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United States Targeted Killings and Ethics



The United States has conducted targeted killings for decades and at various points in history these killings have evoked different responses, from disapproval and distaste to acceptance and endorsement. As opinions regarding targeted killings have changed, so has the extent to which this action has become institutionalized and a standard practice by U.S. military and national security agencies. The ethical concerns revolving around this subject have been debated by policy makers, experts, and the public for many years. In addition, notable political theories have examined and addressed the ethical questions that arise from state-sponsored acts of violence. Utilizing two theoretical perspectives, Realism and Morality of States, this research paper attempts to answer the following question: Is it ethical for the United States to execute targeted killings? I will argue that it is ethical for the United States to execute targeted killings in response to an attack on the state or as preemptive action to protect the lives of U.S. citizens.

The remainder of this paper is structured into three sections. The first section provides a definition of targeted killing, gives background on United States policy regarding this practice before 9/11, and discusses the evolution of this military tactic after the September 11th attacks. Section two will analyze the case of Osama bin Laden, explain why he was targeted and how he was killed, and utilize Realism and Morality of States theories to justify his murder as retaliatory action for previous attacks on the United States. Lastly, section three will review the case of Qasem Soleimani, illustrate why he was targeted and how he was killed, and employ Realism and Morality of States theories to rationalize this action as a preventative measure to safeguard United States citizens.

Explaining Targeted Killing and the United States Context

In order to explain why it is ethical for the United States to carry out targeted killings in defense of their citizens or state, I must first define targeted killing as it pertains to my research question. Targeted killing is “the premeditated [and] intentional killing of a uniquely identified person” (Miller, 320). A premeditated and intentional killing is a deliberate and willful action that results from a calculated decision made by an agent. It is not an unintentional or spontaneous killing that occurred amid a conflict between an agent and a target. A uniquely identified individual in this context is a designated subject that is identifiable by an agent and purposefully pursued. It is not a nameless combatant that can be identified as an enemy by their uniform or insignia. Moreover, the target does not have to “pose an imminent threat to life or limb” at the time of their killing (Miller, 320). This means that although the target of a killing may be a future threat to a state or their citizens, they do not have to be an immediate threat. Lastly, a targeted killing is not a “killing of a prominent person for political or ideological reasons” (Hunter, 3). In other words, a targeted killing is not a form of retribution for contrasting political beliefs. The execution of a political enemy is described as an assassination that is performed because of a difference in political ideology.

Throughout United States history targeted killings have elicited varying reactions among officials and the American public. However, it is apparent that opinions regarding these killings have altered from mostly negative to mostly positive. From 1975 to 2001, the United States government was “opposed to both - attempts against leadership figures, and singled-out targeting of terrorist suspects” (Banka, 21). The extrajudicial killing of enemies of the U.S. was viewed as unethical and against American values. These actions were opposed by politicians in Congress as they cited legal issues relating to constitutional protections and the United Nations charter. Before the September 11th attacks, United States officials even “openly criticized Israeli off-the-battlefield singled-out killings” (Banka, 21). Having said that, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “there was a major legal turn in the United States” (Banka, 21). Targeted Killings evolved from a desperate measure to a common tactic utilized by the United States military and national security agencies. With a national change in attitude after the 9/11 attacks, this policy was endorsed by politicians on both sides of the aisle and the general public.

In the post-9/11 period, the rampant increase in targeted killings can also be attributed to the advancement of military technology; specifically, the development of armed drones. Technical improvements to unmanned aerial vehicles have enabled U.S. forces to hit targets “well beyond traditional battlefield lines” and in previously inaccessible or remote areas, essentially eliminating geographical restrictions (Banka, 24). Furthermore, the development of drones enabled military personnel to “fly through enemy airspace largely undetected” and “stay airborne longer than a manned aircraft” without risking pilots' lives (Banka, 24). These innovations significantly increased the use of predator drones. In turn, the United States began conducting targeted killing operations at an unprecedented rate. Although this boom in killings was evident, government officials never shared the amount of air strikes that were conducted and their outcomes with the American public. Because officials asserted that the release of this information compromised counterterrorism efforts, “how many people [have] been killed as a result of such operations, and by what criteria individuals [are] selected and put on the kill list” remained unknown to the American public (Banka, 115). Nevertheless, the US government always expressed that the procedures for determining and targeting individuals were thorough and prudent. 

The Case of Osama bin Laden 

Until 1998, the United States intelligence community underestimated the threat that Osama bin Laden posed to national security. They characterized him as a financier who was not directly involved in al Qaeda (a designated terrorist organization), or planning elaborate attacks. This turned out to be false following the bombing of “U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and Nairobi, Kenya” on August 7, 1998. (FBI). These fatal terrorist plots “killed more than 200 American, Kenyan, and Tanzanian citizens and wounded another 4,500 people” (FBI). The United States quickly discovered that Osama bin Laden orchestrated these bombings and he eventually claimed responsibility. This put national security agencies on a manhunt to capture or kill bin Laden. The United States believed that a swift response would thwart future attacks and show terrorists that there would be ramifications for their actions. However, this proved to be a challenging feat and bin Laden continued devising attacks on innocent Americans, “openly stating his interest to kill more Americans” (Banka, 86). On September 11, 2001, this objective was realized when 19 al Qaeda operatives hijacked four planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing “nearly 3,000 people and [injuring] thousands more” (FBI). Soon after, the United States learned that Osama bin Laden was the mastermind behind the attack and the hunt for him and the terrorists involved in the plot intensified.

The search for Osama bin Laden continued throughout the 2000s until United States intelligence had a major breakthrough. In 2010, intelligence sources located a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan that was “suspected” of being bin Laden’s hideout (Walsh). After careful deliberation and multiple National Security Council meetings, President Barack Obama authorized a raid on the compound. On May 2nd, 2011, Navy Seals and CIA operatives initiated a “40-minute raid” on the Abbottabad compound killing bin Laden, three men, and one woman (Baker). One man was “believed to be his son and the other two his couriers,” officials stated that the woman killed in the firefight was “used as a shield” by one of the male combatants (Baker). Following the confirmation of Osama bin Laden’s body, using facial recognition and additional technology, “within 24 hours” U.S. authorities buried him at sea, observing “muslim traditions” (Baker). It is understood that bin Laden’s burial was conducted at sea to avoid creating a shrine for his followers to worship. Additional details concerning the targeted killing or proof confirming bin Laden’s death has been withheld from the public.

Realist thinkers would argue that the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden was an ethical action in retaliation for the brutal attacks on the United States. This is derived from the idea that a government's “primary obligation is to the interests of the national society it represents,” most importantly “the well-being of its people” (Kennan, 206). In other words, the United States has a duty to defend their national society and the security of their people. In regard to attacks on a nation, realists attest that “fire should be fought with fire…countries threatened by efforts [of this nature] should respond with similar efforts” (Kennan, 213). Put differently, countries should counter hostile offensives with a proportional level of force. In this case, bin Laden’s planned attacks on the U.S. resulted in the death of thousands of Americans. Therefore, the subsequent targeted killing of bin Laden was reasonable as it was a comparable response to the initiated violence. A nation’s “survival is its first and ultimate responsibility” (Kennan in Donelly, 99). When an aggressor launches an attack that threatens the survival of a nation, the nation under attack must react to protect its citizens. The United States had to demonstrate that bin Laden's assault on American soil would have repercussions. If the United States did not retaliate, they would have been compromising their survival and breaching their moral obligation to preserve the security of their nation.

Morality of States theorists would agree that the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden was a justified murder in response to the terrorist attacks on the United States. They have established criteria that differentiate a just conflict from an unjust one. Specifically, they declare that a just conflict is “in defense of socially basic human rights” (Waltzer, 1980, 223). One significant socially basic human right is the right security. In this context, a conflict is synonymous with an act of aggression, such as a targeted killing. Thus, the killing of bin Laden was an ethical act of aggression because it was in defense of U.S. citizens' right to security. Morality of States scholars argue that “citizens have a right to fight” and defend themselves from hostiles that are “guilty of aggressive” acts of war (Waltzer, 1980, 213). The United States, a government made up of its citizens, has a right to launch a counterattack against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks. Providing that a nation’s citizens are “prepared” and committed to fighting against those that endanger their safety, “an attack upon their state would constitute aggression” (Waltzer, 1980, 213). At the time of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. citizens were motivated and equipped to confront terrorists who threatened their safety. Therefore, the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon warranted the United States to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden for his role in the plot.

The Case of Qasem Soleimani

Qasem Soleimani was the general in command of the Iranian Quds Force, an elite branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The Quds Force is a special unit that executes covert military operations outside of Iran to promote its national interests. Although the IRGC is a military and security body of the Islamic Republic of Iran, it was designated as a “foreign terrorist organization” by the United States in April of 2017 (The American Journal of International Law, 314). This designation, for reasons of foreign policy statute, came after substantial evidence indicated that the IRGC-Quds Forces planned and funded terrorist operations throughout the Middle East. Soleimani was targeted by the United States because of his leadership in an established terrorist group, but notable action was never taken to terminate him. However, after U.S. intelligence revealed that he was actively coordinating a plot to “bomb four U.S. embassies, including one in Iraq,” national security agencies went on a desperate search to find and eliminate Soleimani before he could carry out the attacks (The American Journal of International Law, 315). The targeted killing of Soleimani was crucial to “protect United States personnel and deter Iranian attack plans against United States forces and interests in Iraq” (The American Journal of International Law, 319). If immediate action was not taken to locate and kill Soleimani, many United States diplomats and service members' lives would have been at risk. 

United States intelligence agencies tracked Qasem Soleimani for an extended period, waiting for an appropriate moment to eliminate him. Then, on January 3, 2020 an unmanned aerial vehicle, conducting surveillance on Soleimani, watched him land at Baghdad International Airport. After approximately 15 minutes, Soleimani and the group that he was traveling with split into “two vehicles” and headed towards downtown Baghdad (The American Journal of International Law, 313). This exposure outside of Iran, within range of the armed U.S. drone, served as an ideal opportunity for the military to target Soleimani. As the parties proceeded en route, the drone locked onto the caravan and fired “three missiles” in their direction (Kelemen and Mátyás, 178). The air strike fatally injured “ten people,” including Soleimani (Kelemen and Mátyás, 178). Of these ten people, one of them was determined to be Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the “founder of Kataib Hezbollah” and leader of the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (CRS Reports, 1). It was later publicized that the parties were meeting in Baghdad to discuss relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia with Iraq’s prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi. In response to the strike, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps fired a barrage of missiles at United States military bases in Iraq. This brief campaign caused little destruction to the bases and no fatalities, but many service members suffered minor injuries (CRS Reports).

Realists would claim that the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani was ethical because it intended to curb future attacks on the United States. They insist that a state only has two choices when it comes to these situations, “fighting at its own initiative or awaiting attack at a moment favored by the opponent” (Forde, 65). When faced with an impending attack on the homeland, a state must take action to protect its people at a time in which they have the upper hand. In this case, the United States had confirmed intelligence that suggested Soleimani was orchestrating an attack on U.S. personnel and service members. Consequently, they took deliberate action to prevent Soleimani from pursuing his objective. Realists contend that it is sensible for a state to attack another “simply out of the natural fear that the other [state] posed a threat to their safety” (Forde, 76). The United States was concerned about the threat that Soleimani posed to their citizens. The information that they had received, regarding Soleimani’s plot to murder Americans, left the U.S. with no choice but to kill Soleimani before he could move forward with his plans. In these scenarios, obeying “moral restraints – waiting until a threat is at one’s border, say – risks one’s survival” (Forde, 66). The government would have been jeopardizing the lives of Americans by yielding to ethical constraints and allowing Solaimani to finish arranging his attacks.

Morality of States theorists would agree that the targeted killing of Qasem Soleimani was moral, given its purpose to prevent an imminent attack on United States citizens. This originates from the claim that states “have a right to defend the individual life and liberty of the people that make up their community” (Waltzer, 2000, 54). Morality of States theorists declare that states have the authority to do what is necessary to protect the lives of their citizens. If a state becomes aware of a threat to the lives of its people, then that state has a right to take action to preserve its community. Countries must “stand guard over the community of their citizens” and for this reason, there is “justice [behind] defensive wars” (Waltzer, 2000, 54). The United States has an obligation to protect Americans from international dangers. For this reason, it is rational for the military to take preventative measures to safeguard the community. Considering that a country is a collection of individuals in a greater community, “a people can defend its country in the same way as men and women can defend their homes” (Waltzer, 2000, 55). The American people have a right to shield their country from outside harm just as they would shield their own communities. Therefore, the U.S. is justified in taking decisive action to kill the organizer of an attack on their people.


The ethical implications of targeted killings by the United States have evolved over time, shaped by historical contexts, changing attitudes, and advancements in military technology. This shift in public opinion regarding targeted killings has been driven by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. With that in mind, the development of armed unmanned aerial vehicles has contributed to the institutionalization of this practice. What was once perceived as an exceptional response has become a standard tactic employed by the U.S. military and national security apparatus.

Examining the cases of Osama bin Laden and Qasem Soleimani through the lenses of Realism and Morality of States theories, I argue that targeted killings are considered ethical when executed in response to an attack on the state or as preemptive action to protect the lives of citizens. Realism and Morality of States theorists would agree that states have a right to seek retribution against those who attack their people. Furthermore, they would agree that states may take action to prevent an attack on their citizens.

In analyzing these cases, it is important to acknowledge that there are circumstances in which a targeted killing is not an ethical course of action. By bringing attention to these instances, we can ensure that killings are not conducted for the wrong reasons. As the United States continues to grapple with these ethical dilemmas, a dynamic understanding of the implications of targeted killings is necessary to ensure that moral national security decisions are made in the ever-changing realm of international politics.

Ryan Ezhari is an undergraduate student studying political science at the University of California, Berkeley. 



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