Global Policy Studies & International Security

Balancing Treason and Rights of Citizenship


Anwar al-Awlaki knew that America targeted him as a leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. In early February The New York Times reported that President Obama authorized al-Awlaki’s targeted killing. If he missed that article, the Hellfire Missiles that hit his car on May 5, 2011 in an unsuccessful attempt to take him out must have surely been a sign that America took his threats seriously.

Al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was no saint and there is little doubt that had his capture taken place, he would have been found guilty of high treason.   Major Nidal Hasan sought al-Awlaki’s blessing before the Fort Hood shootings in November 2009, and al-Awlaki engineered the unsuccessful underwear and printer cartridge bombings in 2009 and 2010.

After September 11, the U.S. Kill/Capture programs run by both the Special Forces Command and the Central Intelligence Agency became a grisly necessity in a war where enemies crossed borders and sought the protection of “friendly” foreign governments.  While President Obama’s administration did not introduce Kill/Capture to the battlefield, it has expanded its depth and breadth.  Drone missions in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia have increased since Obama came into office and have not slowed after Osama Bin Laden’s death in May. On September 30, the missile hit the targeted car and the U.S. Kill/Capture program killed its first American citizen.

We must not take the targeted killing of any person lightly, regardless of their nationality.  John Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism made it clear that, beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, targeting focuses on those “whose removal would cause a significant – even if only temporary – disruption of the plans and capabilities of al-Qaida.”

Further, last year a federal judge ruled that in wartime the president and Congress, have the authority to make decisions on military targeting, including American citizens. Even with this ruling establishing the legality of their decision, the administration took the debate over adding al-Awlaki’s name to the Kill/Capture list so seriously that they missed opportunities to kill him as the debate took place.

Anwar al-Awlaki slipped from his civilian life to the role of unlawful combatant in an armed conflict.  Further, he took a leadership role in an al-Qaida affiliate, and was hidden in Yemen, beyond the reach of U.S. and international law enforcement that could have brought him to trial. The rights afforded to him as a U.S. citizen no longer protected his conduct, and he was given fair warning of that fact.

In the past 10 years warfare has evolved to face the challenges of a different kind of enemy.  Today, the United States faces off with al-Qaida, its affiliates and sympathizers around the world.  Law enforcement tactics work in some parts of the world, but in other parts of the world Kill/Capture provides the United States a way to protect itself.  Targeting those who wish to lead the fight against the United States, regardless of their origins, will always be in the national interest.

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