Tag Archives: targeted killings

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?