I have heard many opinions about the ‘assassination’ of Osama bin Laden since his death was announced.

I wrote a few days ago that it had to be done but I cannot rejoice at any man’s death.

I also said there may be a reaction from the upholders of international law who may deem the USA’s actions as illegal.

Let’s look at the morality of an operation which the USA said was a kill and capture mission. There was no question of capturing him alive. As a captive he would have to be tried in a criminal court. This would be the trial of the century.

Any trial would probably lead to hostage taking, reprisal mock trials, huge security and expense.

We all know the result of any such trial.

bin Laden was guilty by his own confession.

So what would be the sentence?

If tried in the USA the sentence would surely be death.

If tried in an international court, the sentence would be life – that would be problematical.

bin Laden led an organisation dedicated to murdering innocent people all over the world.  In the USA alone he killed more than 2000 people at the World Trade Center and in Washington. He threatened again and again to keep killing until the West left Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel was destroyed. His version of political Islam is dedicated to the overthrow of Western civilisation and the spread of this ideology throughout the world.

bin Laden and al Qaeda had declared war on the West and the USA in particular. He was totally ruthless in his intention to prosecute that war.

In conventional warfare, “taking out” an enemy leader is considered a legitimate and legal act of war.

The problem many people, like the Archibishop of Canterbury, have with this particular killing, is that they do not see it as a military operation in a war zone; bin Laden was not in uniform, was not armed, was “at home”, with his family.

It is this domestic environment, albeit in a fortress complex, which gives people moral qualms.

Those that have these qualms seek either to take a morally superior position or they want to convince us that, despite bin Laden’s obvious crimes, nevertheless the rule of law has primacy.

Both the moralists and the legalists are telling us, in their own way, that our civilisation can only retain its moral superiority to the likes of bin Laden if we observe the very rules, laws and mores which underpin that civilisation.

I understand what they are saying and I have some sympathy for this point of view. The argument is that we defend our civilisation by acting only in ways which reinforce that sense that our civilisation is superior, and that keeping to this strict moral and legal code is essential to its survival and our self-respect; our moral “soul”. In brief, the argument is that we should not “lower” ourselves to the level of the enemy.

I think they are wrong.

And one of the reasons I think they are wrong is the Israeli paradigm.

Israel has always regarded terrorists and terrorist leaders as valid targets – often characterised as “extra-judicial killings” by Israel’s detractors and enemies and also by NGOs.

Israel is in a paradigmatic situation to the USA and the West. It is involved in “asymmetric warfare” where the norms of the rules of war are problematic.

I’m not an international lawyer or an authority on the rules of warfare, but Israel, facing an existential threat since its birth, has engaged in assassination which is ultimately aimed at protecting its citizens. Does Israel put the welfare of its citizens first or does international law as interpreted in relation to conventional warfare trump these considerations?

It is clear that Israel has made that decision. Israel is prepared to take opportunities, where their intelligence offers, to kill the leaders of Hamas and other enemies who are at war with Israel in everything but name.

The terrorists do not observe a single rule of war; not the Geneva Conventions, not international laws of conflict – nothing.

Yet Israel, and in the bin Laden case, the USA are actually challenged and their actions questioned.

Not only are we now in a phase of history where warfare is not necessarily between national  actors, but that war is not a conventional war over territory or tribalism, it is a war of a particular ideology, a political religious ideology, against the rest of the world and the West in particular.

In these circumstances I believe that international laws of warfare are inadequate. States have a right to protect themselves from ruthless killers and genocidal maniacs who might even equip themselves with WMD.

Of course, there is great danger in my suggestion. After all, do the Western democracies alone have the right to abandon or break or stretch international law and the rules of warfare? If they arrogate this right to themselves alone, could not the other nations of the world equally arrogate rights which are inimical to the West’s moral codes andethics?

Isn’t the point of international law that states who may have different political, moral and ethical systems and traditions all sign up to a common set of rules?

What right does any one country have to flout these laws?

Sounds like I’m having second thoughts or talking myself out of my original conclusion?


Any country that has a civilisational or existential threat against it has to make decisions and take risks to protect itself. In conventional wars state actors take unconventional actions, even illegal actions, to protect themselves with covert operations.

The West is facing an unconventional, unprecedented threat. The USA had every right to consider bin Laden an enemy combatant and a leader of an enemy army. What was more moral: to kill him or allow him to kill thousands of others? What was more moral: killing him or capturing him and risking the lives of the Navy Seals?

It’s exactly the same for Israel: kill an enemy combatant with an airstrike that may also kill innocents or allow him to continue to kill Israeli innocents?

The USA did the right and moral thing