On a sunny Monday morning earlier this month, about two dozen people dressed in white gathered at a meeting spot near New York’s Grand Central station. The operation had been carefully planned and organized by Essam Attia, a street artist and former soldier.
Attia, 36, served in Iraq from 2003 to 2006 as a US Army geospatial analyst, creating maps and location reports used for, among other things, drone strikes.
Once everyone arrived, Attia and the assembled group made their way across 42nd Street to the headquarters of the United Nations, camera crew in tow.
In front of the UN, Attia inflated a near-life-size replica of a US Air Force Predator drone—the unmanned aircraft that navigated missions around Baghdad using Attia’s reports. He called out, “Double tap,” a military term that refers to a second attack targeting the people arriving to help the victims of the initial strike. The technique, employed for years by the CIA’s drone program—and some terrorist organizations, according to the FBI—has generated outrage and likely violates international law.
The people assembled around Attia responded in unison, “Drone strike,” and collapsed to the sidewalk.
After a few minutes of silence, and no shortage of confused passers-by, Attia stood atop a traffic bollard and raised three hi-viz yellow signs above his head that called out civilian casualties in America’s ongoing drone war, then appealed for a ban on all autonomous weapons.
The performance piece was timed to coincide with the start of meetings held by the UN’s First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security issues, and the 18th anniversary of the American invasion of Afghanistan.
The participants represented civilians killed by US drone warfare. By some estimates, somewhere between 769 and 1,725 innocent people have been killed by missiles fired by American drones, despite some claims that the unmanned aerial vehicles have pinpoint accuracy.
Just last month, a US drone strike in Afghanistan killed at least 30 civilian farmworkers, and injured 40 others, Afghan officials told Reuters. It’s difficult to know for sure, however, exactly how many civilians have been killed by drone strikes. US president Donald Trump in March reversed an Obama-era requirement that the US military release annual reports of civilians killed in airstrikes, both manned and unmanned.
Attack of the drones
The fleet of drones used by the United States are for now semi-autonomous, not fully autonomous. While the unmanned aircraft is controlled remotely by pilots who are sometimes thousands of miles away, a human being is ultimately the one deciding whether or not to fire. Attia, however, believes the day could soon come when machines are given the ability to make that life or death decision themselves.
“I am using the Predator drone as a symbol for a discussion on autonomous weapons because I see them as so closely linked,” Attia told Quartz. “The drone is the natural predecessor to the autonomous weapon and once weapons are autonomous, drones will be autonomous.
Spending on drones by the US military is at a five-year high, and the Department of Defense allocated nearly $7 billion in its 2018 budget for research and development, construction, and procurement. The “unmanned aerial vehicles,” known as UAVs, are used by the military to conduct strikes in war zones, and by the CIA against groups it deems terrorists in areas of declared and undeclared conflict. Over the past two years, the US has used drones in seven countries: Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.
The first armed drone strike by the US took place in 2001 under then-president George W. Bush. In that strike, the CIA tried, but failed to kill Taliban leader Mullah Omar at a compound in Afghanistan. However, the use of drones remained sporadic during Bush’s presidency. It was president Barack Obama who first fully embraced the technology as a means to fight multiple wars in multiple countries without committing large numbers of ground forces.
UAVs have changed the way wars are fought. Proponents emphasize the fact that fewer Americans on the battlefield means fewer American deaths. Yet for all their technical prowess, drones don’t always work as advertised. According to an analysis by the Associated Press, civilians—not terrorists—accounted for about one-third of those killed by US drone strikes in Yemen last year.
As the technology advances, drones are becoming more and more capable—and independent—which worries people like Attia, who fear that they are too quickly and without serious regulation becoming fully autonomous weapons, or as some activists call them: “killer robots.”
How Attia got here
While stationed in Iraq, Attia implemented and managed a region-wide geospatial database in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The massive mapping project involved nearly 170,000 square miles of terrain. Attia never knew exactly what his individual maps and intelligence reports would be used for, only that his commanders needed extremely precise geolocation data.
Many of the missions were “pretty innocuous and actually kind of humanitarian,” Attia said. He described how his maps were used for things like rebuilding bridges and clearing minefields. But Attia’s maps were also being used for something more sinister.
“And then some of it was for targeting purposes, for hunting the ‘bad guys,’ so to speak,” Attia said. “I had no real knowledge of what was going on, who the person was, why they were being hunted or killed.”
Commanders in Attia’s office set up monitors with a 24-hour feed from the three Predator drones flying around Baghdad. For Attia, it felt like watching security camera footage. The video resolution was just high enough to provide a rough idea of what you were looking at: Whether it was a pickup truck or a sedan on the ground, for instance.
Most of the time, “you’re looking at nothing,” Attia said. And then, suddenly, all hell breaks loose.
“You’re watching people moving around, people shuffling about, and then there’s a big explosion—some people are dead and some people are running and some people are crawling and it’s really quite wild,” he recalled. “A lot of them are propeller planes, and you can hear them, so sometimes [the people on the ground are] avoiding being seen, they’re trying to hide in trees, trying to skirt around buildings, and things like that.”
These so-called signature strikes use geolocation data from mobile phones, along with surveillance drones, to pinpoint a subject’s location, Attia said. The CIA feeds whatever intelligence it has to the Air Force while the drone pilots, along with geospatial intel analysts like Attia, attempt to figure out exactly where their targets are. Oftentimes, they are focused on men of a certain age that are simply hanging out with the wrong people. The Council on Foreign Relations defines these targets as “unidentified militants based on their behavior patterns and personal networks.”
It is difficult work, and the strikes don’t always get it right, or are not as surgical as advertised, Attia said. At first, while he was serving in Iraq, Attia said he felt “pretty neutral” about the use of drones. But in time he began to view the war as immoral, and that American involvement in Iraq was doing more harm than good. When his contract expired, Attia, who joined the service to pay for college, entered art school in New York City.
“It wasn’t until after I graduated, during the run up to the 2012 election, when I started getting adamantly opposed to what was going on with drone strikes,” Attia recalled. “I was working on a commercial photography portfolio and it just felt very hollow and empty, and I started making more political work. Then I started realizing that there was this movement by local police forces to bring drone technology to the United States. And that was when flags went flying for me. I was like, ‘What is happening here? This technology is being used to kill people overseas.’”
Attia decided to start making art that would stimulate discourse about drones and automated weapons systems. For his first major project, Attia placed satirical public service ads around New York City that advertised the police department’s use of drones to spy on city residents. It also got him arrested.
For his latest action in front of the UN headquarters, Attia met with a number of large, established nonprofits which seemed excited by the idea and wanted to be involved. But they never followed through. So Attia said he struck out on his own, atoning, in a way, for his past life in the military.
“I just felt like overall, the war was totally immoral for a number of reasons,” he said. “Mostly because of the destruction in general we were causing in the country. And I saw that there was really no plan to help the country get back on its feet, and we were doing more harm than good. So I did my time, kept my mouth shut, and I got out.”