Anwar Al-Awlaki: An American Citizen, A CIA Target Once seen as a moderate Islamic cleric, Anwar al-Awlaki is now a jihadist hiding in Yemen, regarded as so dangerous that he reportedly is being targeted to be killed by the CIA. New York Times reporter Scott Shane explains how the American-born cleric has inspired attacks, including the recent Times Square car bombing attempt.
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Anwar Al-Awlaki: An American Citizen, A CIA Target

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Anwar Al-Awlaki: An American Citizen, A CIA Target

Anwar Al-Awlaki: An American Citizen, A CIA Target

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

According to media reports, when investigators questioned Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad, he told them he was inspired to act in part by online lectures from the Muslim cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki. That's the same imam who traded emails with Nidal Malik Hasan, the Army psychiatrist charged with killing 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas.

Once seen as a leader of moderate Islam, Awlaki is now hiding in Yemen and is regarded as so dangerous, he's been targeted for killing by the CIA. Awlaki was born and educated in the United States, and U.S. authorities are particularly troubled by his tapes and Internet lectures advocating jihad because they're recorded in English and reach young American and British Muslims. In a statement in March, Awlaki said jihad is becoming as American as apple pie and as British as afternoon tea.

Our guest is Scott Shane, a national security reporter for the New York Times based in Washington. He's written extensively about Anwar al-Awlaki's unusual story. I spoke to Scott Shane yesterday.

Well, Scott Shane, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've written that there are two narratives from his journey from an apparent leader of moderate Islam to a jihadist, in effect. What are these two narratives?

Mr. SCOTT SHANE (National Security Reporter, New York Times): Well, one would say that he really was a moderate, he was mainstream, he was quite American and that it was only the aftermath of 9/11, the backlash against Islam in this country which caused him to leave this country - his exposure to very radical folks in London, where he was for a year or so, and then eventually his imprisonment in Yemen, at least partly at the behest of the United States, in 2006, 2007, that really sent him off the deep end.

So that narrative would say this is a guy who was completely mainstream who gradually radicalized and now has gone all the way. And in March, in fact, of this year, for the first time essentially declared war on the United States and said explicit that it was the religious duty of every Muslim to attack the United States, to attack Americans.

The alternative narrative would say that this man was always a wolf in sheep's clothing. He was never really moderate but was pretending to be moderate and was, in fact, an agent of al-Qaida, a sort of secret agent or sleeper agent of al-Qaida dating back to the late '90s. And so he's only recently shown his true colors in public, but even when he was serving as an imam in the United States, this theory would say he was actually very radical.

DAVIES: Let's talk about Awlaki's history by talking a little bit about the role that Anwar al-Awlaki played right in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Mr. SHANE: He was actually - because he was at a big mosque outside Washington, Fairfax, Virginia, he was very quickly identified as a guy who was good for the media to call with questions about Islam, questions about the attack, partly because so many imams speak with a foreign accent, sometimes their English isn't perfect. He spoke, you know, fluent English with American accent and was very willing to explain things.

And so he appeared in almost all the major media in the weeks after 9/11 and seemed to relish the role of the sort of explainer of Islam. He condemned the attacks, although he also linked the attacks to American foreign policy, suggesting that, you know, these didn't come out of nowhere, that these came out of grievances in the Muslim world.

But he presented himself and was presented by others, including my newspaper, as a guy with the potential to bridge the gap between the United States and the worldwide community of Muslims.

DAVIES: And his view of Islam, at least as seen in those comments, was not of a religion that would support the slaughter of civilians like this, right?

Mr. SHANE: Certainly not. He sometimes pared it after the invasion of Afghanistan by saying he didn't approve, and Islam did not approve, of the death of innocents, whether they were, you know, New Yorkers in the World Trade Center or Afghan civilians in Afghanistan. So, sometimes it was hedged or put in some context, but repeatedly he did condemn the attack and say it violated the principles of Islam.

DAVIES: You know, I think we should hear just a little of his voice. We have a piece of a recording here, and I believe this dates from the spring of 2002, after there were a number of raids by American authorities on some Islamic institutions that were suspected of ties to terrorists. And this is a piece of a lecture that he gave at that time. Let's just listen a bit.

Mr. ANWAR al-AWLAKI (Imam): This is not now a war on terrorism. We need to all be clear about this. This is a war against Muslims. It is a war against Muslims and Islam. Not only is it happening worldwide, but it's happening right here in America that is claiming to be fighting this war for the sake of freedom while it's infringing on the freedom of its own citizens just because they're Muslim, for no other reason. And as Muslims, if we allow this to continue, if we do not stop this, this ain't gonna stop. It's not gonna stop.

DAVIES: Certainly speaks with a lot of conviction and energy. I wouldn't call him mesmerizing. I mean - what do you hear in that tape?

Mr. SHANE: Well, to me that's a very important moment in his evolution. There had been a series of raids in March of 2002 on Muslim institutions in northern Virginia and Georgia. And the raids not only hit the institutions but hit many of their leaders at their homes. And there were stories that came out of these raids, including an older woman handcuffed for hours to a radiator and not allowed to cover her hair with her hijab and that sort of thing, that sort of boiled through the community. And you still talk to folks in northern Virginia, and they remember that, and they're still angry about it.

So, he was far from the only Muslim leader in northern Virginia who was extremely angry about it. What's interesting is if you listen to that entire talk, he still appears to be talking about working within the system. You know, Muslims have to they can't let this happen. We have to stop it.

But he doesn't, certainly in the context of giving a talk at his big mosque in Virginia, he's not talking. I mean, there are police around, and he's certainly not calling for terrorism. But he is convinced, or he says he's convinced, that the United States is at war with Islam.

DAVIES: Now today, of course, things are far, far different. He is in Yemen and regarded as so dangerous by the United States government that the CIA has officially approved him as a target for killing. Why is he considered so threatening today?

Mr. SHANE: Well, he sort of found a very important niche in the process of radicalization of young Muslim men. So, his recordings for the most part, which are all over the Web encouraging jihad, some is written, most of it's audio recordings, have turned up in more than a dozen terrorism investigations in the West, in English-speaking countries, mostly in the U.K., Canada and the U.S.

That doesn't necessarily mean that he knew anything about any of these plots, although there's evidence that he knew about at least one in advance, but he has been cited by a number of people who did plot terrorism as an inspiration.

Now, the reason he has been added to this list that the CIA keeps of people who are approved for targeted killings overseas is that he is now, in recent months really, has been judged to have turned the corner from being merely a person who encouraged and incited terrorism to someone who has an operational role in plotting attacks.

And this is all classified information, but it appears the CIA believes that he is now an operational member of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which is the Yemeni and Saudi branch of al-Qaida and that he had some role in the plot of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man who tried to blow up the Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day.

DAVIES: What other terrorists or accused terrorists appear to have been at least inspired by his teachings and recordings?

Mr. SHANE: Well, it's, you know, a long list. Some of the cases, people would not have heard of, but the prominent ones would certainly include Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who is accused of shooting to death 13 people at Fort Hood last November.

Now, in that case, Nidal Hasan had met Mr. Awlaki in his mosque in Virginia. And then later, when Awlaki was hiding out in Yemen but had a website, Nidal Hasan wrote to him through the website and they exchanged a number of emails. And the emails are still secret. We don't know exactly what they said, but one of the questions Nidal Hasan had for Awlaki was: Is it okay under Islam if a soldier, an American soldier, attacks fellow soldiers because they're on their way to fight in Afghanistan? And it appears that the answer to that question that Mr. Awlaki gave was yes.

Then most recently, Faisal Shahzad, the young Pakistani-American, naturalized American citizen, who's accused of planting the car bomb on Times Square May 1st, he has told investigators that Anwar al-Awlaki was an important influence for him, as well.

DAVIES: And then what about those accused of plotting an attack at Fort Dix, New Jersey?

Mr. SHANE: Yes, they were found to have his materials in their possession and cited him as an influence. Also, there was a group of Canadian Muslims who had a kind of outlandish scheme to attack the parliament with a large bomb, and they talked about beheading the prime minister and various things, and they were big fans of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Now obviously, it's dicey to say that, you know, I committed a terrorist act because I listened to somebody's sermons on the Internet. So it's not a cause-and-effect relationship, but it certainly appears to have been a factor in a bunch of cases. And that has alarmed counterterrorism officials, certainly in this country, and it's partly I think because of Awlaki's intimate knowledge of the United States. He knows sort of what buttons to push for a young American Muslim because essentially that's what he was.

DAVIES: We're speaking with national security reporter Scott Shane of the New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Scott Shane. He's a national security reporter based in Washington for the New York Times. He's written recently about the Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and his role in inspiring a number of Americans to commit acts of terrorism.

Let's talk about Awlaki's history. He was born in the United States. Tell us a little about his family.

Mr. SHANE: That's right. He was born in New Mexico in 1971, when his father was a grad student in this country. And he was studying agricultural science, and he later actually got an alumni award from the University of New Mexico. He went on to a very successful career in Yemen.

Anwar lived in this country then from birth until age seven. When he was seven years old, his parents returned to Yemen, and his father later served as agriculture minister of Yemen and was chancellor of two universities.

So, very prominent family, very Westernized, and no, certainly no history in his immediate family of extreme religiosity or radicalism. And Anwar came back, obviously, with the family as a child, went to school in Yemen, and at that age of 19, was sent back by his father to Colorado State University, to all appearances with the same - with the idea that he would follow a similar path, become a sort of a technocrat. And he majored at Colorado State in civil engineering and graduated four years later with a degree in civil engineering.

DAVIES: So he comes back to the United States to go to college, lands in Colorado. What do we know of his views and activities then?

Mr. SHANE: Well, I lucked out and found one of his best friends in college, who is a young man who's Muslim but who was born in this country, and they helped run the Muslim Student Association at Colorado State and knew each other very well.

And I asked this guy whether Anwar, you know, struck him as more American or more Yemeni. And he said more Yemeni, that his American accent was a little bit misleading because he'd missed out on sort of adolescence in the United States. And this guy would say you'd make a reference to a rock song or a TV show that any American kid would know, and Anwar wouldn't recognize it.

And there were other moments. He said once they were in a state park in the mountains not far from Fort Collins, where they were going to school, and Anwar took off and climbed a mountain barefoot. And his friend said wow, you know, how come you did that? And he just sort of shrugged and said, well, that's the way we do it in Yemen.

And so he said there was something foreign about him. He was not, on the one hand, among those who would drink and chase women and party all the time, but he was not among the most conservative and most religious, either. He was somewhere in the middle.

DAVIES: Now, you write that he discovers he has a knack for preaching and becomes a part-time imam at the Denver Islamic Society and eventually goes to a mosque in San Diego, right, where he becomes the imam, gets married, has kids. Tell us about, you know, what you know about his lifestyle then and his views.

Mr. SHANE: Well, he was quite successful. He first tried his hand preaching at this little converted church that's the mosque in Fort Collins and, you know, apparently did very well and liked what he was doing. So instead of following civil engineering, which was, I gather, his father's idea for him, he decided to become an imam.

And he took that course, stayed in Denver for a year or so, did clash with an older Palestinian member of the congregation there who disapproved of Anwar al-Awlaki encouraging a young man to go and fight the jihad in Chechnya against the Russians and left shortly after this clash but to a larger mosque in San Diego.

There, by all accounts, he seems to have been popular and sort of young and hip. You know, I imagine him almost like, in Christian terms that might be more familiar to listeners, as one of these sort of young, hip ministers who, you know, plays the guitar and hangs out with the teens and so on.

DAVIES: It was also in this period when he was in San Diego that he discovered his talent for recorded lectures, right, on various Islamic topics. These were not particularly radical or political, right?

Mr. SHANE: That's right. He first talked to a member of the congregation there in San Diego, and they actually formed a company to record these lectures. Then they had some kind of falling out and he ended up going with a publisher in Denver.

And, you know, you can still find his boxed sets of lectures, the prophet Mohammed and other topics in Islam, for sale out on the Internet. More companies have dropped selling them in recent months, as he's become more notorious, but the fact is that in these CDs, there's nothing objectionable, I'm told by people whove listened to them. They're very they're Bible stories, essentially. They're very straightforward accounts.

He's a good storyteller, and he sort of mixes up the stories from the Quran with contemporary references. And many people I've talked to for years have driven around with these CDs in their cars and, you know, listened to them from time to time.

DAVIES: Now, in the year 2000, he moves to another mosque in Virginia, near Washington, D.C. And one of the most interesting moments in the articles you've written involves a conversation that he had with his neighbor in San Diego. After he'd been in Washington, then he'd come back and theyd have a fascinating chance encounter. Tell us what happened.

Mr. SHANE: In he had moved and begun his job at Dar al-Hijrah in Fairfax, Virginia, in January of 2001. He was, you know, was doing fine in that job, had basically moved but apparently had left some stuff behind in San Diego in the house next to his mosque in San Diego.

And so he came back and, basically, the purpose of the trip seems to have been to say goodbye to some people and pick up some things hed left behind. And he rang the doorbell of his neighbor, this man named Lincoln Higgee(ph), and said, you know, well, you know, I just stopped by to say goodbye. I was, you know, picking up the last of my stuff, and I'm now living in Virginia.

According to Mr. Higgee, he remembers him saying something about maybe moving to Yemen, but in any case, Mr. Higgee said well, you've been a great neighbor, and so if you're ever in the neighborhood again, I hope you'll stop by and say hello.

And according to his recollection, Awlaki said something peculiar, something along the lines of: I don't think I'll be back here. Something big is going to happen. You'll find out why later.

And it struck him, and he mentioned it to his roommate and others at the time, as odd. And, of course, that was in August of 2001. A month later, after 9/11 and only after the reports surfaced of a connection between two of the hijackers and this mosque, which again this neighbor lived across the street from, at that point he sort of put it all together and decided that this must mean that Anwar al-Awlaki had known about the 9/11 plot in advance.

DAVIES: Scott Shane is a national security reporter for the New York Times. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Im Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

We're speaking with New York Times national security reporter Scott Shane. He's written extensively about the unusual story of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric once regarded as a leader of moderate Islam who's now a jihadist hiding in Yemen.

Awlaki's recordings in English are known to have inspired several accused American terrorists, including Times Square car bomb suspect Faisal Shahzad. Though Awlaki had said he was radicalized by the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, some have suspected he was always an extremist and was actually involved in plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Two of the 9/11 hijackers prayed at his mosque in San Diego, one of them followed him to Virginia, I believe. And the 9/11 Commission looked into this and concluded that these were essentially random associations that one would find, given the size of the Muslim community in the United States. But you looked into the investigative archives of the commission and found some other points of view. What did you discover?

Mr. SHANE: Well, it was really the FBI that concluded that these were random encounters and that, in particular, it was highly unlikely that the al-Qaida folks would trust a guy who, after all, is an American-born, American citizen, very Americanized, with prior knowledge of this very important plot. So the FBI officially ruled out the possibility that he was in on the 9/11 plot. I think they considered that Mr. Heggie, the neighbor, had misinterpreted or misremembered what he was told.

However, both the Congressional Joint Inquiry into the 9/11 attacks and later the national 9/11 Commission were - some investigators were quite troubled by these associations. And these are not proven theses, these are just haunches. But a couple of them had a hunch that Anwar al-Awlaki might've had an important role as a support figure keeping these hijackers sort of focused on their mission and giving them support.

And, you know, the 9/11 Commission did end up identifying or using the term spiritual adviser, that al-Awlaki may have been a spiritual adviser to Alhazmi, one of the San Diego hijackers.

DAVIES: Were there other things that led people to believe that he might have been, you know, connected with al-Qaida or terrorists much farther back?

Mr. SHANE: There were a few data points that were difficult to interpret. But he served in '98 and '99 as vice president of a small Yemini charity in the United States that supposedly was mainly to help orphans and apparently did help orphans, according to relatives of Awlaki. But it was associated with a prominent imam named Zendani in Yemen who I think in 2004 was added to the terrorist list and is considered to be a very radical guy and essentially a supporter of al-Qaida.

He was once visited by a man name Ziad Khalil, who was an al-Qaida operative -this was in San Diego - and who was sort of known for having bought a battery for Osama bin Laden's satellite phone, of all things. And in fact, that occurred in 1999 and the FBI noticed this, was clearly - had this guy under surveillance and opened an investigation of Awlaki in '99 which they closed in 2000, concluding there was nothing to that connection. But there were those connections, there were a few other things, but most of it sort of adds up to potentially being a fairly prominent public figure as an imam in the relatively small world of Islam in the United States.

So, without sort of being in on all the conversations, it was very difficult to judge whether he was allied ideologically with some of these people he was connected with or whether these were sort of random encounters.

DAVIES: And the comments that you found in the archives associated with the 9/11 Commission, I believe, you said there were some investigators that seemed very, very suspicious of them. Was it not clear what made them so suspicious?

Mr. SHANE: Not entirely. I think it was really more of a hunch that they felt deserved more investigation than, you know, a conviction based on a lot of evidence. They just thought it was striking that the two hijackers who came to, that actually flew to Los Angeles in 2000 and moved almost immediately to San Diego and almost immediately began attending Awlaki's mosque. There was also -they found four phone calls between Awlaki's cell phone and a cell phone that belonged to a man who was helping the two hijackers who they supposedly had also met randomly but he was helping them move into an apartment.

There was some feeling that that man had loaned his cell phone to the hijackers and that the four calls might have been between Awlaki and the hijackers. And there were also people in the mosque who said that he held long closed door meetings with these two guys in the mosque. Nobody knew what they were talking about. But, you know, all of this made people highly suspicious. Although, as I say, the FBI also considered the question of would al-Qaida have wanted to trust a guy like this with the secrets of the plot?

And furthermore, people have noted that Awlaki in telling his own story subsequently, even now when he's on the American hit list, has not claimed any role in 9/11, has not claimed that he helped the hijackers. You would think that now, given his ideological support for the jihad against America, he might want to get a little of the glory and claim a little credit for 9/11, if indeed he was involved.

DAVIES: In 2004, Awlaki ends up back in Yemen. Of course, this is after the U.S. invasion of Iraq has occurred. Tell us what he was doing in Yemen.

Mr. SHANE: Well, he went back home, in part, according to relatives, because he was running out of money in London. And he studied and preached. He was associated for a while with a university that is somewhat notorious for teaching radicalism. But essentially, he was continuing the life of a preacher and scholar. This was a guy who had devoted his life to religion but had no, you know, sort of higher education religion. So at one point he'd done a correspondence course with an imam in France, and in Yemen he sort of was studying with various scholars and brushing up on his Islam.

DAVIES: But clearly, he was on the radar of U.S. intelligence authorities because of his contacts with the 9/11 hijackers. Is it believed that he was involved with, you know, jihadists at the time or was he more of just a religious scholar?

Mr. SHANE: Well, by all the accounts I've heard, he had no connections to al-Qaida in Yemen at that point. However, he was arrested in 2006, allegedly as part of a tribal dispute. That's the way he's explained it. There's some suspicion that possibly Yemeni authorities cooked up the tribal dispute because they were under pressure to take him into custody from the Americans. But what I was able to establish was that at some point after he'd been in prison in Yemen for a few months without charges, the Yemeni authorities went to the Americans and, in fact, talked to John Negroponte, who was then the director of National Intelligence, and basically said, this guy is an American citizen. He's a little radical. What do you want us to do about him? And Mr. Negroponte, I'm told, said the U.S. had not objection to keeping him locked up.

That did not sit well with some American officials. You know, it's - when you think about it, for the U.S. government to say we dont mind another government holding our citizen with no charges is a bit unusual. And eventually, in late 2007, after hed been locked up for about 18 months the U.S. was asked again, do you have any objections to us letting him out? And at that point I'm told the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller and others had some, you know, were not happy at the idea that the U.S. was sort of supporting the incarceration without charges of this guy. And the FBI agents had visited Awlaki in prison and interviewed him a number of times. And so they released him at the end of 2007.

DAVIES: So then he's living in Yemen, clearly has some radical views at this point. And then at some point he, well, disappears in effect, goes into hiding. What happened?

Mr. SHANE: Well, that's right. Well, he started a website and he was on Facebook. He began to sort of fully exploit the opportunities for being a Web preacher. Very radical, not quite as overt in his embrace of violence as he has become since, but he was attracting the attention of Yemeni authorities who were under pressure from the Americans to keep an eye on this guy. And according to what he's told relatives and acquaintances, he didnt like the attention from the police, essentially, and he sort of went on the lam.

Since then, he clearly has hooked up with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, the local branch of al-Qaida. And recently he put out, for the first time, a video that was aired in part on Al-Jazeera and that - which actually bears the emblem of the media branch of this al-Qaida operation in Yemen.

So, he clearly has, you know, sort of formally and publically aligned himself with al-Qaida. And this coincides with the conclusion of the American intelligence that he has become not just a preacher supporting jihad with his words, but he has become quote, "operational" unquote, evidently in recruiting and preparing young men to launch attacks, including apparently Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the young Nigerian who's accused in the Christmas Day attempted airliner bombing.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Scott Shane. He's a national security reporter for The New York Times. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If youre just joining us, our guest is Scott Shane. He is a national security reporter for The New York Times, based in Washington. He's written articles recently about the Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who is believed to have inspired a number of Americans to commit acts of terrorism.

You know, the U.S. government, of course, has been terribly concerned about attacks from Islamic radicals for many years, dating back to the, of course, the 9/11 attacks. But its only in the last couple of years that weve seen, it seems, American Muslims becoming involved in and trained for these kinds of attacks. And there have been quite a number of examples of them. People that have gone to Pakistan in some cases and gotten trained in explosives and then planned or attempted to carry out terrorist acts in the United States. And I'm wondering too, how much of this change might be attributed to al-Awlaki?

Mr. SHANE: Well, it might be giving him too much credit to say that he's responsible for it. I think he has had an influence. But it's partly that he is able to frame events in a very persuasive way. But I think its the events themselves that give him the material to work with. When he says that the United States is at war with Islam, you know, if he had said that in 1999 it might have been difficult to sort of pull together the evidence to support his thesis. Now he can point to the ongoing war in Afghanistan, now eight years old, more than eight years old. The war in Iraq thats ongoing, you know, winding down but still very much going on in terms of the presence of American troops. The drone strikes in Pakistan, which began quite a few years ago but really were greatly stepped up in the summer of 2008. So that's sort of another front.

And even the recent attention, there were two airstrikes allegedly by Yemeni forces but certainly involving United States weaponry in December of last year in Yemen. And so, you know, you could be - you can certainly present this as a war in multiple Muslim countries in which many Muslims are being killed. You know, I think many people would say that's a gross oversimplification and that the U.S. has been fighting on the side of the majority of Muslims in these countries and still is. But if you want to present these things as evidence that the U.S. has an expanding war around the globe against Islam it's, you know, that's his story and that's one that he's able to articulate in a very convincing way for many people.

DAVIES: Is it the fact that Awlaki can make this case that the United States is engaged in a war against Islam and do it in English? Is that what makes him so dangerous to U.S. authorities, that he can speak to these Muslims in, you know, the tongue they grew up speaking?

Mr. SHANE: Absolutely. I think that is a big part of it. He revels in his, sort of, knowledge of the United States and the West. He often in both his sort of older religious sermons and in more recent pronouncements, refers to Joe Six Pack and Sally Soccer Mom, and he sort of rubs in the fact that he's not talking about the United States from a position of ignorance, but from a position of knowledge. And this has a certain appeal to young Muslims. If they're elsewhere, they may realize that he knows the United States much better than they do and he is supporting this war against the United States. And that can be a very potent message.

DAVIES: You know, youve said that Awlaki has been cleared for killing by the United States. He is an American-born U.S. citizen. What legal and moral issues does this designation raise?

Mr. SHANE: Well, obviously it raises a lot of legal and moral and political issues, and they're quite complex. And I'm not a lawyer and dont pretend to have, sort of, first hand understanding of all the issues involved; but from talking to a bunch of folks about it, you know, I can lay out perhaps, the two poles of the discussion. One pole, certainly one clearly embraced by the Obama administration, is that we are at war with al-Qaida and its affiliates, and as in any other war, a U.S. citizen who joins the enemy is, you know, takes the consequences.

And if this guy is training terrorists and recruiting terrorists to come attack the United States, as he allegedly did - perhaps in encouraging Nidal Hasan in Fort Hood, in helping send Abdul Mutallab to try and take down that airliner on Christmas, you know, we have every right to defend ourselves. And in a war, you shoot the enemy and he's the enemy and so we'll shoot him.

That's one rationale and people sometimes have raised - people in the government have raised - with me the example of German Americans who took the German side in World War II.

However, the legal implications are very different if we dont consider this to be a war or if we consider him to be a civilian far from the battlefield. You know, if you dont consider the entire globe to be the battlefield in this war, then his being in Yemen obviously has implications. He's not in Iraq where we're fighting a war in the traditional sense. He's not in Afghanistan. And then you add to that the fact that he's an American citizen and perhaps has rights, even though he's located overseas, under the American Constitution -notably under the Fifth Amendment, which requires due process of law before depriving somebody of property or freedom, or indeed, life. So as a former CIA attorney pointed out to me, if under current law, if the National Security Agency or the government wanted to eavesdrop on Anwar al-Awlaki's cell phone calls, they would actually need to go the FISA court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court in Washington,, and present that evidence that he's allied with a terrorist group and get a warrant - get a court order. But to put him on the kill list, there was no such process.

In fact, there's no judicial process envisioned under the law. So that does seem, on the face of it, like a bit of a contradiction. And I suspect that there's going to be a lot more discussion of the rules that should govern these kinds of targeted killings, as the government calls them.

DAVIES: Well, Scott Shane, I want to thank you for spending some time with us.

Mr. SHANE: Thank you very much.

DAVIES: Scott Shane is a national security reporter for The New York Times based in Washington. You can find links to all of Scott Shane's pieces discussed today on our website,

Coming up: Ken Tucker on the debut album of a group whose influences include Dusty Springfield and Carl Jung.

This is FRESH AIR.

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