Small Wars Journal

Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda

Sat, 12/21/2013 - 11:12am

Predators in Perspective

Dr. Brian Glyn William Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda, Potomac Books Inc., 2013, 256 pg., $29.95.

Reviewed by Evan Kalikow

After Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos announced the company’s plans to start delivering packages via drones by 2015, the subject of drones was once again thrust into the public spotlight. And once again, the drone debate was framed as a binary choice: one either supports the use of drones or one opposes them.  A topic of such fundamental importance like drones certainly deserves a more nuanced discussion.

Fortunately, Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on al Qaeda, the newest book by Dr. Brian Glyn Williams of the University of Massachusetts--Dartmouth, treats the topic with the care it deserves. Over the course of the book’s 11 chapters, Williams takes an even-handed approach, providing invaluable history and context to frame the arguments both in favor of and against current US drone policy. The book is roughly divided into two halves: the first details the history of Pakistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) from the mid-20th century to present day and how the landscape of the United States’ relationship with the region has changed,  while the second discusses the benefits, consequences, and future challenges associated with the ongoing American drone campaign.

By focusing his research and analysis of drone warfare on al Qaeda in Pakistan and the FATA region, Williams accomplishes two integral things.  First, he narrows the scope of his argument and allows himself the time and space to go into more depth than he would were he to do a more overarching analysis of drone warfare by including other drone hotspots such as Yemen and Somalia (Williams does discuss Yemen briefly later, but the focus is clearly Pakistan).  This also allows Williams to focus only on al Qaeda; were Yemen to be featured more prominently, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) would necessarily need to be analyzed as well. Predators is an overall stronger piece through its focused commitment to one region and organization.

The second thing accomplished by this focus is its reframing of the drone debate. Rather than seeing drones as a technological choice (i.e., “Should we as a country be using drones?”), Williams recognizes that the technology will not be leaving anytime soon and chooses to discuss the larger strategic issue; whether or not they are effective in this instance (i.e. ,“Should we as a country be using drones to fight al Qaeda?). This is a much more worthwhile and productive debate to be had, and a book like this one has the potential to advance the public conversation about drones.

Predators, however, is not without its flaws. While it has much to offer for newcomers into issues surrounding drone warfare and specifically the US’s drone campaign against al Qaeda in Pakistan, readers who are already well-versed in these topics will find little new.  To wit, the latter half of the book, which focuses primarily on issues surrounding the drone warfare policy, is not quite as strong as the book’s first half, which details the history of the complex and fascinating relationship between the United States and Pakistani governments, as well as the evolution of targeted killing campaigns in the region. Readers hoping to be introduced to the policy issues that complicate drone warfare in Pakistan will find much to appreciate in Predators, but those who have been exposed to previous literature by authors such as Micah Zenko, Audrey Kurth Cronin, and Steve Coll may leave wanting more.

That said, there are some noteworthy revelations in Predators. In particular, Williams reveals that drone policies are beginning to be more accepted among civilians, quoting a “tribal militia commander” in Yemen as saying, “Ordinary people have become very practical about drones. If the United States focuses on the leaders and civilians aren’t killed, then drone strikes will hurt al Qaeda more than they help them.” (pg. 204).  This quote and some polls cited in the later chapters of the book suggest that opposition to drones may be stronger among pundits and policy advocates than those more directly involved.   

Overall, though, Predators is a book that understands that the premise underlying the “Are you pro- or anti-drone?” question is false.  Drones are here to stay, and the technological and logistical advantages provided by them are impossible to deny. What can change, however, is how they are used to coherently pursue a given policy and supporting strategy. Williams presents arguments both in favor and against current usage policies, allowing the reader to draw his/her own conclusions.  Predators offers hope that the future of drone debates will focus more on the policy surrounding the way the drones are used and less on their very existence. And since the book weighs fewer than 8 pounds, it will be eligible for drone delivery via Amazon in a few years.

About the Author(s)

Mr. Evan Kalikow is a research associate at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defense University (NDU).  This review reflects his position and not that of the NDU or U.S. Government.


This new book entitled: "The Thistle and the Drone: How America's War on Terror Became a Global War on Tribal Islam," by Prof. Akbar Ahmed (of which I have only read the reviews) may also provide us with some new insight on the effect of drones on tribal societies.

"Conflicts between governments and tribal societies predate the war on terror in many regions, from South Asia to the Middle East to North Africa, pitting those in the centers of power against those who live in the outlying provinces. Akbar Ahmed's unique study demonstrates that this conflict between the center and the periphery has entered a new and dangerous stage with U.S. involvement after 9/11 and the deployment of drones, in the hunt for al Qaeda, threatening the very existence of many tribal societies."


Thu, 12/26/2013 - 6:43pm

In reply to by keith_dear


Thank you for posting your article, with the bonus of free access. SWC has debated the wider aspects of drone use and the high-value target (HVT) tactic; so a link has been posted on both relevant threads.

Being the festive season I have only read your article once. There was one passage on the UK -v- PIRA campaign in Northern Ireland that jarred with my understanding of the conflict - which I will return to another day.

In my view the use of drones in HVT reflects a political desire to gain more time to consider a wider national or alliance (not host nation), response that is effective in reducing terrorism, by eliminating some of the opponents leadership and for the moment an unprecedented capability to often successfully hit such targets. It is a moot point that the time gained is being used wisely, the Yemen comes to mind and more crucially in Pakistan.