Debate: Do you support U.S. targeted killing in Yemen?
Protests against the return of President Ali Abdullah Saleh have been held in Sanaa in recent days.
June 9th, 2011
11:31 AM ET

Debate: Do you support U.S. targeted killing in Yemen?

Editor's Note: John Masters is an associate staff writer at This essay comes from's Expert Roundup on targeted killing. For more, visit

By John Masters

The Obama administration has escalated the campaign of targeted killings against suspected terrorists worldwide, increasing the use of unmanned drone strikes and so-called kill/capture missions on al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership both on and off the traditional battlefield.

CNN reports that the U.S. is upping its airstrikes in Yemen.

While some analysts tout successes, like the U.S. Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, others say the strategy lacks proper legal boundaries, as in the targeting of an American jihadist, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen.

Should targeted killings continue off the traditional battlefield?

Constitutional lawyer Pardiss Kebriaei questions the legal basis that U.S. administrations have used to justify killing suspected terrorists off the battlefield, suggesting a violation of constitutional rights of due process.

Matthew Waxman cautions against overreliance on them as a counterterrorism tool but says so far U.S. policy is within legal bounds.

Pardiss Kebriaei: No, it's not legal

The aspect of the United States' targeted killing policy that is of greatest concern is that which permits deliberate, preemptive strikes outside zones in which the United States is engaged in active combat such as in Afghanistan.

In such zones, the intensity of fighting between organized armed groups creates a certain exigency that permits killing outside the usual confines of the law, which would otherwise require due process or excuse the use of lethal force only in narrow circumstances of self-defense.

It is that exigency - of war - that triggers the application of a different set of rules - the laws of war - and permits uses of force that would otherwise be unlawful and unacceptable.

The Obama administration's position, however, like that of its predecessor, is that those exigent circumstances exist globally - that an attack on the United States nearly a decade ago triggered a conflict against Al Qaeda and the Taliban that is being waged not only in Afghanistan but extends potentially everywhere, or, as the administration ambiguously puts it, "elsewhere."

Read:'s excellent coverage of world affairs.

But it takes more than declaring a global war for U.S. drone strikes to be lawful in countries as disconnected from the conflict in Afghanistan as Yemen. Whether a situation rises to the level of armed conflict and justifies more permissive rules for the use of force depends on how the facts on the ground, measured against objective criteria defined under international law, add up.

Where conditions of armed conflict do not exist, the law that governs the actions of the United States is the Constitution and international human rights law, under which the government can only carry out a killing after due process or as a last resort to address an imminent threat of deadly harm. Those are the standards, for example, that should govern the United States' actions vis-à-vis U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen.

Wherever one comes down in the debate, however, it is impossible to discuss the issues other than in the abstract without greater specificity from the Obama administration about its targeting policy.

What, if any, geographical boundaries exist in this conflict, and how are they determined? What are the criteria for determining whether to target an individual? What are the criteria for determining whether a group is sufficiently "associated" with al-Qaeda? What are the conditions in which the administration believes it may act in self-defense? If imminence is part of the calculus, how is that term defined?

The abuse and arbitrariness that resulted from the Bush administration's insistence on secrecy, and the Obama administration's own purported embrace of greater transparency, should compel the administration to provide a fuller explanation of its targeting policy. Its failure to do so in more than broad strokes only adds fuel to existing questions and concerns.

Matthew Waxman: Yes, it's legal

U.S. strikes against senior al-Qaeda or affiliated terrorists in places like Pakistan or Yemen - most recently, the reported (but unverified) killing of al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani militant Ilyas Kashmiri - often give rise to accusations that the United States is engaged in unlawful "extrajudicial killing," "assassination," or violations of sovereignty.

In part because of the secrecy surrounding these policies, such legal claims often don't get thoroughly and specifically answered. However, lethal force directed against particular individuals outside a combat zone like Afghanistan is legally and strategically appropriate in limited circumstances.

The 2010 public remarks by State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh defending drone strikes (along with a 2006 speech (PDF) by his predecessor, John Bellinger, explaining the legal basis for the use of military force against al-Qaeda) are important documents because they outline some of the legal principles that govern U.S. targeting of al-Qaeda figures.

They argue that traditional international legal paradigms of armed conflict and self-defense may apply to some non-state terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and groups allied with it, but they also acknowledge that these legal paradigms–built primarily to deal with inter-state conflict–don't always fit well the challenges and dilemmas involved in combating non-state threats.

Legal constraints on U.S. actions include respect for state sovereignty (limiting where and under what conditions the United States could target) and law-of-war principles such as proportionality and distinction (limiting when and how the United States could target).

Applying these frameworks to the recent raid on Osama bin Laden, as Koh did publicly recently, the United States has a strong argument that he could be targeted as an enemy commander in the ongoing armed conflict with al-Qaeda. U.S. actions in Pakistan's territory were also defensible because the Pakistani government was not capable or willing to deal with this threat. So far as I can tell from available information, the operation was planned and carried out in strict accordance with the laws of war, including due care to protect innocent civilians and rules regarding surrender.

As to strategy, lethal targeting is but one important tool in the counterterrorism arsenal. Policymakers must be careful that the allure of lethal targeting operations, especially with high-tech weaponry like aerial drones, does not obscure the collateral damage that sometimes comes with such strikes - not only the human toll but the repercussions on other important elements of counterterrorism strategy.

What do you think?

More debate at

Decapitating terrorist networks is an effective strategy, says Georgetown's Daniel Byman, capable of robbing a group of charismatic leadership critical to its success. But Afghanistan expert Kate Clark argues that targeted killings often produce an organizational chaos that unleashes a more radical generation of subordinates.

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Topics: Terrorism • Yemen

soundoff (131 Responses)
  1. frank

    In every war you attack the enemy where they are. Remember the fire bombing of Dresden and the a-bombing of Japan in WWII. Yes, civilians die. Civilians that support the war effort of our enemies.

    They could ALWAYS surrender if they want to live.

    June 10, 2011 at 9:57 am | Reply
  2. frank

    Remember there were peace nuts during WWII that demanded that we stop the 'illegal wars' against Germany and Japan. As a nation we just have to ignore these wack jobs.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:01 am | Reply
  3. citizenUSA

    Sure, it's not the preferred method but with these terrorists spreading out and making no bones about their intentions towards us, it does not seem we have much option other than just letting them do what they want. I don't hear the Yemini government complaining. These terrorists can't play the same kinds of games we play with China, (covert stuff), so they have to fly planes into buildings. Do you think that if some country did that to us we wouldn't be declaring war with them? The terrorists want to play hide and seek so our drones are ready to tag them, "it". And for all you b-atchin about "other nation's sovereignty", if they can't help for economic or military issues than they should welcome our intervention. If they can help but just don't want to help and don't want ours, than they are with the terrorists and therefore just as guilty. We still have a country of people to protect. What other countries sovereignty are we interferring with? I believe this is partly why some NATO members are reluctant to get involved with certian things out from fear of terrorist revenge.

    June 10, 2011 at 10:22 am | Reply
  4. DDM

    I support getting OUT of all Islamic sh:t-holes. Let them keep busy dispatching one another as they will. They are bleeding us to death and that is their intention – until USA collapses economically like the soviet union. Meanwhile USA brings in muslim refugees from our wars – they hate us for war reasons and for Islam, and prepare to dismantle us from within. Show some wisdom and GET OUT! Oh, forgot – SOME FEW are getting rich off of war – guess who? Definitely not the American taxpayer!

    June 10, 2011 at 10:50 am | Reply
  5. Pliny

    Let's wait until the day after the next terrorist attack that kills 3000 Americans, and ask this STUPID question.

    June 10, 2011 at 11:44 am | Reply
  6. Heinz M

    Not an easy thing to adjudicate. However, Al Qaeda has thrown down the glove globally, not just in restricted areas or countries. Based on that, any globally based response sounds logically based legal. You cannot fight a limited war against an enemy that fights an unlimited one. That's like tying one arm behind one's back and gives the other side hold harmless zones. They harvest what they sow.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  7. Neil

    This situation is akin to the Israeli reaction to the massacre of the 1972 Munich Olympic team, except
    that we are using drones and targeted airstrikes instead of covert hit squads. Al-Qaeda is the new
    Black September. The scale is much larger, but the situation is very similar in nature.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Reply
  8. Pliny

    On a related note.

    Over the years, we've seen countless photographs of arabs/muslims screaming protests at a camera.
    I have to say that the Yemeni's are the most insane looking of the bunch.

    The Paki's run a distant second.

    How about it folks? Which arab/muslim maniacs put on the best show for the western-cameras???

    June 10, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Mickey25

      Which ones put on the best show? The ones who end up as fish food.

      June 12, 2011 at 2:54 am | Reply
  9. victim of democrat hypocrisy

    Our constitution only covers citizens of the United States–not illegal aliens and certainly not foreigners committing terrorist acts in other countries. If operating in a foreign country was unconstitutional, the CIA couldn't exist!

    June 10, 2011 at 12:31 pm | Reply
  10. David

    So let's see if I understand what you are saying. It is better to let these terrorists live so that they can go on killing innocent cilvilians. That's what you want? Let them start with your family and then see how you feel.

    June 10, 2011 at 12:37 pm | Reply
  11. Dale

    Somewhere between the "nuke em all" fruitcakes and the "be nice to the poor terrorists" fruitcakes, there is a sane middle-ground. Thankfully, our president is a sane moderate. Yes, we need to defend ourselves from terrorists who are determined to attack and kill US civilians. But we need to do it smart and target carefully. Killing innocent people, even by accident is highly counterproductive. If we make enemies faster than we eliminate enemies, we lose. (See VietNam War). So I am all for assassinations of al Queda leaders. That is as surgical as war gets.

    June 10, 2011 at 1:11 pm | Reply
    • Mickey25


      June 12, 2011 at 2:53 am | Reply
  12. ART

    Yes, Yes and Yes whatever it takes

    June 10, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Reply
  13. bobcat2u

    Since al Qaeda has chosen to make their presence known in Yemen, by all means take those b@t@rds out at every opportunity. It is very helpfull knowing where they're at.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  14. Joe NYC

    The pacifists and naïve people who call assassinating terrorist leaders illegal and immoral seem to have a very simplistic and shortsighted view. How can we let terrorist leaders sit in the comfort of their homes and plan attacks on the US without fear of reprisal? These terrorists have declared war on us and our way of life. If they are so adamant about dying as a martyr, why deny them that honor? It is the pacifistic view that will embolden and strengthen our enemies. People say violence begets violence; I say weakness begets even greater violence.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  15. Alejandro Dron

    'We all die when we send our kids to war'
    Graphic Commentaries on the Middle East

    June 10, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  16. Dude

    1. Terrorists are part of a large movement that has declared war on the U.S. and western interests.
    2. Terrorists are breaking the laws of war by not adopting and dressing in a uniform and should be tried by military tribunal if caught not wearing a uniform.
    3. Organized large-scale terrorism is NOT a criminal justice problem.
    4. Enemy combatants, leaders, recruiting centers, and logistical supply areas are all legitimate military targets in the U.S. or overseas.
    5. If a mosque collects money for terrorists, the mosque, it's leaders, and all of its parishioners are legitimate military targets.
    6. It is completely legitimate for authorized agents of the U.S. government to attack terrorists anywhere in the world.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:14 pm | Reply
    • Mickey25

      Absolutely right.

      June 12, 2011 at 2:52 am | Reply
  17. heh

    To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offenses against the Law of Nations;

    June 10, 2011 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  18. Absolutely not

    The hand that supports the state is also complicit in it's crimes.

    June 10, 2011 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  19. Kurt

    We can't take their country, it's not theirs. We can't take their stuff, they have nothing. If the only thing we can take to prevent future attacks is their lives, so be it.

    June 10, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  20. Jaq

    Remember if we target people for not believing in our values, then surely we can accept others targeting people in our countries who are in charge of our policies and affairs. What we deem as acceptable, others do not this is the course for open war.

    Let the gung ho yanks go and kill themselves and others for their gain – we in England should manage our own affairs, it's not like we have a perfect society and with increasing inflation and cost of living this countries finances a resources should be used on its people.

    June 10, 2011 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • Mickey25

      What an idiot. Targeted killings are done for dangerous criminals, not for vague values. Your own country virtually set the standard for targeted killings in the West and it kept whining people like you safe. You have no clue at all on any of this subject matter.

      June 12, 2011 at 2:51 am | Reply
  21. Jorge

    iemen, pakista, saudi barbaria..all the same ol' sh~it! islamc sh~tholes..disgusting, repugnant..all pure fruIts of pure islam ..PURE EVIL:


    June 11, 2011 at 3:51 am | Reply
    • Muhammad Ali Farooq

      What you worth in terms on finance and knowledge... oh sorry you just prove you are broke

      June 14, 2011 at 10:28 am | Reply
  22. Mickey25

    The article raises a really silly and naive question. Of course the US does targeted killings. It has for many generations, thru all political parties. So do many other countries, regardless of political system. Making this a current political issue isn't going to be successful not should it. Of course it's legal, it's called the law of survival.

    June 12, 2011 at 2:48 am | Reply
  23. C. Cantu

    Eliminating Muslim radicals could be easily done by giving rewards to victims of these evil creatures. If any person is affected by the actions of these evil Muslim radicals and/or clerics, they should get a certain amount of money for compensation and another equal amount of money destined to give it away as a reward to anyone who eliminates the perpetrator(s) or culprits of these actions. I am quite sure the moment Muslim clerics start spending time in protecting their own lives, the same way as their victims, most of them are going to start condemning violent actions instead of being promoters of hatred, resentment, terrorism and discrimination.

    June 12, 2011 at 10:21 am | Reply
  24. Stephen Miller

    Why Ann Coulter? Please just serious folks from now on!

    June 12, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Reply
  25. Jews

    Let's make it in this way. Let's assume that Yemeni are the powerful nation and they are conducting survey to there people, do you favor on killing Americans?

    We are all equal and we don't have the right to kill anyone else. Only barbaric can do such act. Shame on you.

    June 13, 2011 at 11:54 am | Reply
  26. Higgy

    As long as we are tageting terrorists I have no problem at all with these drone attacks/assasinations. Every country in the world knows that we are after terrorsist groups in the Middle East and for good reason. Pearl Harbour happened, 9/11 happened, and I think our government has vowed that we will never be attacked on home soil ever again and since 2001, we havent. Right now, we need more Middle Eastern allies and these uprisings will be great, I mean great for us in the long run. In 10 years our economy will be on the rise again.

    June 13, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  27. Muhammad Ali Farooq

    No... I dont... at all...else if you trash justice system in garbage. One is innocent unless proven. Kill will drag us more into trouble which it did already... Capture...trial....prove..but no killing...
    bogus intelligence causing will only produce chain reaction..

    June 14, 2011 at 10:24 am | Reply
  28. RM

    There are two lingering issues in the world today that are the causes of militancy.....KASHMIR and PALESTINE. These problems have been ongoing for over 50 years now. Enough is enough. These should be resolved now. If our politicians can not do it, then give it to business school students as a case study and implement the solutions. Unfortunately, a lot of innocent people are also being killed. When the dust setlles down, there will be accountability for these lives lost all over the world.

    June 14, 2011 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  29. Brian

    In the U.S., before the U.S. government executes someone, they are first put on trial. Not so for the U.S. worldwide, though. Mass executions without any defense on the part of the condemned? Monstrous.

    June 15, 2011 at 7:13 pm | Reply
    • dwestwing

      No trial is needed when they admit guilt, especially when they declared war on innocent American citizens. That is a war crime, punishable by firing squad... on sight.

      June 18, 2011 at 4:29 am | Reply
  30. dwestwing

    When an organization declares war on the USA and murders its citizens, then they admit guilt and their just punishment is to be executed by firing squad.... ASAP, where ever they are. They are war criminals and sealed their fate. Next topic...

    June 18, 2011 at 4:26 am | Reply
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