Al-Awlaki's Death Raises Questions About U.S. Tactics

A joint CIA and U.S. military operation targeted and killed the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in an air strike this week. Awlaki had been linked to terrorist attacks against the United States and was a key target for several years. NPR's Rachel Martin shares the latest with host Scott Simon.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. United States has targeted and killed a U.S. citizen late this week. His name: Anwar al-Awlaki and he was key operative for al-Qaida's affiliate in Yemen. Awlaki found himself on the target list because he was linked to several terrorist plots that were aimed at killing Americans. Here's President Obama yesterday:

BARACK OBAMA: He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda.

SIMON: Awlaki's death raises questions now about America's tactics and the future of al-Qaida. NPR's Rachel Martin joins us. Rachel, thanks for being with us.

RACHEL MARTIN: You're welcome.

SIMON: And let's start with Awlaki. Clearly, this was someone the U.S. had in the crosshairs.

MARTIN: Exactly right, Scott. As President Obama said yesterday, this was a man directly linked to several high-profile terrorist attacks over the last couple of years. But it is important to note that his role over time actually evolved. He hadn't always been so operationally involved. One incident the president didn't mention there was the shooting at Fort Hood. Remember in 2009, 13 Americans died in the attack when an Army major opened fire at the base. That major, Nidal Hasan, is said to have had email communication with Awlaki. And that case illustrated one part of what he was so important, because he inspired others to violent action with his message.

SIMON: I gather he had a more direct role in some of the later plots too.

MARTIN: Yes, particularly that Christmas Day plot in 2009. Awlaki wasn't just exchanging emails in that case. He was the architect of that plot against the United States. And this is what Awlaki was all about. Even though his group al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula had been focused on more regional issues and targets, Awlaki was intent on waging attacks transnationally on the United States and he worked to reorient the focus of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. So, when you talk to intelligence officials these days - and they say this publicly - that the greatest terrorist threat to the United States is coming from Yemen, not Pakistan, which is the base to al-Qaida's core leadership.

SIMON: And where does this death now leave al-Qaida?

MARTIN: Well, Scott, this is the latest in a series of very high-profile killings over the last few years and especially the last few months. Of course, the most significant episode was the killing of Osama bin Laden in May. But since then, according to the U.S. government now, there have been at least seven people who they characterize as senior al-Qaida leaders who've been killed in strikes. That doesn't include Awlaki and the man who was actually killed with him - his name was Samir Kahn. He was another American very close to Awlaki. But Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said earlier this summer al-Qaida is on the brink of, quote, "strategic defeat." But it's important to note U.S. officials are still concerned that some branch of the group or some lone wolf could carry out a major attack in the United States. Because there is always this chance that when you kill one al-Qaida leader, another person just steps in to fill in the void.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the legal questions that have been raised, because yesterday voices from Ron Paul to the American Civil Liberties Union said it is illegal to target a U.S. citizen.

MARTIN: And this is a big debate. You know, on one side there is an argument that he is a citizen, he has legal rights. The ACLU actually had filed a lawsuit about a year on behalf of Awlaki's father. It was thrown out and never really addressed the core question. But the ACLU put out a statement yesterday raising legal questions about Awlaki's killing. But the U.S. government is clear here, Scott. They say this was legal. And this is what Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta actually said yesterday on CNN.

LEON PANETTA: If you're a terrorist, you're a terrorist. And that means that we have the ability to go after those who would threaten to attack the United States and kill Americans. There's no question that the authority and the ability to go after a terrorist is there.

MARTIN: So, the U.S. government argues that when someone, even an American citizen, joins the enemy in an ongoing war against the U.S., that person becomes a legitimate target.

SIMON: NPR's Rachel Martin. Thanks so much for coming by.

MARTIN: You're welcome, Scott.

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