Editorial do WSJ
In the decade before his death, Anwar al-Awlaki served as an imam at two American mosques attended by 9/11 hijackers. He corresponded regularly with Nidal Hasan before the Army major went on his murder spree at Fort Hood in November 2009. He was in touch with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who nearly brought down a jetliner over Detroit the following month. His sermons were cited as an inspiration by attempted Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad. He said that "jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim."
Now a Hellfire missile fired from an American drone somewhere over Yemen has brought Awlaki's career of incitement to an abrupt close. Lest you suppose this is a blessing for civilization, certain self-described civil libertarians would like a word with you.
The caviling over Awlaki's death began almost the moment the news was announced yesterday. "Al-Alwaki was born here, he's an American citizen, he was never tried or charged for any crimes," said Ron Paul, the Republican Presidential candidate, in New Hampshire yesterday. "To start assassinating American citizens without charges—we should think very seriously about this." In the Guardian, Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights called Awlaki's killing "extrajudicial murder."
Then there is the view that the U.S. cannot carry out strikes against terrorists in countries that, like Yemen, are not at war with us. Last year, Awlaki's father filed a case in federal court on those grounds. Federal Judge John Bates dismissed it by noting that "there are circumstances in which the [President's] unilateral decision to kill a U.S. citizen overseas" is "judicially unreviewable."
More recently, however, the New York Times has reported that State Department legal adviser Harold Koh is making the case within the Administration that while the U.S. can target terrorists in places like Yemen, it must also "justify the act as necessary for its self-defense—meaning it should focus on individuals plotting to attack the United States."
Mr. Koh has his current job in part because he made a name for himself as a vociferous critic of Bush Administration antiterror policy, so maybe it's no surprise that he should now serve as this Administration's in-house scold. Yet the Authorization for Military Force Against Terrorists adopted by Congress a week after 9/11 (on a 420-1 vote in the House and 98-0 in the Senate) gives the President broad authority to use force against "those nations, organizations or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided" the attacks "in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States."
Dorothy Rabinowitz on liberal and libertarian outrage at the al-Awlaki killing.
Though Awlaki and other newer al Qaeda recruits didn't plan 9/11, they can lawfully be targeted under the "associated forces" doctrine well understood under the laws of war. The U.S. used that doctrine to attack the military of Vichy France in North Africa during World War II, for example, though Congress had declared war against Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. The Obama Administration's own March 13, 2009 redefinition of who is an "enemy combatant" includes a specific reference to "associated forces that are engaged in hostilities" against the U.S. or its allies.
If Mr. Koh or his fellow-travelers want to narrow this definition, they are free to suggest that Congress do so. Otherwise, President Obama's powers to pursue al Qaeda and its affiliates wherever they may be are manifestly legal.
As for the idea that Awlaki was entitled to special consideration on account of his U.S. citizenship, the Supreme Court made its views clear in the 1942 Ex Parte Quirin case dealing with Nazi saboteurs: "Citizenship in the United States of an enemy belligerent does not relieve him from the consequences of belligerency." Samir Khan, a Saudi-born American who managed al Qaeda's media organization and was killed alongside Awlaki, described himself as "proud to be a traitor to America"; presumably, he too understood the consequences of belligerency.
Meanwhile, what used to be called the war on terror continues apace. The killing of Awlaki is the third time in recent months that the U.S. has thinned the ranks of al Qaeda leaders, following the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound in May and the drone strike on operations man Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in August.
Whether this means al Qaeda is on the verge of "strategic defeat," as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta put it not long ago, isn't clear, particularly as the group continues to extend its reach in East Africa. But it does mean that al Qaeda has lost its most charismatic figures and will have to replenish its leadership ranks. Aggressive use of drones and other counterterrorist tools will complicate that task, while reminding potential jihadist recruits of the fate that awaits all of their leaders.
In our asymmetrical war on terror, intelligence and drones are two of our rare advantages. Mr. Obama's expansion of the drone campaign is his most significant national security accomplishment. For ridding the world of the menace that was Awlaki—even while ignoring the advice of some of its ideological friends—the Administration deserves congratulations and thanks.