The practice of targeted killings is not a recent phenomenon in International Law. It has been practiced over the years and has been debated. In recent times, the term was popularized by the killing of Osama bin Laden. On 2 May 2011, U.S. Special Forces conducted an operation in Pakistan in which Osama Bin Laden was killed. He was said to be the leader of the Al-Qaeda Terrorist Group that claimed responsibility for the September 9/11 attacks on the U.S. that resulted in the death of thousands. There have been several other incidents of this nature and it is important to determine the legality of such strikes in order to regulate them better.
This study comparatively examines state practice of those nations including the U.S., Israel and Russia that have carried out targeted killings while paying special attention to the justifications put forth in defense of the practice. These defenses range from national security and self-defenses. The paper goes a step further to examine some court cases that have particularly dealt with the issue of targeted killings to ascertain the judicial attitude to the practice. It also looks at the main killing techniques which include kill or capture raids and air strikes from unmanned aerial vehicles known as drones. The targeted individuals are alleged terrorists or others deemed dangerous, and their inclusion in kill/capture lists is based on undisclosed intelligence applied against secret criteria. The number of targeted killings that have been specifically carried out by the US has steadily escalated through the different presidential administrations. With reference to some prominent incidents of targeted killings, this study will present an international law perspective analyzing whether this practice can be legally justifiable.
The study also focuses on the interaction between international law and the practice of targeted killing. An examination of the pertinent principles of the two branches of international law will be necessary to determine which one is applicable and when.