A History of Targeted Killing and Capture in the Secret War on Terror


Targeted killing and capture of terrorists, and terrorist suspects has become a significant part of the United States’ ‘Global War on Terror’. Such actions are often carried out in secret, mostly by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and The Pentagons’ Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). This programme has become a global operation, but is focussed on the Middle-East, and East Africa.

In terms of the War on Terror, a targeted killing, or capture, is that where a convicted, or suspected terrorist is singled out, and subject to a strike by an armed unmanned aerial vehicle (or drone), or being raided by Special Operations Forces. Raids are predominately aimed at capturing the target alive, but may result in lethal action if the target fights back.

Some high-profile actions under to programme have become known to the public. For example, the killings of Abu Musab al-Zaqawi of Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006, Anwar al-Awlaki of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in 2011, and Osama Bin Laden, leader of the overall Al-Qaeda network, also in 2011.

Whilst targeted killing may grab headlines, capturing targets is always preferable. A captured target can be interrogated, potentially gaining further intelligence from them, as happened with Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the ‘mastermind of 9/11’, who was captured in Rawalpindi, Pakistan in 2003.

Why Targeted Killing and Capture?

As terrorist organisations can blend into the civilian population in their areas of operation, a traditional military invasion of an area would not remove the terrorist threat, it would just remain hidden. Therefore, actions such as targeted killing, and capture allow terrorists freedom of movement just wide enough for intelligence to be gained from their actions, and for strikes to be initiated against them.

The composition of terrorist organisations makes it difficult for them to be soundly beaten. They operate as networks, and not traditional top-down hierarchies, therefore if one node in the network is removed, members can still communicate with each. This is because communication routes can work around removed nodes, by contacting other members to pass on messages. Thus, terror attacks can still be planned and carried out even when important individuals have been killed, or captured.

Therefore, entire networks must be targeted in order to prevent attacks. In order to defeat a whole network, members of terror organisations must be targeted in rapid succession in order that terrorists are removed faster than the organisation can replace them, leading to the collapse of the network. This results in the organisation being degraded to the point where it is no longer able to engage in attacks due to a lack of operatives.

Personality and Signature Strikes

Selected targets are divided into two groups, those subject to ‘personality strikes’, and those who will receive ‘signature strikes’. A personality strike targets well-known terrorist ‘personalities’, often a leader or high-ranking members of terrorist organisations, such as Ahmed Abdi Godane, the former leader of Al-Shabaab, killed in Somalia in 2014.

However, some ‘personalities’ may be given the chance to live, if they stop their terrorist actions, reconcile, and begin political engagement. This happened during the ‘Sunni Awakening’ of the Iraq war, terrorists and militia leaders who did not reconcile, and continued to engage in violence where placed onto ‘kill lists’ and subject to personality strikes.

Signature strikes, are more controversial. They target those exhibiting ‘signature terrorist patterns of life’. These may be middle, or low-ranking members of terrorist groups, or ‘lone wolves’. Behaviours such as attending terrorist training camps, being in contact with known terrorists, creating or accessing a weapons cache, or packing a vehicle with explosives would be seen as signature terrorist patterns of life. Individuals expressing such patterns of life may be subject to a signature strike.

These strikes are seen as controversial, as the terrorists are not convicted of any crime, they remain suspected terrorists. Due to a lack of judicial process, targeted killings can be seen as extrajudicial executions, or assassinations. However, the US and some of its allies view the War on Terror as a global armed conflict subject to International Humanitarian Law (the Law of Armed Conflict). As such, civilians who engage in terrorism are ‘directly participating in hostilities’, and are legitimate targets, without the need for a trial.

Kill Lists

The individuals placed onto target, or kill list are first identified by US government agencies, and narrowed down by the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). The Pentagon, JSOC, the CIA, and the 21 other US intelligence agencies all provide intelligence to the NCTC, and indicate potential targets where appropriate. The NCTC takes all this and generates a list of names based on White House-determined criteria, for example ‘those posing an imminent threat to the US homeland, diplomats, service personnel, or citizens abroad.’

This list is then given to the National Security Council Deputies Committee, chaired by the White House Counterterrorism adviser, currently Lisa Monaco, and includes deputy directors from intelligence agencies and military Chiefs. The Deputies committee creates a short-list, which is then either signed off by the President, or is further discussed at a full National Security Council meeting, chaired by the President himself. As yet, President Obama has apparently never refused to sign off a kill list.

Joint Special Operations Command

JSOC is a collection of ‘Tier 1’ counterterrorist teams from the US Army and US Navy, i.e. Delta Force, and DEVGRU (SEAL Team 6). JSOC can also draw upon firepower from ‘Tier 2’ units, such as other SEAL teams, Green Berets, and Army Rangers. It was created in the aftermath of the failed rescue of US Embassy personnel from the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Operation Eagle Claw. As such, it is deployed on covert operations, and officially answers only to the US Secretary of Defence, and the US President.

In terms of the targeted killing/capture programme, it is focussed on ‘snatch squads’, but also has access to drones, and missiles. In addition, JSOC has its’ own intelligence and support units, allowing it to operate without the need for large-scale conventional military deployments.

JSOC, then lead by General Stanley McChrystal, was a major part of successfully defeating the Islamist insurgency of the Iraq War. Whilst regular troops engaged in ‘hearts and minds’ operations, and conventional engagements and patrolling, JSOC took militants off the streets and rescued hostages by raiding properties, and removing or killing militants.

Using its own analysts, JSOC would sift intelligence to find militant targets, including data from the US National Security Agency’s’ (NSA), ‘Real Time Regional Gateway’ software, which gathered, stored, processed, and analysed all electronic communications in Iraq following the ‘surge’ of 2007. Militants of interest would be targeted, and have their homes raided by JSOC teams. They would be captured and interrogated, and their houses searched. Intelligence gained from interrogations and searches would be fed back into the intelligence system to generate more targets for raiding, which would then produce more intelligence for raids. This procedure would keep on going until terrorist organisations were degraded.

The process grew exponentially, during August 2004 there were 18 raids, in August 2006, there were 300 raids, with teams often carrying out multiple raids each night. Managed from McChrystals’ headquarters known as the ‘Death Star’, the operation came to be seen as ‘industrial counterterrorism.’ This resulted in a massive reduction in militant violence, in 2004 there were 150 car bombings in Baghdad per month. By 2008, this was reduced to 2 bombings.

McChrystals’ strategy is reminiscent of that employed by the French in Algiers, and the Phoenix Program in Vietnam, with the aim to take militants off the streets faster than they can be recruited. This reduces the number of trained militants, and puts terror organisations into the position where they do not have enough members to operate, and therefore cannot carry out attacks any longer.

Although a US command, allied units have operated alongside JSOC. During the Iraq War, the UK Special Boat Service (SBS), and Special Air Service (SAS), along with their own ‘Tier 2’ units from the UK Special Forces Support Group (comprised of platoons from 1st Battalion the Parachute Regiment, and F company, 3 Commando Brigade) targeted both ex-Baathists, and jihadists. As Task Force Black (later Task Force Knight) in Baghdad, and Task Force Spartan in Basra, they made a significant contribution to the degradation of terrorist groups in Iraq.

Becoming a Global Operation

After a successful campaign in Iraq, McChrystal was sent back to Washington, and later ran the War in Afghanistan. He was replaced by Vice Admiral William McRaven, a SEAL commander who literally ‘wrote the book’ on special operations as the thesis for his masters degree. JSOC expanded into the ‘hot’ battlefield of Afghanistan, and also into Somalia, Algeria, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, Mali, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Colombia, Peru, and European, Central Asian, and Persian Gulf countries. With coordination from permanent JSOC bases in North Carolina, and Djibouti, and temporary bases across the globe, JSOC could operate anywhere.

JSOC expanded into the ‘hot’ battlefield of Afghanistan, and also into Somalia, Algeria, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand, Mali, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Colombia, Peru, and European, Central Asian, and Persian Gulf countries. With coordination from permanent JSOC bases in North Carolina, and Djibouti, and temporary bases across the globe, JSOC could operate anywhere.

Depending on the arrangements for deploying US forces into a country, JSOC would ask states to either target terrorists on their behalf, carry out operations jointly, or consent to allowing JSOC to operate within their territory. However, where States were uncooperative, or there was a risk of the State betraying the mission, JSOC is prepared to act without territorial consent. Most notably, Operation Neptune Spear, the raid against Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the US did not inform the Pakistani authorities beforehand.

As seems to permeate all military actions of at least the last 20 years, there was involvement of a Private Military Contractor in JSOC operations. Blackwater (later Xe Services, and now under new management as Academi) had an ex-special forces contingent called Blackwater SELECT. Originally brought in to train less-experienced operators, who due to the importance and fast tempo of operations, could not be trained in the usual manner. Contractors often did the job they were supposed to be training others for.

However, much of this work was intelligence analysis, and logistics, rather than kinetic operations.

CIA Drone Programme

After declaring ‘war on Bin Laden’ in 1998, CIA director George Tenet initiated the CIA drone programme in 2000. Originally for intelligence gathering, and reconnaissance only, CIA Counterterrorism Centre director Cofer Black lobbied for MQ-1 Predator drones to be armed in the hunt for Bin Laden. This authorisation was given on 4th September 2001.

The drone programme was put on hold during the invasion of Afghanistan. However, it was resurrected under the control of the CIA Special Activities Division (SAD) in 2003-2004. The SAD is the CIA’s paramilitary arm. It often recruits ex-JSOC operators, who may engage in spying in dangerous environments, and as forward air controllers for drone strikes. Until 2014, the SAD ran the CIA drone programme in Pakistan, hunting militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

The drone programme in Pakistan is a wholly US operation. No other country has direct involvement, however intelligence passed to the US from other countries is likely to inform on individuals engaged in terrorism, and where they may be found. This intelligence sharing is likely to come through the Five-, Nine-, and Fourteen-Eyes intelligence alliances.

Drone strikes in Pakistan began in 2004, and at its peak used around 30 MQ-1 Predator drones. However, their intensity has slowed drastically, and the campaign may be in its final stages. Until 2014, the programme was under the complete control of the CIA SAD. As with all CIA activities, the programme was covert, and completely deniable until discussed by President Obama in 2012.

The programme is now under control of the US Air Force. This results in more co-operation with Pakistan, and slightly more openness about strikes. The change in policy is due partly to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, but also due to the Pakistani ‘Threat Matrix’ evaluations. A study by the Pakistani military which determined that Pakistan is threatened more by militants, than it is by India; it should therefore cooperate with the US in creating a strong Afghanistan by removing militants, rather than preparing for an Indian invasion.

The vast majority of drone strikes occur in the FATA. These are used as safe havens by militants fighting the Afghan security forces, and the NATO mission Resolute Support, formerly ISAF. The strikes target members of the Taliban, Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistani Taliban), Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law), Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Islam, Islamic Movement for Uzbekistan, and other Mujahedeen fighters.

Whilst number on strikes and deaths cannot be verified, as the CIA does not release such data. The New America Foundation, and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have both released studies on numbers of drone deaths. The New America Foundation estimates that there were 369 strikes 2004-2013, resulting in 2,851 deaths. 2,291 were deemed to be militants, 286 civilians, and 274 of unknown status. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, however estimates that there were 401 strikes between 2004 and January 2014. Causing 2,383-3,858 deaths, 416-957 of which are deemed to be civilians. The numbers of civilian casualties are disputed by the US, who claim that all targets are legitimate, and anyone associated with them must be aware of, and complicit in terrorist activities, and by extension are legitimate targets themselves.

Drone strikes in Yemen

Whilst the CIA drone programme in Pakistan is the most publicly debated, it is not the only drone programme ran by the US. JSOC runs its’ own drones in Yemen and Somalia, as part of their role in the wider targeted kill-capture programme.

Drone strikes have taken place in Yemen since 2002. Although, they along with other US counterterrorism actions in Yemen are currently on hold due to the emerging civil conflict.

The first ever drone death occurred in Yemen on the 3rd November 2002, when Abu Ali al-Harithi was killed. Al-Harithi was an al-Qaeda commander, suspected of bombing the USS Cole.

The former President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Salah exploited the funding and assistance offered by the US to engage in counterterrorism. Salah used the funding and US-trained troops to target political opponents, and anyone he determined was a terrorist.

The US actions were focussed on al-Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Their most famous target in Yemen was Anwar al-Awlaki, sometimes referred to as the ‘Bin Laden of the Internet’. Al-Awlaki had not engaged in terrorism himself, but gave significant inspiration and encouragement to terrorists. He had been in contact with Nidal Malik Hassan, the ‘Fort Hood Shooter’, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Christmas Day ‘Underwear Bomber’.

Such contacts, and his violent rhetoric led him to become a dangerous inspiration and facilitator for terrorists acting against the US. The threat he posed through his followers resulted in him becoming a target, despite never engaging in violence himself. Al-Awlaki was killed on the 30th September 2011.

Two weeks later, on the 14th October 2011, al-Awlaki’s 16 year old son, Abdulrahman was also killed in a drone strike. Although Jeremy Scahill claim this was ‘paying for the sins of his father’, the strike was intended to kill Ibrahim al-Banna, and AQAP leader.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates between 2002 and 31st October 2014, there were between 67 and 79 confirmed drone strikes in Yemen, killing 347-503 individuals, 64-83 of them being civilians. However, there may also be an additional 101-120 drone strikes, causing 345-553 deaths, including 26-68 civilians. Due to the nature of the terrain in Yemen, and the fact that these are covert operations, numbers are inherently difficult to collate, as is evidence in these estimations.

Drone Strikes in Somalia

As in Yemen, strikes in Somalia are led by JSOC out of their permanent headquarters at Camp Lemonier, in Djibouti. Strikes in Somalia began in 2002, and have targeted groups such as: al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, Islamic Courts Union, al-Shabaab, Hizbul Islam (and associated groups), al-Qaeda, and Somalia pirates.

Like Yemen, JSOCs’ campaign in Somalia also involved raids by JSOC operators against terrorists. However, it also involved a CIA operation to fund Somali warlords who had been fighting against each other for years to engage the Islamist militias. This not only allowed the CIA to outsource the fight against terrorism in Somalia, but also gave them additional locations for extraordinarily rendered individuals to be interrogated.

Due to the lack of government, and regular journalism in Somalia, data on drone strikes and deaths are even more difficult to acquire. However, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism again has estimates, although only between 2007 and 31st October 2014. It estimates there were 6-9 drone strikes, killing 16-30 people, including 1 possible civilian. This is in conjunction with 8-11 other covert operations, killing 40-141 individuals, 7-47 of whom may have been civilians.

How do they decide who to strike?

Information and intelligence on potential, and suspected terrorists was kept on databases which were informed by multiple US intelligence agencies. Domestic threats were listed on a database called the ‘Main Core’, with external threats kept on a separate database. Prior to 2010, the CIA, JSOC, and the NCTC would each have their own target lists for personality strikes, with the personalities determined from the information contained on the databases. When authorised by the President, the agencies would go after their targets; the CIA with drones, JSOC in whichever way was most appropriate, and the NCTC would request either the CIA, or JSOC, to go after their targets, depending on where they were in the world.

However, since 2010, the ‘Disposition Matrix’ has come into place. This was created by John O. Brennan, current CIA director, during his time as Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser. It is a much streamlined version of the kill/capture authorisation process, which by-passes review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

When someone listed on a target list is found, the matrix gives options for how to deal with them, depending on which country they are in. It also gives information on what will be needed to kill or capture the individual. Such as what authorisations are needed, what legal tests must be fulfilled, and where the target (or their body) will be transported to afterwards. This process removes the possibility of a known terrorist coming out of hiding, and then disappearing whilst arguments over how to deal with them take place in Washington. It also avoids problems of what to do with a terrorist once they have been captured, as many of the decisions have already been made.

For example, if suspect is in an allied country, e.g. Saudi Arabia, the matrix gives information on how to share that intelligence, and request their arrest and extradition. If the suspect is in a country where JSOC operates, e.g. Somalia, the matrix gives information on which team is in the vicinity, and what naval vessel the suspect can be held on between capture and transfer to US court. If the suspect is in an area where capture is infeasible, e.g. FATA Pakistan, the matrix gives information on how to initiate the process of targeted killing.


At present, targeted killing is ongoing, and will likely continue for many years. In Somalia operations are likely to continue, and may increase in tempo following recent actions by al-Shabab, such as the Westgate Shopping Mall, and Garissa University attacks.

In Pakistan, the pace of strikes has slowed, due to lower numbers of terrorists being present in the FATA. This is due to a number of reasons, militants moving into Afghanistan to fight the Afghan security forces following the partial NATO withdrawal, more co-operation between the US and Pakistan, and Pakistan themselves targeting militants, as a result of the Threat Matrix.

In Afghanistan, targeted killing has been going on for some time, under the banner of the ‘Joint Prioritised Effects Lists’ or JPEL. This is a list of potential targets, prioritised in order of importance, which NATO wishes to kill, capture, or gain intelligence from. NATO allows Afghan government officials, and governors to see the list, in order that some information will leak out, and the individuals named on the list will either change their behaviour, or be subject to an operation against them; in a similar, but less explicit fashion to the ‘Sunni Awakening.’

Currently, US counterterror operations are on hold in Yemen, due to the ongoing conflict between the Iranian-backed Houthi militia, and Saudi Arabia.

In terms of targeted killing/capture operations against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, few details have emerged. However, a JSOC team did target Abu Sayyaf, an IS leader inside Syria. Sayyaf died after engaging the JSOC team, who also captured his wife, and a Yazidi slave girl. However, the SAS have reportedly been involved in unconventional warfare against IS, using helicopters and quad bikes to penetrate deep into the desert, and sniping IS fighters from afar. Whether targeted killing/capture against other IS affiliates outside Iraq and Syria is happening is currently unknown, as no news has emerged of such operations.


In terms of the future of targeted killing/capture, IS linked groups are likely to displace al-Qaeda affiliates as the primary Islamist terror organisation, and so IS leaders are more likely to be targeted as a consequence of this.

Due to the rise in Artificial Intelligence (AI), computers are likely to be used in evaluating and analysing intelligence reports of potential targets, in order to find ‘signature patterns of terrorist activities’, and those worthy of personality strikes.

Also with AI, the expected used of Autonomous Weapon Systems (AWS) in conflicts will likely impact targeted killing. They are likely to be able to launch and travel quicker than current drones, meaning that the tempo of strikes could increase. Some believe that computer-controlled weapon release will result in higher accuracy, reducing collateral damage, and doing less damage to the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population. However, other commentators believe AWS could be less accurate, leading to more problems.

The potential for computerised intelligence analysis, along with AWS, could lead to strikes potentially being carried out with little human oversight. However, this is very unlikely, as many military thinkers are aware to the dangers of this approach.


In conclusion, the targeted killing/capture programme developed by the US has gone from a small-scale targeting of Osama Bin Laden, and other high-ranking al-Qaeda operatives, to targeting any Islamist extremist who threatens the peace, stability, and security of the US, and its allies. It expanded from a small CIA operation, and now involves aspects of the whole US intelligence community, and the US military, along with the input of many allies. From the first targeted killing in the War on Terror, Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002, kill/capture has become one of the primary tools of US counterterrorism on a worldwide scale.

Since the creation of the disposition matrix, the ability of the US to strike targets has become more streamlined, as legal tests, and required authorisations are already laid out. This removes the need for lengthy consultations with lawyers, or review by extraneous levels of bureaucracy, which were present before.

The kill/capture programme is likely to continue into the future, particularly following the rise of IS. The impact of increasingly powerful technologies, such as AI, and AWS, means that more processes required to find and strikes a targets could be given over to machines. This is likely to increase the potential tempo at which strikes could occur, but it is unlikely that a totally computerised targeted killing programme could ever emerge.

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