Since the late stages of the 2000s, targeted killings have long been a central strategy of many in the west, including US and Israeli counterterrorism operations. As a way to take out High-Value Targets (HVT) without endangering the lives of ground troops, it has been a popular tactic among the populations of the west. Targeted killings have led to deaths of countless terrorist leaders around the globe. Specifically, ISIS has been a main target, losing large amounts of upper echelon leadership to coalition strikes. From 2006-2010 strikes successfully killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his two successors, pushing the group to the fringes of functionality.
Fear of strikes has kept many terrorist leaders underground, rendering them unable to affectively lead their organizations. However, this fact does not mean there are not serious considerations. Recent figures in multiple countries show that civilian deaths remain high enough to elicit concern: Pakistan (424-996), Yemen (65-101), Somalia (3-12), Afghanistan (125-182). However, these figures do not include the thousands injured in the various drone strikes throughout the area.
Despite the large amounts of collateral damage, targeted killings remain the most popular tactic for combating terrorism. Many opponents of drones and targeted strikes argue the fact that signature strikes utilize measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT), but often lack any real form of human intelligence (HUMINT). Many of these targets require swift action and the window for striking is limited. Human intelligence is a slow burn and cannot keep up with advanced MASINT technology. But the reliance on tech has directly resulted in civilian casualties.
Although he west has embraced technology, many terrorist organization are utilizing one of the oldest tricks in the guerilla warfare handbook: propaganda. Without the support of the local population, killing off terrorists will not have its desired effect. Terrorist strategy has evolved to use effective propaganda to turn local populations against targeted killing policies in various regions. In Dabiq, an ISIS publication, this idea was rapidly spread around the internet in the infamous “Why We Hate You” article. It clearly noted a reason for fighting the west was for “crimes against the Muslims” and that “drones and fighter jets bomb, kill, and maim our people around the world.”
The advent of drone technology has revolutionized the way the west fights its wars. From surveillance operations to precision air strikes, technology is paving the way for the removal of the soldier from the battlefield. However, although the soldier’s life may be saved the civilian’s fate is not as certain. This new technology has created a video game like simulation with real lives at stake and the psychological effects are apparent on both sides. Intelligence remains a paramount consideration in these types of hazardous operations. Whether from humans, signals, or open sources, intelligence continues to uncover the location of terrorist leaders. This information offers difficult choices for our leaders. Therefore it is not the risk of taking action, but the consequences of not taking action that has given rise to this new form of warfare. Is the west making the correct moves to win the war on terror or are they creating a new batch of terrorists with every instance of collateral damage?