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Homepage / ANALYSIS

Wiping Them Out One by One

With Awlaki dead, it’s apparent that Obama’s relentless covert campaign knows no boundaries, whether geographic, legal, or moral.

Anwar al-Awlaki(Creative Commons)

photo of Michael Hirsh
September 30, 2011

President Obama’s relentless program of wiping out top al-Qaida leaders around the world through unilateral covert strikes claimed another victim on Friday, when Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical cleric identified as “chief of external operations”  for al-Qaida on the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen as he rode in a convoy.

Awlaki's death followed the takedown of al-Qaida’s No. 2 official, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, in late August, and Osama bin Laden in early May. U.S. officials quickly sought to justify the strike against a U.S. citizen abroad. "Anwar al-Awlaki was one of AQAP's most dangerous terrorists, and was directly involved in planning attacks against the United States, including the 2010 cargo bomb plot and Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab's attempt to blow up a plane in December 2009," a U.S. official said. “His death takes a committed terrorist, intent on attacking the United States, off the battlefield."

(PICTURES: The Original 22 Terrorists: Where Are They Now?)


Still, the strike was the first that was known to be launched against an American (Awlaki had dual Yemeni-U.S. citizenship). The nature of Awlaki’s death once again raised legal and moral issues about the evidence against him, whether he was given due process of law, and the constitutional basis of the administration’s covert strike program. Awlaki was believed to have “prepared” Abdul Mutallab's attempt to blow up the Northwest Airlines plane on Christmas 2009, according to a previous statement by James Clapper, director of national intelligence. "Awlaki and AQAP are also responsible for numerous terrorist attacks in Yemen and throughout the region, which have killed scores of Muslims,” the U.S. official said.

John Bellinger, who served as general counsel to the National Security Council and State Department in the Bush administration, told National Journal that the legal reasoning for the Obama administration’s global war against al-Qaida, which involves targeting terrorists in almost any country deemed uncooperative, is not very different from its predecessor’s. “I agree with the reasoning,” Bellinger said. “But I think the Obama administration has got a problem in that no other governments have publicly endorsed drone strikes.… They’ve essentially looked the other way.”

In a recent speech at Harvard Law School, Obama’s counterterrorism coordinator, John Brennan, declared that “we reserve the right to take unilateral action if or when other governments are unwilling or unable to take the necessary actions themselves."

In Pakistan's case, questions have arisen about whether the administration’s aggressive efforts may have caused a backlash, leading to even deeper cooperation between the Pakistan intelligence apparatus and the Haqqani terrorist network against U.S. forces next door in Afghanistan. Outgoing Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen stirred controversy last week when he told a congressional committee that the Haqqani network is a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's ISI. Still, a NATO official told National Journal Mullen was only acknowledging publicly ties between Pakistan and terrorists that had been occurring for long before the bin Laden raid.

Bellinger said that the administration has not been clear about its legal basis for drone strikes, especially against American citizens. Under the administration’s legal reasoning, Awlaki and other suspected Qaida terrorists could be targeted either because they are deemed to pose an “imminent threat” or because they are identified as part of an enemy army. “The requirements of due process to kill an American outside the United States as part of an enemy army are really not clear,” Bellinger said. “We know under the Constitution there must be due process to deprive Americans of life or liberty, but the requirements of what process is due is not clear.… Even inside the United States, if a U.S. citizen is holding somebody hostage and poses an imminent threat, law-enforcement officials can kill him. The standard would be pretty much the same outside the United States. It’s a more controversial theory among human-rights groups to target an American because they’re part of an enemy al-Qaida army. But certainly if you go back to World War II, if an American has signed up as part of a foreign army, that person doesn’t cease to be a lawful target.”

Obama secretly authorized the killing or capture of Awlaki in 2010, and U.S. forces have been tracking him for months. It was believed they came close to getting him in a strike that occurred the same week that bin Laden was killed. Last year, attorneys for Awlaki’s father sought to persuade a U.S. District Court judge to prevent the U.S. government from trying to kill him in Yemen, but the case was dismissed.

As National Journal reported last May (, Obama has launched “the most aggressive counterterror ops in the [CIA’s] history,” according to a senior U.S. official. The strikes have been increasingly unilateral, as U.S. forces rely less and less on unreliable governments from Pakistan to Yemen.

Obama: Killing of Awlaki a Major Blow to Al-Qaida

Overall, the number of Predator drone strikes has more than tripled during Obama’s presidency. The program has been mainly focused in Pakistan, but the U.S. has increased its intelligence and special-forces presence in Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. The administration also took out a key operative, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the leader of al-Qaida's affiliate in East Africa, using Special Forces in Somalia, and a slew of other terrorists with Predator drones (although it’s believed that the drone strikes have also hit many mere thugs and innocents).

Inside Pakistan, before bin Laden, those killed by drones on Obama’s orders in the last two years include Baitullah Mehsud, overall leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan; Mustafa Abu Yazid, al-Qaida's leader in Afghanistan and top financial official; Qari Mohammad Zafar, a leader of the Qaida and Taliban-linked Fedayeen-i-Islam wanted by the U.S. for attacking the U.S. consulate in Karachi in 2006; Abdul Haq al-Turkistani,  a member of al-Qaida's Shura Majlis and the leader of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Party; Abdullah Said al-Libi, top commander of the Lashkar al Zil, al-Qaida's shadow army; and Tahir Yuldashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, according to Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal, a former soldier who tracks such attacks.

The legal and moral issues may soon be moot, if Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other senior administration officials are to be believed. Panetta and the officials have said repeatedly they believe that al-Qaida is on the verge of being wiped out.


The administration also took out a key operative, Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, the leader of the al-Qaida affiliate in East Africa,[comma here] using special forces in Somalia, and a slew of other terrorists with Predator drones (though it’s believed that the drone strikes have also hit many mere thugs and innocents).

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