Questions the Media Should Be Asking About DOD’s Latest Targeted Killing

Last week, the Pentagon confirmed that an American drone strike in Raqqa, Syria, killed a hacker named Junaid Hussain, a British man also believed to be a recruiter for ISIL. Hussain allegedly helped radicalize one of the shooters who attacked a cartoon drawing contest in Texas earlier this year.

This killing is the latest in a string of hits by American forces on prominent ISIL figures, and raises a number of important questions, both legal and policy, that the media needs to start asking. These questions are not simply academic. They get to the heart of whether the approach the US has taken in fighting terrorism is the correct one. The fight against ISIL is billed as the continuation of a war that’s been fought since 2001, and there is no sign that this war — as it is currently being fought — will end anytime soon. As I’ve written before, the energy and attention diverted toward fighting this war along with its fiscal, human, and social costs mean that every aspect of it deserves as thorough scrutiny as possible.

Legal Rationale for Targeting Hussain

The strike revives an old question about targeted killings: What is the legal rationale for killing Hussain? The Pentagon has indicated that it may have been conducted under the auspices of defending American servicemembers from attack but it has not stated just how imminent that the threat posed by this hacker and recruiter was or whether or how imminence even plays a role in the targeting of non-Americans in areas of active hostilities.

On August 28, US Central Command spokesman Col. Patrick Ryder told reporters:

“[Hussain] was involved in recruiting ISIL sympathizers in the West to carry out lone-wolf style attacks,” Ryder said, describing Hussain as very dangerous.

“He had significant technical skills and expressed a strong desire to kill Americans … He no longer poses a threat,” he said.

Ryder noted that Hussain also was responsible for releasing personally identifiable information of about 1,300 U.S. military and government employees, and he “specifically sought” to direct violence against U.S. service members and government employees.

“We have taken a significant threat off the battlefield and have made it very clear [to] ISIL leadership we are going to target them … just as we’re targeting their communications nodes, logistics nodes and military equipment,” he said.

The statement makes it seem like Hussain was singled out for killing because he published the personal information of Americans and encouraged violence against them and others. How involved was Hussain in these lone wolf plots, and how serious were they? How senior was he within the organization? Given the controversial nature of its targeted killing program, the White House and DOD should be as explicit as possible as to why this man was tracked down and killed. Does this strike mean that the US thinks enemy hackers, propagandists, and online recruiters are fair game for targeted killings? Or, was the decision to kill Hussain borne out of a self-defense rationale thanks to his identifying Americans as potential targets for attack? What is the level of online recruiting necessary to land an individual on a targeted kill list? The media needs to start asking such follow up questions.

Conducting Airstrikes in Syria

Another set of questions revolves around the fact that the drone strike was conducted in Syria, and starts with whether it (and at least one other this summer) marks a significant expansion of the US’s targeted killing drone program. This strike may indicate that the White House is doubling down on its oft-criticized argument that the 2001 authorization for the use of military force against al-Qaeda also applies to ISIL.

The strike also calls to mind existing questions about using the 2001 AUMF as legal cover for bringing the fight against ISIL into Syria, despite the fact that the US has not been asked to do so by the Assad regime. These questions were at the heart of the debate over that AUMF and the campaign against ISIL. With this ongoing expansion of the US’s targeted killing program to a new country, many of these questions remain.

Killing of a British Citizen

Next, there are a number of important questions about the UK’s involvement and stance on Hussain’s death. Where is the British government on this issue? Early reports suggested that both the US and UK are keeping quiet about such killings out of concern that an official announcement will upset Muslim communities inside the United Kingdom. Such silence may speak volumes about the program’s efficacy and sustainability. If a government cannot quickly comment — in defense of or opposition to — the killing of one of its citizens by another nation, then there might be a real problem with the program.

Additionally, just how involved were British officials in planning the strike before it happened? Did they sign off on it? In the US, the targeted killing of American Anwar al-Aulaqi has sparked a maelstrom of media and legal activity in the four years since his death. While Hussain was killed on an arguably active battlefield and some may claim that Yemen at the time of Aulaqi’s death was not, what will the legal implications inside the UK be over such actions?

Finally, how does this strike play into the already growing questions over UK involvement in US drone strikes? Given that the UK  has “carried out drone strikes only in war zones in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya,” how involved were UK officials in this strike?

Costs and Benefits of Targeted Killings

This leads to the policy questions that must also be asked about the costs versus benefits of such actions. While Hussain’s role in ISIL seemed to be a combination of recruiter, hacker, and social media cheerleader, it’s unclear just how involved he was in planning, facilitating, or implementing physical attacks. As Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute in London told the New York Times:

Mr. Hussain’s activity “was an irritant that had developed a worrying edge, as he was linked increasingly to plots being instigated from the battlefield,” Mr. Pantucci said.

“Undoubtedly his online skills will be missed by the group,” he said, “but it is unlikely to dramatically change the pattern of dangerous plots emanating from the group, or the phenomenon of some young Westerners being drawn to fight alongside the group.”

It’s true that more than a decade of war saw core al-Qaeda decimated, but we also saw the group that formed ISIL similarly devastated in Iraq only to come roaring back stronger than before. If this fight really is going to last for a very long time, as Pentagon officials have warned, it’s worth asking whether targeted killings are the best way to wage it or whether the program is essentially a martyr-machine that spits fuel onto the fire of anti-western Islamic militancy.

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There is more happening with this story than early news reports have indicated. This strike is part of a much broader narrative about how the US is combatting ISIL and waging the War on Terror. And at this point in the multi-decade war, each of these stories representing new developments in this long war deserve the maximum amount of attention. 

About the Author(s)

John Reed

Managing Editor of Just Security (2014-18). Follow him on Twitter (@ReedJustSec).