Security Studies Review Paper: Charles Kirchofer (2016) Targeted Killings and Compellence: Lessons from the Campaign against Hamas in the Second Intifada (Perspectives on Terrorism)
Insightful academic article about targeted killing as a tool of compellence, not deterrence. Focus on Israel and Hamas. Leadership decapitation relevant.
Kirchofer was interested in clarifying how targeted killings were effective if they influenced terrorist organizations. In his research article, Kirchofer asserted the scholarship produced different findings and conclusions because of: (a) focusing too much on the ‘if’ the targeted killings caused disruption; (b) not discerning between deterrence and compellence; and (c) disregarding the time periods – what was happening in the greater context of the conflict – when targeted killings were employed. Kirchofer concluded “targeted killings are inherently compellent and can therefore only be used to change a status quo and potentially establish new ‘rules of the game.’” But policy makers cannot utilize targeted killings as a tool of deterrence in order to keep the status quo.
Contributing Reviewer(s): Shahaf Rabi
Original review publication date: 11 July 2020
Details of the Reviewed Article
Title: Targeted Killings and Compellence: Lessons from the Campaign against Hamas in the Second Intifada
By: Charles Kirchofer
Publication: Perspectives on Terrorism (vol. 10, issue 3)
Date: June 2016
Summary, notes, insights & remarks:
The usual rationale of states which employ prolonged targeted killing campaigns is that this security policy can risk incapacitating the targeted organization if it generates a leadership vacuum. States tend to posit leadership decapitation should be effective. In turn, this is supposed to threaten the organization’s ability to continue to use violence in pursuit of its goal(s). This is the “rational choice mechanism by which [Kirchofer] proposes that targeted killings effect compellence.”
Kirchofer argues that people must recall the basic definition of deterrence. If they do so, then it becomes clear that the act of threatening a group with targeted killings is an act of deterrent effect. However, once the state performs targeted killings then it is an act of compellence.
For instance, if a state tells the terrorist organization that it must not resume acts of hostilities (e.g. firing projectiles) or else it will conduct targeted killings, then this is a threat meant to preserve the status quo. But if such a status quo does not exist, or is violated, then the discussion must move forward to compellence. The state’s targeted killings act as a force to compel the organization to change its behavior.
Kirchofer states that the situation of status quo does not require a cease fire or so. For example, the situation could be one in which the state clarifies targeted killings will be employed if the organization would use suicide bombers on top of gunfire attacks, IEDs, etc. So the status quo is one of hostilities but the red line for the state is the modus operandi of suicide bombers. This threat is the use of targeted killings as deterrence. If the organization would nevertheless choose to dispatch suicide bombers, then the actual use of targeted killings by the state means activity meant to compel the organization to change its behavior. Although of course the situation could be that suicide bombers were used in advance and the targeted killings are used first to coerce the forming of a new situation/agreement between the organization and the state – no suicide bombers, no targeted killings. That’s the agreement/deal.
Reviewer note: I find the above nuance of Kirchofer's position quite meaningful (that the situation of status quo does not require a cease fire or so). It's a note worthy to keep in mind.
Moreover, Kirchofer discusses targeted killings during the Second Intifada – Israeli targeting and killing of Hamas members. He asserts that “[t]he difference between the killings that increased violence and those that decreased it had less to do with the type of person they were targeting (they were all high-up members of the organization and were mostly political) and much more to do with timing.”
Reviewer note: my only remark here is the real potential weakness concerning who Israel targeted and killed as noted in the brackets. It is not true that they were all, or even the majority, high-level operatives and mostly political branch of Hamas. As such, Kirchofer's claim should be viewed as relevant only for the targeting and killing of highly ranked members. As in, the leadership echelon sets the organizational policy and the killing of this echelon influences what policy they set.
If Hamas perceived itself as complying with a ceasefire or as restricting the level of violence it employed, but still suffered from Israeli targeted killings, then it had no incentive to continue behave as it did. Such targeted killings provoke retaliation and the increase of violence.
However, if Hamas perceived the level of violence as intensive/very intensive, and was suffering from Israeli targeted killings, then it had incentive to decrease the level of violence if, in turn, Israel might stop with targeted killings.
Therefore, Kirchofer concludes that once the state used targeted killings to compel the organization to accept a certain status quo – such as ceasefire – then targeted killings become a tool of deterrence. Yet the state must keep its part of the deal as well. If it would continue to use targeted killings, then the organization would have no incentive to abide by the status quo. In other words, if the state’s goal is to maintain the status quo then it should not violate it with targeted killings.
Reviewer note: that is, of course, assuming the goal of the targeted killing policy by the state is to have a specific status quo (ceasefire or non-use of some modus operandi, etc.). However, what if the state's goal is to completely disband and destroy the organization? This is beyond the scope of Kirchofer's article (and that's, of course, completely legitimate... simply a nice point to keep in mind!).