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What Are Targeted Killings? Their Present and Future, Explained What Are Targeted Killings? Their Present and Future, Explained

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What Are Targeted Killings? Their Present and Future, Explained


An unmanned U.S. Predator drone flies over Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan, on Jan. 31, 2010. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)

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, as well as in counterterrorism efforts in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Since assuming office in 2009, 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 and AQAP propagandist, are prime examples of this trend. The White House points to these outcomes as victories, but critics condemn the lethal tactic on moral, legal, and political grounds.

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What Are 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 are continuing to expand in countries such as Somalia and Yemen.

What Are the Legal Considerations Surrounding U.S. Targeted Killings?

The George W. Bush and Obama administrations have sought to justify targeted killings under both domestic and international law. The domestic legal underpinning for U.S. counterterrorism operations and the targeted killing of members of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and its affiliates across the globe is the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which the U.S. Congress passed just days after 9/11. The statute empowers the president "to use all necessary and appropriate force" in pursuit of those responsible for the terrorist attacks. Peacetime assassinations, which are sometimes conflated with targeted killings, have been officially banned by the United States since 1976.

The Obama administration asserts the United States remains in a state of armed conflict with al-Qaeda and associated forces, and has laid out its justification for targeted killings over several major policy speeches. These include those given by Harold Koh, legal adviser of the U.S. Department of State, in 2010; White House Chief Counterterrorism Adviser John Brennan in 2011; Defense Department General Counsel Jeh Johnson in 2012; Attorney General Eric Holder in 2012, and Brennan, once more, in 2012.


The White House maintains that the U.S. right to self-defense, as laid out in Article 51 of the UN charter, may include the targeted killing of persons such as high-level al-Qaeda leaders who are planning attacks, both in and out of declared theaters of war. The administration's posture includes the prerogative to unilaterally pursue targets in states without their prior consent if that country is unwilling or unable to deal effectively with the threat. The Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, is demonstrative of the administration's policy, which some have condemned as a violation of national sovereignty.

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