ACIA drone strike has killed Anwar al-Awlaki, one of the world’s most wanted terrorists. Awlaki’s death is another blow to al-Qaida, and proof yet again of the extraordinary reach bestowed on the United States by its technology.
But this killing exposes two dilemmas for the U.S.: First ,the operation was based on close cooperation with Yemen, a government headed by President Ali Abdullah Saleh, whom Washington has publicly called on to leave office as demanded by prodemocracy activists. Second, the killing raises troubling moral and legal questions — Awlaki carried a U.S. passport and U.S. law prevents the killing of its own citizens without due process.
Awlaki was on the most wanted list for several years. The U.S. tried and failed to kill him in a missile attack in southern Yemen last May. He retreated to a mountainous region in another part of the country and cut himself off from all electronic communications, but Yemeni intelligence services tracked him down, surveilling him for weeks until the U.S. launched a second successful strike against a multicar convoy last Friday.
Anwar al-Awlaki had risen to the top of the list of the most wanted terrorists not because of his operational role, but because he was a unique propagandist capable of communicating the al-Qaida message of destruction to Western audiences. He was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, and raised there. He studied in Colorado and ran mosques in the U.S. before leaving the country in 2002 and settling in Yemen two years later.
While he was linked to several terrorist incidents, such as the November 2009 killing of 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, allegedly by Nidal Hasan, the failed attempt to blow up an airplane heading to the U.S. on Christmas Day in 2009, and the failed attempt in 2010 to detonate a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square, Awlaki’s real value to al-Qaida was his charisma. Few terrorists had his command of English and his understanding of the U.S.
He was an outstanding recruiter, able to communicate with Westerners and cultivate the grievances of disaffected Muslims already inside the U.S. In an organization like al-Qaida, no single individual is irreplaceable, but Awlaki was extremely valuable and his death is a real blow to the cause.
The strike was the product of a joint operation between the U.S. and the Yemeni intelligence services. As Yemen has become the second most important front in the battle against terrorism, cooperation with that government is critical to the success of anti-terror efforts. Mr. Saleh, Yemen’s president, is under pressure from the prodemocracy movement to step down. A deal to turn over power was supposedly in place, worked out while he was recovering in Saudi Arabia from wounds sustained in an attack on his compound earlier this year. But last month he abruptly returned to Yemen and upended the deal.
Some speculate that the Awlaki killing, along with other forms of cooperation, is an attempt to demonstrate that Mr. Saleh is an indispensable ally in the fight against terrorism. His relatives are key officials in the security services, and they, too, are said to be sending the message that the president should stay in power if cooperation is to continue.
U.S. officials applaud the cooperation with Yemen, but they are not backing off on their calls for the president to step down.
The Awlaki killing raises moral questions as well. He is one of the first drone targets to carry a U.S. passport. U.S. law expressly prohibits assassinations, although legal opinions are divided about the applicability of that constraint in war. The real question is whether Awlaki, as a U.S. citizen, should have received a higher level of protection from the U.S. Constitution.
Critics claim that the U.S. government is acting as judge, jury and executioner, and thus violating constitutional guarantees of due process. Last year, two legal aid groups filed lawsuits in U.S. court alleging, on behalf of Awlaki’s father, that the Obama administration did not have the authority to hunt down and kill one of its own citizens without judicial review. (The case was thrown out of court when the judge ruled that the son showed no interest in litigating in a legal system he despised.)
The moral and legal issues must continue to demand attention. No government should be able to kill its own citizens without standardized legal process. The Obama administration has asserted that the right of self-defense extends to acts against individuals working for a foreign country or a cause and targeting the U.S.
In remarks announcing the killing, the administration said Awlaki was the leader of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, taking the lead “in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans.” Making him an operational/action figure makes it easier to justify his killing.
Most experts dispute that characterization, agreeing that Awlaki was a key figure in the organization only as a propagandist but not as an operational officer.
While Awlaki’s death is a blow to the international terror network, vigilance must remain high. Sadly, there are many replacements for the propagandist, even if they are not as skilled as he was. Moreover, some form of retaliation is likely. As always, governments must continue to grapple with the terrorist threat — both in physical and moral terms.
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