Wednesday, June 1, 2011

From the NYT “Room for Debate” page: Should we be trying to knock off Anwar al-Awlaki?

Several contributors take on the question, most agreeing with the propositions that he is considered a fringe wanabe jihadi by the establishment folks in AQ. Where there is disagreement is on the question of whether or not we should be actively seeking to kill him. This all becomes interesting given the unstable nature of Yemen.

An argument is presented that we need not kill him, and would be better served by making efforts to turn Yemeni tribes against him. This would shut down his propaganda efforts, whereas killing him would turn him into a martyr or cult figure. An adjunct to that argument is that efforts to kill him will play into and worsen existing prejudice against the United States. The same piece argues that we should increase non-military aid to Yemen, while cutting back aid for counter-terror efforts.

Taking these in turn: Given the widespread anti-American sentiment, and the low probability of success in any effort to turn the tribes (if we do not conduct intensive COIN, which means our folks in country, that is undoubtedly the case, you will not turn the tribes. Even with boots, prospects would be dim); this just looks to be a non starter and an unrealistic look at Yemen. While it is true that killing him would turn him into a martyr, NOT killing him will allow him to propagandize and influence English speaking wannabe jihadis like Captain Underpants, the Time Square Bomber and of course Fort Hood killer Nidal Hasan. He runs a successful Western aimed media wing, if you will, that is unique in its ability to reach within the English speaking world. If we do not succeed in killing him, like Bin Laden, he will acquire a sort of mystique as someone who is able to flout the Americans, deal death to them while also being able to dodge their every countermove, another in the line of the Order of the Assassins, as it were. This will no doubt serve as a recruiting tool just as much, if not more than would his demise.

One argument briefly considers whether or not it is appropriate to target a U.S. citizen in the manner that we target foreign born AQ types, without first giving him full blown legal proceedings. I don’t want to get into legal weeds, but will argue that morally, the attempts are permissible if not obligatory for the USG. Consider a set of homespun analogies at successive removes from the situation with al-Awlaki:

I move out of country, to the Great White North, do not rescind my citizenship, and actively recruit people to bomb, shoot and otherwise kill Americans. Is the USG justified in lobbing a UAV missile my way? No. Why? We have a cooperative government as a neighbor that will track me down and send me home for trial. The Canadians are reliable counter-terror partners.

Ok. I realize this, so I decide it would be smarter if I relocated to the wild and woolly south, Mexico, to one of the many badlands areas. I strike up a friendship with local drug warlords, who hide me and I do my recruiting from a safe house. In that case, is the USG justified in using UAV missiles to off me? I hope you see that in this case it’s more than a bit more plausible to make that case. Granted the many orders of difference that exist between the Canadian government’s legitimacy and law enforcement abilities, and those of the Mexican government, USG would be right to suspect that I would somehow catch wind of the plans and melt away into the environment. Still, the USG could probably gain enough cooperation and/or permission to enable them to catch me. So, even in this case, I’d say there is not sufficient justification for the use of UAV missiles. But, I admit, the situation could be like that of Awlaki. In that case, send in the birds.

Now the last case: I, like Awlaki decide it is wiser to pack up and head to Yemen. Is the USG justified in resort to UAV delivery of lethal greetings? Yes. Why? We have no reliable governmental partner in Yemen either now, or in the past. They make the Paks look like…well… the Paks. Even more so than in the hypothetical Mexican case, there is a lack of assurance that I will be captured and turned over, or that cooperation will be forthcoming. It is quite likely that I will be tipped off. What is more, the tribe I stay with wields considerable clout and can be relied upon to protect me from the Yemenis and from American personnel. Unlike the Mexican case, insertion of personnel is very risky business, and unlikely to succeed. Given that Yemen is on the verge of collapse and civil war this is especially true. So, given that the USG cannot extradite my butt, and given that it is unlikely that the USG can send a team in to snatch me, in order to bring me back for trial, they can move to plan C.

This all assumes that I am a relative lone wolf. But suppose that relocation to Yemen also allows me to tap into an extensive previously existing network for recruitment. That increases my status. I’m not only an imminent threat, but a very prolific one, a hub with many feeders. Awlaki’s track record speaks for itself. In this last case, justification for the permissibility of UAV deliverable lethal greetings is strong. I believe it is so strong as to oblige USG to undertake such efforts, due to the fundamental responsibility of a government to look out for the safety and lives of its citizens. Just as policemen may use lethal force against citizens to protect innocent lives, so too can the CIA use lethal force against citizens to protect citizens, when no other recourse is available to USG.

Now, I think this is all justified even absent any trial in absentia, although such a proceeding does put a nice legal veneer on the action, morally it isn’t necessary.

Herodotus’ “Histories” of the Persian Wars (very liberally ‘translaparaphrased’): Book I, Sections 3-4


These same accounts go on to say the situation escalated some forty to fifty years later when Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy, encouraged by the foregoing chain of events, decided to abscond with a Greek wife of his own. He was quite confident he could steal the woman with impunity due to the fact that the Greeks had not paid a price for their abductions. This was how it came about that he carried off Helen.

The first reaction of the Greeks was to send a legation with demand for reparations and the return of Helen. The demands were countered by a pointed reference to the seizure of Medea and incredulity at the rank injustice of a people expecting satisfaction from a people to whom they themselves had steadfastly refused the same, while also going so far as to keep the abducted girl.


To this point there had been nothing more severe between the parties than abductions of women. However, for the next occurrence the Greeks, according to the Persian accounts, were seriously blameworthy. For, it was the Greeks who first escalated to military aggression. Now, abducting women is indeed criminal on the view of the Persians, but it is stupid to seek after-the-fact retribution. The only sensible thing to do, on their view, is to take no notice; for it is obvious that young women will not allow themselves to be abducted unless they desire it. According to Persian accounts, the Asiatics similarly took the abductions lightly. Things were quite otherwise with the Greeks. The Greeks, on account of the abduction of a single girl from Sparta raised a large army, invaded Asia, and utterly destroyed the kingdom of Priam. From that root event sprung the Persian’s conviction that the Greeks bore them perpetual enmity, this being due to the fact that the Persians claim the Asiatics and barbarian races dwelling in their realm as their own, while considering the European and Greek states as being quite separate and distinct, and "other."