As President Barack Obama ratchets up drone attacks on al-Qaeda-linked al-Shabaab insurgents in Somalia, experts are questioning whether drones could replace Guantánamo Bay as the recruiting tool of choice for militants.
An undeclared war fought by remote control is now killing Somalians on a weekly, often daily, basis by missiles fired from pilot-less planes operated thousands of miles away in the United States.
It is difficult to verify the precise number of innocent civilians killed because Washington classify all fighting-age males in an area where their targets live as ‘militants’.
Certainly at least five dozen civilians have lost their lives over the past two years in Somalia, guilty only by association with family members or their neighbours.
War-weary Somalis have so far not displayed the same degree of anger at drone attacks as seen in Pakistan, where over 2,500 have been killed, but as the intensity of Obama’s clandestine war rapidly escalates a backlash is a distinct possibility.
As with Pakistan, the key question is this; does the killing ‘enemies of the West’ actually create more. As Yemeni lawyer Haykal Bafana put it: “When a US drone missile kills a child in Yemen the father will go to war with you, guaranteed. Nothing to do with al-Qaeda.”
With US bases in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Seychelles, the failed state of Somalia is now virtually surrounded. The capital Mogadishu even has a CIA base, nicknamed the ‘pink house’, at the airport.
American forces are now also running a counter-terrorism programme involving renditions of snatched individuals and the use hired ‘mercenaries’ to train local forces to tackle Islamic fighters.
The use of drones can be seen as part a broader campaign of jet bombing runs, naval gun bombardment, cruise-missile attacks, raids by Special Operations Forces and assistance to regional armies such as Uganda’s.
19 years after the infamous ‘Black Hawk Down’ retreat in 1993, Somalia has long been unfinished business for America. The rise of Islamic militancy and piracy on the high seas, and maybe even the discovery of new oil reserves, has allowed the US to turn its’ attentions back to the Horn of Africa.
Most victims of drone strikes in Somalia are invisible to the West due to scant media coverage. There are few Western ‘boots on the ground’, and fewer Western journalists.
Lack of public protest at this strategy is partly attributable to the absence of America coffins and shell-shocked veterans returning home, but also because the anti-war movement so strong during the George W Bush era has all but disappeared.
Many of the US targets are approved personally by President Obama with a weekly ‘kill list’ drawn up at the White House on ‘terror Tuesdays.’ Critics accuse the president of acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner.
Somalia is at least the sixth country where the US are using drones to conduct lethal attacks, joining Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Iraq and Yemen.
Medea Benjamin, author of the book Drone Warfare: Killing By Remote Control says that if George W Bush was known as the ‘war president’, Obama is on course to become ‘the drone war president.’
America appear to have switched from the large-scale snatching and rendition of terror suspects to Guantánamo to drone attacks, in effect avoiding the complications of detention by deciding to take no prisoners alive.
Former US president Jimmy Carter, writing in the New York Times in June, said that such operations “would have been unthinkable in previous times.”
He added: “Despite an arbitrary rule that any man killed by drones is declared an enemy terrorist, the death of nearby innocent women and children is accepted as inevitable.”
A report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in February calculated that the US had executed 21 military strikes on Somalia since 2007 killing up to 169 people including 112 militants.
However the Iranian-backed Press TV – which broadcasts each known attack and takes into account social media accounts on the ground – claims there have actually been 56 drone attacks on Somalia since 9/11, killing 1,370 people.
Whatever the true figure, the body-count will undoubtedly be mounting almost daily due to the intensity of attacks being ramped up in recent months.
In Yemen there are have been concerns that the authorities of embattled president Ali Abdullah Saleh were reporting political opponents as militants to ensure their assassination.
John Brennan, chief counter-terrorism advisor to Obama, is quoted defending drones as a “miracle weapon, a surgically precise and humane way of waging war” but Bill Roggio, editor of the longwarjournal.org, countered: “Drones have become a provocative symbol of American power, running roughshod over national sovereignty and killing innocents.”
The ‘self-defence’ justification of hunting militants who directly threaten the safety of US citizens has been stretched to the point of transparency.
Other critics speculate that the absence of fighting troops to enforce strategic objectives means the operations can be compared to a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole.
Drones are increasingly replacing ‘traditional’ means of warfare. In 2000 there were just 50 in operation, but by 2010 this figure had risen to 7,500. They are also big business. Annual spending on drones is set to rise from $5.9 billion a year to $11.2 billion over the next decade.
Although the military action could be interpreted as strengthening the transitional Somali Government of Abdiweli Mohamed Ali against al-Shabaab in reality the Americans are working primarily with Somali security forces not local politicians.
Al-Shabaab continue to rule large swathes of the country despite the drone attacks and the fear must be that Somalia could once again become a failed experiment in US military intervention, especially if the action creates a new, even more radical, generation of Islamic radicals.
* A version of this article appears in the latest BBC Focus on Africa magazine.
By Lester Holloway