Two important events in the confrontation between the Islamic State and the West occurred on November 12 and 13. Although overshadowed by the Paris atrocities, they warrant our attention. On November 12, Mohammed Emwazi (“Jihadi John”) was killed by a drone missile in the Syrian city of Raqqa, in a joint U.S.-British operation. On November 13, the commander of IS in Libya, an Iraqi national called Abu Nabil (also known as Wissam Najm Abd Zayd al Zubaydi), was killed by a U.S. air strike. These two high-profile killings were part of an ongoing American campaign to systematically assassinate terrorist leaders—“high-value targets”—a strategy that has become a central component of the War on Terror.
More than ever, it is crucial to debate the political strategy behind such targeted killings. Insofar as there is a political rationale to these acts of remote execution, it is deeply suspect. Even the pragmatic rationale is flawed: the evidence is that targeted killings make us less safe, not more.
The policy of assassinating high-value targets, modeled after Israeli practices, was adopted in the early days of the U.S. War on Terror but escalated by the Obama Administration with the aid of drone technology. Advocates describe it as an efficient way of killing terrorists that poses minimal risk to service members and entails much lower collateral damage than do...