Israel is facing uncomfortable questions regarding senior Hamas military commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, who was found dead in a Dubai hotel room on Jan. 20. Dubai police say al-Mabhouh was assassinated, but in his chosen profession, his fate really was the result of workplace-related injuries.
Dubai has named 26 suspects in the case, and has evidence including credit card records, flight itineraries and closed-circuit television footage supposedly showing the accused assassins stalking their quarry. Much of the furor over the case has arisen over the apparent fraudulent use of British, Irish, French, German, Australian and other passports. The British government said it will mount a full investigation. To date, none of the suspects has been apprehended and there is no firm evidence linking any of them to Israel.
There certainly is no reason to mourn al-Mabhouh, a longtime terrorist with a track record including arms smuggling, kidnapping and murder. Most recently, he was suspected of being a primary link between Hamas and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, both of which the United States identifies as terrorist organizations. Al-Mabhouh had survived several assassination attempts, but this time his luck ran out. Fortunes of war.
There is an old-fashioned view that assassination is always morally wrong, but time and international custom have frayed that consensus. Assassination was famously “outlawed” in 1976 by President Ford, a policy reiterated in 1981 by President Reagan under Executive Order 12333. This was in response to events such as CIA complicity in the coup leading to the death of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973. Nevertheless, there always was some question whether and how this ban applied to violent non-state actors like terrorists, and President Clinton began to relax the standard in 1998. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, targeting terrorist leaders became an integral part of American strategy. Had al-Mabhouh been a high-ranking member of al Qaeda, the White House probably would have issued a self-congratulatory press release.
The open season on terrorists is not limited to Israel. Russia has ruthlessly and effectively hunted Chechen terrorist leaders at home and abroad, such as killing rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev in Doha, Qatar, in February 2004. In 2008, Colombia sent a team into neighboring Ecuador that took out Raul Reyes, deputy commander of the anti-government FARC guerrillas.
The United States is the global leader in what is euphemistically called “targeted killing.” Manned and unmanned aircraft have rained death on terrorists in (at least) Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen. In his Valentine’s Day interview on “Meet the Press,” Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. bragged that the Obama administration is pursuing terrorists “with a vigor like it’s never been seen before. We’ve eliminated 12 of their top 20 people. We have taken out 100 of their associates… We’ve sent them underground. They are, in fact, not able to do anything remotely like they were in the past. They are on the run.”
The most significant difference between what the assassins did in Dubai and U.S. targeted killings is that in the Dubai hit, only al-Mabhouh went down. When Hellfire missiles are launched, frequently some civilians are taken out along with the intended target. The numbers of noncombatants who have been killed in these strikes are difficult to estimate, but most studies place them in the hundreds. This must cause some consternation among members of the Obama administration’s anti-war base, but we have yet to see them hoisting signs tagging Mr. Obama as a war criminal, as the rabble did for President Johnson during the Vietnam War.
Some argue that it is useless to target terrorist leaders because there is always another waiting in the wings. Experience, however, has demonstrated that there are substantial benefits in taking out leaders. It disrupts networks, hampers operations and may deter others considering careers as violent extremists. The effects can be dramatic. When Abu Musab Zarqawi was liquidated by an air strike in June 2006, it was the beginning of the end for al Qaeda in Iraq.
Whoever was behind al-Mabhouh’s killing may draw some lessons about tradecraft and covering their tracks more effectively. But they successfully eliminated an important terrorist and threat to peace, and for that they deserve thanks.