism efforts post-9/11. So has the strategy of targeted killings by unmanned aircraft. Kill Chain- The rise of the high-tech assassins questions the ethics and for that matter even the efficacy, of drone warfare.

‘Kill chain’ is a very commonly used term in the US Military. It is triggered with the decision to terminate a High Value Individual (HVI) whose name appears in the ‘Kill List’, an assassination roster maintained jointly by the CIA and the Special Operations Command. His fate is now more or less sealed. The target is then relentlessly followed by the ‘eyes in the sky’ for days, sometimes for months, in order to determine a pattern in his movements and check up on folks he is associating with.

This is the point where the Kill Chain is triggered. The target is acquired and his coordinates inputted into the drone’s electronic heart, while a process of approval and the final decision to hit it is taken. The order is then passed on to the drone pilot who finally carries out the strike. From the first step till the last, a certain amount of time passes, thus degrading the efficiency of the hit.

The Kill Chain is a huge bureaucracy, consisting of thousands of military personnel, most of whom sit in front of video screens, either at Nevada or at other overseas locations such as the US’s Air Force Base at Ramstein (Germany), the Camp Lemonnier US Expeditionary Naval Base in the horn of Africa at Djibouti(Djibouti), the US Military Base on the tiny Indian ocean island of Diego Garcia and the US Air Force Base at Bagram, Afghanistan. Contracts for new bases are under negotiation, with Italy, Japan and The Philippines.

The folks inside the Kill Chain are on station day and night, looking for targets, monitoring the movements of HVIs through video feed from not only drones but assorted reconnaissance aircraft.

In the 2003 Iraq invasion, the U.S. military developed a set of playing cards to help troops identify the most-wanted members of Saddam Hussein’s government, mostly high-ranking members of the Iraqi Regional Branch of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party or members of the Revolutionary Command Council. The cards were officially named ‘personality identification playing cards’.

Each card contained the wanted person’s address and, if available, the job performed by that individual within Saddam’s government. The highest-ranking cards, starting with the aces and kings, were used for the people at the top of the most-wanted list. The ace of spades was Saddam Hussein and the aces of clubs and hearts were his sons Qusay and Uday respectively. The ace of diamonds was Saddam’s presidential secretary Abid Hamid Mahmud al-Tikriti.

The aces and the picture cards were all marked for assassination by the US.

The Kill Chain in those days was 40 minutes from target acquisition to the hit. On a number of occasions, the CIA had reliable intelligence about Saddam’s whereabouts but it could not determine with absolute certainty whether he was alone or if there were others around him, innocent civilians or officials who were not intended to be killed. But by the time the orders filtered through the chain of command and Predators were placed in a holding pattern over the target location, he had somehow managed to melt away.

These days, the Kill Chain is 20 seconds. Here is how…..


At one point, early in the Bush presidency, there was a realisation that targeted killings of High Value Individuals by drones, could not be carried out without innocents dying in the strikes, given that the drone video feed was grainy and people looked like dark hazy shapes on the screen.

In fact there was no way of determining whether a human shape on a drone video feed was a child or an adult, unless both were on screen at the same time, the difference in size making it apparent that smaller individuals were kids. Cops and robbers is not only played by American kids but Afghan kids too. So, a bored drone pilot munching a donut in front of his screen in Nevada, watching six kids moving around with sticks that they pretend are guns, could well be interpreting them as six militants getting ready to deploy.

Given the above, Rumsfeld, Cheney and Co decided that the scope had to be ‘broadened’ a bit, from requiring to positively identify a target moving around on the ground below, to merely being able to make out a pattern of behavior, a signature.

Suddenly a whole vista opened up. Anybody who looked and acted suspiciously and seemed to carry a firearm (like those six kids with sticks, playing cops and robbers) became a possible target. Anybody seen walking or talking with such an individual or anyone who happened to call the target on his cellphone was guilty by association. He could be a sibling or a parent telling the HVI to come home, dinner had been served. In other words, anyone who left a signature of militant body language on the grainy drone video feed, was fair game.

The broadening of the scope immediately shortened the Kill Chain from 40 minutes to 20 seconds. It meant only one thing – that innocents, mistaken for militants, could die and up to a predetermined number of casualties per strike, it was acceptable. Overnight, drone strikes increased, from once in three months, to twenty in one month.

A normal decision making process of a thinking, feeling human being would have been to call a halt to drone strikes until accuracy was assured and it could be confirmed beyond doubt that innocents were not within the blast radius.

But this is America we are talking about – the geniuses who brought to the world the endearing term – hearts and minds.

With an unfeeling and apathetic mindset which is typically American, the Bush Administration put a number and deem that number as acceptable – the number of innocents that may die during a drone strike. And the figure that Bush’s cronies came up with was not one or even five, but twenty. Secretly, between the Pakistani establishment and the US, an amount of compensation to the next-of-kin of the innocents was agreed upon – $5000 – the value of the life of a Pakistani Pashtun child.

In another typically American gesture, designed to cloak the enormity of the crime, those twenty unfortunate suckers were given a bland, white-washed term, in an effort to categorize them – acceptable collateral. Sterile, sanitized, like gauze bandage.

Imagine a Pashtun child asking his mother, “Mama, what happened to my Baba?”

“Oh, he was acceptable collateral, darling, now go to bed.”


The book begins with a drone strike on a cold February dawn in 2010, somewhere in the mountains of the Southern Afghan province of Uruzgan. Three vehicles (two SUVs and one pick-up truck) are headed down a dirt road in the general direction of Kabul. The vehicles are crammed with thirty people, impoverished Shia Muslim Hazaras, trying to make their way to Iran to look for work there.

There are women and children among them, some of the women carrying turkeys as gifts for relatives on the other side. The Hazaras are actually a minority in Afghanistan, brutally oppressed by the Taliban, just the way that the Kurds were, under Saddam. They could actually be a huge ally to the Americans in the fight against the militants in Afghanistan.

Unknown to the group, directly ahead is a US Special Forces patrol, along with an Afghan contingent, there to attack a nearby village where suspected militants have gathered. The Americans intercept a radioed message which they interpret to be from the Taliban in the village to the travelling caravan. Targeting screens half-way round the world light up and a 27-foot long Predator strikes the convoy, leaving behind a charnel house of body parts.

Thirty innocent civilians are incinerated in an instant. Thirty souls – $150,000 – loose change for a nation that spends $10 million a year just to stock the pantries of US Military bases around the world with bananas.


Cockburn carefully charts the rise of the doctrine of targeted killing, from the targeting of Colombian drug kingpins in the early 1980s through the bombing of Muammar Qaddafi’s family compounds, killing his sons and grandchildren and then degenerating into a ‘mow the lawn’ or ‘whack a mole’ situation.

‘Mowing the lawn’ was a term first used by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to describe the killing of militant leaders, which invariably gave rise to a fresh batch of leaders among the insurgents. And we all know what ‘whack a mole’ is. You whack a mole and it disappears down the hole and pops up somewhere else. You never can destroy the mole. So is it with terrorism.

Cockburn looks at drones and the assassination strategy from every possible angle – the huge contracts to defense contractors and their lobbyists, the massive sums of money spent on R&D and then producing hardware that turns out to be duds, like the Gorgon Stare.

Touted as a drone imagery system that “will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we’re looking at, and we can see everything,” Gorgon Stare is a video capture technology that consists of a spherical array of nine cameras attached to a drone. The system is capable of capturing motion imagery of an entire city, which can then be analyzed by humans or an artificial intelligence. This is how Gorgon Stare is supposed to work…..

Suppose an IED goes off at a particular spot on a city road. The Gorgon Stare imagery goes back step by step from the moment of the blast, through to when the individual approaches the road and plants the device and even further in the past, to the address he emerges from and the one he later goes back to, after planting the device.

With just 9 cameras and the attendant software, Gorgon Stare comes to the American tax-payer at $15 million a pop. And it doesn’t work. The militants are crafty. They go in and out of hutments and ghettos, changing attire to confuse, eventually losing themselves inside the tightly packed maze of structures within the city.

Compounding the deceit that the American establishment regularly practices on it’s tax-payers who are footing the bill for such pathetic pieces of hardware, ordinary Americans are told how magical the powers of these expensive toys are and how many militants are being nabbed in the act.


The author’s narration takes your breath away, so vivid and detailed it is that you get the feeling he has actually been in the thick of it all. More importantly, you feel a wave rise within you, of despair and indignation, at the injustice of it all.

Injustice? Guess what name the US Special Operations Command has given to the targeted killing of militants – Operation Noble Justice.


For your further reference, blog entries on drones….

Reaper (Part-1) – Anatomy of a kill

Reaper (Part-2) – Collateral damage