Targeted KillingsBy Lawrence Freedman

The fight against terror, we are told, demands unconventional methods. But liberal democracies face a dilemma if the unconventional methods proposed to deal with such enemies are themselves profoundly illiberal.

Israel’s assassination of two Hamas leaders in quick succession, and now the almost casual observation by Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, that he no longer feels bound by a past pledge not to do the same to Yassir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, has intensified debate about a method supposedly long discarded by civilised nations. While critics charge Israel with compounding a refusal to address Palestinian grievances with action bound to inflame tensions and encourage suicide bombers, Israel replies that it is employing legitimate self-defence. The country is at war against an uncompromising and vicious enemy.

The US has indicated acceptance that “targeted killings” may have some role in the fight against terrorism. It could hardly condemn such measures outright when Osama bin Laden is still sought “dead or alive”, and controversy rages over why he was not assassinated before he could plan the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Last year’s invasion of Iraq began with a strike designed to kill Saddam Hussein before the serious fighting began. In November 2002, a missile fired from a Central Intelligence Agency Predator drone blew up the car of al-Qaeda’s top operative in Yemen. Although US policy is still governed by a 1981 executive order prohibiting political assassination, it has long been claimed this does not apply to terrorists.

The moral case for assassination – that humanity is well served by targeting tyrants and would-be mass murderers directly rather than getting at them over the graves of soldiers or innocent bystanders – should not be dismissed glibly. But democracies have much to lose should assassinations become routine. In closed societies, dictators can take measures to keep out of harm’s way. In open societies, politicians cannot avoid being at risk. So leaders who ought to be caught – from Stalin and Hitler to Mr Hussein – tend to survive, while those who should survive – Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King – get cut down.

Assassinations rarely have a calming effect. In the Middle East, the murder in 1981 of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, by Islamist militants warned off those who would make peace with Israel. The same effect was intended by Yigal Amir, who killed Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995 in order to halt moves toward an accommodation with the Palestinians. At first it seemed as if he had achieved the opposite. Shimon Peres, Rabin’s successor, pushed the process further, but he also sought to demonstrate his toughness by authorising the killing of Yehiya Ayash, known as “the Engineer”, Hamas’s chief bomb-maker. The retaliatory suicide bombings against Israeli civilians created such insecurity that the Labour party lost power to the hawkish Likud, and the process never recovered.

Israel believes it can make “targeted killing” work now because the policy can be pursued ruthlessly and the consequences suppressed, thereby rendering Hamas effectively leaderless. Following the killings of Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantissi, the new leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar, who has already escaped one assassination attempt, dare not operate openly. Having promised a “volcano of revenge” for the murders, Hamas’s credibility will be undermined if attempts at retaliation continue to be thwarted.

The Israeli objective is to throw the enemy’s organisation into crisis and make it appear helpless in the face of apparently ubiquitous Israeli intelligence. Another objective is to provide cover for what is seen in Israel (if not elsewhere) as a major concession – the mooted withdrawal from Gaza – and this harsh approach may help Mr Sharon win over Likud party doubters.

It also reflects some appreciation that after Israel’s withdrawal, Hamas will be much more difficult to control. But whatever the short-term political benefits, this campaign cannot offer long-term improvement in Israel’s security situation. There is an underlying assumption that the Palestinians would not be a problem were it not for their leaders and that if the raging head could be removed then the body would become more placid. Putting Mr Arafat next on the target list follows this logic, but Palestinian anger would continue to be felt – so his successor would also have to be eliminated, and so on.

The Americans, already losing ground in the Middle East because of their readiness to back Mr Sharon’s unilateralism, are trying to draw a line by urging the Israelis not to murder such a prominent figure.

They are also learning the hard way that targeting leaders does not provide a simple fix to complex problems. The benefits gained by Mr Hussein’s capture have proved to be meagre. His capacity to influence events had already been much reduced and now the Americans find themselves chasing new “bad men” who enjoy popular support. It might be gratifying to catch Mr bin Laden “dead or alive” but it would have only a marginal effect on al-Qaeda’s activities, which have become more decentralised and diffuse. Meanwhile, America’s failure to get Mr bin Laden may have boosted his status. It is possible to disrupt political movements by eliminating their leaders, but broadly based groups are unlikely to be stopped in their tracks and might even move in more dangerous directions. In the end, the best way to deal with evil leaders is to provide people with few reasons to follow them.

The writer is professor of war studies, King’s College London