Analyzing the Legality and Effectiveness of U.S. Targeted Killing

AuthorLaurie R. Blank
PositionClinical Professor of Law; Director, Center for International and Comparative Law; Director, International Humanitarian Law Clinic, Emory University School of Law
Analyzing the Legality and Effectiveness of U.S.
Targeted Killing
Laurie R. Blank*
Targeted killing, kill lists,targeted strikes, killer drones,signature strikes
the language of counterterrorism in the twenty-first century includes an entire vo-
cabulary describing, and sometimes vilifying, the deliberate use of lethal force
against a designated individual or individuals, in peacetime or during conflict,
who are known or believed to present a threat to national security. The United
States’ use of targeted strikes against identified terrorist and insurgent operatives
over the past two decades has engendered enormous debate in the legal and policy
In the legal sphere, the discourse has focused on the legality of targeted
killing under international human rights law,
the international law of self-
and the law of armed conflict;
on the identification of individuals as
lawful targets; on the minimization and reporting of civilian casualties;
and on
other core questions. From the policy and strategic perspectives, scholars and pol-
icy makers have debated the effectiveness of targeted strikes in preventing terrorist
attacks, degrading or defeating terrorist or insurgent groups, or achieving other
national security objectives.
The discourse and rhetoric of the past two decades
demonstrates, however, that targeted killing is not either a legal debate or a
* Clinical Professor of Law; Director, Center for International and Comparative Law; Director,
International Humanitarian Law Clinic, Emory University School of Law. © 2023, Laurie R. Blank.
1. See, e.g., Michael N. Schmitt, Drone Attacks under the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bello: Clearing
the Fog of Law, 13 YBK. INTL HUM. L. 311 (2010); Mary Ellen O’Connell, Unlawful Killing with
Combat Drones: A Case Study of Pakistan, 2004-2009, in SHOOTING TO KILL: SOCIO-LEGAL
PERSPECTIVES ON THE USE OF LEGAL FORCE (Simon Bronitt et al eds. 2012); Rosa Brooks, Drones and
the International Rule of Law, 28 ETH. & INTL AFF. 83 (2014).
2. Philip Alston, Rep. of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions:
Study on Targeted Killings, A/HRC/14/24.Add.6 (May 28, 2010).
3. See Laurie R. Blank, Targeted Strikes: The Consequences of Blurring the Armed Conflict and Self-
Defense Justifications, 38 WM. MITCHELL L. REV. 1655 (2012); Jordan J. Paust, Self-Defense Targetings
of Non-State Actors and Permissibility of U.S. Use of Drones in Pakistan, 19 J. TRANSNATL L. & POLY
237 (2010); Geoffrey S. Corn, Self Defense Targeting: Conflict Classification or Willful Blindness? 88
INTL L. STUD. 12 (2012).
4. See Schmitt, supra note 1; Ryan J. Vogel, Drone Warfare and the Law of Armed Conflict, 39
DENV. J. INTL L. & POLY 101 (2010); Laurie R. Blank, After Top Gun: How Drone Strikes Impact
the Law of War, 33 U. PA. J. INTL L. 675 (2012); Oren Gross, The New Way of War: Is There a Duty to
Use Drones?, 67 FL. L. REV. 1 (2015).
5. See, e.g., Paul Lushenko, Shyam Raman & Sarah Kreps, How to Avoid Civilian Casualties During
Drone Strikes At No Cost to National Security, MODERN WAR INSTITUTE (Feb. 10, 2022).
6. See, e.g., Javier Jordan, The Effectiveness of the Drone Campaign Against Al Qaeda Central: A
Case Study, 37 J. STRAT. STUD. 4-29 (2014); Max Abrahms & Jochen Mierau, Leadership Matters: The
Effects of Targeted Killings on Militant Group Tactics, 29 TERR. & POL. VIOLENCE 830 (2017); Audrey
Kurth Cronin, Why Drones Fail; When Tactics Drive Strategy, 92 FOR. AFF. 44 (2013).
strategic and policy question, but rather melds the two inquiries into a more com-
plex and nuanced set of issues.
To assess the effectiveness of targeted killing, an essential first question is
effectiveness at doing what?Beyond the common conceptions of effectiveness,
which might include metrics such as eliminating, weakening, or defeating a par-
ticular terrorist group or deterring future attacks by such group, a range of other
possible ways to consider effectiveness are relevant as well.
Broadening the lens
of inquiry from one particular adversary group, one might consider whether tar-
geted killing is effective in combating terrorism more generally or, even more
broadly, as one instrument in protecting national security. However, the what
and howof effectiveness is opaque at best. Targeted killing:
[M]ay be effective in disrupting a terrorist organization in the short term but
not the long term. It may be effective in ending certain types of terrorist activ-
ities and in particular settings but not in others. It may be effective politically
in the country that launches the attack but not militarily on the ground. It may
be effective militarily but not diplomatically either in the land of the attack or
among international alliances. It may be either more or less effective on any
dimension than the available data are capable of revealing.
But targeted killing also presents entirely separate considerations of effective-
ness, such as whether the available tactic of targeted strikes is effective in ena-
bling the use of force with lower domestic or international constraintsin other
words, does targeted killing make it easierto use lethal force against terrorists
rather than another option with less immediate effects. One might even query the
effectiveness of targeted killing in the more amorphous space of messaging about
national security capabilities, in effect, as a means of communicating a state’s
willingness and capability to pursue enemies and threats regardless of more
traditional limitations on the projection of national power. The U.S. use of
over-the-horizonstrikes in Afghanistan after its August 2021 withdrawal
coulddepending on one’s interpretation and acceptance of the relevant legal
and policy justificationsbe one such example.
President Biden, Remarks on the End of the War in Afghanistan (Aug. 31, 2021),
One area where targeted killing has engendered enormous debate is, of course,
the lawboth domestic and international lawbut little if any of this debate has
explored questions and assessments of effectiveness. The question of what
standards and metrics [a democracy] should . . . use to judge the propriety and
effectiveness of its actions
is central to all national security decision-making
and analysis. However, most analyses and critiques of targeted killing assess legal
7. For an extensive discussion of various methods for analyzing the effectiveness of targeted killing,
8. Brian Forst, Targeted Killings: How Should We Assess Them?, 16 CRIMINOLOGY & PUB. POLY
221, 221 (2017).
10. Daniel Byman, Do Targeted Killings Work?, 85 FOREIGN AFF. 95, 96 (2006).

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