The Man in the Mirror

Unmanned drones are only one tool states are using to commit assassinations and murder. © AFP/Getty Images

On a warm autumnal morning last month, three men lounging outside a mosque in Istanbul were chopped down with military precision by a burst of automatic fire.

The gunman took the time to make sure none of his targets had survived, firing a bullet at point blank range into the head of each victim as they lay sprawled on the ground.

The three dead men – Rustam Altemirov, Zaurbek Amriyev and Berg-Khakh Musayev – were all Chechens. A Russian arrest warrant had been issued for Amriyev in connection with the January 2011 bombing of Moscow airport, which claimed 35 lives.

The Turkish police investigation of the incident has identified what appears to be a team of eight individuals traveling under false Russian identities who had kept the targets under surveillance in the weeks before the hit.

The Turkish police believe that they were all members of Russia’s Military Intelligence Service, the GRU. Since 2006 Russian secret services have been authorized under a law signed by then President Putin to kill terrorists abroad.

There is little practical difference between the apparent Russian hit on three Chechen militants in Turkey and the US killing later the same month of militant Islamic preacher Anwar Al-Awlaki and Inspire editor Samir Khan in Yemen by firing a missile from an airborne drone.

Similarly, we might add to the mix the murder of alleged Hamas quartermaster Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, suffocated in a hotel in Dubai January 19, 2010, by a team of assassins apparently working for the Israeli Intelligence Service, Mossad.

And just this week we have heard news of a plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC, allegedly hatched by the Quds force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

Murder and assassination as an instrument of state policy seems to be making a comeback, and the US adoption of drone strikes as an almost reflex response to potential terrorist threats is helping empower other states around the world to use lethal force against enemies overseas.

More often than not these states are quick to cite the ‘war on terror’ rubric to justify their actions.

This is something that should concern us all, because if intelligence agents start bringing violence and mayhem to the streets of towns and cities around the world, quite apart from the illegality of such tactics, a lot of innocent people are going to get caught in the crossfire.

Israel’s history of targeted killing is instructive. No matter how high-minded the intention, these operations soon careen out of control.

In April 1973 Israeli Special Forces launched an attack on several Palestinian targets in Beirut including the headquarters of the Popular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PDFLP). The strike on the PDFLP building claimed the lives of two Lebanese policemen and an Italian housewife who was shot dead when she opened her front door to investigate noises coming from outside.

The Mossad car bomb that killed the alleged mastermind of the Munich Olympics massacre, Ali Hassan Salameh, in Beirut in January 1979 also claimed the lives of four innocent bystanders including a German nun and a British student, as well as injuring 18 others.

An earlier assassination attempt in Lillehammer, Norway, claimed the life of an innocent Moroccan waiter, Ahmed Bouchiki, after incompetent Mossad agents mistook him for Salameh.

This kind of contempt for innocent life starts to look a lot like terrorism, and that is the road we are heading down at breakneck speed.

President Obama needs to take a good long hard look in the mirror, and if he doesn’t want to see once and future President Putin staring back at him he needs to reign in his administration’s baser instincts and bring America’s counterterrorism policies back within the rule of law.

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20 thoughts on “The Man in the Mirror

  1. Thank you for this posting. I appreciate the lucidity of the argument, the pertinence of the message, and the Michael Jackson memories. :-) The assasination of Al-Awlaki, a US-citizen, by our Obama administration is why I go to Occupy Protests this weekend. Please: not in my name, President Obama.

    Appreciated! +C.j.

  2. I'm no fan of killing in any form — but the nature of terrorism makes it virtually impossible to impede its perpetrators by any other method. And if killing must be done, then surely it is far better to do it in this "surgical" manner than to mount a full-scale war that kills almost indiscriminately, eliminating far more innocents than terrorists. That's how Bush/Cheney approached it, and their only success was in siphoning off a TRILLION of our tax dollars, much of it into the offshore accounts of their corporate cohorts. Their wars have killed many thousands of people on all sides of the conflict, failed to apprehend the actual culprits, and very nearly brought down our entire economy in the process. I submit that the assassination of known terrorists is necessary, and serves to minimize collateral damage and save innocent lives. That makes it the MORE moral choice.

  3. The only way I know to tell the "Good Guys" from the "Baddies" is by what they do; not by national borders. When the US abandons the Rule of Law, how can we claim to be in the right?

  4. Thank you for this posting. I appreciate the lucidity of the argument, the pertinence of the message, and the Michael Jackson memories. :-) The assasination of Al-Awlaki, a US-citizen, by our Obama administration is why I go to Occupy Protests this weekend. Please: not in my name, President Obama.

    Appreciated! +C.j.

  5. I’m no fan of killing in any form — but the nature of terrorism makes it virtually impossible to impede its perpetrators by any other method. And if killing must be done, then surely it is far better to do it in this “surgical” manner than to mount a full-scale war that kills almost indiscriminately, eliminating far more innocents than terrorists. That’s how Bush/Cheney approached it, and their only success was in siphoning off a TRILLION of our tax dollars, much of it into the offshore accounts of their corporate cohorts. Their wars have killed many thousands of people on all sides of the conflict, failed to apprehend the actual culprits, and very nearly brought down our entire economy in the process. I submit that the assassination of known terrorists is necessary, and serves to minimize collateral damage and save innocent lives. That makes it the MORE moral choice.

  6. The only way I know to tell the “Good Guys” from the “Baddies” is by what they do; not by national borders. When the US abandons the Rule of Law, how can we claim to be in the right?

  7. @Carol

    I understand your arguments about "collateral damage," in terms of civilian lives being ended, as well as the effects of our 10-year war on our economy.

    However, how can something be a "more moral choice?" Killing one person is more moral than killing another? Is that what you mean?

    Thanks, Christopher

  8. @Carol

    I understand your arguments about “collateral damage,” in terms of civilian lives being ended, as well as the effects of our 10-year war on our economy.

    However, how can something be a “more moral choice?” Killing one person is more moral than killing another? Is that what you mean?

    Thanks, Christopher

  9. Murder and assassination as an instrument of state policy seems to be making a comeback, and the US adoption of drone strikes as an almost reflex response to potential terrorist threats is helping empower other states around the world to use lethal force against enemies overseas.

    Interesting wording. So would you agree that the US uses murder and assassination as an instrument of state policy? There is abundant evidence yet your report remains curiously silent on the issue. You rather portray the US as 'reacting' to terrorism as opposed to acting in the role of 'terrorist'. Such a simple and childlike view of the world is precisely what is preventing us from ending conflicts worldwide. It is simply not enough to argue that the US is justifiably reacting to illegitimate attacks; especially when its foreign policy is directly responsible for revenge attacks on US soil!

  10. Dear Tom:

    Your article states very clearly, what USA is doing wrong. But you do not offer any practical alternatives. It should be fairly easy with your anti-terrorism credentials. Could you please publish a sequel with your recommendations?

  11. Murder and assassination as an instrument of state policy seems to be making a comeback, and the US adoption of drone strikes as an almost reflex response to potential terrorist threats is helping empower other states around the world to use lethal force against enemies overseas.

    Interesting wording. So would you agree that the US uses murder and assassination as an instrument of state policy? There is abundant evidence yet your report remains curiously silent on the issue. You rather portray the US as ‘reacting’ to terrorism as opposed to acting in the role of ‘terrorist’. Such a simple and childlike view of the world is precisely what is preventing us from ending conflicts worldwide. It is simply not enough to argue that the US is justifiably reacting to illegitimate attacks; especially when its foreign policy is directly responsible for revenge attacks on US soil!

  12. Dear Tom:

    Your article states very clearly, what USA is doing wrong. But you do not offer any practical alternatives. It should be fairly easy with your anti-terrorism credentials. Could you please publish a sequel with your recommendations?

  13. Dear Curious George,

    Amnesty International believes that terrorism is a criminal activity and should be dealt within a law enforcement framework. In such areas where the rule of law does not reach international law allows states to use limited and proportional force in self-defense.

    However, the right to anticipatory self-defense is tightly circumscribed. Force can only be used as a last resort to prevent an armed attack, and the threat of attack must be imminent – a criteria measured in hours not days.

    Ironically, it was a US Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, who first articulated this standard in 1838. Webster was responding to a British raid into US territorial waters to destroy a US-flagged vessel, The Caroline, which had been running weapons and other supplies to Canadian rebels.

    The bottom line is that terrorism can rarely be defeated at a tactical level. Israel has some of the world’s most professional counterterrorism units and a military whose battlefield effectiveness has been well tested, but it has lacked an effective counterterrorism strategy for more than a decade and, as a result, armed group violence has increased rather than diminished.

    An effective counterterrorism strategy must address militant narratives and the underlying political grievances that generate support for terrorist actions. An important component of such a strategy is building legitimacy for government positions and that legitimacy is completely undermined when states do not follow the rules they claim to respect.

    Once we start using the same tactics espoused by criminals and terrorists – murder, kidnap and torture – we are no better than they are. And if that is the case we are going to find it very difficult to attract much support for our cause.

  14. @Tom

    Thank you for your well-put response. As was the case with your original post, I appreciate your thought(s) and perspective.

    Specifically, the statement that, "An effective counterterrorism strategy must address militant narratives and the underlying political grievances that generate support for terrorist actions," resonated for me. I read this as promoting understanding in democracy, which seems much-needed currently both at home and abroad.

    Finally, I especially liked your statement that, "Once we start using the same tactics espoused by criminals and terrorists – murder, kidnap and torture – we are no better than they are," because it cuts to the heart of current, and long-standing, American nationalism. In my mind, there is no train of thought or argument that could counter this logic. It's practical, it's human, and it's necessary.

    Thanks again Tom– your work is inspiring.
    +C.j.

  15. Dear Curious George,

    Amnesty International believes that terrorism is a criminal activity and should be dealt within a law enforcement framework. In such areas where the rule of law does not reach international law allows states to use limited and proportional force in self-defense.

    However, the right to anticipatory self-defense is tightly circumscribed. Force can only be used as a last resort to prevent an armed attack, and the threat of attack must be imminent – a criteria measured in hours not days.

    Ironically, it was a US Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, who first articulated this standard in 1838. Webster was responding to a British raid into US territorial waters to destroy a US-flagged vessel, The Caroline, which had been running weapons and other supplies to Canadian rebels.

    The bottom line is that terrorism can rarely be defeated at a tactical level. Israel has some of the world’s most professional counterterrorism units and a military whose battlefield effectiveness has been well tested, but it has lacked an effective counterterrorism strategy for more than a decade and, as a result, armed group violence has increased rather than diminished.

    An effective counterterrorism strategy must address militant narratives and the underlying political grievances that generate support for terrorist actions. An important component of such a strategy is building legitimacy for government positions and that legitimacy is completely undermined when states do not follow the rules they claim to respect.

    Once we start using the same tactics espoused by criminals and terrorists – murder, kidnap and torture – we are no better than they are. And if that is the case we are going to find it very difficult to attract much support for our cause.

  16. @Tom

    Thank you for your well-put response. As was the case with your original post, I appreciate your thought(s) and perspective.

    Specifically, the statement that, “An effective counterterrorism strategy must address militant narratives and the underlying political grievances that generate support for terrorist actions,” resonated for me. I read this as promoting understanding in democracy, which seems much-needed currently both at home and abroad.

    Finally, I especially liked your statement that, “Once we start using the same tactics espoused by criminals and terrorists – murder, kidnap and torture – we are no better than they are,” because it cuts to the heart of current, and long-standing, American nationalism. In my mind, there is no train of thought or argument that could counter this logic. It’s practical, it’s human, and it’s necessary.

    Thanks again Tom– your work is inspiring.
    +C.j.

  17. Dear Tom:

    Thank you for a very fast reply. However your very speed did not allow time for a deeper analysis: your recommendation is not very specific. "Build legitimacy for goverment positions." What concrete steps if any do you envision?

  18. Dear Tom:

    Thank you for a very fast reply. However your very speed did not allow time for a deeper analysis: your recommendation is not very specific. “Build legitimacy for goverment positions.” What concrete steps if any do you envision?