The Drone War

Allison McCann, Evan Applegate, Lisa Charlotte Rost, and Josh Begley


In 2002 the first Hellfire missile was shot from a U.S.-operated drone at suspected terrorists in Yemen. Since then an estimated 480 more unmanned airstrikes have been carried out by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which used data from news outlets, field investigations, and evidence submitted in legal cases, the strikes have killed at least 3,136 people, among them 555 civilians, including 185 children. The State Department declined to comment on those figures; others in Washington give a range of numbers. In February, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said drones have killed 4,700 people. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) cited civilian casualties in the single digits. On May 22, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged four of the five Americans, including Anwar al-Awlaki, killed in U.S. drone strikes. The attacks, which have decimated al-Qaeda-aligned groups, declined after 2010. Here, for the first time, is a comprehensive compilation of all known lethal U.S. drone attacks. President Obama is scheduled to address the legality of this undeclared aerial war on May 23.

Nov. 3, 2002

The first hit

Lt. General Michael DeLong of U.S. Central Command ordered the attack on Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, suspected orchestrator of the U.S.S. Cole bombing, who was killed as he rode in a convoy. Kemal Darwish, a U.S. citizen who wasn’t deliberately targeted, was among those killed in the attack.

Yemen: 2002-13

99 strikes, at least 552 killed

Drones have hit targets in Marib province nine times since the 2002 strike on al-Harethi. New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son were killed in separate attacks in 2011. The total of U.S. citizens known to have been killed by drones is five.

Pakistan: 2004-13

375 strikes, at least 2,561 killed*

Pakistan has been the focus of the CIA’s drone program. It began in June 2004, when the Pakistani government opened its airspace for an attack on Taliban fighter Nek Muhammad.

Somalia: 2011-12

7 strikes, at least 23 killed

The first known lethal drone strike in Somalia occurred in June 2011 in the Lower Juba region, followed by two strikes in the same location. A single missile on Oct. 22, 2011, reportedly killed 11 civilians and injured 20 more in an airstrike on the town of Afmadow.

4 strikes, 126 deaths


An Oct. 30, 2006, attack on an alleged Taliban training camp killed 81 people, including 69 children.

50 strikes, 356 deaths


A strike on a funeral in South Waziristan on June 23, 2009, killed 67 people, including at least 18 civilians, while another in Dande Darpa Khel killed six children.

26 strikes, 161 deaths


At least nine alleged militants were killed in an Oct. 2, 2010, strike targeting Qari Hussain, believed to be the Taliban’s suicide-bombing mastermind. It’s unclear whether he was killed.

84 strikes, 460 deaths


Nine strikes have killed 142 in this area of North Waziristan. One attack — on a single house on April 22, 2011 — killed at least 25, including nine civilians.

5 strikes, 10 deaths


A June 4, 2012, strike on a compound killed al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi. Reports say up to 17 others were killed.



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