For months Israeli intelligence had hunted Salah Shehada, the leader of Hamas’s military wing and mastermind of dozens of terrorist attacks that had killed more than 200 Israelis. Israel aborted eight attempts to strike Mr. Shehada to avoid killing his daughter, who often stayed with him.
Eventually an informer presented Israeli intelligence with the opening it had been waiting for: on July 22, 2002, Mr. Shehada would be in an apartment building with no children nearby. Not knowing where in the building the master terrorist would be, the Israelis launched a 2,000-pound bomb, fearing that a smaller one would not kill him. But their intelligence was incomplete. When the bomb struck, Mr. Shehada was present, but so too were his wife and daughter, as well as squatters occupying the surrounding buildings. Fourteen civilians, including nine children, died in the strike.
World leaders condemned the Shehada killing, and even the usually sympathetic Bush White House declared that the president was “deeply troubled.” Over 100,000 enraged Palestinians chanting “Death to Israel” demonstrated to commemorate Mr. Shehada, with one man carrying the body of Dina Mater, only two months old, whose tiny face was the only thing visible from the Palestinian flag wrapped around her. Days later, Hamas bombed the cafeteria of Hebrew University in what it claimed was a revenge attack. Seven people died, including five Americans who were studying at the university.
Fast-forward two months later: Still reeling from the backlash from the Shehada killing, Israeli intelligence discovered a golden opportunity. A group of senior Hamas leaders—the “dream team,” as Israeli officials later called it— would all assemble. The meeting included Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound founder of Hamas; Ismail Haniyeh, who is now the leader of Hamas in Gaza; and Mohammad Deif, commander of Hamas’ military wing. Dreading the prospect of additional civilian casualties, Israel hit the building with a small bomb.
The terrorists emerged dusty but unharmed.
In the post 9/11 era, the U.S. is grappling with many of the ethical, operational, and political questions that Israel has long faced on targeted killings. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that a secret Central Intelligence Agency initiative, ended by Director Leon Panetta, was an attempt to carry out a 2001 presidential authorization to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives, according to officials familiar with the matter.
One former senior intelligence official said the program hadn’t come close to fruition, but the U.S. has engaged in an ambitious campaign to use drone strikes to kill terrorist leaders. Shortly after 9/11, the United States killed Mohammad Atef, al Qaeda’s military chief, in a strike in Afghanistan. In Iraq, U.S. forces devastated al Qaeda’s ranks by killing as well as arresting many militants—the most prominent being the 2006 killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. More recently, U.S. drone strikes have reportedly killed dozens of al Qaeda figures in Pakistan, and the pace of these attacks has increased since Barack Obama became president.
Such strikes are a painful necessity in the post-9/11 era, where U.S. foes cannot be found nor fought on a conventional battlefield. When terrorists can plot and organize with impunity, as they could in Afghanistan under the Taliban before 9/11, they become far more deadly. Killing terrorist leaders can disrupt a group’s operations, force its leaders underground, and at times even cripple the group permanently. But targeted killings carry a heavy moral burden, risk complicating diplomatic goals, and require difficult conditions to succeed.
Targeted killings wouldn’t be necessary if it were possible to arrest terrorists, even though the latter is derided as mere “law enforcement.” Dead terrorists don’t talk, while arrested terrorists can give valuable intelligence on the next plot and the location of their fellows. After the second intifada broke out, Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority ignored repeated requests from Israel to arrest Mr. Shehada and other terrorists operating in areas under their control. After Israel reoccupied the West Bank and solidified its control, it conducted fewer targeted killings there as its police and security services could capture most suspects.
But arrests are not always possible. In the first targeted killing of the second intifada, on Nov. 9, 2000, Apache helicopters blew up the jeep of the local terrorist cell leader, Hussein Abayat, in Bethlehem. The killing was a way around the prohibition of moving into areas put under Palestinian control in previous peace agreements.
At the time, Israel feared that sending troops to these areas would destroy any chance of getting the peace process back on track, but it could not allow Abayat to launch attack after attack with impunity, and Arafat’s security services would not stop Abayat. Similarly, Israel’s alleged killing of Hezbollah’s terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyeh in Syria in 2008 came about because the Syrians would not arrest him, and in fact supported his terrorist activities.
The U.S. faces similar constraints with al Qaeda in Pakistan. The U.S. does not have direct access to much of the territory where al Qaeda operates, intelligence about al Qaeda leaders is often incomplete, and calls on Pakistan to arrest these leaders often fall on deaf ears.
The sudden death of a leader can throw a cell or even the entire organization into disarray, and at the very least plots are delayed as the group must recruit replacements. Some Israelis believe the killings make potential recruits think again before joining up and current leaders wary of engaging in attacks.
The operational disruption is biggest if the killing is part of a campaign rather than a one-off, as the legacy of Hussein Abayat’s killing indicates. After Israel killed Hussein his brother, Atef, took over. After failing to achieve his arrest, Israel blew him up in his car. Leadership then went to a third family member, Ibrahim. While the fighters respected his family pedigree, he lacked experience, and the quality of local leadership declined.
Even when they cannot be killed, terrorists being hunted must spend much of their time hiding. For their group to thrive, terrorist leaders must issue orders to subordinates, recruit and organize followers, and send out media statements. All of these tasks, however, are harder to carry out if the leaders are being targeted. Suspicion within the group grows, as it hunts constantly for informers, and leaders cannot trust their followers.
Politically, killings also counter terrorists’ efforts to undermine public confidence in government. Israeli politicians have found targeted killings immensely rewarding for a public hungry for revenge. This is crass politics, but it hits at a painful truth: publics want their governments to act, and the appearance of decisive action helps build resilience.
All these benefits, however, come at a painful moral price. Dina Mater is not the only innocent who died in a targeted killing attempt. In 1973, Mossad operatives in Norway shot a man whom they thought was a leader of the “Black September” cell that had carried out the Munich Olympics attack. In reality, they killed Ahmed Bouchiki, a Moroccan waiter, gunning him down while his pregnant wife watched.
B’Tselem, an Israeli human-rights organization, reports that from the outbreak of the second intifada through the end of 2008, Israel’s killing of 234 suspected terrorists also led to 143 noncombatant deaths. In 1986 the U.S. bombed one of the compounds of Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi because of his support for terrorism; the strike missed him, but accidentally killed a 15 month year old girl, whom Qaddafi claimed was his adopted daughter. Data are limited, but some reports suggest U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed over 600 noncombatants so far.
Politicians and the public can decry mistakes like these as “incompetence,” but the reality is that errors are more or less inevitable in targeted killing campaigns. Intelligence is often flawed, as in Bouchiki’s killing, or incomplete, as in Shehada’s. Muddying the moral and legal waters, terrorist leaders deliberately surround themselves with non-combatants, particularly children, in order to stay the hand of their casualty-averse enemies.
The killing of innocents is horrifying in and of itself, but politically it also reduces world support for counterterrorism. Civilized nations abhor terrorists because they deliberately target noncombatants; when governments kill civilians, even accidentally, in the name of counterterrorism, they risk losing the moral high ground.
Killings also can destabilize the host country. In 1973, Israeli special forces led by future Prime Minister Ehud Barak (disguised as a woman) among others, raided Beirut and killed several Palestinian terrorists there. As Palestinians and Israelis used Lebanon as the battleground in their private war, many Lebanese came to see their government as powerless. In response they formed their own militias, contributing to the country’s spiral into civil war.
In Pakistan today, the U.S. strikes on al Qaeda leaders are deeply unpopular and highlight the government’s inability to deal with the terrorists who operate on Pakistani soil. In both cases, foreign counterterrorism is but a small contributor to the host nation’s instability, but, as Lebanon shows collapse into civil war in 1975 shows, making a bad situation worse is always risky.
Revenge and escalation are other risks of targeted killings, as Israel learned after it killed Hezbollah’s Secretary General Sayyid Abbas Mussawi in 1992. Israel hoped that Mussawi’s death would cripple the Hezbollah, but the movement quickly regrouped, launching rockets at Israel and hitting Israeli targets in Turkey. Then it reached around the world to bomb the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29.
These operations are often difficult to carry out. Real-time intelligence is hard to acquire, and there are limited opportunities to strike. And failure has its own costs. When the U.S. tried to kill Osama bin Laden in 1998 with a cruise missile strike, not only did it miss, but the United States delivered a boon to al Qaeda. Mr. bin Laden crowed about the failure. The group’s apparently successful defiance of the U.S. attracted additional recruits and financial support.
The necessity of targeted killings and their many flaws requires that U.S. leaders pay careful attention to ensuring they are done only in the proper circumstances. A first question concerns the group’s bench: The deeper it is, the more leaders who must be killed to have an impact. The one-off killing of Mussawi did not disrupt Hezbollah because the group had many strong leaders; Mussawi’s replacement, Hassan Nasrallah, is a superb leader and one of the most admired men in the Arab world today.
Russia’s air strike that killed Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev in 1996 similarly did little, as new leaders rose to take his place. On the other hand, Israel killed the founder of Palestine Islamic Jihad, Fathi Shiqaqi, in Malta in 1995. His replacement was far less effective, and the small group floundered for several years.
Intelligence also must be superb. Constant “eyes on” capabilities are necessary to know not only where a terrorist is, but also if civilians are with him and whether the situation suddenly changes. To accomplish this, Israel has a near-constant presence in Palestinian areas. As former Shin Bet head Avi Dichter noted, “When a Palestinian child draws a picture of the sky, he doesn’t draw it without a helicopter.” Tribal parts of Pakistan are much larger than Palestinian areas and much harder to penetrate with human sources, making the challenge for the U.S. even bigger.
Timing is everything. In the aftermath of 9/11, Arafat was encouraging his subordinates to accept a cease-fire. In this period, Israel killed Raed Karmi, the leader of a terrorist cell linked to Arafat. Mr. Karmi himself was a thug, but he appeared to have accepted the ceasefire. The killing enraged Arafat’s followers, leading many to conclude Israel had no interest in a ceasefire and forcing them—if they wanted to stay in charge—to support revenge operations. Violence surged. A peace deal with al Qaeda today is impossible, of course, but timing still matters with regard to political conditions in Pakistan or other countries where the U.S. might strike.
Finally, for Israel killings are only one counterterrorism instrument among many, and often they are the least important one. Israel has built an extensive security barrier to keep out terrorists, has a web of checkpoints across the West Bank, cooperates with the security services of Egypt and Jordan, and arrests terrorists in the West Bank, among other actions. Killing terrorists reinforces these efforts.
For the U.S., this last concern is even more important. U.S. homeland defense remains weak, and American efforts overseas have a long way to go as well. In Pakistan, killings are a necessary evil that will only set al Qaeda back but will not disrupt it fatally. The long-term solution lies in increasing the Pakistani government’s ability and willingness to take on terrorists on its soil. In most other countries, including most of the Arab world, intelligence cooperation is the key counterterrorism instrument, and strikes there would be a mistake if they risk jeopardizing ties to the regime. Targeted killings must be part of a broader policy, not a replacement for one.