Enemies Among Us: The Targeted Killing of American Members of al-Qaeda and the Need for Congressional Leadership

This article was featured in GSSR Vol. 1 Issue 2.
By Dr. Seth Weinberger

On September 30, 2011, an American drone fired on and destroyed a convoy of members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The target of the strike was Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen born in New Mexico in 1971, accused of being a propagandist and operational leader for AQAP. The targeted killing of an American citizen raises a simple yet extremely discomfiting problem: Should the President of the United States be able to order an American citizen to be killed without trial, without any external review process, and without appeal?

In June 2010, John Brennan, then Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and current CIA director, stated that “there are dozens of U.S. persons [who have joined international terrorist organizations] who are in different parts of the world and they are very concerning to us.”[1] The issue was made even more salient on February 4, 2013, when an unclassified U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) white paper was released which laid out the legal justification for the targeted killing of “a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or an associated force.”[2]

The release of the targeted killing white paper unleashed a barrage of criticism of the policy. One author called the brief “a disaster” and asserted that “the Obama administration…wants to justify…assassinating citizens without specific and credible evidence of imminent violence.”[3] Another warned that “what’s so terrifying about this white paper is that it’s unconstitutional, not in the sense that it violates any particular tenet of the American Constitution, but in that it doesn’t respect the premise of there being a Constitution in the first place.”[4] Yet another claims that “[the white paper] is every bit as chilling as the Bush Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) torture memos in how its clinical, legalistic tone completely sanitizes the radical and dangerous power it purports to authorize.”[5] A few voices defended the policy, arguing, for example, that “once you take up arms against the United States, you become an enemy combatant, thereby forfeiting the privileges of citizens and the protections of the Constitution,”[6] and that “American presidents…have lawfully deployed military force against citizens in insurrection, rebellion, or war against the United States from the beginning of the nation.”[7]

However, focusing on the question of whether and when the president can order the targeted killing of an American citizen who has joined al Qaeda – as did almost all of the analyses of the DOJ white paper – not only misses the more important question involved but also obscures the best avenue to a potential solution. Instead of asking whether the president ought to be able to order the killing of American members of al Qaeda, we should instead be asking whether the president should be allowed to determine when an American citizen can be considered to be a senior operational member of al Qaeda, and if so, by what process?

Why is the question of determining who is a member of al Qaeda more important than the question of whether the president can kill American senior operational members of al Qaeda? As made clear by the World War II-era case Ex Parte Quirin, American citizens who join the armed forces of an enemy of the United States during wartime forfeit many of their basic constitutional protections and can be, as was the American citizen involved in the case, tried by military tribunal and executed under the laws of war.[8] The 2004 case of Hamdi v. Rumsfeld built on the Quirin case, finding that not only were at least some of the president’s war powers activated by congressional passage of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in 2001, but that, as is normal under the laws of war, American citizens seized on the battlefield can be detained until the end of the conflict.[9]

However, the Hamdi decision also illustrates why the question of who is and is not a member of al Qaeda is the more critical question. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision inHamdi contained language vital for understanding the issue. The Court acknowledged that while enemy soldiers seized on the battlefield during a “normal” war do not receive an opportunity to challenge their detention, the exigencies of the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban dictate that “the circumstances surrounding Hamdi’s seizure cannot in any way be characterized as ‘undisputed’.”[10] Furthermore, because “‘the risk of erroneous deprivation’ of [Hamdi’s] liberty is unacceptably high” and as the case dealt with “the most elemental of liberty interests – the interest in being free from physical detention by one’s own government,” the Court decided that the traditional rules of war needed adjusting for the armed conflict against the Taliban.[11] Thus, the Court ruled that “a citizen-detainee seeking to challenge his classification as an enemy combatant must receive notice of the factual basis for his classification and a fair opportunity to rebut the Government’s factual assertions before a neutral decision maker.”[12] In essence, the Court ruled that the armed conflict with the Taliban sufficiently resembled traditional conflict as to allow for the indefinite military detention of enemy combatants, but that the difficulties involved in determining who is and is not an enemy combatant (for example, fighters in the Taliban neither wore uniforms nor carried identification) warranted an alteration in the normal application of the president’s war powers where American citizens are concerned.

The laws of war were designed to govern ‘traditional’ wars, in which the armies of states met on the battlefield and in which soldiers wore uniforms clearly identifying themselves as combatants. The lack of clarity that prompted the ruling in Hamdi comes from the inherent ambiguities in a low-intensity war against a non-state actor that is not limited to a specific battlefield. These ambiguities are magnified in the conflict against al Qaeda. Not only do al Qaeda’s members not wear uniforms or carry identification cards, but, given the decentralized nature of the organization, it is not even clear what exactly constitutes membership. It might be possible that one can become a “member” of al Qaeda simply by declaring or even believing oneself to be a member. In short, we should be much less confident in our judgments about who is and who is not a member of al Qaeda.

Several examples illustrate the problems caused by this ambiguity over membership in al Qaeda. First, consider Major Nidal Hassan, who stands accused of 13 counts of murder and 32 counts of attempted murder in the shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas. While Hasan had been in communication with Anwar al-Awlaki, he was ultimately court martialed rather than tried as a terrorist. This decision troubled terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman, who argued that while he “used to argue it was only terrorism if it were part of some identifiable, organized conspiracy… this new strategy of al-Qaeda is to empower and motivate individuals to commit acts of violence completely outside any terrorist chain of command.”[13]

Next is the case of al Shabaab, an Islamist insurgent movement dedicated to bringing Sharia to Somalia. In February 2012, leaders of al Shabaab officially pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, a pledge that was enthusiastically accepted by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who succeeded Osama bin Laden as the formal head of al Qaeda.[14] Since the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) expanded the scope of the 2001 AUMF to include “associated groups,” al Shabaab is now a legitimate target for American forces. This poses several problems. First, a number of Somali-American citizens have joined al Shabaab, mostly for religious and nationalistic reasons related to the domestic political situation in Somalia.[15] Second, al Shabaab has largely confined its activities to inside Somalia, with the exceptions of a bombing in Uganda and a grenade attack in Kenya, attacks almost certainly intended to convince Uganda and Kenya to withdraw their respective troops from Somalia.[16] Third, many members have splintered-off from the main body of al Shabaab in the wake of the union with al Qaeda, apparently to keep their struggle focused on Somalia rather than the global jihad.[17] There seems to be little evidence, other than the formal affiliation, that al Shabaab has taken any actions against American citizens or interests or that al Shabaab is in any way other than name a part of the global terrorist movement.

And yet, under the 2012 NDAA, a Somali-American who becomes a senior operational leader of al Shabaab in order to liberate and Islamize Somalia is the legal equivalent of Anwar al-Awlaki and is therefore eligible for being targeted for death. Is this the enemy as envisioned by Congress and defined in the 2001 AUMF?

These examples call attention to several vital questions surrounding the Obama Administration’s use of targeted killing against American citizens. Is every group that is somehow connected to al Qaeda the “enemy” in this conflict, regardless of the threat it poses to American national interests or its involvement in global jihad? What kind of connection – formal, operational, or ideological – is sufficient justification for including an affiliated group under the scope of the 2001 AUMF and 2012 NDAA? Exactly what actions make an individual a member of al Qaeda? Given these serious questions about what constitutes involvement with al Qaeda, it is dangerous for decisions about the eligibility of American citizens for targeted killing to be made without legislative definition or judicial process or review.

The Obama Administration would likely claim that such decisions are a fundamental incident of war and therefore part of the president’s war powers that were activated by the 2001 AUMF. And under the current legal regime, the President’s use of drones to eliminate American senior operational members of al Qaeda is indeed legal.

But legal is not the same thing as prudent. Simply because a course of action is permitted does not mean it should be taken. For a number of reasons, perhaps most importantly because it is increasingly unclear what constitutes being a senior operational member of al Qaeda, we should be skeptical of allowing the Executive Branch to judge these decisions on its own. Without effective checks or definition, there can be little doubt that the bar for defining membership in al Qaeda and eligibility for targeting will move downwards, allowing more Americans to be targeted without due process. And in the absence of additional congressional actions to limit the president’s ability to make such determinations, that is exactly the situation that exists.

But how could such checks or definitions be imposed? The President’s likely defense – that under the 2001 AUMF, only the Executive Branch can determine questions of al Qaeda membership – is a strong one. Here we must return to the Hamdi decision. By focusing attention and criticism on the power to target American members of al Qaeda rather than on the power to determine eligibility for being targeted, most analysts and pundits have missed the importance of the Hamdi decision for suggesting a solution to the problem of targeted killings.

By giving Yasir Hamdi a status hearing to determine his eligibility for indefinite military detention without trial, the Supreme Court interfered with the traditional war powers of the president and altered the standard applications of the rules of war. The Court argued, as mentioned earlier, that as the prospect of indefinite detention involves the “most elemental of liberty interests,” “striking the proper constitutional balance…is of great importance to the Nation during this period of ongoing combat.”[18] What is true for an American citizen detained on the battlefield and assigned for indefinite detention is undoubtedly true for an American citizen who has been targeted for death by a U.S. drone strike. Surely, the right not to be killed by a Hellfire missile ordered by one’s own government without due process must be as elemental of a liberty interest, if not more so, as “the interest in being free from physical detention.”[19]

Furthermore, while the Court did add a hearing into the process for military detention, it still permitted the U.S. government to assign an American citizen to indefinite detention. It did so even while acknowledging that, given the undefined nature of the conflict against the Taliban, which the U.S. government might not consider won for two generations or more, “Hamdi’s detention could last for the rest of his life.”[20] The justification given for leaving the basic structure of military detention in place was the determination that conflict between the U.S. and the Taliban resembles the traditional conflicts for which the laws of war were created. However, the Court warned that “if the practical circumstances of a given conflict are entirely unlike those of the conflicts that informed the development of the law of war, [the long-standing law of war principles] unravel.”[21] It seems reasonable that a conflict like the one with al Qaeda –in which drones are used to target American citizens who have been identified as senior operational leaders of decentralized affiliates of an already decentralized non-state terrorist organization – presents circumstances unlike traditional wars in which enemies were readily identifiable by their uniforms, identification cards, and adherence to a clearly visible military and political chain of command.

From the logic of the Hamdi decision, it follows that adjustments or adaptations to the traditional war powers of the president to target American citizens believed to be members of the armed forces of the enemy might be both justifiable and allowable. What options or procedures could be put into place? Two options stand out. First, Congress could attempt to identify the positive criteria for membership in al Qaeda, the nature of the relationships between al Qaeda and its various affiliates, and, more specifically, the definition of a senior operational leader. While this would undoubtedly be a difficult task, there is precedent for such efforts by the Legislative Branch. The laws surrounding conspiracy must define at what point constitutionally-protected free speech switches to the illegal preparation for criminal activity.

But once again, what is possible is not always the best course of action. Given the diffuse nature of global terrorist networks and the flexible nature of the battlefield, trusting an a priori assessment to accurately account for all possibilities and to do so in a timely manner is likely a bad idea. A better option would be the creation of a special national security court, along the lines of the courts that hear federal requests for warrantless wiretapping in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). Such a court could be created and empowered by Congress to hear presidential requests to designate an American citizen as a senior operational leader of either al Qaeda or of an affiliated group as defined under the 2001 AUMF and the 2012 NDAA.

Several people have voiced objections to the creation of a FISA-style “drone court.” One worries that a court of “generalist federal judges” will lack “national security expertise,” “are not accustomed to ruling on lightning-fast timetables,” and should not be able to involve themselves in “questions about whether to target an individual for assassination by a drone strike.”[22] Another writes that, “the determination of whether a person is a combatant to judicial review would seem to rather clearly violate the separation of powers requirements in the Constitution,” as in Ex Parte Milligan, the Supreme Court ruled that the congressional war power “extends to all legislation essential to the prosecution of the war…except such as interferes with the command of the forces and the conduct of campaigns,” which includes, the author argues, the “sole authority to determine who the specific combatants are when conducting a campaign.”[23] While in a traditional war such objections are almost certainly correct, in the context of the Hamdi decision and with the unconventional nature of the armed conflict against al Qaeda, they become less compelling.

First, if properly defined, the new court could be limited solely to questions of eligibility, not the decision of whether and when to conduct a drone strike. The court would carry out a function quite similar to the FISA courts, judging whether the Executive Branch has sufficient evidence to support its claim that a citizen has become a senior operational member of a group covered under the AUMF and 2012 NDAA. This would differ little from the FISA courts’ assessments of Executive Branch requests to wiretap individuals believed to be agents of a foreign power without a warrant.

Second, given the definition of imminent threat in the Department of Justice’s white paper – a definition that incorporates “considerations of the relevant window of opportunity, the possibility of reducing collateral damage to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks on Americans”[24] – such eligibility decisions are not likely to be made in the moments immediately prior to a drone strike. Rather, eligibility decisions are likely made in the process of long investigations and in light of much intelligence.

Finally, while Anthony Arend is almost certainly correct that in nearly every other incidence of armed conflict, Congress would not be permitted to involve itself in determinations of who is and who is not an eligible target for the American military, asHamdi makes clear, the armed conflict against al Qaeda is not like every other armed conflict. The Supreme Court has already inserted a judicial proceeding into the determination of whether an American citizen seized on the battlefield is actually an enemy combatant and therefore eligible for indefinite detention, a determination that traditionally has been solely within the purview of executive power. It would be counterintuitive – to say the least – if an American citizen could be killed, but not detained, without judicial involvement.

Terrorism is, without question, a serious threat to the security of the United States. President Obama is currently employing military force under a legal authority granted by Congress in the 2001 AUMF and in Section 1021 of the 2012 NDAA. That legal authority gives the president the power to determine which groups are affiliated with al Qaeda, to identify American citizens who have assumed senior operational roles within those groups, and to kill those citizens through drone strikes or other means. However, while Congress may have given the president the power to order targeted killings, that does not mean that Congress cannot or should not alter the scope of that authority. Congress’s fundamental tasks are to define the contours of the American legal sphere, to determine the legal status of American citizens before the Executive Branch, and to protect the rights of U.S. citizens.

America’s war against terrorism has produced myriad challenges to the civil liberties of American citizens: from the warrantless wiretapping program under President Bush to the military detention without trial of Yasir Hamdi to the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the rights of American citizens have been tested as never before. If an opportunity exists to clarify and define that balance without unduly interfering with the president’s war powers, it should be taken. But that requires Congress to put aside its traditional reluctance to interfere with the conduct of military campaigns and exercise its own war powers. Unfortunately, Congress does not possess a stellar track record on this issue. Perhaps by using the Hamdi decision to point the way, Congress can be encouraged to step up to define and protect the most elemental  right of all – the right not to be killed by one’s government without judicial involvement.

Dr. Weinberger is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics & Government at the University of Puget Sound.

[1] Eli Lake, “Dozens of Americans Believed to Have Joined Terrorists,” Washington Times, June 24, 2010, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2010/jun/24/dozens-from-us-on-list-of-targets-as-terrorists/?page=1.
[2] “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen Who Is a Senior Operational Leader of al-Qaeda or an Associated Force,” Department of Justice White Paper, http://www.scribd.com/doc/123883608/Lawfulness-of-a-Lethal-Operation-Directed-Against-a-U-S-Citizen-who-is-a-Senior-Operational-Leader-of-Al-Qa%E2%80%99ida-or-An-Associated-Force.
[3] Jeffery Rosen, “The Obama Administration’s Drone Strike Memo is Unconstitutional,”The New Republic, February 6, 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/112338/obama-administrations-drone-memo-unconstitutional#.
[4] Stephen Marche, “Why the White Paper Is So Terrifying,” Esquire, February 6, 2013, http://www.esquire.com/blogs/politics/white-paper-targeted-killings-15067416
[5] Glenn Greenwald, “Chilling Legal Memo From Obama DOJ Justifies Assassination of U.S. Citizens,” The Guardian, February 5, 2013, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/05/obama-kill-list-doj-memo.
[6] Charles Krauthammer, “In Defense of Obama’s Drone War,” The Washington Post, February 14, 2013, http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-14/opinions/37098359_1_al-qaeda-anwar-al-awlaki-drone-war.
[7] John Yoo and Robert Delahunty, “Obama’s Legal Netherworld,” Foreign Policy, February 8, 2013, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/02/08/obamas_legal_netherworld_justice_department_memo.
[8]Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942).
[9]Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 542 U.S. 507 (2004).
[10] Ibid, 526.
[11] Ibid, 529-30.
[12] Ibid, 533.
[13] Mark Thompson, “Fort Hood Highlights a Threat of Homegrown Jihad,” Time Magazine, November 11, 2009, http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1937912,00.html.
[14] “Al Shabaab Joining Al Qaeda, Monitor Group Says,” CNN, February 10, 2012, http://www.cnn.com/2012/02/09/world/africa/somalia-shabaab-qaeda/.
[15] Jonathan Masters, “Backgrounder: Al Shabaab,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 5, 2013, http://www.cfr.org/somalia/al-shabaab/p18650.
[16] Scott Stewart, “Al Shabaab’s Threat to Kenya,” Stratfor, April 6, 2012, http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/al-shabaabs-threat-kenya.
[17] Bronwyn Bruton, “Divisive Alliance,” The New York Times, February 1, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/22/opinion/divisive-alliance.html?_r=2&ref=alshabab&.
[18]Hamdi v. Rumsfeld, 532.
[19] Ibid, 529.
[20] Ibid, 520.
[21] Ibid, 521.
[22] Neal Katyal, “Who Will Mind the Drones,” New York Times, February 20, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/21/opinion/an-executive-branch-drone-court.html.
[23] Anthony Clark Arend, “Judicial Oversight of Drones?,” anthonyclarkarend.com, February 10, 2013, http://anthonyclarkarend.com/humanrights/judicial-oversight-of-drones/.
[24] “Lawfulness of a Lethal Operation Directed Against a U.S. Citizen”

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