It should have come as no surprise to us that a New Zealander has been killed in a drone attack in Yemen. I wrote earlier about the citizens of New Zealand, Australia and other western countries joining Islamic fundamentalists in global jihad and possibly getting killed.
More importantly, I wrote about such individuals coming back, trained and further motivated, to kill persons here, as in the case of the murder of Lee Rigby in London (‘Terrorism, propaganda and war’, June 2013). We could take comfort from the fact that the individual concerned in this case will not return to carry on jihad. We might also be gratified that our intelligence services knew where he was and what he was doing and would (hopefully) have alerted the relevant authorities had he returned.
But this is not the issue that that seems to have concerned most commentators in New Zealand. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s informed (i.e. intelligence-based) account of what ‘Muslim bin John’ was doing in Yemen at the material time, the media is continuing to talk of ‘assassination’ and ‘extra-judicial execution’ and generally suggest that what was done was somehow morally or legally indefensible. We need to be very clear here. There is a kind of war going on and Muslim bin John is a ‘foot soldier’ (The Australian) in that war. We might regret (and, indeed, his family might regret) that this New Zealand convert to Islam should have travelled all the way to Yemen to join up with al-Qaeda but the fact is that he did.
As is well-known, Yemen is a major training centre for terrorist operations in the western world. Is it really to be supposed that the United States (or any other potential target state) is obliged to wait until the terrorist operatives (‘soldiers’) arrive and make their attack? I suppose that for Russel Norman, who led the criticism here, that would have the virtue that in the event that they were successful, (and it wasn’t a suicide attack, and they were captured alive) you could then have a formal trial, with charges which could then be specific. The rule of law would thus have been splendidly upheld. But it doesn’t strike this writer as responsible public policy. Terrorism is clearly a crime within the jurisdiction in which it is committed but it is also a kind of warfare (a way of advancing a political/ideological agenda by violent means). Looked at in this way, the al-Qaeda leadership and its training facilities in Yemen or elsewhere, are legitimate targets, just as military columns, or arms factories were during World War 2.
It can also be said that the leadership convoy that was apparently attacked on 18 November last year was a legitimate target and those killed were combatants (i.e. persons whose killing is permitted in war) and that includes the ‘foot soldiers’, who were part of the escorting force. In this context it is inappropriate and intentionally prejudicial to talk of these killings as ‘assassination’ or, even, as Dr Norman did, ‘terrorism’. (“If we are going to deal with terrorism, we can’t act like terrorists”, he said.)
There is a United Nations definition of ‘terrorism’, which is also the official New Zealand definition. It contains the phrase, “The essential features of terrorism are acts of violence committed against civilian targets…”. Whatever else may be said about the al-Qaeda column attacked on 18 November, it surely cannot be said that they were civilians. Equally, they are only ‘extrajudicial killings’ if terrorism is considered exclusively as a matter of law, and if there was any possibility of legal process, which, patently, there isn’t.
This only leaves us with the argument that the killing of the al-Qaeda leaders (and their hangers-on) was objectionable because they were killed through a drone strike (as opposed to a piloted aircraft or a specially deployed special-forces group). This is a familiar assertion and one that I have commented on before (‘Droning on’, October, 2012) but now, as then, I have some difficulty in understanding what the problem might be. The Predator drone that appears to have been used for the attack in question is capable of sophisticated target identification and is thus capable of minimising unwanted harm. The long ‘linger-time’ over the target, also permits reference to higher authority, if the operator has doubts. This does not mean that non-combatants are never struck but the record seems to show that drones are better than comparable weapon systems at limiting collateral harm.
For all that, drones just seem wrong to some commentators and that is because the drones are computer-operated and from a safe-distance. It seems like a computer game; and that doesn’t feel right, either. In part, this is the familiar ‘sitting-duck’ scruple. The enemy is vulnerable and unaware. I discussed this in the previous posting, citing specifically the doubts of defenders when paratroopers are falling towards them out of a clear sky. Geneva is clear about this. They are legitimate targets. Similarly, we can understand the resentment of those targeted by unseen drones, without accepting that the tactic is wrong, or contrary to the provisions of humanitarian law.