Operation Geronimo and Presidential Authority


On May 1, 2011, the founder and leader of the terrorist organization Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was killed following President Obama’s command. This operation was performed under the code name of Operation Geronimo because bin Laden, like the famous Native American Geronimo, was eluding American troops for years. Although this operation has rescued the world from the leader of the dangerous terrorist organization, people’s opinions diverge on whether President Obama’s order and its execution were lawful. This paper will argue that President Obama had the legal authority to issue and implement this order according to domestic and international laws.

The Description of Operation Geronimo

The September 11 attacks, qualified as terrorist acts initiated by Al Qaeda, became a national tragedy for the US. After the tragedy, Congress authorized the President to use armed forces against the terrorists responsible for the attacks. In the years that followed, bin Laden was on the top of the most wanted list, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made efforts to find traces of the terrorist leader. The CIA followed one Al Qaeda courier for several years and found a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Interrogations of Al Qaeda detainees revealed that the courier might have been living with bin Laden because he was a trusted person. After that, the CIA collected evidence on the Abbottabad compound and had grounds to assume that bin Laden was inside.

Upon identifying the location of bin Laden, President Obama began planning Operation Geronimo. He designed the operation carefully to ensure that the least possible collateral damage was caused and no civilians were harmed. On April 29, 2011, President Obama authorized the operation to kill bin Laden. The operation was performed by the SEAL Team Six, who launched a raid on the Abbottabad compound on May 1, 2011. During this raid, bin Laden was killed, and after his identity was confirmed, President Obama announced to the American public that “justice has been done” (Wallace, 2012, p. 368). The body of bin Laden was then buried at sea in compliance with Islamic traditions.

Although Operation Geronimo was criticized for being unlawful, it was indeed legal, first of all, from the perspective of the US domestic laws. According to the US Constitution, President is the commander-in-chief and has the authority to control and direct the US armed forces. In addition, after the September 11 attacks, President was authorized by Congress to use armed forces against terrorists who initiated the attacks. Furthermore, President Obama consulted with the National Security Council and did thorough planning before ordering and implementing the operation. So, from the point of domestic law, Operation Geronimo was completely lawful.

The legality of the operation from the perspective of international humanitarian law (IHL) is more difficult to establish, but an analysis of facts shows that it was lawful in this regard, too. First of all, the use of force was authorized because a non-international armed conflict existed between the US and Al Qaeda. A non-international armed conflict is a “protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organised armed groups” (Wallace, 2012, p. 370).

Al Qaeda could be fairly considered an organized armed group because it had a command and control structure and a central ideology (Wallace, 2012). This group committed hundreds of attacks using such tactics as bombing, hijacking, assassinations, and kidnappings, and their targets were not only military but also civilian (Wallace, 2012). Given the structure of Al Qaeda and its attacks on the US, which caused massive damage, one may conclude that Al Qaeda was an organized armed group, and the US had a non-international armed conflict with it.

Since Al Qaeda was an organized armed group that was the first to commit violence against the US, the US was authorized to exercise its right to self-defense. This right is enshrined in Article 51 of Chapter VII of the UN Charter. It says, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security” (Corn et al., 2018, p. 20). Thus, by implementing Operation Geronimo, the US was defending itself from Al Qaeda’s violence in response to the September 11 attacks.

There are also questions about whether Operation Geronimo was implemented in compliance with IHL. In particular, it is necessary to prove that bin Laden was targetable under IHL. In non-international armed conflicts, the status of belligerents is defined by their membership and functions in the organized armed group (Corn et al., 2018).

In Al Qaeda, bin Laden undoubtedly was a leader who played a significant role in attacking the US. So, he had a continuous combat function, according to IHL, and was considered a combatant rather than a civilian, which made him a lawful target for Operation Geronimo. In addition, there is no evidence that the Navy SEAL team did anything contradicting IHL or that at the moment of the operation, bin Laden surrendered or was hors de combat (Wallace, 2012). Hence, President Obama’s authorization of Operation Geronimo was lawful, and its implementation was also compliant with international laws.


Operation Geronimo was lawful from the perspective of both domestic and international laws. In terms of domestic laws, President acted as the commander-in-chief and was authorized by Congress to use armed force against terrorists. Regarding IHL, Al Qaeda was an organized armed group that was first to attack the US, so the US exercised its right to self-defense in Operation Geronimo. Finally, bin Laden was a member and the leader of Al Qaeda, which made him a targetable individual for the US operation.


Corn, G. S., Hansen, V., Jackson, R., Jenks, M. C., & Jensen, E. T. (2018). The law of armed conflict: An operational approach (2nd ed.). Wolters Kluwer.

Wallace, D. A. (2012). Operation Neptune’s Spear: The lawful killing of Osama bin Laden. Israel Law Review, 45(2), 367–377. Web.

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