Targeted Killings

April 9, 2021 • Volume 31, Issue 13
Is taking out terrorists beyond the battlefield a legitimate tactic?
By Sara Toth Stub


The targeted killing of suspected terrorists and other nonstate actors, pioneered by Israel, is being utilized with growing frequency by the United States and other nations as a warfare and anti-terrorism tactic. The rise of targeted killings, often with armed drones and other precision weapons, has changed the nature of military operations, allowing states to intervene remotely in long-running conflicts. The United States killed up to 16,900 people in drone strikes between 2010 and 2020, including as many as 2,200 civilians, mainly in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a British media organization. Often occurring outside defined battlefields with little accountability, the practice is raising ethical and legal issues. Critics also question the effectiveness of targeted killings, saying the strikes can create sympathy for terrorist groups and momentum for their causes. But its defenders say assassinating key individuals can stop imminent terrorist attacks, weaken terrorist organizations and, in the case of Iran, slow its development of nuclear weapons.

Officials investigating the bullet-riddled car in which Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was slain in Absard, Iran, on November 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Fars News Agency)
Officials investigate the bullet-riddled car in which Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, a leader of Iran's nuclear program, was slain last year in a targeted killing allegedly carried out by Israel. Such killings have become a more common tactic for the United States, Israel and other countries. (AP Photo/Fars News Agency)
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
May 14, 2021  Domestic Terrorism
Apr. 09, 2021  Targeted Killings
Apr. 01, 2016  Defeating the Islamic State
Jan. 29, 2016  Unrest in Turkey
Jun. 27, 2014  Assessing the Threat From al Qaeda
Sep. 02, 2011  Remembering 9/11
Sep. 03, 2010  Homegrown Jihadists
Mar. 12, 2010  Prosecuting Terrorists Updated
Nov. 2009  Terrorism and the Internet
Feb. 13, 2009  Homeland Security
Apr. 21, 2006  Port Security
Oct. 14, 2005  Global Jihad
Apr. 02, 2004  Nuclear Proliferation and Terrorism
Feb. 22, 2002  Policing the Borders
Oct. 12, 2001  War on Terrorism
Jul. 21, 1995  Combating Terrorism
Aug. 26, 1988  New Approach to Mideast Terrorism
May 30, 1986  Dealing With Terrorism
Oct. 08, 1982  Prospects for Peace in Northern Ireland
Mar. 27, 1981  Anti-Terrorism: New Priority in Foreign Policy
Dec. 02, 1977  International Terrorism
Jan. 26, 1973  Control of Skyjacking
May 13, 1970  Political Terrorism
Jul. 24, 1952  Red Terrorism in Malaya
Alliances and Security Agreements
Conflicts in Africa
Defense Technology and Force Planning
Diplomacy and Diplomats
General Defense and National Security
General International Relations
Global Issues
International Law and Agreements
Middle East Conflicts
Military Bases
Military Intelligence
Powers and History of the Presidency
Regional Political Affairs: Africa
Regional Political Affairs: Middle East and South Asia
Terrorism and Counterterrorism
U.S. at War: Afghanistan
U.S. at War: Iraq
War and Conflict