YEMEN: Does U.S. have the right to target and kill its citizens?


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News that U.S.-born radical cleric Anwar Awlaki was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Yemen on Friday has revived debate about the inclusion of Americans on a U.S. government ‘targeted killing’ list.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented Awlaki’s father in a lawsuit last year against the Obama administration, argue that the United States does not have the authority to hunt down and kill one of its citizens without any judicial review, in a country where it is not at war.


“The targeted-killing program violates both U.S. and international law,” ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said in a statement posted Friday on the group’s blog.

Vince Warren, the Center for Constitutional Rights executive director, said the program “essentially grants the executive the power to kill any U.S. citizen deemed a threat, without any judicial oversight or any of the rights afforded by our constitution.’

The United States has used the program to target Al Qaeda, Taliban and associated leaders since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Such killings have escalated since President Obama took office in 2009, including the raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May and unmanned drone strikes like the one that killed Awlaki, according to a Council on Foreign Relations background report. The administration argues that the U.S. is in armed conflict with Al Qaeda and that its right to self-defense can include killing individuals who are planning attacks, whether or not they are in a declared war zone.

In an address Friday, Obama asserted that Awlaki was the leader of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which U.S. officials describe as the terrorist network’s most active affiliate.

“In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans,” Obama said. “He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda.”


Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said it did not matter that Awlaki was born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents.

“Other than Bin Laden, he was probably the most dangerous person in Al Qaeda as regards attacks on the United States,” Ruppersberger said. “He was smart, he knew our culture, he understood the U.S. He knew Al Qaeda couldn’t mount another 9-11 because intelligence would detect it, so he tried to inspire lone-wolf plots.”

Regional experts agreed that Awlaki was a charismatic recruiter for global jihad who spread militant messages through the Internet and inspired attacks against the U.S. But they questioned the extent of his operational role in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“He was not a military leader. Killing him is not a big loss inside Yemen,” said Saeed Ali Obaid Jamhi, an expert on Islamic militants in the region. “He was not so much involved in the Yemen struggle. He was more of an international figure. He was a spiritual inspiration for jihadis, and his death will increase the hatred against the Yemen government for allowing U.S. planes and drones to target people inside Yemen.”


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-- Alexandra Zavis in Los Angeles. Times staff writers Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo and Ken Dilanian in Washington contributed to this report.