May the US Kill Rank-and-File Terrorists in Yemen and Somalia? Administration Lawyers Are Split

Administration lawyers are split on whether it is legally permissible to kill rank-and-file terrorists in Yemen and Somalia.

The original al-Qaida based in Pakistan and Afghanistan is growing weaker, the New York Times reports. But an al-Qaida affiliate in the Arabian Peninsula and a group called Shabab in Somalia are spurring concerns, though Shabab generally focuses on local issues and has not been implicated in U.S. attacks.

On the one side is Defense Department general Jeh Johnson, who argues the United States can target combatants belonging to any group that has aligned itself with al-Qaida, especially in countries that won’t stop the groups from operating, the Times says. On the other side is Harold Koh, the State Department’s top lawyer. He contends international law limits the use of force outside Afghanistan and adjoining parts of Pakistan. He believes the United States may not kill people elsewhere unless it can be justified as necessary for self-defense, meaning those individuals must be plotting to attack the United States.

Meanwhile, Congress may jump into the debate. A pending defense bill includes a new provision authorizing military force against al-Qaida and its associates. One proposed version would create an expansive standard for the categories of groups that could be subject to military action, the Times says, “potentially making it easier for the United States to kill large numbers of low-level militants in places like Somalia.”

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