Friday November 01 2007

do targeted killings work?

  • daniel byman
  • foreign affairs
  • march/april 2006
  • p. 95-112

Daniel Byman

  • OGA - Other Government Agency
  • manned the Kuwait desk before the First Gulf War
  • his hypothesis: targeted killings are effective, especially israel, under certain conditions


  • Andrede is a historian
  • his piece is not a policy piece
  • differentiate between analysis and advocacy

never equate "showing the effectiveness of…" with "promotion of the use of"

the presence or absence of corroboration determines the validity of information not the use of torture or any other interrogation process.

Terror's Advocate, a film (check the torrents for it)
NY times 14 Oct/ 07 interview with Alan Riding

  • politics has limits - just because something is effective doesn't mean you want to do it

the planners and perpetrators go to jail
the encouragers and inciter of violence often go free

circumstantial evidence

  • in intelligence circumstantial evidence is the primary source of evidence
  • you only need to be 60% sure the target is guilty
  • any higher standard of guilt leads to paralysis
  • Arar is a good example
  • can civilian courts be trusted to handled terrorism cases?

phenix program

  • rural village safe houses and support structures were targeted by US forces
  • take out the recruiters, intelligence gatherers, and suppliers
  • communist members in secret but had regular jobs by day


  • vietnam
  • paramilitary reserve units
  • made up of people with a personal grudge against the communists
  • largely made up of defectors
  • they were given new identities and support from the CIA
  • many joined the PRU's
  • they had been communist gurillas and new how to infiltrate their former networks


  • kill or capture with an emphasis on capture
  • capture had intelligence value
  • the logistics meant that it was very difficult to capture
  • the PRU's were 12 guys with pistols
  • the SEALS were 5 guys with advanced wpns
  • however size is still the primary determinant of victory

snatch squad

  • political climate of the 1970's and the VC resistance meant the project degenerated into an assassination program

US public opinion

  • openly targeting civilians is wrong because the Vietnam war lacked popular legitimacy
  • this is no different from the factories bombed during WW2 - accept for the popular legitimacy of the war
  • Trinquier makes the opposite distinction

Did the PRU's think openly targeting civilians was wrong?

  • for the PRU's they were fighting a total war
  • it was a total war because the consequences of losing were catastrophic
  • they fought without mercy or compunction
  • it was a limited war for the US

there was enough actual murder occurring

  • no one could defend the SEALS or the PRU's

Bob Kerry
navy seal team
they stumble into a hut with a vietnam family
they kill the entire family
one member of the family made noise before he was killed
the VC was alerted and a fire fight developed
killing the family was the only thing that he could do to continue his mission

  • killing civilians in Vietnam is intimate
  • this is why it has so much emotive power
  • this is why their is so much public outcry

slow burn

  • processing: detainees were streamed based on their significance
  • the intelligence gathered was shared with Phoenix
  • PRU's were suppose to be part of the police - this allowed them to arrest rather than kidnap
  • the problem was that the police force was so infiltrated with communists that intelligence kept getting leaked


  • used vietnamese interrogators


  • deforest claims to have an insight into the asian psyche
  • he had spent a substantial amount of time within different asian communities
  • there is a place for such intuitive understanding
  • pseudo science, yes, but everyone who gets plunged into a foreign culture develops these stereotypes
  • most cultures have some hot buttons
  • however most foreign affairs personnel are sheltered in compound life

the weight of cultural gestures

  • if a pakistani policeman open hand slaps someone - most people roll over immediately
  • it takes a very brave man to stand ones ground in pakistan after such a slap
  • Harrington
  • stalking the Vietcon
  • Harrington and Deforest worked in the same sector
  • Deforest's military counterpart and Harrington's CIA counterpart


  • political murder - individual homicide for political gain
  • almost but not quite the same as targeted killing

targeted killing

  • happens if not routinely then regularly
  • disrupts the underground operations of terrorists
  • useful only in the short term
  • cannot be effective in and of itself must be used in conjunction with other operations that exploit the resulting disruption
  • Phoenix program is a quasi example

remember that insurgents…

  • have Hierarchical structures
  • are disciplined
  • have many members
  • suffer frequent communication problems

Benefits of targeted killing

  • disruption - information dies with the individual
  • fear - no one is untouchable
  • fosters paranoia

Drawbacks of targeted killings

  • reaction - creates martyrs
  • the devil we know - you don't know who will replace the leader be it better or worse
  • short term - its benefits do not last long - organizations by definition are resilient


  • why is targeted killing more effective in the west bank vs. Gaza
  • targeted assassination relies on full spectrum information

Full spectrum intelligence

  • full spectrum information vs. immediate operations intelligence
  • deforest was concerned with the long term
  • he used this information to track him

hunting a fugitive

  • a culture with a strong bond between father and son
  • somethings are universal
  • if you find the son you find the father
  • he found the son's girlfriend
  • he was in Austria at an international school
  • His father was living under the protection of Iranian secret police


  • 3 camps of prisoners
  • a US army division of 30 000 was churning up prisoners daily
  • deforest had a huge wealth of information


  • behind targeted assassination is a huge intelligence network that finds the effective target
  • as long as the army was under occupation
  • targeted assassination was effective
  • they could generate the sheer quantity of information required in the open
  • when the army left gaza they couldn't get the intelligence to effectively target people for assassination

targeting the middle managers

  • foot soldiers resist moving up the ranks because it is a death sentence
  • it is effective the credibility, capability, of insurgents weakens
  • targeted killing is not a solution

targeting killings are like faulty breaks, they will slow things down but they will not stop insurgents

  • forces insurgents into a cellular network
  • less connections between the groups
  • fragmentation - this may weaken the capability of insurgents but it will severely weak the COIN units ability to track and take out entire networks
  • these cellular organizations peck away constantly
  • hierarchies break down the organization becomes personality driven

PRU example

  • the story of Mai
  • interrogation and reveals 5 co-conspirators
  • how long does it take from the time the 5 names are revealed
  • this happened in an hour
  • fighting insurgents presupposes a certain level of organization

Targeted killing is an admission of failure

  • in a broad scale coin operation with lots of resources
  • you have achieved a high degree of knowledge but you have not been able to foster legitimacy

how do you know you are winning?

  • in conventional war victory is measured through land and casualties
  • why does the media and government still use body counts in insurgent wars
  • constant stream of numerical feedback
  • the measure of success is were the operations of the PRU/Seals effecting VC operations
  • do COIN operations affect the insurgents ability to operate in an area.

Phoenix Program

  • there was a huge mobilization and support behind the PRU's and it still failed
  • the phoenix program proves that adage that "it is better for locals to do something mediocrerly than for foreigners to do it well" is false when it comes to targeted killing
  • the intelligence apparatus required has to be sophisticated

Quote of the Week
"you always want to leave your incompetent enemies alive, in fact, you want to kill people above them so they get promoted"

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