'Secret US memo laid out justification for Awlaki hit'

'NY Times' reports document completed in June 2010 argued legality of hit on al-Qaida operative despite int'l law, US citizenship.

October 9, 2011 06:25
2 minute read.
Anwar al Awlaki

Anwar al Awlaki_311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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A secret document discussing the legality of killing al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen found that his assassination would only be lawful if he could not be taken alive, The New York Times reported on Saturday, citing sources who had read the document.

Awlaki, a US citizen who lived in Virginia before leaving the United States shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, was the first US citizen who the White House authorized US agencies to kill since the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington a decade ago. Legal experts who have long criticized a US government program to kill members of al-Qaida abroad as a breach of international law say the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki last month may also have broken US law.

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"The fact that (Awlaki) was a dual US-Yemeni citizen means that he had extra protections under the US constitution than he would not have had if he was just a Yemeni citizen," said Mary Ellen O'Connell, an international law professor at the University of Notre Dame's law school. "So the president has done something in my view that is highly questionable under our own Constitution."

The 50-page memorandum completed in June 2010 reportedly justified the operation despite an executive order banning assassinations and international laws prohibiting such activity.

The document was tailored specifically to the case of Awlaki and did not seek to set a precedent for similar such operations, according to the report.

Alwaki was a legal target for assassination because he was part of al-Qaida's war against the US, he posed a significant threat to US citizens and Yemeni authorities were not taking steps to or were unable to bring him to justice, the document purportedly found.


Awlaki, identified by US intelligence as "chief of external operations" for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was killed in a CIA drone attack in a remote Yemeni town last month.

He had been implicated in a botched attempt by AQAP to bomb a US-bound plane in 2009 and had contacts with a US Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people at a US military base the same year.

US authorities had branded him a "global terrorist" and last year authorized his capture or killing, but Sanaa had previously appeared reluctant to act against him.

Eloquent in English and Arabic, Awlaki encouraged attacks on the United States and was seen as a man who could draw in more al-Qaida recruits from Western countries.

US President Barack Obama said last month that the killing in Yemen of Awlaki was "another significant milestone" in efforts to defeat al-Qaida and its allies.

"This is further proof that al-Qaida and its affiliates will have no safe haven anywhere in the world," Obama said, adding that Awlaki's death was a result of the government of Yemen joining international efforts against the militants.

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