The Operation Geronimo: The Legal Side of the Mission

April 24, 2023
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The Operation Geronimo: The Legal Side of the Mission essay
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Table of contents

  1. Operation Geronimo: legal authority
  2. Conclusion
  3. References

When President Obama gave the order to conduct Operation Geronimo, which was the kill or capture mission of Osama Bin Laden, his legal team had to make sure that the order was legal under Title 50 War and National Defense, by International Law, and in compliance with the Geneva Convention. The legal team wanted to legitimize the operation in a ways that would stand up to a congressional hearing, so they made sure the operation coincided with the Rules of War. Also it had to be legal by International Law, as the operation was to take place in Pakistan. Lastly, they wanted to make sure they were in accordance with the Geneva Convention. All of which was documented, debated, and investigated well before the operation was ever given the green light. This Operation Geronimo essay wil explore the legal issues behind the operation. To start with the legal team had to show that the operation was legal through the U.S. Laws of War.

Operation Geronimo: legal authority

In September 2001 both houses of congress passed resolution S.J. Resolution 23, which authorized the president to use whatever force was needed to combat the terrorist organization responsible for 9/11 and prevent any future terrorist attacks against the United State (Govern, 2012, p.347). This made Al-Qaida and it’s leaders legitimate military targets, no matter where they found them. That meant that when Osama Bin Laden was found in late 2010, that an operation could be put in place to kill or capture him and not violate any U.S. Laws of War. Additional consideration had to be taken when it came to who would be responsible to conduct the mission. In the end it became a joint operation between the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM).

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Making this a joint operation maintained the lawfulness of the mission that only the CIA could conduct clandestine operation on foreign soil, and removed any limitation on where military forces could be. As the Special Forces SEAL Team 6 was only temporarily assigned to the CIA for the purposes of this operation. This insured that all laws set forth by U.S. Code, Title 50, War and National Defense were followed. A completely different type of challenge would present itself when it came justifying the operation through international law.

When it comes to international law, the biggest challenge for the operation was to find a way to legally enter Pakistan, where the operation was going to take place, and not tell the Pakistani government what they were doing or ask for their assistance. It was widely thought that someone within the Pakistani government had been protecting bin Laden, and would tip him off if they were involved in the mission in any way. The only way the United States could violate the sovereignty of Pakistan was to deem them unable or unwilling to eliminate a threat that was coming from within their borders. This idea had not been fully embraced by the international community, but many countries had embarrassed this idea as a means of defending themselves, as international laws had not fully caught up to all the challenges that were facing the world when it came to dealing with and pursuing terrorist organizations.

To help with this challenge, a group of national security lawyers from many counties put together a group that got together annually to help propose revivals to international law and create new rules for their counties to follow in order to deal with the ever changing legal challenges terrorists were creating. These countries all had dealing with counter terrorism and engage in international military operations. They had put together a memo in September of 2010 that stated, “a counties sovereignty could be overridden in such limited circumstance’s… that the country was unwilling or unable to neutralize the threat”(Savage, t.10:24). The president’s legal advisors all agreed that this situation constituted a threat to national security and that the Pakistani government was unable to or unwilling to handle this threat. Therefor the U.S. was justified to go into Pakistan and conduct the mission without notifying Pakistan first. The next challenge that had to be considered was what to do when the operation was a success, and how do you prevent an extremist shrine while also staying in compliance with the Geneva Convention.

The last legal hurdle that had to be figured out was after the mission was over and Osama Bin Laden was dead, what did they do with the body. Know one wanted to create a mortars’ shrine for Islamic Extremists, that’s when the idea of a burial at sea was suggested. But they couldn’t just throw him overboard; it had to be handled properly. In fallowing with the Geneva Convention, the first thing that had to be done was the country that the person was from would have to be contacted and the remains had to be offered to them first. If they denied it, then there would be nothing else to do but burry him at sea. When that time came, the U.S. government contacted Saudi Arabia where Osama Bin Laden was from. They wanted nothing to do with him and refused to take the body. The next thing that had to be done was to preform the final rights in the Islamic faith. For this his body was cleaned and wrapped in clean cloths and a Muslim pray was spoken over him. Then the body was secured to 300 pounds of chains and lowered into the North Arabian Sea (Graves, t.17:33). That was the last legal obligation that had to be followed before the operation could be given the go ahead.


The legal team at the White House at this time did an excellent job in defending their decision to go forward with Operation Geronimo and did so with the idea that they may have to go in front of a congressional oversight committee and explain their legal standings for going ahead with this mission, especially if it went badly. By U.S. Laws of War the operation was completely legitimate and violated no laws or policies set forth by the Laws of War. It was also in accordance with international laws and policies that were in place to consider Pakistan as being unable or unwilling to neutralize a threat to the United States that were coming from within their borders. Lastly all the rights and rituals were followed for a Muslim burial at sea which the Geneva Convention required. All in all this was a lawful and justified mission that took years of hard work, dedication, and planning to bring down the most wanted man in the world.


  1. Chesney, R. M. (2011). Who May Be Killed? Anwar al-Awlaki as a Case Study in the International Legal Regulation of Lethal Force. SSRN Electronic Journal.
  2. Corn, G. S. (2011). The Legality of the Bin Laden Raid under Domestic and International Law. Harvard National Security Journal, 3(1), 75-114.
  3. Daskal, J. L. (2018). The Geography of the Battlefield: A Framework for Detention and Targeting Outside the “Hot” Conflict Zone. The Yale Law Journal, 127(8), 2280-2331.
  4. Guzman, A. T. (2014). The Bin Laden Killing and the Law of Armed Conflict. Texas Law Review, 92(8), 1669-1704.
  5. Heyns, C. (2010). Extrajudicial Executions and Targeted Killing under International Law. Journal of International Criminal Justice, 8(5), 1219-1244.
  6. Koh, H. H. (2010). The Obama Administration and International Law. American Journal of International Law, 104(4), 607-623.
  7. Pillay, N. (2011). Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston. United Nations General Assembly. Retrieved from
This essay is graded:
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Expert Review
The essay provides a comprehensive overview of the legal issues surrounding Operation Geronimo, which was the mission to kill or capture Osama Bin Laden. The writer discusses the legal considerations under U.S. laws of war, international law, and the Geneva Convention. The essay also addresses the authorization for the operation and the joint effort between the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Command. The writer explains the challenge of entering Pakistan without the knowledge or assistance of the Pakistani government and justifies the violation of their sovereignty. The essay concludes by discussing the handling of Bin Laden's body in compliance with the Geneva Convention. Overall, the essay demonstrates a good understanding of the legal issues involved in Operation Geronimo and presents the information in a clear and organized manner. The writer effectively supports their arguments with relevant details and provides citations for further reading. The essay could benefit from a more engaging introduction and conclusion, as well as a stronger thesis statement to guide the reader.
minus plus
What can be improved
- The introduction could be more attention-grabbing to capture the reader's interest from the beginning. - The conclusion could be strengthened by summarizing the main points and reinforcing the thesis statement. - The essay would benefit from a clearer thesis statement to guide the reader and provide a central focus for the discussion. - The writing style could be improved to be more engaging and avoid repetition of phrases and ideas. - The essay could include more analysis and critical evaluation of the legal issues, rather than simply presenting the information.
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