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Targeted Killing: Self-Defense, Preemption, and the War on Terrorism By Thomas B. Hunter April 29, 2005 Introduction This essay will endeavor to examine the concept of ‘targeted killing’ in the international war against terrorism by assessing the norms states employ in justifying the offensive use of force in countering the threats posed by individuals involved in terrorist activity against the state. Specifically, due to the asymmetric nature of terrorism, the unique nature of responses required to defeat it, and the lack of any binding international laws governing the practice of targeted killing, this is an option that is increasingly attractive to states confronted with a terrorist threat. This paper will not seek to address the more controversial moral and ethical implications of this type of policy or its consequences. Defining and Explaining Targeted Killing Discussions pertaining to a national-level policy of premeditated killing of suspected or known terrorists have historically been hampered by the lack of an effective and agreed upon definition of this type of policy. Such terms as ‘extrajudicial killing’, extrajudicial punishment’, ‘selective targeting’, ‘assassination policy’, and even ‘long-range hot pursuit’ have been used to describe this very specific type of activity.1 While some of these terms have merit, others serve only to complicate the discussion. For purposes of this discussion, the author adopts the term ‘targeted killing’ for the following reasons. First and foremost, this type of offensive counterterrorism action frequently elicits emotional and personal reactions in the public at large2, which can result in more pejorative designations, effectively hindering rational and unbiased discussion of the topic. Second, as will be discussed in the following section, targeted killing is not equivalent to assassination (a term frequently and mistakenly applied to targeted killing), and thus to equate the two results in misnomer that, again, hampers the discussion. The author defines targeted killing as the premeditated, preemptive, and deliberate killing of an individual or individuals known to represent a clear and present threat to the safety and security of a state through affiliation with terrorist groups or individuals. The latter portion of this definition is of particular importance, because the unique nature of terrorism provided states with the specific need for the implementation of a policy of targeted killing.
Targeted killings, whether conducted by Israel, the U.S., Great Britain, or other nations, and more frequently the result of action undertaken not by conventional military forces, but rather by specialized troops, such as special operations forces (SOF). Alternately, some nations have turned increasingly to specialized equipment, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) in order to stalk their prey. These specialized men and equipment have proven an essential component of targeted killing, primarily do to the elusive and clandestine nature of terrorists themselves. 3 Rather than operating from fixed bases, terrorists often use the basements of homes, rented apartments, caves, nomadic encampments, and other locations from which they conduct their planning and attacks. Moreover, their travel is often concealed as they do not move about in marked military personnel carriers, but rather in civilian vehicles that are impossible to distinguish. Thus, conventional weapons of war such as tanks and heavy bombers are all but useless. This type of warfare requires a combination of accurate intelligence, highly trained and specialized soldiers, and oftentimes the use of unique and advanced tracking and detection equipment. Such is the nature of targeted killing. It is for these reasons, and those that will be cited in later sections of this essay, that targeted killing has become a preferred method of eliminating the threat of...
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