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Mainstreaming Assassination

Endorsing a program of targeted killing opens the door for perilous reciprocation.

The media are reporting a rare “success” in Washington’s ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. According to confidential, anonymous government sources, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has been engaged in a secret program to assassinate designated “high-value targets,” which means terrorist leaders and other prominent figures, particularly those engaged in propaganda and enticing Western Muslims to join ISIS.

The program, which began in the spring, has reportedly killed four individuals, including ISIS number two Haji Mutazz. The operation employs “an array of satellites, sensors, drones and other technology,” according to the Associated Press, but it has benefited particularly from 24-hour NSA satellite coverage to pick up cellphone signals, a technique that has been used repeatedly in Afghanistan.

The program, which is distinct from the regular bombing attacks carried out by the Air Force and Navy, uses military drones to strike its targets. One of the sources for the AP story describes how the assassinations are keeping ISIS “off balance,” though the program is not seriously degrading the ability of ISIS to plan and execute new operations.

There are a number of problems both with the program itself and how it is being window-dressed. As the information is being provided by the Pentagon anonymously, its release is actually authorized, even though it is not subject to any independent verification. It is likely being described favorably to give the White House a much needed “victory” in the War on Terror. 

In addition, revealing to the leadership of ISIS that it is being targeted through its phones will force it to figure out new ways to maintain contact with supporters, complicating future targeting. Revealing such information is referred to in the spy trade as exposing one’s sources and methods, the ultimate “thou shalt not” for any intelligence officer, which suggests that the whole story might be a deception to conceal what is really taking place.

Also, as military-directed drones in Afghanistan are notorious for causing collateral damage, it is not clear if civilians are being killed in the strikes and, if so, how many. Nor is the procedure for authorizing an attack in any way transparent. What constitutes evidence that a high-value target is actually near or using the phone being tracked? Is it now assumed that anyone fitting a profile residing in an area controlled by ISIS or al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra a legitimate target? What are the rules of engagement?

Finally, there are legal and moral questions relating to targeted assassination itself. The Israelis have employed it for years, but America’s allies in the war against ISIS consider it unacceptable. Targeted assassination of enemy leaders and other prominent figures was contrary to U.S. doctrine prior to the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in 2011. Now it has become official policy, so much so that it is being heralded as a success.

The White House believes that killing the ISIS leadership is legal under the Authorization for Use of Military Force as it is a Salafist-type terrorist group. That may be true from a U.S. perspective, but endorsing a program of targeted killing opens the door for those being targeted to start reciprocating, aggressively going after coalition government leaders and other high-level officials.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.