Barack Obama and François Hollande are considered progressive leftists, but the presidents of the US and France, whose terms of office are drawing to a close, have ordered the "targeted killings" of jihadist enemies on an unprecedented scale.
French officials refer to the practice as “neutralisation of strategic objectives”, “targeted eliminations” or “homo [for homicide] operations”. They also parrot the US acronyms HVT (“high value targets”) and HVI (“high value individuals”).
Hollande admitted having ordered at least four such operations to Le Monde journalists Gérard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme. They met Hollande 61 times for a 2016 book, A President Shouldn't Say That. Hollande has been severely criticised for discussing the top secret assassinations.
Hollande admitted that France, like the US, has a kill list: “The army, the DGSE [external intelligence service] have a list of people who they think were responsible for taking hostages, or acts against our interests,” he told the authors. “They asked me. I said, ‘If you catch them, of course’.”
But as Hollande added: “These operations, we don’t even know the identity of the people who are in the cars, in the camps that we strike . . . It’s never that clear, so we cross-check information” before launching a strike.
In his book Fatal Errors; How Our Presidents Have Failed in the Face of Terrorism, journalist Vincent Nouzille claims that at least 40 jihadists have been assassinated on Hollande's orders by the French armed forces, the DGSE or by the US based on intelligence provided by France.
Le Monde has devoted substantial coverage to the way France hunts down and kills jihadists in Syria and the Sahel region of Africa. The reporting has coincided with the second anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher atrocities of January 7th-9th, 2015, which initiated the worst terrorist violence in France since the Algerian war.
Still, French efforts are dwarfed by US actions. Unlike the US, France does not yet have weaponised drones, the main instrument of "targeted killing". The US carries out 90 per cent of its attacks against Islamic State.
Of eight French jihadists known to have been assassinated in Syria, seven were killed by the US. The Pentagon announced five of the deaths, while Le Monde corroborated two others separately.
One French jihadist is believed to have been killed in the French bombardment of a munitions dump in Syria last October.
It was the US, not France, that killed Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the chief propagandist for Islamic State, also known as Isis, last August 30th. Al-Adnani had instructed followers to run people over with vehicles, the modus operandi of the Bastille Day atrocity that killed 86 people in Nice, as well as the attack that claimed 12 lives in a Christmas market in Berlin.
French forces have been more lethal in the Sahel, where Gen Pierre de Villiers, chief of staff of the French armed forces, told Europe 1 radio in October 2014 that they had "neutralised" seven jihadists.
Unlike the US, France does not announce the deaths of the jihadists it kills. US congressional committees are briefed on the killing of presumed terrorists. There is no parliamentary consultation in France.
Au contraire, a confidential note by Hollande's diplomatic adviser and chief of staff, dated November 4th, 2015 and quoted by Le Monde, tells the French leader it will be necessary to "harmonise" communication regarding the operations "so as to avoid the pursuit of debates on the question of targeted strikes/extra-judiciary executions".
French officials invariably say they have attacked “terrorist training bases”, but do not name the individuals who are targeted.
France has a UN mandate and requests from national governments for military operations in the Sahel and Iraq. It enjoys neither in Syria, but claims its attacks on Islamic State are justified under article 51 of the UN Charter regarding the right to self-defence.
The efficacy, as well of the legality, of the presidential licence to kill is in question.
Last October 8th, France bombed a base near Raqqa, Islamic State's "capital" in northern Syria, in the hope of killing the French jihadist Salim Benghalem, a childhood friend of of the Charlie Hebdo killer Cherif Kouachi, and a past jailer of French hostages. Benghalem survived.
And despite an intense manhunt, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the one-eyed jihadist leader who is believed to have planned the January 2013 attack that killed 38 workers in a gas plant in southern Algeria, has eluded capture or assassination.
In the summer of 2015, French intelligence proposed that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Islamic State official linked to a failed attack on a French church and the attack on the Thalys train, should be targeted for assassination.
Without naming Abaaoud, Hollande told Davet and Lhomme on September 4th, 2015 that he knew of a high-rise building in Raqqa housing “a person who trains jihadists coming from abroad, either as fighters there, or to return to Europe and strike their home country. We think we know the place. And there’s a Belgian-Moroccan who is running it.”
Unknown to the French, Abaaoud had already returned to Europe. In the event, “We didn’t strike the high-rise in Raqqa,” Hollande told the journalists on November 6th, 2015. “There are civilians around. We’ve made a rule for ourselves not to strike where there’s a risk for the civilian population.”
Seven days later, Abaaoud led the attacks that killed 130 people in Paris and St Denis. He was shot dead by French security forces on November 18th, 2015.