Drone on target

Print edition : November 04, 2011

Samir Khan, seen in video footage taken in North Carolina in 2008. He was killed with Awlaki. - AP

Al Qaeda's Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic cleric, is killed in Yemen in a drone attack authorised by President Obama.

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI, an American citizen of Yemeni origin, knew that he was living on borrowed time after the world's most powerful man, the President of the United States, put him on the hit list last year. President Barack Obama had approved his killing in April 2010. The 40-year-old Islamic cleric is said to have escaped two previous attempts to target him, but his luck ran out when an unmanned Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles caught up with his convoy in a remote mountainous region in Yemen on September 30. Awlaki and another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan, a computer specialist and co-editor of Al Qaeda's online magazine Inspire, were killed in the attack.

Obama was quick to claim that Awlaki's death constituted a major blow to Al Qaeda's most active affiliate Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration has tried to portray Awlaki's killing as its biggest success in the war against terror since the extermination of Osama bin Laden in the middle of this year. The operation that killed Awlaki was supervised by the same unit that raided Osama's hideout in Abbottabad in Pakistan.

The President has offered no apologies for the killing of the two U.S. citizens in cold blood but insisted that Awlaki was the AQAP's leader of external operations. Legal opinion in the U.S. is sharply divided on the extrajudicial killing of its own citizens. Many other nationalities have become cannon fodder in the 10-year-old war on terror. The Israeli Defence Forces had been targeting Palestinian and other leaders opposed to them for assassination with impunity even before the war on terror began. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has been critical of the U.S. government's decision to impose the death penalty without a trial. The U.S. Justice Department has refused to provide any legal justification for the killing. Obama, however, has said that his administration will be resolute in its commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans.


After the events of September 11, 2001, Awlaki was among the small group of radicalised American Muslims who threw in their lot with Al Qaeda. His sermons in English with an American accent urging Muslims to wage jehad against the West reputedly had a wide fan following on YouTube and other websites. After a U.S. Army officer of Palestinian origin, Major Nidal Mallik Hassan, went on a killing spree in a military base at Fort Hood in November 2009, Awlaki's name hit the headlines. It was reported that the U.S. Army veteran was in touch with Awlaki before he went on the rampage in which 13 people were killed. Awlaki had denied having encouraged Hassan in any way but later praised his act saying that it had prevented the U.S. soldiers who were killed from being deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq where they would have killed Muslims.

Awlaki was also blamed for attempts to blow up American passenger planes, though the claims have not been substantiated. The Obama administration linked Awlaki with the failed Christmas 2009 attempt of Umar Farrouk Abdulmutallib, the underwear bomber, to bring down a Detroit-bound plane. Awlaki was also accused of playing a key role in the October 2010 mail bomb plot. Packets containing bombs, originating from Yemen and bound for the U.S., were intercepted in Dubai and Europe. In May 2010, a Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in Manhattan told the U.S. authorities that he was inspired by Awlaki's sermons.

Anwar al-Awlaki, who the U.S. says was the leader of external operations of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).-MUHAMMAD-UD-DEEN/AP

In one of his sermons recorded in early 2010, Awlaki urged American Muslims to stage attacks. Jehad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.

But if reports in the Arab media are anything to go by, Awlaki was only a minor cog, used mainly for propaganda purposes, in Al Qaeda's major network. His fluency in both English and Arabic coupled with his knowledge of the Quran helped him gather a big fan following, especially among the youth. Experts on Yemen have said that he had no operational role in Al Qaeda. The top commanders are Yemenis and Saudis who have been leading the fight against the U.S. presence in the region for many years. The AQAP's main leadership continues to be intact and is no doubt busy hatching new terror plans. Awlaki was forced to flee into the desolate mountain region where his tribe is located and where Al Qaeda has a presence in order to escape from the Americans, who had put a bounty on his head.

Awlaki's father, who was once Minister of Agriculture in the central government in Yemen, had issued a public appeal to the U.S. administration to drop the death warrant. The senior Awlaki went to the extent of describing his son as an all-American boy who had studied at some of the finest universities, including doing doctoral work at George Washington University. U.S. media reports say that Awlaki had actually worked for the Pentagon for a few years, helping it to counter the view that the U.S. was against the Islamic world. In the U.S., the Centre for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU, along with Awlaki's father, had filed a case in the federal court to prevent the assassination of a U.S. citizen outside a war zone. District Judge John Bates, who presided over the hearing, pertinently raised a question on the justification of the executive branch of the government ordering 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 member of a terrorist organisation.

Ron Paul, a U.S. Congressman from Texas and a candidate in Republican presidential primaries, has described Awlaki's killing as an unlawful assassination. To start assassinating American citizens without charges we must think very seriously about this, Paul said.

The Fifth Amendment in the U.S. Constitution states: No person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law. Eventually, in an 83-page judgment in December last year, Bates dismissed the petition to block Awlaki's assassination by executive fiat. There are circumstances which the [President's] unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas is constitutionally committed to the political branches and is judicially unreviewable, the judge concluded. He, however, did admit that many stark and perplexing questions remained to be answered following Obama's decision to put Awlaki on the kill list.

A predator drone, called the weapon of choice of the Obama administration, flies over Kandahar airfield in southern Afghanistan.-AP

The Obama administration claims the right for targeted killings from the Bill signed by George W. Bush immediately after the events of September 11. The Bill authorised action against those who planned, authorised, committed or aided the 9/11 terrorist attacks. White House officials have confirmed the existence of a secret panel that can order the execution of American citizens without judicial oversight.

Former Vice-President Dick Cheney was among those who praised the Obama administration for ordering the drone strike against Awlaki. Cheney, who has been otherwise critical of Obama, called it a very good strike and a justified one. But he was also quick to demand an apology from Obama for criticising earlier the harsh interrogation measures the Bush administration had used to extract information from terror suspects incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay and secret prisons of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) all over the world.

The thing I am waiting for is for the administration to go back and correct something they said two years ago when they criticised us for overreacting to the events of 9/11, Cheney said on television. He said recent events had shown that the Obama administration was using the same techniques favoured by the previous administration.

The killing of Awlaki occurred a few days after President Abdullah Saleh returned to Yemen after months of treatment in Saudi Arabia. Saleh had narrowly escaped death but suffered serious burn injuries when his palace was attacked by forces loyal to the opposition. His return was unexpected as talks for a peaceful settlement of the political crisis were poised delicately. After the announcement of Awlaki's death, Saleh was quick to highlight the close security cooperation between forces loyal to him and the U.S. military. In fact, the first news about Awlaki's killing came through Yemeni government sources. In all probability, the drones used in the attack came from a base in Yemen.

WikiLeaks documents have revealed the close security links between the two governments. Saleh had offered the U.S. unfettered access to carry out hits against Al Qaeda from Yemeni soil. The cables also reveal that Saleh outsourced Yemen's counterterrorism efforts to the U.S. In the second week of October, U.S. drone attacks killed five Yemeni militants near the town of Zinjibar, which has been under Al Qaeda influence since May. U.S. officials are only confirming that the drones took off from a base in the Arabian Peninsula that became operational only recently. U.S. drones also fly into the region from known bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Seychelles.

White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan said recently that counterterrorism cooperation with Yemen is better than it's been during my whole tenure. Saleh, no doubt, expects the Obama administration to back him in his efforts to cling to power. The anti-government protests in Yemen have been far bloodier than the ones occurring in Syria.

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