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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Anwar al-Awlaki: What We Learned from His Killing

by Micah Zenko
October 3, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born cleric with ties to al Qaeda's Yemen affiliate, gives a sermon in an undisclosed location in October 2008.

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—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-Qaida 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 legal. Reportedly, 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 UN 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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  • Posted by Kitty Antonik Wakfer

    More “remarkable” than “how far America has come since August 1998”, is how far the majority of the populace has fallen into a pawn mentality since the early days of WWI in Europe when participation by US troops was widely considered unthinkable by the majority of USers.

    It is not simply technology bringing the world’s population closer – to almost a small town atmosphere via various social networking media – that has resulted in the frequent presence of foreign troops, most often those of the US, in various countries. It is more the birth and growth of the pawn mentality in the US, once populated mostly by self-reliant but readily interacting individuals to mutual benefit. The countering growth of government into every facet of people’s lives under the pretext of safety, equality, fairness, and whatever other attribute has been promoted as what a civilized government is supposed to provide beyond those of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

    The Pawn Mentality is encouraged by governments: suspicion, fear, hate and dependence. No real self-responsibility needed since government will decide and provide care for all – all of this by way of numerous government programs and policies.

    No self-responsibility wanted, since that is done by people who mostly think, question and analyze (to individually varying degrees) and therefore might balk at being pawns – good only as cattle for labor of various types that maintain and promote government power directly or via taxes, and suitable as cannon fodder to fight the numerous wars begun as part of the fear campaign to further the belief that government is a necessity. (Forbid the thought that many in the populace should come to question whether a government is truly needed… ah, but they can and such questioning may be starting) It is definitely within the individual capabilities of the vast majority to come to understand this and with the Internet, more and more are within a finger’s tap of getting the information.

    Keep the people suspicious and fearful, at the ready to hate the targeted and thereby approve of – if not actually take part in – the declared and undeclared wars (including the “wars on” whatever) and even “targeted killings”. This is the modus operandi of governments in the modern era.

    The downfall of the ruler/ruled system may very well rest on this now “small town” world via technology; the secrets of individual governments are open to scrutiny and review by virtually all. These last two are what those in and profiting from government power virtually all dread, since it clearly shows them to be unnecessary for voluntary interactions to mutual benefit, even at worldwide distances.
    “Social Meta-Needs: A New Basis for Optimal Interaction” – http://selfsip.org/fundamentals/socialmetaneeds.html

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