Is There a Future For Targeted Killing?

Article 4 |

Volume 2, Issue 1

Danny Steed

University of ReadingUnited Kingdom

Danny Steed is a graduate of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, and is currently undertaking PhD research at the University of Reading as part of the ongoing Liberal Way of War program. His thesis is exploring the relationship between strategy and intelligence.

Targeted killing today is a rich avenue of analysis, due to its increased exposure in the media and subsequent policy discussions. The focus of this exposure has not yet, however, penetrated the core issues associated with targeted killing from the viewpoint of the strategist. Instead, most analysis has become bogged down in the stalemate between strategic theorists and legal experts. Strategic theorists recognise the effectiveness of Targeted killing whereas legal experts consider the act as extrajudicial killing, usually condemning the practice accordingly.

This is most clearly true in the case of the killing of Osama bin Laden, whereby not only has the methodology of targeted killing now been given a thorough airing, but it has also highlighted the debate between strategy and law. Indeed, while it may be argued that the bin Laden raid was not a targeted killing in the first place, it is the view of this article that this was indeed the case for a simple reason; even though there was intent to capture if possible, the end result was bin Laden’s slaying. There was only ever a minute chance of his being taken alive, bin Laden would have had to offer his immediate surrender, which he did not do.

In light of such events, the purpose of this article is to consider whether there is a future for targeted killing and will argue one simple idea; targeted killing as a military strategy will enjoy not only a future, but can be expected to become increasingly relevant to strategic practitioners. This is because the experience of recent years has proven it to hold considerable strategic utility. So long as a strategy produces the desired results in its application and is cost effective, then it will always represent an attractive option to policy makers.

The debate so far

Although this article seeks to consider a primarily strategic viewpoint, it is necessary to briefly consider the current state of literature on targeted killing. That literature contains two main arguments alluded to above: those from strategic studies, who believe targeted killing works[i], and legal experts, who either question its practice on legal grounds or simply do not fully understand its practice. Kurth Cronin represents the latter when she conflates targeted killing with assassination, and doubts the effectiveness of targeted killing in practice. [ii] Solis serves as an alternative to Kurth Cronin’s view by detailing how targeted killing and assassination are different in legal terms.[iii] Murphy and Radsan represent the former in calling for a clear system of due process if the practice is to be continued.[iv] Byman reflects this argument by insisting that the practice of targeted killing can only be preserved ‘by bringing it into the light rather than keeping it in the shadows.’[v]

Yet it is only Blum and Heymann who reveal the deeper complexity of the issue when they recognise that ‘targeted killing operations display the tension between addressing terrorism as a crime and addressing it as a war.’[vi] This observation should drive future research into the place targeted killing holds between the realms of strategy and law.[vii] However, that is not the purpose of this article, for it misses the key strategic question one must ask of targeted killing; what future does it hold to practising strategists?

The strategic logic of effectiveness

To gauge this future, a basic strategic framework must be adopted, taken from Stahl and Owen, and Brodie respectively. Stahl and Owen argue that targeted killing is neither a policy nor a tactic, it is indeed a strategy utilised in the application of force.[viii] Accepting that targeted killing is a military strategy is essential, for this informs the next step adopted from Brodie, who declared that ‘the question that matters most in strategy is: Will the idea work?’[ix]

Taken together this fundamental framework is very simply about effectiveness, which informs the expected utility; in short, targeted killing should be judged on its effective application. That effectiveness of course will depend on the policy being sought; in Iraq during the surge it was instrumental to “defibrillating” the political process by contributing to the reduction in violence. Its success and cost-effectiveness will be the primary concerns to decision makers who must choose which strategies to apply in seeking their desired political objectives. To further explore this, the present practice of targeted killing should be assessed. This will not be done by looking at the Israeli case however, as that has already been well covered by Byman, Stahl and Owen respectively. Instead, this article will start by looking at what will here be dubbed the “American model.”

The American model consists of three forms of tactical implementation: Air strikes, such as the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2006[x]; Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) strikes that killed Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen[xi] (prolific also throughout Pakistan[xii]); and Special Operation Forces (SOF) raids like that in Abbottabad.

These three tactical instruments are supported by extensive planning and intelligence networks designed to “find” and “fix” targets before being “finished.” This model was refined during the Surge in Iraq (2006-2008) when General Stanley McChrystal was commanding the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Strangely enough, analytical focus on the importance of JSOC operations – fundamentally centred on targeted killings – have been omitted from most analyses of the turnaround in Iraq.[xiii] Woodward so far stands alone in recognising their relevance when he includes JSOC as the first of three key factors in the success of the surge. He detailed further that JSOC’s success was based on what McChrystal called “collaborative warfare.” This collaborative model used ‘every tool available simultaneously, from signals intercepts to human intelligence and other methods, that allowed lightning-quick and sometimes concurrent operations.’[xiv]

This model has since become the focus of an impressive study by Lamb and Munsing, whose central focus is to ensure that the lessons learnt from this system are not lost but incorporated into future practice.[xv] The intelligence and organisational underpinnings of the American model – generally termed Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) within the American military[xvi] – rather than the forms of tactical implementation themselves, are what make this model so formidable in practice.

Contrary to some perceptions, the focus of the American model of targeted killing is not to eliminate solely leadership targets. This misapprehension has been informed by the high-profile killings of al-Zarqawi, bin Laden, and al-Awlaki respectively. The model was instead always designed to collapse the network of professionals within a terrorist organisation, by targeting what regular forces would call their senior non-commissioned ranks and subalterns.[xvii] Byman sums up the logic well by saying that terrorist resources are finite., as recruiting and retaining skilled personnel is a slow and fragile process. ‘When these individuals are arrested or killed, their organisations are disrupted. The groups may still be able to attract recruits, but lacking expertise, these new recruits will not pose the same kind of threat.’[xviii]

The real effectiveness of targeted killing lies not with leadership killings – where one can reasonably question their wider impact[xix] – but in the cumulative degrading of terrorist infrastructure. In Baghdad in particular targeted killings conducted by JSOC were very successful in removing the terrorist capability to cause harm. This was done by removing as many personnel from the battle space as could be achieved. The British Special Air Service (SAS) contribution to JSOC alone is estimated to have removed some 3,500 insurgents from the Baghdad battle space.[xx] Hunter is consequently wrong in his assessment of targeted killing as holding little strategic utility, simply for the fact that he only considers the elimination of leadership targets.[xxi] This sentiment is also reflected by Erwin in questioning the impact of the al-Zarqawi killing.[xxii]

Instead, a true assessment must consider the objective of such operations as a whole. That objective in Iraq was a holistic degradation of terrorist infrastructure, achieved via relentless targeting and elimination of its operational personnel, in order to reduce violence and create space for a political process. Targeted killing is not designed to produce spectacularly fast results, but to wear the enemy machine down until it poses a negligible threat. It should be noted that this is an objective entirely in accordance with not only wider counterinsurgency objectives, but also the fundamental Clausewitzian principle of destroying the enemy’s forces.[xiii]

Questions of morality in the “American model”

The American model of Targeted killing is unquestionably effective, but it is not perfect. The occurrence of civilian casualties has become an issue of scrutiny. Upon taking command of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan, McChrystal declared to NATO officers: ‘Civilian casualties are not just some reality with the Washington press. They are a reality for the Afghan people. If we use airpower irresponsibly, we can lose this fight.’[xxiv] The simple nature of air and UAV strikes, involving the delivery of high-explosive ordnance, coupled with the difficulties of grappling with an enemy embedded among civilian populations, make it inevitable that civilian casualties will occur.

What was not expected was the level of public backlash that would result, including rebukes from the United Nations.[xxv] The issue of incurring civilian casualties has become very acute and can be viewed as the Achilles heel of targeted killing when carried out by aerial means. The declaration that the effectiveness of targeted killing is the driving concern dominating its utility to policy makers is true, but a large part of what might make targeted killings ineffective is whether it becomes deemed immoral.

As Gray wisely warns, moral advantage ‘can be secured if the enemy is seduced into breaking his own rules, flouting his own standards.’[xxvi] An increased use of aerial platforms, incurring greater civilian casualties, would be a flouting of these standards and would fast erode the moral advantage of the counterinsurgent. It could even, if occurring widely, erode the moral claim that a liberal state proclaims to have over other dictatorial forms of governance if it proves unable to reduce unnecessary risk of civilian deaths. The American ability to reduce and avoid such casualties will be crucial to not only achieving sought strategic objectives, but also in redressing America’s moral image in the world.

American political culture must be briefly appreciated however, in order to reveal the complexities and controversies the adoption of targeted killing has within America. The line between targeted killing and assassination, while clear in conceptual theory, can appear very thin if not absent in public perceptions. The debates over the legality of American actions in Pakistan in May 2011[xxvii] go a long way towards revealing the fragile state of opinion on the use of these methods, although it is notable that the US Attorney General insisted that the Abbotabad raid was not an assassination.[xxviii]

Yet were there to be a public outcry against these methods, conceivably induced by increased public awareness of “collateral damage” resulting from air and UAV strikes, then one could expect a curtailing or scaling down of these operations. This is not yet the case however, and the bottom line on American political culture at this stage should be to note that while the American political left is generally against such use of force, it is a left-wing President who has expanded the targeted killing program. Unless targeted killing negatively impacts President Obama’s poll rating, their use will continue under his Administration, and the success of the bin Laden killing has done much to convince Americans of this strategies effectiveness.

Indeed the operation resulting in the death of bin Laden represents the pinnacle of targeted killing so far. That a covert insertion into Pakistan could be achieved not only without detection, but to then assault a target containing 17 non-combatants,[xxix] only to then kill all combatants including bin Laden and leave without sustaining casualties or causing civilian deaths, tells the story of more than simply tactical success. It is argued here that the Abbottabad raid represents the most ethical targeted killing yet conducted. Diligent intelligence work led to the target, which was assaulted by a well-oiled and much-practised machine deployed by McChrystal in Iraq, and refined thereafter by Admiral McRaven.

So, whilst arguments abound as to whether bin Laden should have been captured, such arguments miss the point that lies behind the method. What occurred in Abbottabad was not only a defining chapter in the War on Terror,[xxx] but a very dramatic public demonstration of what targeted killing is; how it works, and how successful it can be. Only time will reveal the full importance of bin Laden’s killing, but the strategic logic is clear; American policy since 9/11 has been to hunt down and eradicate core al Qaeda members. Targeted killing has proven so far to be the most suitable military strategy to achieving this.


There is a future to be expected from targeted killing, because it is an effective, relatively cost-effective military strategy that from the perspective of the American model in practice, enjoys a proven record of success. Consider this with the current realities of the world, and one can identify additional reasons why targeted killing can be expected to have a future.

First, the world financial state encourages cheaper strategies; now that the era of austerity measures and public spending cuts are taking hold of western states it has to be expected that protracted counterinsurgency missions like Iraq and Afghanistan will not represent the short- to medium-term future. The reduction of personnel deployed as well as the financial benefits of targeted killing programs over personnel-heavy occupations will be attractive to austere policy makers seeking affordable solutions to difficult problems.

Second is that current and emerging security problems lend themselves towards targeted killing; consider piracy emanating from Somalia. It is unlikely that a western military force would be committed to addressing the underlying problems within Somalia, but nor would the current NATO convoy/blockade approach be sufficient were piracy to reach levels whereby commercial insurance rates and corporate profit margins were adversely affected. Should this situation deteriorate a targeted killing program could plausibly be more attractive than a prolonged intervention and/or occupation, especially given the recent memories of Iraq, as well as the previous American experience of Somalia. The situation in Yemen has also resulted in an expansion of American UAV deployments into that particular area,[xxxi] with the killing of al-Awlaki resulting.

A further point to be noted is that operations in Libya have also enjoyed a heated debate over the legitimacy of targeting Colonel Gaddafi personally, with the argument becoming most pressing in the UK. In that particular case it is intriguing that the political leadership insisted on the legitimacy of targeting Gaddafi at the outset of the campaign in March, whereas the military leadership disagreed entirely.[xxxii]

Targeted killing is a military strategy that in the past six years has developed a proven record for success in Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen. This coupled with facing financial difficulties on western states and emerging security issues combine to reveal a perhaps ugly truth: as targeted killing has utility to strategic practitioners, it will therefore have a future. The big question for liberal states is whether they can justify its use morally and legally to support their goals in the world. However, this grand-strategic question should always be asked well before using force.


[i] Stahl, A. E. and W. F. Owen (2010). “Targeted killings Work.” Infinity Journal 1(1): 3., Dershowitz, A. M. (2011). Targeted killing Vindicated. New York, Hudson Institute. 2011.
[ii] Ch. 1 of Cronin, A. K. (2009). How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton, NJ., Princeton University Press.
[iii] See pp. 134-136 of Solis, G. (2007). “Targeted killing and the Law of Armed Conflict.” Naval War College Review 60(2): 19.
[iv] Murphy, R. and A. J. Radsan (2009). “Due Process and the Targeted killing of Terrorists.” Cardozo Law Review 31(2): 45.
[v] P. 111 of Byman, D. (2006). “Do Targeted killings Work?” Foreign Affairs 85(2): 26.
[vi] P. 145 of Blum, G. and P. Heymann (2010). “Law and Policy of Targeted killing.” Harvard National Security Journal 1: 25.
[vii] A useful starting point would be Bobbitt, P. (2008). Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century. London, Penguin Books. Cullen also notes that legal systems have yet to come to terms with the challenge of transnational terrorism. P. 23 of Cullen, P. M. (2008). “The Role of Targeted killing in the Campaign Against Terror.” JFQ 48(1): 7.
[viii] Stahl, A. E. and W. F. Owen (2011). “Targeted killing: A Modern Strategy of the State.” Michigan War Studies Review 2011(025): 8.
[ix] P. 452 of Brodie, B. (1973). War and Politics. London, Cassell & Company Ltd.
[x] The story of which is best covered by Ch. 10 of Urban, M. (2010). Task Force Black: The Explosive True Story of the SAS and the Secret War in Iraq. London, Little, Brown. And Bowden, M. (2007). The Ploy. The Atlantic. May 2007.
[xi] News, B. (2011, 30/09/2011). “Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki killed in Yemen.” Retrieved 07/11/2011, 2011, from
[xii] See Mayer, J. (2009). The Predator War: What are the risks of the CIA’s covert drone program? The New Yorker.
[xiii] There is not a single mention of McChrystal or of JSOC within the US Army War College’s own study of the strategic shift in 2007. Metz, S. (2010). Decisionmaking in Operation Iraqi Freedom: The Strategic Shift of 2007. Carlisle, PA., USAWC SSI.
[xiv] P. 380 of Woodward, B. (2009). The War Within: A Secret White House History 2006-2008. London, Pocket Books.
[xv] Lamb, C. J. and E. Munsing (2011). Secret Weapon: High-Value Target Teams as an Organisational Innovation. Washington, D.C., National Defense University Press.
[xvi] See Odierno, R. T., N. E. Brooks, et al. (2008). “ISR Evolution in the Iraqi Theatre.” JFQ 50(3): 5.
[xvii] P. 80 of Urban (2010).
[xviii] Pp. 103-104 of Byman (2006).
[xix] Hellmich very efficiently details why the results of the bin Laden killing are not yet clear, p. 167 of Hellmich, C. (2011). Al-Qaeda: From Global Network To Local Franchise. London, Zed Books.
[xx] Rayment, S. (2008, 30/08/2008). “SAS kills hundreds of terrorists in ‘secret war’ against al-Qaeda in Iraq.” Retrieved 16/08/2011, 2011, from…
[xxi] P. 36 of Hunter, T. B. (2009). “Targeted killing: Self-Defence, Preemption, and the War on Terrorism.” Journal of Strategic Security 2(2): 51.
[xxii] Pp. 14-15 of Erwin, C. M. (2008). “Integrating Intelligence with Operations.” Special Warfare 2008(January-February): 5.
[xxiii] Bk. 1 Ch. 2 of Clausewitz, C. v. (1993). On War. London, Everyman’s Library.
[xxiv] P. 5 of Filkins, D. (2009, 19/10/2009). “Stanley McChrystal’s Long War.” Retrieved 14/08/2011, 2011, from
[xxv] BBC (2010, 02/06/10). “UN official criticises US over drone attacks.” Retrieved 16/05/11, 2011, from
[xxvi] P. 361 of Gray, C. S. (2010). “Moral Advantage, Strategic Advantage?” Journal of Strategic Studies 33(3): 32.
[xxvii] BBC (2011, 12/05/2011). “Osama Bin Laden: Legality of killing questioned.” Retrieved 12/05/2011, 2011, from
[xxviii] BBC (2011, 12/05/2011). “Bin Laden death ‘not an assassination’ – Eric Holder.” Retrieved 12/05/2011, 2011, from
[xxix] Hayes, D. and Z. Hussain (2011). Mission Accomplished: Us elite troops at zenith of their powers. The Times. London. 04/05/2011: 1.
[xxx] Leon Panetta believes al Qaeda to be near strategic defeat. News, B. (2011, 09/07/2011). “US ‘within reach of strategic defeat of al-Qaeda’.” Retrieved 09/09/2011, 2011, from
[xxxi] Tomlinson, H., I. Craig, et al. (2011). Revealed: network of secret bases that is taking the fight to al-Qaeda. The Times. London: 1.
[xxxii] Wintour, P. and E. MacAskill (2011). Is Gaddafi a target? Cameron and military split over war aims. The Guardian. London: 2.


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