Presidential Authority in Operation Geronimo


The war against global terrorism in the United States began on the day of 9/11, 2001 when the infamous attack on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York happened. The attack was conducted by a terroristic organization called Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden. In a self-defense response to this tragedy, Congress authorized the Commander-in-Chief at the time to use force against those individuals who perpetrated the attack on the United States on the day of 9/11. According to the constitutional scheme, the president could direct the National Command Authority to use armed force against Al Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden and its other members.

Osama Bin Laden has become one of the main public enemies in the history of the United States. American intelligence has spent nearly a decade tracing the leader of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. When the intelligence officials reported the compound where Bin Laden could possibly hide, President Barack Obama had to decide the further course of action. After enough information was gathered to confirm that Bin Laden lives in the compound, Operation Neptune Spear was established.

The operation itself included a team of 6 Navy SEALs, who would raid the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. The mission of the operation was to capture/kill Bin Laden. This decision was considered a plan B after the bombing of the compound was rejected by Barack Obama (Govern, 2012). It was a high-risk operation because Al Qaeda members are known for its usage of vests, which could detonate. The plan of the operation included capturing Osama bin Laden in case he surrendered. However, during the raid, he was killed in action. People in the United States celebrated the fact of his death as one of the most wanted terrorists. However, the legality of the operation and the presidential authority in it were questioned (Oliveira, 2012). The essay argues that Operation Geronimo (Operation Neptune Spear) was legal.

Assassination Claims

The death of Osama bin Laden during the raid on his compound has been criticized, claiming that it was an illegal assassination. In order to understand such claims and prove that the killing was not illegal, it is important to address the legal definition of an assassination. According to the definitive memorandum written by Hays Parks in 1989, there is a difference between a peacetime assassination and a wartime assassination. Parks says: “Peacetime assassination is the murder of a private individual or public figure for political purposes” (Johnson, 1992). However, the killing of a warfare actor could not be considered a peaceful assassination. There are many examples of cases where killings during warfare were considered lawful.

As a leader of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden was considered a target since the terrorist organization’s attack on the United States (Sanders, 2014). Al Qaeda is a non-state terroristic group with operations spreading in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Kenya, and Arab Peninsula (Sanders, 2014). Therefore, same as members of the traditional military of a country involved in warfare, members of Al Qaeda are lawfully subjected to targeting, implying that an attack could be conducted at any time and in any place.

Self-Defense Argument

In the discourse of whether Operation Geronimo was legal, it is important to note the terms and strategies of the United States against Al Qaeda. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the administration of George W Bush developed updated national security strategies. According to those strategies, the United States received the right to self-defense against terrorists (Jamshidi, & Noori, 2017). This implies that the actions could be taken pre-emptively. After Barack Obama took office and presented his own national security strategy in 2010, the concepts of pre-emptive self-defense were not emphasized (Jamshidi, & Noori, 2017). However, the traditional approach to the situation, which requires countering or eliminating the threat, was not canceled as well. Therefore, a force could legally be applied to state or non-state organizations, such as Al Qaeda, which pose a threat to the United States. This implies that Operation Geronimo, which happened in May 2011, was legal.

Law of Armed Conflict

Operation Neptune Spear took place on foreign ground in the state of Pakistan. Because of that, the international community argues on the matter of classification of the operation. As such the argument holds that the raid was illegal as it intruded on Pakistan’s sovereignty. There are several perspectives that can be applied to counter this argument. First, the official response of the United States officials was that Pakistan was “Unwilling or Unable” to eliminate the threat (Deeks, 2011). Therefore, Pakistan was not considered an actor which could be involved in the operation. Due to its top-secret nature, Operation Geronimo took place without the advance notification of the government of Pakistan. The United States used its reserved right to apply force against non-state threats, such as terroristic organizations, within the borders of another state.

The second framework, which justified Obama’s approach is the non-international armed conflict, which the United States had with Al Qaeda. By definition, a non-international armed conflict refers to a conflict which is not connected to the territory of a single state (Schmitt, 2009). Although the geographical scope of operations against Al Qaeda is vague and problematic, there is no question on whether or not this conflict existed. According to the fact that the territorial integrity of Pakistan remained, the non-international armed conflict laws justify the operation as legal.


In conclusion, Operation Neptune Spear (Operation Geronimo) has been widely covered in the media, as well as the legal controversy which surrounded it. The paper argued that the operation was legal. This statement is supported by several arguments. First of all, the argument that the death of bin Laden is a violation of human rights can be countered by the definition of assassination by Hays Parks. The killing of Osama bin Laden can be considered lawful due because it is classified as a warfare assassination. Secondly, the United States acted accordingly with the national security strategies that included self-defense principles, which encompass the right to apply force against state or non-state threats such as Al Qaeda pre-emptively (Jamshidi, & Noori, 2017). Finally, the argument that the operation was illegal because it was performed in Pakistan without the legal permission of its government is countered by the fact that the raid is considered a non-international armed conflict. Overall, the code name Operation Geronimo resins with many and was proven to be successful in many highly political arenas along with the people of the United States. It was an immense victory that a small group of highly skilled and proficient Navy Seals accomplished and when the mission was complete, it was relayed to the commander in chief.


Deeks, A. S. (2011). Unwilling or unable: toward a normative framework for extraterritorial self-defense. Va. J. Int’l L., 52, 483.

Govern, K. (2012). Operation Neptune Spear: Was Killing Bin Laden a Legitimate Military Objective? Targeted Killings: Law and Morality in an Asymmetrical World, 347-373.

Jamshidi, M., & Noori, F. (2017). The United States national security strategy under Bush and Obama: Continuity and change. World Sociopolitical Studies, 1(2), 175-197.

Johnson III, B. M. (1992). Executive Order 12,333: The permissibility of an American assassination of a foreign leader. Cornell Int’l LJ, 25, 401.

Oliveira, D. G. D. (2012). Legal Opinion on (the Neptune Spear Operation that led to) the Death of Bin Laden (Master’s thesis).

Sanders, R. (2014). Legal frontiers: Targeted killing at the borders of war. Journal of Human Rights, 13(4), 512-536.

Schmitt, M. N. (2009). Deconstructing direct participation in hostilities: the constitutive elements. NYUJ Int’l L. & Pol., 42, 697.

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