License To Kill: How US-Led West Has Monopolized ‘Targeted Killings’ But Criticizes India For The Same

Political assassinations or “targeted killings” on foreign soil have always been debatable. Here, the accusers of the “wrongdoing” (killing a political opponent without due process of law) have been accused in some other cases.  

If following the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen seeking vivisection of India in June, India has been added to the “dirty” club of Russia and Saudi Arabia by the accusers in the Western countries, the fact remains that the record of the United States and its close ally Israel is indeed dirtier regarding such extrajudicial killings.

The story of assassinations of undesirable individuals, officials, or groups by a country or its regime, which considers them a threat, has a long history.

As a strategy, it has proved its effectiveness. It is said that targeted killings can disrupt a militant group tremendously because it is difficult to fill the void of slain leaders with equally experienced and competent colleagues. This, in turn, can handicap the group in making appropriate operational strategies and, over time, pose less of a danger.

Secondly, it has been seen that the assassination of a leader of such a group is followed by rivalries and confusion among his followers over who should be the successor. 

Thirdly, following the assassination, the group often becomes defensive rather than offensive. It now devotes more time on how to avoid becoming targets. As a result, the group leaders minimize communications, change their locations regularly, and disperse their cells. All this adversely affects the building and expansion of their organizations to carry out sophisticated terrorizing attacks.

Hardeep Nijjar
File Image: Hardeep Nijjar

Thus, Nijjar was a prominent group leader in Canada who wanted to create the so-called “Khalistan” as a homeland by separating territory from India. He was reviving the secessionist movement in India’s Punjab that is more or less dead. He was the principal coordinator of Khalistan supporters all over the world.

Having close links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, the spying unit, he recruited cadres to indulge in violence in India by luring them with money and drugs. The Indian government had declared him a terrorist and had asked Interpol to capture him. It has also requested the Canadian authorities to checkmate their extremist activities.

However, India vehemently denies that its intelligence agencies had any role in killing Nijjar. Indian foreign minister S. Jaishankar emphatically asserts that targeted killings are not India’s state policy. He reflects the national consensus that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau cannot declare India guilty based on his “credible allegations” of “a potential involvement” without any credible evidence.

For any Indian, it is beyond comprehension when some Canadian experts say that India must be taken to task, Western democracies led by the US should downgrade their ties with New Delhi, and the country must pay damages (monetary compensations) to the bereaved family.

Leah West, an associate professor of international affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, says, “There is no question that Indian conduct is unlawful. It is an unlawful violation of sovereignty and an unlawful exercise of the state’s power inside Canada.”

But then, as pointed out above, Western countries talk of laws of sovereignty when non-Western countries are involved or perceived to be involved in such killings. They point out quickly how Russia killed Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent, in Britain in 2006; they imposed sanctions on Russia.

They mention how Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and de facto leader, Muhammad bin Salman, murdered Jamal Khashoggi, an exiled Saudi journalist living in America, in Istanbul in 2018.  They cite the killing of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong Un, by smearing him with  VX, a nerve agent, at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport in 2017.

Western experts and political elites fail to say how the United States killed al Qaeda supremo Osama bin Laden in a safe house in Pakistan in 2011. They also forget how an American drone strike killed Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Kabul in 2022. They also avoid mentioning how another American drone took away the life of Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force, Iran’s foreign operations outfit, at Baghdad’s airport in 2020. 

The US seems to have learned from its close ally Israel how to use drones to target undesirable foreign enemies on foreign soil. Israel has consistently targeted Palestinian militants, primarily through drones or airstrikes. Ironically, the US had earlier criticized Israel’s targeted killings by helicopters, F-16 fighter jets, and increasingly by armed drones as these, in its opinion, violated international and humanitarian law.

But after Osama bin Laden attacked the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, the American administrations of George W. Bush and then Barack Obama, and more recently the British and French governments, have in some respects followed the example of the Israelis in tracking down and killing enemies abroad, sometimes including their citizens, by using drones.

Incidentally, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman’s book “Rise and Kill First,” published in 2018, says that Israel’s security services had carried out some 2,700 assassinations abroad till that year.

“After Palestinians began to target Israelis across Europe, notoriously killing 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team in Munich in 1972, Mossad, the Israeli security service, was given free rein to hunt down such enemies (though Bergman questions whether the Munich attackers were ever killed). From then on, a string of attacks on Palestinian operatives in such places as Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates was carried out.”

It may be noted here that removing America’s enemies, branded as terrorists, through drone attacks was mainly conducted by the CIA till the advent of the Obama Administration. This duty of the CIA was shifted to the Pentagon under Obama. American journalist Michael Hirsh wrote, “The CIA may simply be much better than the military at killing people in a targeted, precise way—and, above all, at ensuring the bad guys they’re getting are really bad guys.” 

It is said that after President George W. Bush declared a “war on terror” in 2001, the CIA’s skills in killing terrorists discomforted even some CIA officials. One such official was Elliot Ackerman, who wrote in The New Yorker magazine in 2014, “The discomfort of my colleagues, where it existed, didn’t stem from [targeted killing] itself. The discomfort existed because it felt like we were doing something, on a large scale, that we’d sworn not to. Most of us felt as though we were violating Executive Order 12333.”

Incidentally, that order was issued by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in response to the Church Committee’s extensively documented findings on illegal domestic surveillance and plots to kill foreign leaders. That order banned the US government from planning or carrying out assassinations. 

However, according to Jane Harman, a former Democrat Member of the US House of Representatives, the government lawyers do not interpret “assassination” as a synonym for “targeted killing” concerning terrorists, a distinction predating Washington’s conflict with al Qaeda. 

Similar concerns about targeted killings arose after the 1983 bombing of the US embassy in Lebanon. In that case, as the journalist Walter Pincus later reported for The Washington Post, CIA discussions produced “an informal agreement with the congressional oversight committees that if a covert action targeted a terrorist in his apartment plotting to blow up a building, he had to be detained. But if the terrorist were found and known to be on his way to blow up a building… he could be killed if that were the only way to stop him.”

And as the executive order notes, the intelligence community is charged with conducting “special activities” to protect national security, a category under which the drone program falls,” Harman wrote.

In other words, the US has expanded the right to self-defense against attacks by non-state actors and states. This included the right to “anticipatory self-defense,” allowing a country to use force to forestall an “imminent” threat of attack. 

Incidentally, the Israeli and American authorities dislike the word “assassination” being applied to what they prefer to call “targeted attacks” because it implies a flouting of international law. The Obama Administration has modified the legal framework that now says, “Using targeted lethal force against an enemy consistent with the law of armed conflict does not constitute an ‘assassination.’”

Assassinations, it notes, are unlawful under an executive order signed by Ronald Reagan in 1981 (which updated those by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter). But today, there is “a new and different kind of conflict against enemies who do not wear uniforms or respect geographic boundaries and disregard the legal principles of warfare.”

Notably, the modified legal framework under President Obama also notes that it is permissible to “impinge on another state’s sovereignty” if it is unable or unwilling to “mitigate the threat emanating” from its territory. 

Now, let us apply the same yardstick to India. After all, it has suffered a lot because of the separatist movement led by the Khalistan propagators. The country’s Prime Minister has been assassinated, and an Air India flight from Canada has been bombed, killing 329 persons.

The movement has been controlled now in India. Still, Canada, despite persistent requests by India, continues to allow the Khalistan activists, many of whom are now Canadian citizens, to use its territory to disintegrate a friendly country.

Christine Fair, an expert on South Asia at Georgetown University, has rightly pointed out how India has for years chafed at Canada’s perceived catering to the Sikh community and regards supporters of the movement to create a separate Khalistan state in Punjab as fanatics who pose as significant a threat as the terrorist networks that Western governments target at will.

“We might view Canada as a mature democracy with reliable law enforcement…. but Indians see Canada — and this will sound crazy — as harboring Khalistanis they accuse of supporting terrorism.”

India has a strong point targeted at the Western double standards on state-sponsored killings.  

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. 
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at)
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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: