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Review Article

The Trouble with Targeted Killing

Pages 529-555 | Published online: 22 Aug 2012


Is targeted killing an effective counterterrorism tactic? Several studies published in academic journals over the last decade differ over the answer. While some believe that it is effective as a tactic within a larger counterterrorism strategy, others believe that it has no effect or possibly a negative effect in countering terrorism. This paper argues that although current studies may be valuable for understanding the impact of targeted killing in specific case studies, they do not yet provide a basis for making general pronouncements on whether targeted killing is or is not an effective counterterrorism tactic. Problems include widely divergent definitions, a dearth of evidence, difficulties in measuring success, and the radical differences between case studies that make comparison and generalization a questionable exercise. However, while the evidence does not yet allow scholars, pundits, and policymakers to make general pronouncements on the effectiveness of targeted killing generally, it does provide grounds to begin a normative debate over whether such policies are appropriate. In addition, it suggests that researchers and policymakers should focus on gathering and improving empirical data to advance decision making on counter- terrorism tactics in the future, particularly on when targeted killing should or should not be employed.


Stephanie Carvin holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and is the author of Prisoners of America's Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). She is presently a lecturer in International Relations, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The author would like to thank Ben O’Loughlin and two anonymous reviewers and the editors at Security Studies for their helpful comments and insights on an earlier version of this article.


Alan Dershowitz, “Targeted Killing Vindicated,” Huffington Post, 2 May 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-dershowitz/targeted-killing-vindicat_b_856538.html.

See “Mofaz: US Has Adopted Israel's Targeted Killing Strategy,” Jerusalem Post, 3 May 2011, http://www.jpost.com/Defense/Article.aspx?id=218940.

See Audrey Kurth Cronin, How Terrorism Ends: Understanding the Decline and Demise of Terrorist Campaigns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009); Mohammed M. Hafez and Joseph M. Hattfield, “Do Targeted Assassinations Work? A Multivariate Analysis of Israeli Counter-Terrorism Effectiveness during Al-Aqsa Uprising,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 29, no. 4 (June 2006): 359–82; Jenna Jordan, “When Heads Roll: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Decapitation,” Security Studies 18, no. 4 (December 2009): 719–55; Edward H. Kaplan, Alex Mintz, Shaul Mishal, and Claudio Samban, “What Happened to Suicide Bombings in Israel? Insights from a Terror Stock Model,” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 28, no. 3 (May–June 2005): 225–35; and Aaron Mannes, “Testing The Snake Head Strategy: Does Killing or Capturing Its Leaders Reduce a Terrorist Group's Activity?” Journal of International Policy Solutions 9 (Spring 2008): 40–49.

See Hafez and Hatfield, “Do Targeted Assassinations Work?”; and Jordan, “When Heads Roll,” 732.

Cronin, How Terrorism Ends, 33.

See Kenneth Anderson, “Predators Over Pakistan,” Weekly Standard, 8 March 2010, 26–34; Daniel Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” Foreign Affairs 85, no. 2 (March/April 2006): 95–111; Steven R. David, “Fatal Choices: Israel's Policy of Targeted Killing,” Mideast Security and Policy Studies 51 (September 2002) and “Israeli's Policy of Targeted Killing,” Ethics and International Affairs 17, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 111–26; and Amitai Etzioni, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems: The Moral and Legal Case,” Joint Force Quarterly 57, no. 2 (2nd Quarter 2010): 66–71.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” 103–4.

Ibid., 104.

Ibid., 104.

David, “Israel's Policy,” 121.

David, “Fatal Choices,” 17.

Anderson, “Predators Over Pakistan,” 26.

David, “Israel's Policy,” 120–21.

Daniel Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” Foreign Policy, 14 July 2009, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2009/07/14/do_targeted_killings_work.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” 97.

Etzioni, “Unmanned Aircraft Systems,” 68.

David, “Israel's Policy,” 122.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” 102.

James Dao and Dalia Sussman,“For Obama,Big Rise in Poll Numbers After Bin Laden Raid,” New York Times,4 May 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/05/us/politics/05poll.html.

David, “Israel's Policy,” 117–18.

Ibid., 119–20.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” 103.

Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker, Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda (New York: Times Books, 2011), 241.

Schmitt and Shanker, Counterstrike, 243–44.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” 103.

Philip Alston, “The CIA and Targeted Killings Beyond Borders,” New York University School of Law: Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series Working Paper No. 11–64, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1928963; Michael L. Gross, “Fighting by Other Means in the Mideast: a Critical Analysis of Israel's Assassination Policy,” Political Studies 51, no. 2 (June 2003): 350–68 and “Assassination and Targeted Killing: Law Enforcement, Execution or Self-Defence?” Journal of Applied Philosophy 23, no. 3 (August 2006): 323–35; Mary Ellen O’Connell, “Unlawful Killing with Combat Drones: A Case Study of Pakistan, 2004–2009,” Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 09–43 (August 2010), http://www.papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1501144; and Yael Stein, “By Any Name Illegal and Immoral,” Ethics and International Affairs 17, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 127–37.

Stein, “By Any Name,” 128.

Ibid., 134–35.

Gross, “Fighting by Other Means.”

Cronin, How Terrorism Ends, 25.

Brian Michael Jenkins, “Should Our Arsenal Against Terrorism Include Assassination?” RAND Paper P-7303, January 1987, http://www.rand.org/pubs/papers/P7303.html, 8.

Cronin, How Terrorism Ends, 26

Jenkins, “Should Our Arsenal,” 8.

Cronin, How Terrorism Ends, 17.

Kaplan et al., “What Happened to Suicide Bombings in Israel?” 232.

Cronin, How Terrorism Ends, 25–26.

Jenkins, “Should Our Arsenal,” 12.

Andrew M. Exum, Nathaniel C. Fick, Ahmed A. Humayun, and David J. Kilcullen, “Triage: The Next Twelve Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” Washington, DC, Center for a New American Security, June 2009, http://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/ExumFickHumayun_TriageAfPak_June09.pdf, 18.

Exum et al., “Triage,” 18–19.

Jenkins, “Should Our Arsenal,” 12.

See Hafez and Hatfield, “Do Targeted Assassinations Work?”; Jordan, “When Heads Roll”; Kaplan et al., “What Happened to Suicide Bombings”; and Mannes, “Testing the Snakehead.”

Kaplan et al., “What Happened to Suicide Bombings,” 226.

Ibid., 229.

Ibid., 229–30.

Ibid., 230.

Ibid., 232.

Ibid., 233.

Hafez and Hatfield, “Do Targeted Assassinations Work?” 364.

Ibid., 365.

Ibid., 361.

Ibid., 378–79.

Ibid., 379.

Mannes, “Testing the Snakehead,” 42.

Ibid., 43.

Ibid., 43–44.

Ibid., 44.

Jordan, “When Heads Roll,” 733.

Ibid., 731.

Ibid., 732.

Ibid., 723.

Lisa Langdon, Alexander J. Sarapu, and Matthew Wells, “Targeting the Leadership of Terrorist and Insurgent Movements: Historical Lessons for Contemporary Policy Makers,” Journal of Public and International Affairs 15 (Spring 2004): 59–78.

Asaf Zussman and Noam Zussman, “Assassinations: Evaluating the Effectiveness of an Israeli Counterterrorism Policy Using Stock Market Data,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 20, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 193–206.

Peter Bergen and Katherine Tiedemann, “Washington's Phantom War,” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 4 (July/August 2011): 12–18.

Jordan, “When Heads Roll,” 754.

Hafez and Hafield, “Do Targeted Assassinations Work?” 379.

Kaplan et al., “What Happened to Suicide Bombings,” 234.

Mannes, “Testing the Snakehead,” 43.

See Gross, “Fighting by Other Means” and “Assassination and Targeted Killing?”

Stein, “By Any Name,” 128.

Steven R. David, “If Not Combatants, Certainly Not Civilians,” Ethics and International Affairs 17, no. 1 (2003): 138–40, 138.

David, “Fatal Choices,” 2.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?” and “Do Targeted Killings Work?”

Alan Dershowitz, “Targeted Killing Vindicated,” Huffington Post, 2 May 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/alan-dershowitz/targeted-killing-vindicat_b_856538.html.

Cronin, How Terrorism Ends, 16.

David, “Israel's Policy of Targeted Killing,” 118.

Jordan, “When Heads Roll,” 733.

Mannes, “Testing The Snake Head Strategy,” 41.

David, “Fatal Choices.”

David, “Israel's Policy of Targeted Killing,” 116.

David, “Fatal Choices,” 2–4.

Jordan, “When Heads Roll,” 721.

Bergen and Tiedemann, “Washington's Phantom War.”

Mannes, “Testing the Snake Head Strategy,” 44.

Mannes, “Testing The Snake Head Strategy,” 44.

“The Year of the Drone: An Analysis of u.s. Drone Strikes in Pakistan, 2004–2011,” New America Foundation, 2 November 2011, http://counterterrorism.newamerica.net/drones (regularly updated).

Cronin, How Terrorism Ends, 225 n4 and 16.

Johnston, “Assessing the Effectiveness,” 49.

Patrick B. Johnston, “Does Decapitation Work: Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns,” International Security 36, no. 4 (Spring 2012): 47–79.

Jordan, “When Heads Roll,” 731–32.

Jordan, “Does Decapitation Work,” 732.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work.”

“Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” White House Office of the Press Secretary, 27 March 2009, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-a-New-Strategy-for-Afghanistan-and-Pakistan/.

David E. Anderson, “Drones and the Ethics of War,” PBS Religion & Ethics News Weekly, 14 May 2010, http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/episodes/by-topic/international/drones-and-the-ethics-of-war/6290/.

“The Year of the Drone,” New America Foundation.


“Ex-CIA Chief Acknowledges Open Secret—Drones,” Agence France Press, 7 October 2011.

“Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Testimony Before the House Foreign Affairs Committee,” US House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 27 October 2011, http://foreignaffairs.house.gov/112/cli102711.pdf.

David, “Israel's Policy,” 118.

Byman, “Do Targeted Killings Work?”

Peter Singer, Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century (New York: Penguin, 2010), 347.

Jane Mayer, “The Predator War: What Are the Risks of the C.I.A.'s Covert Drone Program?” New Yorker, 26 October 2009, 36–45.

C. Christine Fair, “Drone Wars,” Foreign Policy, 28 May 2010, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/05/28/drone_wars.

See Alston, “The CIA and Targeted Killings”; Mary Ellen O’Connell, “Unlawful Killing with Combat Drones: A Case Study of Pakistan, 2004–2009,” Notre Dame Legal Studies Paper No. 09–43 (2010), http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1501144; and Nils Melzer, Targeted Killing in International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008).

Alston, “The CIA and Targeted Killings,” 117.

Philip Alston, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Addendum, Study on Targeted Killings,” Human Rights Council, 14th sess., 28 May 2010; UN Doc A/HRC/14/24/Add.6, http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/14session/A.HRC.14.24.Add6.pdf.

See Anderson, “Predators over Pakistan”; and Michael N. Schmitt, “Drone Attacks under the Jus ad Bellum and Jus in Bellow: Clearing the ‘Fog of Law,” Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law 13 (2010): 311–26.

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