Targeted killing

form of assassination carried by governments against their perceived enemies

Targeted killing is the premeditated killing of an individual by a state organization or institution outside a judicial procedure or a battlefield.

Predator drones have been utilized in targeted killing techniques


  • There is no announced U.S. policy directive regarding targeted killing. Assassination is addressed in Executive Order 12333, which does not prohibit killing absolutely, but only without presidential approval. Assassination and targeted killing are very different acts, however.
    • Solis, Gary D. (2010). The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War. Cambridge University Press. p. 542. ISBN 0521870887. 
  • … there are no universally accepted laws governing the use of targeted killing. Each nation is responsible for applying its own domestic laws and concepts of self-defence when considering this option.
    • Hunter, Thomas (2009). Targeted Killing: Self-Defense, Preemption, and the War on Terrorism. BookSurge Publishing. p. 47. ISBN 978-1439252055. 
  • Strategic results that undermine established terrorist campaigns demand broader scope and planning. In our case studies, popular support was more effectively reduced by the arrests of leaders than by their demise, and this is why efforts at targeted killing often backfire in the long run.
    • Cronin, Audrey Kurth (2009). How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns. Princeton University Press. pp. 32-33. ISBN 0691139482. 
  • The preparation of a targeted killing operation often takes a long duration (weeks to months), especially when targeting senior terror operatives.
    • Morgenstern, Henry; Ophir Falk (2009). Suicide Terror: Understanding and Confronting the Threat. Wiley. p. 127. ISBN 0470087293. 
  • Targeted killings are analagous to the use of marksmen on the battlefield – designed to eliminate specific enemy combatants who have already initiated violence against the United States. Moreover, targeted killing is congruent with just war thinking in the context of twenty-first century conflict.
    • Patterson, Eric (2009). Just War Thinking: Morality and Pragmatism in the Struggle against Contemporary Threats. Lexington Books. p. 74. ISBN 978-0739119013. 
  • Assassination, whether in peacetime or in wartime, constitutes an illegal killing, while targeted killing is the intentional slaying of a specific individual or group of individuals with explicit governmental approval.
    • Morgan, Matthew J. (2009). The Impact of 9/11 and the New Legal Landscape: The Day that Changed Everything?. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 227-228. ISBN 0230608388. 
  • The real issue – one emphasized in informal conversations – seems to be that unless the target is a duly designated "combatant," the targeted killing would become an "assassination."
    • Kenneth Anderson, Chapter: "Targeted Killing in U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy and Law", writing in — Wittes, Benjamin (2009). Legislating the War on Terror: An Agenda for Reform. Brookings Institution Press. p. 366. ISBN 0815703104. 
  • Targets of a targeted killing include the potential suicide bomber as well as other individuals. A legitimate target is an individual significantly involved in the suicide bomber infrastructure; that is, "doers" and "senders" alike.
    • Bassiouni, M. Cherif (2008). International Criminal Law: Sources, Subjects and Contents. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers / Brill Academic. p. 674. ISBN 9004165320. 
  • There also must be no reasonable alternative to the targeted killing: meaning that the international law requirement of seeking another reasonable means of incapacitating the terrorist prior to a future attack has proved fruitless.
    • Guiora, Amos N. (2008). Constitutional Limits on Coercive Interrogation. Oxford University Press, USA. p. 150. ISBN 0195340310. 
  • Ultimately, then, a targeted killing will comport with human rights norms only if the authorities harbour a reasonable belief, in the circumstances holding at the time, that they are acting in the last possible window of opportunity to prevent a terrorist attack that is almost certainly going to be perpetrated by the target(s). Absent such conditions, the action will comprise an unlawful extrajudicial killing.
    • Arnold, Roberta; Noëlle N. R. Quénivet (2008). International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law: Towards a New Merger in International Law. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers / Brill Academic. p. 530. ISBN 9004163174. 
  • If "terrorist" is really just a catch-all phrase for describing enemies of the state, then restricting targeted killing to terrorists is really no restriction at all – ore, more accurately, it only imposes the onerous restriction of limiting killing to one's enemies.
    • Plaw, Avery (2008). Targeting Terrorists. Ashgate. p. 7. ISBN 0754645266. 
  • In wartime, however, the prohibition against targeted killing is more elusive because the law stipulates that combatants, regardless of their rank or official role, are potential targets. Since war is a contest between states, not persons, the killing in war is not murder.
    • Amstutz, Mark R. (2008). International Ethics: Concepts, Theories, and Cases in Global Politics. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 147. ISBN 0742556042. 
  • Just what does distinguish lawful targeted killing from unlawful political assassination? The answer turns upon which legal framework applies. During war, the law of armed conflict applies, and targeted killing of individuals is lawful, although killing by treacherous means – through the use of deceit or trickery – is not. In peacetime, any extra-judicial killing by a government agent is lawful only if taken in self-defense or in defense of others.
    • Innes, Michael A. (2007). Denial of Sanctuary: Understanding Terrorist Safe Havens. Praeger. p. 118. ISBN 0275992128. 
  • Detention (preferably after a full-blown criminal trial) is the tactic of choice against suspected terrorists, but it is not always feasible to capture suspected or even self-proclaimed, terrorists or others who pose an immediate and serious danger to a state. Many states have opted, under these circumstances, for a more drastic form of preventative incapacitation, namely, targeted killing.
  • Targeted killing further reduces moderates ability to control the extremists (or self police) since they lose credibility among the larger audience and undermine them overall.
    • Bloom, Mia (2007). Dying to Kill: The Allure of Suicide Terror. Columbia University Press. p. 100. ISBN 0231133219. 
  • Even if the targeted killing is deemed to fall within the laws of armed conflict, the rules relating thereto protect non-combatants. While civilians cannot be targeted, if they are killed or injured during an attack on a military target, then as long as the means employed were discriminate and proportionate, there is no violation of the laws of armed conflict.
    • Gilbert, Geoff (2006). Responding to International Crime. BRILL. p. 307. ISBN 9004152768. 
  • "Targeted killings" ought to be an effective deterrent. Death is a severe enough punishment to give most people pause, and members of terror organizations other than those being groomed to carry out suicide attacks are not known for being suicidal themselves.
    • D. Radlauer, writing in — Mehrotra, Sharad (2006). Intelligence and Security Informatics. Springer. p. 612. ISBN 3540344780. 
  • … those who support targeted killings argue that the killing of a terrorist who is personally responsible for serious, mass casualty attacks and who is still capable of spilling the blood of innocents is not only justified and moral, it is even essential for saving human lives. Supporters of this approach also cite the value of human life, and claim that in the name of the sanctity of life, decision makers must be allowed to do everything they can to prevent the few from harming the many – terrorists killing civilians and endangering world peace – and therefore individual attacks are permitted, moral, and justified.
    • Ganor, Boaz (2005). The Counter-Terrorism Puzzle: A Guide for Decision Makers. Transaction Publishers. p. 113. ISBN 0765802988. 
  • The moral legitimacy of targeted killing becomes even clearer when compared to the alternative means of fighting terror – that is, the massive invasion of the community that shelters and supports the terrorists in an attempt to catch or kill the terrorists and destory their infrastructure.
    • Daniel Statman, Chapter: "Targeted Killing", writing in — Shanahan, Timothy (2005). Philosophy 9/11: Thinking About the War on Terrorism. Open Court Publishing Company. p. 191. ISBN 0812695828. 
  • Well-targeted killing, however, is not evidently more decent than random killing, unless the targeted victims are thought to be more deserving of their fate.
    • Ray, Ellen; William H. Schaap, Institute for Media Analysis (2003). Covert Action: The Roots of Terrorism. Ocean Press. p. 42. ISBN 1876175842. 

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