March 20, 2013, by Josh Bowsher

Denaturalising Terror Suspects in the Age of Drone Strikes: British Sovereignty and Homo Sacer in the “War on Terror”

In the early years of the “War on Terror” academic attention was drawn to the ways in which this new paradigm in international relations had begun to shift not only the nature of armed conflicts, but also our assumed understandings of sovereignty and the law. But while both these shifts had developed out of a pragmatic determination to combat terrorism by any means necessary, it was certainly the latter which had proved the most alarming to academics, with a flurry of work theorising, critiquing and, ultimately, confronting this disturbing new set of practices. Indeed, attempts to theorise the “War on Terror” were produced by critical theory stalwarts such as Slavoj Zizek (2002, 2005), and perhaps more famously, Judith Butler’s Precarious Life: the Power of Mourning and Violence (2006).

But it is the work of Giorgio Agamben whose State of Exception (2005) best serves as a kind of banner for a particular time period where the sovereign exceptionalism of the United States visibly intensified; where no one could any longer ignore the global reach of the USA’s sovereign power to decide on who does and doesn’t fall under the law. The work of Agamben enabled us to unfurl this global political moment marked by the strategic use of geographical locales and spaces to place terrorists outside of the law. It produced a set of practices that Agamben insists prove that the state of exception ‘has become one of the essential practices of contemporary states, including so-called democratic ones.’ (2005, p.2) (My emphasis) This included the expropriation of British citizens to foreign lands for the purpose of torture, and the extrapolation of terror suspects from all over the world to the now famous Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Indeed, what better demonstrated the sovereign exceptionality of the USA’s “War on Terror” – or the contemporary “camp” – than the creation of “Gitmo”, a spatialised legal ambiguity, which, in contravention of US law, continues to enable the use of torture and indefinite detention? A space where detainees find still themselves in a legal inertia brought about by their ambiguous legal status, a black hole of “bare life”, to use Agamben’s phrase, in which their right to be counted under the law seems indefinitely suspended; deferred.

In contrast with the early noughties, the present day is marked by something of a shortage of critique, despite the ongoing, seemingly indefinite, nature of the “war”. Moreover, the character of the “war”, its rhetoric and its practices, have been evolving, bringing us to a new phase of automated killing; a death industry brought into being with the development of the “Predator” and “Reaper” Drones, able to anonymously terminate terror suspects in Northern Pakistan. Cheaper, faster and seemingly less politically charged – certainly in the United Kingdom – than a land invasion, the drone allows the US government to kill remotely, as easy as the push of a button.

Perhaps more disconcerting is the way in which drone strikes have begun to connect with the very recent move by the British Government to strip British Terror Suspects of their citizenship, revoking their passports, in an apparent attempt to stop terrorists entering the country. Indeed, as this recent Independent article attests (available here:, it seems that 2 of the 16 (so far) individuals who have been stripped of their citizenship have turned up dead as a result of an American drone attack. This disconcerting development has generated fears that this strategy is being used to legitimately kill British terror suspects living in Northern Pakistan. As the article highlights, there are fears that the stripping of citizenship could be used to secure the extradition of individuals to countries which allow torture, or the termination (in cold, automated blood) of individuals without the necessity of intervention by the British Government. For those who looked on at the decision to go into Afghanistan and Iraq and couldn’t help but wonder about the ulterior motives involved in making such a decision – motives which have since shown to be verifiably true – the unproblematic and politically expedient death of two former British citizens, who would normally be under some sort of legal protection from the State (i.e their death would be murder and not a lawful killing), is as disturbing as it is intriguing. So, if this is the future of the “War on Terror”, then how do we characterise it, what marks this moment in its particularity?

If this is a new paradigm, in many ways the stripping of citizenship resembles the traditional figure of Homo Sacer, which Agamben examines in his most famous work which shares a name with this central protagonist (1998). For in this case we are obviously talking about an individual who can be killed, but not sacrificed: ‘the unpunishability of [the terror suspect’s] killing and the ban on his sacrifice.’ (Agamben, 1998, p. 73) In the first instance, like the earlier work on the “War on Terror”, the situation recalls Schmitt’s famous axiom that ‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.’ (2005, p.5) Here, the British government, by revoking the citizenship of suspected terrorists, takes the decision to decide who and who doesn’t come to be counted under the law. This renders visible ‘the hidden difference between birth and nation,’ (Agamben, 1998, p. 129) demonstrating that the rights of man, that is, to be counted under the law, is not a birth right but one bequeathed by a sovereign. There is a bare life hidden underneath the “citizen”. But more than that, If the killing of what I shall term British terror suspects is a new phase in the “war“, what is truly “exceptional” is that the British government makes this decision in the sovereign zone of the force-of-law – the enactment of sovereign decision without legislation (Ibid,., 2005 p. 39) – in order to kill but not sacrifice terror suspects as an act of pure sovereign contingency. In short, the British terror suspect becomes Homo Sacer in being abandoned by the efficacy of the law, understood as legislative acts and legal effects (Ibid., p. 37) to the force-of-law; to a life now ‘exposed to death.’ (Ibid., 1998, p. 88)

But like the early years of the “war”, we shouldn’t underestimate here the importance of the fact that the killing takes place in a different geographic locale. This enables a traversal of our own (British) principles of the law, inherited from an Enlightenment ethics in which the law is transcendent and absolute. An ethics where the exception is, theoretically speaking, sutured – chained even – to the legislative body. This is precisely because, as Agamben tells us, sovereignty has, in some senses dispersed to the individual: ‘subiectus superaneus, in other words, what is below, and, at the same time, most elevated.’ (Ibid, p. 124)  Quite simply, the legislative body seems to be permanently in force, secured by what we know today as human rights. But as the great analytical work of Nasser Hussain’s A Jurisprudence of Emergency (2003) and Rande Kostal’s A Jurisprudence of Power (2008) demonstrates, there has always been a contradiction between the transcendental nature of the law at home, and the need for exceptional powers in order to bring “law and order” to the colonies. At the heart of this is of course a kind of racist othering of the colonised, brought about by their geographic location (a land other than ours, which dictates the utilisation of a (non)-law different to ours) and their racial identity (a human different to us, which dictates a different (non)-law for their management), enabling the establishment a kind of “needs must” approach to the “law”. Once again, this colonial moment renders visible the disjunction between man (colonised) and citizen (coloniser), the latter of which is bequeathed rights by virtue of his citizenship.

Today’s situation reiterates and makes use of this kind geographic otherness to ensure that this exceptional killing is seen as part of a “needs must” approach to international relations, and, as such, exists in a separate space of sovereign contingency. In this sense, while the stripping of citizenship reduces the British citizen purely to their role as the Islamic terror suspect (bare life), it is only the combination of the Othered terror suspect in an Other place (Northern Pakistan) that enables the bypassing of the transcendental nature of the law, as the undoing – and absolute visibility – of the contradiction between the sovereign rights of man, and their necessary bequeathing by a state; the removal of both “blood” (citizenship) and soil (geographic location within the boundaries of the state). This is, indeed, despite the territory in question coming under the remit of international law, to which Britain has signed up, and which it should therefore operate under. In short, we are brought back to the sovereignty of the British government declared in its ambivalence to international law and abandonment of the absolute and sovereign rights of man.

But while the exception can only operate in an acceptably “other” locale, this geographic space is not precisely a camp – it is, perhaps, something else. In the first instance, and obviously enough, we are dealing with a large less rigidly defined space (Northern Pakistan), which cannot be the space which nominates a “zone of bare life”, where the ‘state of exception… become[s] the rule.’ (Agamben, 1998, pp. 168-169) Bare life (man) and political life (citizen) no doubt permeate the borders of such a large geographic space. In other words, life is not automatically bare once it enters this zone. Nor is it a space where bare life can be so tightly contained: the British terror suspect is seemingly free to move from locale to locale (just not our locale – although the absence of a British passport does limit the freedom of their movement somewhat). Instead, perhaps what we are dealing with is more like a bare life that, by operating in this space, is able to be killed and not sacrificed. Or more precisely the suturing of the individual to the space in a different and dynamic way.

It is this problem that makes the drone the mechanism for terminating the figure of Homo Sacer in this particular situation, par excellence. Able to kill in cold, automated anonymity, the drone strike terminates the British terror suspect with the absence of a humanity that could contaminate death with a tendency to ritual, ceremony, sacrifice. It becomes a robotic act of pure unmediated killing/death. But importantly, it is also able to deal with the particular dynamic relationship between the individual and the space by striking at particular sections of this geographic location. The drone does not murder with reckless abandon, but kills with particular and targeted calculation. Even if it is not quite perfected, we can already begin to see the general trajectory.

Of course, a discussion such as this is in desperate need of a more thorough and closely read analysis. Indeed, this one may seem rather rapid. The problem is a complex tangled web of sovereignty, which interacts on multiple levels. How, for example, do we comprehend the stripping of British citizenship and the termination of those bare lives by American drones? How can we better understand the relationship between the sovereignty of the individual articulated as human rights and the sovereign exception of the British Government created by revoking an individuals’ blood (citizenship) and soil (geographic location within the bounds of the nation state)? In order to begin to answer these questions and others, this article is offered as a preliminary analysis designed to open up a discussion, one which I hope you’ll engage in by taking full advantage of the comments section below.


Agamben, G., 1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Agamben, G., 2005. State of Exception. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press

Hussain, N. 2003. Jurisprudence of Emergency: Colonialism and the Rule of Law. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Kostal, R.  2008. A Jurisprudence of Power: Victorian Empire and the Rule of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmitt, C. 2006. Political Theology, Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty (George Schwab, (trans.)). Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Posted in Articles