Deterrence by assassination

Saeed Okasha , Saturday 25 Jan 2020

For nearly a quarter of a century, targeted assassinations were beyond the pale as a US foreign policy instrument. What had to be covert then is overt now

Deterrence by assassination
Martin Luther King, the influential American civil rights leader, in his most famous address in 1963 “I Have a dream”

Washington’s assassination operations during the past 10 years targeting terrorist leaders, from Al-Qaeda’s Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi to Major General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Brigade, has revived discussion of the role that assassination operations play in the US security creed. US intelligence agencies began such operations in the middle of the last century and came to an abrupt stop in the mid-1970s. They then resumed at the beginning of this century after acquiring various legal and humanitarian justifications.

In 1975, US President Gerald Ford formed the Church Committee with the purpose of investigating abuses by the CIA. Its findings exposed the extensive role that covert operations played in the US foreign policy agenda. Its preliminary report, released in November that year with the title “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders”, revealed how important assassination operations targeting foreign heads of state or leaders of Third World national liberation movements in the 1960s and 1970s were in the US intelligence agencies’ creed. But the concern that motivated the investigation had very little to do with the efficacy of covert assassination operations as a foreign policy instrument but rather with the spectre of the increasing use of this extra-legal practice in order to target political opposition figures and leaders of protest movements. For example, there were strong suspicions that the FBI was behind the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968.

Further light was shed on the subject by Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes, a history of the CIA from its founding to 2007. According to Weiner, President John Kennedy and his National Security Advisor George Bundy made active use of assassination operations as a means to destabilise states and sabotage national organisations in the Third World. Detailing many of the agency’s failures as well as the failed attempts to reform it, the book demonstrates how detrimental covert operations against heads of state and militia leaders, in Latin America in particular, were to the CIA’s reputation and to the US’ image abroad.

In his important work on the White House and the secrets of US intelligence agencies, General F F Petrosninko offers detailed information on the “dirty operations” unit which was tasked with planning assassination operations of foreign leaders deemed a threat to US interests. The book cites Ray Cline, senior advisor to the Centre of International and Strategic Management at Georgetown University, as saying that the covert assassination and sabotage operations that the CIA carried out abroad may have been illegal from the perspective of the people in the countries where these operations were carried out, but their value in terms of US policy was great and, in terms of cost, there is no comparison with what a war would cost in order to achieve the same ends.

The return to assassination operations

Washington’s official declaration of an end to assassination operations as a means to achieve foreign policy objectives did not mean an end to covert operations as a whole. In fact, the Irangate scandal in 1986 clearly illustrated that such operations were still in practice, even if they did not involve assassinations. As that scandal brought to light, President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush Sr (who had previously served as the director of the CIA) concluded a secret pact with Tehran to furnish it with the types of advanced weaponry it needed in the war against Iraq in the 1980s in exchange for the release of five Americans who had been held hostage in Lebanon. Under the deal, Iran acquired some 3,000 Tau anti-tank missiles and Hawk antiaircraft missiles.

Eventually, however, the 11 September attacks in 2001 gave the US an excellent opportunity to revive assassination operations and, moreover, to shift from covert actions to overt military actions to carry them out. More importantly, the attacks gave the Bush Jr administration the ammunition to morally justify, legitimise and rally public opinion at home and abroad behind a policy of assassinating the leaders of terrorist organisations. The US was thereby able to shed the two major encumbrances that characterised the first era of this policy: the need to keep it hidden and the vulnerability to charges of violating US and international law.

Since 2002, Congress has passed numerous laws to legitimise hunting down terrorists anywhere in the world. At the same time, officials responsible for carrying out intelligence operations to assist the armed forces for this purpose are more open about expressing their conviction in the value of assassination operations targeting the leaders of terrorist groups. Stephen Gray in The New Spy Masters wrote that not only did President Bush Jr publicly issue the order to kill Osama Bin Laden, when the director of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Centre, Cofer Black, issued instructions to his team before their mission, he said: “I don’t want Bin Laden and his thugs captured, I want them dead… I want to see photos of their heads on pikes. I want Bin Laden’s head shipped back in a box filled with dry ice. I want to show Bin Laden’s head to the president. I promised him I would do that.” Nothing could more clearly illustrate how the assassination policy, inclusive of mutilating the body of the victim, was no longer call for secrecy or embarrassment, in stark contrast to the situation in the past.

Towards the end of the Bush Jr era, drones were increasingly put to use for this purpose. They made the assassination policy much easier and practically risk free. Moreover, even when innocent civilians were killed in the process, Washington would argue in its defence that they were not the intended victims of an operation that sought to safeguard international security and protect lives. Since 2006, the US has succeeded in killing dozens of leaders and members of terrorist organisations. Prime among them were Abu Mosab Al-Zarqawi (2006), Osama bin Laden (2011), Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (2019) and most recently Qassem Suleimani, all of whom Washington had designated as terrorists and wanted captured dead or alive because of the acts of terrorism they had committed and to prevent them from committing similar crimes in the future.


ASSESSING THE MERITS OF THE ASSASSINATION STRATEGY: All US presidents who ordered assassinations of terrorist leaders not only defended such actions but celebrated their success. Following Soleimani’s assassination, Trump said that the world is a safer place after his death. Some analysts believe that the headhunt Washington launched against terrorist leaders is what forced Bin Laden to remain in hiding, making it difficult for him to transmit instructions through all but the most circuitous routes with no guarantees that his messages would arrive to their destinations on time, if at all. In addition, Bin Laden was killed against the backdrop of a relentless war in which US drones over Waziristan reaped one commander after another from the top ranks of Al-Qaeda.

Nevertheless, while Stephen Gray praises the advantages of the assassination strategy when it comes to dismantling terrorist organisations and deterring their leaders, he noted an important drawback. Counter-terrorism was the victim of its own success, he said. The more people the CIA killed or captured and the more it hampered the activities of a terrorist network, the more it induced the network to split into small separate groups which made it more difficult for intelligence agencies to gather information on them and to infiltrate them. Even more dangerous is the possibility that, under such pressures as police pursuit, the loss of commanders, the destruction of chains of command, and the threat of infiltration, many terrorists may decide to become lone wolves who are extremely difficult to track and whose movements become virtually impossible to predict.


US-ISRAELI COOPERATION: Israel and the US had the ability to carry out assassination operations almost since the creation of the Hebrew state, which occurred shortly after the founding of the CIA. While the latter focused on eliminating heads of state and Third World national independence leaders whom Washington regarded as pro-communist, Israel was preoccupied with hunting down Nazi officials responsible for the holocaust. Nevertheless, the two countries definitely exchanged intelligence and expertise and are believed to have collaborated in the elimination of common enemies. Perhaps the most salient, if recent, example of this is to be found in reports that refer to the killing of the Hizbullah militia commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus in 2008. Mughniyeh was wanted by both Americans and Israelis because of his involvement in the bombings in Beirut that killed hundreds of US soldiers and because he was a commander of the Hizbullah militias that were fighting Israel from southern Lebanon.

While the US ceased assassination operations for nearly a quarter of a century, Israel experienced no such hiatus. It has continued to carry out such operations against old and new adversaries from the leaders of Palestinian liberation organisations to Hizbullah commanders and architects of the Iranian nuclear project.

Israel was the first to turn to its supreme court to sanction and codify what it termed “targeted killings”. This occurred in the early 1990s. The US followed suit in the aftermath of 11 September. Ronen Bergman, in Rise and Kill First, relates that, in 2002, an Israeli delegation made a secret trip to Washington to explain to Bush Jr the legal justification for this kind of operation. Bush gave his go-ahead to Israel to continue with this policy.

Ultimately, the fact that both Israel and the US continue to practice targeted assassinations is an indication that it works. Nevertheless, there remains the problem that Israel takes advantage of the rubric of counterterrorism and the legitimacy of targeting terrorists from organisations such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group in order to justify targeting killings against Palestinians fighters involved in the struggle to free their land and people from foreign occupation and oppression.


*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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