The Utility of Assassination
By George Friedman
The apparent Israeli assassination of a Hamas operative in the United Arab Emirates turned into a bizarre event replete with numerous fraudulent passports, alleged Israeli operatives caught on videotape and international outrage (much of it feigned), more over the use of fraudulent passports than over the operative's death. If we are to believe the media, it took nearly 20 people and an international incident to kill him.
STRATFOR has written on the details of the killing as we have learned of them, but we see this as an occasion to address a broader question: the role of assassination in international politics.
We should begin by defining what we mean by assassination. It is the killing of a particular individual for political purposes. It differs from the killing of a spouse's lover because it is political. It differs from the killing of a soldier on the battlefield in that the soldier is anonymous and is not killed because of who he is but because of the army he is serving in.
The question of assassination, in the current jargon "targeted killing," raises the issue of its purpose. Apart from malice and revenge, as in Abraham Lincoln's assassination, the purpose of assassination is to achieve a particular political end by weakening an enemy in some way. Thus, the killing of Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto by the Americans in World War II was a targeted killing, an assassination. His movements were known, and the Americans had the opportunity to kill him. Killing an incompetent commander would be counterproductive, but Yamamoto was a superb strategist, without peer in the Japanese navy. Killing him would weaken Japan's war effort, or at least have a reasonable chance of doing so. With all the others dying around him in the midst of war, the moral choice did not seem complex then, nor does it seem complex now.
Such occasions rarely occur on the battlefield. There are few commanders who could not readily be replaced, and perhaps even replaced by someone more able. In any event, it is difficult to locate enemy commanders, meaning the opportunity to kill them rarely arises. And as commanders ask their troops to risk their lives, they have no moral claim to immunity from danger.
Now, take another case. Assume that the leader of a country were singular and irreplaceable, something very few are. But think of Fidel Castro, whose central role in the Cuban government was undeniable. Assume that he is the enemy of another country like the United States. It is an unofficial hostility — no war has been declared — but a very real one nonetheless. Is it illegitimate to try to kill such a leader in a bid to destroy his regime? Let's move that question to Adolph Hitler, the gold standard of evil. Would it be inappropriate to have sought to kill him in 1938 based on the type of regime he had created and what he said that he would do with it?
If the position is that killing Hitler would have been immoral, then we have a serious question about the moral standards being used. The more complex case is Castro. He is certainly no Hitler, but neither is he the romantic democratic revolutionary some have painted him as being. But if it is legitimate to kill Castro, then where is the line drawn? Who is it not legitimate to kill?
As with Yamamoto, the number of instances in which killing a political leader would make a difference in policy or in the regime's strength is extremely limited. In most cases, the argument against assassination is not moral but practical: It would make no difference if the target in question lives or dies. But where it would make a difference, the moral argument becomes difficult. If we establish that Hitler was a legitimate target, then we have established that there is not an absolute ban on political assassination. The question is what the threshold must be.
All of this is a preface to the killing in the United Arab Emirates, because that represents a third case. Since the rise of the modern intelligence apparatus, covert arms have frequently been attached to them. The nation-states of the 20th century all had intelligence organizations. These organizations carried out a range of clandestine operations beyond collecting intelligence, from supplying weapons to friendly political groups in foreign countries to overthrowing regimes to underwriting terrorist operations.
During the latter half of the century, nonstate-based covert organizations were developed. As European empires collapsed, political movements wishing to take control created covert warfare apparatuses to force the Europeans out or defeat political competitors. Israel's state-based intelligence system emerged from one created before the Jewish state's independence. The various Palestinian factions created their own. Beyond this, of course, groups like al Qaeda created their own covert capabilities, against which the United States has arrayed its own massive covert capability.
The contemporary reality is not a battlefield on which a Yamamoto might be singled out or a charismatic political leader whose death might destroy his regime. Rather, a great deal of contemporary international politics and warfare is built around these covert capabilities. In the case of Hamas, the mission of these covert operations is to secure the resources necessary for Hamas to engage Israeli forces on terms favorable to them, from terror to rocket attacks. For Israel, covert operations exist to shut off resources to Hamas (and other groups), leaving them unable to engage or resist Israel.
Expressed this way, covert warfare makes sense, particularly for the Israelis when they engage the clandestine efforts of Hamas. Hamas is moving covertly to secure resources. Its game is to evade the Israelis. The Israeli goal is to identify and eliminate the covert capability. Hamas is the hunted, Israel the hunter here. Apparently the hunter and hunted met in the United Arab Emirates, and the hunted was killed.
But there are complexities here. First, in warfare, the goal is to render the enemy incapable of resisting. Killing just any group of enemy soldiers is not the point. Indeed, diverting resources to engage the enemy on the margins, leaving the center of gravity of the enemy force untouched, harms far more than it helps. Covert warfare is different from conventional warfare, but the essential question stands: Is the target you are destroying essential to the enemy's ability to fight? And even more important, as the end of all war is political, does defeating this enemy bring you closer to your political goals?
Covert organizations, like armies, are designed to survive attrition. It is expected that operatives will be detected and killed; the system is designed to survive that. The goal of covert warfare is either to penetrate the enemy so deeply, or destroy one or more people so essential to the operation of the group, that the covert organization stops functioning. All covert organizations are designed to stop this from happening.
They achieve this through redundancy and regeneration. After the massacre at the Munich Olympics in 1972, the Israelis mounted an intense covert operation to identify, penetrate and destroy the movement — called Black September — that mounted the attack. Black September was not simply a separate movement but a front for various Palestinian factions. Killing those involved with Munich would not paralyze Black September, and destroying Black September did not destroy the Palestinian movement. That movement had redundancy — the ability to shift new capable people into the roles of those killed — and therefore could regenerate, training and deploying fresh operatives.
The mission was successfully carried out, but the mission was poorly designed. Like a general using overwhelming force to destroy a marginal element of the enemy army, the Israelis focused their covert capability to destroy elements whose destruction would not give the Israelis what they wanted — the destruction of the various Palestinian covert capabilities. It might have been politically necessary for the Israeli public, it might have been emotionally satisfying, but the Israeli's enemies weren't broken. Consider that Entebbe occurred in 1976. If Israel's goal in targeting Black September was the suppression of terrorism by Palestinian groups, the assault on one group did not end the threat from other groups.
Therefore, the political ends the Israelis sought were not achieved. The Palestinians did not become weaker. The year 1972 was not the high point of the Palestinian movement politically. It became stronger over time, gaining substantial international legitimacy. If the mission was to break the Palestinian covert apparatus to weaken the Palestinian capability and weaken its political power, the covert war of eliminating specific individuals identified as enemy operatives failed. The operatives very often were killed, but the operation did not yield the desired outcome.
And here lies the real dilemma of assassination. It is extraordinarily rare to identify a person whose death would materially weaken a substantial political movement in some definitive sense — i.e., where if the person died, then the movement would be finished. This is particularly true for nationalist movements that can draw on a very large pool of people and talent. It is equally hard to reduce a movement quickly enough to destroy the organization's redundancy and regenerative capability. Doing so requires extraordinary intelligence penetration as well as a massive covert effort, so such an effort quickly reveals the penetration and identifies your own operatives.
A single swift, global blow is what is dreamt of. Covert war actually works as a battle of attrition, involving the slow accumulation of intelligence, the organization of the strike, the assassination. At that point, one man is dead, a man whose replacement is undoubtedly already trained. Others are killed, but the critical mass is never reached, and there is no one target who if killed would cause everything to change.
In war there is a terrible tension between the emotions of the public and the cold logic that must drive the general. In covert warfare, there is tremendous emotional satisfaction to the country when it is revealed that someone it regards as not only an enemy, but someone responsible for the deaths of their countryman, has been killed. But the generals or directors of intelligence can't afford this satisfaction. They have limited resources, which must be devoted to achieving their country's political goals and assuring its safety. Those resources have to be used effectively.
There are few Hitlers whose death is morally demanded and might have a practical effect. Most such killings are both morally and practically ambiguous. In covert warfare, even if you concede every moral point about the wickedness of your enemy, you must raise the question as to whether all of your efforts are having any real effect on the enemy in the long run. If they can simply replace the man you killed, while training ten more operatives in the meantime, you have achieved little. If the enemy keeps becoming politically more successful, then the strategy must be re-examined.
We are not writing this as pacifists; we do not believe the killing of enemies is to be avoided. And we certainly do not believe that the morally incoherent strictures of what is called international law should guide any country in protecting itself. What we are addressing here is the effectiveness of assassination in waging covert warfare. Too frequently, it does not, in our mind, represent a successful solution to the military and political threat posed by covert organizations. It might bring an enemy to justice, and it might well disrupt an organization for a while or even render a specific organization untenable. But in the covert wars of the 20th century, the occasions when covert operations — including assassinations — achieved the political ends being pursued were rare. That does not mean they never did. It does mean that the utility of assassination as a main part of covert warfare needs to be considered carefully. Assassination is not without cost, and in war, all actions must be evaluated rigorously in terms of cost versus benefit.