“Raid Watching” and Trying to Discern Law from Policy

by Laurie Blank

Trying to identify and understand the legal framework the United States believes is applicable to counterterrorism operations abroad sometimes seems quite similar to “Fed watching,” the predictive game of trying to figure out what the Federal Reserve is likely to do based on the hidden meaning behind even the shortest or most cryptic of comments from the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.  With whom exactly does the United States consider itself to be in an armed conflict? Al Qaeda, certainly, but what groups fall within that umbrella and what are associated forces?  And to where does the United States believe its authority derived from this conflict reaches?

On Saturday, U.S. Special Forces came ashore in Somalia and engaged in a firefight with militants at the home of a senior leader of al Shabaab; it is unknown whether the target of the raid was killed.  I must admit, my initial reaction was to wonder whether official information about the raid would give us any hints — who was the target and why was he the target? What were the rules of engagement (ROE) for the raid (in broad strokes, because anything specific is classified, of course)?  And can we make any conclusions about whether the United States considers that its armed conflict with al Qaeda extends to Somalia or whether it believes that al Shabaab is a party to that armed conflict or another independent armed conflict?

The reality, however, is that this latest counterterrorism operation highlights once again the conflation of law and policy that exemplifies the entire discourse about the United States conflict with al Qaeda and other U.S. counterterrorism operations as well.  And that using policy to discern law is a highly risky venture.

The remarkable series of public speeches by top Obama Administration legal advisors and national security advisors, the Department of Justice White Paper, and the May 2013 White House fact sheet on U.S. Policy Standards and Procedures for the Use of Force in Counterterrorism Operations Outside the United States and Areas of Active Hostilities all appear to offer extensive explanations of the international legal principles governing the use of drone strikes against al-Qaeda operatives in various locations around the globe, as well as related counterterrorism measures. In actuality, they offer an excellent example of the conflation of law and policy and the consequences of that conflation.

Policy and strategic considerations are without a doubt an essential component of understanding contemporary military operations and the application of international law.  However, it is equally important to distinguish between law and policy, and to recognize when one is driving analysis versus the other. 

The law regarding the use of force against an individual or group outside the borders of the state relies on one of two legal frameworks: the law of armed conflict (LOAC) and the international law of self-defense (jus ad bellum).  During armed conflict, LOAC applies and lethal force can be used as a first resort against legitimate targets, a category that includes all members of the enemy forces (the regular military of a state or members of an organized armed group) and civilians who are directly participating in hostilities.  Outside of armed conflict, lethal force can be used in self-defense against an individual or group who has engaged in an armed attack – or poses an imminent threat of such an attack, where the use of force is necessary and proportionate to repel or deter the attack or threat.

The United States has consistently blurred these two legal justifications for the use of force, regularly stating that it has the authority to use force either as part of an ongoing armed conflict or under self-defense, without differentiating between the two or delineating when one or the other justification applies.  From the perspective of the policymaker, the use of both justifications without further distinction surely offers greater flexibility and potential for action in a range of circumstances.  From the perspective of careful legal analysis, however, it can prove problematic.

In effect, it is U.S. policy to eliminate “bad guys” — whether by use of lethal force or detention — who are attacking or posing a threat to the United States or U.S. interests.  Some of these “bad guys” are part of a group with whom we are in an armed conflict (such as al Qaeda); some pose an imminent threat irrespective of the armed conflict; some are part of a group that shares an ideology with al Qaeda or is linked in some more comprehensive way.  Drone strikes, Special Forces raids, capture — each situation involves its own tactical plans and twists. 

But do any of these specific tactical choices tell us anything in particular about whether LOAC applies to a specific operation?  Whether the United States believes it applies?  Unfortunately, not really.  Take Saturday’s raid in Somalia, for example.  Some would take the use of lethal force by the United States against a member of al Shabaab in Somalia to suggest that the United States views al Shabaab as part of the conflict with al Qaeda, or that the United States views the geographical arena of the conflict as extending at least into Somalia.  Others analyze it through the lens of self-defense, because news reports suggest that U.S. forces sought to capture the militant leader and used deadly force in the process of trying to effectuate that capture.

Ultimately, however, the only certain information is that the United States viewed this senior leader of al Shabaab as a threat – but whether that threat is due to participation in an armed conflict or due to ongoing or imminent attacks on the United States is not possible to discern.  Why? Because more than law guides the planning and execution of the mission.  Rules of engagement (ROE) are based on law, strategy and policy: the law forms the outer parameters for any action; ROE operate within that framework to set the rules for the use of force in the circumstances of the particular military mission at hand, the operational imperatives and national command policy.

The fact that the operation may have had capture as its goal, if feasible, does not mean that it could only have occurred outside the framework of LOAC.  Although LOAC does not include an obligation to capture rather than kill an enemy operative — it is the law enforcement paradigm applicable outside of armed conflict that mandates that the use of force must be a last resort — ROE during an armed conflict may require attempt to capture for any number of reasons, including the desire to interrogate the target of the raid for intelligence information.  Likewise, the use of military personnel and the fact that the raid resulted in a lengthy firefight does not automatically mean that armed conflict is the applicable framework — law enforcement in the self-defense context does narrowly prescribe the use of lethal force, but that use of force may nonetheless be robust when necessary.

“Raid-watching” — trying to predict the applicable legal framework from reports of United States strikes and raids on targets abroad — highlights the challenges of the conflation of law and policy and the concomitant risks of trying to sift the law out from the policy conversation.  First, determining the applicable legal framework when two alternate, and even opposing, frameworks are presented as the governing paradigm at all times is extraordinarily complicated.  This means that assessing the legality of any particular action or operation can be difficult at best and likely infeasible, hampering efforts to ensure compliance with the rule of law.  Second, conflating law and policy risks either diluting or unnecessarily constraining the legal regimes.  The former undermines the law’s ability to protect persons in the course of military operations; the latter places undue limits on the lawful strategic options for defending U.S. interests and degrading or eliminating enemy threats.  Policy can and should be debated and law must be interpreted and applied, but substituting policy for legal analysis ultimately substitutes policy’s flexibility for the law’s normative foundations.

Laurie Blank is the Director of the International Humanitarian Law Clinic at Emory University School of Law.