On September 30, 2011, Anwar Al-Awlaki, the propagandist leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed by a drone attack in Yemen. Born in New Mexico in 1971, Awlaki attended Colorado State University and received a civil engineering degree. However, over time, he became increasingly religious and radicalized. Initially, after the September 11th attacks, Al-Awlaki decried the attacks and was a moderate. But over time, his frustrations with the United States led him to inspire terrorists to commit heinous acts of violence. Al-Awlaki sermons have inspired the Food Hood Shooter Nidal Malik Hasan and Christmas Day Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He was also linked to the times square bomber. His ability to inspire terrorists was undoubted.
However, the attack has caused some in the United States to doubt the morality and legality of the attack. Specifically, Al-Awlaki was an American Citizen. Some persons on the left and right insist the attack was a violation of the 5th Amendment, which ensures the right to life without loss of due process. After the killing, Ron Paul, a libertarian republican candidate for President stated that: “If the American people accept this blindly and casually that we now have an accepted practice of the President assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys, I think it’s sad.” Similarly, on the opposite side of political spectrum, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement insisting that: “It is a mistake to invest the President — any President — with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to present a threat to the country.”
On the other hand, drone attacks have been used by the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Proponents of the Awlaki drone attack say it is legally and morally acceptable because it was an act of self-defense. An Obama administration official asserted this week that: “As a general matter, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target high-level leaders of enemy forces, regardless of their nationality, who are plotting to kill Americans both under the authority provided by Congress in its use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense.” Basically, the argument is that in the war on terror, the battle field is in any country, and the enemies can be domestic or foreign. Therefore, even though Al-Awlaki was an American Citizen, the fact he presented an imminent risk to the nation necessitated his killing.
Either way, the debate going forward will be tenacious. Some will argue that the danger of terrorism necessitates any action in defense. Others will claim that killing an American without any form of due process is a violation of our nation’s principles. Nevertheless, it is certain that finding that balance will be an issue going forward.