A necessary vindication of selective assassinations

The decision to exterminate Osama Bin Laden is welcomed by all decent people, or at least it should be. Permission to capture or kill this terrorist -proven murderer of masses and innocent people- was given by American presidents Barack Obama and George Bush (Jr). It was both a legal and moral decision.

14 de Junio de 2011

Although Bin Laden and his successor did not wear military uniform -and even though they lacked rank-, they embodied appropriate military targets.

As Al Qaeda’s head and spiritual leader, Osama held duties equivalent to those of any Head of State or any head of a terrorist army. Since history has begun to keep record, killing the king has been the legitimate aim in any classical military operation. In chess, the term "checkmate" means "the king is dead": this refers to the successful battle’s end.

However, there are those who argue that selective assassinations are, in themselves, "immoral and illegal". These critical views qualify these actions as "extrajudicial executions". Such voices claim that terrorist leaders like Osama Bin Laden are treated as common criminals, only to be arrested and brought before a civil court.

The procedure which ended with Bin Laden’s death and then Fazul Abdullah Mohammed’s (East Africa Al Qaeda Leader) physical disappearance refers to military actions prepared with surgical precision to remove them, never to arrest them. It's possible -though unlikely- that any of them were captured alive and brought to justice. But it is worth clarifying that the decision to use military personnel armed with guns instead of unmanned rockets or drones was surely made by high-ranking military generals and not by lawyers.

If the alternative of a rocket or missile attack had been tried -as NATO forces do nowadays in Libya-, it would have been a selective assassination, clearly, not pursuing the goal of capturing a target alive.

The operation performed against Bin Laden could have been planned, partly, to preserve the theoretical action of the arrest, although the probability of capturing him alive was virtually impossible under the circumstances surrounding the event.

In fact, it is more likely that the death of Al Qaeda’s leader was chosen a priori instead of his capture and subsequent trial. In all probability, the latter would have increased the terrorist network chances of taking hostages in an attempt to exchange them for their spiritual leader. In addition, it is worth emphasizing that a senior U.S. officer from the national security area has confirmed us that the aforementioned was an operation mounted with the sole purpose of destroying the target: capturing Osama Bin Laden alive was never planned.

This selective assassination was tailored to a terrorist fighter, not to a common criminal, extraordinary as he could be.

However, United States government was aware of the exigency of announcing that Osama had died after having resisted. Thus, it comes up that he was not executed in cold blood. American soldiers would have eliminated him anyway -even if he had resisted- given that it was their mission. To provide him with an opportunity to surrender was out of question, since the laws of war do not enforce this prerogative.

Those who have opposed the concept of selective assassinations should be now demonstrating against Bin Laden’s death. British, French, Italian, Russian officials and dignitaries from the rest of the European Union have, among others, expressed themselves against this concept. Likewise have done Jordanian and United Nations’ dignitaries. Former British Foreign Minister referred on one occasion that "Her Majesty’s government has made it repeatedly clear that the so-called selective assassinations of this kind are illegal, unjustifiable and counterproductive". His French counterpart opportunely emphasized that "extrajudicial executions violate international law and are unacceptable". In line, Italian Foreign Minister declared that "Italy, like all European Union has declared the practice of selective assassinations illegal". Russians, meanwhile, said that their country not only refuses to approve of "settling accounts" outside the law, but also they will never give the green light to such killings. Jordanian officials have reported that their country has always condemned these episodes and that their position on this issue has always been clear. Kofi Annan (UN) has said that extrajudicial killings "violate international law".

Ironically, none of these nations, groups or individuals has actively or strongly criticized Osama Bin Laden’s elimination by U.S. forces. The reason is obvious: all contrary sentences to selective assassination have been reduced to a single country, which is also involved in its application, carrying out executions of this kind -and with remarkable efficiency- to the detriment of Al Qaeda and Hamas’ supporters. In more than one opportunity, these terrorist groups have mounted bloody operations in which a large number of innocent civilians lost their lives. The death toll resulting from these terrorist acts has been high in Israel, especially when considering the share of their total population that they represent. It was when the State of Israel managed to kill Hamas leader that the international community -with the conspicuous abstention of the United States- decided that selective assassinations were "illegal and immoral".

Now that this tactic has been deployed against a United Kingdom and other European Nations’ enemy, views have significantly changed. Suddenly, selective assassinations have not only become "legal and moral", but also they are now part of praiseworthy operations. Logically, Hamas organization has expressed a fierce condemnation against what Washington ordered.

The fact is that, done properly, selective assassination has always garnered approval. In the case of the State of Israel, authorities seem to apply a kind of double standard: there, the Supreme Court has strictly regulated the use of assassinations by its military and security forces, allowing executions only against terrorists who have actively participated in attacks against the population.

Moreover, in North America, the decision to use this tactic is exclusively to the President, by the way, without judicial review. Finally, it is expected  that the Western and free world will abandon the double standard approach adopted by Israel and begin to assess the merits of military tactics such as selective assassinations. Looking closely, when implementing this type of operations cautiously enough -and against specific military objectives- their use may be the only effective tool, legal and moral in the war against terrorism which operates with growing strength and violence.

* Translated into English by Débora Gravano - debora.gravano @

The writer -codename / alias "the Libyan" (El Libio) - is a former intelligence officer specialist in tactical and strategic counterintelligence actions. He has actively participated in the investigation of the terrorist attacks against the Embassy of Israel and the mutual AMIA in Argentina. His e-mail:

"The Libyan" - former Intelligence officer