On September 30, 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, a senior official of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Yemen. Yesterday, the Obama administration released a Justice Department memo justifying this drone strike in response to a lawsuit by the ACLU and New York Times.
Many on the left and a few on the right, such as Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) have objected to the killing of Awlaki since he was a Yemeni-American born in the United States.
The New York Times disputes that Awlaki was planning “imminent” attacks and claims that “the memo says only that Mr. Awlaki had joined Al Qaeda and was planning attacks on Americans, but that the government did not know when these attacks would occur.”
Such muddleheaded thinking on national security is breathtaking. How much evidence will it take to convince the Times that Awlaki was a serious threat?
After post-9/11 Bush administration counterterrorism programs and increased security put al-Qaeda on the run and made terrorist attacks on the United States much more difficult, Awlaki became the leading al-Qaeda leader of its Yemen franchise Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) by recruiting terrorists within the U.S. using the internet. Some in the U.S. intelligence community referred to him as an “e-iman” because of his internet savvy and ability to use other forms of electronic communications to spread his message and recruit followers.
Awlaki successfully inspired many home-grown radical Islamist terrorists in the UK and the United States. Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra said in a 2009 op-ed:
“Al-Awlaki’s sermons have influenced would-be homegrown terrorists in the United States and the terrorists who launched the deadly 2005 London subway bombings. Mr. al-Awlaki, who was born in the U.S. and speaks perfect English, has been using his own Web page, social-networking sites such as Facebook, and e-mail to preach a message of violence to English speaking Muslims around the world.”
The men who planned to attack Fort Dix in 2007 had recorded copies of Awlaki’s sermons as did the Toronto-18 group that was arrested in 2006 for planning to attack the Canadian parliament and assassinate Canada’s prime minister. Army Major Nidal Hassan, who carried out a November 2009 shooting at Fort Hood, Texas which resulted in 13 killed and over 30 wounded, communicated with Awlaki over the internet. 2009 Christmas Day underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab almost certainly met Awlaki during a 2009 trip to Yemen and may have been recruited by him. Awlaki also may have inspired Faisal Shahzad’s May 1, 2010 attempt to set off a car bomb in Times Square and Mohamed Osman Mohamud, a 19-year old Somali-American who tried to bomb a Christmas tree lighting in Oregon in December 2010.
Awlaki also is believed to have inspired five American Muslims from the Washington, DC area who were arrested after arriving in Pakistan in December 2010 for terrorist training and Zachary Chesser who was arrested in New York in July 2010 before boarding a plane to travel to Somalia where he planned to join the al Shabaab Islamist terrorist group.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who with his brother Tamerlan staged the deadly 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, said he and his brother were influenced by Awlaki’s internet sermons. Tsarnaev also told the FBI that he and his brother learned how to the build the pressure cooker bombs they used to attack the marathon from AQAP’s English language internet magazine, Inspire, which promoted radical Islamist ideology and encouraged its readers to conduct terrorist attacks against the West. Inspire was founded by Awlaki and featured his sermons. It was edited by Pakistani-American Samir Khan who was killed by the same drone strike that killed Awlaki.
Add to all of this the fact that three 9/11 hijackers attended services in Awlaki’s Falls Church, Virginia mosque.
The Times, the ACLU and Senator Paul have asserted that the targeted killing of Awlaki violated the U.S. Constitution, specifically his due process rights as an American citizen, and required an independent review prior to the attack.
I agree with former CIA Director Michael Hayden who said in 2011 that Awlaki should not have been protected by his American citizenship from a targeted killing because he voluntarily became part of an enemy force.
Moreover, there was outside review of the proposal to kill Awlaki with a drone strike because the Presidential Finding approving the strike was briefed to Congress in advance and Congressional leaders were fully on board. That’s why no members of the intelligence committees or senior congressional leaders objected to the Awalki killing after it occurred.
The Obama administration was right about the Awlaki drone strike. By helping run the AQAP terrorist group in Yemen and recruiting terrorists to attack the U.S. homeland, Awalki should not have been protected from a targeted killing because he was an American citizen. Moreover, the Obama administration took the proper steps to obtain the necessary legal and political backing for this attack by a careful review by the Justice Department and by convincing Congressional leaders and the intelligence committees to support the drone strike because Awlaki was an active participant in an armed enemy force.
The drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki is a rare example of the President and Congress working together to defend American national security. Rather than lodge dubious complaints that this attack violated the law, the New York Times, the ACLU , and Senator Paul should press the White House to engage in advance consultations with Congress on similar threats in the future.