It looks like a computer game, but it's deadly serious news in Germany: US soldiers control drone attacks with a joystick. According to new media reports, military bases on German soil play a key role in the drone war.
The attacker has a decisive advantage: he can attack without being in personal danger. Everything is controlled remotely off-site and the opponent can be thousands of kilometers away. Drones have become an essential part in the US's post-September 11 war against terror in Afghanistan and other regions, but their use is ethically and legally controversial.
According to reports from German TV news show "Panorama" and the daily newspaper "Süddeutsche Zeitung," the US use their German military bases to conduct attacks and targeted killings. The United States Africa Command (AFRICOM), based in Stuttgart since 2008, and the US Air Force base Ramstein in particular are said to play substantial roles in the drone war.
AFRICOM coordinates all US missions on the African continent from Germany. Within this context, the reports said, it's safe to assume that AFRICOM also coordinates the use of drones in Africa. Drones were used to kill suspected terrorist in Somalia, for example. Since 2007, up to 27 people, some of them civilians, have died there in attacks by the unmanned planes, according to the London-based "Bureau of Investigative Journalism."
Ramstein a key location?
The contact between the pilot in the US and the drone in Africa is supposedly relayed through a satellite facility in Ramstein, a military base in the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. The media outlets quoted a US Air Force paper saying that the attacks aren't possible without this relay station. Ramstein is also home to the central Air and Space Operations Center (AOC).
The drones themselves are not stationed in Germany. For missions in Africa, there are bases in Djibouti, Niger, Ethiopia and on the Seychelles. But personnel and the technology needed to control the drones is reportedly based in Germany.
Maj. Ryan Donald, spokesman for the United States European Command, replied to a DW inquiry saying that the AOC supervises flights, but does not directly operate airborne objects.
Violating international law
Most experts agreed that the use of drones outside of war zones, including Somalia, is not acceptable under international law.
"The targeted killing of persons through drones would be impermissible here," Andreas Zimmermann, professor of international law at the University of Potsdam, said on the German public radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur.
Thilo Marauhn, an international law activist, took the argument even further. "When the German government knows about the killing of a terror suspect by drone outside a war zone and doesn't protest against it, this could constitute a violation of international law," Marauhn said in the "Panorama" report.
The opposition demanded clarification from the government.
"The government has to get to the bottom of this," said Paul Schäfer, a member of the parliament's defense committee for the Left Party. "Otherwise, the suspicion that Germany is part of international law violations remains. That cannot be left out there,"
Troop law counts
There seems to be not a lot the German government can do at the moment though, because of a statute that governs the presence of US troops in Germany.
"We'd have to start new negotiations about the troops statute," Schäfer told DW. "I'm afraid that currently, the German government's opportunities to intervene are limited. We lack the legal authority."
Government spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin that there was an on-going dialog with US officials. "The result is that we don't have any evidence for behavior that violates international law," Seibert said. "Speaking for the German government, I cannot confirm the claims that were made in the media."
Kerry doesn't see a violation
US Secretary of State John Kerry did not want to comment on the media reports either when he met his German counterpart Guido Westerwelle in Washington. "I will not discuss details of the operation here," Kerry said. "Our actions are legal. We were attacked on September 11. As a final means, this is self-defense."
The German government seems to shy away from an open discussion on the actions of American troops in Germany. When the decision was made to base AFRICOM in Stuttgart, the German Foreign Ministry wrote to the US government asking, according to "Panorama," that Germany not be publicly mentioned as the new AFRICOM home as it would cause "unnecessary public debate."