Dronestagram: the locations behind America's secret drone war

These are the places most of us will never see. We do not know these landscapes and we cannot visit them.

October 11: a seminary in Bulandkhel, on the border of Orakzai and North Waziristan, Pakistan.

At dawn, on October 18: the outskirts of the town of Jaar, in southwestern Yemen.

The evening of October 21: a road through Waadi Abida, in the province of Maarib, Yemen.

October 24: a house in the village of Tappi, North Waziristan, Pakistan.

October 28: eastern Saada, the poorest and least accessible province of Yemen.

In the early hours of November 7, the night of the US election: Beyt al-Ahmar, a small village just 40km from Sana'a, Yemen's capital.

These are the names of places. They are towns, villages, junctions and roads. They are the names of places where people live and work, where there are families and schools. They are the names of places linked by one thing: they have each been the location of drone strikes in the past couple of months.

They are the names of places most of us will never see. We do not know these landscapes and we cannot visit them.

What can reach them are drones, what can see them — if not entirely know them — are drones. Most commonly, these are MQ-9 Reaper aircraft, the size of a Cessna, piloted in these cases not by the military, but the CIA. At anywhere between five and fifty thousand feet, the drones are impervious to the weapons of the people below them, and all-seeing across the landscape. Drones are just the latest in a long line of military technologies augmenting the process of death-dealing, but they are among the most efficient, the most distancing, the most invisible. These qualities allow them to do what they do unseen, and create the context for secret, unaccountable, endless wars. Whether you think these killings are immoral or not, most of them are by any international standard illegal.

For a few weeks now, I have been posting images of the locations of drone strikes to the photo-sharing site Instagram as they occur, under the name Dronestagram. Making these locations just a little bit more visible, a little closer. A little more real.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism compiles reports from Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Their records, drawn from local newspapers and the international wires services, are publicly accessible. A variety of sources are used to locate a suitable view for each image, including the original media reports, wikipedia, local government and media sites, often translated from Arabic by Google's translation engine. Many are in outlying areas and the information on exact locations is scarce; where a precise location is not given, the view should be within a few kilometres in most cases. The landscapes and the places and their names are real.

The BIJ is currently only reporting on those three territories, where covert drone operations are occurring. Drones are in constant use in Afghanistan by British and American forces. Neither release any regular information about their use. The RAF has not even posted a public operations update since mid-September, which in any case only refer vaguely to reconnaissance, while Defence Minister Phillip Dunne was recently forced to admit in the Commons that UK drones have been used in almost 350 attacks in Afghanistan since 2008 (that’s a drone strike every four days), and recently moved to double the size of its fleet of Reaper drones.

Drones are also used under dubious circumstances in many other parts of the world, such as Israel, Turkey and Iran. China just unveiled it's own Wing Loong (Pterodactyl) drone. When information about other strikes is available, these will be included in Dronestagram too.

The political and practical possibilities of drone strikes are the consequence of invisible, distancing technologies, and a technologically-disengaged media and society. Foreign wars and foreign bodies have always counted for less, but the technology that was supposed to bring us closer together is also used to obscure and obfuscate. We use military technologies like GPS and Kinect for work and play; they continue to be used militarily to maim and kill, ever further away and ever less visibly.

Yet at the same time we are attempting to build a 1:1 map of the world through satellite and surveillance technologies, that does allow us to see these landscapes, should we choose to go there. These technologies are not just for “organising” information, they are also for revealing it, for telling us something new about the world around us, rendering it more clearly.

History, like space, is coproduced by us and our technologies: those technologies include satellite mapping, social photo sharing from handheld devices, and fleets of flying death robots. We should engage with them at every level. These are just images of foreign landscapes, still; yet we have got better at immediacy and intimacy online: perhaps we can be better at empathy too.

This post is an edited version of a post originally published at BookTwo.org

Instagram becomes Dronestagram

James Bridle is a writer, artist, publisher and technologist usually based in London, UK.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.