Canada Wants to Deradicalize Terrorists, So Why Is It Trying to Arm Drones?

Drones don't win hearts and minds.
March 9, 2016, 8:31pm

The Canadian government is all about thwarting Islamic "radicalization," except when it's not.

In response to the specter of domestic terrorism, continually raised by politicians and further buoyed by tragic explosions of real violence like the shooting at Parliament Hill in 2014, Canada has given its security forces broad new powers under Bill C-51. These shadowy powers include the ability for agents to secretly intervene in the personal lives of citizens suspected of turning to radical Islam, which the Canadian Security Intelligence Service has reportedly exercised more than a dozen times.

It's curious, then, that Canada's chief of defence staff Jonathan Vance told media this week that Canada needs to purchase armed drones for the first time (instead of drones solely outfitted for surveillance) in order to fight enemies "like ISIL," otherwise known as ISIS or IS. After all, the US drone program has often been singled out as one of the prime drivers of radicalization—instead of crushing opposition, drone programs as we've known them have added fuel to the fire. A Canadian drone program would be no different.

Indeed, a Canadian drone mission against an enemy "like ISIL"—likely meaning in the Middle East—could mean engaging in missions similar to the recently-ended bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria, the cessation of which was a cornerstone of the Liberal platform.

"What I have seen with ISIS propaganda is that they often point to the drone program as a way to highlight sloppy civilian casualties or as a way to say: look at these guys, they don't fight like us, they're cowards, things like that," said Amarnath Amarasingam, a post-doctoral fellow at Dalhousie University and expert in domestic radicalization. Whether this will lead to radicalization at home or not is tough to say, Amarasingam emphasized, because the issue is not drones or no drones—it's about involvement in the conflict, pure and simple.

"There does seem to be an inconsistency there with the original plan, which was to pull out the bombing campaign, and now arguing that there should be drones involved," Amarasingam said.

Watch more from Motherboard: America's Ex-Drone Pilot

Parliament Hill shooter Michael Zehaf-Bibeau explained in a videotaped manifesto that his act of violence was spurred by Canada "fighting and bombing us and creating a lot of terror in our countries and killing us and killing our innocents." Zehaf-Bibeau's comments were a chilling reminder that military intervention abroad often engenders, unfortunately, utterly predictable reactions with tragic results.

As early as 2011, the CIA's former drone chief said on Frontline, "We have helped to bring about the situation that we most fear." Since then, the idea that drone strikes—really, the disparity between their supposed precision and the reports of civilian deaths—feed back into the radical propaganda machine has been repeated by policy experts. In Yemen, Pakistan, and elsewhere, popular anger against the US and its airborne war machines has risen up.

With such a demonstrable history of blowback to foreign drone programs, you'd probably think that the Canadian army has a pretty damn good reason for beating its chest in the name of military procurement. This is not exactly the case—the idea seems to be more, well, we might as well arm our drones.

Vance described the need for armed drones as a need for the military to have "a range of options," and a Department of National Defence spokesperson described the military's approach to me in an email as being similar to buying a car in the winter. "That doesn't mean you should get a car without AC," they wrote, "because you might want to run the AC in July."

It appears as though Canada's military is playing the "me, too" game with its larger, more aggressive international partners, such as the US. "Basically it's technology that has gone from being viewed as sci-fi to the new normal of war," war futurist and New America Foundation strategist Peter Singer wrote me in an email. "Now, having the weapon is a different question from how you use it."

The debate over whether Canada should purchase drones purely for surveillance or long-distance assassination will continue, and we would do well to remember that drones don't win hearts and minds—they obliterate them.