The Role of Targeted Killing

by Colonel Peter M. Cullen. Published in Joint Forces Quarterly, Isssue 48.

Targeted killing is “the intentional slaying of a specific individual or group of individuals undertaken with explicit government approval.” In recent years, targeted killing as a tactic in the ongoing campaign against terrorism has generated considerable controversy. Some commentators view it as an indispensable tool and argue for its expanded use, while others question its legality and claim that it is immoral and ultimately ineffective.

While the United States has not explicitly acknowledged pursuing a policy of targeted killing, insights can be gleaned from published national security documents and official statements that shed light on U.S. willingness to employ targeted killing as a tactic in the campaign against terror. Since September 11, 2001, however, the United States has consistently conducted targeted killing operations against terrorist personnel. This article examines the legality, morality, and potential efficacy of a U.S. policy of targeted killing in its campaign against transnational terror. The conclusion is that, in spite of the genuine controversy surrounding this subject, a carefully circumscribed policy of targeted killing can be a legal, moral, and effective tool in a counterterror proper implementation of a U.S. policy of targeted killing are proposed.