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

Anwar al-Awlaki: What We Learned from His Killing

October 3, 2011
11:04 am (EST)

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric with ties to al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate, gives a sermon in an undisclosed location in October 2008.

After covert military operations are revealed—in this case by text message from the Yemeni defense ministry—a number of operational details emerge soon after. U.S. government officials—usually speaking as anonymous sources—provide post-hoc justifications for why the dangerous or lethal operation was necessary, and ideally how it fits more broadly into U.S. foreign policy objectives.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Osama Bin Laden raid, we learned that the operation was code-named Neptune Spear, the CIA operated a nearby secret facility to recruit informants and watch the Bin Laden compound, and CIA analysts believed that the odds Bin Laden was there to be no better than 50-50.

Like the killing of Bin Laden, the attack of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was a covert operation, defined by U.S. law (Title 50, section 413(e)) as “an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

Nevertheless, we have learned a significant amount about the killing of Awlaki, as well as  the evolving and expanding U.S. policy of targeted killings. Four issues have specifically come to light:

First, counterterrorism cooperation “with Yemeni security agencies improved significantly in recent months,” despite the deepening political crisis and spreading instability, according to U.S. and Yemeni officials. One report noted that Yemen had been allowing more drone flights, increasing the amount of information it provided the United States, and even allowed Americans to participate in interrogations of detained militants.

Reportedly, it was information that Yemeni intelligence—obtained by interrogation—shared with the United States three weeks ago that led to Awlaki, who was reportedly given the code name Objective Troy. After two weeks of surveillance, Awlaki was killed by several Hellfire missiles while travelling in a Toyota pickup truck along with between three and six others, including American-born Samir Khan, and Muhammad Salme al-Naaj and Abdul-Rahman bin Arfaj, members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That the United States actually improved counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen during President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exile further undermines his long-standing claim that his rule is essential to fighting Al Qaeda in his country.

Second, Anwar al-Awlaki was in fact killed by a CIA drone, according to U.S. officials quoted in several sources. Some analysts have mistakenly written that other precision strikes against terrorist suspects were all conducted by drones. However, in Somalia, in 2007 and 2008, there were attacks by both U.S. Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunships flying out of southern Ethiopia, and Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy submarines. In Yemen, from December 2009 until May 2010, a handful of cruise missiles were launched by U.S. aircraft operating outside of Yemeni territory. In January 2010, according to a diplomatic cable released by wikileaks,  Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of Central Command, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

While a CIA drone reportedly killed Awlaki, a number of other military assets were also involved in the operation. The Washington Post reported that Joint Special Operations Command drones “came across the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti.”  In addition, according to a CBS Evening News report, if the CIA drone missed Awlaki, “carrier jets flying from an amphibious carrier off the coast were ready,” and “there was even an option for sending in Marine Ospreys with special operations forces to collect any intelligence left after the strike. But that was never used.”

Third, U.S. officials claimed that Awlaki had a much more “operational” role in AQAP after his death, than they had before. In the past two years, Awlaki had been described as “inspirational,” “charismatic,” an “effective communicator” who’s “internet presence magnifies the threat.” In May, FBI Direct Robert Mueller warned that Awlaki “has taken on a significance that he certainly did not have way back when.” Yet, most officials described him as not being intimately involved in operations, such as Leon Panetta, who testified to the Senate in June that “because he’s very computer oriented and as a result of that, really does represent the potential to try to urge others, particularly in this country, to conduct attacks here.”

After he was killed, the connections between Awlaki and terrorist plots became more specific and vivid. White House spokesperson, Jay Carney, said Awlaki was “a principal leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most operational affiliate.” A senior White House official said he was “very operational, every day he was plotting, he had very unique skills.” Finally, a State Department spokesperson claimed that Awlaki was “the leader of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula,” and “played a significant operational role” in two attempted terrorist attacks against U.S. civilian airliners.

Fourth, senior lawyers from across the Obama administration were unanimous in their belief that killing the American-born Awlaki was legal. Reportedly, after a long review process the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a “lengthy, classified memorandum” that provide the legal justification for Awlaki’s death. Many legal scholars and the ACLU strongly disagree with this position, contending that Awlaki killing violated international law and the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says “no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

It is remarkable to consider how far America has come since August 1998, when Attorney General Janet Reno opposed the cruise missile strikes against Bin Laden’s complex in Khost Afghanistan, in retaliation for the East African U.S. Embassy bombings, because she did not believe it met the standard for a self-defense attack under Article 51 of the UN Charter. Yet, most people support targeted killings, even of Americans. An unscientific poll asked, “If the U.S. had a role in the targeted killing of U.S. citizen and Al Qaeda leader Anwar al Awlaki, would you approve of it?” More than seventy percent of respondents said “yes.”

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