Things Fall Apart: A Predator Drone in Djibouti

The final in a series on US military objects that fell from the sky. Read parts one and two here.

A recent blog post for the Economist, written before the parliamentary vote on Syrian airstrikes, included the testimonies of British drone pilots stationed at military consoles in the Lincolnshire countryside. Air Commodore Jeff Portlock explained that the RAF’s new Reaper drones give Britain ‘a persistent, staring, unblinking eye in the sky’. Blithe and uncritical, the blogger listed this as one of the ‘many advantages’ of drone warfare.

But drones don’t have eyes: they have cameras and sensors, which deliver images onto screens. So why does the Commodore refer to the Reaper’s ‘unblinking eye in the sky’?

It’s not because he has a taste for the surreal or poetic. No, such statements have a function: to project the human process of seeing onto the mechanical process of photography. Politicians or military officers make the same elision when they say that a drone flying at 25,000ft can ‘see’ a weapon in someone’s hand, or ‘read’ a number plate. They are anthropomorphising the drone, which is incapable of seeing or reading, and thus exculpating the human.

A recent report by The Intercept found that 90% of those killed by drone strikes in Afghanistan were not the intended target, while Forensic Architecture have documented the details of many of these strikes. Before the button is pressed, a human reads a set of pixels, and this reading is variable and contingent, dependant on interests, biases. That’s why the Air Commodore wants to attribute sight to the drone: so that we marvel at the sleek, infallible machines and forget that the real seeing – the interpretation that gives a neutral event political meaning, that transforms a wedding convoy into a military threat – is done by humans. Better than us, in fact – human eyes blink, they look away, get distracted; the Reaper stares fixedly.


Drones might not be human but they are fallible. System malfunctions aren’t uncommon. Crashes too: 2009 in Kirkuk, Iraq; 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan; 2015 over Isis territory in Libya. And on 17 May 2011, a Predator drone crashed in Djibouti. As it tried to land it started leaking oil. Clouds and humidity rendered its infrared sensors useless and the GPS system gave the wrong altitude reading. It crashed next to the sea at a cost of three million dollars.


crash 2

crash 3
The pictures are from a declassified Accident Investigation Board report. In some the Djiboutians stand back at a nervous remove from the investigators, visible in a line between the camera and the horizon. Reporting the story, The Washington Post primitivised them and their reactions to technology: ‘word spread… after the mysterious, insect-shaped plane dropped from the sky.’ It’s insulting in part because the US made no secret of their presence in Djibouti. In 2013 every local would have known that drones flew in and out of the country – the US Air Force used the main civilian airport of the capital, and crashed regularly as they journeyed east to Yemen or south to Somalia. Between January 2011 and September 2013 there were five crashes.

Djibouti airport provided a welcome air base in the region for Special Forces operations and airstrikes, not only for the US but also for the French and Japanese. No other country in the region would host the US so publically but Djibouti was happy to exchange regional popularity for money and protection, although diplomatic cables show how worried the country’s rulers were about possible repercussions.

Not only do the pictures of the wrecked drone puncture the mystique of the infallible ’unblinking eye in the sky’, they direct us to the history of Western imperialism in the region. In 2013, the US moved out of the congested main airport to a tiny base in the desert previously used by the French Foreign Legion, because the drone crashes were becoming too visible. Today the base in the desert houses Reapers and Predators, free to crash away from prying eyes. Well, sort of. Here’s a satellite shot of the base in 2015, which, oddly, you can find on Google Maps labelled as ‘Chabelley Airport’. Zoom in and you can see drones waiting outside their hangars.

chabbelley wide

chabelley zoom

English-speaking people have been making airstrips like this in North-East Africa for around 100 years. This shot recalls another desert airstrip, back in the early years of aviation:

somaliland base

RAF airstrip in British Somaliland, 1919.

Back in 1919 Britain was the main Western power in the Middle East. The arrival of aeroplanes promised a new way to deal with rebellions. Rather than large, costly, land-based expeditions to far-flung places, which gave insurrections time to foment and cost British lives, the aeroplane could strike in a timely manner, ‘disciplining’ wrongdoers before things got out of hand. Eventually, the mere sight and sound of a British aircraft would act as a deterrent to colonised populations. This was the ‘moral effect’ of air power, much fetishised by RAF officers, including Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris who later orchestrated the firebombing of Dresden.

The airstrip pictured above was in British Somaliland rather than Djibouti (then owned by the French). Then, as now, Somaliland lay on the outer reaches of the larger bombing campaigns in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. In 1919 the British used this airstrip to conduct a manhunt for Mohammed Abdullah Hassan, a religious leader (dubbed ‘the Mad Mullah’ by the British press) who had led a successful Islamic revolt against British colonial rule. The plan was for DH-9 biplanes to locate Hassan’s position and bomb him into submission, while ground forces pursued him towards Ethiopia.

In the end, Hassan and half his army died of influenza trying to regroup in exile, and that was the end of that. Reports from 1920 in The London Gazette by Group Captain R. Gordon mainly talked about the fantastic success of aeroplanes: ‘the new arm, with its power to carry out, without warning, a form of attack against which no counter measures could avail.’

somaliland bombing

A village in is bombed during the ‘Somaliland campaign’, 1920.

But this triumphalist language, focused on the abstract capabilities of the new technology rather than the dirty facts of its use by humans, inevitably masked a confusing and complicated reality. Operational reports in the archives at Kew show that planes in Somaliland crashed and got lost on a daily basis. Unable to find Hassan, they bombed villages assumed to contain his forces and livestock. One day, thwarted by heavy cloud cover, they simply dropped bombs ‘through clouds into valleys likely to contain stock.’

Hellfire missiles – such as those attached to the Predator that crashed in Djibouti – are certainly more ‘precise’ than the bombs lobbed out of biplanes in 1919. But precision is not the issue when you don’t know who you’re killing. After the first US drone strike in Somalia in 2007, launched out of Djibouti, a US official was disarmingly candid, saying with Bush/Trump brio, ‘Frankly, I don’t think we know who we killed.’ Obama’s ‘signature strikes’ – drone killings of unidentified individuals thought to be militants – are often based on fallacious interpretations of human actions and mobile phone records. More recently, moving beyond north-east Africa, Russia confidently published pictures of an Isis oil refinery it had identified and destroyed in Aleppo – later analysis of their images, combined with facts on the ground, suggest the refinery was a water treatment plant that had provided for 3.5 million people.

No military is immune to these destructive actions, caused by wilful or accidental misreading of signs. An important part of restraining militaries is to stop being fooled by our constructs surrounding technology and its ‘sophistication’. This is why talk of unblinking eyes and precision munitions is such a dangerous red herring – not dangerous for British people but for those their parliament has, fed on such language for over a century now, voted to bomb.

—Den Staf


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