Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The killing of al-Awlaki

On the same day that the NYT published the article I wrote about in my last post about President Obama's conduct of the war against Al Qaeda, Newsweek published an excerpt from a book by Daniel Klaidman titled Kill or Capture: The War on Terror and the Soul of the Obama Presidency. I found this one provided even more history, context and detail about the drone strikes against Al Qaeda targets. So if you're interested in learning more about that issue, I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

But one section really stood out to me. In it, Klaidman covers the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki - the one that has created the most controversy amongst liberals.  I'm going to quote quite a bit of the story because this is the most detail I've seen about it anywhere.
In Barack Obama’s mind, Anwar al-Awlaki was threat No. 1. The Yemen-based leader of AQAP [Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula] had grown up in the United States, spoke fluent American-accented English, and had a charisma similar to that of Osama bin Laden: soft eyes, a mastery of language, and a sickening capacity for terror. Obama told his advisers that Awlaki was a higher priority than even Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had succeeded bin Laden as al Qaeda’s top commander. “Awlaki had things on the stove that were ready to boil over,” one of Obama’s national-security advisers observed. “Zawahiri was still looking for ingredients in the cupboard.”

What worried President Obama most was Awlaki’s ingenuity in developing murderous schemes that could evade America’s best defenses. Already he had launched the Christmas Day plot, in which a Nigerian operative had nearly brought down a packed airliner by trying to set off explosives hidden in his underwear. Then, in October 2010, AQAP had managed to put improvised bombs—ink toner cartridges filled with explosive material—on cargo planes headed to the United States. (They were intercepted as a result of a tip from Saudi intelligence.) During the summer of 2011 Obama was regularly updated on a particularly diabolical plan that AQAP’s master bomb builder, Ibrahim Hassan Tali al-Asiri, was devising. The intelligence indicated that he was close to being able to surgically implant bombs in people’s bodies. The wiring was cleverly designed to circumvent airport security, including full-body scanners. AQAP’s terror doctors had already successfully experimented with dogs and other animals...

The capture of a Somali operative who worked closely with Awlaki produced key intelligence, including how he traveled, the configuration of his convoys, his modes of communication, and the elaborate security measures he and his entourage took. Finally, in the spring and summer of last year, U.S. and Yemeni intelligence started to draw a bead on him. A tip from a Yemeni source and a fatal lapse in operational security by the cleric eventually did him in.

The standing orders from Obama had always been to avoid collateral damage at almost any cost. In many instances, Cartwright would not even take a proposed operation to the president if there was a reasonable chance civilians would be killed. But as the Americans were closing in on Awlaki, Obama let it be known that he didn’t want his options preemptively foreclosed. If there was a clear shot at the terrorist leader, even one that risked civilian deaths, he wanted to be advised of it. “Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,” he said, according to one confidant. 
In September, U.S. intelligence tracked Awlaki to a specific house in Al Jawf province, where he stayed for two weeks—often surrounded by children. On the morning of Sept. 30, however, Awlaki and several of his companions left the safe house and walked about 700 yards to their parked cars. As they were getting into the vehicles, they were blown apart by two Hellfire missiles.
There you have the case against al Awlaki and the fact that the military waited for 2 weeks - knowing where he was - but not doing anything about it until he left the presence of the children.

I recognize that no matter the circumstances, this kind of thing raises moral and precedent questions with which we need to grapple. In the world as we'd want it to be, we'd never have to deal with people like al Awlaki. But there he was, plotting to kill as many people as possible and, rather than meeting his opponent on a battlefield, surrounding himself with children for protection as he does so. That's the world as it actually is.

When critics can develop a more humane way of handling that situation - I'd be more than thrilled to hear about it. Until then, I'm not really interested in your armchair analysis of this President.


  1. Your last paragraph is the key, Ms. Smartypants--I haven't heard anyone come up with a better alternative. Even in NPR's coverage of this story today, there was plenty of criticism of President Obama, and lots of exploration of the possible downsides of his policy and approach. But no mention of any alternatives that would in toto be more effective, more humane, and more "moral." The guy is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn't.

    By the way, your blog is extraordinary. Thanks for taking the time.

  2. We're going to need our military and counter terrorism operatives for at least a 100 years. That means that there are going to be a lot of people that need killing. Some of them are home grown. I don't have any solution where taking that guy out isn't part of the plan.

    I'm tired of half wits on the left side of the isle that aren't getting it. They just want to be critics and are a drag to have around.