The D-21 drone was a supersonic stealth aircraft, which could be launched from the SR-71 Blackbird version M-21.
Targeted killing seems to be emerging as a new mode of warfare based on a series of selective assassinations of enemy leaders and certain other enemy combatants. This approach is mostly pursued in the context of counter-terrorism-, counter-insurgency- and ‘regime change’ operations. The new tendency of individually targeting enemies became apparent after 9/11, when President George W. Bush issued a presidential finding authorising the CIA to ‘kill, capture and detain members of al Qaeda anywhere in the world’.1 This finding resulted in the extraordinary rendition- and drone programmes of the CIA. Specific enemy combatants deemed ‘High-Value Targets’ (HVT) have been also systematically and individually targeted in the context of counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.2 Under the Obama administration the CIA/Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) drone programmes have been dramatically stepped up and this enabled the US and NATO to kill Al-Qa’ida and Taliban members in their safe havens in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and possibly in a few other neutral countries.3 There have been at least 400 drone and missile strikes directed against specific individuals in neutral countries in the period 2002-2012.4 Just weeks before the presidential election of 2012 the Obama Administration moved towards the firm institutionalisation of targeted killing as a permanent tool of US foreign and security policy.5 It is commonly believed that the CIA drone programme will continue and may even grow further.6 But is this proof that the approach of targeted killing is working and that it is succeeding in defeating the West’s main enemies? Many critics of the CIA drone programme have pointed out that the opposite could be the case. Eleven years of targeted killings and other ‘neutralisations’ of terrorists has not resulted in any decisive victory in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere.7 Furthermore, there is even the possibility that continued targeted killings will result increasingly in strategic ‘blowback’ since it encourages radicalisation and nurtures a desire for revenge by those people subjected to constant drone attacks.8 In the end, a prolonged targeted killing campaign could very well end up producing more enemies than it can ever eliminate. Targeted killing in the form of continuous limited strikes against a relatively small number of enemy combatants is likely to turn out to be a strategic dead end since it creates a serious obstacle to negotiating peace and since it seems unable to deliver decisive results. In other words, it is most likely a recipe for never-ending war and not a path to victory.
The Evolution of US Targeting Practices
The idea of using targeted killing or assassination as an instrument of war and foreign policy is not a new one and ‘selective assassination’ has been employed by the US government on occasion. For example, during the earlier period of the Cold War the CIA targeted foreign leaders for assassination, which was revealed by the Church Committee investigations in 1975. The CIA also played a major role in the Phoenix Program in South Vietnam, which aimed to identify and ‘neutralise’ members of the Vietcong Infrastructure (VCI). There were a total of 80,000 ‘neutralisations’ or an estimated number of 40,000 VCI killed.9 Since assassination was later deemed to be a controversial practice (and in order to pre-empt a Congressional prohibition), President Gerald Ford issued an Executive Order (EO) in 1976 (No. 11905), which prohibited any U.S. government agency to engage in, or conspire in, assassination. The EO has been subsequently revised and renewed by Presidents Carter and Reagan (most recent EO is No. 12333) and is still in force. However, these EOs have been interpreted in the way that only ‘political assassination’ is prohibited, while overt military strikes against enemy leaders are allowed.10 In a few rare instances the US military targeted leaders like Muammar Gaddafi (1986), Saddam Hussein (1991) and Osama bin Laden (1998). A major change in US targeting practices came after 9/11 when the CIA was given the authority to essentially do whatever it takes to destroy Al-Qa’ida. The CIA first employed an armed Predator drone outside of a war zone in November 2002 in Yemen in order to kill Abu Ali al-Harithi, who was suspected of having been responsible for the U.S.S. Cole bombing of 2000.11 The first known use of armed drones in Pakistan took place in June 2004.12 It was a response to the fact that Al-Qa’ida and enemy Taliban moved their safe havens to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan from where they can plan and conduct operations against NATO forces in Afghanistan. There still exists a great amount of secrecy with respect to CIA/JSOC targeted killing operations, but some details have been leaked to the press. According to John Rizzo, the former CIA legal counsel, the CIA would prepare a two to five page dossier containing incriminating evidence on a terrorism suspect.13 If the dossier passes the legal review, the name would be put preliminarily on a ‘kill list’. Otherwise the dossier would be sent back. The ‘kill list’ would then be presented to the NSC for review and ultimately to the President, who reviews the list during the ‘Terror-Tuesdays’ meetings with counter-terrorism advisor John Brennan (now CIA Director) and who has a veto right. During the Obama administration there has been a very notable increase in drone strikes in neutral countries. President Obama explained his counter-terrorism strategy in a speech in March 2009: ‘So let me be clear: al Qaeda and its allies…are in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Multiple intelligence estimates have warned that al Qaeda is actively planning attacks on the United States homeland from its safe havens in Pakistan. And if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban — or allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged — that country will again be a base for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly can.’14 As a result, President Obama decided to escalate the war in Afghanistan and go after the terrorists in Pakistan with drones. While it is believed that the overall number of drone strikes in Pakistan was about 52 during the eight George W. Bush years, there have been over three hundred CIA/JSOC15 drone strikes in Pakistan in just four years of the Presidency of Barack Obama. In addition, there are also armed drone operations by the regular military in war zones. The Bureau of Investigative Journalists claims that in the past five years the US Air Force and the Royal Air Force had conducted a total of 1,168 drone strikes, mostly in Afghanistan.16 Since Obama took office there has been also a notable increase in so-called ‘signature strikes’, which target a ‘group of men who bear certain signatures, or defining characteristics of terrorist activity but whose identities aren’t known’.17 Unfortunately, the CIA does not comment on the drone strikes and it remains classified what kind of observations or patterns of behaviour can justify a drone attack. According to the Wall Street Journal, ‘[t]he bulk of CIA’s drone strikes are signature strikes’18 and an estimate from 2009 suggests that only 2 per cent of the victims of the strikes are HVTs.19 So it can be concluded that the great majority of strikes are now directed against low- and mid-level militants, whose identities are unknown. In October 2012, just before the presidential elections, the Obama administrations announced its intention to firmly institutionalise targeted killing as a tool of US foreign policy and counter-terrorism by developing the so-called ‘disposition matrix’. The logic behind the proposed indefinite continuation of the drone strikes is, according to analyst Bruce Riedel, that one has ‘to mow the lawn all the time’ in order to stop the grass (the terrorists) from growing back.20 The ‘disposition matrix’ is apparently a database containing the names and other details of terrorism suspects, as well as assets and resources available for ‘neutralizing’ them.21 It has been described as an ‘information management tool’ for inter-agency co-operation and it may not signal any change in US policy or strategy.22 In contrast, NSA whistleblower William Binney fears that the ‘disposition matrix’ could largely automate the targeting process and result in ‘undisciplined slaughter’.23
Enemy Responses to a Targeted Killing Campaign
Despite eleven years of capturing and killing numerous key Al-Qa’ida and Taliban members, including members of their top leadership, both groups still seem to be going strong and continue to remain a serious threat, at least to Western interests in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, which has been highlighted by the successful Benghazi attack, in which US ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.24 The hostile Taliban factions that are allied with Al-Qa’ida are still able to attack Western forces and Afghan civilians in many parts of Afghanistan and inflict substantial damage, which was admitted by a recent Pentagon report to Congress.25 It remains even unclear whether US forces can keep their timeline for complete withdrawal from Afghanistan in late 2014.26 What went wrong and how were these groups able to not only survive, but also carry on with their fight?
Al-Qa’ida in particular has undergone very substantial organizational changes since 9/11 that made it much more resilient and enabled it to prosper in some parts of the world. The original Al-Qa’ida organization that existed pre-9/11 quickly collapsed after the invasion of Afghanistan and the battle of Tora Bora. President George W. Bush claimed that up to two thirds of the ‘known leadership of al-Qaeda’ has been captured or killed in 2003.27 However, Al-Qa’ida quickly reconstituted itself in Pakistan and later in Iraq after the misguided invasion and occupation of that country. Al-Qa’ida has now re-emerged in a third generation, which is believed by some, such as Bruce Riedel, to be more dangerous in some ways than its previous incarnations.28 The group has splintered into several autonomous regional sub-organizations and is now known as ‘Al-Qa’ida and Associated Movements’ (AQAM). Its main branches are Al-Qa’ida on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) and Al-Qa’ida in Syria, which seems to be an offshoot of AQI and which is its most recent and most rapidly growing franchise.29 The central leadership of Al-Qa’ida does no longer exist or does no longer provide much centralised guidance or planning.30 It seems that Al-Qa’ida has become little more than an ideological platform or brand name for various Islamist groups to pursue their own local aims and objectives, which are mostly beyond the direct control of the likes of al Zawahiri.31 According to former CIA counterterrorism analyst Michael Scheuer, Al-Qa’ida also adapted to the challenge of targeted killings and capture of key personnel by developing robust succession planning.32 Whenever a key person is ‘taken out’ there are already several others waiting to replace them. The group made its organisational structure even less visible than before and it does not seem that very much is known about the governance structures of the organisation at all.33 Furthermore, Al-Qa’ida has even managed to benefit from the targeted killings by using the ‘martyr-effect’: its propaganda declares the killed leaders as martyrs, who would provide an example for others to follow.34
Is Targeted Killing Militarily Effective on a Strategic Level?
The question whether targeted killing is militarily effective against an enemy like Al-Qa’ida is a very contentious issue, as there is no hard evidence either way because of the unavailability or poor quality of public data.35 It is even doubtful that the military or the intelligence services have enough data for providing a definitive answer. When it comes to the drone strikes in Pakistan and other neutral countries very little effort seems to be made in terms of identifying victims of strikes or investigate the exact role or guilt of individuals, who have been targeted in air strikes and otherwise.36 The fact that the CIA and other decision-makers only rely on a two-page dossier or ‘baseball cards’ for effectively sentencing somebody to death does not look very thorough to begin with. Currently, the main methodology of determining the effectiveness of targeted killing is the use of case studies that compare terrorist incidents before and after an attack and then determine how key variables are impacted, e.g.: are there more or less terrorist incidents afterwards? or more or less victims in these incidents? etc. This might also enable the observation of some other general trends in terms of terrorist incidents. So it is not surprising that most academic and military analysis seems to concentrate on the problem of military effectiveness of targeted killing on an operational level. Very influential is still Daniel Byman’s paper ‘Do Targeted Killings Work’, in which he claims that they would effective since terrorist organisations cannot easily replace skilled and experienced operatives and talented leaders.37 In a similar fashion Alex Wilner argues that targeted killings reduce the capability of terrorist/ insurgent groups to carry out effective attacks in retaliation.38 There are also numerous studies that deal specifically with the military effectiveness of leadership attacks. Some studies claim they have little effect or their effectiveness may be related to specific circumstances, while others claim that successful leadership attacks more often than not destroy terrorist organisations.39 However, when it comes to strategic analysis of targeted killing used against a larger enemy organisation like Al-Qa’ida or the Taliban, which comprise of tens of thousands of members, the picture is less clear since there are still few ‘campaigns’ of this kind that can be analysed in this manner.40 Is it really true that a targeted killing campaign can destroy, coerce or manipulate a larger enemy organisation?
The main problem is that a large enemy organisation will usually have a sufficient amount of prospective leaders, who can replace those leaders who have been killed or captured. At a certain size and sophistication of an enemy organisation it becomes extremely unlikely to bring about the collapse of a terrorist or insurgent group by simply removing a few of its leaders. For example, the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 did not seem to impact in any noticeable way on Al-Qa’ida. Even if it is possible to kill Ayman al Zawahiri, the organisation’s alleged current leader, few analysts expect it would cripple Al-Qa’ida. Experience from Israel’s targeted killing campaign directed against Hamas since the beginning of the Second Intifada also indicates that targeted killing is extremely provocative and usually poses an obstacle to serious peace negotiations, rather than coercing the enemy to accept peace to the own conditions. After more than a decade of targeted killings the Hamas leadership has been driven underground and is less willing to engage in serious peace negotiations than ever.41 It also does not appear that targeted killing could manipulate enemies on a strategic level in the sense of deterring them from attack. To the contrary, although enemies weakened by a targeted killing campaign may have fewer capabilities of striking back they will still be motivated to do so. It is important to keep in mind Henry Kissinger’s observation that the guerrilla wins by not losing. As a result, it is more important for a terrorist or insurgent group to maintain their motivation and to be able to politically or ideologically mobilise others. This seems to be exactly the paradoxical effect of the drone strikes in Pakistan. Instead of wearing down and demoralizing Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in Pakistan through constant drone strikes, the attacks seem to actually contribute to Islamic radicalization and anti-American sentiment in Pakistan and elsewhere.42 According to opinion polls, 90 per cent of the Pakistani object to the US drone strikes43 and 74 per cent consider the US more of an enemy than an ally.44 Even former Afghanistan commander Stanley McCrystal recently warned: ‘What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world…The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.’45
The drone strikes also seem to have no impact on Al Qa’ida’s propaganda output.46 It is very easy for radical Islamic groups to exploit the drone strikes in terms of propaganda since every attack that results in the death of innocent people, especially of children, can be used for inciting hatred towards America and all Westerners. The drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen seem to be the best recruiting argument that Al-Qa’ida ever had since Guantanamo Bay. As a result, US covert action in Pakistan has produced already substantial ‘blowback’ and is not likely to have improved the national security of the US or of other NATO countries, while contributing little to stabilising the government in Kabul, which would be a requirement for terminating the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. A study by RAND’s Patrick Johnston (with Anoop Sarbahi) on the effectiveness of targeted killing suggests: ‘it is important to reiterate that any reduction in terrorist activity associated with the drone campaign appears modest in scope. To the extent drone strikes “work,” their effectiveness is more likely to lie in disrupting militant operations at the tactical level than as a silver bullet that will reverse the course of the war and single handedly defeat Al Qaeda.’47 When directed against a more formidable enemy targeted killing is hardly a form of warfare that can by itself bring about a decision in a conflict. To the contrary, it is prone to ‘blowback’ and in any case complicates peace negotiations. It is time to reconsider the approach of simply going after the ‘bad guys’ using drones and other means.
Conclusion: When It Might Work
If the opposition organisation is large, there is little reason to believe that the removal of one or a few leaders would produce a decisive result. Removing one leader can have unpredictable consequences as successors might be more difficult to deal with than the individual they are replacing. This is probably the main reason why the CIA had to quit the assassination business in the mid-1970s. Targeted killing does not seem to be a very effective counter-terrorism or counter-insurgency tool either. By itself it is extremely unlikely to have a strategic effect in the sense of having the capability of destroying, coercing or manipulating an enemy organisation. While there are benefits on the tactical and operational levels there are often severe drawbacks on a strategic level. Expanding ‘kill lists’ to mostly mid- and low-level enemy personnel as can be seen in the US drone attacks in Pakistan also seems futile and very misguided. In order to defeat a large organisation like Al-Qa’ida through attrition one would have to very dramatically expand the current targeted killing program to kill more terrorists at a much faster rate than ever before. According to a Gallup poll 7 per cent of Muslims (or 112 millions) are Islamic radicals.48 Even if just 1 per cent is willing to take up arms, there would be more than a million Muslim militants in the world, who could be put on ‘kill lists’. This would be outrageous and politically unfeasible to carry out. In addition, the more people are targeted, the more likely it is that innocents get hurt. Even the most thorough and ethical targeting and attack procedures cannot prevent occasional mishaps and just a single major mishap can result in a huge propaganda victory for the enemy. Every mishap totally undermines the legitimacy of a campaign of targeted killings and can result in making more enemies than existed before.
However, there are indeed limited circumstances in which targeted killing could be very effective on a strategic level. When dealing with organisations of a small size, killing a leader can accelerate the collapse of the group.49 Corrupted or criminal organizations are particularly vulnerable with respect to leadership attacks since their groups are motivated by financial or other personal gains and are unwilling to accept as many risks as radicalized members of terrorist or insurgent groups, who are more likely to be prepared to die in the pursuit of their ideological or religious goals. The use of targeted killing against drug cartels and other criminal organisations might be in some cases quite effective as could be seen in the rapid collapse of the Medellin Cartel after the killing of Pablo Escobar in 1993. Some authoritarian regimes may be also highly vulnerable to leadership attacks, as most power tends to be concentrated in a few hands and as succession is often deliberately not planned in advance. At the same time, authoritarian regimes tend to have far greater resources for protecting their leaders than non-state organisations like terrorist groups, which makes it much more difficult to successfully kill the leaders of such a regime. Furthermore, even if one succeeds in killing an authoritarian leader through a limited strike and bring about the collapse of the regime, there is no substitute for a large number of ‘boots on the ground’ in order to prevent civil war or the collapse of the state. To some extent this can be already seen in Libya, where NATO’s removal of Gaddafi50 combined with the absence of Western ground forces has resulted in political instability and a continuing danger of a resurging civil war.51 In any case, the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime has tremendously benefited Al-Qa’ida and other radical groups, which now can operate almost unchecked in Libya.52 These should be important lessons to be learned with respect to the situation in Syria. The expansion of drone strikes in the AfPak theatre and elsewhere more and more looks like a strategic dead end and is hardly an effective way of dealing with the threat of Islamic terrorism. Drones are also no substitute for ground forces when it comes to overthrowing hostile regimes and establishing law and order afterwards. Drone strikes in neutral countries should be only used with extreme caution and in rare instances where the strategic benefits are likely to be high, considering their controversial nature and their great propensity for strategic ‘blowback’.