Targeted Killings and Super-empowered Individuals

Radical cleric and U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki, seen here in a video posted on radical websites, was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday.

The killing of U.S. citizen and radical Muslim cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki by a CIA drone strike in Yemen on Friday has rekindled a debate about the legality, morality, and practical wisdom of targeted killings as a method of fighting terrorism.  For an overview of the major arguments on both sides, see this Council on Foreign Relations debate and these pro and con articles from the National Review.  As the National Review debate makes clear, concerns about targeted killings cross the political spectrum.  Although many of the opponents of targeted killings are on the political left, conservative Kevin Williamson takes issue with the policy in his article  “Assassin-in-Chief”:

“It is impossible to imagine that the United States would accept that the King of Sweden or the Grand Duke of Luxembourg has the legitimate right to conduct assassinations in the United States on the theory that we might be harboring enemies who wish them ill; to say the words is to appreciate their inherent preposterousness. But our own president is empowered to target our own citizens, wherever they may be found, without even so much as congressional oversight.”

Beyond these important debates on the legality, ethics, and effectiveness of targeted killings, it is worth noting that the growing attractiveness and prevalence of such tactics in the 21st century may be an indirect consequence of globalization and the rise of what Thomas Friedman has called “super-empowered individuals.”  Globalization has decentralized power, eroded the authority of states, and empowered non-state actors (including individuals) through the availability of technologies including email, the internet, and even potentially weapons of mass destruction.  In the prologue to his book Longitudes and Attitudes Friedman says:

“Osama bin Laden declared war on the United States in the late 1990s. After he organized the bombing of two American embassies in Africa, the U.S. Air Force retaliated with a cruise missile attack on his bases in Afghanistan as though he were another nation-state. Think about that: on one day in 1998, the United States fired 75 cruise missiles at bin Laden. The United States fired 75 cruise missiles, at $1 million apiece, at a person! That was the first battle in history between a superpower and a super-empowered angry man. September 11 was just the second such battle.”

As with bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki exploited modern information technology to communicate with, coordinate, and inspire followers worldwide.  Both of these super-empowered individuals provoked the wrath of a superpower and were recently killed by that state’s military efforts.

Are these recent targeted killings a glimpse of the future of warfare in an age of globalization?  Can they be justified in under international and U.S. law?  What are the broader implications, both positive and negative, of the rise of super-empowered individuals?

2 responses to “Targeted Killings and Super-empowered Individuals

  1. greatprofessors

    These targeted killings are not a glimpse of the future of warfare in an age of globalization, but rather a confirmation of what has gone on in more subtle ways for many years. The CIA has been conducting such campaigns for years, with and without the direct aid of the U.S. military. The question of whether these actions can be justified under international or U.S. law is a non-starter, as covert, and now more overt killings, are and will be the norm for years to come. Super-empowered individuals versus the interests of a superpower will only reinforce the paradigm that is already well established. NSA, CIA and other State sanctioned organizations were founded to protect the “interests” of the U.S. government and its people; they were also founded to find and eliminate the rise of super-empowered individuals. Ergo, the broader implications are quite simple: stay off grid, hope you’re as far off grid as possible and do your best to get you anti-superpower message out. Gaining followers any other way will earn you a drone strike.

    • worldpoliticsblog

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment! A couple of questions in response: (1) Must it be an either-or proposition? In other words, could the increased prominence of, and aggressive targeting of, individuals like Awlaki be both a continuation of the general thrust/approach of U.S. foreign policy and a sign of a somewhat new era in which these individuals will become greater players on the world stage? Major U.S. targeted killing/assassination/coup efforts during the Cold War years were more focused on heads of state like Castro; the rise of globalization-empowered individuals and their ability to challenge nation-states (one might look to the Arab spring for such a phenomenon in more of a mass form) seems to herald something new. (2) You have nicely articulated the critique that sees elements of the “national security bureaucracy” promoting their own interests (or perhaps those of the broader “military-industrial complex”) rather than the American people’s. But in the case of Awlaki and bin Laden, couldn’t a strong case be made that their killing was in the interests of the American people? In other words, is the notion that a somewhat skewed conception of American interests is driving these targeted killings justified in this case?

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