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Targeted Killings: A Legally Viable, High Risk Course of Action

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Research paper

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On 11 December 2005, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that targeted killings were not strictly prohibited under international law. Analysis of the court case and supporting documents will illustrate that the position taken by the court is sound in its legal judgment and provides the U.S. military and other militaries with a powerful tool. Analysis of centers of gravity on the middle to lower end of the range of military operations, particularly counterinsurgency operations, will show that the center of gravity rests squarely with the local population, who are often killed alongside the targeted insurgent. The analysis shows that although targeted killings are legal, they run counter to the struggle the United States wages for legitimacy in its fight so far from home. Targeted killings can result in the martyrdom of the targeted individual, increased recruitment into the ranks of the insurgent force, and a net negative effect overall. This is not to say that targeted killings should never be employed, but one can argue that the examples of targeted killings that had less than satisfactory results outnumber those that did. Operational commanders are obliged by international law to, whenever possible, arrest and put on trial civilians who are acting outside the law. By going outside the law and employing what some would call an extra-judiciary execution the United States is often working counter to the goal of winning over the local population and establishing a peaceful government. Operational commanders must put a targeted killing course of action under strict scrutiny and weigh the benefit of reducing risk to force against the potential risk to mission. This paper provides them with further guidance on the use of targeted killings. The intended result is operational commanders who have less ambiguity on when to employ the tactic, when not to employ it, and when to seek legal and higher echelon guidance regarding its use.

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  • Sociology and Law
  • Unconventional Warfare

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