top of page

Three Questions on U.S. Targeted Killings



Photo by Debra Sweet; some rights reserved.

The US government policy of killing suspected terrorists, whether by means of pilotless drones or Special Forces strikes, is now at least 10 years old. Estimates of how many have died because of this policy vary, but a conservative estimate is that roughly 2,000 people have been killed to date. Most of these targeted killings have taken place in Pakistan, but they have also occurred in Yemen and Somalia. The killings date back at least to November 2002, when President George W. Bush's administration used a drone to kill six people in Yemen. The number of targeted killings has significantly increased under President Barack Obama's administration. With Obama's reelection, the killing policy will presumably continue (although the policy would also likely have continued had Mitt Romney become president in 2013). [1]

This policy should concern all those who wish to prevent violence and foster peace. To pacifists, any killing is inherently wrong; but even non-pacifists (of which I am one) should be troubled by a government policy of killing people who do not belong to the armed forces of any recognized state, who live in countries with which the United States is not at war, and who have not been convicted of wrong-doing in a court of law. Three serious questions about this policy should be pondered.

1. What is the policy's cost in civilian lives?

As with estimates of the total number of people killed, estimates of civilian deaths vary: within Pakistan, the number may be as low as about 150 or as high as almost 900. The Obama administration's determination of targeted killings' cost in civilian lives might underestimate the number by considering all military-age men within a strike zone to be combatants, according to a New York Times report, "unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent." [2] Whatever the precise numbers, however, people who are not terrorists or other militants have definitely died because of the targeted killing policy.

A principle of Just War theory is that lethal violence in war must be limited to combatants, with civilians being spared. Positions may vary among Just-War-theory adherents on whether military operations that unintentionally kill civilians as well as combatants can be justified; what is likely less controversial, however, is the notion that at least some precautions should be taken to avoid even unintentional civilian deaths. Whether the United States' targeted killing policy takes adequate precautions is open to question.

One disturbing aspect of the policy is the category of targeted killings used in Pakistan known as "signature" strikes. In contrast to operations aimed at killing a particular, named person, such as Osama bin Laden, signature strikes apparently aim to kill people whose location and characteristics or behavior identify them as enemy combatants, even if their identities are not known. [3] This raises the possibility of an overly lax targeting policy: a gathering of male civilians in an area known to be under the Taliban's or another hostile group's control might be hit with a drone strike because they are suspected of being terrorists plotting together. Even if other criteria are included -- "suspicious" behavior or clothing identified with militants -- the possibility of mistakes might exist.

Another aspect of the targeted killing policy, also used in Pakistan, that might create excessive risk to civilians is the "double tap" tactic, in which a targeted area is bombed several times in a relatively short period of time. One effect of this policy might be to kill or injure civilians who attempt to rescue or aid those hurt in the first bomb attack. This has the added effect of discouraging people from aiding victims of strikes. One victim of a drone attack, Faheem Qureshi, says that often "when a drone strikes and people die, nobody comes near the bodies for half an hour because they fear another missile will strike." [4]

Even those who accept the legitimacy of targeting terrorists for death would do well to consider the costs this policy has in civilian lives and whether the rules by which targeted killings are conducted take sufficient care to avoid civilian casualties.

2. Is this policy encouraging anti-Americanism?

While killing terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda or affiliated groups probably does reduce, to some extent, the danger of terrorist attacks on Americans, the targeted killing policy has significant negative consequences for US security. Lethal strikes that kill civilians along with terrorists can provoke popular anti-American backlash. Compromising other nations' sovereignty through targeted killings can provoke governmental anti-American backlash.

Pakistan provides the most vivid example of this negative response to the targeted killing policy. A 2012 Pew Research Center poll indicates that roughly 80 percent of Pakistanis have a negative view of the United States, with almost 75 percent viewing the United States as an "enemy" -- both percentages having increased, from already-high levels, in the past few years. Meanwhile, the same poll indicates Pakistani support for drone strikes stands at merely 17 percent. [5] One particularly dramatic manifestation of anti-drone sentiment came in June 2011, when a deadly drone strike prompted hundreds of Pakistanis to stage a protest in which they blocked a road and chanted anti-American slogans. [6]

Osama bin Laden's killing involved perhaps the most dangerous potential confrontation with Pakistan. The raid prompted denunciations after the fact by Pakistani politicians and the Pakistani intelligence agency's head. [7] More disturbing, however, is an aspect of US preparations for the bin Laden killing: US forces engaged in the killing planned to fight Pakistani military forces, if that was necessary to make their escape from the bin Laden compound. [8] That is, the US government was willing to risk open combat with the troops of a populous, unstable, nuclear-armed nation in order to kill a single terrorist.

Another very important consequence of the targeted killing backlash is that it may be spawning new terrorists to replace those killed. Two of the more notable terrorist plots in recent years were Najibullah Zazi's attempt to bomb the New York subway system and Faisal Shahzad's attempt to bomb Times Square; both men cited anger over American drone strikes as a motivation for their plots. [9] In an op-ed, two military veterans, including counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, argued that "every one of these dead noncombatants represents an alienated family, a new desire for revenge, and more recruits for a militant movement." [10]

3. When do targeted killings end?

Even if other concerns about targeted killings are set aside, the question arises: when can this policy be ended? What is the point at which the US government will say "enough"? The American war against al-Qaeda has now been going on for over a decade and, barring an explicit admission of defeat by the terrorist organization, it might not have an obvious end point. "Victory" might not be apparent except in retrospect, many years after al-Qaeda has withered away. In the same way, the targeted killing campaign has been a geographically wide-ranging one, involving operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia and might extend to still other locations before it is over (the al-Qaeda presence in Mali could prompt targeted killings there, if it has not already). Lacking either a chronological or geographic limit, what prevents targeted killing from becoming a permanent feature of US foreign policy?

Targeted killing need not be limited to suspected al-Qaeda members, either. New terrorist or non-state enemies might well emerge in the future, and future American presidents might deal with them as past ones dealt with al-Qaeda. In theory, new struggles against new enemies would require some degree of public debate and congressional approval, but given the US government's unhappy tendency to wage war without such prior scrutiny and authorization -- as manifested most recently in the Libyan war -- that cannot be taken for granted. The precedent of past targeted killings, together with claims of national security and executive authority, could override such limitations.

Last, the behavior of not only future US presidents but of other world leaders needs to be considered. If the United States maintains that it can kill suspected terrorist enemies in other nations, without trial and even without the permission of other nations' governments, then other countries can claim the same prerogative. Chinese, Russian, or other leaders might order the killing of "enemies" elsewhere in the world -- even in the United States -- and claim that national security concerns (the precise nature of which must, of course, be kept secret) justify their actions. If criticized, they can point out that they are merely behaving as the United States has. Targeted killing could become a more generally used and tolerated tool of international relations -- a development that hardly promotes peace.

The targeted killing policy and the questions it raises need to be very seriously considered as we contemplate how to fight terrorism in a just and effective way.


[1] For information on targeted killings’ toll, frequency, and history, see Bureau of Investigation Journalism, “Covert War on Terror—The Data,”; The Long War Journal, “Charting the Data for US Airstrikes in Pakistan, 2004-2012,”; New America Foundation, “The Year of the Drone,” For targeted killings’ continuation, see Greg Miller, “Plan for Hunting Terrorists Signals U.S. Intends to Keep Adding Names to Kill Lists,” Washington Post, October 23, 2012.

[2] Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will,” New York Times, May 29. 2012.

[3] Ibid., and Daniel Klaidman, Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2012), 40-43.

[4] For Qureshi quotation and other information on “double tap” strikes, see International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, Living under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from US Drone Practices in Pakistan (September 2012), available at, 74-76.

[5] Pew Research Center, “Pakistani Public Opinion Ever More Critical of U.S.,”

[6] Dawn, “Tribesmen Protest Drone Attacks,” June 17, 2011, available at; The News, “NWA Tribesmen Protest Drone Attack Casualties,” June 17, 2011, available at

[7] David Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (New York: Crown Publishers, 2012), 107-108.

[8] Ibid., 90; Klaidman, Kill or Capture, 242-243.

[9] Klaidman, Kill or Capture, 119.

[10] David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum, “Death From Above, Outrage Down Below,” New York Times, May 16, 2009.


Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

bottom of page