THE TARGETING and killing of American-born radical Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen could prove as consequential as any covert operation in America’s history. Yet it also marks the first time since 2001 that the United States has deliberately killed an American citizen in this way. This is an extraordinary power, and critics have raised the threat of a government going after its own without any pretense of due process. But in this case, the decision was right and lawful, and the mission set an exceptionally high standard for any potential use of force against a US citizen in the future.
Al-Awlaki has emerged in the last few years as the primary recruiter of Al Qaeda, using the Internet to unleash his propaganda and radicalizing Americans; Major Nidal Hasan of the Fort Hood shootings and Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber, both communicated with him. But it isn’t al-Awlaki’s preaching that led to his planned demise.
Indeed, when word leaked earlier that al-Awlaki was on a target list, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit on behalf of his father. It argued, in part, that because al-Awlaki was outside a war zone — either Iraq or Afghanistan — the United States could only use law enforcement to apprehend him. In 2010, the suit was dismissed, but not before the United States explained its reasoning.
That reasoning makes sense: If al-Awlaki had simply been an angry imam, he would not have been subject to attack. Instead, he was a primary leader of a functioning and lethal Al Qaeda organization that targeted Americans and America, thereby making him subject to military force under the law passed after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time of his death, he was a highly relevant target, just as Osama bin Laden was before 9/11.
Al-Awlaki was no mere soldier. His sermons were simply background noise to his planning and execution of major plots to kill Americans. His role as an operative made his capture by law enforcement nearly impossible. Some military action was required to get al-Awlaki, and whether it was a drone attack or a Navy Seal raid, his fate was sealed by his own actions.
There would be better reason to question the killing of a US citizen if there was any evidence that the government was doing so in a repeated or consistent fashion. Instead, the US killed a surpassingly dangerous terrorist who happened to be an American by birth. A barrier has been broken, but this is an act that must - and will - remain exceptionally rare.