The killing of Osama bin Laden is an instance of a much more general policy pursued by the United States and its allies – the targeted killing of named individuals in the war against terrorism and against various insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the midst of American celebration of the fact that al-Qaida has lost its charismatic leader, it is worth getting clear about targeted killing in general, i.e. about the legality and the desirability of a policy of this kind. Targeted killings are of two kinds. The first involves killing people who are actually engaged in carrying out terrorist acts – planting a bomb or preparing someone for a suicide bombing. The second involves the elimination of high-profile individuals whose names appear on a special list of active commanders and participants in terrorism or insurgency. These killings are part of a strategy of disruption and decapitation directed against terrorist organisations.
One of the many pieces of bin Laden-related trivia in the news today is the resuscitation of a study by a group of geographers at UCLA, published in 2009, which according to the BBC ‘said there was a high probability Osama Bin Laden was located in the town where he was ultimately killed by US operatives on Sunday'. The BBC report goes on: The model employed in the study, which is typically used to track endangered species, said there was a 88.9 per cent chance he was in Abbottabad in Pakistan. But geographer Thomas Gillespie at UCLA said the same study gave a 95 per cent chance he was in another town, Parachinar. There's clearly something amiss here: if there was an 88.9 per cent chance he was in Abbottabad, there could only have been an 11.1 per cent chance he was anywhere else. Puzzled, I asked a statistician how the numbers could add up, and he said:
A US Special Forces operation in Pakistan has taken out Osama bin Laden and a few others. He was in a safe house close to Kakul Military Academy (Pakistan’s Sandhurst). The only interesting question is who betrayed his whereabouts and why. The leak could only have come from the ISI and, if this is the case, which I’m convinced it is, then General Kayani, the military boss of the country, must have green-lighted the decision. What pressure was put on him will come out sooner or later. The event took me back to a conversation I had a few years ago.