Assassinating An American Al-Qaeda Leader

The New York Times is reporting that a recent drone strike in Yemen was aimed at Anwar al-Awlaki, whom they say is a radical American-born cleric that “has recruited English-speaking Islamist militants to Yemen to carry out attacks overseas.” A recent article by Paul Oliver on PolicyMic echoed a similarly unsubstantiated claim that “American-born Al-Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki has helped plot major terrorism plots from his hideout in Yemen.” Nearly all major media outlets seem ready to name Awlaki as the next bin Laden, and it is thus no wonder that Obama’s recent drone strikes have largely evaded the intense criticisms that would usually accompany the attempted targeted killing of an American citizen. While the attempted assassination of an anti-American Muslim cleric may not seem out of the ordinary given the current geopolitical climate, it is essential that all Americans understand the legal grounds on which the Obama administration may or may not be operating.

The Constitution grants even the most heinous criminals due process of law before being convicted of a crime. In the post-9/11 era, many exceptions to this rule have emerged through legal technicalities, ultimately leading to the current situation at Guantanamo Bay where 48 detainees are deemed “too dangerous to release but not feasible for prosecution because of torture-tainted evidence inadmissible in civilian or military tribunals.”

Assume for argument’s sake that enemy combatants suspected of bringing harm to U.S. troops may legally be imprisoned indefinitely without trial for national security reasons. Given this questionable assumption, could one then argue that the assassination of American citizens by the government for advocating retaliatory violence towards U.S. military targets occupying foreign lands is legal as well? 

As an American citizen, Awlaki’s rights are protected by the Constitution until he violates U.S. laws. However, the CIA has thus far only cited “secret evidence” that Awlaki has played an operational role within Al-Qaeda. It is important to note that merely advocating for violence against U.S. citizens is protected by a Supreme Court ruling so long as one is not advocating for imminent lawless action. In the case of Awlaki, he has thus far advocated for violence only against U.S. military targets, saying that the failed "Christmas Day bombing" by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab “would have been better if the plane was a military one or if it was a US military target.”

In this light, the arguments of Awlaki and figures like Samuel Adams, who openly advocated for violence against British troops some centuries ago, seem to coalesce.

A vital feature of America’s judicial system is the concept that citizens are innocent until proven guilty. U.S. law states that the burden of proof is on the prosecution (in this case, the U.S. government) to prove that terrorists have directly orchestrated attacks on innocent civilians before they can be considered targets for assassination. Are Americans supposed to simply accept that the Obama administration’s attempted assassination of this U.S. citizen in a non-combat zone on May 5, 2011 was based on accurate intelligence that is too sensitive to be made public? Should we then start requiring elementary students to recite the “Blind Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag?”

By all accounts (although establishment lawyers are most likely busy crafting counter-arguments), it is illegal for the government to assassinate a U.S. citizen based on secret evidence without first granting them the right to a trial. Who then is this Awlaki figure to warrant this seemingly blatant violation of the U.S. justice system? For one, he speaks English, and clearly denounced the American public for taking part in "all its government's crimes." 

Nationalist emotions aside, the morality of Alwaki’s views here is irrelevant. What matters is that his right to advocate violence against U.S. citizens and military targets is protected by our legal system so long as he does not advocate for specific, imminent violence. History has shown that societies begin disintegrating when they fail to adhere to their legal systems when it is inconvenient to do so.  Laws should be changed if they need to be, but never broken. Anything less is anarchy.

Thus, the inconvenient truth from this episode is that the attempted assassination of Awlaki should deeply disturb all reasonable people. The targeted assassination of an American citizen without due process based solely on secret evidence would set a sinister precedent; potentially causing citizens to refrain from criticizing the government’s actions for fear of being murdered based on classified information that may or may not be accurate.

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