Was Anwar Al-Awlaki’s Assassination Legal?

The assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki, unlike that of Osama Bin Laden, creates some tricky legal dilemmas due to Al-Awlaki’s American citizenship. The once-moderate Muslim cleric who taught at a handful of mosques in the U.S. had ties to major terrorist events – ties that have slowly but surely come to light over the last few years. Like Bin Laden, he was linked to a couple of the September 11th hijackers, as well as Nidal Hasan (the Fort Hood shooter) and the underwear bomber of recent infamy.

His actions are, in essence, the same as Bin Laden’s, who was never primarily known for acts of jihad himself (at least not of the caliber of the Sept 11th hijackers or Hasan), but rather for providing the strategy and/or inspiration for these attacks. Several of the usual suspects cried “foul” at bin Laden’s assassination, but since he was no American citizen, the legal hubbub died in its infancy. Al-Awlaki’s targeted killing is quite a different story.

After careful consideration and study, I have determined that Al-Awlaki’s removal poses no substantive Constitutional problems. The biggest question is that of a declaration of war against Al Qaeda. There has been some confusion on this point. While there was never a nominal declaration against the terrorist network, it was implicit in the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), signed by President Bush one week after 9/11:

“The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.”

It’s obvious Al Qaeda is the focal point of this legislation. The controversial issues with this legislation regarding separation of and role of powers are the topic of another note. For the purpose of my point, the declaration of Congress appears to me to be sufficient in implicating Al Qaeda as an enemy of the United States.

As such, we are still faced with Al-Awlaki’s citizenship. I checked the U.S. State Department’s website, namely the section on loss of citizenship, and to simplify the legalese, it basically says that joining up with the enemy is a de facto declaration of intent to relinquish one’s citizenship:

“The premise that a person intends to retain U.S. citizenship is not applicable when the individual… serves in the armed forces of a foreign state engaged in hostilities with the United States.”

At this point, you might be thinking, “He deserves due process to determine if he did in fact join a hostile enemy army and if he actually did plan the attacks on America.” This is a petty and idealistic reach, in my opinion. We have fought numerous wars without individually questioning each and every soldier, strategist, and ruler of the enemy forces. Al-Awlaki blatantly and unequivocally chose a side by employing violent rhetoric towards the United States and fleeing to Yemen to consort with a known, declared enemy of his country of origin (the United States). In doing so, he forfeited his 4th Amendment protections. We are in a war, declared by Congress under the mandates of the Constitution. And if you are on the opposing side, you face the threat of violent death at the hands of the finest military force in history.

What about the slippery slope argument? For example, what is to stop the U.S. government from making another declaration of war against, say, Christians, in the future, based on the precedent set by broad-stroke measures like the AUMF? Again, I count this a far-fetched extrapolation. The Christian faith, aside from anomalies like the Branch Davidians or the People’s Temple, has for the last few hundred hundred years been one of peace, whereas Muslims have wreaked havoc more or less continuously since the time of Mohammed through singular acts of terrorism (such as 9/11), institutionalized domestic violence, and broad-based imperialistic warfare. A world in which Christians are the focal point of sweeping legislation like the AUMF seems highly improbable to me. And in a world whose condition is in such disrepair, implementation of said legislation would probably be accomplished regardless of precedent.

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