Somin Comments on Legality of Targeting Enemy Combatants

Amid the controversy surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan at the hands of Navy SEALS, Professor Ilya Somin argues that targeting individual enemy combatants in war is both legal and moral. He cites the US targeting of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the commander of the Japanese fleet during World War II, and the British and the Czechs' killing of German SS General Reinhard Heydrick in 1942, as precedents.

"Surely international law does not give terrorist leaders greater protection than that enjoyed by uniformed soldiers such as Admiral Yamamoto," he said. "And if it is legal to individually target the commander of a uniformed military force, it is surely equally legal to target the leader of a terrorist organization, including Osama bin Laden," Somin told Al Jazeera.

Was bin Laden's killing and burial legal? Al Jazeera, May 5, 2011. By Sangwon Yoon.

"Some legal experts have said until all circumstances surrounding the military operation in Abbottabad are revealed, bin Laden's death has the appearance of an extrajudicial killing without due process of the law.

"But a leading authority on Guantanamo Bay, laws of detention, torture, and America's human rights policies begged to differ, saying that the question of legality is a non-debate in the case of Osama bin Laden.

"Karen J. Greenberg, executive director of New York University School of Law's Centre on Law and Security, says while laws about heads of other states cannot be applied to the non-state actor Osama bin Laden, he should be treated no differently as one would for an 'armed enemy'.

"'This is not a legal question… It's a strategic war question in which we're talking about a general [of an army] essentially,' Greenberg said.

"'This is a guy who declared war on [the US] in 1998… Whether it was legal or not, it's always acceptable to kill the head, the armed enemy that is opposing you.'

"Greenberg says dealings with bin Laden, who masterminded the catastrophic September 11 attacks that left nearly 3,000 killed, cannot be likened to that of other enemy combatants and terrorist targets.

"'I really do think Osama bin Laden is in his own category,' she said."