WikiLeaks: CIA Knew in 2009 That Drone Strike Program Could Backfire

A leaked CIA report produced in 2009 ahead of the Obama administration’s decision to expand the targeted drone strike program warned that the effort to kill or capture terrorist leaders may backfire and increase local support for extremist groups, especially if innocent civilians are killed in the attacks.


The report was published on Thursday by WikiLeaks and is the first secret intelligence document published on the website since 2011, shortly after WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was charged with rape and sexual molestation and forced to seek political asylum in Ecuador.

The CIA document studied the effectiveness of killing or capturing “high value targets” (HVTs) by examining operations to dismantle terrorist groups during the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well similar efforts conducted against militant groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

The CIA analysis provided recommendations for how to conduct effective operations to kill or capture terrorist leaders and does not advise against using targeted assassinations. However, many of the potential negative outcomes listed in the report have come true during the Obama administration’s drone strike program.

In the document, the CIA said that the effectiveness of HVT operations could be undermined by the organizational structure of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

"The Taliban and al-Qa‘ida can most likely replace lost leaders, especially at the middle level. Numerous al-Qa‘ida leaders oversee external operations, minimizing the disruptive impact of individual losses, according to clandestine reports."

The use of drones, particularly in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen where drone strikes are used most frequently, has increased anti-American sentiment in those regions and seems to have done little to weaken the extremist groups targeted by the program. In the last month, the Taliban has carried out a number of deadly attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including an assault on a school that killed 132 children and 13 adults. Government forces also continue to clash with Al Qaeda in Yemen, where an American hostage was killed during a failed rescue operation.

Meanwhile, a report issued in January by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) estimated that 2,400 people have been killed by U.S. drone strikes. In Pakistan alone, the TBIJ study said that between 416 and 951 civilians, many of them children, were killed by drone strikes. Another report issued this fall by the human rights group Reprieve concluded that drones have killed 28 unidentified people for every intended target. 

The CIA document also warned that eliminating top militant leaders could creat “a vacuum into which more radical groups can enter” and could also escalate the conflict in “ways that favor the insurgents.” For instance, after the United States killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leaders of Al Qaeda in Iraq, the group slowly evolved into ISIS, headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

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