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Operation Neptune's Spear: The Lawful Killing of Osama Bin Laden

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 June 2012

David A Wallace
Professor and Deputy Head, Department of Law at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. Email:
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The reactions to the reports of Osama bin Laden's death were many: shock, relief, joy, wariness, elation, reservation. Not surprisingly, an intense debate soon emerged over the legality of killing Osama bin Laden. Critics – including the authors of the article, ‘Has “Justice Been Done”? The Legality of Bin Laden's Killing under International Law’, Kai Ambos and Josef Alkatout – raise many interesting and thought-provoking questions. The purpose of this submission is to respond to the arguments of Ambos and Alkatout. This response article argues that the killing of Osama bin Laden was lawful under international humanitarian law. More specifically, a careful legal analysis demonstrates that a non-international armed conflict exists between the United States and Al Qaeda. The evidence overwhelmingly establishes that Al Qaeda is an organised armed group under international humanitarian law. Osama bin Laden most accurately could be thought of as a strategic level commander of Al Qaeda. He has been actively involved in planning and co-ordinating armed attacks against military and civilian targets for years, including the most recent planning of attacks commemorating the tenth anniversary of September 11. As such, he is clearly targetable under international law. Finally, the United States was well within its rights under international law to launch an attack into Pakistan against bin Laden.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and The Faculty of Law, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 2012

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