The Hatewatch blog is managed by the staff of the Intelligence Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights organization.

Homegrown Jihadists Reported Killed in U.S. Drone Strike

By Leah Nelson on September 30, 2011 - 3:35 pm, Posted in Muslim Extremism

Two U.S. citizens who became Islamist jihadists were killed in an American drone attack in Yemen early this morning, officials in America and Yemen report. The deaths of Anwar al-Awlaki, an Amercan-born radical cleric linked to at least 15 terrorist plots, and Samir Khan, editor of Inspire, a sophisticated English-language online magazine devoted to inspiring homegrown jihadists, are being touted as a major blow to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda’s virulent Yemen-based arm. Both men were profiled in the current issue of the SPLC Intelligence Report, which featured a cover story about homegrown jihadists.

Al-Awlaki, whom the New York Times describes as “perhaps the most prominent English-speaking advocate of violent jihad against the U.S,” was associated with a number of known terrorists. He is believed to have inspired the Pakistani-American who in May 2010 attempted to set off a car bomb in New York City’s Times Square, and he exchanged E-mails with alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan. Two of the 9/11 hijackers met with him at his mosques in California and Virginia, according to The 9/11 Commission Report. His death, a senior military official told The New York Times this morning, is a “critically important” blow to Al Qaeda, as it “sets sense of doom for the rest of them.”

Though the 9/11 Commission entertained suspicions that he had been a secret Al Qaeda agent in the U.S. long before the attacks, Al-Awlaki, born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents in 1971, claimed to have been a nonviolent moderate until the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. He held positions at mosques in Denver, San Diego and Falls Church, Va., before moving overseas – first to Britain in 2002, then to Yemen in 2004, where with prodding from the U.S. he was incarcerated for 18 months. It was after that period that he publicly identified with Al Qaeda and became its most inspirational figure in the recruitment of disaffected westerners.

He used the Internet to reach large global audiences with radical sermons that mix religious stories and incitement to violence, and promoted the conspiracy theory – shared by white anti-Semites like Christopher Bollyn of the conspiracist American Free Press and ex-Klansman David Duke – that Jews were behind the 9/11 attacks.

In April 2010, al-Awlaki became the first American to be placed on the CIA’s controversial “kill or capture” list. His father challenged the order in court, but a federal judge dismissed the suit, ruling the father had no standing – though the judge wrote that the suit raised “stark and perplexing questions” about using executive power to target U.S citizens. The Treasury Department froze his U.S. assets and prohibited transactions with him.

The plan to target al-Awlaki met with opposition from an unusual convergence of civil liberties and national security perspectives. Op-eds in Newsweek, The New York Times, and the conservative National Review questioned the wisdom of the decision. Salon’s Glenn Greenwald, a former lawyer, today encapsulated both concerns, arguing that U.S. has riskily turned al-Awlaki into a “martyr,” and that the cleric’s “murder” violated the Fifth Amendment (“No person shall be deprived of life without due process of law,”) and possibly the First Amendment as well. The American Civil Liberties Union today opined that the counterterrorism program under which al-Awlaki was killed “violates both U.S. and international law.”

But U.S. authorities considered him an especially dangerous terrorist recruiter because of his excellent English language skills, his familiarity with U.S. culture, and his persuasive advocacy. In April, the FBI’s assistant director for counterterrorism, Mark F. Giuliano, said that figures like Khan and Al-Awlaki represent a more serious threat than the older Al Qaeda organization, because they “understand our culture, our limitations, our security protocols, and our vulnerabilities.” Their ability to exploit social media also makes them particularly dangerous. “They realize the importance and value of reaching English speaking audiences and are using the group’s marketing skills to inspire individual attacks within the homeland,” Giuliano said. “In many cases they are attempting to provide them with the knowledge to do so, without having to travel or train abroad.”

Samir Khan, the other U.S. citizen to die in the drone attack, began promoting violent jihad in 2005 while still a teen living with his parents in Charlotte, N.C. His first blog, “InshallahShaheed,” offered translations of anti-U.S. screeds and links to secret websites where readers could obtain what The New York Times called “the latest blood-drenched insurgent videos from Iraq.” He moved to Yemen in 2009, and launched Inspire, which has featured instructional articles like “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom” and another describing how to use a pickup truck to “mow down the enemies of Allah.” It also has carried articles purportedly written by Osama bin Laden and al-Awlaki.

It is not known if Khan was targeted for assassination, but the Associated Press reported today, “U.S. intelligence officials have said that Khan … was not directly responsible for targeting Americans.”

  • Jaden

    just because you have a right to say snomthieg, doesnt include the right to be taken seriously. the horror of george bush, the texas mafia and republicans framing democrats with useless sex scandal videos is unacceptable. does anyone have any copy of the donations, libraries, schools that george bush built. he only built one cia arm which cannot be questioned as it sells arms to saddam hussein, osama bin laden, gaddafi. and how come under g.bush there are no many people in death row and prison, for small or unsubstantiated criminal charges. america we are praying for you. but the enemy is within, who will guard the guards. we are grateful for president obama. he is clear, transparent and treats everyone with respect. even king abdullah of saudi arabia did so much of charity, including donating to new orleans during hurricane katerina. its time the media started protesting this web of lies and secresy that surround george bush sr and jr. also, please note, how come bush has the privilege of taking all the presidential gifts in his library .????? thats a lot of money and it belongs to the state. how come bush gets away with everything, its time the media starting standing up for its people and all the poeple around the world, especially president obama, our friend.

  • OFM

    It seems that Mr. Rand would also protest the killing of one Osama bin Laden earlier this year. After all, bin Laden was not given due process either, was he? There is no indication that the due process clause is limited to American citizens and I find it strange that Jonas Rand would argue it is somehow more heinous to kill an American citizen in these attacks than any other person who hides in another country and very openly advocates the murder and hatred of Americans. This would place a higher value on the life of an American citizen than anyone else.

    Let’s be clear: al-Awlaki was not an innocent man. Rand only obliquely describes Anwar al-Awlaki’s activities, saying that al-Awlaki was “speaking his mind honestly.” Indeed he was and he believed that not only is it the right of all Muslims to kill Americans but a duty. He did not separate military and civilian targets in his incitement to violence. Anwar al-Awlaki’s deeply held conviction was that indiscriminate killing was justified in the name of jihad.

    As the blog post above says, al-Awlaki also believed and supported other pernicious ideas, such as conspiracy theories, quite generously promoting anti-Semitism.

    What’s more, he was from the start discovered to be connected with the Fort Hood shootings that ended with 13 dead American soldiers and 29 wounded. Later, the Christmas Day bomber made his attempt and al-Awlaki was found to be connected to him as well. In fact, the list of terrorist activities he is connected to is quite long so I won’t go through them all here.

    Rand makes a very weak argument, saying that we have turned al-Awlaki and bin Laden into martyrs by killing them. Who believes that they would not have been equally mourned and revered had they not been killed? Clearly they had the love and support of extremists already. Should we have allowed them to continue in their operational capacities in attacks against the US? Does Mr. Rand truly believe that we should throw up our hands and say, well we can’t kill them — they’ll just become martyrs! because obvious threats to American citizens will be idolized by Islamic extremists?

    The truth is, though, that due process is an integral part of a legitimate legal system. At the very least, I believe the US government should have tried Anwar al-Awlaki in absentia and I don’t see much of a reason that this could not have been done. A completely secret process for determining who is eligible for assassinations is worrisome and it becomes obviously anti-democratic when it concerns actions taken against American citizens.

    I’d also like to blame both the Bush and Obama administration for being entirely irresponsible where setting up a transparent method for determining who is an “enemy combatant” and what can be done with them is concerned. The United States has been at “war” against terrorists for ten years now and it still hasn’t made a concerted effort to make concrete and open to the public laws that deal with non-state actors and international terrorist groups in a way that is congruent with American values and the legal system.

  • Jonas Rand

    Let me clarify something I said in the above post:

    “Without evidence proving criminal activity and a trial that has established him as guilty, Al-Awlaki is assumed to have been innocent.”

    When I say this, I am referring to “innocent until proven guilty”, which was totally disregarded by the government when they took this action. They did not execute him, which requires a signed death sentence for someone convicted of a capital crime. This was an extrajudicial targeted killing, and a violation of the constitutionally-guaranteed right to life. While the same could be said of every use of capital punishment, the difference is that this action was not done under color of law. It was a military operation undertaken to kill someone who was not an armed combatant, and I disagree with such an illegal, violent action. That being said, by no means did I mean to imply that he did not commit a crime. Personally, I don’t think he did, and there was no proof that he did, but that doesn’t disprove claims that he was a terrorist. None of this excuses the fact that the burden of proof is on the government when they accuse someone of a crime, and allegations of his involvement in terrorism was never proven to be true.

    Nevertheless, they never indicted him or brought formal criminal proceedings, so the burden of proof does not matter. If the government believed he was guilty of a crime, then the government should have treated him like any other suspect, meaning they would have had to prove criminality. But they did not choose the legal route, instead opting for extrajudicial assassination. Because, you know, all of those quaint concepts like “human rights”, “due process”, “equality under the law”, and the like are irrelevant and obsolete when The Terrorists Are Coming. Plus, they just aren’t good enough at showing those evildoers who’s boss.

  • Jonas Rand

    The ACLU was right in standing against the extrajudicial murder of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, which was carried out without any trace of due process or justice. There was no proof that he committed any crimes, his alleged role in relation to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula was highly exaggerated by the mass media, and the legal justifiability of his killing is highly doubtful. The government did not even attempt to convict him of a crime or bring criminal proceedings in a court of law, which would only be fair if they had proof of a crime. Without evidence proving criminal activity and a trial that has established him as guilty, Al-Awlaki is assumed to have been innocent. There was not even a legal rationale to arrest him, let alone murder him as the US military did (with Obama’s approval). Were he a terrorist, the proper action to take (if there was evidence of his involvement in terrorism or a terror plot) would be bringing criminal charges against him. Instead, despite the fact that he has never been conclusively linked to a crime, his name was put on an FBI hit list and he was targeted for killing.

    This is unfortunate, just as it is when anyone dies. He did nothing to deserve it, at least not that anyone knows about. Speaking your mind honestly (even if you sympathize with al-Qaida) should never be a death sentence, especially in a country whose law guarantees free speech. His ability to attract more like-minded people was just as much a threat as Glenn Beck’s, as proven by the three people who have attempted politically-motivated crimes possibly due to Beck’s ravings. It would be equally immoral to kill Glenn Beck for what Byron Williams and others tried to do. While it’s true that Al-Awlaki’s rhetoric may have inspired terrorists, he was never charged with incitement to violence because it was not undoubtedly true that he inspired them. It hasn’t been conclusively proven that the sole inspiration for the actions of Abdulmutallab and Dr. Hasan was listening to al-Awlaki’s sermons.

    Moreover, the several ridiculous claims and exaggerations invented by the mainstream press to make al-Awlaki appear threatening (one even claimed that he could recruit Muslim youth to be “mujahideen” because he is bilingual, and thus poses a threat to Americans) are either unproven or do not legally justify any action on the part of the government. It had been claimed, for example, that Anwar al-Awlaki was the editor of Al-Qaida’s Inspire magazine, which is clearly disproven by the news that Samir Khan was its real editor. There is also no substance to the claim that he is a member of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, “high-level” or not. Regardless, it is immoral for the government to murder someone, especially someone who has never been convicted of or even charged with a crime. If he was found to have committed a crime (which never happened), the authorities, instead of taking him out extrajudically, would have been right to apply due process.

    Additionally, this atrocious killing sets a dangerous precedent that allows the government the power to kill US citizens without a trial. Whereas Bush’s police-state PAT RIOT measures, in conjunction with the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, allowed the government to violate the privacy of its citizens, this allows them to murder US citizens extrajudicially. This doesn’t mean Obama is worse, but it takes Bush’s torture and spying to another level.

    In killing al-Awlaki, the military also gave al-Qaida a martyr to use as a recruitment device for “mujahideen”. Al-Qaida can bring attention to this case, label al-Awlaki a martyr, and recruit people who want to avenge him to join their organization. This is the same for all cases of targeted killing of “terrorists” by the US. Low-ranking Al-Qaida commanders and propagandists like the editor of Inspire magazine can be posthumously glorified in al-Qaida media releases and used to gain more members. Usama bin Ladin has also been turned into a martyr and depicted in hagiographic essays and videos. Targeted killing is a very dangerous strategy, in that it both runs roughshod over justice and civil rights, and at the same time increases the possibility for attacks on US soldiers in America’s many murderous, imperial wars around the world.