Anwar al-Awlaki: What we learned from his killing
Anwar al-Awlaki
October 3rd, 2011
11:00 PM ET

Anwar al-Awlaki: What we learned from his killing

Editor's Note: Micah Zenko is a fellow for conflict prevention at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he blogs. You can also follow him on Twitter. You can watch Fareed Zakaria's interview with Adm. Mullen this Sunday at 10a.m. ET/PT.

By Micah Zenko

After covert military operations are revealed - in this case by text message from the Yemeni defense ministry - a number of operational details emerge soon after. U.S. government officials, usually speaking as anonymous sources, provide post-hoc justifications for why the dangerous or lethal operation was necessary, and ideally how it fits more broadly into U.S. foreign policy objectives.

For example, in the immediate aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid, we learned that the operation was code-named Neptune Spear, the CIA operated a nearby secret facility to recruit informants and watch the bin Laden compound, and CIA analysts believed that the odds Bin Laden was there to be no better than 50-50.

Like the killing of bin Laden, the attack of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki was a covert operation, defined by U.S. law (Title 50, section 413(e)) as “an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly.”

Nevertheless, we have learned a significant amount about the killing of Awlaki, as well as  the evolving and expanding U.S. policy of targeted killings. Four issues have specifically come to light:

First, counterterrorism cooperation “with Yemeni security agencies improved significantly in recent months,” despite the deepening political crisis and spreading instability, according to U.S. and Yemeni officials. One report noted that Yemen had been allowing more drone flights, increasing the amount of information it provided the United States, and even allowed Americans to participate in interrogations of detained militants.

Reportedly, it was information that Yemeni intelligence 00 obtained by interrogation - shared with the United States three weeks ago that led to Awlaki, who was reportedly given the code name Objective Troy. After two weeks of surveillance, Awlaki was killed by several Hellfire missiles while travelling in a Toyota pickup truck along with between three and six others, including American-born Samir Khan, and Muhammad Salme al-Naaj and Abdul-Rahman bin Arfaj, members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). That the United States actually improved counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen during President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s exile further undermines his long-standing claim that his rule is essential to fighting al Qaeda in his country.

Second, Anwar al-Awlaki was in fact killed by a CIA drone, according to U.S. officials quoted in several sources. Some analysts have mistakenly written that other precision strikes against terrorist suspects were all conducted by drones. However, in Somalia, in 2007 and 2008, there were attacks by both U.S. Air Force Special Operations AC-130 gunships flying out of southern Ethiopia, and Tomahawk cruise missiles fired from U.S. Navy submarines. In Yemen, from December 2009 until May 2010, a handful of cruise missiles were launched by U.S. aircraft operating outside of Yemeni territory. In January 2010, according to a diplomatic cable released by wikileaks,  Saleh told Gen. David Petraeus, then the head of Central Command, “We’ll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours.”

While a CIA drone reportedly killed Awlaki, a number of other military assets were also involved in the operation. The Washington Post reported that Joint Special Operations Command drones “came across the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti.”  In addition, according to a CBS Evening News report, if the CIA drone missed Awlaki, “carrier jets flying from an amphibious carrier off the coast were ready,” and “there was even an option for sending in Marine Ospreys with special operations forces to collect any intelligence left after the strike. But that was never used.”

Third, U.S. officials claimed that Awlaki had a much more “operational” role in AQAP after his death, than they had before. In the past two years, Awlaki had been described as “inspirational,” “charismatic,” an “effective communicator” who’s “internet presence magnifies the threat.” In May, FBI Direct Robert Mueller warned that Awlaki “has taken on a significance that he certainly did not have way back when.” Yet, most officials described him as not being intimately involved in operations, such as Leon Panetta, who testified to the Senate in June that “because he’s very computer oriented and as a result of that, really does represent the potential to try to urge others, particularly in this country, to conduct attacks here.”

After he was killed, the connections between Awlaki and terrorist plots became more specific and vivid. White House spokesperson, Jay Carney, said Awlaki was “a principal leader in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the most operational affiliate.” A senior White House official said he was “very operational, every day he was plotting, he had very unique skills.” Finally, a State Department spokesperson claimed that Awlaki was “the leader of external operations for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula,” and “played a significant operational role” in two attempted terrorist attacks against U.S. civilian airliners.

Fourth, senior lawyers from across the Obama administration were unanimous in their belief that killing the American-born Awlaki was legalReportedly, after a long review process the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a “lengthy, classified memorandum” that provide the legal justification for Awlaki’s death. Many legal scholars and the ACLU strongly disagree with this position, contending that Awlaki killing violated international law and the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which says “no person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

It is remarkable to consider how far America has come since August 1998, when Attorney General Janet Reno opposed the cruise missile strikes against bin Laden’s complex in Khost Afghanistan, in retaliation for the East African U.S. Embassy bombings, because she did not believe it met the standard for a self-defense attack under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter. Yet, most people support targeted killings, even of Americans. An unscientific CNN.com poll asked, “If the U.S. had a role in the targeted killing of U.S. citizen and al Qaeda leader Anwar al Awlaki, would you approve of it?” More than seventy percent of respondents said “yes.”

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Topics: Terrorism • United States

soundoff (139 Responses)
  1. HaHa

    OK, its gone, who's next, ACLU?

    October 4, 2011 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  2. TJeff1776

    The so-called LOGIC I read from many that think Awlaki should have "somehow" been arrested and brought to trial is ridiculous. Sheeeeeeesh. We are in all-out war against these people. The ole "frontline" concept of warfare has gone with tha wind. We're into "blowing up people, buildings, airplanes, boats, etc etc etc type warfare. You fight fire with fire. Had Awlaki got away yet another time, there's just no telling how many of us and Allies he might have killed. At the time he was killed he might have had his finger on a red radio button that might have resulted in a thousand deaths. QUESTION: how do ya kill a rattle-snake ?????.....ANSWER: As quick as ya can.

    October 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Reply
  3. TakeNoBull

    I generally oppose Obama on most all issues. But Hey this guy was a danger to America because he hated America and had the tools to attack it. Maybe the paper work said he was American but his love was for death of Americans. Thanks Obama.

    October 4, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  4. TakeNoBull

    Good job Obama you killed a man who could have caused another Sept 11. His heart was a terrorist not a American. On most other issues I oppose Obama.

    October 4, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Reply
  5. Blogson

    Censorship apparently is alive and well at CNN.

    October 4, 2011 at 11:59 pm | Reply
  6. Yeah !!!

    Blah Blah Blah !!!....There is no law to protect those who are trying to destoy America. Now, get ur butt back to work people !

    October 5, 2011 at 12:40 am | Reply
  7. mmi16

    The Obama administration has been more effective in eliminating terrorists and their infrastructure than his predecessor.

    October 5, 2011 at 1:49 am | Reply
    • Kevin C

      The war is evolving. While Presidents change, the brass in the military largely remains unchanged. I do believe the next President will also get accolades for showing more improvement than this one because the tactics utilized by the CIA and military will continue to improve. Quite frankly, I'm impressed with the use of the drones. Had we had the expertise immediately following 9/11, we might possibly have been able to take out the leaders of the Taliban and even Saddam Hussein without invasions. I do find it ironic that the sitting President is now engaging in activities for which he heavily criticized the previous administration. The sad fact seems to be that if you need a boost in your polls either go to war, or assassinate some bad guy.

      October 5, 2011 at 7:41 am | Reply
  8. Sickofitall

    He dead now, so who cares about any of the legal crap. Next victim!

    October 5, 2011 at 9:08 am | Reply
  9. Andrew

    I find the expression, "U.S. foreign policy objectives" hilarious. The objective would be to prevent someone from encouraging/helping marginal individuals to stuff plastic explosives in their underwear and take a trip; persons from walking into a busy military deployment processing center and spraying it with bullets; idiots packing explosives into SUV's and parking them in Times Square.

    Sorta like saying that putting brakes in cars is a legal strategy or shooting a home invader was a financial strategy to ensure future earning potential by not being dead.

    Killing the likes of Al-waki or Bin-Laden has nothing to do with politics or foreign policy. It's self-defense or simply war.

    October 5, 2011 at 9:52 am | Reply
  10. Infidel

    You know very well that when MUSLIMS have to keep reminding us that their ISLAM is "about peace", there must be a problem. They are partially correct in saying this, but fail to tell you about the conditions that go with THEIR definition of “peace”. The fact is that their Islam means “peace” IF (huge “IF” here) when one (a muslim) “submits and surrenders” to their (sharia) way of life and to their moon-god-allah.

    If you don’t “submit and surrender”, there is NO PEACE…never has, is, and will be...and hence the holy hell ISLAM continues to bring to our earth.

    October 5, 2011 at 9:53 am | Reply
  11. Gary

    Another terrorist is dead, enough said.

    October 5, 2011 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  12. Daniel

    How disgusting this is!!! After reading all these comments here glorifying the bloody and obscene murder of this Anwar al-Awlaki, I get neaseated with the ignorance of these people who believe that it's a good thing to kill people, proving just what a very sick society we have become indeed. Their is absolutely no glory or justice in cold blooded murder and Barack Obama himself needs to be indicted and brough to justice for this very wanton act!!!

    October 5, 2011 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  13. Fred

    an eye for an eye

    October 5, 2011 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  14. Bhavin

    They kill so many terrorists by drone attacks and no body care about law, now terrorist turns out to be american citizen and all this fuss.... is it all about about american citizenship humanity means nothing?

    October 6, 2011 at 9:25 pm | Reply
  15. ps vita

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    June 28, 2012 at 8:44 am | Reply
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