A defence of assassination

Department of Defense

During a mission in the Zhawar Kili area of Eastern Afghanistan in 2002, members of a US Navy SEAL Team found intelligence information including this Osama bin Laden propaganda poster. Nine years later, the al Qaeda leader was killed by SEALs in Pakistan.

Article Highlights

  • Targeted assassination is legal under international law

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  • Obama quickly found that targeted killing was the best way to achieve an objective while minimizing collateral damage

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  • U.S. has only wielded assassinations against imminent threats or at times of war

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Do you advocate the targeted assassination of suspected terrorists?

Michael Rubin: Yes, I have publicly advocated targeted assassination since before it was popular to do so. Especially with surgical strikes against individuals, it is possible to avoid further bloodshed. Humanitarian-law proponents and the anti-war crowd may not like it, but targeted assassination is legal under international law. 

Since writing your article, “An Arrow in Our Quiver: Why the U.S. Government Should Consider Assassination” in 2006, do you think the “gut-level revulsion to assassination” has declined? 

MR: Yes, at least within the United States, they have, as President Obama has embraced a strategy heavy on targeting individuals from unmanned Predator aircraft or surgical strike teams like that which killed Osama bin Laden. If assassination was most noxious to the progressive left, the fact that a president they supported embraced the strategy has permanently nullified what otherwise would have been a staunchly partisan issue. President Obama himself likely had to reconcile himself to an approach he initially opposed. But once he sat in a position of leadership, he quickly came to understand that targeted killing was the best way to achieve an objective while minimizing civilian or collateral damage.

Assassination is clearly more effective when used by weak states or non-state actors than when it is used by strong states. Why is it in the United States’ interest, then, to normalize assassination? 

MR: Assassination is simply one tactic among many. The United States has wielded it only against imminent threats or at times of war. Certainly I recognize arguments whose world views embrace moral equivalence can make this rationalization: If the United States can assassinate rogue leaders or those it considers terrorists, why can’t small countries assassinate those who their leaders believe are equally culpable? Indeed, if they want to involve themselves in conflict with the United States, they will. Saddam Hussein, after all, tried unsuccessfully to assassinate George H.W. Bush during the former president’s visit to Kuwait. Bill Clinton responded to that action with cruise missiles and, for a few years at least, Saddam understood that tit-for-tat action was not in his interest.

Do you think we could have achieved the same outcome – with fewer civilian casualties – had we simply assassinated Gadhafi?

MR: Simply put, yes. Gadhafi was not only head of state, but he was also a military leader. All major decisions – including war crimes and indiscriminate attacks against civilians – came through him and his immediate family. Perhaps if leaders like Gadhafi understand they personally might pay the price for their decisions, they would reconsider setting their countries down certain courses.


“Terrorists crave an audience.” Has the expansion of mainstream and social media made kidnapping a more impactful terrorist tactic, since these media amplify kidnapping stories worldwide?

MR: Anything that prolongs the story makes terrorism more successful. Certainly, the 24-hour cable or satellite news cycle keeps the story alive. I grew up against the backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis: Perhaps Twitter is simply the 21st-century equivalent of tying a yellow ribbon around a lamppost.

Your analysis has shown that negotiating with terrorists breeds terrorism. Should states consider it best practice to ignore a hostage situation? Should they discourage news media from covering kidnappings?

MR: States shouldn’t ignore hostage situations, but they should not pay ransom to resolve them. For the hostage-takers, it boils down to a cost-benefit analysis. For the victims’ government, the question is how to raise the money to pay off the terrorist group. 

Former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler was kidnapped by al-Qaeda while serving as a special UN envoy in Niger in December 2008, and was released the following April. Fowler has recently credited the Canadian government for securing his release by paying ransom to his captors. At the same time, he has criticized the Canadian government for keeping his family in the dark throughout the ordeal. I gather that you would consider the government’s decision to pay al-Qaeda the ransom ill-advised. How do you view the government’s handling of Fowler’s family?

MR: If ransom was paid, I do consider it wrong. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb is a franchise that has a huge amount of blood on its hands, and has killed innocent civilians throughout the Sahel. American intelligence analysts also say the group is involved in the trans-Africa drug trade, from Mozambique to the Mediterranean. Fowler’s family may rejoice, but politicians in Ottawa will have blood on their hands for the victims whose capture the ransom enabled. Do Canadian taxpayers really feel happier that their hard-earned money is in the pockets of terrorist thugs who are buying weaponry that might be used to slaughter women and children?

That his family was kept in the dark is the lesser evil. Even though I oppose any ransom payment, the increased publicity that leaks to the press by the family would have created would simply have raised the price.

This essay is part of OpenCanada’s How We Fight series

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI

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About the Author



  • Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. Rubin instructs senior military officers deploying to the Middle East and Afghanistan on regional politics, and teaches classes regarding Iran, terrorism, and Arab politics on board deploying U.S. aircraft carriers. Rubin has lived in post-revolution Iran, Yemen, both pre- and post-war Iraq, and spent time with the Taliban before 9/11. His newest book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engagement examines a half century of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups.

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