Awlaki's killing sparks propaganda battle
BY Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON - While the administration of President Barack Obama celebrated the
killing of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militant and United States
citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, the reaction among human-rights groups and Yemen
specialists was more critical.
Awlaki, who was chiefly known as a particularly effective English-speaking
propagandist but was described by Obama himself as AQAP's "leader of external
operations", was killed, along with at
least three companions, including a second US citizen - Samir Khan - while
traveling in a small convoy in a remote region south of the Yemeni capital,
Sana'a, by a US drone strike.
"The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaeda's most active operational
affiliate," Obama said at the retirement ceremony for Admiral Mike Mullen, the
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces.
"In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder
innocent Americans," Obama said, citing his alleged role in "directing" the
failed attempt by a Nigerian militant to blow up a civil airliner over Detroit
in 2009 and another aborted bombing of US cargo aircraft in 2010.
"The death of al-Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader
effort to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates," he said. "Furthermore this is a
tribute to our intelligence community, and to the efforts of Yemen and its
security forces, who have worked closely with the United States over the course
of several weeks."
But some specialists on Yemen said Obama had overstated al-Awlaki's importance
in AQAP, which Washington officials have depicted as the greatest threat to the
US homeland of all of al-Qaeda's affiliates, and exaggerated his operational
"Awlaki's death is, in my view, not a debilitating blow to the organization,"
according to Gregory Johnsen, a Yemen specialist at Princeton University, who
added that Obama's description of him as "leader of external operations" was a
title "he never took for himself, at least not publicly".
Moreover, Obama's tribute to Yemen's government and security forces will likely
contribute to the impression that embattled President Ali Abdullah Salih, who
has been pressed by the Obama administration to give up power, is back in
Washington's favor. "This of course puts the US in the rather awkward position
of publicly thanking a ruler it has called on to step down," noted Johnsen.
"At a time when the Obama administration is purportedly urging Yemen's
physically and politically disabled president to acquiesce to popular demands
that the step aside, this incident allows President Salih to brag to his people
about his close alliance with the United States against al-Qaeda and its
affiliates," added Sheila Carapico, a Yemen specialist at the University of
But if Yemen experts expressed some skepticism over both the importance
accorded by the administration to al-Awlaki and the wisdom of its praise for
the Yemeni government's presumed role in tracking him down, civil liberties
activists voiced genuine anger at the killing, particularly given al-Awlaki's
"The targeted killing program violates both US and international law," said
Jameel Jaffer, the deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union
(ACLU). "As we've seen today, this is a program under which American citizens
far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without
judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept
secret not just from the public, but from the courts."
"The government's authority to use lethal force against its own citizens should
be limited to circumstances in which the threat to life is concrete, specific
and imminent," he added. "It is a mistake to invest the President - any
President - with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to
present a threat to the country."
Mary Ellen O'Connell, an internationally recognized expert on targeted killings
at the University of Notre Dame, was similarly categorical. "Derogation from
the fundamental right to life is permissible only in battle zones or to save a
human life immediately," she said. "The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki did not
occur in these circumstances."
The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), which denounced the
killing in similar terms Friday, had brought represented al-Awlaki's father, a
former agriculture minister in Yemen, in a lawsuit that sought to block the US
government from trying to kill Awlaki after a number of media outlets quoted
unnamed officials as saying he had been placed on a "kill list" of suspected
The case was dismissed on a procedural technicality - that Awlaki's father
lacked "standing" to sue on behalf of his son - by a federal judge who, in his
opinion, acknowledged that case raised "disturbing questions" about whether the
president could "order the assassination of a US citizen without first
affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere
assertion that he is a dangerous member of a terrorist organization." The
government had never charged al-Awlaki with a serious crime, nor had it
provided evidence to the court to support allegations that he played an
"operational" role in AQAP.
Born in 1971 in New Mexico where his father was a graduate student, Awlaki
moved with his family back to Yemen when he was seven and then returned to the
US where he attended university preached in a number of mosques around the US
until 2004 when he returned to Yemen. He was arrested by the authorities in
2006 at Washington's behest but released in 2007. His prominence among
English-speaking militant Islamists grew through his audio and video recordings
circulated on the Internet.
United States officials have told reporters they believe al-Awlaki incited US
Major Nidal Hasan, who has been charged with the murder of 13 people gunned
down at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, and Faisal Shahzad, who was
sentenced to life imprisonment for trying to set off a car bomb in New York
City's Times Square in May 2010. Hasan and al-Awlaki reportedly had a fairly
extensive e-mail correspondence.
Johnsen said it was his role as propagandist, rather than in any known
operational role to AQAP, that made him dangerous. "He is someone who inspires
what are often called lone-world terrorists in the West," Johnsen wrote on his
blog. "And this is where Awlaki is more difficult to replace. The US clearly
hopes that he is a unique figure in that no one will step in to fill his role -
although I think it is important to note .that Awlaki's sermons will outlive
The other US citizen killed by Friday's drone strike, Samir Khan, was an editor
of al Qaeda's English-language magazine, Inspire and was not specifically
targeted, according to US officials. Born in North Carolina of Pakistani
descent, the 25-year-old Khan reportedly traveled in 2009 to Yemen where he
took over publication of the magazine.
Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.