What are the boundaries of a country’s license to kill? Historically, most western countries maintain that a nation’s license to kill without trial or due process is only granted during war time. But what if the definition of “war” changes?
Attitudes in the West around targeted killing or assassinations began to shift after 9/11, in step with the “War on Terror.” The War on Terror and the definition of what constitutes terror is ambiguous. In this type of war, the battlefield is not defined in terms of time and space, the enemy is often a civilian, the forces are asymmetric and the concept of winning or losing are not totally clear. In such uncertainty, assassination has become a legitimate tool in the fight. It is surgical, decisive, and highly effective. But, at the same time, it pushes the boundaries of a nation’s power, sovereignty, and moral standing.
Over the last few decades there has been an increase in the number of assassinations conducted across the globe by various countries. Since the 1970s, Israel has maintained a policy of using targeted assassination to go after and deter terrorists, for which it has been frequently condemned. But those who used to condemn are now using the same strategy. In the past two decades, the US and its allies have engaged in targeted killing around the globe, often killing terrorists in countries with whom it is not officially at war (Pakistan, Yemen, etc.) and even eliminating some of their own citizens.
Clearly, a democratic state cannot assassinate its own citizens but rather is required to abide by due process within a criminal justice system. But certain citizens of non-western countries are considered enemy combatants and therefore targeted. In that way the US and other nations have adopted a freer license to kill policy. As citizens of western countries began to join Al Qaeda and ISIS, these individuals too were classified as enemy combatants and therefore legitimate targets. Terrorists like Anwar al-Awlaki (a US Citizen) and Jihadi John (British Citizen) are examples; they were killed via targeted drone strikes.
Recently the definition of “enemy combatant” has been expanded. In January 2020, Qasem Soleimani, the Major General in charge of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and second in command behind the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was killed by a targeted U.S. missile strike on his convoy, in a non-wartime context. His assassination was a click up, the killing of a military general of a nation state. Although perhaps necessary it is nonetheless a potentially dangerous trajectory whereby targeting US Generals traveling the world could now be considered by US adversaries - as fair game.
Targeting someone for assassination is a calculated decision that takes place in air conditioned rooms by men in suits. It is not a decision made under duress or in the fugue of war. Such a weighty decision should not be arbitrary, common, or politicized. It must be carefully considered with the following in mind:
Not an Act of Vengeance
When carried out by a nation state an assassination should not be emotionally motivated. In 1960, the Israeli Mossad kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, one of the main orchestrators of the Holocaust, in Buenos Aires and brought him to face his charges at a public trial in Israel. Eichmann was found guilty and was sentenced to death by hanging. Naturally, it would have been easier for the Mossad to kill Eichmann on the street in Buenos Aires and thus avenge the death of millions of Jews for which he was directly responsible. However, it was important for Israel to show to world that justice, not vengeance was being served.
Twelve years later, Israel’s former Prime Minister, Golda Meir ordered the killing of every person involved in the 1972 terrorist massacre on the Israeli Olympics team in Munich where eleven Israeli athletes were killed. Although the mission no doubt left some people, especially the families of the victims of the attack, satisfied, it was ultimately an act of deterrence and not vengeance.
Former Mossad chief Zvi Zamir confirmed that Israel was not guided by vengeance but rather wanted to prevent terrorists from continuing to perpetrate acts of terror. He said that Golda Meir hated the necessity of having to exact justice. In this case, it was hoped that assassinations against Black September would have a deterrence effect. She wanted to make clear that terrorists attacks would be countered, every time.
Risk and Threat Mitigation
One of the most important considerations by leaders ordering the assassination of a terrorist or an enemy combatant is the risk or threat being mitigated. After all, an assassination is an irreversible act. Leaders must ask themselves if removing this individual from the equation will reduce the risk to the nation. The elimination of a leader of a terrorist organization who is central to a given policy and is a source of motivation for that organization is a strong risk mitigating factor.
It is difficult to anticipate or project the damage an assassination can bring to a terrorist organization or plan. Only time will tell if the assassination of Qasem Soleimani by a US drone earlier this year will truly affect the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s ability to launch terrorist acts in the Middle East and around the world.
Earlier this month, Mohsen Fakhrizadhe, the head of Iran’s military nuclear program was assassinated in a suburb east of Teheran. He joined a long list of Iranian nuclear scientists who lost their lives in similar ways over the last two decades. Fakhrizadhe’s assassination was allegedly executed by Israel who denies its involvement. But whoever was behind the attack clearly hopes the elimination of Fakhrizadhe would retard Iran’s nuclear effort and perhaps also effect the U.S. stance on Iran nuclear deal that President Trump abandoned in 2018.
The deterrence effect of an assassination is clear. Leaders of terrorist organizations will think twice before launching an attack if they are likely to pay the ultimate price for it. But the level of deterrence is also very much influenced by the how and where of an assassination.
Take the case of Yahya Ayyash known as The Engineer who personally orchestrated dozens of suicide bomb attacks in Israel. He was killed when he answered a cell phone which had been planted with 11 grams of explosives. This meant that there was a recruited agent among his most trusted comrades who delivered him the booby-trapped phone. An assassination like this one sends a message to the entire terrorist organization that it has been infiltrated and that no one can be trusted. Unlike a guided missile or drone strike, this MO forces the terrorists to spend time and effort trying to identify and repair security vulnerabilities in their midst.
Consequences of Assassination
When a nation state or country decides to eliminate a threat by assassinating a target, its leaders must take into account the possible ramifications of such an act.
The old adage that “everyone can be replaced” holds true for terrorists, nuclear scientists, generals and ruthless heads of state. Before deciding to push the red button that will send an adversary back to his maker, an assessment must be made about the potential risks posed by the replacements of the soon-to-be-dead terrorist.
Although he was not assassinated, the removal, capture and ultimate execution of Saddam Hussein was a leading reason for the subsequent formation of ISIS. With their military disbanded and their leader hanged, former Iraqi soldiers gravitated towards radical Sunni militias. Those groups later banded together forming ISIS. A similar scene unfolded in Libya with the gap left by the removal of Muammar al-Gaddafi.
Yasser Arafat was an uber terrorist and firmly on Israeli radar for decades. In 1982, Arafat was in Beirut boarding a boat for Tunis. An Israeli sniper had him in his crosshairs. The Prime Minister at the time, Menachem Begin made the decision not to take him out. One reason was that Israeli leadership determined that the terrorists who would likely take his place in the event of his death would be more radical than Arafat. It was a case of preferring the enemy you know. In addition, there would have been retaliation and political galvanization.
Even the acknowledgment of having carried out an assassination has potential consequences. As a matter of policy, while the US typically acknowledges perpetrating such attacks, Israel does not. The reason for the latter is that doing so would force the country in which the attack took place to react - in order to save face. If the origin of an attack while heavily suspected is not officially known, there is less pressure and less potential for acting for political gain, on both sides. As just one example, after the assassination in the UAE of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh by the Mossad (allegedly) had Israel openly admitted to the attack, which involved the use of stolen passports from Germany, Canada and Ireland, those countries would have been forced to not just reprimand but to act officially and politically.
Another potential consequence of an assassination is retaliation. Iran has vowed to revenge Soleimani’s death which has given Iran an excuse for quid pro quo. In the past, Iran via Hezbollah and other proxies has often acted in what it justified was retaliation to an assassination. The targeted killing of Abbas Al-Musawi, the Secretary General of Hezbollah in 1992 was retaliated for with two devastating bombings (1992 and 1994) of Jewish and Israeli targets in Buenos Aires.
In the last twenty years, the use of assassination as tool in an asymmetric war on terror has increased. Individuals are targeted outside of combat environments. Unlike nameless soldiers in battle, these human targets have names and identities, and they move around the globe. Assassination as a tool is used by all kinds of regimes, be they totalitarian or democratic. The strength of democracies, what makes them appealing places to live and worth fighting for, is that they allow for open examination and debate of policies. Both in order to align this tool of warfare with a broader moral stance, and to assure that it is done in the most effective way possible, we should establish a more comprehensive policy on the when, why, where and how assassination takes place.