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Killing al-Awlaki significant but not conclusive to U.S. war on terror

2011-10-01 02:32:29 GMT2011-10-01 10:32:29(Beijing Time)  Xinhua English

WASHINGTON, Sept. 30 (Xinhua) -- U.S. President Barack Obama on Friday announced the killing of radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen, calling it a "major blow" to al-Qaeda's most active operational affiliate, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Yet as the president and U.S. experts acknowledged, the death of al-Awlaki does not mean the end of Washington's anti-terror efforts. In fact, it even raised some thorny legal questions for the administration.

According to the Yemeni Defense Ministry, al-Awlaki was killed earlier Friday in southeastern Yemen in an air raid. The U.S. side has touted it as a success of intelligence cooperation with the Yemeni government, while media reports indicate that an armed U.S. drone operated by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency made the kill.

Al-Awlaki's death marks "another significant milestone in the broader effort to defeat al-Qaeda and its affiliates," said Obama, as the cleric "repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda."

Michael O'Hanlon, a security expert with the Brookings Institution, said al-Awlaki, a senior leader of the AQAP, was "very talented" in terms of being a terrorist leader.

Al-Awlaki "seemed to have a little bit of the mix of personality traits that (al-Qaeda mastermind Osama) bin Laden also had -- some traits of operational genius, some level of charismatic appeal to many followers around the world," he said in an interview Friday with Xinhua.

Al-Awlaki, he said, was perhaps "the most important inspiration" for Major Nidal Malik Hassan and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab among other known and suspected terrorists.

Hassan was an American officer who killed 13 other Americans in November 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas, while Abdulmutallab, a Nigerian, attempted on the Christmas day of 2009 to blow up a U.S. airliner over Detroit.

"He certainly was very capable of inspiring low to medium level of attacks, including by Americans on American soil, which has become the greater concern in the last couple of years," note O'Hanlon.

According to the National Strategy for Counterterrorism unveiled in June, the principal focus of the Obama administration's anti-terror effort is "the network that poses the most direct and significant threat to the United States -- al-Qaeda, its affiliates and its adherents," as well as home-grown terrorism and the ability of al-Qaeda and its network to "inspire people in the United States to attack us from within."

The description seemed to be tailor-made for al-Awlaki.

Born in the United States in 1971, al-Awlaki spoke fluent English and was media-savvy. U.S. authorities said his fiery anti-American preaching has helped radicalize many young people in the Western world.

Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, said Friday that al-Awlaki has been "more dangerous even than Osama bin Laden had been" in the past few years.

NOT THE END

Taking out al-Awlaki was a significant step, but Obama and other U.S. officials have noted that the threat from al-Qaeda persists and the United States should remain vigilant.

O'Hanlon said that although it would be difficult for the AQAP to replace al-Awlaki, the current unrest in Yemen is creating new opportunities for al-Qaeda.

The turmoil in Yemen "unfortunately creates an environment that's more conducive to terrorists finding sanctuaries on Yemeni soil," said O'Hanlon, adding that the killing of al-Awlaki "is important, and is positive, but the overall situation in the Middle East remains dangerous."

In addition to being a big success in the war on terror, the killing also raises legal issues, as al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen and had never been charged with a crime. Killing him in a targeted strike without due process was troubling for some in the United States.

Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said in a press release that the targeted killing program violates both U.S. and international law.

"As we've seen today, this is a program under which American citizens far from any battlefield can be executed by their own government without judicial process, and on the basis of standards and evidence that are kept secret not just from the public but from the courts," said Jaffer.

Last year, the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights represented al-Awlaki's father in a lawsuit challenging the government's asserted authority to carry out "targeted killings" of U.S. citizens located far from any armed conflict zone.

They argued that such killings violate the constitution and international law, but the case was dismissed in a federal court last December.

The administration justified the killing by concentrating on al-Awlaki's track record, and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney repeatedly dodged questions on the legality of such operations in Friday's press briefing.

O'Hanlon said that in order to balance the issues of due process and quick decision-making required in the war on terror, the U.S. government needs an internal system of checks and balances inside the executive branch.

The administration needs an independent voice within the executive branch which has "the prerogative to say no," he said.

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