The Legal Authority of Operation Geronimo
On May 2, 2011, the man responsible for the greatest act of terrorism in history would meet his end. After a ten year search for the Al-Qaeda leader, Operation Geronimo, also known as Operation Neptune Spear, would decisively end the tyranny of Osama Bin Laden. This operation, though widely viewed as a success, has been at the core of academic and legal discussion due to the unique characteristics of the operation itself and the international environment in which it was conducted. Although some legal professionals and international institutions have questioned the multi-faceted legality of the operation, it is evident that former President Barack Obama had the legal authority to order Operation Geronimo and execute the plan due to his domestic authority as commander in chief, his adherence to the international laws of sovereignty, and his dedication to the importance of international human rights law.
As the commander in chief, it is inherent in the duties of the president to protect the nation as its highest military authority while acting within the constraints necessary for balance of power. Under the United States constitution, former president Obama had the authority to order all military actions during this period including Operation Geronimo to neutralize the threat of Bin Laden. Even though this was a covert mission, the Obama administration met with the National Security Council several times to plan the operation and briefed multiple members of Congress of the operation well in advance of final approval (Schmidle, 2011). Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the Authorization to Use Military Force Act of September 18, 2001 allowed “all necessary and appropriate force” to be used in order to eliminate the threat of those responsible for the attacks during September 11th (Authorization, 2001). The Obama administration would use this legal justification for Operation Geronimo as George W. Bush had during the manhunt that ensued since the attacks. In addition, Obama had a dedicated legal team within the administration that reviewed the critical legal authorities to conduct the operation during its inception. This legal review team concluded that Obama had the legal authority to conduct the operation after extensive review of the possible military actions leading up to the approved plan (Savage, 2015). These legal evaluations included the international laws of sovereignty as a primary legal authority in which Obama was allowed to order and execute operation Geronimo.
Although many question the legality of the United States conducting a military operation in a country that the nation is not at war with, Operation Geronimo serves as a prime example of an exception to those laws. International Law generally requires that in this situation, the United States ask the Pakistani government to arrest Bin Laden itself or to authorize an American raid (Savage, 2015). However, According to Andrew Norris (2007), there is an exception for situations in which a government is “unwilling or unable” to suppress a threat to others emanating from its soil. Due to the secrecy needed to ensure the success of the operation and the history of collaboration between the ISI and the Al-Qaeda network, it was determined that Pakistan was not able or willing to suppress the threat of Bin Laden and the decision was made by the Obama administration to refrain from involving Pakistan in Operation Geronimo (Savage, 2015). Internationally, the raid was widely supported by the United Nations, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union, as well as other international institutions. These entities also questioned the involvement of Pakistan in enabling Bin Laden’s concealment and their support confirmed that president Obama was within the proper international legal authority to order and execute Operation Geronimo within the borders of Pakistan without Pakistani government approval. This international support was also due to the civil considerations that were taken as no civilians in the surrounding areas were harmed by the operation. This can be attributed to Obama’s focus on upholding international human rights law during the planning and approval process of Operation Geronimo.
Like the international laws regarding sovereignty, human rights considerations were also taken into account during Operation Geronimo. During the initial planning process, many strategies were considered to eliminate the threat of Bin Laden. An aerial bombing of the compound was one of the actions that was weighed heavily. However, due to the compound’s structure, the ordnance needed to decisively eliminate the threat was also expected to kill or harm over a dozen Pakistani citizens in the area (Savage, 2015). This risk served as a deciding factor for the change to an on-ground raid by US military personnel which helped to strengthen the legal authority of the operation after its completion. Also, in the aftermath of the operation, some human rights groups and institutions questioned the legality of the order to kill Bin Laden rather than order a strictly captured mission. In an interview, Matthew Waxman, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert in national security law. "under international law, U.S. forces would have substantial discretion to use lethal force given that this was a military operation against an enemy commander likely to pose a very serious threat to U.S. forces”. Multiple sources have confirmed that Obama was within his legal authority to order a capture or kill mission and the operators conducting the raid were within legal guidance to eliminate Bin Laden if he posed any threat during the operation. Obama’s orders and the execution of those orders were in line with current international human rights laws and were carried out with discipline so as not to cause any unnecessary harm to the surrounding civilian population.
In all, the legality of the orders to conduct, and the execution thereafter, of Operation Geronimo are evident. Obama was advised on the legal ramifications of his options including domestic policies within the United States, international sovereignty laws and exceptions, and international human rights laws and necessary considerations. His decision to order and execute a raid in Pakistan was within his legal authority as Commander in Chief, was executed under appropriate provisions of international laws on sovereignty, and was mindful of civilian considerations and rules of war regarding human rights. In light of this work, researchers and scholars are encouraged to continue to find patterns in similar decisions and operations of US foreign policy in order to develop patterns and trends to better understand the legality of future military operations. In doing so, one will have a better understanding of the complex legal authorities that enabled the success of Operation Geronimo and the end to the most notorious terrorist of the twenty-first century.
Authorization to Use Military Force Act, Publ. L. No. 107-40, 115 Stat 224 (2001)
Savage, C. (2015, October 28). How 4 Federal Lawyers Paved the Way to Kill Osama Bin
Laden. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/29/us/politics/obama-legal-authorization-osama-bin-laden-raid.html
Schmidle, N. (2011, August 1). Getting Bin Laden. The New Yorker.
Norris, A. (2007). Sovereignty, Exception, and Norm. Journal of Law and Society, 34(1), 31-45.
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