Was It Illegal to Kill Osama Bin Laden?

Did the US forces violate the law by killing Osama bin Laden?

Adam Freedman
June 6, 2011

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Today’s topic: Was it illegal to kill Osama bin Laden? 

And now, your daily dose of legalese:  This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader.  In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer.  In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

Was it Illegal to Kill Osama Bin Laden?

On May 1, 2011, US Special Forces attacked the Pakistani compound of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden and--in the firefight that ensued--killed Bin Laden.  Although many--perhaps most--people in the US were simply relieved to see Bin Laden taken out, the killing has turned out to be controversial in some legal circles, particularly in light of reports that Bin Laden was not armed at the time he was killed.  The legality of killing Bin Laden has to be examined from both US and international law, but under both systems, the key question is whether the al Qaeda leader was an enemy combatant, or simply a criminal..

When is it Legal to Kill an Unarmed Man?

Within days, perhaps hours, of the news of Osama bin Laden’s death, various legal experts began to raise issues about the legality of the US killing a man -- even a terrorist leader -- when he was not armed.  Indeed, some of Bin Laden’s children have even threatened to sue the US government in the International Court of Justice.  If you’re like me, you might be tempted to say: so what?  It’s true that few people in the US are likely to shed any tears over Bin Laden’s demise, but since the struggle against international terrorism is likely to continue, it's worth considering the criticism of this operation.

US Law Prohibits "Assassination"

Since the 1970’s, US law has prohibited government employees from engaging in “political assassination.”  This prohibition, however, is contained in a series of executive orders, none of which defines the term “assassination” with any precision.