Was U.S.-Backed Killing of Anwar al-Awlaki Legal?

Anwar al-Awlaki, a high-level U.S.-born cleric linked to al-Qaida, was killed in Yemen Friday by a U.S. airstrike targeting his convoy. Ray Suarez discusses the implications and legality of his killing with Brian Fishman of The New America Foundation and Juan Carlos Zarate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


RAY SUAREZ: To assess the implications of Awlaki’s killing, we turn to Brian Fishman, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Juan Carlos Zarate was deputy national security adviser for counter-terrorism in the Bush administration and is now a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

How important is the killing of Awlaki and how significant a figure was he, Juan?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE, Center for Strategic and International Studies: I think Awlaki grew in significance over time. He became a figure in the al-Qaida network known as al-Qaida in the Arabian Pennsylvania Peninsula there in Yemen.

He was an operational figure. He began to play a more instrumental role in some of the external plots and the external network that was targeting the United States. We know he had a hand in the Dec. 25 failed underwear bomber plot, the failed package plot, and had started to even toy with the use of poisons.

And so, operationally, he became more and more important. But I think even more significantly, Ray, is the fact that he played a key propagandist role, kind of a pied piper for Western ears in a way that translated al-Qaida’s narrative and inspired individuals to not only come and fight in places like Yemen, but to potentially fight fellow citizens in their own homeland.

And so his removal is an important step in terms of going after the network, diminishing al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula’s propaganda reach, and I think a significant step, as demonstrated by the amount of attention the administration gave it today.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Fishman, is he more of an operational character, as Juan calls it, more of an ideologue to you?

BRIAN FISHMAN, New America Foundation: Well, I think that he certainly has become more an operational character, as Juan was saying.

But I think that his ideological and intellectual influences still paramount. It was his stability to communicate in English to an English-speaking audience in the West that really differentiated him from other al-Qaida figures. And I think that he will be hard to replace in that regard.

I mean, there are simply not that many people at a senior level in al-Qaida that have a profile like his, born in the United States, a U.S. citizen. And what Awlaki was able to do is say, this is why I turned on my country. And in doing so, he was trying to lay out a pathway for other people to follow. And I don’t think that al-Qaida will be able to replace that soon.

RAY SUAREZ: Internet chat rooms, a bulletin board, a blog post, sending videos of himself as attachments to e-mails, a new kind of al-Qaida figure?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, no. I mean, al-Qaida has been doing those sorts of things — they were doing that in the past. And there are many elements of al-Qaida that are still doing those sorts of things.

But most of that content is produced in Arabic. Some of it is produced in Urdu, other in German, Turkish, French, many different languages. But it was Awlaki that was doing this in English. And so it was Awlaki that was speaking to Americans and it was Awlaki that was speaking to Brits, for example.

And that’s why he was different. And it is that sort of personal story that gave him power and the ability to bring people into the movement, because there were things that he lacked. He lacked, for example, battlefield experience. He wasn’t a commander. He didn’t have the historical experience in Afghanistan and the personal trust with the very senior central al-Qaida figures.

So he wasn’t a bin Laden-level figure, but he was somebody that was able to communicate with Western Muslims in a very unique sort of way.

RAY SUAREZ: But while bin Laden was holed up in Abbottabad, and, as you describe him, Juan, he was becoming more active, was he, in a way, even more dangerous than Osama bin Laden?


I still think bin Laden served a key role as the central figure, the central strategist for al-Qaida and the broader network. But more and more, you heard American officials talking about the danger rising from Yemen, this affiliate in Yemen, and in particular Anwar Awlaki’s role in it.

I think Brian is right. I think his — his main attraction and main asset for the broader network was his ability to attract Western ears, and I think importantly to keep in mind that he and a couple of others within the group in al-Qaida had begun to examine the field, to see that what could be most effective wasn’t just big-scale attacks of the kind that we have seen in the past from al-Qaida, but to inspire individuals to attack the United States and others in small ways, to do what they called an operation hemorrhage, to kill with 1,000 cuts.

And so that started to be a way that Awlaki was reshaping the strategic battle space. And I think that’s important to keep in mind, because you have now removed somebody who had started to redirect the strategy of al-Qaida. Unfortunately, I think it’s infected now the ideology itself and won’t go away now that he’s gone.

But he was very important in that regard to help to re-shift that narrative and that strategy for al-Qaida.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, right after his death, American officials have started to call him the chief of external operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. Is that sort of a postmortem promotion to bulk up who we got on the battlefield? Or was he really that?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I think that this is really the first time that I have heard him have that title.

But I do think that there is increasing evidence — and certainly the administration is asserting that there is a lot of evidence — that he was, as Juan was saying, involved in these operational plots. And I think that’s what officials are trying to underline. And I think that’s valid.

But I think it’s important to understand that he wasn’t the most senior figure in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. AQAP will go on. Nasser al-Wuhayshi is the sort of supreme leader, the emir of that organization. And it’s not going anywhere.

So while I think the death of Anwar Awlaki does — it makes AQAP more one-dimensional, in a way. I’m off to see a football game. So I’m thinking, this is like taking AQAP’s passing game. They can’t reach out directly — as directly to Americans in the West. But they are still going to have the capability, they’re still going to have the leadership to plan attacks like the package bomb, like the Abdulmutallab would-be attack over Detroit two Christmases ago.

RAY SUAREZ: Juan, Anwar all Awlaki was the first American citizen to be the subject of a CIA kill-or-capture order.

And now that he has been killed, a lot more attention is being focused on the nature of his death, without charge, without indictment, obviously without trial. Is this a problem?

JUAN CARLOS ZARATE: Well, I think it’s something the administration is clearly sensitive to. And it explains in part why they are describing him so ardently as the chief — external operations chief.

The administration is going to great pains to explain his operational role, the fact that he was engaged in ongoing activity. All of that is a way of framing this in terms of imminent danger to the United States that then gives the U.S. credibility under international law and under our own laws to take self-defensive measures and to take kinetic activities against an individual, even if that individual is an American citizen.

But we have known this issue has been out there. The ACLU had challenged, via Awlaki’s father, the alleged targeting of Awlaki, a case they lost at the lower court level in federal court. And so this issue of what the government can do with respect to an individual, an American citizen who has joined al-Qaida, who is clearly trying to plot against the United States, what level of kinetic activity, what level of force can they use without some level of due process, that is clearly something the administration is very sensitive about.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian, was it legal?

BRIAN FISHMAN: Well, I’m not a Supreme Court justice, but I have got real concerns about it, because it sets a precedent.

And I simply don’t understand the criteria by which the decision was made that Anwar al-Awlaki could be killed. What does an American citizen have to do to fall into that category? The second concern I have — and why I think that a judicial process of some kind would have been useful here — is that it would have been an opportunity for the U.S. government to lay out all the things that Anwar Awlaki has done.

He may be dead, but his vision and his message is not. And what I think would have been useful is to have a judicial process where you get to talk about the fact that he solicited prostitutes. You get to talk about the fact that he was sort of a hypocrite in and of himself. And because of that, the fact that we weren’t able to do those things — we didn’t do those things, I think we have missed an opportunity to do more than just kill him, but to discredit the ideas that he pushed for years.

RAY SUAREZ: Brian Fishman, Juan Carlos Zarate, gentlemen, thank you both.