Awlaki eliminated by a U.S. drone

A drone unleashed by the CIA in Yemen struck and killed the Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.

What happened

The American-born Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen last week, ending a two-year manhunt for the leading al Qaida propagandist. U.S. officials said the unmanned aircraft unleashed Hellfire missiles that incinerated a car carrying Awlaki outside the northern town of Khashef. At least four people were killed, Yemeni officials said, including Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen who edited al Qaida’s online English-language magazine, Inspire. President Obama hailed Awlaki’s death as a “major blow” to al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula—the terrorist group’s offshoot in Yemen. The cleric’s fiery online sermons in colloquial English have been linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the U.S., Britain, and Canada. Obama said that Awlaki “took the lead in planning and directing” AQAP’s efforts to murder Americans, including the December 2009 “underwear bomber” plot to blow up a passenger jet over Detroit, and last year’s foiled scheme to detonate bombs in U.S. cargo planes.

Critics questioned the legality of the deadly drone attack, arguing that the U.S. Constitution forbids the killing of American citizens without due process of law. “To start assassinating American citizens without charges—we should think very seriously about this,” said Republican presidential contender Ron Paul. Administration officials said that the Justice Department had conducted a thorough review of the legal issues, and in a secret memo had authorized drone attacks on citizens actively involved in terrorist groups’ attacks on Americans. “What constitutes due process in this case is a due process in war,” said one official.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

What the editorials said

Obama made the right call, said Awlaki had years to dispute the charge that he was a member of al Qaida and was plotting against America. “Instead, he taunted us for our inability to find him.” This isn’t the first time the U.S. has killed a traitor. During World War II, the Supreme Court ruled that it was legal to execute a U.S. citizen, Herbert Hans Haupt, caught spying for Nazi Germany. Like Haupt, Awlaki surrendered his constitutional rights the moment he engaged in acts of war against his own country.

This precision strike shows why drones are vital in the fight against al Qaida, said USA Today. So far, drone attacks have killed more than 1,000 terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It’s true that drones sometimes kill civilians, but they’re replacing “a far cruder tool, full-scale war, as the key post-9/11 means for attacking terrorists.” Far better to erase individuals like Awlaki from the air than to send entire armies into Muslim lands.

What the columnists said

Awlaki’s assassination was illegal and abhorrent, said Glenn Greenwald in Salon​.com. “No effort was made to indict him for any crimes,” and no proof of his involvement in terrorism has ever been presented. “He was simply ordered killed by the president: his judge, jury, and executioner.” For all you Democrats now cheering Obama, how will the unilateral power to assassinate U.S. citizens “look to you in the hands of, say, Rick Perry or Michele Bachmann?”

Check your history books and you’ll see why the drone strike was legal, said John Yoo in The Wall Street Journal. During the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln rightly concluded that the U.S. could “treat its own citizens as enemies when they take up arms in rebellion.” Lincoln’s decision is even more critical now that al Qaida is using recruits from the West to attack their own societies.

So what is the Obama administration’s drone policy? asked David Ignatius in The Washington Post. It’s not, as some might think, to kill anyone affiliated with al Qaida anywhere. The White House has decided not to strike the training camps of al-Shabab, al Qaida’s affiliate in war-torn Somalia, because al-Shabab is fighting a domestic conflict, and isn’t plotting attacks on Americans. With every demonstration of drones’ lethal precision, the U.S. is sending a clear message of deterrence to Islamic radicals: You can cause trouble in your own backyard, but if you target us, you’ll soon hear an ominous buzzing in the sky.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.