If You Can’t Beat Them, Kill Them: Complex Adaptive Systems Theory and the Rise in Targeted Killing – Crandall

Here, we discuss ‘If You Can’t Beat Them, Kill Them: Complex Adaptive Systems Theory and the Rise in Targeted Killing’ by Carla Crandall, from Seton Hall Law Review: Vol. 43 : Iss. 2 , Article 3.

It is available here.

The main crux of the article is that from a complexity theory perspective, the ruling that illegal detention of terrorist suspects created the massive and sprawling targeted killing programme we see today.


Here are a few thoughts we had during out reading group:

  • Choosing a particular weapon or tactic makes you responsible for the incidental harm it causes as well as the direct harms.
  • Signature strikes that have been carried out are often unlawful because they have been performed poorly. Not because there is anything inherently unlawful about targeting based upon criteria which signify an enemy, or adversarial threat.
  • Terrorists in Western countries are often stopped by the police, removing the need for militarised counter-terrorism. Conceptually, there is no difference between the police use of a robot with a bomb attached and a drone strike.
  • If a drone can target a terrorist with a bomb, why not use bullets and prevent collateral damage? If bullets can be used, why not use tranquilizer darts and subsequently arrest perpetrators?

On to what we thought individually:

The argument of this complex and detailed paper can be summed up as follows: By closing of detention centres such as Guantanamo Bay the US has as a result been encouraged to increase in drone strikes, for if capture and (often unpleasant) interrogation are out of the question, killing becomes the next best option to eliminate potential threat. The author then argues that in making judgements regarding US detention policies, legislators and policy makers have inadvertently created a situation that has led to more deaths and have incentivised killing over capture.

This is a really useful observation. Philosophically speaking, I am interested here in the notion that we have moved away from the notion that quantity of life trumps quality of life, to the reverse where the quality of life now trumps quantity. I.E.: we now place emphasis on the conditions within which detainees are held and place this above the life expectancy of targets. Thus in this new approach it is far ‘better’ to kill (and thus cut the quantity of life of a larger number of victims [some who may be innocent]) as opposed to capturing fewer individuals and submitting them to sub-human conditions. Though the author does not address this in her paper, there is a major implication here in terms of our wider relationship with life, and how we judge its worth.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University


Crandalls article linking the abandoning of internment of terrorist suspects to the adoption of targeted killing as a key counterterrorism tool is fascinating. It really gets to the heart of the fact that foreign policy actions always have unintended consequences. It is, however strange that the US opted to even try long-term internment if terrorist suspects. After all, when the UK tried it with IRA members, it simply became a recruiting tool for the terrorists (which makes it additionally worrisome that some apparently security-conscious far-right political parties would happily see a return to internment.)

But, what are the unintended consequences of favouring targeted killing? We are currently seeing revelations that questionable targeting choices are being made by soldiers involved in the Global War on Terror, particularly those in special forces. They are not only the ‘tip of the spear’, but are also deployed most often. Indeed, many SF soldiers have essentially been at war non-stop since 9/11. Although increased operational tempo, and policy demands may create situations whereby bending (or breaking) of rules is tacitly accepted, it should not be. Are these any worse than the occurrences of torture and unlawful detention by Coalition special forces in the Iraq War detailed in Jeremy Scahills’ Dirty Wars? No. So, I don’t think we can link these questionable activities to the abandoning of internment tactics. It seems as though this could just be the unintended consequence of shadow wars.

But, we do see an increasing derogation of state sovereignty when a state has terrorists operating on its soil. Indeed, unwilling/unable doctrine has essentially given states given an argument to take actions in any country where the territorial state does not agree with their assessment of a non-state actor. Although notably brought to the attention of international lawyers by a former UK Foreign Office Legal Adviser, it has mostly been seen as a US doctrine. The number of states supporting it has grown to include most of those countries in the US-led coalition in Syria. But, it is also being used by adversaries of the West. Most recently Iran. Potentially, the unintended consequence of favouring targeted killing could be the disintegration of state sovereignty, and the death of Hobbes Leviathan.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University


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5 thoughts on “If You Can’t Beat Them, Kill Them: Complex Adaptive Systems Theory and the Rise in Targeted Killing – Crandall

  1. @Josh. Your point about the erosion of sovereignty is an interesting one… I’m not quite decided on whether I agree with you or not. On the one hand you could say that yes, sovereignty has been eroded as borders disappear and States struggle to control their own citizens, but on the other, I guess you could also say that the extension of power to any point on the globe (via drone strikes) is a demonstrable expression of sovereignty as such. However, if this were the case, then there is the question of whether or not the targets themselves are criminals or enemies — for if they are enemies then I suppose it’s not sovereignty that you are exerting, but power, which I think here is a slightly different thing.

    [Maybe here we should discuss what we mean by sovereignty…?]

    As I think about it, the other point about sovereignty and targeted killing in a way I think is that it’s a means of a State *maintaining* or even strengthening it’s sovereign position. By this I mean that in general, prison camps are ‘bad news’ and the people prefer clean, efficient operations that don’t kill friendly troops, and don’t get splashed over the news media. In this sense, the move to targeted killing ensures that citizens stay (relatively) ‘safe’, and the State does not risk revolt against its exercise of power.

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  2. Yes, it does seem that the policy shift towards targeted killing rather than internment is also massively politically convenient domestically. Whether that is the true reason for the shift, one can only guess.

    I think your point about whether targets are criminals or enemies gets to a really interesting issue, the blurring of war and peace. Not only are enemies and criminals completely separate paradigms of understanding, they also require different legal systems to deal with the nefarious individuals. A number of ‘drone scholars’ seem to mix these up quite regularly, talking of extrajudicial execution during a war, or assassination etc. This is something which really annoys me, but is something in need of deeper analysis. I do understand the confusion though, as targeted killings do have a ‘feel’ of state execution. Perhaps this is due to a hangover from pre-9/11 when terrorists were always treated as criminals, rather than as enemies, but due to the increased availability of dangerous technologies, the destructive power of terrorists has grown to need greater firepower than is available to police.

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  3. The thing with the ‘criminal’ is that by its definition it suggests that it is possible to apprehend them reasonably safely. But then when these ‘criminals’ start operating in other countries that aren’t willing or aren’t able to cooperate, it then becomes problematic to apprehend them.

    I guess there’s also the question of what do you do with them afterwards?

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  4. I’m not so sure about classification based on the danger of apprehension. In the US it is not unusual for the National Guard to assist the police in riot situations, and the people involved are still criminals. Yet, in the UK it would be very unusual for the military to assist police in any situation other than where there is a high threat level, as seen earlier this year. Even so, all of those who committed recent UK terrorist attacks were both criminals and enemies.

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