When Sun Tzu wrote “The supreme act of war is to subdue the enemy without a fight” approximately 25 centuries ago, did he see the neutralisation or targeted killings of key enemy personnel as part of the subduing process?
Then again, I have always wondered why is it that when a politician or a prominent person (read “High-Value Target” or HVT) is the subject of a targeted killing, it is known as an “assassination”? Yet, when some lesser mortal meets his or her end, it is a murder. Unless of course, it happens on the battlefield – then he or she is simply “killed”.
The January 2010 targeted killing of a senior Hamas military commander in Dubai has certainly brought the debate on assassinations to the fore. This action to neutralise an enemy of a state is nothing new. In fact, governments through their intelligence agencies the world over have made use of - and still make use of - targeted killings as a method of eliminating enemies of supposed high-value. (Personally, I believe the intelligence agencies ought to be confined purely to the collection of the critical information and not the actual neutralisation if it involves a targeted killing).
Assassination of enemy leaders and commanders is not the only method of eliminating them. It is however the one method that causes the most media interest and speculation. If correctly planned and executed, it remains a highly effective action. When these targeted killings disrupt or impact in part on the enemy’s Centre of Gravity (CoG) they become even more effective.
But, ought these direct-action, covert or clandestine actions to be used purely for military and political purposes or do they also hold value in countering serious and violent organised crime? I believe they do. But as long as we attribute “rights” to these organised crime syndicates – who attribute no rights to their victims – this will probably never happen.
There are essentially two methods of neutralising a high-value target. These are:
1. Removing the target from society
2. Getting society to remove the target.
The first method includes actions such as assassinations, target-specific drone attacks, snatch operations with the aim of interrogating and imprisoning and so forth. This direct approach against the target requires a high level of intelligence gathering and planning. There are many instances where intelligence and planning has failed miserably but there are numerous other instances where it has succeeded. It is, however, the actions that fail that evoke the most interest and speculation. Those that are successful pass almost unnoticed.
The second method utilises an indirect approach and includes grey and black propaganda aimed at discrediting the target or arousing suspicions against him or her. These suspicions, managed correctly, can lead to society taking the desired action and thereby neutralising the target. Here too intelligence and planning play a critical role in order to allow society to be manipulated to take the desired action(s) against the target.
These actions should be conducted in support of national strategic and military operational objectives. By implication they are intelligence driven but are determined at political level and executed at operator level. It is at the level of policy that problems such as inter-service delineation and medium to long-term consequences are assessed and confirmed.
Failure can also be attributed to undue political pressure and the failure to anticipate the consequences when things go wrong, poor inter-service relations and poor operational execution. Compromise – the result of poor or non-existent security - which leads to failure, can have far-reaching political implications thus rendering the ultimate outcome a failure – despite the fact that operationally, the action may have succeeded. Likewise, unnecessary collateral damage can render an operationally successful operation a strategic failure.
Many questions arise when a targeted killing is conducted. There are those who question the morality of such actions and others who call on international legal matters to be instituted against the country perpetrating the deed. For some reason, these same voices never seem to be raised when the enemy conducts these actions.
Numerous considerations ought to be appreciated when planning a neutralisation of a specific target. Apart from the “who”, “by when”, “how” and “where”, the following are but some of the critical considerations:
1. Will he or she become a martyr and result in his/her memory being used as a rallying point?
2. Will the person who will take the target’s place be a moderate or a hard-liner?
3. What are the medium and long-term consequences of success/failure?
4. Will the resultant fall-out (political, economical, militarily, etc) be acceptable?
5. What level of collateral damage will be acceptable?
6. To what extent will a non-violent neutralisation allow the political and operational objectives to be met?
The fact of the matter is that neutralisation must take place at an early stage of the threat being identified. If the target is allowed to establish his/her authority and leadership to such an extent that they are seen as the “father” or rallying point of a movement or force, their neutralisation may increase the motivation of the movement or force. To prevent this, it is necessary for:
1. Sound intelligence at early stages of identification to answer the above considerations
2. Decisive government decision-making to respond rapidly and significantly to a developing threat
3. Rapid and decisive action to prevent future manpower, economical and political costs to escalate in order to neutralise or eliminate the target.
The neutralisation of HVTs has a definite place in the modern combat area, especially when it comes to combating insurgencies and organised crime syndicates/cartels. But a lack of decision making at the political level and inter-service bickering often result in no action. It is the lack of action, both direct and indirect, that allows the target to become a HVT, especially when the media manipulates the truth and gives media coverage thus adding to the supposed credibility of the target – and by then any action is often too little, too late.