UPDATE: The Department of Justice is now considering filing charges against al-Awlaki.
Anwar al-Awlaki is an American citizen thought to be living in Yemen who makes videos praising al Qaeda. He’s also had an e-mail exchange with Nidal Malik Hasan at some point before his shooting spree at Fort Hood last November.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration authorized the targetted killing of al-Awlaki. From the NY Times:
The Obama administration has taken the extraordinary step of authorizing the targeted killing of an American citizen, the radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have shifted from encouraging attacks on the United States to directly participating in them, intelligence and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday.
There are a few problems with this, and they’re really split into two categories. On the one hand you can argue that this sets bad precedent and gives too much power to the executive branch. It’s a denial of due process even more extreme than anything the Bush administration ever did. Even if you’re in agreement with Obama on this one, there’s still the danger of future presidents abusing their power by following this precedent. These are the kinds of loftier arguments based on the principle of the rule of law which has been the foundation of western civilization.
There’s some good evidence against al-Awlaki, and it’s very unlikely that he’d be found not guilty. But the whole point of having a legal system in the first place is to find out whether or not someone is guilty of a crime. If the evidence holds up, then we can honestly say that we’ve tried our best to do justice while he’s rotting away locked up in a cell somewhere. If the evidence doesn’t hold up, then we find out that we were wrong. You win either way when you use the law instead of circumventing it.
It might even be that al-Awlaki is not even guilty of the crimes he’s accused of. Although Spencer Ackerman at the Washington Independent says “Any court would find him guilty of incitement” just due to his videos, other charges relating to direct involvement in terrorist activities aren’t quite so solid. From that noted commie rag which, upon investigating after 9/11 “Why They Hate Us,” discovered that the answer was because we’re SO AWESOME; Newsweek:
To begin with, it is not even known for certain that Awlaki is a member of Al Qaeda. Certainly there are suspicions, and his published statements and interviews clearly support Al Qaeda, but the organization has never acknowledged him. His name has been mentioned exactly once in 12 issues of Sada al-Malahim (“The Echo of Battles”), the organization’s bimonthly journal. And even that citation was hardly an endorsement: it merely disputed recent claims that Awlaki had been killed in a joint U.S.-Yemeni airstrike. He has never written an article, released an audiotape, or starred in a video for the organization. Each of these is an integral part of the group’s propaganda outreach that senior AQAP leaders have done multiple times.
What’s more, there is no evidence to suggest Awlaki is on AQAP’s legal council, an internal group that both provides the religious justification for attacks and guides the future direction of the organization. Nor is there even a hint that he plays anything resembling a leading role in the group.
Even his links to the two attacks are more speculative and assumed than concrete. Awlaki is known to have exchanged e-mails with Hasan, the Fort Hood shooter (he confirmed as much to Al-Jazeera), and to being in contact with Abdulmutallab, whom he called his “student.” (Abdulmutallab is thought to have attended one of Awlaki’s sermons in London.) But he never acknowledged meeting either man.
Newsweek then goes into some of the reasons to oppose this based on the second category I referred to earlier. Even if you don’t buy into the idea that the President should not be above the law and that due process is important, there’s still no good reason to just kill this guy. If he’s guilty of some of the heavier terrorism charges, he’d be an excellent source of information. It’s tough to get intelligence from a corpse.
And what’s more is that the perceived positive effects of such an assassination are pretty unlikely to actually happen. It’s not going to destabilize al Qaeda. If anything it’d give them a martyr and a recruiting mantra. They’re all pretty much as batshit crazy as it’s possible to get, but when they say that Americans don’t care about justice we’re giving them an air of legitimacy on that matter when we do crap like this.