The contours of America’s counterterrorism strategy against al Qaeda and the Islamic State have remained remarkably consistent over the past two decades, broadly focused on degrading al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s external attack capabilities and global networks, disrupting their operations through military operations or enhanced law enforcement and border security, and denying them sanctuaries.
Increasingly, drone strikes address threats from terrorism by supplementing local partnerships and other counterterrorism activities because their long-range strike precision complements and enables a low-footprint, partner-based approach. The perceived success of this model in reducing the transnational terrorism threat has since resulted in further cutbacks to resources and the adoption of an “over-the-horizon” posture.
Katherine Zimmerman argues that while this strategy appears to be checking the right boxes in terms of effectiveness and sustainability, there is an inherent risk in managing, and not solving, the Salafi-Jihadi terrorism threat.
Multiple challenges to the partner-based approach are discussed in Zimmerman’s article, ending with suggestions to adopt new strategies such as investments in foreign aid programs, while also reducing drones to a supporting, rather than lead, role in this fight.
Whether counterterrorism drone strikes are effective is one of the major questions currently facing US policymakers. The objectives offered as justifications for these strikes are arguably vague and over-broad and therefore run the risk of taking on an endless character.
David Sterman argues that “endlessness” is a hazard that has not been appropriately addressed by past analyses of effectiveness and the potential for eventual US achievement of its goals. The failure to integrate this frame of reference could, Sterman contends, suppress the strategic thought needed to bring these endless war conflicts to a close while also securing American interests abroad.
Paul Lushenko considers how Mitt Regan’s book Drone Strike: Analyzing the Impacts of Targeted Killing [see also Regan’s article in this volume] informs the national security community’s understanding of the public’s perceptions of legitimate drone strikes. Lushenko explains that Regan, in evaluating the effectiveness of the post-9/11 US drone program, raises an important question about the implications of public opinion for the sustainability of US counterterrorism strikes and similar operations conducted by other countries.
Lushenko argues that where most researchers understand public attitudes in terms of support and approval, Regan’s analysis suggests that perceptions of legitimacy are equally, if not more important for countries’ drone policies. While scholars, policymakers, and practitioners often reference legitimacy, they rarely, if ever, empirically evaluate this outcome, Lushenko argues.
After outlining the literature for public opinion and drone warfare, Lushenko evaluates and incorporates Regan’s insights on public opinions of drone strike “legitimacy” into an emerging research agenda that defines drone warfare based on countries’ use and constraint of strikes to prevent unintended consequences, namely civilian casualties.
Lushenko concludes that unlike qualitative studies that are difficult to falsify, replicate, and generalize, his proposed approach allows researchers to analyze empirically derived data using statistical methods to determine the public’s subjective beliefs on appropriate strikes.