In early September 2015 the U.S. revealed that an August 25th UAV missile attack in eastern Syria (near the city of Raqqa) did, as suspected, kill Juanaid Hussain, a British citizen believed to be the most skilled computer hacker working for ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Hussain was one of the key people in ISIL’s twitter based recruiting and publicity operation. Hussain did not have world class hacking skills but he came to Syria in 2013 as a bright British teenager who had a talent for hacking, good knowledge of Internet culture and eager to “defend Islam” any way he could.
Hussian was yet another victim of the “decapitation” tactics that proved successful in Iraq before U.S. troops left in 2011 and earlier in Israel where it was developed to deal with the Palestinian terror campaign that began in 2000. The Israelis were very successful with their decapitation program, which reduced Israeli civilian terrorist deaths within five years from over 400 a year to less than ten. Actually decapitation tactics are an ancient practice. American troops have used similar tactics many times in the past (in World War II, 1960s Vietnam, the Philippines over a century ago, and in 18th century colonial America) but tend to forget after a generation or so. Some things have to be relearned.
So successful has decapitation been that in 2013 Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan openly called for supporters to help develop methods (electronic or otherwise) to deal with the American UAVs that constantly patrol terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan (Waziristan) and Afghanistan (the Pakistani border area) and constantly find and kill Islamic terrorist leaders with missiles. This has led to the deaths of hundreds of key terrorist personnel and, despite the heavy use of civilians as human shields, few civilian deaths. The Taliban are increasingly frustrated at their inability to deal with this.
For a long time the U.S. either denied these UAV missile attacks were going on or refused to comment. The impact of these attacks on terrorist operations and the morale of terrorist leadership have led to the United States now openly admitting the attacks and confirming that they would continue. They work and are a weapon unique in military history. Wars have always included attempts to gain victory, or at least an edge, by going after the enemy leaders and other key people. This has always been difficult because the enemy leaders know they are targets and take extensive precautions to protect themselves (the “royal guard”, food tasters, and all that). This no longer works and terrorist leaders are scrambling to find ways to avoid this lethal retribution for their wickedness. Islamic terrorists also use decapitation but their favored weapon is the suicide bomber.
Nevertheless some people agree with the Taliban that UAV operations are somehow wrong. The increased use of UAVs to find, identify, and kill terrorists (or enemies in general) has led many people in the West and in the Moslem world to assert that this is not effective, fair, or whatever. Some call it murder. But war is murder, and for centuries those involved have recognized that going to war is a messy business, especially once you are in the midst of it. In war the survivors quickly learn two things. Those who kill first are less likely to be killed later and those who can kill more of the opponent's leaders will most likely win. Current terrorist leaders may be homicidal fanatics but they know how to count. If the Americans come after them, especially because their organization carried out an attack in the United States that generated a widespread demand from Americans for revenge, the terrorist leaders are dead men walking. The belief is that the Americans will eventually get you, and most terrorist leaders don’t want to be killed. Suicide attack duty is for the little people, not the leaders or their children. So the Islamic terrorist propaganda specialists do what they can to protect their bosses.
In the last two decades UAVs, and before that space satellites and high-flying, long endurance recon aircraft (like the U-2 and SR-71), made it possible to find and identify key enemy personnel. But until armed UAVs came along in 2001 there was no way to quickly act on that information. Many opportunities to kill key enemy personnel were missed. Now, with Hellfire missiles (and several other similar weapons) on these UAVs, you can promptly kill what you find. Some pundits find this unsporting, morally indefensible, or otherwise wrong. For military personnel, risking their lives fighting a determined enemy, it's just another way to kill the enemy leadership before the enemy succeeds.
That civilians are also killed is nothing new. During the allied invasion of France in 1944, the several months of fighting required to destroy the German armies in France also left 15,000 French civilians dead in the invasion area and more than that in the rest of France. The Germans did not normally try and hide among civilians, while Islamic terrorists do. The Germans knew they would be attacked no matter where they were. Islamic terrorists do sometimes get away because of the successful use of human shields (and because the order to fire is not given). This attitude ignores the civilians who die because terrorists escape to keep killing. Thus, in war, you can avoid killing civilians, but you do so at the cost of giving enemy personnel immunity that just gets more people killed down the road.