Targeted Killing in U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy and Law

44 Pages Posted: 5 Jun 2009

See all articles by Kenneth Anderson

Kenneth Anderson

American University - Washington College of Law

Date Written: May 11, 2009


Targeted killing, particularly through the use of missiles fired from Predator drone aircraft, has become an important, and internationally controversial, part of the US war against al Qaeda in Pakistan and other places. The Obama administration, both during the campaign and in its first months in office, has publicly embraced the strategy as a form of counterterrorism. This paper argues, however, that unless the Obama administration takes careful and assertive legal steps to protect it, targeted killing using remote platforms such as drone aircraft will take on greater strategic salience precisely as the Obama administration allows the legal space for it in international law to shrink.

Moreover, the paper argues that non-state enemies of the United States will not always be al Qaeda or groups covered by Security Council resolutions or the US Authorization for the Use of Military Force. Eventually there will emerge other threats that do not fall within the existing armed conflicts, and the United States is likely to seek to address at least some of those threats using its inherent rights of self-defense, whether or not a conflict within the meaning of international humanitarian law (IHL) and its thresholds is underway, and using domestic law authority under the statutes establishing the CIA. In that case, a US administration seeking to offer a legal rationale justifying its use of targeted killing might discover that reliance upon a state of IHL-armed conflict does not provide it the robust authority to use force that the US has traditionally asserted under its rights of inherent self-defense.

This is a policy paper, not a law review or scholarly article, and it offers blunt advice to the Obama administration and the US Congress with a particular normative goal in mind - to preserve the legal rationales for the use of self-defense in targeted killing, whether or not an IHL armed conflict is underway, consistent with the positions taken by the United States in the 1980s, and culminating with a statement of the US position on self-defense against terrorism and targeting terrorists in third-state safe havens by then-State Department legal advisor Abraham Sofaer in 1989. The point of the paper is to urge the Obama administration, and offer it advice, on how to preserve the legal category of targeted killing as an aspect of inherent rights of self-defense and US domestic law.

As such, this paper runs sharply counter to the dominant trend in international law scholarship, which is overwhelmingly hostile to the practice. It urges the Obama administration to consider carefully ways in which apparently unrelated, broadly admirable human rights goals, such as accepting extraterritorial application of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or accepting its standards as a complement to the lex specialis of IHL, or accepting recent soft-law standards offered by some influential NGOs such as the International Committee of the Red Cross to define "direct participation in hostilities," have the effect of making legally difficult, if not legally impossible, a counterterrorism strategy of targeted killing using standoff platforms that the Obama administration has correctly embraced as both more effective and more discriminating from a humanitarian stance. It is frank, practical advice to the Obama administration that it must assert the legality of its practices in the face of a hostile and influential international soft-law community or risk losing the legal rationale for a signature strategy.

The draft policy paper runs 20,000 words and is a Working Paper of the Series on Counterterrorism and American Statutory Law, a project of the Brookings Institution, the Georgetown University Law Center, and the Hoover Institution, none of whom are responsible for the contents of individual papers. A finalized version of the paper will appear in Benjamin Wittes, Legislating the War on Terror: An Agenda for Reform (Brookings Institution Press 2009).

Keywords: targeted killing, drone, predator, al Qaeda, counterterrorism, Pakistan, self-defense, international humanitarian law, terrorism, CIA, covert action, combatant, direct participation in hostilities

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Anderson, Kenneth, Targeted Killing in U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy and Law (May 11, 2009). Available at SSRN: or

Kenneth Anderson (Contact Author)

American University - Washington College of Law ( email )

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Washington, DC 20016
United States

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