Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Ask the Experts: Do Targeted Killings Work?

by Micah Zenko
September 24, 2012

An armed U.S. Predator drone waits on the tarmac in Kandahar, Afghanistan (Pool New/Courtesy Reuters). An armed U.S. Predator drone waits on the tarmac in Kandahar, Afghanistan (Pool New/Courtesy Reuters).

The United States did not always carry out targeted killings (or assassinations) of perceived national security threats. To the contrary, the norm against targeted killings outside of battlefield settings was established by President Gerald Ford in 1976, when he issued Executive Order 11905: “No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.” Until the late 1990s, U.S. targeted killings were officially proscribed and rarely seriously considered or authorized by senior officials.

When President Ronald Reagan was asked about the failed assassination attempt of Sheik Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah in Beirut in March 1985, for instance, he replied: “Never would I sign anything that would authorize an assassination. I never have, and I never will, and I didn’t.” Actually, Reagan signed a directive on November 13, 1984, that was interpreted as “truly a ‘license to kill’ provision.” Sixteen years later, U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk stated: “The United States government is very clearly on the record as against targeted assassinations. They are extrajudicial killings, and we do not support that.” However, after the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in August 1998, President Clinton issued three top-secret Memoranda of Understanding authorizing the CIA to kill Osama bin Laden and several key lieutenants—if they resisted capture.

Despite these exceptions, U.S. targeted killings were extremely rare. Since 9/11, however, targeted killings in nonbattlefield settings steadily grew under President George W. Bush—roughly 50 between November 2002 and the end of his second term—and exploded under President Barack Obama—almost 350 and counting.

As some operations are covert—when the lead executive authority is the CIA—while others are obliquely acknowledged with few specifics—when it is the Department of Defense—there are ethical, moral, and legal questions that have gone unaddressed, due partly to lack of public debate and congressional hearings. Just as there remains intense disagreement among former officials about whether enhanced interrogation techniques (i.e., torture) against suspected terrorists “worked” to produce useful and/or actionable intelligence, it is difficult to know whether U.S. targeted killings are a successful and sustainable means of achieving U.S. short- or long-term strategic objectives.

In an effort to draw further attention to this still poorly understood U.S. counterterrorism tactic, we asked five experts to respond to the following simplistic, yet essential question:

“Do targeted killings work?”


Daniel Byman is a professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University and the research director of the Saban Center at Brookings. He is the author of A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism. When bored, he tweets @dbyman.

Targeted killings work—just not in all places and at all times. They can steadily attrite a terrorist group’s leadership and, over time, leaving it with fewer impressive leaders and fewer skilled personnel. Their biggest impact, however, is often in what the terrorist organization does not do. Leaders must spend their time hiding and changing locations in order to survive. They must curtail phone communications and avoid interacting with large groups of followers, all of which make them far less able to guide the organization, inspire followers, and enforce their will. Leaders often instigate witch-hunts in order to go after supposed traitors who provided the lethal intelligence, further reducing the group’s effectiveness.

Targeted killings, however, are a tactic, not a strategy. The inevitable civilian deaths that occur can at times, but do not always, create significant numbers of additional enemies as well as carrying a moral burden. And politically it is tempting to ignore the broader dimensions of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency as long as bad guys are dying on a regular basis. These faults and limits, while serious, should not lead to the rejection of targeted killings but rather a recognition of its costs and why alone they will not suffice.


Joshua Foust is the Fellow for Asymmetric Operations at the American Security Project. He is also the national security columnist for PBS Need to Know, a contributor to The Atlantic, and edits the Central Asia blog Registan.net.

The U.S. record, though far from perfect, shows that they can kill senior terrorist and insurgent leaders with surprising precision and accuracy. Over the last decade, much of the intelligence community has been reoriented around collecting and analyzing intelligence for the purpose of developing targeting “packages.” Targeted killings carry other benefits as well: they require far less commitment of troops and materiel, which limits risk and cost; they also result in far less collateral damage than an equivalent raid by conventional troops.

As for whether they achieve the long term goals of U.S. policy, that’s another matter. In Afghanistan, the long-term goals are not well defined so it’s difficult to say conclusively whether they are working or not. In Pakistan, targeted killings have seriously degraded al-Qaeda groups. However, they have also resulted in anti-Americanism and resentment. In Yemen, a limited campaign has killed several important figures in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in support of the real progress through a massive campaign by the Yemeni Army.

So it’s not as simple as “yes or no.” In some cases, targeted killings are an effective tool; in others, they are not. The issue requires nuance, not absolutism.


Sarah Holewinski is executive director of Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group that is later this month publishing a report on U.S. covert drone policy and its impact on civilian populations with Columbia Law School Human Rights Clinic.

They may kill some of the people they’re intended to kill some of the time. But as a stand-in for long-term counterterrorism policy, covert drone strikes in particular may be doing more harm than good to national security. They’re supposed to rid the United States of enemies without the cost of troop lives or the muck of a traditional invasion.

But on the other side of the balance sheet, drone strikes are creating anger—not only among locals in Pakistan and Yemen, but among people elsewhere who want an excuse to hate America. Even for America’s fans, strikes call into question U.S. commitment to responsible use of force, thanks to the information vacuum around who can be targeted, why, under what legal framework, and how CIA and Special Forces protocols protect civilians.

A fight worth fighting comes with sacrifice. Drones have relieved much of the sacrifice born by the soldier but not the civilian, who lives in constant fear of sudden death. Regardless of civilian casualties, which are highly disputed, the psychological trauma, displacement, and suspicion among neighbors of colluding with one side or the other has turned communities into war zones, even with no visible boots on the ground. No wonder ordinary people are chanting “Death to America” after strikes.

There are no numbers on how many formerly agnostic civilians are now skeptical about U.S. power nor how many terrorists may arise as a result of the current drone policy. That X factor is reason enough to pause before claiming a counterterrorism panacea.


Patrick B. Johnston is an associate political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He is the author of “Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” published in International Security (Spring 2012).

Targeting militant leaders is central to many states’ national security strategies, but does it work? Among academics, the conventional wisdom says no: many militant organizations have managed to persist after their key leaders were either captured or killed. Al-Qaeda (AQ) is a case in point: it not only survived Osama bin Laden’s death, it remains a meaningful threat.

Even though militant organizations do not always collapse following the capture or killing of top leaders, a pair of recent studies (here and here) find that targeted killing, or “leadership decapitation,” may be much more effective than previously believed. (Full Disclosure: I am the author of this one.) Drawing on extensive, newly compiled historical evidence, each study finds that leadership decapitation has historically tended to disrupt militant operations and degrade their capabilities, ultimately weakening militant organizations and shortening their lifespans. Simply put, when terrorists are afraid to poke their heads above ground, it becomes exceedingly difficult for them to communicate, coordinate, and conduct attacks—especially sophisticated ones like 9/11.

What of the toll on civilians? “Capture/kill” operations such as night raids in Afghanistan and Iraq have garnered a grisly reputation, sometimes rightfully so. But one of their chief benefits is that when done properly, they are highly targeted (as the name plainly suggests). Any military operation runs the risk of harming civilians, but targeted operations, when driven by good intelligence and conducted by elite Special Operations Forces, tend to be more surgical and precise than conventional operations.

In practice, targeted operations are only as effective and precise as the intelligence that drives them, and as the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Iraq diminishes, so too will its intelligence capabilities. With the United States becoming increasingly reliant on special operations to keep pressure on al-Qaeda, continued investment in intelligence capabilities will be necessary not just to fight the terrorists effectively, but also selectively.


Pir Zubair Shah is the Edward R. Murrow press fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He joins CFR from the New York Times, where he was a reporter in Pakistan, working in the Waziristan tribal area. 

My answer is that in Pakistan, targeted killings have worked to a large extent—CIA operated drone strikes have eliminated top al-Qaeda and local Taliban leadership. The tribal region of Pakistan along the Afghanistan border turned into a safe haven for the Taliban and other foreign fighters affiliated with groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) that fled Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion. Because Pakistan was unable and sometimes unwilling to take on such groups, drone strikes became the only politically viable option for U.S. counterterrorism goals, such as destroying al-Qaeda safe heavens.

The first known case of targeted killing by a drone strike is when a Pakistani Taliban commander, Nek Mohammad, was killed in 2004. Since then, more than three hundred strikes have killed dozens of al-Qaeda leaders and local insurgent commanders. The main focus of the drone attacks have been the tribal districts of South and North Waziristan, where al-Qaeda militants and other foreign fighters took refuge after the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Drone strikes have also killed fighters who posed a greater threat to Pakistan than to the United States, including commanders like Baitullah Mehsud, Qari Hussain, and Badar Mansoor. Similarly, some of the top al-Qaeda commanders were Abu Yahya al Libi, Khalid Habib, Osama Alkini, and many others. Drones have also killed the head of IMU, Qari Tahir Yeldeshev, and the commander of the Eastern Turkistan Movement in North Waziristan. In recent months, drones have also targeted members of the Haqqani network, including the sons of Jalaluddin Haqqani, the symbolic head of the network that is now run by his son from safe havens in North Waziristan and other places in Pakistan.

Drone strikes have also resulted in civilian deaths, although far less than what is reported (mostly) in Pakistani media. The number of civilians killed by drones is also fewer than those killed by Pakistani jet bombers and artillery shelling. Similarly, the tribal areas targeted by drones have a favorable view of the attacks, compared to mainstream Pakistani society, who view the strikes as violations of their national sovereignty.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Phillip Bolster

    When so called experts disagree on the central facts to such an extent it is very difficult to maintain any respect for any single opinion on this subject when clearly there is a major elephant in the room i.e. the data is just not trustworthy.

    Opinions on the use of Drone strikes have all merged into the same gloppy indistinct tripe as far as I can see. Nobody is willing to put their chips down clearly and say YES this is right, it works and is the correct choice morally and politically and militarily or NO this is wrong we need to stop doing this because it is morally wrong and sets a very dangerous and irreversible precedent in a world full of countries such as Russia, China and North Korea.

    It’s not like the US has used drones in any sort of moderate way as you say carrying out 350+ remote assassinations involving somewhere between 1000 and 3000 innocent deaths including entire families, children and all sorts of non-battlefield scenarios, so why the flimsy wishy washy moderate opinions? You either agree with your leadership’s intensive use of Drones to assassinate people based on necessarily incomplete Intel or you don’t. The question SHOULD HAVE BEEN; If this was your baby, as it is Obama’s – then would you continue to kill with drones or not?

    This is a war but for the first time in human history it is a Heroless War fought by air-conditioned fake fly boys in 40 foot containers using joysticks in pairs sharing the guilt of snuffing out life based on 70% Intel guesses and money hungry assets attaching GPS transmitters to vehicles as a vendetta ro to make mooney for their family, this is a mess where decisions are shared between pyramids of authority between SOCCOM, Just Dept, CIA and the Exec Nerd branch of guys like Holder etc so as nobody feels suicidal guilt for killing two 5 year old twin daughters, their grandfather, a driver, 4 herdsmen, 2 low level 20 year old AQ young fellows and a dinner table full of innocent Pakistani’s. It is weak, it is the easy option, it is cowardly and it is only done because it CAN be done. Hate cannot be destroyed with missiles, hate cannot be crushed with a boot. Hate is real and justified in some instances…. and hate on both sides yours and their… is justified in some instances… 9/11 was an evil act. But so can be described so many actions of US Foreign policy and inactions. This Drone War is just not worth it. It is creating too much hate outside the actual zone of conduct., and not just amongst middle eastern peoples but on thousands of forums and around water coolers of a hundred countries around the world. The problem is of course that your NSA ears hear so so much traffic and you feel you gotta swing your big stick and drones gave you an unlimited risk free big stick to swing and you’re swinging like Babe Rooth at a water mellon… you can’t miss and you suffer no risk so you act with impunity and that cannot continue.. people are inherently good and when you are so cavalier with so many lives in the region which despises you the most you are just asking fate to swing back. And you so called ‘experts’ have the power cumulatively to influence how long this unscrupulous immoral unAmerican strategy continues to be applied. Think about this… when I press on ‘Post’ now I do so as easy as a 22 year old releases a Hellfire from her console at Creeche which will 1 second later dismember 14 Pakistani people which has a 80% chance of including some mid level completely replaceable AQ logistics guy whose two younger brothers will hate you so venomously they will so easily be coerced into attaching a bomb vest and walking into a Tel Av-iv cinema and blowing up 61 people.

  • Posted by BrianM

    Really Phillip? “Water mellon”, “Babe Rooth”?

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