Debate Forum Topic, 10/18/11

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki

By Glenn McCoy

Anwar al-Awlaki, born April 22, 1971, was an American-born Yemeni-American imam who, according to U.S. government officials, was a senior recruiter, motivator and operations planner for the Islamist militant group al-Qaida. His sermons are alleged to have helped motivate at least three attacks inside the U.S. He was the first U.S. citizen to be added to a list of persons approved for targeted killing by the U.S. government.  He had been described as the “bin Laden of the Internet” for his prolific use of his own blog, Facebook and his posting of many messages on YouTube. President Obama alleged that al-Awlaki was “the leader of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.”

Al-Awlaki allegedly spoke with, trained, preached to and helped to radicalize a number of al-Qaida members and affiliates. Time and time again, in both failed and successful terrorist attacks against the West, al-Awlaki was found to be involved as the spiritual motivator for the attacker. This group including three of the 9/11 hijackers, alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan and confessed “Christmas Day bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Al-Awlaki was also allegedly involved in planning Abdulmutallab’s attack. The Yemeni government began trying him in absentia in November 2010, for plotting to kill foreigners and being a member of al-Qaida, and a Yemenite judge ordered that he be captured “dead or alive.”

Al-Awlaki was born in America when his father, a Yemini citizen and Fulbright Scholar, was a student attending the University of New Mexico. When al-Awlaki was 7 years old, he returned with his family to Yemen. After living in Yemen for a number of years, al-Awlaki then returned to the U.S. to begin his college education in 1991.

The FBI investigated al-Awlaki from June 1999 through March 2000 for possible fundraising for Hamas, links to al-Qaida and a visit in early 2000 by a close associate of “the Blind Sheik” Omar Abdel Rahman (who was serving a life sentence for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center attack and plotting to blow up New York City landmarks). He left the U.S. before he could be charged or arrested.

Al-Awlaki’s name came up in a dozen terrorism plots in the U.S., UK and Canada. The cases included suicide bombers in the 2005 London bombings, radical Islamic terrorists in the 2006 Toronto terrorism case, radical Islamic terrorists in the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot, the jihadist killer in the 2009 Little Rock military recruiting office shooting and the 2010 Times Square bomber. In each case the suspects were devoted to al-Awlaki’s message, which they listened to on laptops, audio clips and CDs.

Al-Awlaki was believed to be in hiding in Southeast Yemen in the last years of his life. The U.S. deployed unmanned aircraft in Yemen to search for and kill him, firing at and failing to kill him at least once, before he was killed in a drone attack in Yemen on September 30.

A secret memo authorizing the killing of al-Awlaki by the U.S. followed months of extensive interagency deliberations. The document provided the justification for acting despite an executive order banning assassinations, a federal law against murder, protections in the Bill of Rights and various strictures of the international laws of war. The memo supported one of the most significant decisions made by President Obama: the killing of an American citizen without a trial.

The Obama administration has refused to acknowledge or discuss its role in the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki last month and that technically remains a covert operation. The government has also resisted growing calls that it provide a detailed public explanation of why officials deemed it lawful to kill an American citizen, setting a precedent that scholars, rights activists and others say has raised concerns about the rule of law and civil liberties.


Forum Question of the Week:
Was it lawful for the U.S. government to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, who was a U.S. citizen, without the traditional due process of law?

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