We cut to British Army Colonel Katherine Powell waking up early in the morning at Northwood Headquarters. Her team informs her that the Al-Shabaab group has murdered an undercover agent. They put her in charge of a mission to capture three of the highest level Al-Shabaab leaders. Currently, they are meeting at a safe house in Nairobi.
From thousands of miles away, a multinational team works together via secure audio and video systems to complete the mission. Second Lieutenant Steve Watts of the USAF controls drones from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada to survey the area. Jama Farah, an undercover Kenyan agent, provides ground intelligence to Kenyan special forces at the ready nearby.
At the Joint Intelligence Center Pacific at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, they use facial recognition to identify the correct human targets. Finally, in the United Kingdom, British Lieutenant General Frank Benson, two full government ministers and a ministerial under-secretary supervise the mission from a COBRA meeting.
Farah observes the three high-level targets are preparing two suicide bombers (one of whom is an American) to attack civilians. Colonel Powell then changes the mission objective from capture to kill. She orders Watts to prepare his drone for a Hellfire missile attack on the building. She then requests an opinion from the British Army legal counsel.
Much to her annoyance, the counsel punts the decision to their superiors at the COBRA meeting. Each one of the members has their own personal legal and political biases towards the negative publicity associated with the killing of innocent civilians.
Of course, they fail to reach a valid conclusion, and defer to the UK Foreign Secretary who is currently out on a trade mission to Singapore. He also punts the decision, and defers to the US Secretary of State who is currently in Beijing for business. The US Secretary of State declares the American suicide bomber as an enemy of the state. After that, the Foreign Secretary orders COBRA to be diligent with the collateral damage from the strike.
Back in Kenya, Alia lives next door to the targeted building, and she goes to sell her mother’s bread in front of it. The military personnel argue the risks of letting the terrorist leaders escape along with the two suicide bombers versus the risk of injuring the little girl.
With the lawyers and politicians involved, the mission gets bogged down in petty arguments and legal ramblings associated with an attack taking place in a friendly country and not at war with the US or UK.
Back in Nevada, Watts and his enlisted sensor operator, Carrie Gershon, do not like the little girl selling bread outside the targeted building. They do their best to delay firing their missiles until she moves. The team orders Farah buy all of Alia’s bread so she will leave, but in doing so, he blows his cover, and is forced to retreat from his position; spilling the bread. Alia picks it up to sell a second time.
Powell requests final permission to strike. She has her risk-assessment officer find parameters that lowers the risk of civilian deaths to 45%. After he does his re-evaluation, he concludes Alia has a 45–65% chance of dying. She orders him to confirm only the lower figure, and then reports that number to her superiors.
They authorize the strike, and Watts fires a missile. The missile reduces the building to rubble; Alia is severely injured but not dead. However, one of the bombers also survived, so they order Watts to fire a second missile. It hits as Alia’s parents reach their daughter. Although they are injured in the second explosion too, they rush Alia to a hospital. There, she dies.
Back in the London situation room, the under-secretary yells at Benson for killing from the safety of his chair. Benson yells back that while she’s been having coffee and biscuits, he has been on the ground at five suicide bombings and adds: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”
The film ends with the image of little Alia hula hooping in Kenya.