the age of technology, tactics of war have been almost completely altered. It
is now possible to conduct military actions in foreign countries without ever
stepping foot off of U.S. soil. Along with technology come more abundant
intelligence and more efficient and precise tactics. On the other hand, with
new technology, questions surrounding the legality and morality of certain
tactics may be raised. One of the more controversial programs of the United
States military is the targeted killing program, particularly those carried out
using drone strikes. While targeting specific individuals for assassination is
not a new concept, the current method of utilizing drones to carry out sudden
and stealthy attacks is. However, the ability to kill people anywhere at any
time does not come without downsides and controversy and the United States’
ability to carry out these killings, sometimes without providing clear
authority or cause, calls into question the legitimacy of the current program
and a need for possible changes.

Before one can simply describe their position on
“Targeted Killing”, one must understand exactly what “Targeted Killing” is. “A
targeted killing is the intentional, premeditated and deliberate use of lethal
force, by States or their agents acting under color of law, or by an organized
armed group in armed conflict, against a specific individual who is not in the
physical custody of the perpetrator” as defined by The United Nations Human
Rights Council (Alston).
“Targeted Killing”, as much as it is frequently used, discussed, and defined by
some people, is not actually a term defined by International Law (Alston). “Targeted
Killing” takes place in times of peace as well as armed conflict by governments
and their agents in a variety of contexts. The means and methods of
killing vary, and include, sniper fire, shooting at close range, missiles from
helicopters, gunships, drones, the use of car bombs, and poison (Alston). The goal of a targeted
killing is to enact legal force upon those targets identified in advance by the
government or government actors. Both the George W. Bush and Obama
administrations have attempted to justify “Targeted Killing” as a means to
counter act terrorism under domestic and international law by “killing targeted
members” of the Taliban and al-Qaeda and its
affiliates. The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, passed by U.S. Congress just days after
9/11, empowers the president “to use all necessary and appropriate force” in
pursuit of those responsible for terrorist attacks (“Targeted Killings…”). During the Obama administration, targeted killings carried out
by unmanned drones have increased dramatically. Drones were originally developed to gather intelligence and
conduct surveillance. More than 40 countries now have such technology (Alston). Some, including Israel,
Russia, Turkey, China, India, Iran, the United Kingdom and France either have
or are seeking drones that also have the capability to shoot laser-guided
missiles ranging in weight from 35 pounds to more than 100 pounds (Alston). Those used by the United States Air Force and Royal Air Force range from
small intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance craft and can be launched
simply by hand, to medium-sized armed drones all the way up to large spy planes. They can offer the military continuous surveillance. They
provide troops with a 24-hour “eye in the sky” every day of the week.
Each aircraft can stay airborne for up to 17 hours at a time, loitering over an
area and sending back real-time imagery of activities on the ground (“Drones…”). The
purpose of armed drones is clear: they permit targeted killings at little to no
risk to the State personnel carrying them out, and they can be operated
remotely from the home State.

Traditionally the
CIA has managed the bulk of U.S. drone operations outside recognized war zones, such as in Pakistan,
while the Department of Defense (DOD) has commanded operations in established
theaters of conflict, such as in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya (MacDonald). Drones are used in
situations where manned flight is considered too risky or difficult. The
CIA has been flying unarmed drones over Afghanistan since the beginning of 2000
and began flying armed drones in the wake of 9/11/2001. Before 9/11, drones
were used to carry out military support functions. In places such as
Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. has drones for targeted killings in which the
operations fall under the Law of Armed Conflict. The CIA use “Predator” and
“Reaper” drones to conduct prier targeted killings. The first credibly
reported CIA drone killing occurred on 3 November 2002, when a Predator drone
fired a missile at a car in Yemen, killing Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, an al-Qaeda
leader allegedly responsible for the USS Cole bombing (Alston). Since then, there has assumed to be 120 drone
strikes carried out by the CIA (Alston). Drones
are used to conduct the killing of targeted affiliates and member of the
Taliban and al-Qaeda organizations under the Armed Law of Conflict.

The Legal Adviser of the Department of State legally
justified for the targeted killing program on the basis of the U.S.’s
right to self-defense while in armed conflict with al-Qaeda, as well as the
Taliban and other known associates of said groups. This statement made by the
Legal Adviser of the Department of State holds a vast amount of significance. The
Law of Armed Conflict is exactly that, the law of armed conflict between two
The Law of Armed Conflict applies to international armed conflicts and when
conducting military operations and related activities in armed conflict. The
most significant of LOAC rules come from the Geneva Conventions of 1949.
The Geneva Conventions consist of four separate international treaties.
These treaties aim to protect combatants and noncombatants from unnecessary
suffering who may become wounded, sick, shipwrecked, or POWs during hostilities
(Powers). Additionally, they are enacted to protect civilians and private
property. The Law of Armed Conflict is governed by 3 important principles: military necessity, proportionality, and, distinction.

It is required that military combat forces conduct
acts only as necessary to achieve a set military objective. Attacks must be restricted to military objectives referred
to as military necessity. In applying military necessity to targeting, the rule
generally means the United States Military may target those
facilities, equipment, and forces which, if destroyed, would lead as quickly as
possible to the enemy’s partial or complete submission (MacDonald). Military necessity also requires
a review of weapons to be used. It helps military developers ensure military
personnel do not use weapons or weapons systems that violate the LOAC. There are many weapons
considered illegal arms during armed conflict, such as hollow point bullets and
poison weapons. Even permitted weapons may call for some restrictions on their
use in individual circumstances to increase compliance with the LOAC.

Upon determining a target
possesses a threat to the U.S., based on current or previous actions, officials are to consider all options when making targeting
decisions: verify the target, timing, weapons used, warnings and evacuations
for civilian populations. More recently in history drones have been used to
carry out these targeted killing attacks and they have been known to be used
By stating that U.S. is in armed conflict with al-Qaeda and the affiliates
of the Taliban the principle of proportionally is still in act with even with a
program, for many, which are considered to be in the grey area of armed
Proportionality prohibits the
use of any kind or degree of force that exceeds that needed to accomplish the
military objective.
Proportionality requires a balancing test between the concrete and direct
military advantage anticipated by attacking a legitimate military target and
the expected incidental civilian injury or damage (Powers).  
This principle encourages combat forces to minimize the incidental,
unintended destruction that occurs as a result of a lawful attack against a
legitimate military target.
The key here is the word incidental, meaning outside of the military target. This means that when considering
a target, the damage to civilians and their property cannot be excessive in
relation to the military advantage gained. Proportionality is not a requirement if the target is
purely military minded.
The least damaging means of obtaining the goal should be selected to minimize
the loss of innocent civilians caught between the terrorists and the State. This is a pivotal platform that
the justification of targeted killing is built upon. The strongest justification for
the use of targeted killing is the fact that since these targets are so
specific and the means in which the killing will be done with both protect the
predator state involved and surrounding civilians, in theory seem ideal. However, targeted killing is not
always appropriately achieved in a proportional manner. For example, the highly
publicized killing of Salah Shehada in which a one ton bomb was used on a
building in Gaza, killing sixteen people, injuring over eighty, and destroying
four residential buildings (MacDonald). This targeted killing was exceedingly
disproportional and would certainly constitute a violation of Law of Armed
Targeted killing can respect the principle of proportionality; however, the
tactic must be used in a manner that minimizes, or eliminates, the impact on
the civilian population. This is essential to both follow The Law of Armed Conflict and not
create cause for negative sanctions or dissent from civilians.

Distinction is arguably the most important Law of
Armed Conflict principle when discussing the evolution of war particularly when
determining who is lawfully killed due to the suspicion versus verified as
having conducted acts of terrorism. Distinction means discriminating between
lawful combatant targets and noncombatant targets such as civilians, civilian
property, POWs, and wounded personnel who are out of combat (Powers). I believe that having a clear
understanding of the distinction between combatants and noncombatants under the
distinction principle provides a greater understanding of the deep controversy regarding
targeted killing programs. The distinction between
combatants and noncombatants is crucial as combatants take part in the armed
conflict, making them legitimate targets, while civilians do not participate in
the armed conflict thus deeming those actors unlawful targets. The Law of Armed Conflict was
created to apply between states and did not envision non-state actors such as
terrorist organizations.
The Geneva Conventions distinguish between lawful combatants, noncombatants,
and unlawful combatants.

The definition of ‘combatants’ is based on the
traditional view of a state’s armed forces and militias. A
lawful combatant is an individual sanctioned by governmental authority or the
LOAC to engage in armed conflict. The lawful
combatant must be commanded by a person responsible for subordinates; have
fixed distinctive emblems recognizable at a distance, such as uniforms; carry
arms openly, and conduct his or her combat operations according to the Law of Armed
Conflict (Alston). Noncombatants are not authorized by governmental authority or the
Law of Armed Conflict to engage in armed conflict. This category includes but is not limited to
civilians, POWs, medical personnel, and chaplains. Any
person that is not a combatant within the combatant definition is a civilian;
if there is any doubt as to a person’s status, they must be considered a
civilian. Noncombatants may not be made the
object of direct attack.
However, they may however, suffer injury or death incident to a direct attack
on a military objective.

of the strikes that have taken place by the U.S. government have
been under some level of uncertainty. According to reports, hundreds of dangerous
distinct combatants have indeed been killed by drones, but the results of
several strikes have often turned out to be deeply troubling.
In-depth investigations of several strikes have resulted in more civilian
casualties and, in some cases, uncertainty of the killing of the correct target.
Once a targeted killing drone strike is conducted, it may take several weeks or
even months, to get a clear idea of the success of the strike or numbers
regarding damage and civilian casualties. Terrorism has almost
molded a different form of targeted killing. There is a high likelihood that several of the terrorists that are likely to be targeted for
killing do not meet the requirements to be considered combatants. It is actually difficult to apply the LOAC principles to forms
of counter terrorism. Distinction means discriminating between lawful
combatant targets and noncombatant targets and under the LOAC any person that
is not a combatant within the combatant definition is a civilian; if there is
any doubt as to a person’s status, they must be considered a civilian.
Acts of terrorism are conducted by several non-state actors, who are not
distinctly marked or notably recognized. They are not members of the armed forces of a state participating in the
There is no fixed distinctive symbol, arms are not carried openly, and
operations are not conducted in accordance with laws and customs of war. In most instances, terrorist
groups strive to achieve the opposite of the LOAC requirements. Under sometimes arguably spotty reasoning
and exceptions, U.S. officials can continue to
justify the use of targeted killing of non-state “combatants” based on the
presumption of “criminal guilt” or “self-defense”. In theory, this practice can be very practical and
resourceful, however it adds even more grey area to an already complex and
controversial situation. What exact qualifications and actions must be
performed or met by an individual before that individual is placed in the “Hit

It can be argued that target killing should be halted
entirely until civilian casualties can be eliminated entirely. Others may
encourage stricter scrutiny be taken when determining whether or not a target
is considered lawful. It can be difficult for civilians of the United States to
fully grasp the implications of targeted killing considering it is not
something we are exposed to on a regular basis on U.S. soil. The extensive
damage done by targeted killings on foreign soil and the, oftentimes numerous,
civilian casualties cannot be ignored and passed off as a necessity in the
pursuit of national security. However, there is no simple fix to the issue of
morality and efficiency of the U.S. targeted killing program. The first step in
adjusting the targeted killing program would be to expose and analyze the data
regarding the amount of targets and civilians killed rather than simply marring
the program as precise. In order to make changes, it must be openly accepted
that the program is flawed.

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