Anwar al-Awlaki: A Dissent

Was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki legal? Was it wise and did it make Americans safer?

Since the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the debating lines surrounding him have hardened.  Some have kept the conversation civil; many have not. 


There are, as I see it, two main questions around his death.

1. Was it legal?

2. Was it wise?  Or, to put it slightly differently, will his death make Americans safer?

Broadly speaking there are three groups weighing-in on these questions: legal scholars, al-Qaeda watchers, and observers of Yemen.*

My opinion on al-Awlaki is fairly well known, but it is also, it seems, a minority one.  Given how many smart people have lined up on the other side of the debate I thought it would be wise to re-examine my thinking and look for things I may have overlooked, which is what I've been doing for the past several days.

Now, I'm obviously not a legal scholar, and while the legal aspects are intriguing, I can't comment on them in any sort of an expert fashion.  However, it reads to me, as if the legal scholars are split.

On one side is someone like Bruce Ackerman, who wrote this piece in Foreign Policy - in many ways a response to this piece in Reuters, which I think everyone should read.

On the other side, at least provisionally, are people like Jack Goldsmith and Robert Chesney, both of whom write at, among other places, Lawfare.  I would also recommend this probing essay from Daniel Bentham.

However, on the second question - was it wise/does it make America any safer? - I do have opinions that are grounded in years of research and scholarship.

There are, as I mentioned above, basically two groups I've been reading on this.  The first group is al-Qaeda watchers (I hesitate to call them counterterrorism experts because of the frauds that use the title).  This group - and I'm thinking of smart people with years of experience like Thomas Hegghammer, Will McCants and Clint Watts - has largely come down in the affirmative. 

Yes, killing Anwar al-Awlaki was necessary, wise, and will likely go a long way towards making the US safer.

Probably the most articulate and comprehensive proponent of this view has been Thomas Hegghammer, who wrote this piece in Foreign Policy countering my NYT op-ed. 

Thomas and I went back-and-forth a bit in private and also here at Waq al-waq.  But his basic point remains that A.) Anwar al-Awlaki is AQAP's Head of Foreign Operations and B.) if protecting the homeland is a priority, then dismantling AQAP's Foreign Operations Unit should be at the top of America's counterterrorism agenda in Yemen.

And it seems that it was.  The Obama administration called Awlaki, as Thomas did, the "head of the Foreign Operations Unit."

Interestingly Thomas makes the argument that the US should seek to arrest Awlaki, which apparently the US came to the conclusion was not feasible.

The third group has been Yemen watchers, and here - although I may have missed some (its a pretty small group of people with both language and experience in the country) - most seem to come down on the other side, arguing that the strike on Awlaki was neither wise nor would it likely make the US any safer.

Now each of these two groups bring their own biases to bear on the question, which is why I have taken so long (re)thinking through the question.

First, as I argued in my op-ed, Awlaki was a threat and someone who called for the death of Americans, but I thought then and I still believe now that he was not the most dangerous individual within AQAP when it comes to US national security.  There are men who are still alive and at-large in Yemen, who represent, in my view, a much greater threat to US national security. 

Does this mean the US should not have killed him?  I don't know, but I do know that I worried that the US would think it could protect itself from an attack out of Yemen by a few well-placed drone strikes.

And now we have this from the Washington Post:

"U.S. officials, in turn, express little interest in the insurgency in Yemen and say their counterterrorism efforts are limited to what they describe as a minority within al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate that is focused on U.S. attacks."

as well as:

"The United States will not become involved in the latter in Yemen, where there “is a veritable stew of counterinsurgencies, different political elements and competing factions,” the official said, adding that the United States would fight AQAP only to prevent it from attacking the United States and its interests."

and this:

"AQAP leaders focused on attacking the United States and its allies number only “a couple of dozen, maybe,” White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan said last month."

As I re-examined both my thinking as well as the open-source evidence, several things struck me. One was the chronology.

Shortly after AQAP's attempt to bring down the airliner on Christmas Day 2009, I remembered Brennan saying the US had made a mistake in underestimating, basically believing the group was limited to the Arabian Peninsula and not a threat cable of projecting power across the Atlantic.

Brennan, of course, was the individual responsible for the subsequent intelligence review that took place. 

One of the key questions of the review was: how had the US missed this threat?  In looking back, I wonder if in searching for the missing piece of the puzzle if US intelligence analysts seized on the one of Anwar al-Awlaki.  

He was the missing piece.  The US knew AQAP had the "aspiration" to hit at the US, but it didn't believe it had the talent.  Well, from the point of view of harried intelligence analysts, Awlaki was that talent.  He had years of experience in the west, which the September 11 attacks had taught was necessary for a strike on the US.  

Basically, you can look at the Christmas Day plot in 2009 one of two ways.  Either it is a dramatic new turn for an organization, or it is the natural evolution of a growing organization.

If you take the former view, then it is easy to use Anwar al-Awlaki to explain why AQAP could suddenly target the US when it had never done so previously.  But if you took the later view than it was less Awlaki's existence than the group's growing strength that was important.

Here too, I think US analysts were at a disadvantage, in the years 2006 - 2008 few in the US government were focused on the AQ threat in Yemen.  It was only after the attack on the embassy in Sanaa in September 2008 that the US re-awoke to the threat.  Given that short view - the one that looks at AQAP as a new organization, instead of an older, evolving one - I think also led analysts to seize on Awlaki as the key reason for AQAP's focus on the US.

I thought then, and I continue to think that this was a mistake.  Little in the west is known about Nasir al-Wihayshi - the leader of AQAP - and that is the shame, but this is the guy that is coming after the US.  Wihayshi, as interviews with fighters from Afghanistan lay out, was bin Laden's personal secretary for nearly four years.  According to these interviews, Wihayshi was rarely apart from bin Laden.

Do we really think that an apprentice, really an understudy, who would one day go on to build an al-Qaeda affiliate based on the blueprints bin Laden used in Afghanistan really needed Anwar al-Awlaki to attack the US?

Not that Awlaki didn't play a role but that he was dispensable?

There are a number of other things that just don't seem, at least to me to add up.  The US claims that it targeted Awlaki as the head of the Foreign Operations Unit, but at the time the legal justification was being written (circa June 2010) the issue of Inspire with the article that may or may not have been written by Awlaki had yet to be published.

There are also the now admissions by officials in the US government that some of the evidence for Awlaki's operational role was "patchy," at least according to this Reuters report.

There is also this:

"Awlaki was also implicated in a case in which a British Airways employee was imprisoned for plotting to blow up a U.S.-bound plane. E-mails retrieved by authorities from the employee's computer showed what an investigator described as " operational contact" between Britain and Yemen.

Authorities believe the contacts were mainly between the U.K.-based suspect and his brother. But there was a strong suspicion Awlaki was at the brother's side when the messages were dispatched."

I'm not really sure how the US judged that Awlaki was standing next to someone who was typing.

There is still, in my opinion, much more that we don't know about Anwar al-Awlaki and his role in AQAP than what we know. 

After my ten-day personal review, I'm still convinced that the US got AQAP wrong.  It saw it as a group that was moving one way and then veered in a completely different direction.  This understanding of AQAP, I believe, led analysts to fixate on Awlaki.  And he was a threat, but not nearly the most significant threat to US national security out of Yemen.

*There are, of course, many more groups talking about Anwar al-Awlaki - everyone has an opinion - but these are the three groups I'm reading and listening to.

Big Think
Sponsored by Lumina Foundation

Upvote/downvote each of the videos below!

As you vote, keep in mind that we are looking for a winner with the most engaging social venture pitch - an idea you would want to invest in.

Lumina Foundation and Big Think have partnered to bring this entrepreneurial competition to life, and we hope you'll participate! We have narrowed down the competition to four finalists and will be announcing an audience's choice award and a judges' choice award in May.

The creator of the winning video — chosen by Big Think's audience, the Lumina Foundation, and an independent panel of experts (bios below) — will be flown to New York for a taping in the Big Think studio as a way to further promote their vision for a new, disruptive idea in post-secondary education.

Thank you to all of the contestants who spent time submitting applications, and best of luck to our final four competitors.

Finalist: Greater Commons - Todd McLeod

Greater Commons, founded by Todd McLeod and Andrew Cull, is an organization that helps people live happier, more successful and fulfilling lives through agile learning. The current education system is inefficient and exclusionary, in which many students who end up earning a degree, if at all, enter a career not related to their field of study. Greater Commons solves this problem and gap in post-high school secondary education in a variety of ways. Passionately and diligently, Great Commons helps others obtain skills, knowledge, wisdom, motivation, and inspiration so that they may live better lives.

Finalist: PeerFoward - Keith Frome

PeerForward is an organization dedicated to increasing the education and career success rates of students in low-income schools and communities by mobilizing the power of positive peer influence. PeerForward works with partner schools to select influential students as a part of a team, systemizing the "peer effect." Research in the fields of sociology of schools, social-emotional learning, adult-youth partnerships, and civic education demonstrates that students can have a positive effect on the academic outcomes of their peers. PeerForward is unique through its systemic solutions to post-secondary education.

Finalist: Cogniss - Leon Young

Cogniss combines technology and best practice knowledge to enable anyone to innovate and share solutions that advance lifelong learning. Cogniss is the only platform to integrate neuroscience, through which it solves the problem of access by providing a low-code platform that enables both developers and non-developers to build sophisticated education apps fast, and at a much lower cost. It addresses the uneven quality of edtech solutions by embedding research-based learning design into its software. App creators can choose from a rich set of artificial intelligence, game, social and data analytics, and gamification to build their perfect customized solution.

Finalist: Practera - Nikki James

Practera's mission is to create a world where everyone can learn through experience. Today's workplaces are increasingly dynamic and diverse, however, costly and time-consuming experiential learning is not always able to offer the right opportunities at scale. Many students graduate without developing the essential skills for their chosen career. Practera's team of educators and technologists see this problem as an opportunity to transform the educational experience landscape, through a CPL pedagogical framework and opportunities to apply students' strengths through active feedback.

Thank you to our judges!

Our expert judges are Lorna Davis, Dan Rosensweig, and Stuart Yasgur.

Lorna Davis is the Senior Advisor to Danone CEO and is a Global Ambassador for the B Corp movement. Lorna has now joined B-Lab, the non-for-profit that supports the B Corporation movement on an assignment to support the journey of large multi nationals on the path to using business as a force of good.

Dan Rosensweig joined Chegg in 2010 with a vision for transforming the popular textbook rental service into a leading provider of digital learning services for high school and college students. As Chairman and CEO of Chegg, Dan commits the company to fulfilling its mission of putting students first and helping them save time, save money and get smarter.

Stuart Yasgur leads Ashoka's Social Financial Services globally. At Ashoka, Stuart works with others to initiate efforts that have mobilized more than $500 million in funding for social entrepreneurs, engaged the G20 through the Toronto, Seoul and Los Cabos summits and helped form partnerships with leading financial institutions and corporations.

Again, thank you to our incredible expert judges.

Behold, the face of a Neolithic dog

He was a very good boy.

Historic Environment Scotland
Surprising Science
  • A forensic artist in Scotland has made a hyper realistic model of an ancient dog.
  • It was based on the skull of a dog dug up in Orkney, Scotland, which lived and died 4,000 years ago.
  • The model gives us a glimpse of some of the first dogs humans befriended.
Keep reading Show less

After death, you’re aware that you’ve died, say scientists

Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
Surprising Science

Time of death is considered when a person has gone into cardiac arrest. This is the cessation of the electrical impulse that drive the heartbeat. As a result, the heart locks up. The moment the heart stops is considered time of death. But does death overtake our mind immediately afterward or does it slowly creep in?

Keep reading Show less
Videos
  • Beethovan and Picasso are the perfect examples for mastering the creative process.
  • Behind each of their works are countless studies and sketches.
  • The lesson? Never erase anything, keep iterating, and find new paths to familiar destinations.