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Yemeni Cleric's Killing: Praise and Unease

Author: Jonathan Masters, Deputy Editor
September 30, 2011


Officials in the Obama administration have confirmed that a missile strike from a U.S. aircraft killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior al-Qaeda leader and radical Islamic propagandist in Yemen. The death of the American-born cleric is the latest in a string of U.S. targeted killings focusing on al-Qaeda leadership, including the raid on Osama bin Laden in May and the drone strike on al-Qaeda's number two, Atiyah Abd Rahman, in August 2011. As a leading al-Qaeda recruiter linked to terror plots on U.S. soil (WSJ), including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting and the failed Christmas day bombing in New York of the same year, al-Awlaki was a priority target.

While the attack highlights the growing lethality of U.S. counterterrorism efforts, it also shines new light on several controversial issues, including the legality of targeting U.S. citizens; concerns over the scope of U.S. counterterrorism operations; and debate over the possibility of blowback from U.S. targeted killing policy. Mark Fallon, the former commander of the USS Cole Task Force in Yemen, told CFR that al-Awlaki's death "is extremely significant. He was probably the most dangerous threat to the homeland of the United States because of the following he drew, both in the United States and also in the UK." But CFR Mideast expert Ed Husain says while the cleric's killing is a significant event for Muslim activists in the West, we shouldn't "get carried away, because he will be viewed as a martyr."

Advocacy groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights argue that U.S. targeted killing policy, which includes the use of lethal force outside of declared theaters of combat, is "unlawful and unacceptable." The United States, they argue, can only carry out a legitimate killing operation in such areas after appropriate due process or only as a last resort to address an imminent threat of deadly harm. Under domestic law, Bush and Obama administration officials have justified targeted killings under the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). CFR's John Bellinger says it is becoming increasingly difficult for the White House to justify some of its counterterrorism operations under this limited statutory authority, and should be updated. "The AUMF needs to be revised to take into account the realities of our real military operations around the world," he says. Despite these criticisms, the United States continues to expand such operations, including the construction of drone bases in Somalia and Yemen (WashPost).

Other critics say targeted killings, especially the use of drone strikes, are counterproductive and fuel anti-U.S. sentiment. Imran Khan, a leading Pakistani politician, says drone strikes and other such acts are breeding terrorism (Dawn). However, Fallon says that killing charismatic leaders like al-Awlaki is net positive, "When you eliminate a guy like al-Awlaki--after an initial backlash--long-term recruitment and funding will dry up."

But debate persists over the longer-term viability of a targeted killings policy. CFR's national security expert Micah Zenko writes that the U.S. killing of Abu Ali al-Harithi in 2002, the suspected mastermind of the USS Cole bombing, "did nothing to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States from Yemen, and did not deter or curtail al-Qaeda's capabilities and operational reach." Husain adds: "Look at the Egyptian experience where they killed [Sayyid Qutb] in 1960s and [Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj] in 1980s--the list is long--and we haven't necessarily seen a decline in radicalism in Egypt and the Arab world." But Daniel L. Byman of Brookings Saban Center says targeting terrorist leaders "brings justice to our enemies" and "can devastate the group in question." At the same time, he says, targeted killings are not a strategy by itself.

Background Materials:

"Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions," UN Report of the Special Rapporteur

"Targeted Killings," CFR Backgrounder

"The Targeted Killings Debate," CFR Expert Roundup

"Do Targeted Killings Work?" Foreign Affairs

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