Managing Security Today
Following the targeted killing of American born al-Qa’eda leader, Anwar al -Awlaki, targeted killings of American citizens has been a hotly contested issue. A targeted killing is defined as the “intentional, premeditated and deliberate use of lethal force, by states or their agents acting . . . against a specific individual who is not in the physical custody of the perpetrator.” The rule of law that justifies a state killing another human rests in either the law of war or the legal right of self-defense.
The term targeted killing is most often associated with the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVS), also known as drones. These attack platforms have been in use in the War on Terror for more than a decade. Despite harsh criticisms of nearly every aspect of the War on Terror waged by his predecessor, President Obama has killed hundreds of suspected enemy combatants through the use of drones. The primary legal theory that the United States relies on is the belief that it is at war and that unlawful enemy combatants, including American citizens, are part of a hostile force. In addition to the standard targeting considerations of proportionality, unnecessary suffering, and military necessity, it is well established that noncombatants may be killed if incidental to a lawful attack, a concept known as collateral damage.
The legal basis for targeted killing has often been clouded due to the government’s failure to set out the authority with clarity. Due to the President’s inability to clearly state a legal justification divorced from political overtures, people in the U.S. have found it easy to accuse the country of wrongdoing when targeting American citizens.
Jeffrey F. Addicott, Targeted Killing - Death by Drone, Mᴀɴᴀɢɪɴɢ Sᴇᴄᴜʀɪᴛʏ Tᴏᴅᴀʏ, Sept. 2013, at 22.