U.S. drone strikes in Yemen have claimed its third American victim in as many weeks – this time, killing the 16 year old son of Anwar al Awlaki on 14 October 2011. (The second was Samir Khan, an al Qaeda propagandist from North Carolina who died alongside the senior al Awlaki.) Early news reports, based on government sources, originally claimed that Awlaki’s son was a 21 year old al Qaeda fighter but media outlets were soon forced to backtrack when what remains of the al Awlaki family publicly posted Abdulrahmen al Awlaki’s U.S. birth certificate.
By all family accounts, Abdulrahmen, who left the United States in 2002 with his father, was a “typical kid,” not a militant. They released a statement in response to reports incorrectly stating his age and activities: “Look at his pictures, his friends, and his hobbies. His Facebook page shows a typical kid. A teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.” Journalists and others are encouraged to visit his Facebook memorial page.
In his first year of secondary school, it seems he ran away from home to look for his father in the family’s tribal home in southern Yemen, leaving a note that said he did so because he missed his father. A CIA drone strike killed the father a few days later. Intending to return to his home, Abdulrahmen was BBQ’ing outside when the group was attacked. His 17 year old cousin died with him.
Whatever one may think of the senior al Alwaki’s death, is there any legal justification in the death of his son? Or is it merely collateral damage, a mistake? Bearing in mind the latter suggestion, we might recall the June 2011 statement of President Obama’s chief Terrorism advisor, John Brennan, who lauded the “exceptional proficiency, [and] precision…capabilities” of U.S. drone attacks: “[I]f there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger.”