President Joe Biden’s assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Afghanistan was illegal under both U.S. and international law. After the CIA drone strike killed Zawahiri on August 2, Biden declared, “People around the world no longer need to fear the vicious and determined killer.” What we should fear instead is the dangerous precedent set by Biden’s unlawful extrajudicial execution. In addition to being illegal, the killing of Zawahiri also occurred in a moment when the United Nations had already determined that people in the U.S. had little to fear from him. As a United Nations report released in July concluded, “Al Qaeda is not viewed as posing an immediate international threat from its safe haven in Afghanistan because it lacks an external operational capability and does not currently wish to cause the Taliban international difficulty or embarrassment.”
Experts on the conduct and consequences of U.S. drone strikes delivered harrowing testimony Wednesday at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on two decades of aerial bombardment during the so-called War on Terror. "Our nation is at a turning point," Senate Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said upon opening the hearing. "In the months after 9/11 we strayed from our values, engaging in torture and indefinite detention at Guantánamo, which continues." "We also began conducting lethal strikes in unprecedented ways," he continued, later acknowledging the tens of thousands of men, women, and children killed U.S. airstrikes in at least half a dozen nations over the past 20-plus years. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the committee, was dismissive of the proceeding, instead expressing concern for "the growing spike in violent crime, including murders and attacks on police" in the United States.
At a time in my life when I barely knew drones existed, a young Lebanese mother mourning the death of her six-year-old daughter, Zainab, helped me understand how monitoring by drones terrified her and her neighbors. It was the summer of 2006, during a war referred to as the Israeli-Hezbollah war. On July 30th, around 1:00 a.m., Israeli warplanes fired missiles at buildings in Qana, Lebanon, a small village in southern Lebanon. One missile, a bunker buster supplied by the U.S. corporation Raytheon, caused a three-story building to collapse, killing an extended family of 27 people. Fifteen of them were children. Two weeks later, with a team of international observers, I visited Qana because of reports of a massacre there.
The extrajudicial murders of African/Black people, such as Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, by agents of the U.S. government and armed civilians have sparked urban rebellions in cities across the United States. Yet these murders cannot be understood outside of the context of the U.S. state’s ongoing assault on the human rights of African/Black people. U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet demanding lethal violence—“...when the looting starts, the shooting starts...”—requires the United Nations to intervene. Trump’s threat comes as the U.S. state has tragically failed during the COVID-19 pandemic to recognize and protect the human right to health of poor and working-class people, including Africans and undocumented migrants.