When I noted earlier that al Qaeda’s Anwar al-Awlaki had been killed overnight, my main focus was on what this means to the terrorist network, which has suffered a series of blows lately. In retrospect, I overlooked a part of the story that deserves to be debated: the legal, moral, and political propriety of the attack.
The specific issue surrounding Awlaki, as opposed to other al Qaeda figures, is that he was a U.S. citizen. He was a citizen who left the United States and became a prominent figure in a terrorist network, but a citizen nevertheless. Many have argued this morning — Glenn Greenwald, Adam Serwer, and others — that Americans are afforded certain rights, and by killing him in Yemen, the government may have acted outside of the law.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on this; I’m not. I do think it’s worthwhile, though, to note some of the questions under debate.
* Do Americans who leave the country to join terrorist networks forfeit the rights given to other Americans? Does it matter if those terrorist networks are targeting the United States? [edited slightly for clarity]
* If the Justice Department had prepared a criminal indictment against Awlaki, would the preferred route have been to pursue extradition or to try to seize him in Yemen through law enforcement?
* If Americans leave the country to fight for a foreign army, do they also give up their rights to due process? Should al Qaeda be considered a foreign army or a stateless terrorist network? Does it matter in this context?
* Media reports indicate that Awlaki was an “operational” leader of al Qaeda — instead of just being a propagandist — and has “links” to several violent plots. Are these accounts true? Would it matter if they are? (Is there a difference between killing an “operational” terrorist vs. a propagandistic one?)
* Did the 2001 AUMF declare war against al Qaeda? And if so, is there any limit to the scope of the “battlefield”? Does it matter that al Qaeda has declared war against the United States?
* If the United States is at war with al Qaeda, is there an expectation that we would execute that war differently when dealing with American members of al Qaeda?
* If the United States is at war with al Qaeda, is al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula the same thing?
There are many who can answer these questions with far more authority than I can, but I thought I’d open the floor to some discussion. It’s clearly a debate worth having.