To Assassinate or Not to Assassinate?

Less than 24 hours ago, Hamas senior operative Kamal Ranaja was found assassinated in his home in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Hussein Murtada, director of Iran’s al-Alam TV station, says the armed group that eliminated Ranaja also burned his house so as not to leave traces after stealing documents from the scene. Hamas immediately pointed fingers at the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak refuses to confirm or deny Israeli involvement, claiming that a number of actors were interested in seeing the former aide to Mahmoud al-Mabhouh (assassinated by Israeli agents back in 2010) turned to toast.

Just in case you were wondering, Barak pointed out that Ranaja was “not a saint”. To be fair, Ranaja was reportedly orchestrating the logistics of weapons smuggling from Iran, Lebanon, and Syria into the Gaza Strip. Such activities do not generally make one popular with the Israelis, although it still remains unclear at this point who was behind the hit.

Suspected agents in the Mabhouh assassination (c. 2010)

This recent incident provokes interesting discussion over the assassination policies of intelligence agencies. In an article examining the evolution of Israeli assassination policy by Infinity Journal co-founder Adam Stahl, the history of the country’s targeted operations began as early as the 1920s, when Arab and British hostility against the Jewish population began to intensify. Jewish underground militias at the time responded with a series of assassinations as defensive and deterrent maneuvers. Over the years, Israel  developed a process of legalization of targeted killings as part of a progressively expanded counterterrorism tactic, especially leading up to the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada in 2000. Following this wave of violence against the Israeli civilian population, the targets, techniques, and frequency of targeted attacks continued to develop across the Israeli security community under the more sterile name of “focused preventions”. Documents drawn up by the Shin Bet and military intelligence think-tank teams justified assassination as a tool of self-defense, designed to stop a terrorist attack that has already entered the execution stage.

On the U.S. side, the assassination debate has centered mainly on the increased use of drones. The Obama administration’s employment of drones is approximately five times larger than it was during the Bush era. This number might seem large, but considering that the Americans are now dealing with a proliferation of terrorist threats spread out across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, the Horn of Africa, not to mention a series of remote yet explosive tribal areas, the increase seems proportional to the threat. Yet, Obama’s foreign-policy doctrine of multilateralism and transparency is now under fire by popular American debate. Is a policy of assassination undermining an overall strategy?

In most cases, assassinations are  an issue of international affairs, as they usually involve attacks on the territory of another sovereign state. Using force in this arena is not only risky, but always controversial. Security agencies are obligated to defend their citizens, and sometimes the use of a targeted killing tactic is necessary, but such maneuvers must be executed meticulously so as to not cause an unwanted escalatory scenario. Many a critic has referred to assassinations as “unethical”, but the only unethical action you can take in warfare is the failure to act in the best interest of your people.

The Pressing Questions: What is the framework for determining the need and efficiency of an assassination attempt? What are the most dangerous backlashes of an assassination and how can we prevent them?

Read more below:

Hamas: Mossad Behind Damascus Hit by Yediot Ahronot

Hamas: Mossad Assassinated al-Mabhouh Deputy by The Jerusalem Post

Hamas Says One of Its Members Assassinated in Damascus by The Washington Post

The Evolution of Israeli Targeted Operations by Studies in Conflict & Terrorism

Responses to Terrorism: Targeted Killings is a Necessary Option by The San Francisco Chronicle

In Defense of Drones by The National Interest

The Israeli Secret Services & the Struggle Against Terrorism (book) by Ami Pedahzur

Jessica Snapper

Jessica Snapper has a Masters degree in Security Intelligence with a concentration in Counterterrorism and the Middle East. Her areas of expertise include terrorist infrastructure, asymmetric warfare, tactical adaptability, deterrence and national defense policy. She has conducted in-depth research at both the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Hebrew University’s Department of Political Violence and Terrorism. Read more at jessicasnapper.com

2 Comments

  1. Abu Zibby

    7/2/2012 at 4:07 am

    For clarification: As a rule, the Israeli government never engages into any kind of speculation of whodunnit. They leave that to the press or to experts like you.
    The speculations about the involvement of any Israeli security or intelligence force in Murtada’s death are uttlerly baseless. Presenting wild guesses and phantasies as facts is ludicrous. We should leave that to the Europeans.

  2. Jessica Snapper

    7/3/2012 at 7:17 am

    Thank you for the “clarification”, but the analysis is not baseless speculation or wild guessing as you propose. It is based on precedent, context, and objective evidence. (Feel free to take a look at all the sources posted at the bottom of the article for further reference.) That said, it is still unclear at this point who was involved in the assassination.

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