Awlaki’s Death

September 30, 2011

There are confirmed reports that this morning in Yemen wanted terrorist Anwar al Awlaki was killed in a drone strike. Awlaki was a spiritual leader of the Yemeni branch of al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). While the extent of his operational role is disputed, his charisma and eloquent English made him a powerful recruiter in the West, with reported ties to the Christmas Day “Underwear Bomber,” the Fort Hood shooter and the attempted Times Square bomber. Awlaki’s death is the most recent in a series of blows to al Qaeda. It showcases the success of the administration’s counterterrorism tactics and the challenges those tactics bring with them. With al Qaeda suffering severe operational blows, and growing reliance on drone strikes and focus on individual targets, the United States not only can, but must, offer clear explanations to global publics and clear legal resolution at home of how individual targetings, particularly of American citizens, are consistent with our Constitutional values.

Awlaki’s death a significant blow to al Qaeda propaganda. Awlaki was believed to be a prominent member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Many have said that he was taking on an increased operational role. His most important role was as religious adviser and as a powerful recruiting officer. He is believed to be linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called Underwear Bomber; Nidal Hasan, the Fort Hood Shooter; and Faisal Shahzad, the attempted Time Square car bomber. Former White House counterterrorism adviser Juan Zarate told CBS news that, “His role as a propagandist actually will be very difficult to fill.” However, the extent of Awlaki’s operational role has been disputed.  Michael Leiter, former director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified earlier this year that: “I actually consider Al Qaeda in the Arab peninsula with Awlaki as a leader within that organization as probably the most significant threat to the U.S.” But Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen of Princeton University offers a cautionary note: “I have long argued that while Awlaki was a threat he was not the most significant threat coming out of Yemen.  Nasir al-Wihayshi, Said al-Shihri, Qasim al-Raymi and so on are much more important to the continued existence of AQAP than was Awlaki. I don’t think Awlaki’s death will in any way be debilitating for the organization.” [Juan Zarate, 9/30/11. Michael Leiter, TKTK. Gregory Johnsen, 9/30/11]

Awlaki’s death is the latest in a series of blows to al Qaeda. John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, explained last June that, “We have affected al-Qa’ida’s ability to attract new recruits.  We’ve made it harder for them to hide and transfer money, and pushed al-Qa’ida’s finances to its weakest point in years.  Along with our partners, in Pakistan and Yemen, we’ve shown al-Qa’ida that it will enjoy no safe haven, and we have made it harder than ever for them to move, to communicate, to train, and to plot. Al-Qa’ida’s leadership ranks have been decimated, with more key leaders eliminated in rapid succession than at any time since 9/11… All told, over the past two and half years, virtually every major al-Qa’ida affiliate has lost its key leader or operational commander, and more than half of al-Qa’ida’s top leadership has been eliminated.”

ABC’s Jake Tapper tallied up the blows to al Qaeda under President Obama:

“The list of senior terrorists killed during the Obama presidency is fairly extensive.

There’s Osama bin Laden,  of course, killed in May.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Anwar al-Awlaki as of today.

Earlier this month officials confirmed that al Qaeda’s chief of Pakistan operations, Abu Hafs al-Shahri, was killed in Waziristan, Pakistan.

In August, ‘Atiyah ‘Abd al-Rahman,  the deputy leader of al Qaeda was killed.

In June, one of the group’s most dangerous commanders, Ilyas Kashmiri,  was killed in Pakistan.

In Yemen that same month, AQAP senior operatives Ammar al-Wa’ili, Abu Ali al-Harithi, and Ali Saleh Farhan were killed. In Somalia, Al-Qa’ida in East Africa (AQEA) senior leader Harun Fazul was killed.

Administration officials also herald the recent U.S./Pakistani joint arrest ofYounis al-Mauritani  in Quetta.

Going back to August 2009, Tehrik e-Taliban Pakistan leader Baitullah Mahsud was killed in Pakistan.

In September of that month, Jemayah Islamiya operational planner Noordin Muhammad was killed in Indonesia, and AQEA planner Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan was killed in Somalia.

Then in December 2009 in Pakistan, al Qaeda operational commanders Saleh al-Somali and ‘Abdallah Sa’id were killed.

In February 2010, in Pakistan,  Taliban deputy and military commander Abdul Ghani Beradar was captured; Haqqani network commander Muhammad Haqqani was killed; and Lashkar-e Jhangvi leader Qari Zafar was killed.

In March 2010, al Qaeda operative Hussein al-Yemeni was killed in Pakistan, while senior Jemayah Islamiya operative Dulmatin  - accused of being the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings – was killed during a raid in Indonesia.

In April 2010, al Qaeda in Iraq leaders Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi were killed.

In May, al Qaeda’s number three commander, Sheik Saeed al-Masri was killed.

In June 2010 in Pakistan, al Qaeda commander Hamza al-Jawfi was killed.

Remember when Rudy Giuliani warned that electing Barack Obama would mean that the U.S. played defense, not offense, against the terrorists?”

[John Brennan, 6/29/11. Jake Tapper, 9/30/11]

Awlaki’s killing raises important questions about the use of drones and targeting killings that must be answered.  Danger Room’s Spencer Ackerman asks the question: Was the targeted killing legal or illegal? He put the question to top experts, with mixed results: “Charlie Dunlap says that Awlaki’s American citizenship – he was actually a dual U.S.-Yemeni citizen – isn’t a shield against retaliation for terrorism. Dunlap comes with major credentials: not only was he the Air Force’s top Judge Advocate General before retiring in 2010 as a two-star general, he coined the term ‘lawfare’ to conceptualize the idea of viewing legal action on a continuum with war, not a departure from it. ‘If a U.S. citizen overseas presents an imminent threat, or is a participant in an organized armed group engaged in armed conflict against the U.S. – as the administration seems to be alleging is the case with al-Awlaki – the mere fact that he may also be accused of criminal offenses does not necessarily give him sanctuary from being lawfully attacked overseas as any other enemy belligerent might be,’ …

“Dunlap’s friend Mary Ellen O’Connell disagrees. And her credentials are just as impressive: she’s the vice chairman of the prestigious American Society of International Law, as well as a professor at the University of Notre Dame. Her argument doesn’t rely on Awlaki’s American citizenship. ‘The United States is not involved in any armed conflict in Yemen,’ O’Connell tells Danger Room, ‘so to use military force to carry out these killings violates international law.’ O’Connell’s argument turns on the question of whether the U.S. is legally at war in Yemen. And for the administration, that’s a dicey proposition. The Obama administration relies on the vague Authorization to Use Military Force, passed in the days after 9/11, to justify its Shadow Wars against terrorists. Under its broad definition, the Authorization’s writ makes Planet Earth a battlefield, legally speaking. But the Authorization authorizes war against ‘nations, organizations, or persons [the president] determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.’ It’s a stretch to apply that to al-Qaida’s Yemen affiliate, which didn’t exist on 9/11. But when House Republicans tried to re-up the Authorization to explicitly bless the new contours of the war against al-Qaida, the Obama administration balked, fearing the GOP was actually tying its hands on the separate question of terrorist detentions.”

American jurisprudence, the American public and the global public do not fully understand the legal rational for the targeting killing program. We need to have a clearer understanding of what is needed if such strikes are going to be a foundation of counterterrorism operations going forward.

What We’re Reading

Coalition data show drop in violence in Afghanistan; a U.N. report says otherwise.

Pakistani political leaders denounced U.S. allegations that the country’s premier spy agency assisted insurgents in attacking American targets in Afghanistan.

Libya’s provisional government has gotten a show of support from visiting U.S. senators and a United Nations agency.

A tomato-hurling mob assaulted the U.S. ambassador to Syria and several aides as they arrived for a meeting with an opposition leader, an incident the State Department later said was deliberately staged by Syrian officials.

A court in Bahrain sentenced a protester to death for killing a police officer in March, and it issued harsh prison terms to medical workers who treated protesters wounded during the months of unrest.

British prosecutors say they’ve authorized police to charge a seventh man over an alleged suicide bombing plot.

Chinese internet stocks have dived in New York trading after the U.S. Justice Department said it was considering launching a fraud investigation.

In the year-plus since he was released from jail, scientist Hu Zhicheng has been free — free except to leave China and rejoin his family in America.

The German Parliament voted overwhelmingly for the expansion of the bailout fund for heavily indebted European countries.

Commentary of the Day

Samuel Charap explains why Russians are turning back their clocks in May of 2012.

Frank Ching explores China’s relationship with Kaddafi, including the sale of weapons five months after China voted on a UN resolution that imposed an arms embargo on Libya.

The New Republic editors write that although Saudi women have gained the vote, their plight remains a human rights calamity.

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