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Remote Control Project Report: The Impact of Drone Attacks on Terrorism

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11 June 2015

A new report analysing drone strikes and terrorist attacks in Pakistan finds there to be a complex relationship between targeted killing by drones and subsequent terrorist attacks. It also finds that violent responses to drone strikes by terrorist groups are disproportionately more likely to target civilians.

The Impact of Drone Attacks on Terrorism: The Case of Pakistan, commissioned by the Remote Control project, analyses whether targeted killing by drone strikes result in an increase or decrease in subsequent terrorist attacks.  The report, by Dr Paul Gill of University College London, analyses data on drone strikes and terrorist attacks in Pakistan between 2004 and 2013 at the monthly, weekly and daily levels. The analysis also looks at whether what happened in each drone and terrorist attack (who is killed and how many) has an impact.

The report found:

  • Monthly Level: There is a positive relationship between the proliferation of drone attacks and terrorist attacks at the monthly level. When these results were lagged, the same results were found.
  • Weekly Effect: There are no shifts in behaviour the week immediately after a drone strike in either direction, consequently the spike in terrorist attacks is not immediate but appears gradually over weeks 2-4.
  • Daily Analysis: The report finds that 80% of drone strikes in Pakistan were followed by a terrorist attack within a day. However, this rate is consistent with normal day-to-day affairs where no drone strike is present. The chances of a terrorist attack on any given day is 83%, not much higher than when a drone strike takes place.
  • Nature of attacks: At the monthly level, the number of victims or the status of those killed in the drone attack does not appear to change the frequency of subsequent terrorist attacks. At the weekly level, particularly deadly drone attacks ease the number of subsequent attacks across all categories of targets.  However, this has no impact upon the numbers killed by terrorist groups. While their capacity to operate lessens, they are just as lethal when they choose to act.

This analysis suggests that drone strikes are having a cumulative effect on civilian casualties in terms of indirect victims (e.g. those who died in the terrorist reprisals) than the victims directly killed in the drone strikes themselves. Drone strikes are having a long-term implication as terrorist groups are likely to slow down their activities in the immediate aftermath of a drone strike for basic security reasons. However, when they do remerge they are disproportionality more likely to target civilians (as they do not necessitate the lengthy planning that a high-value target may warrant) and hence also increase the fatality rate as they are softer targets.

Dr Paul Gill, author of the report, says:

Work carried out by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has highlighted the difficulties in counting the human costs of drone attacks. This report adds to the complexity by highlighting the typical response of terrorist groups in Pakistan is to significantly increase their attacks against the civilian populace, thus adding to the casualty count substantially.

Caroline Donnellan, Manager of the Remote Control project, says:

This is an important report which highlights the necessity to look beyond the immediate effects of drone attacks by analysing subsequent terrorist behaviour and activity to investigate the overall effectiveness of this method of security by remote control. The report shows how complex the relationship between targeted killings and subsequent terrorist attacks is and a real concern must be the extent to which such terrorist activity impacts on civilian populations.



Esther Kersley
+44 (0)207 549 0298
07545 994 658

Editor’s notes:

The Remote Control project is a project of the Network for Social Change hosted by the Oxford Research Group. Remote Control examines changes in military engagement, in particular the use of drones, special forces, private military companies and cyber warfare. The project acts as a facilitator for the exchange of information and commissions and publicises work undertaken in the area, aiming to examine the long-term effects of remote warfare.

Dr Paul Gill is a lecturer at University College London’s (UCL) department of Security and Crime Science. Prior to joining UCL, Dr Gill was a postdoctoral research fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University. He has previously managed projects funded by the Office for Naval Research and the Department of Homeland Security, focusing upon various aspects of terrorist behaviour. His research focuses on the behavioural underpinnings of terrorism and terrorist attacks.

The Remote Control project is a project of the Network for Social Change hosted by Oxford Research Group. The project examines changes in military engagement, in particular the use of drones, special forces, private military companies and cyber warfare.

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