Assassination or Targeted Killings after 9/11

23 Pages Posted: 15 Mar 2013

See all articles by John Yoo

John Yoo

University of California at Berkeley School of Law; American Enterprise Institute; Stanford University - The Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace

Date Written: January 2012


Critics argue that the use of drones to target alleged members of al Qaeda and related groups violate international and domestic law, particularly the treaty prohibition on extra-judicial killings and the U.S. ban on assassination. These criticisms rest on profound misconceptions of the nature of the war on terrorism and the rules of warfare. Because the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, it can use force — especially targeted force — to conduct hostilities against the enemy’s leaders. This does not violate any American law — constitutional, congressional, or presidential — or any ratified treaty. Precise attacks against individuals have long been a feature of warfare. These attacks further the goals of the laws of war by eliminating the enemy and reducing harm to innocent civilians. Legality aside, targeted killing or assassination can be the best policy in certain circumstances. In the new type of war thrust upon the United States by the 9/11 attacks, the enemy resembles a network, not a nation. This essay argues that targeted killing is a prime tactic for the United States because of al-Qaeda’s unique characteristics as a decentralized, free-scale terrorist network. Despite al-Qaeda’s lawlessness, the United States must still abide by the limits imposed by necessity, discrimination, and proportionality, as well as standard principles of reciprocity, in its use of force against al-Qaeda.

Suggested Citation

Yoo, John, Assassination or Targeted Killings after 9/11 (January 2012). New York Law School Law Review, Vol. 56, 2012, UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper No. 2233689, Available at SSRN:

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