Guest author: Aaron Anderson is a recent graduate from King’s College London with a Master’s degree in Intelligence and International Security. Prior to graduate school he worked in government for both the UK and US Department of State, and served five years in the US armed services with tours overseas. This post summarizes Aaron’s dissertation entitled “The CIA’s Covert War Against Terrorism: An Assessment of UCAV Strikes in Pakistan”.

The use of Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), otherwise known as drones, has been heavily criticized domestically and internationally by those who view their use as illegal. Yet, UCAVs have been and will continue to be used to strike at militants inside foreign borders, which raises an interesting question – is the use of UCAVs a productive tactic in counter-terrorism (CT) operations?

Touted by some in the Obama administration as the only game in town, little doubt remains that al-Qaeda Central’s capacity to orchestrate attacks from Pakistan has been severely diminished in recent years by a collection of tactics including strikes against militant and their safe havens. However, public outrage and demonstrations in Pakistan have led many to suggest that the application of UCAVs in a CT operation are counterproductive, because terrorist organizations are then able to enlist recruits from a new generation with major grievances due to the U.S. strikes.

Searching media inside of Pakistan, an analysis of public sentiment may provide insight into the effects of UCAV strikes. Using Recorded Future, the terms “drone strike”, “drone strikes”, “drone attack” and “drone attacks” were used to evaluate the public sentiment regarding the strikes. Data from the New America Foundation on suspected strikes will be used to help produce a visual representation of the public sentiment with the frequency of strikes.


Key Findings

An analysis of the graphs is able to provide two key points. First, public sentiment plays a critical role in the overall strategy to target militants in Pakistan. Prior to 2012, the graphs are able to account for 28 noticeable spikes in negative sentiment. Of these 28 spikes 21, or 75%, directly precede a decrease in the frequency of strikes. The remaining 7, or 25%, of the 28 spikes precede an increase in the frequency of strikes. These increases in frequency are attributed to what this paper calls incidents of tactical or strategic importance. The 7 spikes are broken into three separate incidents.

The first incident (1 spike) preceded the broken agreement between the Tahrik-i-Taliban in Pakistan mid 2009 when the United States targeted the leadership of the organization. The second incident (3 spikes) follows the killing of seven CIA officers in Khost, Afghanistan on December 30, 2009. The following months saw a large increase in strikes and a progressive increase in negative sentiment in early 2010. The third incident (3 spikes) is attributed to the May 2, 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden. This opportunity provided the U.S. with an opportunity to deliver a blow to al-Qaeda following his death. From 2008 to 2012, 37 noticeable spikes in negative sentiment have occurred. 26, or 70.2%, directly precede a decrease in the frequency of strikes. The remaining 11, or 29.7%, of the 37 spikes precede an increase in the frequency of strikes.

Because the United States’ strategy in Pakistan is a tightly kept secret, it is unclear what to expect for the rest of 2012. What is known is that the frequency of the strikes has been on the decline since 2010, but the sentiment has increased to the point that 2012 marks the first year when the spikes in negative sentiment will surpass 9. This raises concerns about the sustainability of the strikes, and whether the campaign might be reaching the point of diminishing returns. Prior to 2012, strike frequency never contributed to more than 9 spikes in negative sentiment creating some metrics how the campaign of strikes could precede.

Prior to 2012, the use of UCAVs in Pakistan had been a covert operation. The logic was that by neither confirming nor denying the strikes it would allow Pakistan deniability if questions of authorisation were raised. However, following the political fallout of the downed RQ-170 UAV over Iran, great pressure had been placed on the Obama administration to address its use of UAVs operating outside theatres of combat operations. President Obama’s confirmation of the covert strikes in early January brought one of Washington’s worst kept secrets into the open. Utilizing Recorded Future and searching for quotes associated with “drone” the next two slides provide a closer look into a change in momentum for both President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta from 2010 to July 2012. Each grey circle represents an event where President Obama or Secretary Panetta quoted “drone.”

Quotations from Panetta and Obama on drones

An analysis of both individuals shows that the single spike in negative sentiment on November 2011 was due to the downed RQ-170 UAV over Iran, and followed by the prospect that the UAV will not be returned from Iran despite a request made. In a high percentage of cases, events following the downed RQ-170 were quotes arguing for the continued use of strikes against militants.

The political disaster attributed to the downing of RQ-170 over Iran has forced both President Obama and Secretary Panetta to address America’s use of UAVs and UCAVs in covert operations. Within months of the downing of the RQ-170, President Obama addressed the issue of strikes in Pakistan confirming the worst kept secret in Washington D.C. – the United States is operating armed UAVs in Pakistan. Secretary Panetta from April 2012 onward saw an increase in momentum related to statements made in New Delhi that U.S. strikes would continue despite requests made from Islamabad to stop. No doubt very calculated comments made at a location extreme sensitive to Pakistan. Now that the White House has confirmed the use of UCAVs, the Obama administration has change its policy in 2012 focusing less on public sentiment and more on bringing the fight to militant organizations in Pakistan.







Negative Spikes In Sentiment







Decrease Frequency Strikes







Increased Frequency Strikes







The second key finding is that the ratio of fatalities of suspected militants to innocents has no correlation in the negative sentiment overall. This is not to suggest that the people of Pakistan do not care, but this fact does not reflect people’s opinion about the strikes. The real issue presented is twofold. First, the strikes are a breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty. Second, civilians are dying due to strikes against militants that are not authorized or believed to be approved by the people. According to statistics from the New America Foundation the number of civilians killed from 2008 to 2012 are 9-10%, 4-7%, 2%, 1%, and 0% respectively. The debate that using UCAVs to surgically target its advisories with pinpoint accuracy may satisfy a philosophical argument on their use, but the graphs provided show no correlation attributed to the decrease in militant to civilian ratio.

Losing the Strategic Narrative

Since terrorism consists of violence and propaganda, the two must be viewed next to each other. The core al-Qaeda tenet is quite simple: support Muslims globally and enmity for non-Muslims. The remedy for the perceived injustice is a global jihad against the West and apostate Muslim regimes. The battle must be fought and won in the arena of ideas and countering the narratives used by extremists. The strategy used by insurgents and terrorist organizations is referred to as provocation. The aim is to convince the population that the radical or political goals of their organization are justified against an evil military. In the case of America’s covert UCAV program, al-Qaeda’s aim is to make U.S. strikes on Muslim populations the focus of a debate. The lack of transparency may allow for terrorist and insurgent organizations to exploit media recognition of the strikes and propagate their causes to the public.

A communication strategy must be developed if the UCAV campaigns are to continue in the future. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated it best in a 2003 memo asking “Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?” Just because al-Qaeda maintains extreme views and tactics does not mean certain grievances shouldn’t be addressed in an effort to limit the next generation of terrorists from a population angered at perceived U.S. aggression attributed by the strikes. UCAVs strikes may in fact be shown to limit the number of deaths, but the idea that human collateral is attributed to a pre-emptive tactic leaves many to question the legitimacy of such actions. Unless the U.S. government comes forth with some transparency about those on kill lists and the numbers on the ground, major blowback may lay ahead.