U.S. counterterrorism airstrikes away from combat zones killed just one civilian in 2016, government says

Late last evening, in the waning hours of Obama administration control of the national security state, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a report about counterterrorism drone strikes and other bombings away from “areas of active hostilities” for 2016. It said there were 53 such airstrikes, and they killed between 431 and 441 militants and precisely one civilian.

This was the first time we have seen official targeted killing statistics for a single year, which is interesting because we can therefore know with more precision what went into it. For example, we know that a single, huge airstrike in Somalia last March, on what the governments says was a sort of graduation ceremony for Shabab militants, killed about 150 people, so that event alone accounts for more than a third of the annual death toll. It may also be the last time we see them.

We are getting this information because earlier in 2016, Obama issued an executive order requiring an annual public tally and also disclosing numbers for 2009-2015, but because the older numbers were lumped together it was harder to understand what they represented. (See this blog entry for a discussion of a hypothesis I pursued about how DOD was calculating battle damage assessments as a possible explanation of why the earlier civilian death numbers seemed dubiously low.)

The places covered here would include tribal Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya outside of the Sirte region — all places where Obama’s 2013 Presidential Policy Guidance (PPG) rules apply. The PPG requires near-certainty that there will be no civilian deaths and evidence that a target poses a “continuing, imminent threat” to Americans before any such airstrike. See this article for a discussion of escalated bombings in Somalia in 2016 and also the designation of Sirte as an “area of active hostilities.”

Will President-elect (a status he will hold for about one more hour) Trump keep or jettisons the PPG and the executive order requiring disclosure of civilian deaths?