The problem with targeted killings, or the 8-cent solution
In the murky world of terrorism and counterterrorism, of espionage and counter-espionage where often life unfolds in various shades of black and white and grey, killing an enemy is often given more “acceptable” euphemisms. Rather than simply saying “kill”, those in the business of killing tend to use different terminology.
For example, the phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice” originated in the early 1960s as part of the US Army and the CIA’s campaign in south-east Asia as the United States sought to find an end to the Vietnam War. The phrase was popularised in the movie Apocalypse Now.
For the people ordering these killings perhaps that makes it somewhat easier on their conscience. However, no matter what you call it, the killing of an individual by a state remains an assassination.
Richard Belfield, the author of a book on political assassinations, writes that targeted killings have been a standard method of advancing foreign policy since the beginning of time.
What also remains the same is the outcome of such acts. For the most part, targeted killings, be they by a trained assassin, a team of killers or by drones controlled from thousands of miles away where the technician at the control panel or joystick may feel more like he is playing some video game than actually killing people, the results rarely vary.
Often, almost as soon as the target is removed, he or she is replaced, usually within a very short time and often by someone more radical, more extreme and more lethal.
In the history of revolutions and counter-revolutions, possibly the one exception of removing someone instrumental to the movement was the assassination of South American charismatic revolutionary icon Che Guevara by the CIA.
But as decolonisation movements began to evolve, the knee-jerk reaction of colonisers was to eliminate the leaders of those independence-seeking movements. Rather than kill the movement, this only helped fuel the flames of the revolution.
When Algerian nationalists began their campaign for independence, French authorities initiated a campaign to eliminate the leadership of the liberation movements. While it certainly hampered the resistance, the end result remained the same: Those who were assassinated were replaced and the revolution continued. The killings even gave the movement a certain aura of accomplishment and something all revolutions need: martyrs.
In the 1970s and ’80s when the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was operating out of Beirut, Israel’s intelligence network did not hesitate to target and “terminate with extreme prejudice” numerous high-ranking members of the group. Although many higher-echelon PLO leaders were killed by Mossad, the Israeli secret service, that did not stop the PLO from pursuing its objectives.
And this brings us to today where the practice of targeted killing has been used in Iraq by US forces, and again we see that it has not slowed the resistance, which, to the contrary, picked up new recruits while opposition to the US presence in Iraq kept growing.
It was once said that assassination was an inexpensive method of getting rid of an opponent, with the average price of a bullet estimated at about 8 cents. As the preferred method has shifted from the revolver to high-tech drones, the price is now closer to $80,000 per hit.
The use of drones to kill suspected terrorists in Pakistan and Yemen has become the policy of the Obama administration. This allows the United States to appear to pursue terrorists while avoiding putting boots on the ground.
At times, however, nations feel that the killing of a particular rebel leader will ease the collective ire a country faces, such was the case of killing of the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, by US Navy SEALs.
Some countries, rather probably all countries, feel the need to justify vengeance, pure and simple. For the United States, killing bin Laden at that stage had no real strategic value. It did serve a purpose: It demonstrated that no matter how long it takes, if you act aggressively against the United States, it will track you down and it will kill you.