19 November 2019

Deliberated elimination of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group commander

Daniel Ilie

If for the leaders of both jihadist organizations, Al-Qaeda and ISIS, the Americans chose to use the Special Operations Forces to plan and execute some special operations, which are direct “surgical” capture and deliberated elimination, for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group commander they chose to plan and execute, with surgical accuracy, an air strike for its deliberated elimination.

Image source: Mediafax

“Surgical” air strike for the deliberated elimination of the Jihadist Islamic Group commander

On November 12th, at 4 am in the morning, the Israeli Armed Forces have executed a “surgical” air strike, using intelligence ammunition, precisely targeting the commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group, Baha Abu al-Ata, at that time being in Shejaiya area, in the city of Gaza, after the Israeli Intelligence structure have announced that he conducted a new attack over the Israeli civilians. This was not the first attempt to eliminate the Jihadist leader, as Israel also tried it in the past.

It was a joint operation, planned and executed by the Israeli Armed Forces, together with Israel’s Security Agency, Shin Bet (one of the three main Israeli intelligence community’s structures). They have practically sent, by air, an intelligent missile which entered by the window in Baha Abu al-Ata and his wife’s bedroom, who were, at that time, sleeping, launched from a fighting aircraft of the Israeli Air Forces. The operation ended with targets’ elimination. At least, this is what one of the photos that were made public suggests. This was also supported by the statements of Israeli military officials who stated that they have managed to make no collateral victims within the civilians.

Then, based on intelligence reports which were claiming the emergence of massive missile attacks from the Gaza Strip over the center of Israel, only two hours after and as consequence of eliminating the jihadist leaders, the Israeli policy-makers have decided to cancel the classes and the work to protect citizens from the Palestinian missiles. Coincidence or not, the operation happened in the exact period when it was being planned the biannual air exercise, “Blue Flag 2019”, on Israel’s territory,  with multinational participation (Israel, Greece, Germany, Italy and US). The Israeli Armed Forces have called it “the most advanced air forces exercise in Israel’s history”!

According to the messages posted on Israeli Armed Forces’ social media pages, Baha Abu al-Ata would have been responsible with launching hundreds of missiles from the Gaza Strip over the Israeli citizens’ homes, including over the participants of a Israeli music festival, that took place in August 2019. Furthermore, according to some reports, even the Israeli prime-minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, would have asked for the immediate elimination of the Jihadist leader, after a missile attack he planned, which stopped the prime-minister from having a speech during this electoral campaign, in the beginning of September this year.

Intelligence trigger

Alike the special operations, the “surgical” air attack was planned months before the Israeli Army and Shin Bet got all the necessary approvals to actually conduct it, the moment of reaching the intelligence “trigger”. Its approval came from the minister of defence, the prime-minister and then the Israeli security Cabinet. The decision was made on a Sunday, days before the execution of the air strike with intelligent, precise ammunition against the commander of the  militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, when, as suggestively Shin Bet’s Director was saying, the “stars have aligned”.

When I was in the SOF we used to say that we have reached the intelligence “trigger” when a certain target, previously identified, was being “fixed” in time and space. In other words, the joint effort of the intelligence section was managing to produce the entire intelligence package necessary to execute the special operation, with the highest success probability and the minimum risks against the force and the mission. Most likely, a similar process for targets’ management was used also by the Israeli Army and Shin Bet before getting to the deliberated elimination of the Jihadist leader (the operational term used by NATO is “finish”).

Has Israel returned to the targeted killings policy?

Such a lethal kinetical action raised some concerns, many people wondering whether this was a sign of the Israeli policy restarting to use targeted killings, practiced for self-defence purposes, under the auspices of the International Humanitarian Right, on some terrorists from the occupied Palestinian Territories, initially made publicly in 2000.

Israeli officials are denying such things, claiming that it was only one lethal action and not a return to the targeted killing policy.

However, a short Operations Summary (OPSUM) posted by the Israeli Armed Forces on Twitter, two days after the execution of the “surgical” air strike, was showing that out of all the 450 missiles launched from the Gaza Strip over Israel, 90% were intercepted by the Israeli Missile Defence System “Iron Dome”, and 25 militants of the Islamic Jihadist were already eliminated.

In a statement which somehow underlined the legitimacy of the targeted people (militants of the Islamic Jihadist Group), an official of the Israeli Army was stating that “All of our operations were analyzed, proportional and focused only the military assets belonging to the Islamic Jihad”.

Still, as operations’ results are showing, some can be really concerned with the fact that more than 25 of the militants of Islamic Jihad Group were eliminated within target management specific procedures and, without questioning the kinetical actions’ legitimacy against them, this could be interpreted as a sign of return to targeted killings policy.

What does targeted killings mean?

According to the Special UN Rapporteur’s report, Philip Alston, on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, made public on May 2010, the targeted killing is the intentional, premeditated and deliberate use of lethal force, by States or their agents acting under color of law, or by an organized armed group in armed conflict, against a specific individual who is not in the physical custody of the perpetrator. The concept is not defined in the international law, nor can it be included in a certain juridical framework.

As stated in the report, such policies were and are, still, justified both as legitimate responses to “terrorist” threats or the necessary response to “asymmetrical warfare” challenges.

Among the methods used to execute such lethal actions are the use of snipers, execution of short-distance armed attacks, the launch of short range of action missiles from different air platforms (with rotating or fixed wing), including drones, using ambushes or even poison. These actions can take place in different contexts.

On such deliberated lethal actions, more or less legal, executed by certain state actors or their agents against human targets, we have published, in the past, articles and analyses on Defence and Security Monitor (DSM).

As for Israel, the Supreme Court has debated, in 2006, the legal premises of such policy, claiming that, in this case, the common law of the international armed conflict would have been the enforceable law, denying Government’s argument that terrorist would be “illegal combatants” which could become targets of attacks, at any time, and claiming that the lawfulness of each killing case should be determined individually.

The Court considered that civilians’ targeted killing would be legal if they would be “direct participants to hostilities”, as long as they would reach four conditions:

- the forces developing the targets’ management process are responsible with checking target’s identity and proving the “direct participation to hostilities” of the targeted individuals;

- states’ armed forces cannot kill any individual if they have less dangerous or lethal methods, even if the targeted individuals were legally and concretely identified by the Government;

- after each targeted killing action, it must be developed an independent retroactive investigation of the “identification method of the target and attack’s execution circumstances”;

-Any collateral prejudice on civilians should follow the demands of the proportionality principles of the International Humanitarian Right.

Instead of conclusions

Most likely, these conditions were fully accomplished for the panning, execution and ulterior estimation of the lethal air strike ended with the physical elimination of Baha Abu al-Ata and his wife.

Although according to official statements, Israel does not plan on getting back to targeted killing policy and it is not interested in escalating the situation, the message of the spokesperson of the Israeli Armed Forces was that “they are prepared to continue to work against anyone who tries to compromise Israel’s security”, without actually count out, obviously, the isolate cases where they could, again, use deliberated lethal attacks.

Furthermore, following nowadays’ trends, in a message of prime-minister Netanyahu, on Twitter, wherein he was thanking the Israeli Armed Forces, two days after Baha Abu al-Ata’s elimination, he was stating that “Our enemies received the message. We can reach everyone. We can reach everyone, even in their bed. I hope that this lesson will be learned. I trust our forces to continue to improve and do whatever may be necessary to ensure the security of Israel.”

US and Russia have also used such actions (air strikes, drone attacks, raids executed by SOF etc.) for chasing high-value individuals, called insurgents, or belonging to terrorist networks, given the global fight against terrorism, in armed conflicts from the theatre of operations or states like Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria or Chechenia.

In fact, in the exact same day of the elimination of Islamic Jihad Group’s commander, the US president was stating that he knows exactly where he is, and the US is keeping its eyes on the third man in the ISIS command chain, whose leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, killed himself during a deliberated capture of elimination raid executed on Syria’s territory by an American SOF commander, in October 2019.

Let’s keep in mind that, although strongly affected by the loss of valuable leaders, after such lethal attacks, the extremist groups are regenerating themselves, replacing their leaders following the “no one is irreplaceable” principle and ideologies and thinking that will continue to exist.

These are the signs that lethal actions during deliberated targeted killing, executed with surgical precision, will continue because these are response options, which are effective and involve low risks, both to terrorist threats and challenges of the asymmetrical war, handy to political-military decision makers of state actors.

Furthermore, besides the strategic communication message sent by the Israelis in terms of their determination of staying resilient and fighting any actions against their citizens and their country security, we cannot ignore that the technological progress, as well as the performance level reached in the fourth industrial revolution by the armed forces of some states which have the necessary resources gives them a competitive advantage against their enemies.

And, for a funnier conclusion (hope I will not be perceived as cynic), I will present you the conclusion that a DSM reader suggested me to offer you at the end of a short analysis on Israeli’s elimination action of the Islamic Jihad Group’s commander: “Keep your window closed because they are …shooting!”

Translated by Andreea Soare