I am beginning to wonder how many people really and truly understand the difference between war / combat and criminal justice. As a counterterrorism professional with 15-years of experience in the field and degrees in criminal justice and international relations, both with focuses on terrorism, it is easy for me to differentiate between the two. However, and quite unfortunately, it seems like many others, especially those with no experience in the field, either find it difficult to separate the two or refuse to draw the line between them.
Regardless of what it is called, the United States is at war with al-Qa`ida, its allies, affiliates, and ideology. Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and others of their ilk are enemy combatants. If encountered outside of the United States, especially if encountered in a special interest country (i.e. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Somalia, etc), also known as the battlefield, they are prime candidates to be justifiably and legally killed in action. This also applies to U.S. citizens like Adam Gadahn, Omar Hammami, and Anwar al-Aulaqi.
The U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense (DOD) saw the utility early on of arming drones and using them to attack terrorists who would disappear into hiding if we had to rely on getting special forces to their location to take them down. Nothing against our special operators, but there is absolutely no way logistically we could keep them on stand-by 24/7 and within a few minutes flight from every possible location where we might encounter terrorists. While we unfortunately have not been able to eliminate the top-tier targets like bin Laden and Zawahiri, this program has been used very successfully to eliminate numerous mid-level al-Qa`ida operatives, the “worker bees’ if you will, which in turn has kept the group off balance and unable to successfully coordinate another 9/11-style attack. This cannot be denied.
Earlier this year the Obama administration added Anwar al-Aulaqi's name to a special list of individuals that can be eliminated by CIA drone if encountered, according to media sources. Aulaqi, a dual Yemeni-U.S. citizen, was born in New Mexico. He was not a concern to the IC or law enforcement until the 9/11 Commission began its investigation. The Commission found that while Aulaqi was the imam, spiritual leader, at a mosque in San Diego he befriended two of the 9/11 hijackers. He then moved to the Washington, DC area and took a position as the imam at a northern Virginia mosque where he again found himself in contact with at least one of the hijackers. Though he was questioned about his ties to the hijackers, it was determined he had no foreknowledge of the attacks. He then left for Yemen and has since assumed a role as an al-Qa`ida propagandist.
Until November 2009 Aulaqi was really only known in the jihadist and counterterror arenas. His name was mentioned in terrorism cases such as the Ft. Dix Five as being inspirational to at least two of the plotters. He gained notoriety in November with the shooting at Ft. Hood, TX by Hasan Nidal who it was revealed had been in contact with Aulaqi, even as far back as 2001 when Nidal attended the same northern Virginia mosque as some of the 9/11 hijackers and where Aulaqi served as imam. Aulaqi even posted approval of the shootings. Then in December Umar Abdulmutallab, the inept underwear bomber, was been linked to Aulaqi. And most recently Faizal Shahzad, the alleged Times Square bomber, has been linked to Aulaqi. How many more chances should Aulaqi be given to radicalize some young Muslim and either inspire or actually direct him, or her, to execute an attack on U.S. soil? When do we draw the line? He obviously is not going to turn himself in. He was in Yemeni custody once before and immediately went underground as soon as he was released.
In a recent New York Times article by Scott Shane, Vicki Divoll, a former CIA lawyer and now a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, claimed she is concerned for Aulaqi’s rights. She stated that while “Congress has protected Awlaki’s cellphone calls,” referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that requires special warrants to monitor electronic transmissions involving U.S. citizens, “it has not provided any protections for his life.” She goes on to argue that judicial process should be required if the individual in question is a U.S. citizen and not on “a traditional battlefield.” Glenn Greenwald, in his recent article in Salon, makes the same argument, claiming “Barack Obama claims the right to assassinate Americans far from any battlefield and with no due process of any kind.”
It is understandable how Mr. Greenwald can err on the side of the law, but Ms. Divoll, as a former CIA employee, should be the first to understand this is not a traditional war and that al-Qa`ida determines the battlefield by their presence and that drone strikes are not assassinations, but are military tools used in combat to kill the enemy before they can kill us; some battlefields require a law enforcement approach, such as here in the U.S., while others require a military approach.
If this were WWII and an American were fighting on the side of the Axis and was killed, would we be having the same argument? No. People back then understood, if one takes up arms against one's country, especially in support of that country's enemy and outside the legal jurisdiction of that country, they can be killed. Obviously the rules of war apply. If the individual in question surrenders they would be treated accordingly.
Anwar al-Aulaqi is an Internet jihadist radicalizer, recruiter, and propagandist and stays well abreast of current events. He knows he has made the "drone list." If he chooses to continue his activities, well aware he can be targeted at-will by the CIA or the military, then he must assume the risk that comes with that choice. He knows where the local authorities are located; he can easily turn himself in.
This latest controversy is but one example of the mixed message the Obama administration is sending to the American people. While I did not agree with the term, at least with Bush’s “War on Terror” everyone knew, unequivocally, if you had ties to terrorists you were a legitimate target and could expect to be killed, unless you were lucky enough to get arrested or turn yourself in. However, even then you would be labeled an “enemy combatant” and would soon find yourself at Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo) being interrogated with no clue as to when you would be released. Obama’s promises to close Gitmo and to try certain terrorists in U.S. criminal court have blurred the line between combat operations and law enforcement, thus creating confusion about how terrorists are to be treated and who should be hunting them. Let’s face it, these people are terrorists, not bank robbers, they are enemy combatants and should be hunted on the battlefield by our Soldiers and Marines, not by the FBI, and they should not be afforded any rights except the right to live if they surrender. Enemy combatants overseas in previous wars were not Mirandized or afforded trials in U.S. courts. They were either killed or, if they surrendered, found themselves interrogated and held for the duration of the conflict.
We cannot wait for the next attempted bombing, where we may not be as lucky as we have been for the last few, nor can we simply rely on the counterterrorism forces in countries with unstable governments and internal conflicts. Counterterrorism is a matter of self-defense and cannot entail waiting for a bomb to go off so we can ensure due process is served.