Tag: assassination

A View to Kill: Should states engage in assassination?

I have a lengthy piece on targeted killing/assassination up at the Canadian International Council’s Open Canada blog. It touches on some of the issues I’ve raised in previous posts here and here.

The short version is that targeted killing/assassination advocates tend to rest their arguments on three assumptions: first, that it is morally legitimate on the basis of reciprocity, that it is easier than launching full-scale invasions or sending in troops to difficult/hostile terrain, and finally that it is effective.

I question these assumptions – first, tit-for-tat/”Golden Rule” justification and logic has been rejected by Western military forces for many decades. Second, while drones may be a more viable option in areas such as the mountainous regions of Afghanistan/Pakistan, you can’t generalize a rule out of this one particular example. Finally, that there is no reliable evidence that targeted killing/assassination actually works (or, to be fair, that it doesn’t work.) And even if we wanted to evaluate whether or not targeted killing is effective, what criteria should be used? The actual elimination of terrorists? The subsequent numbers of operations.? Or should we look at second and third order effects: impact on morale, recruitment, etc. And how could these factors be measured? Further, given the wide variety of actors, circumstances and context, and the many different historical cases, it is virtually impossible to extrapolate from one case to another.

If 2011 is any indication, drone strikes, targeted killing and “assassination” will be here to stay for some time. As such, it is worth asking certain question of our political and military leaders to encourage democratic accountability. What are the criteria to render someone a target? To what degree are these decisions subject to judicial review? And under what framework of law are these operations considered to fall under?

Anwar al-Awlaki and Targeted Killing: A quick, first, and uneasy reaction

*post written with comments from fellow duck Ben O’Loughlin

The world media is reporting that Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed in Yemen – although details are very sketchy at this point.

It is very clear to me that Awlaki was not a particularly nice person – he advocated some rather terrible things (even before 9/11 supposedly radicalised him). His followers have been certainly linked to terrorism, including the Fort Hood shooting.

However, I must admit that I am somewhat troubled by this turn of events. Earlier this year I suggested that the targeted killing of bin Laden was acceptable under international law. He’s been linked to the financing and organising of terrorist attacks around the world and this was well established before his death.

But I have yet to see any reports that suggest that Awlaki has been tied to any material support for terrorist attacks. I think this changes the legal game substantially. It essentially is suggesting that *we* (whoever that is) are now targeting people for their ideas rather than they are actually doing. Pushed to its logical extreme, a person might unintentionally inspire others to commit violent acts. Should they be eliminated?

I’m no fan of Awlaki and I will certainly not mourn his passing, (really – he seems like a total jerk) but this raises serious questions about the targeted killing program, who is being targeted and why. Presumably, in the case of targeted killing, its important there is evidence BEFORE the killing, rather than a scrabble now to piece together a case, after the fact.

I hope there is evidence that he actually materially supported terrorism.

Edit: Will McCants has linked to an article at Foreign Policy from November 2010 which argues the case for taking out Awlaki. I still have mixed feelings about this. I will feel better if there is a case/dossier of evidence that can be brought forward – and I still maintain that this case should have been made before striking out at him. 

Targeting Targeted Killing

I was asked to step-in at the last minute to write a chapter on targeted killing for a textbook on isses in the War on Terror. Given the recent OBL killing and debate about raids, etc, I was surprisingly excited at the prospect of engaging with the issue.

Although my chapter is almost done (no really, Richard, it’s on its way!) I’ve noticed some problems with researching the topic and trying to draw general conclusions as to whether or not it is a good or a bad policy.


1.What are you people talking about?

When talking about “targeted killing”, everyone means something different. Some are talking about assassination (Michael Gross for example), some specifically are talking about the Israeli policy used against alleged Palestinian militants post-November 2002 (such as Steven David); some are talking about the targeting of terrorist leaders generally (decapitation in Audrey Kurth Cronin’s book How Terrorism Ends). Nils Melzer on the other hand seems to be talking about every kind of state killing in and out of warfare from the CIA in Vietnam, to US tactics against Gaddafi in the 1980s to Israel-Palestine post-2000.


And yet all of these things are radically different policies from each other. While decapitation refers to the removal of the leadership of a group, Israel’s policy targeted anyone who was seen as part of the upper-to-middle management of terrorist organizations. It’s not just the leadership that was targeted, but the bomb-makers, planners, etc. The US drone policy seems to target “militants” generally and is done in the context of ongoing armed conflict (although I concede this is up for debate). Whereas the OBL raid was clearly targeting just OBL.

Yet many (like Dershowitz in this post here or Byman here) conflate ALL of these kinds of killing where it is convenient for his/her argument. For example, shorter Dershowitz: the US has killed Osama, ergo Israel’s tactics are legitimate. Leaving the legitimacy issue aside for a moment, these operations were two INCREDIBLY different things. You simply can’t compare one to the other – which leads me to my next point…

2. Israel-Palestine is crazy sui generis

To put it mildly, the Israel-Palestinian situation is unlike any other situation in the world. Basically, you have a well-armed democratic country in a state of confused hostilities with an internationally recognized movement (with some branches that engage in politically violent acts) directly beside it that is engaged in a struggle for independence. This is pretty much the opposite of the United State’s drone tactics in the Af-Pak region, where drones are being controlled from far away (military bases or mainland USA) against territories that are also far away to combat a threat that is, again, far away.

To draw conclusions from one and to apply it to the other simply does not make any sense. The policies are carried out in very different ways, justified very differently (Israel has a process involving courts, political figures, etc; the US president seems to be the sole authorizing force on many of the attacks against militants/terrorists). Comparing targeted killing apples and drone oranges doesn’t really seem to work.

And yet, almost all of the work on targeted killing from which assessments are made has been based on Israel’s policy in Palestine. The three major studies I can find are: Kaplan, et al. 2005; Hafez and Hatfield, 2006; Mannes 2008.

The one exception I have is the Cronin book, How Terrorism Ends where she also looks at the policy of targeting and killing militants in the Philippines and Russia. As a popular-ish book, it doesn’t go into a lot of methodological detail, but just states what happened to various movements/organisations after their leaders were killed. (Cronin is also sceptical that it works though she does admit of the Israeli policy that it may have saved some Israeli lives.)

So, while it might be the only model we have decent statistics on, but I don’t think the Israeli policy of targeted killing is appropriate one for building a comprehensive argument on targeting leaders generally.

3. Assessment of effectiveness requires counterfactual history

Many of the studies above make assessments of the Israeli-Palestinian policy by saying that it basically has no effect whatsoever. Statistics don’t lie, I suppose. But I can’t help feeling that something is missing here. While these studies don’t show a significant decrease in attacks, they don’t show a significant increase either. Who knows what would have happened without the policy. There could have been more attacks. There could have been fewer attacks. It could have stayed the same. The problem that defenders and detractors of targeted killing encounter is that we don’t really know what would have happened otherwise. So drawing conclusions about success/failure seems to necessarily involve guessing what would have or would not have happened when it reality we don’t actually know and have to rely on assumptions and guesswork.

In summary, it seems to me that 1) there is a dearth of evidence from which to draw reasonable conclusions 2) the policies are so different that a comparison is impossible – as is the extension of the lessons of one case study to another.

In this case I wonder if such policies should be justified (David, 2003) or denounced (Stein 2003; Gross 2003 and 2006) on a normative basis. For example, David justifies the policy as fulfilling a need for revenge (which he sees as morally justifiable) and Gross argues against because the use of collaborators in gathering the necessary intelligence is immoral.

This isn’t to say that quantitative studies on the issue are useless – on the contrary, we desperately need more information. But to me this seems to be a case where a discussion of morality may actually be more effective than discussing an almost impossible to measure effectiveness – at least for the immediate future.

I would be most grateful for any suggestions of further qual/quant studies on the topic from Duck readers. (I see that CATO has a speciall issue out on the US and targeted killing. However as it does not appear that it will be fully uploaded until 13 June, I’m kind of out of luck for my chapter and this post.)

Threat Detection

At the request of the US Secret Service, Facebook has removed this poll from its site:

According to ABCNews, the Secret Service is investigating the creator of the poll “to determine intent.” But if the goal is to identify threats to the President rather than police hate speech, wouldn’t it be more logical (and easier) to go after those who voted “yes,” “maybe” or “if…”?

Use it or lose it

A recent paper from Brookings, Georgetown and Hoover discusses the international legal aspects of targeted killing. As you would expect, American policy isn’t in sync with the emerging global norm. An idealist might argue that the US is in the wrong (and they have a very strong case under the International Convention on Human Rights); a Realist might argue that the US needs the latitude to kill because it (or somebody–and nobody else is available) has the responsibility to combat enemies of the legal regime that everyone else assumes. The point that I hadn’t thought of before is the conclusion that the US might want to be open about what it is doing and assert–as a legal principle–that this is as it should be.

The ultimate lesson for Congress and the Obama Administration about targeted killings is “Use it or lose it.” This is as true of its legal rationale as it is of the tool itself. Targeted killings conducted from standoff platforms, with improving technologies in surveillance and targeting, are a vital strategic, but also humanitarian, tool in long-term counterterrorism. War will always be important as an option; so will the tools of law enforcement, as well as all the other non-force aspects of intelligence work: diplomacy and coordination with friends and allies. But the long-standing legal authority to use force covertly, as part of the writ of the intelligence community, remains a crucial tool—one the new administration will need and evidently knows it will need. So will administrations beyond it.

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The death of Osama bin Laden and his top aides by Predator strike tomorrow would alter national security counterterrorism calculations rather less than we might all hope. As new terrorist enemies emerge, so long as they are “jihadist” in character, we might continue referring to them as “affiliated” with al Qaeda and therefore co-belligerent. But the label will eventually become a mere legalism in order to bring them under the umbrella of an AUMF passed after September 11. Looking even further into the future, terrorism will not always be about something plausibly tied to September 11 or al Qaeda at all. Circumstances alone, in other words, will put enormous pressure on—and ultimately render obsolete—the legal framework we currently employ to justify these operations.

What we can do is to insist on defining armed conflict self-defense broadly enough, and human rights law narrowly enough—as the United States has traditionally done—to avoid exacerbating the problem and making it acute sooner, or even immediately.

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We stand at a curious moment in which the strategic trend is toward reliance upon targeted killing; and within broad U.S. political circles even across party lines, a political trend toward legitimization; and yet the international legal trend is also severely and sharply to contain it within a narrow conception of either the law of armed conflict under IHL or human rights and law enforcement, rather than its traditional conception as self-defense in international law and regulation as covert action under domestic intelligence law. Many in the world of ideas and policy have already concluded that targeted killing as a category, even if proffered as self-defense, is unacceptable and indeed all but per se illegal. If the United States wishes to preserve its traditional powers and practices in this area, it had better assert them. Else it will find that as a practical matter they have dissipated through desuetude.

Does the US (or someone) have the right to target individuals? In States where the US is not formally at war? Inside the US?

I suspect that someone has to have the job of playing cop in the international system. I don’t see anyone but the US who is able and willing to do it. A UN force is a possibility, but it still comes down to great power politics and capabilities. On the other hand, I don’t want to give the cops–any cops–the right to target whoever they choose. Even if they start with the best of intentions, that’s a structure that corrupts the cop, alientates the community, and kills the innocent.

Why Not Assassinate Mugabe? Why Not To.

Due to more than one misinterpretation of the original version of this post, I have altered the title and extended / clarified the argument, which now reads as follows:

In the wake of Mugabe’s “re-election,” political violence in the country is on the increase. Jake Farr Wharton has a modest proposal:

“Mugabe’s forces violently bullied and intimidated the people of Zimbabwe into a second election. Last week, Tsvangiri withdrew his candidacy, siting that he could not stand for president when anyone who voted for him, was doing so at a very real risk to their families lives. As such, Mugabe ran unopposed and won. The many people he had killed, maimed, imprisoned, held hostage and the villages he had destroyed devastatingly culminated in a win for him. The violent intimidation worked.

Where is the UN when they are actually needed? Where is the African Union when they are actually needed? End this man in the only way he knows how, assassinate him. Let it be done and hold a new election, one overseen by the UN and African Union.”

There are moral arguments to be made here. Politicians whose thugs burn little boys alive because their father supports the opposition don’t deserve the protection of sovereign immunity. And Ward Thomas has made a convincing case that the norm against assassinating heads of state has little ethical basis, since it protects the guiltiest civilians while often resulting in protracted wars that cost the lives of the most innocent or, at best (when wars are fought professionally) of soldiers who have often been conscripted. Besides, the CIA would no doubt dispatch him more humanely than his own people ultimately will… recall the untimely end of Samuel Doe, former President of Liberia.

So why not assassinate Mugabe? At Elected Swineherd, Empedocles harbors doubts on pragmatic, rather than moral grounds:

“Such an operation would likely leave an open door for widespread ethnic violence in its wake. What is needed instead is a UN or SADC (South African Development Council) peacekeeping deployment to coordinate humanitarian aid and a slow political transition.”

Hmm, s/he’s got a point there. The Rwandan genocide was tipped off by the apparent assassination of the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi, after which the Tutsi population of the country was scape-goated, providing a pretext for root-and-branch massacres. Though, is Zimbabwe Rwanda? Or is it early Nazi Germany, where the stage is not yet set for full-blown genocide but the leadership has the power and political will to do so if not removed? And a peacekeeping mission? One was in place in Rwanda in April 1994.

[Even if these pragmatic concerns and potential alternatives are overblown, there is still an argument on ethical grounds to counter Wharton’s idea and Thomas’ ethical analysis. It is this: two wrongs don’t make a right. Promoting rule of law and human rights means no extrajudicial executions; the accused should be indicted, arrested, held, tried and only punished if they are found guilty. In theory, this standard should be no less true for statesmen and women than for the citizens we wish leaders like Mugabe would allow to enjoy these same rights. The problem with moral absolutism, some will say, is that it rarely is a recipe for proper statecraft.]

Perhaps the best (though perhaps also the worst) reason why not to go down this road is a self-interested one: to preserve the anti-assassination norm itself, which functions to protect the interests of the great powers, including the US, whose leaders are likeliest to be the targets of such attacks in the future; [and to protect the stability of the international rule-sets that have precluded great power war for sixty years.]

Which still begs the question of what should be done [to help the people of Zimbabwe].

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