TRIALS BY FIRE - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

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TRIALS BY FIRE - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Targeted Killings and the Drone WarThe air is crisp and clear on 5 August 2009, the last day of Baitullah Mehsud’slife. 225 As leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (more commonly known as thePakistani Taliban), Mehsud has orchestrated scores of suicide attacks perpetratedby his group, as well as Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.But this morning he is relaxing, enjoying a leg massage on the roof a SouthWaziristan house and breathing in the late-summer air. Suddenly two Hellfiremissiles launched from a US Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) collide with thehouse and detonate, incinerating Mehsud, his wife, and nine others. 226 A weeklater, President Barack Obama reported, “we took out” Mehsud, confirming itwas indeed a US strike that felled the Taliban commander. 227Policymakers in Washington and Islamabad were pleased with the US airstrike that eliminated Mehsud, but such targeted killings raise a slew of thornyquestions: Is the targeted killing of a terrorist a legitimate legal tool, or anextrajudicial execution? Does killing a foreign national on foreign soil violatenational sovereignty? What evidence was used to determine Mehsud’sguilt, and who selected him for liquidation? And even if a targeted killing canbe justified domestically, does such a unilateral action violate internationallaw, thereby giving rise to the possibility of criminal sanctions being broughtagainst US personnel and policymakers? This chapter first addresses thesecomplex legal issues and later provides an overview of the drone war over theskies of Pakistan and other countries.Reassessing the Assassination BanThe most critical legal question raised by the targeted killing of a suspectedterrorist is one of classification; should the lethal action taken be classified asBelfer Center for Science and International Affairs | Harvard Kennedy School91

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