Zawahiri’s death falls under the category of “targeted killing,” a somewhat euphemistic term that the military insists is different from assassination. Prior to 9/11, Israel was the only country that frequently engaged in the practice, which American leaders opposed. But the Global War on Terror changed the calculus in Washington, and the U.S. military adopted the tactic starting in 2002.
The practice is controversial for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that attacks are rarely as “targeted” as last week’s was. In one previous attempt to take out Zawahiri, the U.S. military killed at least 18 Pakistani civilians. (A second strike that may have targeted the al-Qaida leader killed as many as 80 civilians, many of whom were children.) And this level of “collateral damage” is more common than people like to think. Take the case of Qasim Al-Raymi: The United States took out the former leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula in 2020 after killing 66 people, including 31 children, in two prior attempts.
Furthermore, the CIA — not the military — carried out the strike on Zawahiri, according to U.S. officials. While Washington has long blurred the line between the CIA and the Pentagon, legal experts contend that intelligence officials cannot legally engage in war under any circumstances given that they’re not uniformed combatants.counterinformation “Targeted Killing” Ordered by the President of the United States: What Ever Happened to the ‘Rules-based International Order?’