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Law of Armed Conflict: Analysis of Legal Background behind Killing of Osama Bin Laden

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Operation Geronimo

Operation Geronimo aimed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, who was the most wanted man in the world then. They executed the operation by utilizing two teams of 12 Navy SEALS who had received orders by the United States president, then Barack Obama. The paper will discuss the legal ground president Obama had to order operation Geronimo and execute the Plan. The death of Osama bin Laden in the hands of the Navy SEALS raised a lot of questions concerning its legality. Others have argued the operation to be a law enforcement mission and judged under the law standard of human rights (Soherwordi & Khattak, 2011). The International law has barred enforcement of the law in other countries’ territory without its express consent.

We can evaluate the execution of Osama bin Laden under the rules in the law of armed conflict, which permits commanders and enemy fighters to be killed on sight except for voluntary surrender or physical incapacitation. If the killing is likely to take place away from the battleground or where the opponent is not resisting actively, then there are four core warfare principles to justify that the operation was legally relevant (Cox & Wood, 2017). First is the principle of necessity. It justifies this because it does not mean the killing for revenge. The use of force should be intended to bring hostilities to a successful end, complying with other armed conflict laws. Second is the principle of distinction where the force used must be against a military objective and not directed against protected civilians or objects. Proportionality is the third principle where the attack conducted on a valid military target may harm a civilian, as long as the harm is proportional to the military advantage expected. Last is the principle of humanity where the attack should as to cause necessary suffering or use of prohibited weapons.

Published accounts concerning the killing of Osama bin Laden have suggested the operation met all these standards. The operation did not use aerial bombing to limit civilian casualties, but executed a raid at the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan. Operation Geronimo used the raid to protect the children and women present at the time of the operation, which ensured that distinction and proportionality issues did not arise. Ensuring the principle of humanity in mind, the teams used conventional military firearms.

Reports that Osama bin Laden was to be taken dead would raise real legal issues, but President Obama stated surrender was to be accepted. The killing of Osama bin Laden was a prohibited assassination raised some serious, legitimate concerns. However, the President being Commander-In-Chief is an object of attack by law, while civilian leaders do not have any authority over the military’s operations. Although historical laws bar assassination, they focus on the means of attack. Using a military helicopter did not pose any legal concern; the operation did not use a CIA operative, which could have raised serious legal issues.

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The raid location was also an issue of legal concern, where wars should be executed lawfully in the warring state’s territory. Operation Geronimo justified this condition. First was the fact that Pakistan was to be neutral in the conflict between the United States and al-Qaeda, and therefore it was obligated not to allow its territory to be used by one side of the conflict. If it was unwilling or unable to do this, international law permitted the aggrieved party, the United States, to have limited self-defense. Another possibility could have been Pakistan privately allowing the United States to act on its territory after realizing its inability to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary. Last, Pakistan is an American ally in combating Al-Qaeda, lawfully permitted the United States to do the operation within its territory.

Days before the operation, United States lawyers had drafted five secret memorandums to use if they were pressed later to explain their legal grounds. This group of lawyers helped justify President Obama’s decision. This analysis helped the United States to send forces to Pakistan territory without its consent (Hersh, 2016). The lawyers resolved to use lethal force under international law. Although this was an encountered objection from legal scholars later, they became silent because of Operation Geronimo being a success. Hard legal questions required smart legal answers, and this kept the lawyers working. On one proposal, President Obama prepared to deem the damage lawful, due to the circumstances surrounding the raid.

There was a plan that if the SEALS were to locate Osama bin Laden in the targeted point, then the presidential administration was to lift the secrecy and praise the execution. If the SEALS were unsuccessful, they would slip out of the compound and act as if the raid did not happen. The lawyers also faced the challenge of whether the SEALS’ focus on killing Osama bin Laden was the only option. The lawyers agreed it would be legal, and later on, President Obama ordered the mission. The raid team was ready for any resistance and executed the matter (Wachtel, 2005). After the execution, the SEALS had concurred on one key point; bin Laden resisted and would not surrender. The lawyers had also drafted on the other prisoners’ fate within Osama bin Laden’s residence, but they did not take it down on paper because the plan was for the SEALS not to leave with any prisoners.

The last legal question was on creating an Islamic shrine by burying the body of Osama bin Laden at sea. The Geneva Conventions require the bodies of slain enemies be buried within the requirements of their religion. For Muslims, the burial should be in the soil and their graves marked. However, some Islamic laws also permit that burial is at sea. The team had a burial memorandum that focused on the exception (Savage, 2015).


In summary, the incidence surrounding the killing of Osama bin Laden by the United States Navy SEALS has raised a lot of questions regarding its legality. The well-calculated move by the parties involved in the mission proves the operation was legal. The drafting team of Operation Geronimo composed of four administrative lawyers who did a lot of research and used highly secure laptops in writing the memorandums. These lawyers worked with a lot of secrecy by ensuring no leakage of any sensitive information related to the raid mission. For the fear of leaks, the White House did not allow the lawyers to consult the Attorney General or the aides. They were supposed to make the complete process a secret. It aimed all these rationales at overcoming any potential legal obstacle. The process was successfully executed and remained to be legal on all standpoints.


  1. Cox, L., & Wood, S. (2017). 'Got him': Revenge, Emotions, and the Killing of Osama bin Laden. Review of International Studies, 43(1), 112.
  2. Hersh, S. M. (2016). The Killing of Osama bin Laden. Verso Books. Wachtel, H. A. (2005). Targeting Osama bin Laden: Examining the legality of assassination as a tool of US foreign policy. Duke Law Journal, 55(3), 677-710.
  3. Savage, C., 2015. How 4 Federal Lawyers Paved The Way To Kill Osama Bin Laden (Published 2015). [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 November 2020].
  4. Soherwordi, S. H. S., & Khattak, S. A. (2011). Operation Geronimo: Assassination of Osama bin Laden and its Implications on the US–Pakistan Relations, War on Terror, Pakistan, and Al-Qaeda. South Asian Studies, 26(2), 349-65.
  5. Wachtel, H. A. (2005). Targeting Osama bin Laden: Examining the legality of assassination as a tool of US foreign policy. Duke Law Journal, 55(3), 677-710.
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Law of Armed Conflict: Analysis of Legal Background behind Killing of Osama Bin Laden. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 1, 2024, from
“Law of Armed Conflict: Analysis of Legal Background behind Killing of Osama Bin Laden.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023,
Law of Armed Conflict: Analysis of Legal Background behind Killing of Osama Bin Laden. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 1 Mar. 2024].
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