Beyond the Battlefield, Beyond Al Qaeda: The Destabilizing Legal Architecture of Counterterrorism

62 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2012 Last revised: 17 Nov 2013

See all articles by Robert Chesney

Robert Chesney

University of Texas School of Law

Date Written: August 29, 2012


By the end of the first post-9/11 decade, the legal architecture associated with the U.S. government’s use of military detention and lethal force in the counterterrorism setting had come to seem relatively stable, supported by a remarkable degree of cross-branch and cross-party consensus (manifested by legislation, judicial decisions, and consistency of policy across two very different presidential administrations). That stability is certain to collapse during the second post-9/11 decade, however, thanks to the rapid erosion of two factors that have played a critical role in generating the recent appearance of consensus: the existence of an undisputed armed conflict in Afghanistan as to which the law of armed conflict clearly applies, and the existence of a relatively-identifiable enemy in the form of the original al Qaeda organization.

Several long-term trends contribute to the erosion of these stabilizing factors. Most obviously, the overt phase of the war in Afghanistan is ending. At the same time, the U.S. government for a host of reasons places ever more emphasis on what we might call the “shadow war” model (i.e., the use of low-visibility or even deniable means to capture, disrupt, or kill terrorism-related targets in an array of locations around the world). The original Al Qaeda organization, meanwhile, is undergoing an extraordinary process of simultaneous decimation, diffusion, and fragmentation, one upshot of which has been the proliferation of loosely-related regional groups that have varying degrees of connection to the remaining core al Qaeda leadership.

These shifts in the strategic posture of both the United States and al Qaeda profoundly disrupt the stability of the current legal architecture upon which military detention and lethal force rest. Specifically, they make it far more difficult (though not impossible) to establish the relevance of the law of armed conflict to U.S. counterterrorism activities, and they raise exceedingly difficult questions regarding just whom these activities lawfully may be directed against. Critically, they also all but guarantee that a new wave of judicial intervention to consider just those questions will occur. Bearing that in mind, I conclude the paper by outlining steps that could be taken now to better align the legal architecture with the trends described above.

Keywords: terrorism, Guantanamo, national security, detention, targeting, drones, AQAP, Yemen, Pakistan, al Shabaab

Suggested Citation

Chesney, Robert, Beyond the Battlefield, Beyond Al Qaeda: The Destabilizing Legal Architecture of Counterterrorism (August 29, 2012). Michigan Law Review, Forthcoming, U of Texas Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 227, Available at SSRN:

Robert Chesney (Contact Author)

University of Texas School of Law ( email )

727 East Dean Keeton Street
Austin, TX 78705
United States

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