In September 2011, an American drone strike in Yemen killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a cleric whom US officials said was one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The US had already been conducting drone strikes against suspected al-Qaeda terrorists for a decade. However, Mr al-Awlaki became the first US citizen to be the subject of a targeted killing — sparking a fierce debate in America about the use of executive power and civil liberties.
That debate is now beginning in the UK after Monday’s announcement that British air strikes last month killed two UK nationals fighting in Syria with Isis.
During the George W Bush administration, the US conducted around 50 drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists. The Obama administration, however, has ordered around 500 strikes, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks the use of drones by the US military and CIA.
The bulk of the drone strikes have taken place in Pakistan, where they have become a major factor in spurring anti-American sentiment, but they have also been conducted in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan.
The numbers of US drone strikes appear to have decreased significantly over the past two years, especially in Pakistan. This is partly the result of political blowback, but also reflects the difficulty of obtaining reliable intelligence in Yemen after the collapse of its government.
Even at the slower rate, the Obama administration’s drone programme came under renewed scrutiny in April after a strike in Pakistan killed two westerners who were being held hostage by al-Qaeda operatives.
The Obama administration justified the al-Awlaki killing on the grounds of his leading role in AQAP and his involvement in plots against the US including the 2009 attempted bombing of an airliner travelling to Detroit.
However, the furore over the al-Awlaki drone strike pushed the White House to shed some daylight on a programme that has been shrouded in secrecy. In 2013, the administration allowed members of Congress to read a 2010 legal memo used to justify killing US citizens considered enemy combatants.
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