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Adam Leong Kok Wey

PhD Candidate

University of Reading


This paper examines the historical lessons of leadership killings conducted in World

War II Two case studies from World War II will be used to evaluate the effectiveness of leadership killings; the killing of Reinhard Heydrich in Czechoslovakia and the killing of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto over the island of Buin, Solomon Islands. This study is timely as in more contemporary times we are experiencing some extensive leadership killing operations conducted by the US as part of a global strategy countering Al-Qaeda, widely known now as targeted killings.1 Targeted killings are also widely practised by Israeli security forces against terrorist groups that are a threat to her.2 The recent targeted killing of Osama bin Laden by US Navy SEALs is also an example of the relevance of such operations.

The lessons of such tactic as an integral part of a military strategy has antecedent examples in World War 2. Academic research specifically on leadership killings and its strategic effectiveness, and strategic history is almost non-existent.3 This paper takes a historical explanatory approach; it first describes the key definitions and differences of leadership killings, targeted killings and assassination; then explain the strategic theoretical framework; narrates the case studies with analysis; and conclude with the suggestion that the eternal general theory of strategy, influenced by Clausewitz is sufficient to understand the value of leadership killings.

What is Targeted Killing?

Targeted killing as a form of killing off enemies of the state was predominantly an early 21st century terminology construct to define an action against terrorists that avoided the stigma if the term assassination was used. Most contemporary writings on targeted killings tended to focus on the tactical effectiveness, the legal issues, and morality of targeted killings. These studies also dedicatedly looked in the events of the last ten years, in the wake of 9/11 and the US led Global War on Terror.

The usage of the term, targeted killing, had originated from Israel in 2000, when Israel stated its policy to eliminate selected Palestinian militants.4 The term targeted killing had been further fuelled by the popularity of the media‘s usage in reports of Israeli strike operations targeting to kill leaders and senior members of terrorist organizations.5 Historically, Israeli security forces had used targeted killing against Hamas, Hezbollah, PLO, and other terrorists that had threatened her security since the early days of Israel‘s existence; even though Israel finally declared openly that targeted killing was a deliberate policy on 14 February 2001. 7 The most famous usage of targeted killings by Israeli security forces was in the aftermath of the Munich Olympics (1972) massacre of eleven Israeli athletes by Black September members.8 Israeli intelligence agency (Mossad) and Special Operations units searched for the terrorists and planners in a worldwide hunt, and succeeded in killing thirteen of them.9 Israelis, in more recent times had resorted to using stand-off weapons to conduct targeted killings, which included precision airstrikes with both laser-guided and satellite-guided bombs, Apache helicopters, and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) apart from using individual operatives. As an illustration of the level of commitment in Israel‘s security apparatus on targeted killings, it was reported that Israel had conducted at least eighty targeted killing operations since 2001.10 In the US, after the devastating 9/11 attacks, US leaders and policy makers were more supportive of assassinations of terrorist operatives. The term assassination, however, is now considered a taboo term with evil connotations and forbidden by EO12333, was replaced by the term ‗targeted killing.‘ It is now widely argued that ‗targeted killing‘ of terrorist leaders and supporters is legal under US law and EO 12333.11 US legal experts had argued that assassination refers to an act of murder intent, where else targeted killing is the legitimate killing for self-defence.12 The major argument is that while ‗assassination‘ of enemy leaders during war between states is legal, the ‗assassination‘ of terrorist leaders and members is more controversial. If the terrorists were given legal combatant status then they would be legitimate for protection under international Laws of Conflict. If they were ‗assassinated‘ without combatant status, it would amount to extra-judiciary murder.13 In order to get around this conundrum, the new term, targeted killing, was conveniently adopted to define chiefly as the killing of designated terrorists. Gary D.

Solis provides a useful definition of targeted killing that supports this argument;

Targeted killing is the deliberate, specific targeting and killing, by a government or its agents, of a terrorist or of an "unlawful combatant" (i.e., one taking a direct part in hostilities in the context of an armed conflict) who is not in that government's custody.14 In the case of the war on terror, targeted killings of terrorists is considered different from assassinations, as the terrorists are considered combatants in the war on terror, and they can be killed to prevent future terrorist threats of attack. 15 The recent targeted killings of Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda‘s no. 2, Atiyah Abdul al-Rahman in Pakistan served as excellent examples of recent US practise of targeted killings. As an interesting note, US utilization of targeted killings in Pakistan increased by four times since President Barack Obama took office - to more than 160 targeted killing operations, and still counting.16 On the wider scale, there is a vibrant debate on the effectiveness, morality and legal issues pertaining to targeted killing. The side that supports targeted killing argued that it was effective in killing off middle level terrorist leaders. Targeted killing operations were perceived to have interrupted the tactical and operational effectiveness of the targeted terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Al-Qaeda, and its affiliated organisations. 17 Targeted killings were also claimed to have forced the terrorist organisations to take extreme security precautions, and limited their movements and capabilities in organising attacks.18 The killing of these leaders also destroyed the experience and skills needed to organise potential attacks, and eroded the morale strength of the terrorists. 19 It is argued by some terrorism experts that targeted killing is one of the few effective measures in countering terrorism.20 In some counter-insurgency campaigns, the killing of the insurgent leader terminally destroyed the insurgency, such as the killing of Che Guevara in 1967, effectively ending the Bolivian insurgency.21 The arguments supporting targeted killings, however, are short sighted at best, as the ‗Global War on Terror‘ and the Israeli/Hamas/Hezbollah conflicts are still ongoing, with no end in sight.22 With the withdrawal of US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the risk of sectarian violence in Iraq and the re-emergence of Taliban as a major player in Afghanistan, appears to underline the contention that the so-called ‗war on terror‘ had not ended but is actually re-swinging upwards in its vicious cycle of violence.23 The argument of the tactical and operational effectiveness of targeted killing translated into strategic effectiveness and ultimately political effectiveness are still purely speculative at best.24 To paraphrase the title of an excellent article on the global counterinsurgency phenomena by David Martin Jones and M.L.R. Smith, the conviction on targeted killings‘ effectiveness focused too much on ―Grammar but No Logic.‖ 25 These arguments did not utilise an important contextual theoretical foundation that is more important in understanding how killing off enemy leaders would work - strategies of decapitation, which the next section will discuss.

Targeted Killing and Strategy The proposed idea of decapitating the enemy leaders may appear to be a logical solution in modern warfare. Clausewitz‘s had inferred his famous trinity of the nature of war as consists of people; government, and army.26 If strategic decapitation was to work against this trinity, the leaders of the people, government, and army will be killed or disabled off, thus achieving a war quickly and efficiently. The question is, does this hypothesis stand?

The spirit of targeted killing and how it links with strategy has also been termed as ‗strategic decapitation,‘ being proposed by Alastair Finlan as a third option of choosing between the dual strategies in modern warfare, annihilation or attrition.27 The targeting and killing of the enemy‘s leaders may be an easier or a facilitator to a quicker end in war. Sun Tzu has often been credited with proposing a way of warfare utilising assassination of the enemy leaders. A closer scrutiny of his thirteen chapters in his Art of War will reveal no such explicit notion. Sun Tzu, however, did mention that the best way to win a war is to attack the enemy‘s strategies. 28 What constituted the enemy‘s strategies was not explained further in his text. It can be safely deduced, however, that assassinating enemy leaders was a way of warfare in ancient China.

Some later Chinese texts on warfare citing Sun Tzu had revealed a clearer picture.

Later research on Chi‘ng Dynasty era texts on military methods had exposed some citations and references with Sun Tzu‘s Art of War. One notable reference was from Sun Tzu: A Discussion of the Art of Warfare, which had recorded;

The expert in using the military has three basic strategies that he applies:

The best strategy is to attack the enemy at the level of wisdom and experience…‖29 Form this passage above it appeared that Sun Tzu had advised the best strategy in war was to attack the enemy‘s leaders or military planners. This was especially true in Sun Tzu‘s era during the Warring States period, where the Chinese Kings had military advisors giving advice on military affairs to his generals. Killing these military strategists and generals would literally decapitate the enemy‘s ‗brains‘, and would had facilitated faster and easier victory.

In the 15th century, a Western writer on political philosophy had posited a similar interesting proposition. Thomas More‘s idea of warfare in his book Utopia first published in 1516. Without encroaching too much on the vast details of Utopia‘s

social construct debate, Thomas More has suggested an Utopian style of warfare:

When the battle is at its height a group of specially selected young men, who have sworn to stick together, try to knock out the enemy general. They keep hammering away at him by every possible method – frontal attacks, ambushes, long-range archery, hand-to-hand combat. They bear down on him in a long, unbroken wedge-formation, the point of which is constantly renewed as tired men are replaced by fresh ones. As a result the general is nearly always killed or taken prisoner – unless he saves his skin by running away.30 Thomas More‘s proposed idea of hunting down the leader of the opposing enemy had uncanny similarity with a strategist that had posited along similar lines four hundred years later. J.F.C. Fuller in designing a strategy to overcome the horrendous human losses in the trenches and killing fields of World War I, and amazed with the new technological wonders of that time, tanks, conceptualised a way to overcome the stalemate of trench warfare with his ‗Plan 1919.‘31 Fuller‘s Plan 1919 posited the usage of mobile tanks to infiltrate behind enemy lines and strike at the enemy‘s rear, at the heart of the enemy‘s leadership and command centres, to destroy them before frontal attacks began.32 He envisioned this operation as a way to give a fatal shot at the enemy‘s brain, followed by frontal attacks at the enemy‘s body. He hypothesised that once the enemy‘s brain had been destroyed, the enemy without effective leadership and command, will falter in confusion and will render them more easily to be defeated in the first few hours of the operation.34 The main question is does the killing of enemy leaders yield the intended strategic utility? To address this query, two case studies from World War II in the next sections describe and analyse the effects of such operations.

Operation Anthropoid: Killing of Reinhard Heydrich Reinhard Heydrich was a senior Germany SS member and head of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA) since 27 September 1939. Heydrich was appointed as the SS Reichprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia exactly two years later on 27 September 1941. In 1938, as a result of the Munich Agreement to appease Hitler, Czechoslovakia‘s Sudentenland had been given to Germany. The Germans later invaded and occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia, and carved her into two main areas, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Morovia, and Slovakia.

Heydrich in his new post was very successful in eliminating most of the Czech resistance movements. In the league of resistance activities in occupied Europe, Czechoslovakia ranked in the bottom position. 35 He also used a ‗stick and carrot‘ approach to entice and coerce the Czech population to submit to German occupation, and increase industrial output. Czechoslovakia with its arms manufacturing industry was an important supplier of arms and ammunition for the German military forces.

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