Research on the consequences of the 420 US drone strikes in Pakistan between 2006 and 2016 finds that they encourage terrorism and cause up to 17% of all terror attacks in the country. The study by Rafat Mahmood further finds that it is not only terrorist organisations that react to drone strikes: the general Pakistani population is more likely to sympathise with radical ideas and anti-US sentiment because of drone strikes. 

In the ‘war on terror’, the United States increasingly uses drones to target terrorists, particularly in Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. But the effectiveness of drone strikes is highly debated.

On the one hand, drone strikes may weaken terrorist organisations by killing key terrorist leaders and destroying their communication networks. On the other hand, drone strikes may cause ‘blowback’ from the local population, perhaps because of the collateral damage they cause or the violation of state sovereignty. As a consequence, the local population may turn against the United States and perhaps even side with the terrorists. 

This naturally leads us to ask: do drone strikes curb or encourage terrorism? Finding an answer to this question has been difficult. We can count the number of drone strikes, the number of subsequent terror attacks and even quantify anti-US hatred, anti-US protests and radicalisation. But it is hard to test whether drone strikes cause any of these things while a range of other factors that often remain secretive or difficult measure also change at the same time. 

This study employs an instrumental variable approach to solve that problem by looking at days when drones cannot strike because of reasons that are completely unrelated to terrorism. Specifically, if there is a lot of wind, drones are less likely to fly and hit their targets. The research then tests if terror attacks and anti-US sentiment, as well as radicalisation in the local population, change after days when drones do not strike because of strong winds. 

Analysing data from Pakistan, the research finds that drone strikes increase terrorism. On average, one US drone strike results in four additional terror attacks in the next week. This means that drone strikes are responsible for up to 17.5% of all terror attacks in Pakistan, amounting to a loss of 6,000 lives between 2006 and 2016.

To identify anti-US sentiment and radicalisation, the research then studies the leading Pakistani newspaper, Google trends and anti-US protests. It finds that drone strikes increase anti-US sentiment and radicalisation in Pakistan. 

Thus, US drone strikes may be counterproductive: they increase terrorism. The author hopes that this research informs policy-makers and those interested in learning more about what drone strikes actually do.




Rafat Mahmood, 

Phone: +61469879307