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One defining characteristic of the post 9/11 era has been the use of targeted killings as a part of the US government’s counterterrorism strategy. While these killings have mostly been restricted to non-American targets suspected of terrorism, there have been a number of prominent killings of American citizens. One prominent incident of targeted killing of an American citizen involved Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki was a US citizen who lived in Yemen where he engaged in activities on behalf of the al Qaeda terrorist organization, of which he was a part of.
As a high-value terrorist target, the Obama administration has declared that its decision to kill al-Awlaki was justified. The al-Awlaki case raised significant concern since the Obama administration approved the targeted killing of an American without any charges or a trial. This paper will discuss the justifications offered in defense of al-Awlaki’s targeted killing by the US. The paper will highlight how the events of 9/11 led to marked shifts in counterterrorism measures by the US.
9/11 and Targeted Killings
The targeted killing of individuals has been carried out by States far back into historical times. By definition, targeted killing is “the use of lethal force by the state or its agents with the intent, premeditation, and deliberation to kill”(Maxwell 123). While the use of targeted killings in the pre-9/11 era was greatly limited, post 9/11 US administrations have adopted a national security policy that allows for frequent use of targeted killings to eliminate terrorists. The most prevalent tool in the post 9/11 targeted killings has been unmanned aerial vehicles (commonly known as drones).
The drones had been used sparingly during the Bush administration to complement other counterinsurgency activities. These tools have assumed an indispensable place on the list of counterterrorism offense tools during the Obama administration. The preference for drone attacks has been because of their great effectiveness in carrying out surgical attacks. Drone attacks are preferred since they do not put American troops at risk. Kebriaei states that without the domestic blowback from troop casualties, the administration has been able to carry out sustained targeted killings with little domestic opposition (161).
Criticism of al-Awlaki’s killing
An issue that has emerged in the al-Awlaki killing is that it took place in what is considered peacetime environment. The killing of al-Awlaki took place in Yemen which is not a conflict zone. This raises significant concerns since while targeted killings against enemy combatants in conflict zones such as Afghanistan are accepted, killings outside a zone of conflict are controversial. Legal scholars and some foreign governments assert that it was wrong to kill a person, even if he was considered an enemy of the state, if armed conflict between the states is not present at a location (McKelvey 1355).
The US constitution guarantees every citizen’s right to a fair trial and due process of the law. Buckley documents that al-Awlaki’s killing was in violation of the protection offered to US citizens under the Fifth Amendment of the constitution which prohibits the deprivation of life without due process of the law (453). State officials justified the use of lethal force by contending that al-Awlaki was a lawful target in the armed conflict since he was engaged in war against the US through his affiliation with the al Qaeda network.
The legality of al-Awlaki’s attack was further questioned by the lack of clear evidence that this American citizen was planning an imminent violent attack against the US. McKelvey reveals that the government refused to produce specific evidence to justify the killing of al-Awlaki (1355). The only justification offered for the strike against al-Awlaki was DOJ claims that he was a senior al-Qaeda leader who was planning attacks against the US. McKelvey notes that in spite of these accusations, al-Awlaki had never been convicted for any terrorist activity against the US and all the charges against him remain allegations (1355).
US Government Justification
Al-Awlaki was accused of playing a significant role in al Qaeda operations. According to government officials, al-Awlaki was engaged in recruiting individuals to carry out terrorist attacks against US targets both in the homeland and abroad. The US intelligence services claimed that in addition to encouraging terrorist activities in the US, he engaged in active financing of the terrorist organization and gave material and technological support to terrorists (Maxwell 124). As a result of his active involvement with al-Qaeda, the US decided to label al-Awlaki a belligerent. This made it possible for the state to target this individual for killing. Maxwell reveals that a person designated as a terrorist can be targeted and killed because of their status as enemy belligerents (126). Killing an enemy belligerent is legal regardless of whether he poses an immediate threat at the moment.
The president is constitutionally empowered to take steps to protect the US from belligerent entities. The 9/11 attacks led to the president acquiring Congressional authorization to go to war with al Qaeda, which was the organization responsible for this attack. Under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the president obtained sweeping powers to deal with terrorist organizations and the individuals in these organizations (Buckley 440). Government officials therefore argue that Obama acted within the constitution by ordering the hit on al-Awlaki, who was considered a national security threat.
In response to the accusations that the killings were illegal since they took place outside a current conflict zone, the Obama administration claims that it carried out this action as anticipatory self-defense. The right of the State to act in anticipatory self-defense is recognized by international law and codified in the UN charter (Kebriaei 160). Each nation has the unilateral right to carry out attacks against an enemy in self-defense even if the enemy is not engaged in an active attack at the moment. The Obama Administration contends that attacking al-Awlaki was a necessary act of self defense.
The US administration has assured its critics that the killing of al-Awlaki was only done after a long, independent intelligence process that ascertained that he was a threat to US national security. The Obama Administration argued that al-Awlaki’s assassination decreased the capability of al-Qaeda to carry out attacks against the US. Buckley reveals that targeted killings are aimed at eliminating al-Qaeda’s top echelon, thus severely limiting the ability of the organization to plan and execute terrorist attacks against US targets (440).
In response to the accusation that sufficient evidence was not provided to support al-Awlaki’s targeted killing, the Obama Administration declares that clear evidence is not a pre-requisite to the authorization of targeted killings. This idea was expressed in a White Paper released by the Department of Justice in 2012. In this document, the DOJ asserted that the US government could use lethal force against an American citizen even if the government did not have “clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future” because of the actions of the targeted individual (Guiora 238).
Targeted killings have been a part of U.S. national security policy and many presidents have reserved the right to use targeted killings in unique circumstances. However, in the past this power was exercised in a very controlled manner and only under extreme circumstances. This has changed in the post 9/11 era where the US has intensified its attacks against suspected terrorists.
In spite of the debate on the legality of the al-Awlaki drone attack, targeted killings have continued to be used by the Obama Administration. This administration has argued that targeted killings are not necessarily illegal and serve the greater cause of Homeland defense. These killings have been cited as being integral to defending the homeland from imminent attacks. The Obama administration’s interpretation of what qualifies as “self-defense” has significantly increased instances where the State can use aggressive force in the territory of a nonbelligerent state.
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This paper set out to discuss the US drone strike against al-Awlaki in Yemen and present the justifications offered by the government for this killing of a US citizen. The paper began by highlighting the prevalence of targeted killings in the post 9/11 era. It then discussed the criticisms offered against the targeted killing of al-Awlaki. This action was a violation of the constitutional right of the target to receive a fair trial. The paper has recognized that targeted killing gives the opportunity to defend itself against the threat of terrorists. The actions are also within the rights of the president who has been given unfettered authority in the area of national security in post 9/11 America. Due to their effectiveness, targeted killings can be expected to be a core part of US counterterrorism strategy for many years to come.
Buckley, Ahmed. “Smiting Spell: The Legality of Targeted Killings in the War against Terrorism.” Journal of East Asia & International Law 5.2 (2012): 439-454. Web.
Guiora, Amos. “Targeted Killing: when Proportionality gets all out of Proportion.” Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law 45.1 (2012): 235-257. Web.
Kebriaei, Pardiss. “The Distance Between Principle and Practice in the Obama Administration’s Targeted Killing Program: A Response to Jeh Johnson.” Yale Law & Policy Review 31.1 (2012): 151-172. Print.
Maxwell, David. “Targeted Killing, the Law, and Terrorists.” JFQ 64.1 (2012): 123-130. Web.
McKelvey, Benjamin. “Due Process Rights and the Targeted Killing of Suspected Terrorists: The Unconstitutional Scope of Executive Killing Power.” Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 44.1 (2011): 1353-1384. Print.