Holder confirms targeted killings of 4 U.S. citizens in Yemen, Pakistan

Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. SOURCE: WIkipedia

The Justice Department today confirmed that 4 American citizens were killed in oversea drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan since 2009.

“Since 2009, the United States, in conduct of U.S. counterterrorism operations against al-Qa’ida and its associated forces outside of areas of active hostility, has specifically targeted and killed one U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi,” wrote Attorney General Eric Holder in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “The United States is further aware of three other U.S. citizens who have been killed in such U.S. counterterrorism operations over that same period: Samir Khan, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, and Jude Kenan Mohammad. These individuals were not specifically targeted by the United States.”

Read more: Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s father sues U.S. government over deadly drone strikes

The letter also shed some light behind the administration’s decision to order a “lethal strike” against Anwar al-Aulaqi, a U.S.-born Islamic cleric who moved to Yemen in 2004 has repeatedly called on Muslims to wage jihad against the United States. Some of the information disclosed in the letter were previously classified.

Although Aulaqi was known for his provocative anti-U.S. sermons, which have been credited for radicalizing terrorist suspects such as Fort Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan, Holder stressed that it was Aulaqi’s actions that “made him a lawful target” for a lethal strike.

Specifically, Holder cited Aulaqi’s involvement in the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber”, who tried to blow up Northwest Airline flight 253 as it was approaching Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day 2009.

According to Holder, Aulaqi approached Abdulmutallab shortly after the Nigerian man arrived in Yemen in 2009. Aulaqi arranged an introduction via text message and hosted Abdulmutallab at his home for 3 days before the new recruit was sent to a two-week training camp operated by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

“Al-Aulaqi planned a suicide operation for Abdulmutallab, helped Abdulmutallab draft a statement for a martyrdom video to be shown after the attack, and directed him to take down a U.S. airliner,” Holder wrote. “Al-Aulaqi’s last instructions were to blow up the airplane when it was over American soil.”

Holder also said that Aulaqi was also involved in the plot to plant explosive devices aboard two U.S.-bound cargo ships in October 2010.

“[Aulaqi] not only helped plan and oversee the plot, but was also directly involved in the details of its execution – to the point that he took part in the development and testing of the explosive devices that were placed on the planes,” Holder wrote.

Because intelligence indicated that Aulaqi was “continuing to plot attacks” against United States, the Obama administration approved the use of lethal force against Aulaqi in February 2010.

Although Aulaqi is an American citizen and was never charged with a terrorism-related crime by the U.S., Holder maintained that Aulaqi was a senior operational leader of AQAP – “the most dangerous regional affiliate” of Al Qaeda – who posed an “imminent threat” of violent attack against the U.S. Given that his capture in Yemen was infeasible, Holder argued there was little choice for the U.S. but to order a lethal drone strike to kill Aulaqi.

“It is clear and logical that United States citizenship alone does not make such individuals immune from being targeted. Rather, it means that the government must take special care and take into account all relevant constitutional considerations, the laws of war, and other law with respect to U.S. citizens – even those who are leading efforts to kill their innocent, fellow Americans,” wrote Holder. “The decision to use lethal force is one of the gravest that our government, at every level, can face. The operation to target Anwar al-Aulaqi was thus subjected to an exceptionally rigorous interagency legal review.”

On Sept. 30, 2011, U.S. drones flying over the Yemeni province of al-Jawf fired missiles at Al-Aulaqi’s car, killing at least four people, including Al-Aulaqi.

Among the dead was the second American citizen listed in Holder’s letter: 26-year-old Samir Khan. U.S. officials have accused Khan of being a “propagandist” for AQAP; however, Khan was never charged with a terrorism-related crime.

Two weeks after Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s death, U.S. drones struck an open air restaurant near the town of Azzan, about 200 miles away from where Anwar Al-Aulaqi was killed. The intended target was Ibraham Al-Banna, an Egyptian man who served as Al Qaeda’s media chief in Yemen. The strike, however, ended up killing 7 people, including Anwar Al-Aulaqi’s son, ‘Abd al-Rahman Anwar al-Aulaqi, who was 16 at the time. ‘Abd al-Rahman was also a U.S. citizen.

The fourth American listed, Jude Kenan Mohammad, was killed in a drone strike in Pakistan. Mohammad was involved in an 8-member terrorist group based in Raleigh, North Carolina that plotted to wage a “violent jihad” overseas. Unlike ‘Abd al-Rahman and Samir Khan, Mohammad was indicted on terrorism-related charges, including “conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists; conspiracy to murder, kidnap, maim and injure persons abroad”, in July 2009.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Aulaqi and Khan’s families challenging the constitutionality of the targeted killings of the three Americans in Yemen.

“When the U.S. government kills its own citizens far from any battlefield, it is not enough to describe its decision and partial reasoning in a letter – the lawfulness of such killings must be evaluated in court. We assume this new step towards transparency means the government will change its litigation stance in our lawsuits seeking information about the targeted killing program, and hope the government will respond on the merits in our lawsuit seeking due process for the killings of three Americans in Yemen,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU National Security Project.

Oral argument for the case is scheduled to begin on July 19th in Washington, D.C.


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