Home National Politics Al Awlaki is Dead; What Should Progressives Think?

Al Awlaki is Dead; What Should Progressives Think?


By now, I’m sure you’ve heard the news:

Anwar al-Awlaki, the radical American-born cleric who was a leading figure in Al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate and was considered its most dangerous English-speaking propagandist, was killed in an American drone strike that deliberately targeted his vehicle on Friday, officials in Washington and Yemen said. They said the strike also killed a radical American colleague traveling with al-Awlaki who edited Al Qaeda’s online jihadist magazine.


His Internet lectures and sermons were linked to more than a dozen terrorist investigations in the United States, Britain and Canada. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is accused of killing 13 people in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009, had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki before the shootings. Faisal Shahzad, who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in May 2010, cited Mr. Awlaki as an inspiration.

The death of Awlaki, in my view, is clearly a “good” thing from the perspective of eliminating a major threat to U.S. national security, and to the lives of innocent Americans. The question is whether it was also a “good” thing in other ways, such as the legal and moral concerns raised by Glenn Greenwald in Salon, and also by others in the civil libertarian community (which I generally support, strongly). The gist of the civil libertarian’s argument is simple: this was an extra-legal assassination, ordered by the President of the United States (and without due process, indictment, trial, etc.) of an American citizen. According to one of the most vociferous and articulare of those critics, Glenn Greenwald:

What’s most striking about this is not that the U.S. Government has seized and exercised exactly the power the Fifth Amendment was designed to bar (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law”), and did so in a way that almost certainly violates core First Amendment protections (questions that will now never be decided in a court of law). What’s most amazing is that its citizens will not merely refrain from objecting, but will stand and cheer the U.S. Government’s new power to assassinate their fellow citizens, far from any battlefield, literally without a shred of due process from the U.S. Government…

Is this analysis correct? In my view, it’s not; in fact, I’d argue that it’s seriously misguided albeit (presumably) well intentioned. Why? Several reasons.

First, al-Awlaki wasn’t just some innocent guy living his life in peace; instead, he was strongly implicated in a number of significant terrorist plots:

FBI agents had identified al-Awlaki as a known, important “senior recruiter for al Qaeda“, and a spiritual motivator…Al-Awlaki’s name came up in a dozen terrorism plots in the U.S., UK, and Canada. The cases included suicide bombers in the 2005 London bombings, radical Islamic terrorists in the 2006 Toronto terrorism case, radical Islamic terrorists in the 2007 Fort Dix attack plot, the jihadist killer in the 2009 Little Rock military recruiting office shooting, and the 2010 Times Square bomber. In each case the suspects were devoted to al-Awlaki’s message, which they listened to on laptops, audio clips, and CDs…Al-Awlaki’s recorded lectures were also an inspiration to Islamist fundamentalists who comprised at least six terror cells in the UK through 2009…

On and on it goes; where it would have stopped, I think we all know: with the deaths of many innocent people, Americans and otherwise, on airplanes, subways, etc. And no, this isn’t just a matter of al-Awlaki’s words being used as inspiration. In fact, “U.S. officials believed he had become “operational,” plotting, not just inspiring, terrorism against the West.” For instance, “in a video posted to the internet on November 8, 2010, al-Awlaki called for Muslims around the world to kill Americans “without hesitation.” And “Al-Awlaki was charged in absentia in Sana’a, Yemen, on November 2 with plotting to kill foreigners and being a member of al-Qaeda.”

Bottom line: Anwar al-Awlaki was a serious, imminent, ongoing threat to America and Americans, and was fighting against America with our enemies, thus committing treason against his country, among other crimes.

Second, Awlaki wasn’t in any position to be put on trial. Instead, he was hiding out in lawless Yemen, surrounded by bodyguards and others who shared his beliefs, making it almost impossible to capture him alive. Of course, theoretically, we could have tried to capture him alive, but at the risk of many U.S. casualties, as well as diplomatic and other repercussions, and likely with his death regardless. Would that have been worth it, when we could “take him out” without any risk to U.S. military and/or intelligence personnel? That doesn’t seem like a very tough call to me.

Third, even if we had somehow managed to capture al-Awlaki and bring him back to…where? That’s another problem right there. So far, how successful have we been in prosecuting detainees from the “war on terror?” Not very. More likely, al-Awlaki would have sat in Gitmo indefinitely, without trial, and people like Glenn Greenwald would have vociferously complained about that as well.

Finally, think about it from a law enforcement perspective. Let’s say police are called to the scene of a vicious crime – murder, rape, whatever. Let’s say the suspect is armed and refuses, despite repeated warnings, to drop his weapon(s) and surrender. Let’s say he then brandishes said weapon(s) at the police officers, or at bystanders or hostages — then what? If you’re the police officers on the scene, you have every right in the world to shoot the guy. It’s not even a tough call, really. The guy’s an imminent threat to people’s lives and he’s ignored warnings to disarm. At that point, it’s a matter of protecting people from harm, and deadly force is justified. Same thing with al-Awlaki.

So, what should progressives think about all this? In my view, we absolutely need to remain vigilant about the rule of law. In this case, I believe the U.S. government did just that, given the reasons cited above, and that in doing so, it probably saved many innocent people’s lives from death at the hands of terrorism. That’s something progressives should cheer.

Finally, I think it’s worth pointing out that al-Awlaki’s Islamic fundamentalist ideology is antithetical to everything progressives stand for, whether it’s women’s rights, GLBT rights, separation of religion (mosque, church, etc.) and state, you name it. Not that this justifies killing the man, but in no way should progressives be sad to see him permanently out of commission. Remember, in previous wars our country has dropped bombs on innocent civilians (e.g, Dresden in World War II). In this case, the target of our missiles clearly had blood all over his hands, was clearly not “innocent” in any way. Personally, I am not shedding a tear over his demise; to the contrary, I’m very pleased that we “took him out.” I’m also pleased to see President Obama, the military, and the intelligence community vigorously pursuing our enemies and keeping them from attacking our country. To all of them I say: thank you from a grateful (progressive) American.

P.S. By the way, al-Awlaki had a connection to Virginia. See here for more on that subject.

  • But if someone’s going to be coordinating terrorist attacks from the comfort of a distant safe haven, I have no issues with a missile disrupting that comfort.

  • DanielK

    Lowell, I agree with your article and the overall sentiment around it.  While there are some civil libertarian concerns I think they are very minor in this case.  For me, Al Awlaki was wanted by authorities throughout the world and he had every opportunity to have his due process if he desired it.  Unlike the terrorists he recruited and inspired he would have had due process while his victims who were killed through his terrorism would not.  He was actively engaging in a crime (Terrorism, treason, etc) and his mere existence justified his killing by military authorities.  The fact that he was always surrounded by bodyguards reiterates the example used under the law enforcement perspective.  He had no intention on turning himself in to authorities for his day in court and his due process under law.

    I am also very happy that President Obama has had success in taking out terrorists who threaten the lives of innocent American citizens home and abroad. For me, these targeted strikes significantly reduce (but don’t eliminate) the risk of civilian deaths. There will always be those few who believe what President Obama is doing is wrong but I think they refuse to acknowledge the overall picture involved here and it’s not as clear cut as they want it to be and providing a terrorist his “due process” is very difficult to do.  And let’s remember which party has gone out of it way to ensure that foreign terrorists can’t be tried in American courts?  

  • leftspace13

    in the aftermath of 9/11, the bush administration chose a “war” legal posture, as opposed to the much maligned “law enforcement” posture — the latter of which i supported, but because of the mess the bush administration made of that( gitmo, “enemy combatants,” etc.), it’s almost impossible to wind the “GWOT” down without capturing or killing most who actionably claim to be al qaeda.  that just means i don’t think we can switch to a law enforcement posture now.  

    hence, awlaki was a person who took up arms against the U.S., what do people expect?  we certainly didn’t use due process with americans in the civil war.  

    that said, it’d be nice if we could convert any gitmo detainees into full POW status — again, this is a bush mess for which i don’t fault obama too much since the legal distinctions are a compound cluster-you-know-what abetted by the stupid corporate media and opportunistic GOP.  

  • Condemns this as “assassinating American citizens without charges.” So, if Ron Paul were president, he’d let Awlaki hang around out there, plotting to kill Americans? Well, alrighty then.

  • Glen Tomkins

    This is not someone whom even the government claims was executing or even planning crimes against US citizens.  Instead, he was a “spiritual motivator”.  That laundry list of actual terrorist action perpetrators was “devoted… to his message”, they didn’t take operational orders from him.  He was an “inspiration to Islamic fundamentalists”.

    These are quotes from the document prepared by the people who killed this guy.  You’ld think that if they had even flimsy evidence that this person actually did anything we normally think of as criminal, as opposed to offensive speech, saying things that actual criminals liked, they would talk about that in their press release, and not his “inspiration” and “motivation” of people they allege actually committed crimes.  Not that these killers even had enough confidence that their allegations of his inspirational messaging would hold up if subjected to scrutiny in a court of law, because they hurried the assassination of the victim to forestall a lawsuit his father had going to get the government to rescind the kill order on his son.

    We don’t have trials to coddle criminals.  We have trials and the other elements of due process in order to arrive at the truth.  There is no practical reason to short-circuit due process other than to allow the government to proceed when it doesn’t have a good case, when the truth does not support its claims.  The government would have been embarrassed trying this person, in absentia if need be, for treason, because “inspiration” and “motivation”, and the fact that criminals like your message, does not add up to treason.

  • Jarew

    I do agree that al-Awlaki deserved to be killed, but not without a trial.

    Do you want people like our wonderful Republican presidential candidates having the power to ignore  the Filth amendment?

    At the very least lets have a trial in some form absentia.