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How Many Civilians Die in U.S. Predator Drone Strikes?

Updated on July 25, 2017
Virginia Matteo profile image

Virginia loves learning languages and travelling, and is interested in a range of social issues.

What Is the U.S. Drone Program?

The U.S. Drone Program is a military operation run jointly by the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. Drones, or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), are nowadays associated mainly with targeted killing of terrorists. However the history of UAVs is much longer; drones with killing capacities started to be used only after 9/11. At present the USA carries out operations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan. In addition, it is engaged in coalition strikes in Syria and Iraq.


A primitive prototype of the best-known UAV model of today, the MQ-1 Predator, was built already in July 1849, when Austrians launched hundreds of unmanned balloons with explosives against Venice.
World War I, World War II
During World War I and World War II both the UK and US explored the military possibilities of unmanned aerial vehicles, used at the time for reconnaissance and as flying bombs.
The Vietnam War
The Vietnam War marks a true watershed in drone development. At the time used mainly for spying on the enemy.
The 80s
Israeli engineer Abraham Karem revolutionized the drone. He improved significantly the spying and flying capabilities of the existing UAV models.
The Predator model (as yet without killing capabilities) was first used in 1994 on a peace-keeping mission in Bosnia.
In 1996 the CTC (the CIA's Counterterrorism Centre) formally recognised the importance of Bin Laden in global terrorism and launched a man-hunt for him.
A Predator drone spotted Bin Laden in 2000. Since then, the CIA's main concern was how to turn the Predator into a weapon to kill enemies more quickly.
Early in 2001 first prototypical Predators with the Hellfire system were created.
After 9/11
After 9/11 the CIA became authorized to use Predators for targeted killings. President Bush signed a directive that created a secret list of High Value Targets that the CIA could kill indiscriminately.
The first drone strike took place. The CIA believed to be attacking Osama bin Laden. However, later it transpired that the actual target was civilians gathering scrap metal.
The beginning of 'signature strikes'. Since then, the CIA has had the authority to attack targets outside of the main list, based solely on 'life patterns'.

Who are the Casualties and How are they Counted?

The U.S. government is notoriously mysterious when it comes to its drone program. Although in 2016 Barack Obama decided to reveal the number of civilian casualties under his presidency (2009 – the end of 2015), the number he gave is at odds with assessments from independent non-government organizations. Obama claims the strikes killed between 64 and 116 civilians in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and Libya. In contrast, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that this number is actually 380 to 801.

The possible reason the government is unable to give a precise number of civilian casualties is the policy of signature strikes, which means the CIA is authorized to target anyone based on their patterns of life and not the actual identity. The CIA can never be completely sure who it killed.

Fortunately for the public, independent organizations such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Airwars conduct their own investigations with regard to the war on terror. The methods they use include field investigations and research based on reliable media outlets and academic institutions. If different reliable sources give different data, the organizations reflect this discrepancy by giving the minimal and maximal number of casualties.

The Number of Strikes and Casualties by Country

Disclaimer: the information provided here is accurate as of October 2016. As the drone operations are ongoing, the numbers are likely to rise in the future.

1. Pakistan

The drone operations in Pakistan have been ongoing since 2004. There have been more strikes on Pakistan than any other country beyond Afghanistan.

Total strikes
Obama strikes
Total killed
Civilians killed
Children killed


The first missile hit Yemen in 2002, however regular drone operations have been taking place since 2011.

Confirmed drone strikes
Total killed
Civilians killed
Children killed
Possible extra drone strikes
Total killed
Civilians killed
Children killed

3. Somalia

The U.S. began carrying out drone strikes in Somalia in 2011.

Drone strikes
Total killed
Civilians killed
Children killed

4. Afghanistan

U.S. drones have been bombing Afghanistan since late 2001. However, the data below only pertains to the years 2015 and 2016, as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism started monitoring the strikes in Afghanistan in 2015.

Total strikes
Total killed
Civilians killed
Children killed

5. Iraq and Syria

The strikes in Iraq and Syria are coalition strikes. Out of 15,548 total strikes, the U.S. was responsible for 11,928.

Total strikes
Minimum number of civilian killed

The total number of civilians killed in all the above operations is between 2,289 and 2,925


The drone program has been often criticized for its lack of transparency, signature strikes (attacking targets based on patterns of life, and not on their identity), and its often less-than-surgical precision, despite what proponents claim.

One of the critics is Heather Linebaugh, who served as an analyst for the United States Air Force until March 2012. She was part of the program during the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. She criticizes the government for delivering false information about the number of civilian casualties, and says that the technology they use don’t provide images clear enough to recognize if someone is carrying a weapon. According to her, it breeds high potential for mistakes. The civilian casualties number has not diminished over the years.

Special Thanks To:

Ian G.R. Shaw for the history of drones:


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    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 10 months ago from San Diego California

      Great concise analysis of the Drone program and its cost in human lives. The drones aren't making us Yanks any friends abroad, and only perpetuating the cycle of anti-American violence, which is perfectly justifiable when one looks at the casualty of innocents killed. Great hub.

    • Alternative Prime profile image

      Alternative Prime 10 months ago from > California

      Unfortunately, Civilian Casualties are IMPOSSIBLE to Avoid in WAR or Strategic Engagements Especially when the enemy such as "Terrorists" apply "MELT Into Society" Tactics ~ OUR Military Attempts to keep Civilian Losses to an ABSOLUTE Minimum with Conventional ARMs ~

      NOW, Imagine the DARK, Inevitable Catastrophic & Perhaps "WORLD Crippling" Result of a "Nuclear EXCHANGE" which has not been RULED Out in a GOD Forbid "Delusional Donald Trump" Administration where Proliferating & INCREASING the NUMBER of Nuclear ARMs & the NUMBER of Countries that HOLD Them would be ACTIVELY "Encouraged & SUPPORTED" ~ Believe it or NOT, "Deranged Donald" has suggested ARMING Saudi Arabia & Japan with NUKEs ~ Hence, one REASON for The "TRUMP Campaign COLLAPSE" which was EXPECTED by the Vast Majority of Americans ~