Apparently the question isn’t just confined to obscurity, but also doomed to repeat in it.
The New York Times reported last week, “The Obama administration’s decision to authorize the killing by the Central Intelligence Agency of a terrorism suspect who is an American citizen has set off a debate over the legal and political limits of drone missile strikes, a mainstay of the campaign against terrorism.”
Though the debate itself stands as a monolith, close to a half dozen rounds of speculation have followed the White House’s decision last December to place US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki on the CIA’s kill list. The al-Qaeda-affiliated cleric responded by flowing propaganda from his native Yemen, periodically lashing out at America and prompting an automatic deluge of media reports to analyze the constitutional legality of assassinating a US citizen without trial.
Now al-Awlaki has kicked up a new storm by letting loose his most accurate attack yet on the American people.
Declaring them legitimate targets, "The American people, in general, are taking part in this and they elected this administration and they are financing the war... Those who were to be killed in the plane are nothing compared to a million women and children in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Many Americans are uneasy about the whole episode, not out of disagreement with killing al-Awlaki but because they fear constitutional warping (for good reason). Some prefer him captured and singing to the CIA. Others complain that Obama should have acted silently to avoid tipping him off.
Such a strategy might have preempted al-Awlaki’s ensuing sideshow, but it would also bury the real debate: does killing al-Awlaki make America safer in the long-term? Will it prevent or create more extremists and attacks? Above all - a question asked not once in Washington - does killing al-Awlaki qualify as counterinsurgency?
Fortunately silence hasn’t prevailed. Those concerned with the roots of conflict have at least a few moments to prepare before the potential shock.
The White House, to no surprise, met al-Awlaki’s display of strength with one of their own. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told CBS’ “Face the Nation” on Sunday, “We are actively trying to find him and many others throughout the world that seek to do our country and to do our interests great harm.”
Gibbs’ assurance would be more comforting were he merely puffing out his chest, but the White House has indicated sincerity in its desire to assassinate al-Awlaki. Doing so would disregard the very real possibility that killing al-Awlaki will hurt US interests as much as protect them.
Targeting al-Awlaki makes enough sense when viewed through a pure security/counter-terrorism lens, but the need to prevent near-term attacks on the US homeland is sacrificing long-term progress in unstable states. If the objective is preventing new extremists and conflicts from developing, then sicking a Reaper on al-Awlaki is the antithesis of counterinsurgency, which America faces in its "War on Terror" and Yemen specifically.
Nasir al-Wuhayshi, head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), mocked Obama for adding al-Awlaki to the CIA list, warning it “would not benefit the security" of the American people. The White House should shed its ego and listen to al-Qaeda’s advice for once, which in this case hits the mark.
That al-Qaeda is offering legitimate advice - and America ignores it - exemplifies the twisted nature of war. Beyond threatening them, al-Awlaki actually puts the American people on notice.
Keenly aware of the US budget deficit and expenditures in relation to al-Qaeda’s, a fundamental counterinsurgency dilemma, al-Awlaki taunts, "They spent more than $40 billion, and a mujahed like Omar Farouq was able to infiltrate their security apparatus even though they claim he was under surveillance. And despite all he managed to get there and reach the American heartland, to Detroit."
In his own unique way he’s reflecting the widely-accepted opinion that America’s “War on Terror” is politically, morally, and financially unsustainable.
What’s more, all indications point to al-Awlaki and al-Qaeda actively baiting the US military into Yemen. Though he may not wish death upon himself, al-Awlaki realizes the possibility of becoming a martyr. Betting on anti-American sentiment, he expects both a strong local and transnational reaction.
Attempting to validate the White House’s decision, “terror expert” Neil Livingstone told CBS News, "Because he's so visible, it would be very important to get him because it would send a message to radical Islamists and jihadists around the world." What message though - that they’ll be killed? As if they don’t know that already. Killing al-Awlaki is likely to inspire more radical Islamists and jihadists, not less.
When Al-Awlaki jeers, "If the Americans want me, let them come and look for me and God will protect me," he's using himself as a juicy piece of bait.
America holds few advantages at Yemen’s ground level, none in al-Awlaki’s Shabwah Governorate, and al-Awlaki wants to capitalize. He boasts of his tribe, "I move freely in Yemen. There is a support among my tribesmen. Even though they know they are in danger, they welcome me and greet me because they are righteous people."
Already alienated by the Yemeni government, they’ve vowed retaliation in the event of his death.
As added protection the locally-accepted al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) also accompanies his travels. al-Wuhayshi said in a recent video, “Awlaki is among a crowd of Muslims who are indignant towards the oppressive US policy. Do not worry about the sheikh, he is in safe hands.”
Taking him out by drone will ignite these factors and likely fuse them with Yemen’s southern secessionist movement.
Look no further for panic than Yemen’s own government. Only a month ago Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi told reporters, "Anwar al-Awlaki has always been looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn't be considered as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism.”
Now he claims Al-Awlaki is wanted after being found “involved in terrorist activity,” which could be a ruse to bring him in. Al-Qirbi told Yemen’s state new agency, al Saba, that al-Awlaki won’t be handed over to US officials if captured, saying, "The man the U.S. wants to be extradited will stand trial in Yemen under the national law.”
Though Yemen may have sincerely changed its position, the government is obviously racing towards al-Awlaki to avoid cleaning up America’s mess. Assassinating al-Awlaki will trigger a local revolt that could feed into the wider southern secessionist movement and Yemen’s general instability.
How this benefits President Saleh, and thus US interests, remains unexplained.
So why does the US government obsessively pursue al-Awlaki’s termination, and why does the US media refuse to question whether this strategy is sound? Their objective isn’t just to conceal a failed counterinsurgency in Yemen, but to drown out al-Awlaki’s political objections shared by many inside and outside of America. Washington has reacted by hyping him into a scapegoat.
It fears some Americans may relate if they can look past al-Awlaki’s execution sentence for a brief moment.
President Barack Obama has given no indication of opening an investigation into the Iraq War, and though the war isn’t over, this leads to the emerging reality that it won’t end as America envisioned. “The surge” may ultimately prove a temporary solution if Iraq fails to form a stable government or comes under Iranian hegemony, making a war tribunal all the more necessary.
Yet one gets the strong feeling, based on George Bush’s comfy return to civilian life and Obama’s insistence “not to dwell on the past,” that objective investigation and prosecution will never occur under his watch. The opportunity will vanish forever once a Republican returns to the White House.
As for Afghanistan, Gibbs referred to Obama’s pep-talk at West Point: "The president said that members of al Qaeda are small men who will be on the wrong side of history. Those cadets, many will go to Afghanistan to pursue our battles there to keep our country safe and the president will continue to take action directly at terrorists like Awlaki and keep our country safe from their murderous thugs."
Of course America lies on the wrong side of history in Afghanistan, having dwelt there since the late 1970’s and showing no inclination to budge. Notice that Gibbs speaks of “our country,” subconsciously revealing America’s self-interested motives in West Asia. Protecting the free world this is not, but Gibbs isn’t deterred from using al-Awlaki to shield Obama’s runaway surge in Afghanistan.
Even amidst the latest night-raid coverup.
By zeroing in on al-Awlaki’s terrorist connections, the White House ignores an unpopular, misguided war in Afghanistan, stagnating politics in Iraq, and continual bias towards Israel. The “hearts and minds” counterinsurgency embraced in Afghanistan is conveniently gone from Yemen too. Back to unilateral militarism - and fear.
The best and perhaps only counterinsurgency option is to allow Yemen to capture al-Awlaki, even if that means him sacrificing possession. Though he won’t be gifted to America for trial and execution, he's likely to be made available for interrogation. America can glean information, avoid a direct strike that will intensify the insurgency, and claim success with the Yemeni government.
Killing Anwar Al-Awlaki by drone would go beyond poor COIN and beg the question of whether America actually wants to make more extremists, not less.
More war, not less.