Officials in the Obama administration have confirmed, three months after it was first reported, that the White House has authorized the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) to target American citizen and alleged terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki for killing. In acknowledging the decision, the administration has explained its rationale for the first time. But the official explanation for why Awlaki merits targeted killing without judicial review, an extraordinary and unprecedented expansion of the U.S. war on terror, paints an unclear picture. Killing an American citizen without trial or a judge's approval is, to put it lightly, a big deal. Does Anwar al-Awlaki, a New Mexico-born cleric who now dispatches fiery anti-American sermons from Yemen and has been loosely tied to the Fort Hood and Flight 253 incidents, really meet the threshold?
When the decision to target Awlaki was first reported, the most logical rationale seemed to be that his high-profile presence on jihadist web sites allowed him to recruit for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the al-Qaeda offshoot in Yemen. Since then, the slow trickle of information about the U.S. case against Awlaki has not added much. Anonymous U.S. officials tell the New York Times that Awlaki is a "recruiter for the terrorist network." Any legal authority for targeting Awlaki requires that he pose an extreme and immediate threat to U.S. national security. Clearly, recruiting potential terrorists would be a serious crime. But does that make him a terrorist, let alone one meriting targeted killing? That's the case administration officials are making.
Of course, Awlaki may be much more than just a recruiter. But a source speaking to David Ignatius, who is famously well sourced within the CIA, refers to Awlaki "go[ing] operational" in November 2009. If true, it would mean that Awlaki is directly involved in planning terrorist attacks, and would strengthen the administration's case to justify targeted killing. But there are reasons to doubt Awlaki has crossed the line from calling for jihad to actively pursuing it. He has no battlefield experience, having spent his twenties preaching in Colorado and California mosques. One of the primary reasons al-Qaeda terrorists are so dangerous is the wartime experience they earned in the brutal conflicts in Afghanistan and, more recently, Iraq. Furthermore, there are doubts about whether Awlaki is close enough to AQAP, which has an effective monopoly on anti-Western terrorism in Yemen, for him to actively participate in terror plots. Counter-terrorism expert and al-Qaeda watcher Leah Farrall tells me, "I am extremely skeptical he's even with let alone member of AQAP." If the prominent cleric was a member, she says, the highly media-conscious AQAP "would milk it for all it's worth" as "propaganda gold."
So why did Rep. Jane Harman, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment, call Awlaki, "probably the person, the terrorist, who would be terrorist No. 1 in terms of threat" against the U.S.? The publicly available information does not clearly make the case that he is. It's virtually certain that the administration has relevant intelligence on Awlaki that it can't share. Without the missing pieces of this puzzle, it's impossible to know exactly why Awlaki has become one of the only U.S. citizens ever publicly targeted for killing by the U.S. government.