Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Targeted Killings: The Death of Anwar al-Awlaki

by Micah Zenko
September 30, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location on September 30, 2011 (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters)

Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric linked to al Qaeda's Yemen-based wing, gives a religious lecture in an unknown location (Ho New/Courtesy Reuters).

Earlier today, the government of Yemen’s defense ministry announced—by text message to journalists—that, “The terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions.” Four months ago, on May 5, the U.S. military failed in an attempt to kill al-Awlaki in two separate drone strikes forty-five minutes apart. But, reportedly, he was killed today either by a U.S. drone or aircraft at 9:55 a.m. local time in the al-Jawf region.

Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico, spent several years in the United States as an imam, which included a trip to the Pentagon as a “part of an informal outreach program,” to “moderate” Muslim leaders. Since 2004, he had lived in Yemen posting videos that encouraged terrorist attacks against the United States, and eventually became a key leader for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

In early 2010, the Obama administration authorized the killing of al-Awlaki, and that July the Department of the Treasury included him on the Special Designated Nationals list “for supporting acts of terrorism and for acting for or on behalf of AQAP.”

The targeted killing of al-Awlaki eliminates an inspirational and charismatic voice of al-Qaeda, as well as someone who U.S. officials asserted was playing an increasing operational role. However, like most targeted killings, it probably will not make much difference in reducing the ability of al-Qaeda or affiliated groups in mobilizing, recruiting, and planning terrorist operations.  In addition, it calls to mind a similar targeted killing that occurred almost nine years ago, which is illustrative to remember as U.S. officials—anonymously of course—condone al-Alwaki’s death.

On November 3, 2002, a CIA-controlled Predator drone in Yemen bombed an SUV carrying Abu Ali al-Harithi, a suspected operational planner of the attack on the U.S.S. Cole, four Yemeni suspected terrorists, and Ahmed Hijazi, a naturalized U.S. citizen and ringleader of an alleged terrorist sleeper cell in Lackawanna, New York.

The U.S. and Yemeni special operations forces that tracked al-Harithi and his counterparts to a small compound did not know that an American citizen was among them. A Yemeni government agent on the ground, however, noted that when al-Harithi’s group left the compound they travelled in two SUVs; all of the men were in one vehicle, and the women in another. According to an unnamed U.S. official, “If the women hadn’t gotten into another car, we wouldn’t have fired.”

That Predator strike against al-Harithi represented an important turning point in U.S. foreign policy in three ways.

First, it was the first overt targeted killing after 9/11 outside of Afghanistan in what was then already being labeled by the Bush administration as the ‘Global War on Terrorism.’

Second, after DNA tests concluded that the attack had killed the correct person, senior U.S. officials bragged of its demonstrative effect in deterring terrorists everywhere. Acting on the instruction of Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz appeared on CNN to confirm America’s involvement and to boast that it had been “a very successful tactical operation,” which had “gotten rid of somebody dangerous.”

Third, it was the first acknowledged targeted killing by the United States government, outside of a battlefield, since political assassinations were prohibited by President Gerald Ford in 1976. Moreover, it was a military operation conducted on the territory of a sovereign state that the United States was not at war with, and conducted with the full knowledge and consent of the Yemeni government.

However, the enduring legacy of the targeted killing of al-Harithi was that it did nothing to reduce the terrorist threat to the United States from Yemen, and did not deter or curtail al-Qaeda’s capabilities and operational reach. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later told me, “The goal of the strike was to make al-Qaeda feel frightened, so that they knew we could reach out and hit them without them knowing.”

While there was some evidence from captured signals intelligence that al-Qaeda was shocked by the Predator strike, the killing of al-Harithi and his cohorts in no way deterred the international terrorist organization from conducting future attacks, as was demonstrated by the steady al-Qaeda–sponsored terrorist bombings in Tunisia, Istanbul, London, Malindi, Kenya, and elsewhere.

As is true of many targeted killings, it was done without any sustained, parallel civilian effort to develop security and government capacity in Yemen.  In part, this resulted from the resistance of the Ali Abdullah Saleh regime, who was furious that the U.S. involvement in the al-Harithi killing was made public.

Yet, the shortcomings of U.S. civilian-led efforts in Yemen owed more to American inter-agency cooperation problems than opposition from Saleh. Despite the increased threat warnings emanating from the country, there was no comprehensive and coordinated U.S. military campaign plan for Yemen until one was developed and approved by Gen. David Petraeus, then the Commander of Central Command, in late April 2009.

At the time, the targeted killing of al-Harithi was the right thing to do: A loyal al-Qaeda member for over a decade who was implicated in the unsuccessful plot against The Sullivans and responsible for overseeing the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, was assassinated.

Nevertheless, that tactical targeted killing in 2002 was not followed-up with a comparable civilian-led effort in Yemen. As was apparent after the failed bombing of a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, Yemeni-based al-Qaeda had made “a quantum leap to being the [al-Qaeda] affiliate that wants to carry out attacks against the United States and its allies,” according to Daniel Benjamin, the State Department’s Coordinator for Terrorism.

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki today is an important first step in reducing the threat to the United States and its allies. However, its sustained impact in Yemen, if any, will depend on cooperation from a post-Saleh leadership and the U.S. government’s sustained focus on providing broad and sustained support to civilian, military, and intelligence ministries. After al-Harithi was killed, President Bush reportedly told an adviser: “We’re talking to them in a way they can understand. Capability like this changes the game.” Ultimately, nothing changed in Yemen. We’ll see if al-Awlaki’s death does.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Antonia Chayes

    No mention of the tough constitutional issue of assassinating an American citizen without trial; without protection of due process. Al-Awlaki presents a case for action, of course, but the precedent is a frightening one. Moreover, what about international legal issues. Is it lawful to mount drone attacks in an area that is not a war zone, or adjacent to one, as Pakistan is? Is the drone strike that killed Al Awlaki a arguably a case of self-defense? Should we not consider the UN Charter more carefully?
    I believe we should not feel triumph, but worry about what American values we are prepare to sacrifice to achieve small counter-terrorism victories.

  • Posted by John Smith

    The question of legality should be addressed immediately after the question of whether any society should be allowed sit by and watch terrorist attacks being carried out in areas in or near a war zone against civilians. Terrorism by its very nature declares the world as a war zone. War by its very nature declares a right for a society to defend itslef. Terrorist should not be able to legislate what constitues defense.

  • Posted by Robert Foedisch

    I know Anwar al-Awlaki was american born, and therefore an american citizen. My question is did he become a citizen of Yemen. If he did that would mean he was no longer an American Citizen, Because The US does not recognize dual citizenship.

  • Posted by GT

    @Robert Foedisch: It is not quite that simple. As long as a dual-citizen with the USA enters and leaves the U.S. on a USA passport, the U.S. is actually technically indifferent to whether the person holds two, three, or four other citizenships. There are probably hundreds of thousands of people in the USA who hold dual citizenships with, for example, Ireland and Israel to name but a few.

    @Antonia Chayes: You hit the nail on the head: This is exactly the point. The State Department’s Legal Office should have revoked his citizenship in the first instance before this action took place.

  • Posted by Craig B Hulet

    Is that true regarding dual citizenship? I do not think so. Besides knowing a number of individuals who have dual citizenship, there are those like Richard Perle who it is said he does so as well. But all that aside, how does assassination assist in intelligence gathering as in the case of America’s most wanted Usammah bin Laden? He wasn’t an asset worthy of debriefing? Once in hand, what he knew and when he knew it, seemed more important to US “interests” …unless I am missing something?

  • Posted by markjuliansmith

    As with drawing pictures of hope on a sandy shore the next tide cares naught.

    Although I appreciate the strategy of taking out network hubs and it can have a dramatic effect on the level and type of terror – if humanity does not realise the Islamic terror network hubs, its leaves, branches and trunk are fed continually by new generations, as they have since the seventh century, by foundation text where God Himself has designated Other as less in such a way which inevitably ‘grievous harm’ will be Others lot then it does not matter how many ‘hubs’ are taken out others will grow.

    Not necessarily in exactly the same place geographically, nor in tactics, nor in number (for even one person who believes themselves to be Muslim is given the power by the book to identify Other – even though Other may even be professing to be Muslim), nor in the ferocity of Terror against Other – but what has History even to this day, hour, minute taught us – we will have Islamic terror in some form.

    So clearly taking out ‘hubs’ may give some solace and immediate relief – but it does not solve the problem nor ever will unless what is enabling the regrowth of these hubs, in whatever form and place are removed:

    There is the only one proven way to do it ‘The Simple Answer to Ending the Terror – Plato Knew it years Ago Why have we not Understood?’ http://citizensfirstasnau.blogspot.com/2011/09/simple-answer-to-ending-terror-plato.html

    Anything else is mere delay before the next strike, delay before an even bigger catastrophe.

    Anyone who has reflected on the possibilities and vulnerabilities of modern societies will understand the extent of such devastation is not the means at hand, which there are many, but the extent to which the inevitable Islamic terrorist is imbrued with the justifications of his terrible actions against Other derived from this Islamic foundation text the Quran.

    Change the Text or Change Nothing – The Terror Continues.

  • Posted by Matt

    Long term is one thing, this a short term thing, it was only a matter of time before he did indeed bring down airliners (more than one), we got lucky and dodge a bullet by the fact he had not been successful.

    But he had to be terminated before he was successful. So yes long term it helps to erode their capabilities but the real objective was to get him before he was successful. Because he is dead, hundreds are alive.

    al-Qaida had moved operations to Yemen from Pakistan to take pressure off Pakistan from attack on foreign targets, Kashmiri was involved in the planning for recent Synagogue attacks. So with both him and Anwar gone we have removed a direct current threat.

  • Posted by Javed Mir

    Regardless of the legality and the UNO charter requirements, humans are being killed whether they are Americans, Talibans, Palestinians and Israelis for the sake of land and its resources. There has to be an end to this bloodshed.

    Bushes’ vainglorious claim that ‘we are talking to them in a way they can understand. Capability like this changes the game’ has not given us any positive results and has not changed the game. Indiscriminate killing of the humans is not game.

    American attack on Iraq in search of Weapons of Mass Destruction, resulted in more deaths and destruction and erection of more firewalls of hatred and revenge.

    All of us have to change our thinking and decide the international issues according to justice and civility. Targeted killing of Anwar-al-Awalaki will not eliminate terrorism rather will cause more exacerbation. There is nothing like Islamic Terror. All the muslim countries (with a few exceptions) have good diplomatic and business relations with the Western world.We need to opt for reconciliation and avoid confrontation for the sake of our future generations.

  • Posted by canadian citizenship test

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