I was going to write a scathing post about the Obama-backed assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki today. Fact is, the accusations against him amount to saying a lot of bad things (protected speech) and plotting a number of failed terrorist attacks. Even accepting the government’s claims, Awlaki has never successfully killed anyone, except maybe with his opinion.
That being said, upon researching it a bit further, it appears that Awlaki was very involved in some failed terrorism attempts that may have killed many people if they succeeded. The biggest one is the almost-successful underwear bomber, who, according to a news source, allegedly told the FBI that Awlaki directed him to carry out the attack. There’s a lot of hearsay in there, of course, but if it’s true, the guy would seem to be effectively leading a terror cell, which would provide some justification for the attack. It would clearly be very difficult to simply go to Yemen and arrest him, so not going through a trial has some justification.
At the same time, I’m still concerned because it seems a bit convenient that this anti-American preacher that the US has been worried about for a while is suddenly being accused of doing more than just preaching. Worse, the sources all seem to be anonymous, and the details of what exactly happened are very hazy. Awlaki is accused of being involved in other failed plots as well, but the allegations seem very weak, and some are literally people watching his sermons on youtube, which is clearly protected speech (keep in mind Awlaki is a citizen). On balance, I’m not convinced by anonymous government sources, and wonder if maybe his supposed planning involvement in the attempted underwear bombing will go the way of the claims that Saddam Hussein tried to purchase yellow cake or met with an Al Qaeda operative. A momentary self-illusion created by an overzealous system looking for the right excuse, perhaps.
In the big picture, I don’t think these questions should matter. What we should really look at is our overall “preventive killing” approach to fighting terrorism, in which we try to kill someone before an attack, rather than after. If anything, Iraq should have taught us the error of such a policy. Instead, it seems to have only become a bigger part of our policy since then. And yet, the biggest blow Al Qaeda has suffered in recent years has not been any of the assassinations that we have spent untold billions of dollars on and killed hundreds or thousands of very questionably guilty people, but the Arab Spring, which provided an alternative to terrorism throughout the Arab region.
The point is, we can’t kill terrorism away, and we can’t force the Arab world to like us at the point of a missile. What we can do – and should be doing – is encouraging them to be like us by example. Al-Awlaki can be replaced in a snap. But after we supported freedom in Libya and Egypt, the Al Qaeda narrative of Western oppression through Arab dictators is in shambles. I worry that targeted assassinations like these, however, will create a new narrative of Western direct domination, one that is much more true in today’s world.