The killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri:  the tip of the targeted killing iceberg

President Biden announcing the targeted killing of Ayman al-Zawahiri

Drone assassination returned briefly to the top of the news agenda this week with the US targeted killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul. Many could be forgiven for thinking this was the first drone targeted killing since the assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, but behind the scenes the use of drones for these type of operations is growing – and spreading.


The strike on Zawahiri, which took place early on Sunday morning (31 July) in Afghanistan, was announced by President Biden on Monday evening.  US officials speaking to journalists on background said that the strike was carried out by the CIA after Zawahiri’s location was discovered earlier in the year. US officials insisted that he was a lawful target based on his continuing leadership of al-Qaeda although multiple international law scholars question the US’ interpretation of international law in this area.

The strike comes almost a year after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan and, within the US at least, reporting of the targeted killing played out against continuing political arguments around whether the withdrawal has harmed or improved US interests/security in the region.  Biden argues that his ‘over-the-horizon’ strategy – that is remote drone strikes with ‘in-and-out’ special ops raids as necessary – instead of long-term deployments, improves US security.

Many early responses to the killing were quick to affirm the efficacy of drone strikes and this strategy. Trump’s envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the original withdrawal agreement, told the New York Times “In this case, over the horizon worked.” He called the strike proof that “we can protect our interest against terror threats in Afghanistan without a large and expensive military presence there.”  Elsewhere, the liberal think-tank Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft also claimed that such strikes ‘work’ insisting that they were “a more sustainable form of risk management” than long-term occupation (although, to be fair, they did argue that such a position “should not be conflated with the unhinged permissiveness of past drone wars”).   However, whether such strikes ‘work’ by increasing peace and security in the long-term, is still  very questionable.  The reality is that the drone warfare has its own logic and momentum, and its increasingly clear just how hard it has become to put this tool back in Pandora’s box

Drone targeted killing spreading

Although this particular strike gained significant attention, other such targeted killings by the US and other drone states carried out over the past 12 months have gained little notice.

Just last month the US said that it had killed Maher al-Agal, the leader of ISIS in Syria in a targeted drone strike.  The previous month saw the drone killing of Abu Hamzah al Yemeni, a senior leader of Al-Qaeda linked group Horas al-Din, also in Syria.  Yet another senior al-Qaeda leader, Abdul Hamid al-Matar was also killed in a drone strike in Syria last October. While there are legal differences depending on whether such strikes occur on or off the battlefield (that is, depending on the legal framework that applies), the legal status of the US in regard to continuing and on-going strikes in Iraq and Syria is far from clear.

But its not just the US that are using drones for such operations.  France hunted and killed Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara last September.  According to the French Chief of Staff, following a raid by special forces, al-Sahrawi was hit by a drone strike as he attempted to flee on the back of a motorcycle.

Kabul house targeted by US drone strike, 31 July 2022

The UK too has undertaken such action in the past to great controversy.  And perhaps because of that controversy, little detail emerges about the UK’s use of drones for such pre-planned killings. However, last October, the UK reported that “the crew of a remotely piloted Reaper, armed with Hellfire missiles, tracked a known terrorist in northern Syria, near the city of Ras al Ayn, and at a safe moment, when the individual was alone in a field, carried out a successful strike.”  This appeared to be the targeted killing of alleged arms dealer, Abu Hamza al-Shuhail.  The Guardian reported that the killing appeared to be carried out  in conjunction with Turkey, and Turkey too, has been using its Bayraktar drones for multiple such operations targeting key individuals.  One such strike targeted and killed  Salahuddin Shahabi, a senior commander of the YPG known by his nom de guerre Renas Roj.

Absence of discussion

There’s perhaps two important points to be made.  Despite the lack of public visibility  – outside rare headline-hitting exceptions like the killing of Zawahiri – the use of drones to target individuals deemed to be a threat, both on and off the battlefield, is increasing.  As the use of armed drones spreads, these kind of operations are certain to expand.

Second, the lack of public and political debate about these operations is truly shocking.  As Agnes Callamard wrote just over two years ago when she was Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions:

What is especially troubling is the absence of public discussion about the ethics, legality, and effectiveness of the “decapitation” strategy  at the heart of drones targeted killings, whether or not they have their effect as claimed, and about the measures of their success, in terms of a long-term vision for the sustainable protection of human lives and global peace.  Instead, war has been normalized as the legitimate and necessary companion to “peace”, not as its opposite we must do all that we can to resist.

Drones have fuelled a ‘whack-a-mole’ approach to counterterrorism, undermined non-military means of challenging terrorism, fuelled anti-Western sentiment,  eroded international law,  and created a culture of ‘forever war’.  Yet it feels in many ways as though politicians, journalists, academics and commentators  believe there is now little to be done about powerful states carrying out such strikes and that drone warfare has become something that we must simply accept. We, for one, disagree and will continue to say so.

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