As the war on terror nears its 14th anniversary — a war we seem to be losing, given jihadist advances in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen — the U.S. sticks stolidly to its strategy of “high-value targeting,” our preferred euphemism for assassination. Secretary of State John Kerry has proudly cited the elimination of “fifty percent” of the Islamic State’s “top commanders” as a recent indication of progress. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, “Caliph” of the Islamic State, was reportedly seriously wounded in a March airstrike and thereby removed from day-to-day control of the organization. In January, as the White House belatedly admitted, a strike targeting al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan also managed to kill an American, Warren Weinstein, and his fellow hostage, Giovanni Lo Porto.
More recently in Yemen, even as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula took control of a key airport, an American drone strike killed Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaish, allegedly an important figure in the group’s hierarchy. Meanwhile, the Saudi news channel al-Arabiya has featured a deck of cards bearing pictures of that country’s principal enemies in Yemen in emulation of the infamous cards issued by the U.S. military prior to the 2003 invasion of Iraq as an aid to targeting its leaders. (Saddam Hussein was the ace of spades.)
Whatever the euphemism — the Israelis prefer to call it “focused prevention” — assassination has clearly been Washington’s favored strategy in the twenty-first century. Methods of implementation, including drones, cruise missiles, and Special Operations forces hunter-killer teams, may vary, but the core notion that the path to success lies in directly attacking and taking out your enemy’s leadership has become deeply embedded. As then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put it in 2010, “We believe that the use of intelligence-driven, precision-targeted operations against high-value insurgents and their networks is a key component” of U.S. strategy.
Analyses of this policy often refer, correctly, to the blood-drenched precedent of the CIA’s Vietnam-era Phoenix Program — at least 20,000 “neutralized.” But there was a more recent and far more direct, if less noted, source of inspiration for the contemporary American program of murder in the Greater Middle East and Africa, the “kingpin strategy” of Washington’s drug wars of the 1990s. As a former senior White House counterterrorism official confirmed to me in a 2013 interview, “The idea had its origins in the drug war. So that precedent was already in the system as a shaper of our thinking. We had a high degree of confidence in the utility of targeted killing. There was a strong sense that this was a tool to be used.”
Had that official known a little more about just how this feature of the drug wars actually played out, he might have had less confidence in the utility of his chosen instrument. In fact, the strangest part of the story is that a strategy that failed utterly back then, achieving the very opposite of its intended goal, would later be applied full scale to the war on terror — with exactly the same results.