Targeted killing and political assassination

“Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand preacher, born in New Mexico, who had evolved from a peddler of Internet hatred to a senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen” — thus the New York Times sets the tone in a report in which the Obama administration leaked a suitable amount of classified information necessary for defending its presidentially-directed assassination program.

The video above shows the preacher back in the days when he was “a peddler of internet hatred” — a description that one might expect to appear somewhere like the New York Daily Post.

“The fact that the U.S. has administered the death and homicide of over one million civilians in Iraq; the fact that the U.S. is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one U.S. civilian in New York City or Washington D.C. And the deaths of 6,000 civilians in New York and Washington D.C. does not justify the death of one civilian in Afghanistan.” Is this peddling hatred?

The killing of Awlaki in a CIA drone strike in Yemen on September 30, 2011, has stirred considerable debate about whether an American president has the legal authority to murder an American citizen without any judicial process.

A question of equal importance that has received much less attention is whether the government’s claims that Awlaki had an operational role in organizing acts of terrorism are based on hard intelligence, or whether less substantial evidence was used as merely to provide a pretext to conduct a political killing?

In other words, in the eyes of the Obama administration, did Awlaki pose a threat to the United States because he played an instrumental role in planning acts of terrorism, or because he had sufficient influence to inspire acts of terrorism?

As a figure who could inspire others to plan and carry out attacks, Awlaki arguably posed a much greater threat than he might have as a figure with an operational role in specific acts of terrorism, yet not even the most creative of legal teams would have been able to construct a credible legal argument to justify Awlaki’s killing on the basis that he posed such an inspirational threat.

The New York Times report provides clues that the steps leading to Awalki’s death followed a process in which the decision to kill him preceded the construction of a legal case or the crafting of an operational plan for carrying out the killing. Once all the legal, political, and operational hurdles had been crossed, Awlaki was killed within a few days.

While the Obama administration insists that it only kills terrorist suspects who cannot be captured, Awlaki had in fact been arrested in Yemen in 2006 and then interrogated by two FBI agents while being imprisoned without facing any charges. As the New York Times reported in 2010:

John D. Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence, told Yemeni officials that the United States did not object to his detention, according to American and Yemeni sources.

But by the end of 2007, American officials, some of whom were disturbed at the imprisonment without charges of a United States citizen, signaled that they no longer insisted on Mr. Awlaki’s incarceration, and he was released.

“He was different after that — harder,” said a Yemeni man who knows Mr. Awlaki well.

While the new report describes Awlaki having been in hiding during the period leading up to his death — the implication being that wherever he was hiding he could also act in the role of an al Qaeda operational leader — it might have been more accurate to simply say that he was attempting to avoid being killed.

That he was believed to be in the home territory of his family’s tribe, the Awaliq, and that in negotiations with Yemen’s then-president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, tribal leaders had offered to hold Awlaki under house arrest, suggests that his capture was not out of the question.

The problem with capturing Awlaki may have had less to do with determining his whereabouts than in not having enough evidence to put him on trial.

It appears that the Obama administration had less interest in building a case upon which Awlaki could be tried than in documenting a legal justification for killing him. That task fell into the hands of two lawyers in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel: David Barron and Martin Lederman. For that purpose, they wrote a 63-page memorandum “citing dense thickets of intelligence reports supporting the premise that Mr. Awlaki was plotting attacks.”

That this memorandum would come laden so heavily with intelligence specifically on Awlaki, suggests that the lawyers had less interest in establishing any kind of broad legal principles than in justifying this specific assassination and thus mitigating their own potential culpability in murders that had yet to be planned.

At the same time, if there really was such an abundance of evidence proving that Awlaki was directly involved in plotting attacks and that his killing actually “saved lives,” why has this evidence not been made public a year and a half after his death?

In the trial of Rajib Karim, a British Airways computer expert who in 2011 was convicted of plotting an attack that supposedly would have rivaled the 9/11 attacks, evidence was presented of email communications between him and someone referred to as “the professor.” The emails are highly incriminating and present strong evidence of a terrorist plot. Their content alone would not been of much help in convicting Karim however, were it not for the fact that they were found on a computer in his physical possession.

“The professor” is alleged to have been Awlaki and if that turned out to be true, it would support the Obama administration’s assertions about his operational role in al Qaeda. But there’s a missing link: where’s the evidence that the author of these messages was indeed Awlaki?

That isn’t a question that would merely concern a defense attorney — there are plenty of reasons to doubt that Awlaki would have made a transition from preaching to plotting.

This isn’t a matter of assessing the degree of his radicalism, but rather, even if we take it as well established that he supported terrorism, it’s hard to see any reason why he would not remain focused on his well-honed and highly effective skill as an orator. In other words, wouldn’t it have always made sense both to Awlaki and those around him that he continue to expand his power as a professional ideologue, rather than become an amateur terrorist? For al Qaeda, Awlaki’s preeminent value was that he could preach jihad with an American accent and reach a wide audience in the West.

In 2010, Jack Barclay, an analyst for the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, noted the breadth of Awlaki’s appeal:

The ostensibly benign nature of many of his oratories, which often avoid substantive discussion of politics, Jihad, and current affairs, may also have given him a greater level of accessibility and thus helped him cement a stronger online following than some of his more outspoken contemporaries. It is possible therefore, that many of Al-Awlaki’s supporters first developed an affinity for him not because they were actively seeking radical Islamist content to begin with, but because they were initially pursuing broader, beneficial Islamic guidance on the Internet and came across one or more of Al-Awlaki’s more broadly appealing lectures on Islam’s fundamental tenets.

Al-Awlaki’s committed support base have ensured not only that his many audio lectures receive widespread distribution, but that his reputation is vigorously defended whenever it is called into question on Internet blogs and forums.

It is also noteworthy that Al-Awlaki’s popularity appears to rise each time he is perceived to have shown bravery in defending his religion, despite harassment and the threat of imprisonment. Until his move to Yemen, this harassment might have amounted to little more than the periodic attention of television network journalists and the FBI. However, his later imprisonment in Sana’a and subsequent targeting by the US and Yemeni authorities after he continued his controversial writings and oratories, has further elevated his standing. His supporters consider this harassment proof that his enemies are attempting to silence him for merely telling the truth about Islam and the obligation upon Muslims to defend their religion. It is worth considering whether such pressure has been self-defeating in as much as it may have bolstered the perceived credibility of a Salafi-Jihadi cleric who would otherwise have been no more prominent than many of his contemporaries.

When a government grants itself the power to execute its own citizens without any kind of judicial process and refuses to reveal the legal grounds upon which it claims it can exercise such power, then there is every reason to wonder what other powers it might assume.

Having granted itself this absolute power, why would it show restraint in the use of lesser powers? Why, when it insists on shrouding its deliberations in such secrecy, should we have confidence that it would not target for elimination — Constitution be damned — those who in a Stalinist fashion it marks as America’s most threatening political enemies?

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5 thoughts on “Targeted killing and political assassination

  1. Chris

    “The problem with capturing Awlaki may have had less to do with determining his whereabouts than in not having enough evidence to put him on trial.” I think you might be right, Mr Woodward. Careful, though. You could be next!

  2. Paul Woodward

    The fact that I am suggesting Awlaki may have been targeted for political reasons, should not be read as though I am suggesting that this government is going after political critics of any stripe. That’s stuff for wild-eyed conspiracy theorists. And if the Obama administration had come to view Awlaki as more dangerous than Bin Laden, that assessment might not have been unrealistic. The issue is whether behind its secrecy, this administration broke the law. The mere fact that it continues to maintain such a level of secrecy around these issues is sufficient reason to have doubts.

  3. rosemerry

    “John D. Negroponte, then the director of national intelligence.”
    This shows the continuing employment in the Obama administration of downright criminals in sensitive positions where they can do the most harm. Now with Brennan in the CIA, Lew in Treasury,Biden all over, Susan Rice as probable national Security advisor… the USA has nowhere to go but down.

  4. delia ruhe

    All these drone murders betray a deeply insecure state — despite a president so heavily invested in his own coolitude.

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