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Assassinating terrorists does not work


At the website of the Boston Review, Alex de Waal, author and executive director of the World Peace Foundation, questions an anti-terrorist strategy used by governments from Israel to the US and the UK: assassinating terrorist leaders—often using drones—with the intention of crippling the groups they lead. De Waal suggests that this strategy not only fails to cripple these groups, but can make them even more radical and determined. An excerpt:

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. Another source of worry is what will happen when—inevitably and soon—other countries obtain the technology of remote assassination. U.S. actions will as precedents for these other powers.

These are valid concerns, but there are others, even more basic. We should question the logic of the drone 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, are planning further such crimes, and that mounting conventional operations to kill or capture them would not be feasible. The question remains, is it an effective strategy to assassinate the leaders of extremist, terrorist, or criminal organizations? It is one thing to kill a terrorist commander during a police or military operation, such as hot pursuit or breaking a siege. It is quite different to elevate killing extremists from tactical combat necessity to guiding strategic principle.