The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Anwar al-Awlaki and Targeted Killing: A quick, first, and uneasy reaction

September 30, 2011

*post written with comments from fellow duck Ben O’Loughlin

The world media is reporting that Anwar al-Awlaki has been killed in Yemen – although details are very sketchy at this point.

It is very clear to me that Awlaki was not a particularly nice person – he advocated some rather terrible things (even before 9/11 supposedly radicalised him). His followers have been certainly linked to terrorism, including the Fort Hood shooting.

However, I must admit that I am somewhat troubled by this turn of events. Earlier this year I suggested that the targeted killing of bin Laden was acceptable under international law. He’s been linked to the financing and organising of terrorist attacks around the world and this was well established before his death.

But I have yet to see any reports that suggest that Awlaki has been tied to any material support for terrorist attacks. I think this changes the legal game substantially. It essentially is suggesting that *we* (whoever that is) are now targeting people for their ideas rather than they are actually doing. Pushed to its logical extreme, a person might unintentionally inspire others to commit violent acts. Should they be eliminated?

I’m no fan of Awlaki and I will certainly not mourn his passing, (really – he seems like a total jerk) but this raises serious questions about the targeted killing program, who is being targeted and why. Presumably, in the case of targeted killing, its important there is evidence BEFORE the killing, rather than a scrabble now to piece together a case, after the fact.

I hope there is evidence that he actually materially supported terrorism.

Edit: Will McCants has linked to an article at Foreign Policy from November 2010 which argues the case for taking out Awlaki. I still have mixed feelings about this. I will feel better if there is a case/dossier of evidence that can be brought forward – and I still maintain that this case should have been made before striking out at him. 

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Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. Her research interests are in the area of international law, security, terrorism and technology. Currently, she is teaching in the areas of critical infrastructure protection, technology and warfare and foreign policy.

Stephanie holds a PhD from the London School of Economics and published her thesis as Prisoners of America’s Wars: From the Early Republic to Guantanamo (Columbia/Hurst, 2010). Her most recent book is Science, Law, Liberalism and the American Way of Warfare: The Quest for Humanity in Conflict” (Cambridge, 2015) co-authored with Michael J. Williams. In 2009 Carvin was a Visiting Scholar at George Washington University Law School and worked as a consultant to the US Department of Defense Law of War Working Group. From 2012-2015, she was an analyst with the Government of Canada focusing on national security issues.
Stacie Goddard