from Politics, Power, and Preventive Action and Center for Preventive Action

Targeted Killings: The Death of Anwar al-Awlaki

September 30, 2011

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Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda’s Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location on September 30, 2011 (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)
Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters).

Earlier today, the government of Yemen’s defense ministry announced—by text message to journalists—that, “The terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions.” Four months ago, on May 5, the U.S. military failed in an attempt to kill al-Awlaki in two separate drone strikes forty-five minutes apart. But, reportedly, he was killed today either by a U.S. drone or aircraft at 9:55 a.m. local time in the al-Jawf region.

Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico, spent several years in the United States as an imam, which included a trip to the Pentagon as a “part of an informal outreach program,” to “moderate” Muslim leaders. Since 2004, he had lived in Yemen posting videos that encouraged terrorist attacks against the United States, and eventually became a key leader for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In early 2010, the Obama administration authorized the killing of al-Awlaki, and that July the Department of the Treasury included him on the Special Designated Nationals list “for supporting acts of terrorism and for acting for or on behalf of AQAP."

The targeted killing of al-Awlaki eliminates an inspirational and charismatic voice of al-Qaeda, as well as someone who U.S. officials asserted was playing an increasing operational role. However, like most targeted killings, it probably will not make much difference in reducing the ability of al-Qaeda or affiliated groups in mobilizing, recruiting, and planning terrorist operations.  In addition, it calls to mind a similar targeted killing that occurred almost nine years ago, which is illustrative to remember as U.S. officials—anonymously of course—condone al-Alwaki’s death.

On November 3, 2002, a CIA-controlled Predator drone in Yemen bombed an SUV carrying Abu Ali al-Harithi, a suspected operational planner of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, four Yemeni suspected terrorists, and Ahmed Hijazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen and ringleader of an alleged terrorist sleeper cell in Lackawanna, New York.

The U.S. and Yemeni special operations forces that tracked al-Harithi and his counterparts to a small compound did not know that an American citizen was among them. A Yemeni government agent on the ground, however, noted that when al-Harithi’s group left the compound they travelled in two SUVs; all of the men were in one vehicle, and the women in another. According to an unnamed U.S. official, “If the women hadn’t gotten into another car, we wouldn’t have fired."

That Predator strike against al-Harithi represented an important turning point in U.S. foreign policy in three ways.

First, it was the first overt targeted killing after 9/11 outside of Afghanistan in what was then already being labeled by the Bush administration as the ’Global War on Terrorism.’

Second, after DNA tests concluded that the attack had killed the correct person, senior U.S. officials bragged of its demonstrative effect in deterring terrorists everywhere. Acting on the instruction of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz appeared on CNN to confirm America’s involvement and to boast that it had been “a very successful tactical operation,” which had “gotten rid of somebody dangerous."

Third, it was the first acknowledged targeted killing by the United States government, outside of a battlefield, since political assassinations were prohibited by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Moreover, it was a military operation conducted on the territory of a sovereign state that the United States was not at war with, and conducted with the full knowledge and consent of the Yemeni government.

However, the enduring legacy of the targeted killing of al-Harithi was that it 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. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later told me, “The goal of the strike was to make al-Qaeda feel frightened, so that they knew we could reach out and hit them without them knowing."

While there was some evidence from captured signals intelligence that al-Qaeda was shocked by the Predator strike, the killing of al-Harithi and his cohorts in no way deterred the international terrorist organization from conducting future attacks, as was demonstrated by the steady al-Qaeda–sponsored terrorist bombings in Tunisia, Istanbul, London, Malindi, Kenya, and elsewhere.

As is true of many targeted killings, it was done without any sustained, parallel civilian effort to develop security and government capacity in Yemen.  In part, this resulted from the resistance of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, who was furious that the U.S. involvement in the al-Harithi killing was made public.

Yet, the shortcomings of U.S. civilian-led efforts in Yemen owed more to American inter-agency cooperation problems than opposition from Saleh. Despite the increased threat warnings emanating from the country, there was no comprehensive and coordinated U.S. military campaign plan for Yemen until one was developed and approved by Gen. David Petraeus, then the Commander of Central Command, in late April 2009.

At the time, the targeted killing of al-Harithi was the right thing to do: A loyal al-Qaeda member for over a decade who was implicated in the unsuccessful plot against The Sullivans and responsible for overseeing the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, was assassinated.

Nevertheless, that tactical targeted killing in 2002 was not followed-up with a comparable civilian-led effort in Yemen. As was apparent after the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Yemeni-based al-Qaeda had made “a quantum leap to being the [al-Qaeda] affiliate that wants to carry out attacks against the United States and its allies,” according to Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Terrorism.

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki today is an important first step in reducing the threat to the United States and its allies. However, its sustained impact in Yemen, if any, will depend on cooperation from a post-Saleh leadership and the U.S. government’s sustained focus on providing broad and sustained support to civilian, military, and intelligence ministries. After al-Harithi was killed, President Bush reportedly told an adviser: “We’re talking to them in a way they can understand. Capability like this changes the game.” Ultimately, nothing changed in Yemen. We’ll see if al-Awlaki’s death does.

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