Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 1  /  

Targeted Killings Work

Targeted Killings Work Targeted Killings Work
To cite this article: Stahl, A.E. and Owen, William F. “Targeted Killings Work.” Infinity Journal, Issue No. 1, Winter 2010, pages 10-13.


Targeted killings have become a common strategy employed by a number of militaries, as is witnessed by their frequent use over the past decade. For the purpose of this brief article, a targeted killing (TK), in the context of modern war, is the planned killing by a state of specific individuals who belong to irregular armed groups that are in conflict with the state. Targeted killing is a strategy, not the strategy but it is one that is brought to reality by way of tactics, through the application of armed force. A strategy of TK, in turn, serves the policy to which it is always subordinate. A strategy of TK aims to destroy, degrade, and/or deter irregular armed organizations by the use of lethal, though limited, force in support of policy. It can thus be argued that targeted killings, in fact, are a prime example of Clausewitzian observations. To understand whether or not a strategy of targeted killings is effective or ineffective, we must begin addressing fundamental questions. What is the policy? What is the strategy? And, does the action of killing a specific individual serve or undermine the policy? The intent here is to briefly examine these practical questions – with a focus on specific Israeli targeted operations – in order to offer an understanding as to why TKs should be an effective strategy.


Policy, Strategy and Tactics

Normally commentators in this area ask: “Do targeted killings work?” But the better question is: “Do targeted killings serve or damage policy?” In terms of ‘ends, ways, and means’, targeted killings would seek to benefit national political and/or security objectives. That is, it is assumed that the strategy of killing a specific individual serves policy. Whether the assumption is correct lies within the specific context of each case, though it may well be possible to ascertain trends as to when or where it is most likely to succeed or most likely to fail. TKs must also be understood within the specific context of the time they are being employed. Failure to understand the context will result in a failure to understand the strategy’s effectiveness or lack thereof. Here, the relevant context is concerned with the planned killing of specific leaders or activists of non-state organizations that advocate and practice the use of violence for political ends, specifically Hamas during the so-called “Second Intifada” or “al-Aqsa Intifada”. In fact, more appropriate terms for the five-year conflict are ‘armed rebellion’ or ‘insurrection’, which at their core, all represent nothing more than “an act of violence intended to compel [their] opponent to fulfill [their] will”. That is to say, war. The armed rebellion, which lasted from 2000-2005, witnessed a dramatic increase in a strategy of TK carried out by the Israeli military. Throughout the armed rebellion (for all intents and purposes a war), Israeli targeted killing operations underwent a number of critical evolutions – in terms of tempo, tactics, boldness, lethality, and even legality – ultimately proving TK an effective strategy.

Henry Kissinger once wrote that the “separation of strategy and policy can only be achieved to the detriment of both” [Baylis, et al 2007]. While correct, he failed to mention ‘tactics’, the conduct of which had implications for strategy in Vietnam. If one is to understand the strategy of TK, then the policy and the tactics must also be understood at the same time. A strategy requires both a policy to define its purpose and tactics to make it happen – these are the fundamentals of strategy. Good strategy requires coherence in this tripartite association and TKs are a particularly good example for the teaching of strategy. For example, it can be shown that it is a mistake to refer to a “policy of targeted killings”, as policy refers to ultimate political objectives, not a particular tactic (e.g. killing). At the same time, it is crucial to understand that while war is “a continuation of policy”, this in no way implies that Israeli politicians, or any politician for that matter, should utilize this strategy for unsuitable political objectives. That would define war as ‘a continuation of bad policy by other means’, which some believe is, in fact, what TKs represent. The policy must always be rational and attainable. The objective to influence Hamas to abandon armed violence is a rational and attainable political objective. If the policy were to wholly destroy Hamas as a physical and ideological entity, a strategy of TK would likely be ineffective, as the policy would be simply unattainable and possibly irrational, in purely tactical and even technical terms. As Clausewitz wrote, “if the policy is right—that is, successful—any intentional effect it has on the conduct of the war can only be to the good. If it has the opposite effect the policy itself is wrong.” [Clausewitz, 1976] However, as will be shown in the case of the TK of Salah Shehade, it is possible that the choice of tactics can undermine the policy. That is why policy, strategy and tactics must always be understood in partnership at all times – otherwise, the likelihood of success diminishes. While both Israel and the United States utilize similar tactics (drones, fighter jets and helicopter gunships) to carryout a similar strategy (i.e. TK), importantly their policies are also similar. That is to say, Israel’s political objectives vis-à-vis Hamas are similar to U.S. policy towards the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. Both countries, in their own ways, seek to bend or compel irregular armed organizations to their political will by the use of armed violence as a means to set forth their policy. Ultimately, and in its most basic terms, this is the use of armed force against armed force.

However, equally important is context. Even if a strategy of TK is effective, as was the case against Hamas during the 2000-2005 armed conflict for example, this clearly does not imply that the strategy is always effective at all times. The main reason for this is that TKs are not a ‘policy’ of any government – they are examples of a strategy carried out by the military in pursuit of political aims of a government. Take for example, Israel’s policy to convince Hamas to abandon armed violence. This policy for the most part remained the same as it was in September 2000 despite three different Israeli governments led by three different political parties during the five-year rebellion; the policy also remained static despite Hamas’ democratic victory and rise to power. Ultimately, it continues to remain the policy of the Israeli government to force Hamas to reject violence. A strategy of TK is simply one way of imposing Israel’s political will. If the policy of the Israeli government changes, so must the strategy. For example, if Hamas were to abandon armed violence and become a non-violent organization, targeted killings would not serve Israeli policy because the use of armed violence against civilians would almost certainly be counterproductive in terms of the conflict and illegitimate in the eyes of the international community. But the reality is that Hamas is a violent organization that uses armed force in an attempt to impose its policy – that is the organization’s stated platform on which it exists: “There is no solution to the Palestinian problem except jihad.”[i] Their political objective and the means to attain that objective cannot be more explicit. However, it should be noted that while Hamas is based on violence, it does not imply that violence is an ineradicable feature.

Following nearly 18 months of armed rebellion, including devastating suicide bombings carried out by Palestinian militants against Israeli targets, the Israeli military began targeting high-ranking Palestinian militants, despite international concern and condemnation of a strategy of TK. In 2002, the Israel Air Force (IAF) dropped a one-ton bomb on a building containing the former head of Hamas’ armed wing, Sheik Salah Shehade, who was responsible for over 200 Israeli deaths within a 24-month period. While the tactic succeeded, in that Shehade was killed, the choice of weaponry negatively affected the policy, but only up to a point. A one-ton bomb intended for one man is not surgical. It resulted in the collapse of adjacent buildings, killing a total of 14 Palestinians, including nine children. International condemnation was quick and harsh, which included claims of war crimes and lack of proportionality. Following the ‘hit’ against Shehade, Hamas carried out two bombings in Jerusalem, including one at Hebrew University that killed seven people, including five Americans. Further, Hamas-coordinated attacks increased, as did Israeli deaths (although the total number of injured Israelis decreased from the previous two years).

The question is, in this context, was the strategy successful or did it undermine Israeli policy? First, if it is assumed that the TK against Shehade and the collateral damage caused by that TK resulted in retaliatory attacks against Israelis, then the assumption is faulty. Given Hamas’s track record over the previous two years (2000-2002), it can reasonably be assumed that the organization would have perpetrated attacks whether or not Shehade was killed. ‘Tit for tat’ is not always a valid line of reasoning and is unlikely so in this case. In other words, the so-called Boomerang Effect is a weak argument when the very ethos (and even the meaning of the name) of an organization is built upon ‘resistance’ by way of armed violence.[ii] Second, domestic and international condemnation did not force Israel to abandon a strategy of TK – quite the opposite in fact, as TKs not only increased in quantity and tempo over the subsequent years, but also the choice of targets increased in boldness. Third, what must also be taken into account is the failed targeted operation that occurred soon after the hit on Shehade. Negative results from the Shehade operation, in terms of collateral damage and international condemnation caused the Israelis to utilize a much smaller weapon to target a much larger objective: the so-called Hamas ‘Dream Team’, which consisted of a coterie of high-ranking Hamas leaders who had gathered for a meeting in Gaza. A 250-pound bomb was used and it failed to destroy the intended target. The result is a clear illustration of how the results from a specific tactical weapon in a previous TK caused a negatively disproportionate effect on strategic decision-making (i.e. planners misapplied lessons). But this was a negative result in one case, not a failure in the overall strategy. Moreover and importantly, it did not cause the Israelis to fail to achieve policy objectives, as the policy to convince Hamas to forgo armed violence remained, and continues to remain, in place. The tactic, not the policy, was modified. Had the targeted operation against the Dream Team been successful, it might have had a severely negative impact upon Palestinian militants early on in the armed conflict.

Less than 24 months after the Shehade operation, the Israelis targeted the near-blind, quadriplegic ‘spiritual’ head and founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin. An AH-64 Apache fired hellfire missiles at his wheelchair following Friday morning services at a mosque in the Gaza Strip. Yassin and his bodyguards were killed. The official reason that Yassin was taken out was his direct involvement in coordinating terrorist attacks against Israelis. It is said that he authorized “a suicide bombing by a woman with children at Erez junction, killing four Israelis.”[iii] An unofficial reason for the TK against Yassin was to send a very clear message to Hamas: no one involved in armed violence against Israel is immune. Similar to the aftermath of the Shehade operation, international condemnation was quick and harsh. The killing caused British Foreign Minister, Jack Straw, to arbitrarily label the TK “unlawful and in violation of international law.”[iv] However, the key question that must be asked is, what is the measure of strategic success that can be gauged from this operation? To answer this, other questions must be addressed regarding Hamas: were the strategy and the tactic in line with the policy and was that policy undermined?

As with the Shehade operation, the Israelis did not abandon the strategy, and the policy remained the same for Yassin as it did for anyone in Hamas connected to terrorism or any form of organized violence – to both deter and to degrade the organization in an attempt to convince Hamas to jettison armed violence. The targeted operation against Yassin was a hit with positive strategic results. For one, it proved that no member of Hamas was immune when Israel showed its willingness to go after a paralyzed, unarmed and elderly individual. Moreover, his death certainly degraded morale and further, deterrence was witnessed with Hamas leaders choosing to stay underground out of fear of being the next target. In this case, both the strategy and the tactic were in line with the policy and neither the choice of the target nor the tactic used undermined policy. Following the death of Yassin, Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi was quickly named the new leader of Hamas. Rantissi spent most of his short-lived leadership underground. In accordance with Israeli policy, the military continued to invoke a strategy of TK and successfully targeted Rantissi using Hellfire missiles. His bodyguard and his son were also killed. The TK’s collateral damage included a woman and her five-year-old daughter. Within the spate of 24 months, Hamas’s leadership, which included many of the founders of the organization, had all been successfully targeted. Did these major targeted operations serve or erode the policy? The answer is: a strategy of TK served the single policy regarding Hamas.

Within the 12-month period following the killing of Shehade, the number of Hamas-coordinated attacks and deaths from those attacks decreased compared to the period of time that Shehade was in command. Following the operation against Yassin, and Rantissi in 2004 to the end of the conflict in 2005 – a one-year period where Hamas was void of any true command – attacks increased exponentially but fatalities declined. Moreover, when comparing to the previous year, suicide attacks and the death toll from those attacks also decreased. While the Israelis were not able to deter motivation, they were able to degrade the organization physically and psychologically by eliminating key actors, thus resulting in lower capabilities to carry out lethal attacks. In a four-year period, from the outset of the conflict in 2000 until just following the TK against Yassin, Israeli forces carried out nearly 200 targeted killing operations against Palestinian militants. Half of those targeted killings were aimed at Hamas.[v] The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s armed wing, are comprised not only of the bombers themselves, but also of the engineers who are the key to the effectiveness and destructiveness of weaponry. Each targeted killing of an engineer affected Hamas’s capabilities, which could explain why even with an increase in attacks the death toll decreased. In other words, inexpert militants under non-seasoned organizational command were forced to take the place of experienced bomb engineers, who proved to be far less effective. There are few armed organizations immune from this effect. Thus, the Israelis were successful in degrading the organization. However, focusing on the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades only partly proves the case for targeted killings. The targeting of the religious and political leadership, who advocate violence, also played a key role in deterrence.

The targeted killings of Shehade, Yassin, and Rantissi, as well as a number of other key leaders, resulted in positive, strategic gains for Israel. First, and most important, was the elimination of leadership. The removal of any popular, seasoned and charismatic leader is beneficial to the opposing side. The belief that killing one leader will simply result in 10 more ready to take the leadership position is a highly debatable perspective. If a state constantly and correctly applies a strategy of targeted killings against the leadership of an irregular organization, it will not matter how many men will be ready to take his place because if the strategy is applied correctly, they will all be targeted. This, as was seen during the five-year armed rebellion, caused leaders to hide underground out of fear of being the next hit. The more time leaders spend underground, the less time they have for conducting armed activity against the state. After all, Rantissi spent his four-week term as head of Hamas hiding underground with limited capabilities to direct armed violence.

There have been many claims that ‘decapitation’ does not work. This needs to be briefly addressed, as it is debatable for two key reasons. First, there is no written rule that a strategy of decapitation must imply the subsequent collapse of an entire organization, or at least it should not imply this. Without doubt, if collapse occurs, it will be a welcoming side effect of a strategy of TK. However, removing the head can and has resulted in organizational chaos and even calls for a cessation of military action, such as with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Second, one should not approach the strategy of ‘decapitation’ by trying to define its effectiveness because first, you can never predict the effect, and second, if skillfully applied, the continuous targeting and killing of enemy leadership is almost never counterproductive. It all depends on the context, but in the Israeli case, by 2004, Hamas leadership began calling for ‘ceasefires’ and ‘calms’. As leaders were killed, the willingness to compromise became evident.

The reason that many commentators are against ‘decapitation’ is born out of the fact that in the specific context on which they were focusing, it was not that the policy was necessarily wrong, but rather there was a failure to correctly apply a strategy of targeted killings. In other words, they failed to kill enough leaders. The elimination of one leader and the subsequent rise of another, even worse leader, hardly proves the case for a failure of decapitation. It proves that one might need to do it again to see results. Many claims have been put forward that the TK against Hizballah’s al-Musawi in the early 1990s resulted in the rise of the more popular, fiery and demagogic Nasrallah and therefore, decapitation was counter-productive. However, for all intents and purposes, TKs against leaders of Hizballah stopped after al-Musawi. Had they continued, it may well be possible that the organization would have been severely weakened. If the pursuit and targeting of leaders is constant, uncompromising, and successful– utilizing the strategy to the fullest – there will come a point where the organization is left with few options. They can compromise to preserve power, as was the case with Hamas in 2004; they can face near-organizational collapse, as did the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the 1990s after the death of Fathi Shiqaqi; or they can face total collapse, as was the case with al-Sa’iqa in the 1970s, albeit an already weak organization to begin with and one not nearly as organized and complex as Hamas.

Israeli targeted killings during the 2000-2005 armed rebellion represented a successful strategy. First and foremost, the strategy succeeded because the tactics never undermined Israeli policy enough to alter Israel’s overall political objectives. The policy remained unwavering, which directly bore on the success of the strategy of TK. A firm, rational policy is a necessity for a sound strategy, which must be viable via tactics. Israel’s strategy of targeted killings was such an example. Second, the strategy of TK, combined with other countermeasures such as the erection of the security fence and increased incursions by the IDF, led to Hamas’s calls for ceasefires and periods of calm, which meant that at that time and in that specific context, Hamas’s will to continue to fight was broken, albeit temporarily. Once political objectives are reached, the use of force must be reigned in or else the policy will suffer. Israel recognized that its use of force had obtained political objectives, at which time the strategy of targeted killings declined exponentially. That is, armed violence was successfully used as a means to a political end, similar to the way Operation Cast Lead caused a dramatic decline in Hamas-perpetrated rocket attacks. Had the targeted killings sustained the same tempo following Hamas’s calls for ceasefires and calms, it is possible that TKs would have subverted political objectives, which would have led to a strategic and hence political failure. Third, Israeli forces applied targeted killings in the right way. It was the constant and uncompromising act of targeting, not a one-off event, that ultimately saw Hamas seek a ceasefire.

Beyond anything else, TK requires skill and a strict adherence to the fundamentals of ‘doing good strategy’, which is why the issue of ‘protecting the population’, even making friends with militants, which seems to have taken precedence over breaking the enemy’s will to fight, is so counterproductive to military operations in a number of theatres of war, not just the Israeli-Palestinian theatre. No strategy can succeed if it cannot be realized in the effective tactics. As this article has demonstrated, TK can only succeed when there is a coherence of policy, strategy and tactics. Without it, one should not bet on success.



[i] The use of armed violence to set forth policy as stated in Hamas’ Charter (1988), Chapter 3, Article 13 echo recent statements by Khaled Meshal. “I tell my people that the Palestinian state and Palestinian rights will not be accomplished through this peace process…but will be accomplished by force, and it will be accomplished by resistance.” See Burston, Bradley. “A Special Place in Hell / Real men don’t talk Mideast peace”, Haaretz, 6 September 2010,
[ii] See following sections of the Hamas Charter: Introduction, Chapter 1, Articles 3, 7; Chapter 2, Article 9; Chapter 3, Articles 11, 12, 13, 15, 18, 22; Chapter 4, Article 28, 32, 33, 34.
[iii] Aluf Benn and Amos Harel, “Hamas Leader Surfaced Only to Worship,” Haaretz (Archives), 23 March 2004.
[iv] Dershowtiz, Alan, “Killing Terrorist Chieftians is Legal.” Jerusalem Post, April 23, 2004. Page 18. Harvard Law School.
[v] Zussman, Asaf and Zussman, Noam, “Targeted Killings: Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Counterterrorism Policy.” Bank of Israel-Research Department. Discussion Paper No. 2005.02, January 2005.