Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Council on Foreign Relations: Targeted Killings

To read this CFR Backgrounders item by Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor, kindly click on this link:

The United States adopted targeted killing as an essential tactic to pursue those responsible for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency have employed the controversial practice with more frequency in recent years, both as part of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and in counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Since assuming office in 2009, President Barack Obama's administration has escalated targeted killings, primarily through an increase in unmanned drone strikes on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, but also through an expansion of U.S. special operations kill/capture missions. The successful killing of Osama bin Laden in a U.S. Navy SEAL raid in May 2011 and the September 2011 drone strike on Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Yemeni cleric andal-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula propagandist, are prime examples of this trend.

In recent years, the White House has made notable efforts to clarify its legal justification for targeted killings amid calls from lawmakers, rights activists, and legal scholars for greater transparency and oversight of the lethal drone program. In May 2013, President Obama delivered a major policy speech discussing the need for a "comprehensive counterterrorism strategy" and acknowledged issuing new policy guidance related to U.S. targeted killings.


According to a UN special report on the subject, targeted killings are premeditated acts of lethal force employed by states in times of peace or during armed conflict to eliminate specific individuals outside their custody. "Targeted killing" is not a term distinctly defined under international law, but gained currency in 2000 after Israel made public a policy of targeting alleged terrorists in the Palestinian territories. The particular act of lethal force, usually undertaken by a nation's intelligence or armed services, can vary widely—from cruise missiles to drone strikes to special operations raids. The primary focus of U.S. targeted killings, particularly through drone strikes, has been on the al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership networks in Afghanistan and the remote tribal regions of Pakistan. However, U.S. operations have expanded in recent years to include countries such as Somalia and Yemen.


Daniel L. Byman of the Brookings Institution says that targeting major terrorists like bin Laden removes charismatic and pragmatic leaders who are difficult to replace. In addition, by targeting an organization's lieutenants, "it is possible to exhaust the terrorist group's bench." CFR's Micah Zenko says that while drone strikes are an effective military tactic, "military victory is not tantamount to political success." He says that while a policy of leadership decapitation can reduce "a group's capacity, it neither ruptures group cohesion nor ideological commitment."


The rise of the so-called "nonstate actors" operating in loose transnational networks as the principal threat to U.S. national security also lends itself to an expansion of U.S. targeted killings, some experts say. In January 2012, the Pentagon released a strategy review that outlines defense priorities "in light of the changing geopolitical environment and our changing fiscal circumstances." The new guidance stresses the persistent threat of al-Qaeda and its affiliates in South Asia and the Middle East, and commits the military to actively pursuing these threats by "directly striking the most dangerous groups and individuals when necessary."

Other experts say technological advances, including precision-guided munitions and enhanced surveillance, have given the United States a greater ability to target these particular individuals while reducing collateral damage. In July 2011, Brennan, provided a portent of things to come: "Going forward, we will be mindful that if our nation is threatened, our best offense won't always be deploying large armies abroad but delivering targeted, surgical pressure to the groups that threaten us."