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Retaliation isn’t justice

Biden’s assassination of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was illegal. Canada should not have condoned it

Canadian PoliticsMiddle East

Ayman al-Zawahiri was the second emir of Al Qaeda from June 16, 2011 until he was killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan in July 2022. Photo by B.K. Bangash.

If you blinked you might have missed it. On August 1 Justin Trudeau tacitly endorsed the CIA’s extrajudicial assassination of a foreign national. Judge for yourself:

A little more than a week ago, a CIA-piloted drone operating in the airspace of a sovereign country assassinated Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri with a Hellfire missile. President Biden emphasized the lack of collateral damage—about as close as any official will get to acknowledging drone strikes more often than not kill civilians—and stated justice had been delivered.

There is of course a considerable difference between justice and retaliation. Though the US has given itself broad and sweeping powers to carry out extrajudicial hits on suspected terrorists, Biden’s decision to kill al-Zawahiri broke numerous international laws, including the Geneva Convention, as law professor Marjorie Cohn amply demonstrates in a recent article for Truthout. What’s more, she writes, “extrajudicial executions are prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States has ratified.”

If that wasn’t enough, consider that the assassination of al-Zawahiri would have been an intolerable abuse of international law to none other than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had this to say about Donald Trump’s 2020 drone assassination of top-ranking Iranian military officer Qassim Suleimani:

[W]e cannot put the lives of American service members, diplomats and others further at risk by engaging in provocative and disproportionate actions. Tonight’s airstrike risks provoking further dangerous escalation of violence. America–and the world–cannot afford to have tensions escalate to the point of no return. The Administration has conducted tonight’s strikes in Iraq targeting high-level Iranian military officials and killing Iranian Quds Force Commander Qassim Suleimani without an Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iran. Further, this action was taken without the consultation of the Congress.


Contrast that with Pelosi’s statement on the assassination of al-Zawahiri: “The President is to be commended for his strong leadership to keep Americans safe and to deliver justice to this despicable terrorist.”

Despicable terrorist or not, according to both international and US law, al-Zawahiri had the right to his own life, as well as a trial for whatever crimes he’s accused of. That al-Zawahiri was the leader of Al Qaeda and likely the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks (among others) does not give the US the license to execute him.

What’s of paramount concern for Canadians is not that the United States has once again launched a strike without due process and in defiance of international law and convention (conventions we ostensibly support and would rigorously apply in our prosecution of just about any other nation), but that our own prime minister would make a statement supporting such actions.

It is one thing to acknowledge, perhaps reluctantly, that Canada has no real ability to change its foreign policy course. Our sovereignty, such as it is, would likely come to a screeching halt if we withdrew from NATO, NORAD, or any number of multilateral trade agreements. This has been the case for many decades. But it didn’t always mean we offered the US our unconditional and uncritical support on every occasion. Indeed, we once thought loftily of ourselves as a nation that believed in and encouraged diplomacy.

No peace or security can be achieved through extralegal assassinations or drone strikes that terrorize and kill countless civilians. Those killed by these strikes—and all their families, friends, supporters, and associated—have been denied fair due process according to international law, and it is the constant violations of these laws that breed anti-Western sentiment in the first place.

Canada should resolutely condemn the extrajudicial killing of anyone and seek to uphold the universal laws meant to govern all nations. By tacitly supporting al-Zawahiri’s killing, Trudeau demonstrated belief in a Western exceptionalism that has directed the actions of our leaders for decades and helped to make the world less safe and less fair.

It is remarkable that it even has to be said: murder is not justice. Our prime minister should know this.

Taylor C. Noakes is a public historian and independent journalist.

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