Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 30, 2011

Anwar al-Awlaki said to be dead

Filed under: Radicalization,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 30, 2011

According to several news outlets, Anwar al-Awlaki, the New Mexico born evangelist of terrorism, was killed in an attack on his convoy traveling through the interior of Yemen.    This news is breaking between 0600 and 0800 (Eastern Time).  More here as more is known or claimed-to-be-known.

According to Al-Jazeera:

Yemen’s defence ministry has reported that Anwar al-Awlaki, a well-known and controversial imam with ties to al-Qaeda, was killed along with four others. A government statement released to the media on Friday said the dual US-Yemeni citizen was hunted down by Yemeni forces, but did not elaborate on the circumstances of his death. Awlaki was wanted by both the US and Yemen.”The terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions,” said the statement sent by text message to journalists.

Tribal sources told the AFP news agency that Awlaki was killed early on Friday in an air strike that hit two vehicles travelling through an al-Qaeda stronghold in central Yemen. Government officials say he was targeted 8km from the town of Khashef in the province of al-Jawf, just 140km from Sanaa.

According to POLITICO:

Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born cleric and an alleged terror suspect with links to al Qaeda in Yemen, has been killed, a senior administration official confirmed to POLITICO…  The U.S. government has called al-Awlaki a “key leader” of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an al Qaeda offshoot in Yemen. The U.S. has linked al-Awlaki to Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged with killing 13 people in a shooting at a U.S. Army base at Fort Hood, Texas, in November 2009, and to a Nigerian student known as the “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. Last year, the Obama administration put the U.S.-born al-Awlaki on a CIA “kill or capture” list.

According to The Telegraph:

Yemeni security forces said they had conducted an operation to target Awlaki and his bodyguards in Marib province. Western sources said a US drone strike had hit his convoy in a remote area and that local military commanders had confirmed his death.

President Barack Obama authorised the US military to target Awlaki last year, a controversial and legally fraught move in light of his US citizenship. Awlaki had inspired serval audacious attacks in recent years including the 2009 Christmas underwear bomber, an attack in Fort Hood military base by a US army major and the stabbing of Stephen Timms MP.

One tribal chief in the area of the attack said that the plane that carried out the strike was likely to be American, adding that US aircraft had been patrolling the skies over Marib for the past several days.“US planes have been flying overhead for days now,” said the tribal source would requested anonymity. “Then this morning, at about 9:30, what appeared to be a US aircraft fired on the two cars Awlaqi and his fellow operatives are believed to have been travelling in.”

Last week the Washington Post reported:

The Obama administration is assembling a constellation of secret drone bases for counterterrorism operations in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula as part of a newly aggressive campaign to attack al-Qaeda affiliates in Somalia and Yemen… The rapid expansion of the undeclared drone wars is a reflection of the growing alarm with which U.S. officials view the activities of al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia.

The use of drones in such targeted attacks was also a significant element in a recent speech by John Brennan, given attention in a previous Homeland Security Watch post.

Born of Yemeni parents in the United States, Mr. Awlaki has been a charismatic communicator of the Al Qaeda message.  He is (was?) among the most prominent of a new generation of terrorist leaders, with particular  influence among English-speaking converts to Al Qaeda’s cause.  Especially since the death of Osama bin-Laden many considered Awlaki — and the Yemen based Al Qaeda franchise — as the most serious emergent threat.  As noted above, Awlaki has been directly connected to several cases of domestic radicalization in the United States.  He is considered the founder and has been a regular contributor to Inspire, the English-language web-based terrorist magazine.

Awlaki’s death is not necessarily significant to ongoing insurgent operations by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  But if Nasser al-Wahishi’s killing in late August is ultimately confirmed, losing these two leaders in such a short span of time suggests the intensity of the US effort in Yemen… even in the midst of the current civil unrest.

Writing in The Guardian, Jason Burke offers:

Awlaki’s primary role was that of an intermediary. He communicated the message and the ideology of extremist Islam. That message remains alive even if it has been rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. After a decade of polarising violent conflicts, its survival is now independent of the actions of individuals. The social movement of al-Qaida, the cult of violent extremism, the sub-culture of jihad, has sufficient momentum to continue to be effective. The educated Yemeni-American who himself straddled the cultural gaps between the Middle East and the west and who turned to extremism will now join the ranks of al-Qaida’s martyrs. He is thus likely to be an inspiration long after his death.

In an interesting coincidence, exactly one year ago today Homeland Security Watch posted: Killing a Fellow Citizen: Four frames on the present reality of Anwar al-Awlaki. This was one of several posts regarding Mr. Awlaki toward the end of September and beginning of October. Even while I hope the news of his death is accurate, the issues raised in the posts and comments from a year ago remain relevant.

The Washington Post is periodically updating its lead on Alwaki’s death.  According to the Post a second — unnamed — US citizen was also killed in the attack.

The New York Times is also adding to its coverage as additional information is available.  According to the Times the second individual killed is, “Samir Khan, an American citizen of Pakistani origin and the editor of Inspire, Al Qaeda’s English-language Internet magazine. Mr. Khan proclaimed in the magazine last yeasr that he was “pround (sic) to be a traitor to America.” (I don’t know if the sic is a NYT error or an Inspire error.)

Unless something especially interesting or odd emerges, I will let the mainstream media handle it from here.   Any of the links embedded above will take you to even more news and analysis.

Friday Evening Addition:

During a Friday late morning change-of-office ceremony for the new Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, the President commented on Alwaki’s killing:

The death of al-Awlaki marks another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates. Furthermore, this success 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 years.

Awlaki and his organization have been directly responsible for the deaths of many Yemeni citizens. His hateful ideology — and targeting of innocent civilians — has been rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, and people of all faiths. And he has met his demise because the government and the people of Yemen have joined the international community in a common effort against Al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a dangerous — though weakened — terrorist organization. And going forward, we will remain vigilant against any threats to the United States, or our allies and partners. But make no mistake: This is further proof that al Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven anywhere in the world.

Working with Yemen and our other allies and partners, we will be determined, we will be deliberate, we will be relentless, we will be resolute in our commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans, and to build a world in which people everywhere can live in greater peace, prosperity and security.

In the near term, Awlaki’s death is likely to increase interest in Inspire magazine, his online sermons, and other artifacts of his terrorist promotion.  But especially with the apparent demise of Samir Khan as well, there is no one on the Al Qaeda bench as proficient in mixing anger, aspiration, hate, and hope into such deadly temptation.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

September 30, 2011 @ 7:37 am

Wondering if INTEL from the Usama Bin Laden compound helped?

Comment by Charles Russo

September 30, 2011 @ 12:39 pm

Great compelation of articles on the taking out of yet another AQ leader in Yemen.

@William, undoubtably there was some sort of actionable intelligence taken from the compound and used in targeting of Awlaki and the others in the convoy.

Can’t wait to hear who’s next on the list of targets to get elminiated. But what suprises me so far is the lack of responsivness from AQ worldwide. Can the quiet mean nothing or the ramping up of something much larger?

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2011 @ 3:28 am

I am fascinated the President’s remarks mention the deaths of Yemeni but no mention of threat to Americans.

Hey the deaths of Russian journalists and social activists might also be of concern. So again what is the standard for these drone kills whether US citizen or dual citizen or whatever?

It happens this guy’s placement on the kill list was reviewed by a federal court and dismissed–lack of a father having standing.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 1, 2011 @ 6:01 am

Bill, In regard to the attempt to preempt by the father and ACLU, the following is a piece in today’s Guardian by Michael Ratner.

Is this the world we want? Where the president of the United States can place an American citizen, or anyone else for that matter, living outside a war zone on a targeted assassination list, and then have him murdered by drone strike.

This was the very result we at the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU feared when we brought a case in US federal court on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki’s father, hoping to prevent this targeted killing. We lost the case on procedural grounds, but the judge considered the implications of the practice as raising “serious questions”, asking:

“Can the executive 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 organisation?”

Yes, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical Muslim cleric. Yes, his language and speeches were incendiary. He may even have engaged in plots against the United States – but we do not know that because he was never indicted for a crime.

This profile should not have made him a target for a killing without due process and without any effort to capture, arrest and try him. The US government knew his location for purposes of a drone strike, so why was no effort made to arrest him in Yemen, a country that apparently was allied in the US efforts to track him down?

There are – or were – laws about the circumstances in which deadly force can be used, including against those who are bent on causing harm to the United States. Outside of a war zone, as Awlaki was, lethal force can only be employed in the narrowest and most extraordinary circumstances: when there is a concrete, specific and imminent threat of an attack; and even then, deadly force must be a last resort.

The claim, after the fact, by President Obama that Awlaki “operationally directed efforts” to attack the United States was never presented to a court before he was placed on the “kill” list and is untested. Even if President Obama’s claim has some validity, unless Awlaki’s alleged terrorists actions were imminent and unless deadly force employed as a last resort, this killing constitutes murder.

We know the government makes mistakes, lots of them, in giving people a “terrorist” label. Hundreds of men were wrongfully detained at Guantánamo. Should this same government, or any government, be allowed to order people’s killing without due process?

The dire implications of this killing should not be lost on any of us. There appears to be no limit to the president’s power to kill anywhere in the world, even if it involves killing a citizen of his own country. Today, it’s in Yemen; tomorrow, it could be in the UK or even in the United States.

In the Saturday Washington Post there is a report on how the US Justice Department considered the legal implications of killing Awlaki:

The Justice Department wrote a secret memorandum authorizing the lethal targeting of Anwar al-Aulaqi, the American-born radical cleric who was killed by a U.S. drone strike Friday, according to administration officials. The document was produced following a review of the legal issues raised by striking a U.S. citizen and involved senior lawyers from across the administration. There was no dissent about the legality of killing Aulaqi, the officials said… The administration officials refused to disclose the exact legal analysis used to authorize targeting Aulaqi, or how they considered any Fifth Amendment right to due process.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

WOW! Another DOJ Secret opinion. The Ghost of John Woo?

So in reality we now have documented the critical failure of DOJ to protect the Constitution and prevent the destruction of the rule of law?

Well the only Harvard Con Law prof must have flunked Con Law!

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 1, 2011 @ 12:27 pm

I should probably disclose that I could fashion a legal argument without secrecy supporting the drone strike program. But the better legal position until I have been convinced otherwise is that it is unlawful under US law and International law.

Unfortuanately at least two dozen times I gave
DOJ opinions on what was legally supportable even though I though I thought they were not the best legal positions. DOJ bought off each time on the “some legal basis” arguments seldom adopting the “best legal basis”! Perhaps the Law Schools teach law very differently now as opposed to the almost 45 years ago when I graduated. I am sure WALL STREET and the banksters are glad lawyers can be found that support the position that even the most spurious arguments may have “some”legal basis. The typical “some” legal basis is that no court has spoken to the issue! Thus, like balls and strikes thrown in baseball the tossed ball not anything until the UMP calls it. Again see JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG! 1961-Spencer Tracey, Richard Widmark, Maxmillian Schell.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 2, 2011 @ 12:06 am

Now appears the strike was really successful and perhaps 3 AQ leaders killed.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 2, 2011 @ 5:33 am

Bill, I have not yet seen confirmation that Asiri was killed. Yesterday the Post ran a story suggesting he had NOT been killed.

If Asiri was also in the target, the strike decimated the international capability of AQAP. Even so, I don’t agree with several commentators that Asiri’s death would also seriously reduce the close-to-home operational capacity of AQAP.

More important to AQAP’s core operations, it seems to me, is whether or not Naser al-Wahishi was killed in an August 28 drone attack.

More on Asiri from Lee Keith with the Associated Press.

The CIA and the Administration will try to be more discreet regarding the operational details of this attack. They learned important lessons regarding being too transparent after the Abbottabad operation. But to suggest how difficult this will be, there is a piece in today’s Guardian entitled: How the US tracked Anwar al-Awlaki to his death in Yemen.

Whatever the operational details, there are some policy issues here that strike me as worth hard thinking and meaningful discussion:

1. While many of us — including John Brennan and others in the administration — have tried to move away from the language of “war” against terrorists, it is increasingly clear war is being waged. If anything this administration has been more focused and aggressive in operations against specific terrorist targets than the prior administration.

2. We are increasingly, purposefully, mindfully shifting our war-fighting from Army and Marine assets in Iraq and Afghanistan to CIA and Special Operations forces wherever needed.

3. This strategic shift is beginning to show its strength and success. The killing of bin-Laden, Awlaki, Khan, perhaps Wahishi, and many other truly bad guys in Pakistan, Yemen, and soon Somalia are worth a sense of satisfaction. We have developed the intelligence and tactical competence to operate in very difficult terrain.

4. We have also just used CIA assets to kill two US citizens without any pretense of due process.

5. We have expanded the de facto war zone to another continent (Africa, as Somalia operations are expanding) without any pretense of de jure justification.

6. We are behaving in this way, I perceive, because our “chief magistrate” (President Obama) and others have concluded a more principled and transparent approach, bounded by statute, is impossible and that even the effort to engage the issue legislatively would expose the nation to immediate danger. This is the lesson the administration, not unreasonably, has learned from prior efforts to engage the Congress on a range of counter-terrorism issues.

7. So far, as a matter of operations and strategy, I am mostly supportive of administration actions. In terms of tactics who cannot be impressed? As a matter of policy there is cause for deep concern. What do these precedents suggest for the rule-of-law?

8. Where is our generation’s Estes Kefauver? Senator Collins? Senator Hatch? Senator Lugar? Is this a possible benefit of Senator Alexander leaving leadership? In any case, there is a profound need for adapting our legal frameworks to our treacherous reality.

If you have not, please get and read Terror and Consent by Philip Bobbitt.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 3, 2011 @ 4:18 am

In Monday’s Washington Post John Bellinger writes:

Some human rights groups have asserted that due process requires prior judicial review before killing an American, but it is unlikely that the Constitution requires judicial involvement in the case of a U.S. citizen engaged in terrorist activity outside this country. Administration lawyers undoubtedly reviewed the targeting of Awlaki even more carefully than of a non-American, and the Justice Department reportedly prepared an opinion concluding that his killing would comply with domestic and international law. This is likely to be considered sufficient due process under U.S. constitutional standards.

Bellinger proceeds to critique the killing under international legal standards (or perhaps more accurately: international legal expectations).

I continue to question whether the consent of the governed can be squared with an approach to “due process” that is conducted entirely in secret, where even post hoc the legal standards and judgments are protected from public consideration.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 3, 2011 @ 6:42 am

Well whatever the influence of AQ in YEMEN the return of SALEH [completely surprising the American INTEL community] means more civil war and tribalism in that desolate country. Hey DOD tour guides most should be working on the HORN of AFRICA as the next vacation spot for the overextended ground forces. What happens when we start fighting again in jungles? No need much longer for Cold Weather warriors.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 3, 2011 @ 11:28 am

And the UNDERWARE bomber?

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Operational Cooperation Led to the Death of Al-Awlaki: Lessons for Homeland Security?

October 3, 2011 @ 10:46 pm

[…] a moment (though they are certainly important: Phil has been raising important questions in his post on the matter and the blog Lawfare is a great source for approachable legal analysis), the […]

Comment by Samantha Goldman

October 6, 2011 @ 11:31 am

Philip, I am a a student at the University of Maryland working with the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START). I was hoping that I might be able to ask you a few questions via email about how new media (i.e. blogs) play a role in the area of homeland security and counter-terrorism strategy.

I’m sorry that this comment does not relate to the above post, but I could not find your contact information. My email is attached to this comment, and I would greatly appreciate a few minutes of your time.

Comment by 3tabs

November 28, 2011 @ 10:18 am

hey I thought that Bin Laden was killed months ago, what is that guy doing in that picture?? is he Bin Laden’s brother?? or is he a clone??

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