Defining al-Qaida and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force

Slate's blog on legal issues.
May 1 2008 10:01 AM

Defining al-Qaida and the Authorization for the Use of Military Force

A predawn American  cruise-missile strike against the central Somalia town of Dhusamareb killed between 10 and 30 persons today. Military officials said publicly that the target was "a known al-Qaida target." Confidentially, military officials told the New York Times that the target was Aden Hashi Ayro, reportedly one of al-Qaida's top operatives in Africa and the leader of an Islamist group in Somalia called the Shebab.

On a listserv this morning, one expert on armed conflict and international law questioned whether this strike portended yet another broadening September 2001 " authorization for the use of military force ." I think it does, and I'm at a loss to articulate any limiting principle on the geographic, spatial, temporal, or political scope of this nation's military efforts against al-Qaida. 

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I'm hardly the first to say it, but this highlights an important contrast between wars against states and wars against entities like al-Qaida. With the former, there is a limiting principle on the conflict. If the state ceases to be (such as Germany or Japan at the end of WWII), the war does, too. With the latter, there seems to be no limit. As al-Qaida evolves , morphs , grows , and franchises itself, so does the war, and so does any authorization for the use of force that is tied to the definition of al-Qaida.

Phillip Carter is an Iraq veteran who now directs the veterans research program at the Center for a New American Security.