Operation Geronimo refers to a military raid by the United States forces on the compound where the leader of al-Qaeda was hiding. The operation resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, which marked a milestone in the America-led War on terror. Although the operation was a success and was positively viewed by many governments, there is also some controversy regarding the legality of such an undertaking. Understanding how the international law views the eliminations of terrorists is essential in ascertaining the legal authority of the Operation Geronimo and establishing whether the US has committed a violation.
There are two major issues, which may compromise the legality of bin Laden’s killing. The first one is the decision to conduct a military operation without warning the host country of the intentions. The raid itself was spearheaded exclusively by the US on Pakistani territory. Bin Laden’s compound was located in Abbottabad, which is a geographical heartland of Pakistan. An immediate complaint following the news of bin Laden’s killing revolved around the breach of Pakistan’s sovereignty due to the lack of cooperation between the US and Pakistan (Soherwordi & Khattak, 2020). From the eyes of the Pakistani, the US essentially dismissed the independent government’s viewpoint, conducted a military operation on its borders without the mutual consent, and blamed Pakistan for incompetence. From this viewpoint, the concern about the violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty is valid.
At the same time, there is a no less legal justification of the US actions based on international law. On the one hand, the United Nations Security Council recognized the right of the US to combat terrorism as a form of self-defense in the aftermath of the 9/11. From this viewpoint, the US was protecting its national security by eliminating a terrorist who had already inflicted damage to the country. Furthermore, article 51 of the UN Charter explicitly enables any country, which has been subjected to a foreign attack to exercise its right of self-defense (Charter of the United Nations, n.d.). As a result, the operation was legal under the auspices of the UN Security Council.
Nature of Killing
The second point of debate is the manner of bin Laden’s elimination. Operation was conducted at nighttime, which was supposed to give the special forces the benefit of surprise. The tactic worked, as the group completed the operation within fifteen minutes (Soherwordi & Khattak, 2020). Bin Laden, his son, one of his wives, and other defenders were killed. Bin Laden himself was not armed when he encountered the special forces and attempted to escape the floor, when he was shot. Although not armed, he was claimed to be using a woman as a human shield, after which the SEAL opened fire.
The absence of weapons in bin Laden’s arms suggests the possibility of an intended assassination. On the surface, this act constitutes a violation of the US’ own prohibition to order assassinations (Leffler, 2017). Even if the target is a leader of a terrorist organization, which threatens the national security of a country, his preplanned murder is not lawful. The US officials offered two responses to such an accusation. First, they claimed that the country was in the state of war with al-Qaeda specifically, thus, authorizing any militant action, including killing (Soherwordi & Khattak, 2020). However, as al-Qaeda is not a state and Pakistan was at war with the US, the legality is compromised. Another objection to the criticism is bin Laden’s own claims about a war on the US and his promise that he would rather die than allow to be captured. Subsequently, the only available means of neutralizing the terrorist was physical elimination, which would ensure that he would escape.
Second, killing makes the court procedure impossible, as the prosecuted is already deceased. Even though bin Laden claimed that he had been responsible for terrorist attacks on the US, it was not proven. In order to ascertain the real causes, he had to be questioned. However, the officials reported that the objective of the operation was not exclusive to killing (Soherwordi & Khattak, 2020). The SEALs were instructed to capture him, yet his decision to use a human shield propelled the SEAL to shoot.
Aside from Pakistan, the operation was welcomed by the world community. This may set a precedent for the initiation of counter-terrorist offensives without cooperation with the national government. The perception of the US has negatively plummeted in Pakistan, which has stated that such unwarned initiatives will not be tolerated in the future. Another dangerous precedent may be the assassination of a person on the basis of terrorist affiliations. It is possible that a government can label an unwanted person as affiliated with terrorists and threatening national security and order his elimination.
Altogether, the killing of Osama bin Laden can be seen as a lawful action from both international law and the law of the US. The terrorist status enables the government to eliminate terrorists, and the War on Terror liberates the US from the paradigm of interstate only hostilities. At the same time, the lack of cooperation with Pakistan has led to the worsening of the US-Pakistani relations. Moreover, countries may use the US example as a justification for military interventions abroad designed to eliminate terrorists without the approval of local governments.
Charter of the United Nations. (n.d.). Web.
Leffler, M. (2017). Safeguarding Democratic Capitalism. Princeton University Press.
Soherwordi, S. H. S., & Khattak, S. A. (2020). Operation Geronimo: Assassination of Osama Bin Ladin and its implications on the US-Pakistan relations, War on Terror, Pakistan and Al-Qaeda. South Asian Studies, 26(2).