Syracuse University Institute for Security Policy and Law’s project on “The Rise of the Drones” seeks to illuminate the debate on the legality of the use of unmanned aircraft systems—commonly called “drones”—to target enemies, including al-Qa’ida and Taliban operatives, in various locations around the world.

The US decision after Sept. 11, 2011, to use drones to target and kill al-Qa’ida and Taliban operatives in Afghanistan was a significant departure from its previous use of such aircraft. Until 2002 drones had been used for surveillance, with lethal force carried out by either ground troops or manned aircraft. However, in response to the escalating terrorism threat, new elements of the US targeted killing policy began to emerge when on Nov. 3, 2002, a drone fired a Hellfire missile and killed senior al-Qa`ida leader Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi and five low-level operatives traveling by car in a remote part of the Yemeni desert. This marked the first use of an armed Predator outside Afghanistan.

Widespread criticism and scrutiny ensued, resulting in growing debate both within the U.S. and internationally over the legality of drones and unmanned targeting. Contemporary laws have not kept up with the dynamics of targeted killing, where relevant spheres of authority regularly overlap—the laws of the US (constitutional, statutory, executive, and customary); international laws (treaty-based and customary); and international humanitarian law (a subset of international law that applies during “armed conflicts”).

In part, the lack of consensus on the legal rules reflects the changing nature of asymmetric warfare. The US now finds itself engaged in military conflicts with non-state groups, and such conflicts were not the subject of the extensive international framework for warfare negotiated after the world wars.

2010 Congressional Testimony & Hearings

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on National Security hosted a second hearing on April 28, 2010, as a follow up to a March 23, 2010, hearing on the legality of drones and unmanned targeting.

The April 28, 2010, testimony included remarks from:

  • Kenneth Anderson, American University, Washington College of Law
  • Mary Ellen O’Connell, University of Notre Dame Law School
  • David Glazier, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles
  • William Banks, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, Syracuse University

To read William Banks’ testimonial remarks, click here.

Background Resources


LAWshaping in National Security: the Past, the Progress, & the Path Ahead

Feb. 28-March 1, 2014 | Duke Law LENS Conference

Drones, Cyber, & More: International Humanitarian Law & the Path Ahead

  • Moderator: William Banks, Director, ISPL
  • Geoffrey Corn, South Texas College of Law
  • Andrea Prasow, Human Rights Watch
  • Sean Watts, Creighton University School of Law