Tag: targeted killings

Drones, targeted killings and the limitations of international law

Last month’s announcement that a Royal Air Force drone was used to kill two British citizens in Syria has reignited debates about the legality of targeted killings, but there is always a danger that something gets lost within this legal frame. Questions about the geographical boundaries of contemporary conflict and the legal status of those being targeted are clearly important and should not be ignored but we should also be aware that other equally important issues are being pushed to the margins of debate. As I argue in my recent article for International Political Sociology, the rather dry, disembodied and technical language of international law tends to ignore the pain and suffering experienced by those targeted and the detrimental effects drone operations are having on the communities living below. As such, these legal debates have failed to contest the notion that this technology provides a more efficient, more effective and more humane way of waging war.

One of the reasons that this incident has caused such a stir is that it is the first time that the British have used a drone to carry out an extra-judicial killing. In a statement to the House of Commons last month, David Cameron confirmed that a British drone had been used to carry out a deadly attack in Syria despite the fact that MPs had previously voted against military operations against Bashar al-Assad. The victims –Reyaad Khan, Ruhul Amin and a third unidentified man – were killed when their car was hit as it travelled through the northern city of Raqqa. They were targeted, Cameron argued, because Khan was plotting a series of ‘barbaric attacks against the West’ and ‘actively recruiting ISIL sympathisers’ to carry them out. The Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, provided some additional details the following day, telling the BBC that months of ‘meticulous planning [and] careful surveillance’ had gone into this attack and that the government ‘wouldn’t hesitate to do it again’. Indeed, he went on to suggest that the British might adopt a US-style hit list, prompting a fierce rebuke from human rights groups.

Continue reading

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.)

Norms Are What Analysts Make of Them…? And Other Thoughts About Targeting Killings, Sieges, and War Law Development

Professor Michael Gross left a lengthy response at Current Intelligence to my remarks about his characterization of asymmetric war. I’m afraid he seems displeased with me:

Far superior to faint praise, it is still annoying when reviewers pick out controversial arguments but leave the impression that the author did not address them.

Oh dear. It’s true that, in my effort at brevity, I did give short shrift to many of the overarching strengths of the book: its breadth, up-to-date-ness, and unique and timely case studies on non-lethal weapons, assassination, the right to self-defense of national liberation movements and humanitarian intervention among others. But then again, this wasn’t a book review, just a brief response to a specific set of points Gross makes. My other essay referencing his book responds to a different set of equally specific points, and should be read as such. Neither is or is intended to define or respond to the entire book, which is a broad overview of dilemmas states and irregulars face in winning wars against one another. (If you want to read such a review however, here’s one. Professor Gross is also apparently writing an equivalent treatise on the moral dilemmas faced by irregulars, which I eagerly anticipate.)

At any rate, Gross goes on to engage the comments I did make at some length, for which I’m grateful. As one good turn deserves another, let me discuss some of his remarks and also try to clarify where I see the differences in our opinions – which are not so far apart really (we both care about war law and about protecting noncombatants) but which do differ somewhat on analytical, ethical and programmatic grounds.

First, I think a key difference in our thinking which is demonstrated in Gross’ response to my essay hinges on our use of the term “norms.” I tend to follow Jepperson, Katzenstein and Wendt in writing about ethical norms in a descriptive sense, as empirically identifiable “collective understandings about the proper behavior of actors with a specific identity.” I teach my students in Rules of War that analyzing the origins, extent and impact of norms as understood by political actors is very different from doing “normative theory” – that is, drawing on philosophical principles to make arguments about how states should behave.

But Gross uses the term to both describe norms and to make ethical arguments, often interchangeably. Consider, for example, the following:

Assassination (Chapter 5) was long reviled but took on new life in the 21st century to wage war against militants entrenched among civilians. Initially condemned as extra-judicial execution (by this writer among others), targeted killing has emerged as an effective means to disable non-uniformed combatants while sparing civilians many of the horrors of full-scale battle. Today, the debate turns on improving effectiveness and curtailing collateral harm. Virtually no one questions the morality of fingering combatants for killing. Yet this was the crux of a norm that stood fast since the American Civil War.

It should also be clear then that some practices can never evolve into acceptable norms of military conduct. This is true of disproportionate force, the so called “Dahiya” doctrine named after the Beirut neighborhood that was pulverized in a fruitless attempt to destroy Hezbollah’s command headquarters during the Second Lebanon War.

In the first sentence of the first paragraph, Gross describes the varying extent and strength of the anti-assassination norm and how it changed over time, an argument also made by Ward Thomas. He also argues that the norm has been eroded by current state practice and that this is reflected in the absence of concern over targeted killings. (This latter is an empirical statement and in theory empirically falsifiable, as I’ll show in a moment.)

In the second paragraph though, Gross is making a normative claim (as opposed to a descriptive claim about norms). He is arguing that there are standards that should not be crossed. At least he must be, because it’s certainly not the case that standards can’t be crossed in political reality: in fact many behaviors we today consider immoral were once perfectly acceptable.

This perhaps explains why I have more faith in existing international norms than Gross appears to have. Distinguishing between my own opinion of what they should look like and my understanding of what actors in the world actually think on these matters enables me to avoid my normative preferences with the way the world actually works.

For example, I am fairly certain Gross is empirically wrong about targeted killing. First of all, the fact that it’s considered effective doesn’t mean it’s considered normatively valid. Second, the fact that it is being practiced doesn’t necessarily undermine the anti-assassination norm unless you assume that targeted killing is assassination. (Actually, a far more nuanced argument on targeted kiling is developed by JW Fisher, who distinguished targeted killing from assassination on legal grounds and points out that targeted killing actually squares normatively with the anti-assassination norm, not challenging it, insofar as it is also designed to maintain/restore Westphalian order.) But most importantly, it is certainly not the case that targeted killing is uncontested. In fact it is so enormously controversial that the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Summary Executions has condemned the practice. Human Rights Watch has expressed grave concerns about the lack of transparency with respect to targeting decisions, making it impossible to evaluate the legality of such killings. There is simply no evidence of an international consensus that such actions are lawful. Whether I or Gross believes they should be considered lawful is entirely beside the point in terms of social scientific analysis.

The second way in which Gross and I differ – though only slightly – is on ethical grounds. (I say slightly because we largely agree on the big points: war law matters, the protection of noncombatants is important and trickier than it has to be, norm development is needed, strengthening of humanitarian principles is a good thing, the general neglect of the duties – and rights – of irregulars has been part of the problem.) Still, we are in disagreement about the ethics of specific solutions to these problems. Consider the following statement:

Are indirect participants off the hook or, as I suggest, do they bear some measure of responsibility for war and aggression? And, if liable, what is to be done with them? Here I make a modest suggestion: incapacitation. This means rendering infrastructures inoperable, apprehending civilian participants and restricting their movement through curfew, siege or incarceration. This limits freedom of movement but respects their right to protection from harm during war.

Perhaps so, and some readers may be in closer agreement with Gross than I on this point. But if nothing else an examination of the long-term effects of siege and incarceration on civilians does not necessarily “protect them from harm.” (It may protect them from death by explosives, but not from death by exposure, preventable disease or malnutrition; or from the psychological harms of captivity and separation from loved ones). Moreover this idea skirts the question of how to distinguish “indirect participants” from non-participants, all of whom would presumably be affected by measures such as siege, only pushing the distinction question down one layer of ethical complexity.

But the final and probably most important set of differences between us, which I elaborate here, is that Gross seems to argue that the natural and proper mechanism for “norm development” is mere state practice. The proposal above, for example, is for a change in state military doctrine. The evidence he provides for “norm change” in his book is the fact that certain states, especially the US and Israel, have changed their practices.

I view norm developments as distinct from and often taking place as a reaction to shifting state practice. They are the result of multilateral discussions among states, often the result of a longer period of normative dialogue within the wider global civil society, and you know these developments both by the nature of those conversations and the ways that states account for what they do and respond to what others do.

Ultimately Gross and I are asking the same big question: how can states further shrink the impact of war on civilians without losing wars to irregular fighters who themselves threaten civilian life? And many of the same smaller questions: what should direct participation mean in a transnational war? What is the proper metric for tallying the civilian dead and weighing them against military necessity? What obligations do governments owe the lawful yet innocent victims of war?

But where Gross’ answer is to propose specific doctrinal recipes for warring governments, my answer is simply: states need to develop an enforceable consensus on what the answers should be through multilateral dialogue and participation of global civil society organizations (not unilateral re-interpretation of the norms).

© 2019 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑