Below is an excerpt from Alex de Waal’s essay, “Assassinating Terrorists Does Not Work,” available in full at The Boston Review, November 24, 2015.

Two important events in the confrontation between the Islamic State and the West occurred on November 12 and 13. Although overshadowed by the Paris atrocities, they warrant our attention. On November 12, Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) was killed by a drone missile in the Syrian city of Al-Raqqa, in a joint U.S.-British operation. On November 13, the commander of IS in Libya, an Iraqi national called Abu Nabil (also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi), was killed by a U.S. air strike. These two high-profile killings were part of an ongoing American campaign to systematically assassinate terrorist leaders—“high-value targets”—a strategy that has become a central component of the War on Terror.

More than ever, it is crucial to debate the political strategy behind such targeted killings. Insofar as there is a political rationale to these acts of remote execution, it is deeply suspect. Even the pragmatic rationale is flawed: the evidence is that targeted killings make us less safe, not more.

The policy of assassinating high-value targets, modeled after Israeli practices, was adopted in the early days of the U.S. War on Terror but escalated by the Obama Administration with the aid of drone technology. Advocates describe it as an efficient way of killing terrorists that poses minimal risk to service members and entails much lower collateral damage than do conventional attacks. Most of the controversy around targeted killing has concerned the legality of using lethal means outside of war zones, and the numbers of civilians killed in these strikes. There has been also an underlying worry about what will happen when (inevitably and soon) the technology of remote assassination is possessed by other countries, which will then be able to cite U.S. actions as precedents for what they choose to do. These are valid concerns.

However, too little effort has been given to questioning the logic of systematic remote execution of high-value targets in the first place. Is it actually wise? Let us assume that those killed—such as Jihadi John and Abu Nabil—are indeed guilty of horrendous crimes and are planning further such crimes, and that mounting conventional operations to kill or capture them would not be feasible. The question still remains, is it an effective strategy to assassinate the leaders of extremist, terrorist, or criminal organizations? It’s one thing to kill a terrorist commander during a police or military operation, such as hot pursuit or breaking a siege. It’s quite different to elevate killing extremists from tactical combat necessity to a guiding strategic principle.

For complete essay, see The Boston Review.

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One Response to Assassinating Terrorists Does Not Work

  1. to conclude of this question of “fighting terrorists” we could try to start from Malala’s quote that “with guns you can kill terrorists. With education you can kill terrorim”. For sure all this people taking part in terrorist attacks suffer a lot and doesn’t find their place in this world… western world. We see every day how the “american dream” can catch world wide youngsters and make them aim for something better in their life through work and innovation. We are sure that in the same way, with a good strategy we can present an american dream for more people who tend to get in terrorist groups and switch them to a different path. Let’s try! Let’s find some good media examples to do it and stop the escaladation of the conflicts with the help of media. it can play a totally positive role in this.

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