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Legal Justification of Operation Geronimo

Operation Geronimo, also known as Operation Neptune Spear, held by the U.S. special forces against the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda in 2011, resulted in the killing of its founder Osama bin Laden. Up to the present day, the legality of this operation still raises numerous questions and debates. The problem is that the plan enforced by President Obama’s administration may be evaluated under different bodies of law that focus on the acceptability of target killings during such events. The current system of international laws does not give a credible answer. Nevertheless, there are several reasons which provide legal ground for killing a man who acted as the head of the terrorist group.

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The events that gave way to the unending stream of debates happened on May 2, 2011. According to Soufan (2017), a group of Navy SEALs approached the terrorist compound in the helicopters. The outcome of the operation resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden, his son Khalid, as well as three other people who were possibly civilians. The accounts differ, and it is difficult to say whether there was any resistance, but bin Laden was likely unarmed. The fact that the unarmed man was killed in action questions the necessity and lawfulness of such an act. Despite the fact that Obama’s administration downplayed the principles of the previous president George Bush who administered the right to use lethal force against states and non-states, Operation Geronimo was considered to be justifiable. As Schaller (2015) claims, Harold Koh, former State Department legal adviser, gave a speech claiming that the USA had the authority to target certain individuals such as high-level terrorist leaders for the purpose of defense. It means that the government considered its actions legal and backed the claims by international laws.

The U.N. charter Article 51 plays an important role in the USA’s position as it gives legal rights to use self-defense against any use of force and must be obliged towards everyone. The traditional interpretation of the Article meant the armed attacks by other states. However, with the rise of terrorist organizations in the world, such a position was criticized, and now the right of self-defense also covers the imminent attacks of non-state actors. In the opinion of Rao (2016), “The use of force against non-state actors situated in a foreign territory as well as against the host State itself is lawful when their acts are ‘attributable’ to the state harboring them” (p. 141). All states have an obligation not to provide a haven to terrorist organizations and ensure that their territory is not used to attack other states. If a state cannot provide these requirements, then the rule of necessity may be applied, meaning the armed intervention of other states for the purposes of self-defense. Although, it should be mentioned that the Article is used only in cases of imminent threat.

International Humanitarian Law which regulates the laws of war, may provide the legal framework for the events of 2011. It requires an armed conflict to be applicable and may regulate both international and non-international disputes (Rao, 2016). The USA takes a rather controversial position where the territory of hostilities is not restricted to Afghanistan, and the members of al-Qaeda may be persecuted wherever they go. The USA was engaged in war with the Taliban in 2001 which acted as a government for Afghanistan. Multiple terrorist strikes were considered a continuous armed attack and demanded retaliation. The Taliban took responsibility for all the actions of al-Qaeda and thus gave the legal right for the U.S. to enter the territory of Afghanistan. Thus, the U.S. entered into the war between two states. It was also in the state of war with a particular organization, al-Qaeda, providing non-international meaning to the events.

Osama bin Laden’s may be considered both justified and unlawful depending on his role in the events. Schaller (2015) dwells on this matter, proposing to look at it from different angles. The death of bin Laden would have been justifiable if he had the role of combatant, meaning that he took an active part in hostilities. However, he was surveilled for several months and never left the compound, which complicates the matter as he cannot be legally killed without proves. On the other hand, Osama bin Laden may be considered a civilian who took part in hostilities by instigating terrorist attacks. As Schaller claims (2015), al-Qaeda posed an ongoing threat, and bin Laden had “continuous combat function” because he was the leader of the terrorist organization, which makes him a legal target (p. 219). The problem lies in the fact that current laws do not have a univocal opinion on the non-state actors.

To summarize, while it is obvious that terrorists and their leaders cannot go unpunished, the debates continue on the matter of acceptability of killing unarmed or defenseless men in operations. Operation Geronimo put an end to a man who instigated repeated attacks on the USA, and the legality of the plan may be proved by the international laws. International Humanitarian Law and Article 51 give the authority to fight back in cases of armed attacks in 2001. However, the international laws are not accurate enough in regard to treating terrorist organizations, their participants, and leaders. The killing of Osama bin Laden may be claimed legal if he is considered a man who instigated terrorist attacks, although debates still hold on whether it is acceptable to kill an unarmed person. Such organizations and their creators should be given proper attention, and the international community should find a way to treat them, upholding all the legal procedures instead of creating more disputes.


Soufan, A. (2017). Anatomy of terror: From the death of bin Laden to the rise of the Islamic State. WW Norton & Company.

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Rao, P. S. (2016). Non-state actors and self-defence: A relook at the UN Charter the Article 51. Indian Journal of International Law, 56(2), 127–171.

Schaller, C. (2015). Using force against terrorists ‘outside areas of active hostilities’—the Obama approach and the Bin Laden raid revisited. Journal of Conflict and Security Law, 20(2), 195 –227.

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