The Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. military personnel used an unmanned drone to kill U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda leader living in Yemen, on Sept. 30. Al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen. He was also indisputably an enemy of the United States — credible sources suggest he played a role in training several of the 9/11 hijackers, spoke to and encouraged alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan and helped plan the unsuccessful attack on a Detroit-bound flight last December. In January 2010, his name was added to a public list of persons targeted for assassination.
Drone strikes in Yemen are nothing new. American military and intelligence personnel routinely use airborne drones to carry out targeted assassinations on Yemeni soil. But until al-Awlaki’s name appeared on the list, the CIA had never officially targeted a U.S. citizen for assassination. This is because U.S. citizens accused of crimes have the right to be tried by a jury and face their accusers. A targeted assassination, even one approved by numerous analysts, lawyers and high-ranking members of the executive branch, is not the legal process through which criminals are normally sentenced.
I am troubled by the CIA’s decision to execute an American citizen — now that it has been done once, it may be easier to justify similar actions in the future. At the same time, I believe that the assassination of al-Awlaki was justifiable. It was justifiable because his actions were equivalent to those of a soldier in wartime. He was in a battlefield, and the methods used to kill him were acceptable under wartime conditions. Before the government carries out an assassination, it should show that the target is a soldier on a battlefield, and the methods to be used comply with international codes of military conduct.
Roger Simon of the Chicago Sun-Times attempted to justify the killing and suggested that al-Awlaki should be thought of as a combatant on a battlefield because any location in the world can be considered a battlefield for the purposes of the war on terror. Such logic could justify targeted killings anywhere there are suspected al-Qaeda operatives — even Canada or within the U.S.
Although it is dangerous to argue that the entire world is a battlefield, it is not dangerous to say Yemen is a battlefield in the war on terror because the president of Yemen has authorized U.S. strikes against militants in his country. The fact that U.S. forces may use lethal force in Yemen is not a secret and has not been for some time. When al-Awlaki went to Yemen, he entered a place where it was known that the U.S. had permission to kill al-Qaeda operatives. He became an enemy soldier on an active battlefield. Conceived this way, the drone strike that killed him was no different from a military strike against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Still, al-Awlaki did not lose his U.S. citizenship when he began fighting for al-Qaeda, which means he didn’t lose the right to confront his accusers in court. And in a way, he tried. After the announcement that al-Awlaki was on the targeted list, his father sued the CIA and asked for al-Awlaki to be removed from the list. The judge ruled that only Anwar al-Awlaki had standing to bring such a suit. He held that a person who wishes to challenge his or her inclusion on the list must do so in person. This is entirely fair. Because U.S. courts do not try accused criminals who are absent, it would be unfair for a U.S. court to grant relief to a person who refuses to appear before the court, especially when that person has deliberately placed himself outside of U.S. jurisdiction. Instead of challenging his inclusion on the list, al-Awlaki hid in a place where trying to arrest him would have put additional lives at risk. In this case, the CIA acted with appropriate military force against a legitimate military target on a known battlefield. It is important that the assassination of al-Awlaki be justified in this way and that this legitimate act sets an appropriate precedent.
Seth Soderborg is an LSA senior.