Inter Press Service
While the administration of President Barack Obama celebrated the killing of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) militant and U.S. 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 U.S. citizen, while traveling in a small convoy in a remote region south of the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, by a U.S. 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 Adm. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. homeland of all of Al-Qaeda's affiliates, and exaggerated his operational role.
"Awlaki's death is, in my view, not a debilitating blow to the organisation," 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 favour. "This of course puts U.S. 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 Richmond.
But if Yemen experts expressed some scepticism 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 U.S. citizenship.
"The targeted killing programme violates both U.S. 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 programme 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 recognised 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 represented al-Awlaki's father, a former agriculture minister in Yemen, in a lawsuit that sought to block the U.S. 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 terrorists.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. where he attended university preached in a number of mosques around the U.S. 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.
U.S. officials have told reporters they believe al-Awlaki incited U.S. Maj. Nidal Hasan, who has been charged with the murder of 13 people gunned down at Fort Hood, Texas, in Nov, 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 email 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 U.S. 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 him."
The other U.S. 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 U.S. 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 is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to Right Web (http://rightweb.irc-online.org). His blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.