Cliff May

Editor's Note: This column was coauthored by Bill Roggio.

In 1996, al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden issued a formal declaration of war against the United States. No serious strategy was developed for defeating what most government officials dismissed as a bunch of fanatics living in mud-brick villages in Afghanistan, shaking their fists at the greatest power on Earth.

Almost two decades later — following attacks from New York to Nairobi to Dar es Salaam to Bali to Riyadh to London to Sana’a to Timbuktu to Benghazi — the U.S. still lacks a coherent plan for neutralizing al-Qaeda and its now-multiplying affiliates. The U.S. does, however, have one weapon that it has been deploying to keep al-Qaeda off balance — and to thin the organization’s top ranks.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), more popularly known as drones, were originally used for surveillance, in particular by the CIA following 9/11. Before long, however, they were adapted to fire computer-guided missiles. Armed UAVs quickly became President Obama’s weapon of choice in Afghanistan and Yemen.

Last week, both London-based Amnesty International (AI) and New York–based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued reports charging that America’s use of drones has violated international law, killing scores of innocent civilians and targeting suspected terrorists in ways that, AI asserts, “may constitute extrajudicial executions or war crimes.”

AI and HRW are non-governmental organizations with no legal authority. Nevertheless, White House spokesman Jay Carney responded to their charges, saying the president “would strongly disagree” with the allegations. “U.S. counterterrorism operations,” he said, “are precise, they are lawful, and they are effective.”

The concern of AI and HRW for al-Qaeda commanders is misplaced. It is neither moral nor helpful to award unlawful combatants, a.k.a. terrorists, more rights than are due honorable soldiers who abide by the laws of war. And make no mistake, AI and HRW are proposing exactly that: They want al-Qaeda commanders to be treated as innocent-until-proven-guilty suspects, entitled to all the constitutional rights due an American citizen in a domestic judicial proceeding.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.