A few weeks ago I watched a documentation on French/German TV about UAVs (drones). In it an expert claimed that the USA used them to commit more than 1500 terror attacks in third party countries (with which they were not in war) in the Middle East and Africa killing more than 6000 civilians which were sent to kill assumed terrorists and political opponents. Also I read similar claims in forums i.e. associated with news to the CIA statement 'We Kill People Based on Metadata' saying they send drones to kill people phoning with the wrong person. A similar claim is done in this newspaper article, about the UAV attacks, with a title that translates as "The murderous terror campaign of the present".

I have two questions:

First: Is it true that the USA killed thousands of non-combatants between 2001 and 2013 using UAVs?

Second: If the attacks took place, were these attacks intended to terrorize civilian populations in the targeted countries, or did they have another purpose?

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    What's a "terror attack"? An attack where the intended effect of the attack is to instill fear in the target (group)? – Mikey Mouse Jul 10 '15 at 14:50
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    It is a little unclear what you are asking. Can you edit your question to be more specific? Are you asking "Has the USA killed more than 6,000 people using 1,500 UAV attacks, between 2001 and 2015"? Consider avoiding the term "Terrorism", as its meaning is often vague or controversial. If you do want to use it, can you be more specific about what you intend it to mean? It would also be good to link to the source of the claim, if possible. – John Doucette Jul 10 '15 at 15:03
  • I can't remember the title of the documentation as it was weeks ago. Added the definition of terror attack in the documentation. – skeptic75 Jul 10 '15 at 15:10
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    If you believe the intention of these 1500 attacks was to kill civilians then you can call them terror attacks. No one can answer that question though as no one has a list of the 6000 names and their histories to check each to see if they qualify as civilian. Even if you did this check what if the people behind the UAV strike held out a phone transcript of the call about when to drive the nail bombs to a school or something. I agree with John, checking how many were killed should be possible. Whether their deats were terrorism not so much – Mikey Mouse Jul 10 '15 at 15:54
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    The definition given by @MikeyMouse is the most commonly used and most accepted definition of terrorism. I have heard of others, but the definition you have stated was used in the movie is not a definition I have ever heard ascribed to terrorism. They are often called "Terror attacks" precisely because they are used not to destroy any type of military target but to inspire 'fear/terror' in the enemy populace. Where as UAV attacks, whether they kill civilians or not, are targeted attacks against military targets. – Ryan Jul 10 '15 at 16:22

There seem to be two parts to this question.

First: "Have US drone strikes killed thousands of non-combatiant civilians between 2001 and 2013?".

The answer is probably, though likely not the full 6,000 you mention. The best source for this is The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's database. The Bureau uses a well designed and publicly avaliable methodology to count the number of people killed by drone strikes year to year. In total, they count approximately 3,500 people killed by US drone strikes. Of these, only between 500 and 1000 deaths could be confirmed as "civilians", though the organization makes note of the fact that the US government may overuse the term "Militant" when describing causalities, and many victims cannot be confirmed either way. A further ~1,250 civilians were confirmed injured. A visualization of this database is available here.

It is possible (perhaps even likely) that the actual number of deaths is higher. This data establishes only a lower bound. A US senator, presumably with inside knowledge of the program, claimed in 2013 that the actual number (of both military targets and civilians) killed exceeds 4,700.

Second: "Is the US killing these civilians to terrorize the associated populations?"

The answer is much more subjective, but I think probably not.

First, I define terrorism according to what I believe is the conventional definition. A terror attack is one that explicitly targets civilian, rather than military, targets. The intention behind such an attack is to inspire terror in the civilian population. I do not think the attacks conform to this definition, but it is a contentious issue, in part because of the subjective nature of the terms involved.

The Guardian has a nice summary, including graphics, up here, based on the report of Human Rights advocacy group Reprieve, which is in turn based on the Bureau's database pointed at above. Approximately 1,000 reported civilian deaths by drone strike are attributed to attempts by the US government to kill specific individuals, associated in one way or another with the US government's "War on Terror". For instance, attempts to kill eminent figures in Al Qaeda or the Afghanistani Taliban. The human rights organization points out that an average of 28 civilians are killed for each military target, which seems like a large number. However, it seems indisputable that the targets of the strike were military in nature.

On a more editorial note: it is probably not in US interest to inspire terror in the civilian populations of Yemen or Pakistan. Both groups are already hot spots for recruitment into organizations the US is trying to eliminate. Presumably then, these deaths are examples of collateral damage. Of course, there is a moral question of whether the intentions of the US government negate the effects of their drone strikes, but I think it's hard to ascribe terror as a motive here.

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    Wow, I expected some rough report about numbers (if any), but I didn't expect that there would be journalists hunting down each individual incident. I still wonder why a neutral country would allow a third country killings on their territory. The USA would surely not be pleased if Italy started killing mafia bosses in the USA. – skeptic75 Jul 11 '15 at 8:58
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    @skeptic75 - "neutral" is a technical term that is much muddier when it comes to non-state actors. Both Pakistan and Yemen harbor people who are in armed conflict with USA. They may not do so officially (thus not rising to removing official "neutral" status, never mind providing casus belli); but they do so effectively, thus making calling them "neutral" very inaccurate from moral/ethical viewpoint. – user5341 Jul 12 '15 at 1:02
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    @DVK I'm sure the USA would be not amused in the hypothetical case of a Cuban drone killing Luis Posada Carriles, possibly along with his family and neighbours. Indeed, Pakistan and Yemen fail to prosecute or extradite some subjects that are suspected of terrorism. Individuals guilty of terrorism are certainly not neutral, but a state's failure to extradite does not imply that the state is supportive of those actions. It depends if the failure is due to inability or unwillingness and on what level; and that could be hard to gauge. – gerrit Jul 13 '15 at 10:09
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    @DVK Italy seems on this list too according to USA. Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr was lucky they didnt send a drone to kill him but the CIA just abducted him in Italy and tortured him Egypt for 4 years by beating and electric shocks to the genitals, raped him and he lost hearing in one ear until they found out he was not guilty. More than 20 Americans are awaiting arrest for 5 years should they come to Europe again because they were involved in the abduction. This is why such killings are questionable. – skeptic75 Jul 14 '15 at 13:52
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    @skeptic75 - the topic being discussed was drone, no? Not random US-bashing. – user5341 Jul 14 '15 at 14:23

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