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Hitting the Target in US Foreign Policy

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On February 3rd, 13 civilians, including 6 children, were killed in Northwestern Syria during a US Special Operations raid. Despite visible attempts to change methodology, the US’ recent history of careless targeting and unfortunate civilian casualties is to be questioned, as even the so-called successes are flawed. As geopolitical equilibria are as unstable as ever, is murdering threats rather than addressing structural problems really sustainable?

“Success”

On the night of Wednesday, February 3rd, 2022, in Northwestern Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, at least 13 people, including six children, were killed in an explosion during a United States Special Operations forces raid.

In a statement that was shared with the population in the hours that followed the attack, US President Joe Biden conveyed to the American public that the raid targeted the leader of ISIS Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who was indeed among the 13 that were reported dead. “Thanks to the skill and bravery of our Armed Forces, we have taken off the battlefield Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi – the leader of ISIS. All Americans have returned safely from the operation,” were the exact words that the US President used in his statement.

In the middle of the night between Monday, July 15th and Tuesday, July 16th, 2016, American Operations forces bombed what they described as being three ISIS staging areas outside of Tokhar, in Northern Syria, and they reported 85 ISIS fighters killed. It would have been a victorious strike, except the houses that were actually hit were far from the frontlines; they were houses that some local villagers used as shelter during the periods of particularly intense fighting. 120 of them were killed.

In November 2015, American forces struck a building in Ramadi, Iraq, after observing a man dragging what in the relative military report was described as an “unknown heavy object” onto an ISIS “defensive fighting position”. It was a successful strike, since the man was killed. However, the “unknown heavy object” was found to be not a weapon or a bomb but a “person of small stature” – a child, age unknown.

What all the above have in common is that no evidence of wrongdoings was found.

Déjà-Vu

They are not the only similar cases for which no conviction was sentenced. In a long and detailed investigation, award-winning New York Times journalist Azmat Khan found that for over 1,300 civilian deaths in the Middle East in the past eight years, no member of the American Forces that carried out attacks was prosecuted for wrongdoing. The evidence is into previously sealed papers that belonged to a Pentagon archive that regards the American air war in the Middle East and that were obtained by The New York Times following Ms. Khan’s repeated requests to get access to them based on the Freedom of Information Act

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While disturbing, the result that was brought forward by Ms. Khan should hardly come off as surprising to whoever has been paying attention to news that relate to US Foreign Policy in the past few decades. Ever since George W. Bush began the so-called War on Terror following the 9/11 attacks in New York, airstrikes and raids such as the ones described above have been a common tool of warfare for American forces, and several times over the last few years has the general impression been that if the killing of a major target must come at the expense of a few innocent (or at least not guilty of what they are dying for) lives, there will not be much hesitation in pulling the trigger.

In 2011, in the raid that killed former Al-Qaida leader and the mastermind of the World Trade Center attacks Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, at least four others were killed.

In 2017, in the raid that killed former ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in Syria, at least two civilians were killed and one wounded.

In 2020, in the raid that killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in Iraq, at least nine others were killed, five Iraqi and four Iranians.

Are They Justified?

It is hard to deny that the main targets of these operations, from the point of view of the American government and of the Western World in general, did represent a threat, both because of their personal history and because of the nature and of their respective organizations’ resources at the time of their death. In some cases, it is even plausible to assume that among those who were killed along with the main targets were some hidden or potential threats as well. For instance, among the deceased in Operation Neptune Spear, which was successful in its primary objective of neutralizing Osama Bin Laden, were one of his sons Khalid, his brother Abrar and his brother’s sister Bushra, all certainly affiliated with the terrorist, although not necessarily guilty of crimes that would justify a de facto execution (assuming that such crimes even exist).

However, the methods that have often been used by the US government to achieve the “successes” that every time an attack takes place is claimed by the administration in office are increasingly worrying, given the usual disregard of civilian lives that are lost on the way to such success. If according to some there were moral gray areas even in the attacks that immediately followed 9/11, in recent months, elements that should encourage both citizens to question the US government’s methodology in targeting its foreign enemies and the US government to recognize past mistakes and try to adapt the immense resources available to achieve more precise intelligence and accurate targeting emerged.

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The faultiness of certain components of US intelligence in the Middle East have been clear in the eyes of the world since as early as August 2021, when the disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan after twenty years of war and the subsequent takeover of the Taliban was an undoubtedly significant source of humiliation for the Biden administration in the eyes of the world. The aforementioned investigation, which specifically found evidence of “flawed intelligence” and “faulty targeting” in the nature of the air strikes that have been carried out in the Middle East since 2014, simply delivered a further blow to US’ credibility in the international arena.

A New Approach?

That same report was perhaps among the reasons why the February 3rd attack was designed to be different in that regard, since Joe Biden gave strict orders to avoid collateral damage, as contradictory as that may seem when superficially analyzing the outcome of the events.

It was Azmat Kahn herself who brought this analysis forward when interviewed by Vox in the Today, Explained episode of February 7th. According to her, US intelligence agencies had received a tip about the permanent address of Abou Ibrahim al-Hashimi, a man who was known to top intelligence agencies in the world for having staged tens of prison protests across Syria to release ISIS people and for being the terrorist organization’s de facto leader about a month before the strike occurred. After that, they watched him for some time and, quite unusually for a strike of this type, used ground troops to approach him. In other words, rather than using a drone, which would have guaranteed lower risks for US soldiers, two dozen commandos arrived and staked al-Hashimi’s house. Furthermore, after surrounding the house, US soldiers reportedly screamed “we want to spare the innocent, turn yourself in”, and it was at this point that ISIS’ leader himself detonated the bombs that killed him and the civilians.

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Multiple questions can arise from a more in-depth analysis of the events. Firstly, despite the outcome, is this attack perhaps evidence of an attempt to enter a new dimension of US Foreign Policy when it comes to targeting enemies? Secondly, was this attack really necessary? Is the world indeed a safer place now that al-Hashimi is dead?

For the first question, more time will need to pass before an answer is agreed upon. On the other hand, the second question is asked every time a raid like this is performed and, at least in the part of the world we live in, always provides the same answer. Al-Hashimi was behind prison attacks that freed tens of ISIS militants who later contributed to deepening the organization’s terrorist activities in the Middle East, and he was also involved in the slave trade in the area, so yes, a world without him is to be considered safer than a world in which he is operative. At the same time, though, the pattern with these attacks never changes: a threatening character is killed and soon after a new one replaces him. One extremist Islamic terrorist organization is dismantled, a new one emerges.

As geopolitical equilibria are as unstable as ever, should the US government may start wondering whether killing off all terrorist threats rather than addressing the structural problems that make terrorism appealing to individuals worldwide is really sustainable in the long run?

Author profile
Deputy Director

Raised in Rome by Bosnian parents, I try to use writing as a tool to decipher the world around me and all its complexities by taking different perspectives into consideration. In Bocconi, I am studying International Politics and Government.

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