It's a Mistake to Assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki

Recently policy makers in Washington, D.C. let it be publicly known that our government is trying to assassinate an American-born cleric now supporting the other team in the War on Terror. Anwar Al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico, studied in Colorado, preached in San Diego and Virginia before going overseas. He was briefly detained in Yemen and then resumed his preaching online with a new political theme, stressing that “America is at war with Islam.” The United States, according to Al-Awlaki, is at war with Islam due to its occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan must should be fought on its homeland by any militant means necessary. The news of Al-Awlaki’s pending assassination circled the globe and included long discussions in the media about whether or not such a murder is “constitutional,” if it even constitutes “murder” and on Al-Jazeera it was dissected as a possible window into the Obama administration’s decision making process.

All of this was preceeded by news in late January that our government had not only made the decision to assassinate Anwar Al-Awlaki but that it had already attempted once and failed. News reports since then have also revealed that the decision to assassinate an American citizen was came from the White House’s National Security Council after a simple consensus-building discussion process initiated by the NSC.

Intelligence analysts watching this unfold from outside the administration can detect a unique, systemic decision-making pattern regarding covert operations. While our enemies have built up a good deal of operational experience, culminating in the assassination of several CIA agents last year, we now run the risk of helping them capitalize even more effectively on their propaganda and recruitment efforts with the revelation of this assassination policy.

A simple committee of unelected individuals from one branch of government, no matter their subject matter expertise, should not have the power to assassinate an American citizen. The Founding Fathers set up a system of checks and balances, because they recognized that when a king has such powers it is only a matter of time before such power will be turned on political dissenters at home to suppress freedoms. We are a nation that upholds the rule of law in our federal court system and have a Military Commissions system as a backup for terror cases; so why weaken America’s hand by using this extra-judicial assassination policy on American citizens?

Anwar Al-Awlaki is a disingenuous cheerleader in the global jihad who’s preying on largely naive or troubled Western-educated youth attempting to form their identities in a global world. Al-Awlaki built his reputation by retelling the stories of the ancient companions of Prophet Muhammad and their roles in reforming the tyrannical state of affairs in pre-Islamic Arabia. His public rhetoric, including his sermon inside the U.S. Capitol, was largely benign and non-political until his detention in Yemen a few years ago.

Al-Awlaki is a one trick pony whose messaging capability was beginning to be cornered by various American and Western Muslim community efforts until this administration overreacted after the Christmas Day bomber tried to blow up a plane over Detroit and inflamed Anwar’s stature many fold. Alawaki’s message is largely one of righteous self-sacrifice to defend one’s religion, so the proper way of countering it is not to assassinate the messenger so that he achieves “martyr” status. That would only turn him into a ghost who is much more difficult to counter. Instead the more effective method would have been to have mainstream clerics from Anwar’s same Salafi version of Islam expose his disingenuousness and unsound Islamic logic to the youth in the population currently sitting on the sidelines watching geo-political struggles unfold around the globe and wondering what their role in it ought to be.

In field experience where research meets reality, I’ve witnessed first-hand what happens when a Western Muslim youth is properly engaged to separate Islamic jurisprudence from geo-politics; the youth picks Islam over the political activism Al-Awlaki pitches every time. Today Al-Awlaki is not celebrated by the core of Al Qaeda member, nor even trusted to be in direct communications with them. Second, due to his ambitious usurping of jihadi credentials he has earned disdain in numerous jihad-oriented Islamist circles including from Yemen’s top Islamist figure, Sheikh Abdul-Majeed Al-Zaindani, himself counter-productively placed on the Designated Terror List. Al-Zaindani ironically found it easier to condemn Al-Awlaki on Al Jazeera a couple of months ago than to condemn Usama Bin Laden.

Previous experience shows us where this assassination policy leads. In 1966 the Nasser Regime in Egypt decided to execute Syed Qutb, a noted Islamist ideologue who by that point had spent a decade and a half critiquing government policies in regards to church-state issues, Middle Eastern geo-politics and internal sociological schisms about civilizational affiliation amongst the Egyptian elite and middle class. The public perceived injustice, witnessing a military execution without any recognized due process inflicted upon a man for simply speaking and writing his mind. It led to the violent radicalization of tens of thousands in a generation that later gave us the leadership of Al Qaeda and the takfiri (excommunication) movements across the Middle East usurping Qutb’s legacy to this day.

We must ask ourselves whether our public chest thumping in calling for Anwar’s head ‘dead or alive’ is worth the ramifications of having to chase his ghost as a martyr for the next half century, having Al Qaeda’s propaganda department embrace Anwar in death to capitalize on his martyrdom, and encourage more Muslim youth to join Al Qaeda’s disingenuous jihad to hit the "tyrannical Americans."

President Obama should rescind this assassination order and clarify publicly our national position. We should support, if requested by the Yemeni government, the “capture” of Anwar Al-Awlaki and his prosecution under Yemeni law since there is no extradition treaty between our two nations.

We should also shift some of our counter-terrorism resources to efforts built up over the past few years to counter the online radicalization efforts of Al-Awlaki and others by civic groups and to remove government hurdles hampering their work. We’re Americans and we know that the solution to bad speech is not to shut it down but to counter it with more speech. Al-Awlaki knows this and has cornered the U.S. government so that if it assassinates him, he achieves immortality and proves that American foreign policy is disingenuous and does not see “Muslims” as deserving the political rights it says it professes. Our country deserves a strategic reassessment of this assassination policy, not a group think mentality satisfied with the short-term “tactical” achievement of killing one man.

Mohamed Elibiary is a National Security Policy Analyst advising several intelligence and law enforcement agencies and serves as one of three appointed civilians to the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Advisory Board. He can be reached at

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