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On April 29, 2011, the then US commander in chief, President Obama, authorized an operation that ultimately led to the killing of the most wanted man on the CIA watch list, Osama bin Laden. Reports indicate that President Obama had been consulting with the National Security Council for months on the probability of Osama bin Laden being within the suspected hideout and the possibility of authorizing a mission to capture or kill him. Finally, President Obama gave the orders and Osama bin Laden was killed in a military exercise dubbed Operation Geronimo, thus ending a decade-long search mission to capture the head of the Al Qaeda group. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a reprieve to the millions of Americans and the international community especially after the events of September 11, 2001 when thousands lost their lives in the infamous Twin-towers’ bomb attack by the Al Qaeda. Nevertheless, questions abound on the legality of President Obama’s approval of Operation Geronimo. This paper holds that President Obama had the legal authority to order Operation Geronimo and to execute the plan.
In a bid to understand the legality of President Obama in authorizing Operation Geronimo, one needs to interrogate the decision using both the US domestic and international laws. The agnosticism surrounding the legality of authorizing Operation Geronimo hinges on President Reagan’s Executive Order 12333, which states, “No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, assassination” (Hodgin, 2014, p. 5). However, this order does not define assassination contextually (Wachtel, 2015) and thus the Operation cannot be termed as illegal based on this understanding. In addition, after the 9/11 bombings, the Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force resolution. The resolution allows the US commander in chief “to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons” (Hodgin, 2014, p. 6). Therefore, under this resolution, President Obama was within the confines of the US domestic laws to authorize the operation that killed Osama bin Laden, who was actively involved in the planning and execution of 9/11 terrorist attacks.
However, even with the legality of such authorization, questions abound on how the execution of the operation observed laws of armed conflict, viz. “military necessity, proportionality, and distinction/discrimination” (Solis, 2016, p. 268). Military necessity was qualified in this case as Bin Laden had attacked the US and he was a threat to international peace by propagating terrorism. Likewise, the force that was used after entering Bin Laden’s house was proportional to the threat that he posed to the elite squad for he allegedly reached for his firearm to retaliate. Finally, the discrimination requirement was fulfilled as the people who died in the ensuing confrontation were collateral damage but not targets of the assault.
As mentioned earlier, the authorization had to be in line with international laws. Under the international law rules of jus ad bellum, “State can justify an international use of force if the force was either used in self-defense following an armed attack or expressly permitted by the United Nations (UN) Security Council” (Hodgin, 2014, p. 6). In this case, the US was clearly a victim of Bin Laden’s armed attack of 9/11 and capturing him was a way of self-defense. On the other side, the rules of jus in bello set “the parameters on the allowable scope and nature of that force” (Hodgin, 2014, p. 6). Therefore, the US had the legal basis to enter Pakistan and execute its mission within the confines of international law. There have been allegations that the US violated the Pakistani sovereignty by raiding Bin Laden’s hideout without the involvement of the local authorities (Pezzi, 2011). The UN Charter emphasizes respect for territorial sovereignty, which should be respected by all nations (Wallace, 2012). However, Article 51 of the same UN Charter creates a legal leeway for the US to pursue its aggressors as a way of self-defense even to the extent of breaching territorial sovereignty of other countries (Hodgin, 2014). Therefore, President Obama acted within international law by authorizing Operation Geronimo.
Osama Bin Laden orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which changed the way the US defends itself against such hostilities. After the attacks, the Congress authorized the then US President to pursue the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks inside and outside the country. Therefore, after President Obama received intelligence reports that Bin Laden’s hideout had been identified, he had the legal obligation and power to authorize a military attack. Later on, questions were raised on the legality of such authorization based on domestic and international laws. More questions emerged about the way the mission was executed and whether laws of armed conflict were observed. However, this paper has answered these questions to uphold the argument that President Obama had the legal authority to order Operation Geronimo and to execute the plan.
Hodgin, S. (2014). Killing Osama Bin Laden: Legal and necessary. Widener Law Review, 20(1), 1- 26.
Pezzi, S. (2011). The legality of killing Osama bin Laden. National Security Journal. Web.
Solis, G. (2016). The law of armed conflict: International humanitarian law in war (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Wallace, D. (2012). Operation Neptune’s Spear: The lawful killing of Osama Bin Laden. Israel Law Review, 45(2), 367-377.
Wachtel, H. (2015). Targeting Osama bin Laden: Examining the legality of assassination as a tool of U.S. foreign policy. Duke Law Journal, 55(677), 680-693.