When global terror leaders are assassinated by their governments

My first experience of extra-judicial killings was my mother’s jubilation at various assassinations of Palestinian terrorists by Israeli squads. Having developed, from a very young age, an instinctive contrarian position with respect to practically anything she said, I reached an early conviction that such killings were always wrong, state sanctioned murder which in its hypocrisy and, often, collateral deaths, cheapened life in general and rendered any claims to justice on the part of the perpetrator quite ludicrous. Why don’t they arrest them, I’d demand. Sometimes you can’t do that, the reply. Why? Why don’t they just swoop down with a huge army, nab them, and put them on a fair trial?  No answers – my questions broke on the rocks of her disinterest. In those days I was showing anti-Israel tendencies which didn’t merit being taken seriously. And in any case, the ones that died were bad men, weren’t they.

These days I’m against violence. That means I sometimes have to be in favour of physically stopping leaders who are hoping to build violent, repressive movements. Ideally, stopping should entail incarceration but I can accept that extra-judicial killing may sometimes be necessary. The US government says it is “prepared to kill U.S. citizens who are believed to be involved in terrorist activities that threaten Americans”. Here is Ilya Somin commenting on the killing of Iraq’s Al Quaeda leader Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in 2006:

“In my view, targeting terrorist leaders is not only defensible, but actually more ethical than going after rank and file terrorists or trying to combat terrorism through purely defensive security measures. The rank and file have far less culpability for terrorist attacks than do their leaders, and killing them is less likely to impair terrorist operations. Purely defensive measures, meanwhile, often impose substantial costs on innocent people and may imperil civil liberties. Despite the possibility of collateral damage inflicted on civilians whom the terrorist leaders use as human shields, targeted assassination of terrorist leaders is less likely to harm innocents than most other strategies for combatting terror and more likely to disrupt future terrorist operations.

That does not prove that it should be the only strategy we use, but it does mean that we should reject condemnations of it as somehow immoral.”

The important questions, then, are how is the target uniquely dangerous (why an exception should be made for terrorists), how many lives are thought to be in danger from the target, whether there’s any alternative to killing, who should do it, how many other lives is it acceptable endanger during the operation, whether the likely side effects of assassination outweigh the benefits, and what should subsequently happen to the operative who pulled the trigger or pushed the button, and their accessories.

Then there’s the discussion about whether the extra-judicial killing of the terror inspiration and Al Quaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Anwar al Awlaki was any more or less legitimate because he was a US citizen. As Ben Wizner puts it, “If the Constitution means anything, it surely means that the President does not have unreviewable authority to summarily execute any American whom he concludes is an enemy of the state.”

I don’t trust the question. When the US government’s unfortunately-named JSOC assassinated Al Quaeda leader and Awlaki’s rival Osama Bin Laden in May, there was a lot of implicit approval. The American Civil Liberties Union seems to be the Civil Liberties of Americans Union in this respect. So for some it’s OK to have a policy of extra-judicial killings as long as the targets aren’t US citizens. But what sense does it make for a self-interested state to distinguish on state grounds, so that one terrorist leader is a target while another can operate without fearing assassination, when both are non-state enemies posing the same threat to your country’s citizens? Al Quaeda is a global enterprise – consider Awlaki’s jet setting between the US south west and Yemen. These are times of globalised terror operations. It doesn’t make sense to distinguish on state grounds, rather than grounds of threat. And from Awlaki’s point of view, does it make much difference to him if he is killed by US drone or by 3,000 Yemeni troops looking for him in the Shabwa? I doubt it.

Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who helped Awlaki’s father bring an ultimately unsuccessful court case (which they don’t boast about on their web site) attempting to get his son’s name removed from the list of targets objects to the US killing him. Citing Guantanamo, Ratner argues that the US gets its terrorist designation wrong too frequently to be trusted. He panics, “Is this the world we want? Where the president of the United States can place an American citizen, or anyone else for that matter, living outside a war zone on a targeted assassination list, and then have him murdered by drone strike.” He also says that Awlaki is innocent until proven guilty. So does the American Civil Liberties Union.

Quilliam co-founder Maajid Nawaz argues in today’s Observer that the US is abandoning its own values and that this assassination of its own citizen is only the latest stage in a decline involving “arbitrary detention, extraordinary rendition, targeted killings and “enhanced interrogation” – otherwise known as torture”. It would indeed be ominous if Nawaz were correct that “this action carves out the legal pathway for a state to silence not only external but internal dissent by defining the citizen as an “enemy of the state””. But I doubt he is correct. Awlaki wasn’t a dissenter but an inspiration and comfort to several murderous terrorists. Look Stephen Timms MP, attacked by an Awlaki fan during his constituency surgery, in the eye and tell him Awlaki was simply a dissenter. It will sound a bit thin given that he was stabbed in the liver. Awlaki might not have deigned to get his beautiful pious hands dirty, but he was at war with ordinary people like you and me,

Nawaz then throws in several other arguments in quick succession – that we can’t trust states to identify their enemies, that you can’t win through force, that abandoning Awlaki’s human rights will make us forget why we are opposed to Awlaki and his ilk in the first place, and the final complaint that the US is only interested in the Middle East when it comes to its security (not sure this can be borne out). Overall you get the impression that Nawaz is more embarrassed than morally outraged. And I feel for him, since he is trying to put out narratives that disrupt those of terror incubators like Awlaki. His arguments depend on inculcating a sense of pride in the West, and he feels that extrajudicial killings like this one undermine it.

A few things. Targeted assassination is the ultimate in not separating the person from the act. It does entail sacrificing values we espouse. But there is more to life than our moral discomfort with national hypocrisy – literally more to life.  And if it’s all about hypocrisy and disaffection with the west, maybe Nawaz should remind his followers that Awlaki used to buy sex in the US although prostitution is prohibited in Islam and the man set himself up as some kind of religious authority.

Hypocrisy in private life is ordinary, and in preachers, contemptible. In public life, though undesirable and ordinary, it is not contemptible. As Jonathan Wolff has argued in his book Ethics and Public Policy (though not with respect to extra-judicial killings – no idea how he feels about those) beautiful ideals always bend when they have to come out of people’s minds and into the sphere of real-life action – so the right thing to do is to take an active and constant stand against the purist pieties of utopianism (you’ll never find a utopian who isn’t awkwardly astride their double standards) while never giving up on humanitarian ideals, never letting up with scrutinising your government, and always shunning the consciencelessness of state realism that Nawaz fears will become enslaved to a corrupt vision of state interest which picks off dissenters like flies (though I doubt it -Awlaki didn’t just disappear – he was  openly assassinated, we know who did it, and the US is a strong democracy whose citizens – those who are not global terrormongers – have rights protected by their constitution).

So I think it’s important is to desist from the kind of “It’s all about me” patriotic naval gazing which is wrapped up in appearances, cognitive dissonance, and national identity rather than the sanctity of human life. It’s important not to be diverted from the target of the assassination and reasoning back from the unique threat they pose to life. The ends don’t always justify the means, but sometimes they do. Was Awlaki a mortal threat to innocent civilians or wasn’t he? I think the list of murderers he groomed for the act speaks for itself – but were I in a position of power I’d be asking for more than a list on Wikipedia.

So the US government should now account for the death of this deathmonger, and the demands that it do so can only strengthen it.  But to argue that the US is too prone to getting things wrong to be able to assassinate those involved in terror, or to argue that the US isn’t entitled to state secrets, is like saying that the US isn’t entitled to national security.

(And any disorientated commentator who says this post and I are somehow not left wing can suck me. I am as far left as it is good to go 😉 )


This morning’s statement by former IRA leader now Irish presidential candidate, Martin McGuinness, that he wouldn’t disagree with anybody who said that the IRA committed murder, raises important comparisons.The UK government had a policy of assassinating IRA terrorists. Operation Flavius in 1988, during which the SAS killed three Belfast-born UK citizens involved in a bomb plot, was not one of them – it was intended as an arrest operation. But the aftermath is of interest – the European Court of Human Rights narrowly ruled that the UK Government had breached Human Rights law: “the Court is not persuaded that the killing of the three terrorists constituted the use of force which was no more than absolutely necessary in defence of persons from unlawful violence within the meaning of Article 2 para. 2 (a) (art. 2-2-a) of the Convention”.


2 thoughts on “When global terror leaders are assassinated by their governments

    • Thank you very much for reading, S4r4h. Still trying to work out where I stand on summary killing and smashing, whether to come at it based on needs or first principles, and whether there is a different solution hiding away which I’ve simply overlooked.

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