More on the Awlaki Killing

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on October 1, 2011

My original post is here, and there has been plenty of other commentary worth linking to. This discussion by Kenneth Anderson is excellent and comprehensive. Benjamin Wittes needles Glenn Greenwald with questions we all know that Greenwald will not answer. More from Wittes discussing the degree to which Awlaki was involved in planning terrorist strikes.

As always, Jack Goldsmith informs and enlightens:

The United States did not claim the power to kill Mr. Awlaki because of his political views or because he was a mere member of a Qaeda affiliate against which Congress had authorized the use of force. It claimed the power to kill him, rather, because he was an operational leader of a Qaeda affiliate that had been involved in terrorist plots on American soil and because he was hiding in a country that lacked the capacity to arrest him and bring him to justice.

Nor does the killing of Mr. Awlaki mean, as Glenn Greenwald charged in Salon, that “due-process-free assassination of U.S. citizens is now reality.” An attack on an enemy soldier during war is not an assassination. During World War II, the United States targeted and killed Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, the architect of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Moreover, the United States knew there were many American citizens in the German Army during World War II, but it did not alter its bombing practices as a result.

And while no court approved the killing of Mr. Awlaki, it is not accurate to say that he was targeted without due process. What due process requires depends on context. In a lawsuit brought last year that sought to prevent the government from targeting Mr. Awlaki, a federal judge ruled that in wartime the Constitution left it to the president and Congress, not the courts, to decide military targeting issues.

Even with this ruling, there is an understandable concern about the president’s making a decision to kill an American citizen. This is why the Obama administration has gone to unusual lengths, consistent with the need to protect intelligence, to explain the basis for and limits on its actions. Mr. Obama’s senior counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, made clear in a recent speech that, outside traditional battlefields, the United States targets only individuals who threaten American security. Moreover, there is an extraordinary process inside the government to ensure that this standard is met.

Before someone like Mr. Awlaki is targeted, multiple intelligence sources support the conclusion that he is a dangerous threat, top lawyers from many agencies scrutinize the action, policy makers at the highest levels of government approve the action after assessing its legal and political risks, and the Congressional intelligence committees are informed about the intelligence community’s role in the operations.

It is true that these internal targeting procedures gave Mr. Awlaki less due process than he would have received from a court. And these procedures are no guarantee against mistakes (though judicial process provides no such guarantee either).

That said, these procedures are wholly unprecedented in war, and they exceed anything the law requires. The caution inherent in this internal process is appropriate to guard against mistaken or imprudent actions when targeting individuals who have the power to wreak havoc on America while hiding among civilians in faraway places.

Now that the legal justifications for Awlaki’s killing have been established, perhaps we can turn to the question of how Awlaki’s killing helps make America safer. Let’s turn over the microphone to Daniel Byman:

The al Qaeda core leadership based in Pakistan has been under siege from drone strikes for several years now, curtailing its ability to communicate and plan operations — a campaign to which the May raid that killed Osama bin Laden added a dramatic punctuation point. But the dwindling of the core organization has made its affiliates in the Maghreb, Iraq, and elsewhere even more important to the jihadi cause. Nowhere has that been truer than in Yemen, and indeed senior intelligence officials have warned recently that AQAP is becoming more dangerous than the al Qaeda core itself.

Awlaki was at the heart of this threat. U.S. officials linked him to the near-miss attempt to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 and the 2010 plot to use explosives cunningly hidden in packages to down two cargo jets. Either of these attacks, had they succeeded, would have been blows to the U.S. homeland. Awlaki also had links to Nidal Malik Hasan, the suspected perpetrator of the 2009 Fort Hood shooting that killed 13 people, the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11.

From his perch in Yemen, Awlaki posed multiple threats. Because the Yemeni government was weak, or at times even complicit with the jihadists, he and his AQAP fellows had the operational freedom to plan sophisticated attacks directed at the United States. While other affiliates also had more freedom to maneuver, they focused on their locality and their region — so al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb hits sites in Algeria and its neighbors but has not tried to hit the U.S. homeland. AQAP, too, had been focused primarily on Yemen and its neighbor Saudi Arabia, and for many years limited the scope of its operations. This changed in 2009, however, and Awlaki deserves much of the blame. With his death, we can hope that AQAP might again devote itself exclusively to attacks in Yemen and the region — though perhaps we cannot count on it.

Just as importantly, Awlaki tried to inspire Muslims in the United States and the West in general to take up arms. As an American, he knew U.S. culture and values and how to play on these far more effectively than other al Qaeda figures. The plodding rhetoric of bin Laden successor Ayman al-Zawahiri comes off flat in translation, but Awlaki’s excellent English was far more compelling. He could speak to figures like Hasan in a way other al Qaeda leaders could not.

Remind me again why killing Awlaki is even remotely controversial. Because I just don’t see any rational reason whatsoever why we should be seized with angst over his passing.

  • Steve

    I’m not crying about his demise, but I think that many of his “terror ties” are pretty lame.  The NYTimes lists them down the page here: majority of these connections involve terrorists reading Awlaki’s writings, or listening to his lectures online.  The fort hood suspect supposedly was investigated for his email exchange with Awlaki.  But since no action was taken against Maj Hasan, it seems there must have been very little there.  I would like to see the evidence that Awlaki was involved in actual plotting.

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