Columns / Discourse / October 5, 2011

World Politics Corner: The death of Anwar al-Awlaki

On Saturday, Sept. 30, a U.S. drone attack killed American born al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki. The news is eerily reminiscent of the killing of Bin Laden last spring, but in some ways it has larger implications on US soil.

Unlike Bin Laden, al-Awlaki was mostly a spokesperson, using the Internet to spread a message. He was cited by the Times Square attempted bomber, Faisal Shahzad, as a source of inspiration for the attempted car bomb.

The public reaction to his death also differed from the reaction to Bin Laden’s. Bin Laden’s death was met with celebration in the Capital and across the country, including groups of Knox students marching around campus and chanting “U.S.A.” the night the news broke. The death of al-Awlaki did not receive the same vehemence of support, nor will it outshine or last as long as Bin Laden’s death.

Still, the lack of criticism is astounding. And this case does not lack troubling questions, either.

For one, prior to the killing of al-Awlaki, US intelligence only listed him as spreading a message, but never did they mention that he had an operational role in al-Qaeda. Post-mortem, U.S. officials say he did have more of an operational role, possibly teaching the Christmas Day bomber how to create and detonate the bomb that was to be used. Another official cited him as the “the leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” according to CNN. The narratives are polar opposites of each other.

If US officials knew of al-Awlaki’s importance beforehand, why did they not disclose it earlier? The conventional argument would be “he may go into hiding if he knows we’re after him,” but that does not seem plausible. U.S. drone attacks had targeted him at least three times prior to this, the most remembered would be Dec. 24 when he was announced dead, but in reality had survived the attack. If al-Awlaki didn’t think he was a serious target the first time round, he certainly got the picture soon enough. Still, he did not go into hiding after the first three attempts, so by then the government could have disclosed the real extent of his participation in al-Qaeda.

But besides that, the legality of the attack should provoke more discussion than what we have now.

In the case of Bin Laden’s killing, the legal issue was international in nature because the killing was done without the permission or knowledge of Pakistan, and Bin Laden was not an American citizen. In this case, the Obama Administration said that they looked extensively within the law to see that this was legal. The ACLU and others disagree with their findings, unless you count the large “carte blanche” that is the “Authorization for Use Military Force Against Terrorists” which itself has constitutional issues in itself.

In this case, al-Awlaki was an American citizen. He held dual citizenship in Yemen and the U.S. While he obviously was not the best citizen to have for the U.S., his citizenship was never formally revoked. In fact, one has to follow certain constitutional guidelines to have their citizenship revoked:

1. Becoming naturalized in another country

2. Swearing an oath of allegiance to another country

3. Serving in the armed forces of a nation at war with the U.S., or if you are an officer in that force

4. Working for the government of another nation if doing so requires that you become naturalized or that you swear an oath of allegiance

5. Formally renouncing citizenship at a U.S. consular office

6. Formally renouncing citizenship to the U.S. Attorney General

7. By being convicted of committing treason

The two most interesting points are numbers 2, 3 and 7. In this case, al-Awlaki was a dual citizen, and so he did not exclude one country over the other. Also, though he obviously swore allegiance to al-Qaeda, that group is just that, a group not a nation. Al-Qaeda is also not recognized as “the armed forces of a nation at war with the US”. That small but strong loophole denies the US government to revoke his citizenship. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the US have done that already?

The last one is ironic. Al-Awlaki, though accused of treasonous rhetoric (and after his death, treasonous actions), was never convicted of either. He couldn’t have been convicted before because he was not captured. Now he can’t be convicted of it because he is dead.

He was deprived of life, without “due process of law”, a direct violation of the 5th amendment. The legality of it, through that synopsis, is nonexistent.

So the United States killed through drone attacks, a US citizen whose crime was to incite hatred of the United States. Under the Bill of Rights, he has every right to hate the country he has citizenship of, and to express that. Also under the Bill of Rights, he has the right to a trial before execution.

In a country so obsessed with its freedoms, how is this acceptable? As one writer put it, who should the President kill next?

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