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On the virtues of killing extremists (and sadly, their families)

We had a piece posted here by Grim called "On the virtues of killing children" that took a powerful, intellectual look at the moral, ethical and legal concepts around collateral damage and related issues. Events call for another look at these topics. Islamists in Nigeria began a violent campaign to impose their will, belief system and sharia law; the security forces there responded. Let's take a look at this to see if they acted properly or perpetrated a massacre.

Seeking to impose Islamic Shariah law throughout this multi-religious country, the militants attacked police stations, churches, prisons and government buildings in a wave of violence that began Sunday in Borno and quickly spread to three other northern states.

This is something no sovereign state can tolerate and the Nigerian forces had to respond, the question is were their reactions proper. 

The government warned people to evacuate the area before the attack on the compound Wednesday, then shelled the compound and stormed the group's mosque inside, setting off a raging firefight with retreating militants armed with homemade hunting rifles and firebombs, bows and arrows, machetes and scimitars.

An AP reporter saw soldiers shoot their way into the mosque under fire and then raked those inside with gunshots.

"The government warned", that is an important start. Then they attacked the group responsible for major violence throughout their country "setting off a raging firefight with retreating militants", which means that the mosque they were using is no longer protected as a religious building, and becomes a legitmate military target.

An AP reporter saw soldiers shoot their way into the mosque under fire and then raked those inside with gunshots.

OK, as per previous and the Laws of Land Warfare. Once a building has become essentially a fighting position it can be considered a "hostile house". This semi-official term means that due to the deadly fire coming from a building the need to differentiate between combatants and non-combatants inside is no longer required. This is cold-blooded, but consider every time artillery or an air strike is called on a building, we obviously cannot ask those to ignore any innocents who may be in the building. The blame for any collateral casualties lies with those who used the innocents as shields or simply callously disregarded their safety. A Nigerian spokesman said:

"The issue of identifying who is the Taliban or not, the human rights groups are not fair to security agencies because they don't have any marks on their faces. There is no way to know if this is Taliban or this is not."

Absolutely right, once deadly fire emanates and an assault is ordered there is no requirement to make shoot/no-shoot decisions. That would put the assaulting forces in an untenable position of trying to identify the intentions of each individual in a mass that was attempting to kill them. Again the responsibilty for any criminality falls directly on those who put civilians in danger.

League for Human Rights director Shamaki Gad Peter said that after the siege rights workers saw the bodies of up to 20 people who were unarmed and appeared to have been shot from behind, possibly trying to escape the mayhem, he said.

Military spokesman Col. Mohammed Yerima initially denied allegations that the military intentionally killed civilians but said that the militants were indistinguishable from civilians.

"All the civilians that were living in that place were evacuated, to our knowledge," he said. "And those that remained in that enclave are loyalists and members of the group. So the issue of whether we have killed innocent civilians is not true."

I want to state categorically that the deaths of any innocents even in a justified military action are horrific at best. But that should not be the determining factor as to whether to act or not. If the lack of action would empower the bad actors to continue purposely killing, then action is called for. The government forces are bound to obey the laws of war, even as the militants do not. But, as long as they are reacting to to provocations that create a demonstrably hostlie environment, their actions are justified and necessary.