Category Archives: Drones

Audio: What We Can Learn About Drone Strikes From 10 Million Yemeni Cell Phones

Over at Five Thirty-Eight, Jody Avirgan interviews Fotini Christia, an MIT political scientist who was given 10 million cell-phone records by a mobile phone company to do big data research. Christia explains that the motive for the phone company for handing over the records had to do with wanting to further development research in Yemen.

The audio and interview are worth a listen. Also this:

Jody Avirgan: I wonder if you can start by describing the challenge that you were trying to solve by using this data?

Fotini Christia: Yemen is a fascinating place because it is a hotspot and a place of trouble. It has been an issue for the U.S. in terms of terrorism, instability, continued conflict. And though we do have quite a bit of anecdotal evidence [about the country], it tends to be very selective. It’s usually from journalists that can be on the ground in very particular places. So there’s a lot we don’t get to hear about Yemen because it’s so hard to do social scientific or analytic work on the ground. It’s not a place that has rich census data. It’s not a place that has rich household-level data, recent survey or polling data. So people tried to be creative about where else you can get information.

That line about journalists speaks to questions of epistemology and, as someone who is anthropologically trained, its assumption that ‘evidence’ derives from mass data rather than familiarity with ‘particular places’ struck me.

In the interview, Christia describes drone attacks as an “exogenous event,” like an earthquake (her example), but this is a strange characterization for a number of reasons. For one, an exogenous event is one that has no particular relationship to the sociality of a place, but the US itself argues that they bomb particular people because they are doing militant-y things on the ground. Second, at least for FATA (and I would suspect Yemen), people are in fact making judgments about what might make them targetable (i.e. don’t talk to so-and-so; don’t make phone calls here or there or say this or that word; don’t go to this place at this hour) and are trying to avoid it. Moreover, opposition groups have repeatedly killed people they suspect to be informants in the aftermath of a drone attack. Others speculate that drone bombing is sometimes caught up in local rivalries where a person may (mis)inform or allege that his rival is a terrorist. In short, drones are not exogenous except in the theoretical frame that flattens place into blank space.

And finally, I haven’t read the paper, but in the interview at least, the deployment of the category of religion (i.e. Christia says they can see from the phone records how much religion structures life) is simplistic.

And finally, this kind of big data research opens for me all kinds of ethical questions about the researcher’s relationship to her subjects who have no idea that their metadata and information, down to the individual level it sounds like from the interview, has been handed over.

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Paper: Urbanization of Drone Warfare

Ian Shaw has an interesting new piece out on the urbanization of drone warfare, available here.

While drones are now routinely used as military technologies in the so-called peripheral spaces of the planet – Pakistan’s tribal areas, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the occupied Palestinian territories – the urbanized, capital-intensive metropolises of the Global North are increasingly becoming targets of drone surveillance.


The first decade of the war on terror saw US military and CIA drones concentrated to the mountainous and remote geographies of Pakistan (Shaw and Akhter, 2012), and later Yemen and Somalia. In recent years, however, drones in and beyond the USA have been trialed by police forces as part of a revanchist military urbanism (Graham, 2010). Gre- gory (2011), for example, discusses the existence of the everywhere war, and writes that “war has become the pervasive matrix within which social life is constituted.” Yet perhaps we need to reverse this formulation, such that it is social life that is – and always has been – the pervasive matrix in which war is constituted. The political and geopolitical crises endemic to the surplus population collapse both “war power” and “police power” in contrapuntal geographies, such that Neocleous’ (2014:162) notion of the everywhere police is a productive analytic for diagnosing our contemporary condition. Under this understanding, social problems are always-already militarized, and domestic space is always-already a battlespace. For example, the long history of aerial policing and pacification of “restive” populations (Satia, 2014) is inseparable from colonial and capital expansion.

Yet the contemporary management of surplus populations may yet prove a decisive break from the past. This paper will argue that drones, and micro-drones in particular, are generative of newer, more pervasive spaces of social control. The dronification of state violence not only embodies the ongoing robotization of state security but also materializes the logic of a permanent urban manhunt. Moreover, as the sheer volume of surplus humanity increases, the state is turning towards automated and algorithmic systems to manage them (Amoore, 2009). This, in turn, removes human administrators from the loop. In other words, a quantitative rise in surplus populations is facilitating a qualitative change in the biopolitical systems deployed by the state to manage them (Shaw and Akhter, 2014). The passage from a (Keynesian) welfare state to a (neoliberal) security state (Hallsworth and Lea, 2011) has created more capital-intensive forms of warfare and policing. This includes an armada of security apparatuses, from biometrics and CCTV to “pre-emptive” or “predictive” policing in forces such as the Los Angeles Police Department or the Metropolitan Police in the UK. And we can now can add the drone to this form of everywhere policing, which materializes a newset of technics for an older social war between capital accumulation and labor.

While Shaw points to rich questions about the transformation of policing in urban spaces through drone-tech, the conceptualization of the stark binary between the “remote” over there that is Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq (all sites of drone bombing), and the urban over here – as the site of the ‘decisive break from the past’ – is troubling. It recalls to mind Alexander Weheliye’s critique of Agamben and Foucault:

Overall, a thick historical relation defines the rise of modern concentration camps in colonial contexts and their subsequent reconstitution as industrialized killing machines in Europe during the Third Reich. Agamben briefly mentions the colonial prehistory of concentration camps, however, only to argue that the camps’ true telic significance becomes apparent when they are annexed into the legal state of exception during the Third Reich (Habeas Viscus 2014: 36).


Yet despite locating the naissance of modern racism in “colonization, or in other words, with colonizing genocide” (Society, 257), for Foucault, in a reversal of colonial modernity’s teleology that locates the temporal origin of all things in the west, racism only attains relevance once it penetrates the borders of fortress Europe. Even though the originating leap of racism can be found in the colonized “rest,” only its biopolitical rearticulation in the west imbues it with the magical aura of conceptual value. Because Foucault does not describe this ailleurs or even mention it again in the text, it materializes as a primitive topography, operating as a constitutive outside for his theory of biopolitics throughout these lectures. In logic, primitive terms or notions, also referred to as axioms or postulates, name instantly understandable terms that are used without elucidating their signification. The meanings of all other concepts in a logical system are determined by these primitive terms and by previously established expressions. Over the course of his argument about the genesis of biopolitics in the lectures, Foucault will continue to distinguish European state racism and biopolitics from those primeval forms of racism that linger in the aforementioned philosophical, geographical, and political quicksands of an unspecified elsewhere; at least, this is what we are asked to infer as a consequence of Foucault’s taciturnity about the reach and afterlife of those other modalities of racialization (pp. 57-58).

This attempt to, in some sense, get out ahead of the curve and sweepingly suggest that the current practices of drone warfare are merely a prehistory to the decisive moment when it will come to the heart of the West, to its intimate, peopled urban spaces, rehearses the move that Weheliye critiques. It may also be more productive to think of drone warfare as a relational practice (to borrow again from Weheliye) in which the urban space that may come to be drone-policed is intimately connected to colonial drone warfare — and therefore so must be resistance to it.

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Views from the Ground: Investigating U.S. Drone Strikes

Event took place on Tues, October 29, 2013. Event description:

Hosted by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (NYU School of Law) & the Open Society Foundations

Under President Obama, the US dramatically expanded targeted killing outside traditional battlefields. Over 400 strikes since 2009 have killed thousands of people. Yet rarely do American audiences hear directly from victims, or about investigations into civilian deaths. Experts at this event discussed soon-to-be released, groundbreaking reports, a new film, and legal actions that reveal serious concerns around US strikes and—for the first time—a victim of a US drone strike will speak directly to an American audience.

Welcome: Sarah Knuckey (NYU Law) and Christopher Rogers (OSF)

Moderator: Steve Coll, Dean, Columbia Journalism School; Staff Writer, The New Yorker

+ Rafiq ur Rehman, whose mother was killed in a 2012 drone strike in Pakistan
+ Robert Greenwald, director of the upcoming documentary “Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars,” which documents Rehman’s case, among others
+ Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, speaking on his new UN report on targeted killings and the right to life.
+ Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International Pakistan Researcher, speaking on his recent investigations of strikes in Pakistan.
+ Hina Shamsi, Director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, speaking on the ACLU’s litigation challenging targeted killings secrecy and the killing of US citizens in Yemen.
+ Letta Tayler, Human Rights Watch Senior Terrorism/Counterterrorism Researcher, speaking on her new report on drone strikes in Yemen.

This event was presented in memory and honor of Ibrahim Mothana, a Yemeni advocate and writer who made enormous contributions to awareness of the civilian and security impacts of US targeted killings. Mothana died at the age of 24 in September 2013.

This event took place on Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

The most revealing section of this appears towards the end in response to the first question by an audience member. I’m transcribing it roughly here:

1:09:00 Audience member: Based on the evidence we have now – which is a great amount, do you think the United States should stop completely its drone attacks right now? right now?
(Panelists look at each other.  Steve Coll: it’s a clear enough question. laughs from audience.)

1:10:00 Shamsi (ACLU): I think that [pause the answer to that is based not he info we have, it appears clear that several hundred civilian bystanders have died. Mistakes have been made, but i cannot say to you that the use of drones is in itself unlawful or always unlawful. sdrones may be used um and lethal force might be permissible under very restricted circumstances including in the context of human rights as well as the laws of war. i think our position is that the unlawful killing, and we think that killing people far from any battlefield under the circumstances that the Obama administration is currently engaged in results in unlawful killing. That needs to stop. That the president’s promises of reigning and restricting the use of lethal force have to be followed upon.

1:11:16 Tayler (Human Rights Watch): I’ll take a drone over a cluster munition any day but i share all of hina’s concerns about the sue of, secrecy surrounding the drone program, the questions about the legality of the strikes, so what we need is enough basic information, and it’s shocking that this many years later, we do not have it – about how exactly drones are being used, but the weapon itself is — i do not think that we need to stop using drones, and i don’t think we’re in a position to say that we should stop all strikes – uh – there are serious terrorist threats in this world uh theres a lot of debate and discussion that should happen on the best way to address that threat but um – thats a long way from saying stop now.

1:02:06 Heyns (UN Special Rapporteur): I would also say that i also  don’t think that drones are inherently illegal if they are used in a situation of armed conflict within the rules of international humanitarian law. it can be justifiable. I think the problem comes in outside of situations of armed conflict and that is where i think the main focus should be.

Sarah Knuckey remarked on the answers, which kicked off a conversation online.

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Upcoming Talks

Here’s an interview with me about life under drones. I’ll be presenting on the same topic at the Drones and Aerial Robotics Conference this Friday at NYU.

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting along side Sinan Antoon and Amitava Kumar at the PageTurner literary festival. I think an audio or video of that event will be available at some point.

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The Business of Haunting

So, what is this business about hauntingWOUNDS is a film that reflects on what it means to be haunted. In his address on May 23rd this year, President Obama claimed that he is “haunted” by the loss of civilian life from the drone attacks and wars carried out on his orders.

Let’s take this seriously. What is haunting?

To begin simply: haunting is when the dead refuse to die. It’s when they pull up a chair at the dinner table and demand that you set a place for them. It’s an expression of loss. And, it’s so disruptive that one cannot continue as if one were not haunted. Is this President Obama’s condition?

This film focuses on the people who live in Waziristan and who live among loss. Material conditions, whether it’s the rubble after a drone attack or the grave of one’s kin, persist in reminding the living what they have lost.


In their essay “On the Theory of Ghosts,” the German intellectuals Adorno and Horkheimer wrote:

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead: unity with them because we, like them, are the victims of the same condition and the same disappointed hope.

Only the conscious horror of destruction creates the correct relationship with the dead.

I’ve been writing and speaking for some time about the limitations of international law as a language through which to think and speak about drone attacks. International law is slow. Missiles are fast. International law is caught up in constructing the proper order of violence. In other words, it doesn’t reject drone attacks or imperial power as such; it only raises objections when it finds that the violence has become excessive. This is not to deride legal work, but to point out what it constitutively is: a method to regulate the status quo.

It’s not so much lawyers, but journalists actually, who have popularized legal language as the only frame through which we can talk about drone attacks and moral standards. Journalists regularly fail to look beyond the usual “experts” in policy and legal circles to other fields that may have an alternative to offer. We are becoming vulgar empiricists who seem to think that a truth not attached to a number (say, the number of “militants” vs. “civilians” killed), or a legal rule (for example: whether an action does/does not violate international law) is no truth at all.

We forget that our categories are also an ideological construct. (All categories are.)

So, what is an alternative language to use to think about drone attacks? I think haunting is one frame through which one can re-direct the conversation from issues of legal standards to the lives lived and lives lost under the drones in Waziristan and elsewhere. The questions then turn on the material conditions and the loss suffered–not as evidence for legal arguments but as queries about what it does to a person to live in such conditions. The question is not, ‘Do I stick him in the “militant” or “civilian” column?’ but instead, who survives him? How do they deal with that loss? What is it like to live among the rubble?

It isn’t through legal standards but though trying to understand the horror of the destruction that we create the correct relationship — with the dead, yes — but with the living, too.

If our task as journalists — not the MSM who get paid a lot to shill for power — but the rest of us, in fact most of us: if our task is not to establish the humanity of others, then we might as well stop writing.

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Short documentary: Wounds of Waziristan

Wounds of Waziristan Trailer from AJ Russo on Vimeo.

I’m sharing a trailer for my short documentary project, Wounds of Waziristan, on drone attacks in Pakistan. You can find it on Indiegogo here. As some of you may know, this is the result of a lot of work and trips to Pakistan. Rather than focusing on the numbers game or questions of international law, this project tries to record the voices of those directly impacted by the American “war on terror.” In particular, –and perhaps, this is my academic side coming out– I am interested in the question of haunting. President Obama said he was “haunted” by the loss of life. But, what does that mean, materially, in concrete terms?

Since the drone attacks began in Pakistan in 2004, much of the focus has been on the technology. And, although the borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan are endlessly debated and declared upon by journalists and pundits, the ordinary people who actually live there are rarely heard from. WOUNDS records the voices of those who have been either labeled “militants,” or summarily dismissed as “collateral damage.”

We’re actually almost done, but we need some help getting to the finish line. Every dollar helps: consider donating just $5 to this project. And, even if you can’t donate, please take a look and share it far and wide:

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