People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 44

October 30, 2011


America Targets Its Own Citizens


Yohannan Chemarapally


ANWAR al Awlaki was living on borrowed time after president Barack Obama sanctioned his killing in April 2010. The fact that Awlaki was an American citizen seemed to be a secondary issue. There were two previous reported attempts to target Awlaki a known al Qaeda activist. This time, his luck ran out as a Predator drone armed with Hellfire missiles caught up with his convoy. Awlaki along with another American citizen, Samir Khan, perished in a US drone attack in the last week of September in a remote mountainous region of Yemen. Khan was a computer specialist and was co-editor of al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire. In the second week of October, one of Awlaki’s sons too perished in a drone attack


President Barack Obama was quick to claim that Awlaki’s death constituted “a major blow to al Qaeda’s most active affiliate” – the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The Obama administration has tried to portray Awlaki’s killing as their biggest success in the war against terror since the extermination of Osama bin Laden in the middle of this year. The operation that killed Awlaki was supervised by the same unit that raided Osama’s hideout in Abbotabad.


The American president offered no apologies for the killing of two American citizens in cold blood insisting that Awlaki was the “leader of external operations” of the AQAP. Legal opinion in the US is sharply divided about extra-judicial killing of their own citizens. Many other nationalities have become cannon fodder in the ten year long war on terror. The Israeli defence forces have been targeting Palestinians and others opposed to them for assassination with immunity even before the war on terror began. The American Civil Liberties Union has been sharply critical of the US government’s decision of “imposing the death penalty without a trial”. The US justice department has refused to provide any legal justifications for the killing. President Obama however has stressed that his administration will “be resolute in its commitment to destroy terrorist networks that aim to kill Americans”.


Awlaki was a 40 year old Islamic cleric, born and educated in the US. After the events of the September 9, 2001, he was among the small group of radicalised American Muslims who openly threw in their lot with al Qaeda. Awlaki’s sermons in American accented English urging Muslims to wage “jihad” against the West reputedly had a wide fan following on the YouTube and other websites. After a US army officer of Palestinian origin, Major Nidal Mallik Hassan went on a killing spree in an American military base of Fort Hood in November 2009, Awlaki’s name hit the headlines in the American media. It was reported that the US army veteran was in touch with Awlaki before he went on his rampage which killed 13 people. Awlaki had denied that he had in any way encouraged Hassan but later on praised his act saying that it had prevented the American soldiers who were killed from being deployed in Afghanistan or Iraq where they “would have killed Muslims”.




Awlaki was also blamed by the US government for the abortive attempts at blowing up American passenger planes, though no proof has been produced to substantiate the claims. The Obama administration linked Awlaki to the failed Christmas 2009 attempt of Umar Farrouk Abdulmutallib, the “underwear bomber” to bring down a plane heading for Detroit. He was also accused of playing a key role in the October 2010 “mail bomb” plot. Packets containing bombs originating from Yemen bound for the US were intercepted in Dubai and Europe. In May 2010, a Pakistani-American who tried to detonate a car bomb in Manhattan, told the US authorities that he was inspired by Awlaki’s sermons. In one of his sermons recorded in early 2010, he had urged American Muslims to stage attacks. “Jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding on every other able Muslim”.


But if reports in the Arab media are anything to go by, Awlaki was only a minor cog in the al Qaeda network, used mainly for propaganda purposes. His fluency in both English and Arabic coupled with his knowledge of the Koran had helped him gather a big fan following, especially among the youth. Experts on Yemen have said that he had no operational role in al Qaeda. The top commanders are Yemenis and Saudis who have been leading the fight against the American presence in the region for many years. AQAP’s main leadership continues to be intact and is no doubt busy hatching new terror plans. Awlaki was forced to flee into the desolate mountain region where his tribe is located and where the al Qaeda has a presence, only to escape from the Americans who had put a bounty on his head.


His father, who was at one time, the minister of agriculture in the central government in Yemen, had issued a public appeal to the US administration to drop the death warrant. The senior Awlaki went to the extent of describing his son as an “all American boy” who had studied at some of the finest universities, including doing doctoral work at the George Washington University. American media reports say that the young Awlaki actually worked for the Pentagon for a few years helping it to counter the view that the US was against the Islamic world.


In the US, the Centre for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU along with Awlaki’s father had filed a case in the Federal Court to prevent the assassination of a US citizen outside of a war zone. The US district judge, John Bates, presiding over the hearing had pertinently raised a question on the justification of the executive branch of the government ordering the “assassination of a US citizen without first affording him any form of judicial process whatsoever, based on the mere assertion that he is a member of a terrorist organisation”.  Ron Paul, an American Congressman from Texas and a candidate in Republican presidential primaries has described Awlaki’s killing as an unlawful assassination. “To start assassinating American citizens without charges—we must think very seriously about this”, Paul said. The Fifth Amendment in the US constitution states: “No person shall be – deprived of life, liberty, or property without the due process of law”.




Bates eventually in an 83 page judgement in December last year dismissed the petition to block Awlaki’s assassination by executive fiat. “There are circumstances which the (president’s) unilateral decision to kill a US citizen overseas is constitutionally committed to the political branches and is judicially unreviewable”, the judge concluded. He however did admit that many “stark and perplexing questions” remain to be answered following president Obama’s decision to put Awlaki on the “kill list”. The Obama administration claims the right for targeted killings from the bill signed by George W Bush immediately after the events of September 11. The bill authorised action against those who “planned, authorised, committed or aided the 9/11 terrorist attacks”. White House officials have confirmed about the existence of a “secret panel” that can order the execution of American citizens without judicial oversight.


The former vice president, Dick Cheney, was among those who praised the Obama administration for ordering the drone strike against Awlaki. Cheney who has been otherwise very critical of Obama called it a “very good strike” and “justified”. But Cheney was also quick to demand an apology from Obama for earlier criticising the harsh interrogation measures the Bush administration had used to extract information from terror suspects, incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA prisons all over the world. “The thing I am waiting for is for the administration to go back and correct something they said two years ago, when they criticised us for overreacting to the events of 9/11”, Cheney said on television. He said that recent events have shown that the Obama administration is using the same techniques favoured by the previous administration.


The killing of Awlaki had occurred a few days after the return of president Abdullah Saleh to Yemen after months of treatment in Saudi Arabia. Saleh had narrowly escaped death but had suffered serious burn injuries when his palace was attacked by forces loyal to the opposition. His return was unexpected as talks for a peaceful settlement of the political crisis were delicately poised. After Awlaki’s death was announced, Saleh was quick to highlight the close security cooperation between forces loyal to him and the American military. In fact, the first news about Awlaki’s killing came through Yemeni government sources. In all probability, the drones used in the attack came from a base in Yemen. Wikileaks documents have revealed the close security links between the two governments. Saleh had offered the US “unfettered access” to carry out hits against the al Qaeda from Yemeni soil. The cables also reveal that Saleh outsourced Yemen’s counter-terrorism efforts to the US. In the second week of October, US drone attacks killed five Yemeni militants near the town of Zinjibar, which has been under al Qaeda influence since May this year.  


US officials are only confirming that the drones took off from a newly operational base in the Arabian Peninsula. US drones also fly into the region from known bases in Ethiopia, Djibouti and the Seychelles. White House counter-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, said recently that counter-terrorism cooperation with Yemen “is better than it’s been during my whole tenure”. Saleh, no doubt, expects the Obama administration to back him in his efforts to cling on to power. The anti-government protests in Yemen have been far bloodier than the ones occurring in Syria.