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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U.S. Transparency and the Truth of Targeted Killings

by Micah Zenko
September 5, 2014


This morning, the White House released an unusual statement: “The Department of Defense confirmed that Ahmed Godane, the leader of al-Shabaab, is dead as a result of a U.S. military targeted airstrike in Somalia undertaken over the weekend.” What was particularly unique about the statement is that, previously, the Pentagon has purposely refused to confirm the deaths of terrorist leaders killed with legal counterterrorism strikes. On June 5, 2012, when Pentagon spokesperson then-Capt. John Kirby was asked about the reported death of al Qaeda’s no. 2 official, Abu Yahya al-Libi, Kirby replied: “We don’t discuss the specifics of counterterrorism operations.  So I’m not going to speak to specifics of operations.”

Similarly, when asked about the U.S. drone strike in Yemen that killed sixteen-year old American citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Kirby asserted:  “We do not discuss the specifics of our operations.” (Of course, this was precisely the same time that the Pentagon public affairs officials was arranging meetings between Hollywood screenwriters and special operations civilian officials and planners who were associated with the covert raid that killed Osama bin Laden, but never mind.)

Obama administration officials have repeatedly claimed—both on and off the record—that discussing or acknowledging the deaths of specific terrorist leaders undermines the operational security of ongoing future operations. However, in this case, they have apparently decided to, yet again, become selectively transparent about the killing of a long sought after terrorist leader. The extent to which this transparency is meaningful will be revealed by whether U.S. spokespersons and officials are willing to clarify how this targeted killing was consistent with the White House’s presidential policy guidance published in March 2013—namely the non-existent preference to capture suspected terrorists rather than kill them.

Finally, this publicly touted death of a suspected terrorist leader shrouds the truth about U.S. targeted killings in non-battlefield settings. The overwhelming majority of reported deaths are of suspected militant or terrorist foot soldiers, rather than someone in the leadership role. According to the three best public estimates, somewhere between 2.2 percent and 5 percent of targeted killing victims are leaders. See below for the most up-to-date publicly available estimates of America’s third war.

TKs as of Sept 2014

For a full breakdown of U.S. targeted killings and fatalities by year and country, see my most recent update from December 2013.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Fidelis

    Hmmmm. I don’t blame the US for the high number of civilian deaths because some of these terror groups use civilians as shield.

  • Posted by Witness

    Mr/Ms Fidelis:
    First: even if the ‘human shield’ catch-phrase were true, there is no excuse for killing civilians just because some ‘presumed terrorist’ happened to be in their midst, which in addition usually is not their own choice.

    Second: the is ample proof of such ‘human shield’ and/or ‘they sacrifice their own children for propaganda reasons’US army claims having been exposed as pure lies & propaganda. So mind your tongue before you accuse others of what your (?) army is doing on a daily basis in by now countless countries:
    http://news.antiwar.com/2010/04/11/wikileaks-2-wrath-of-farah/ :”The Pentagon initially claimed that the entire incident was made up and that the Taliban had pre-killed all the civilians and stored the bodies in buildings before tricking the US into bombing those buildings. They later conceded to have killed 26 people, but insisted that “no one will ever” know the exact numbers.”

    “In a closed door meeting aimed at explaining why they had killed so many civilians, Gen. Petraeus actually accused parents in the region of burning their own children in an attempt to raise the death count and make the US look bad.”

    Third: you don’t seem to know how much the US -and other ‘coalition’ armies- use civilians as human shields. Why do you think heavily armed soldiers go to local market places and distribute candies to the local kids?
    Indeed, in the hope that that will BUY the grown-ups’ ‘hearts & minds’ and far too many children -and adults- have been sacrificed that way as ‘collateral damage’ in an attack on that military. Not to mention military convoys travelling though crowded city streets at rush hours, when it is evident that any attack will kill countless civilians who happen to be on their way to school or work.

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