Was the U.S. right to kill al-Awlaki?

The killing of American-born, radical cleric and al-Qaida propagandist Anwar al-Awlaki by a CIA-operated drone last week is being touted as a major victory by U.S. counterterrorism officials. Mr. al-Awlaki has been described as a high-ranking figure in al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of the Pakistan-based al-Qaida founded by Osama bin Laden that officials believe poses nearly as grave a threat to the U.S. homeland as the original group. Capturing or killing him had been high on the Obama administration’s list of priorities for at least a year.

But the strike also raises a host of questions about how the government is pursuing the war against al-Qaida and its affiliates. Among the most important are the extent to which Mr. al-Awlaki directly participated in plots aimed at the U.S., and the legality of targeting American citizens abroad for assassination — including people, like Mr. al-Awlaki, who have never been convicted or even charged with a crime in U.S. courts.

Mr. al-Awlaki appears to be the first American citizen to have been targeted in this way. The strike by an armed Predator drone took place in Yemen, a country with which we are not at war and which lies far from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. And the fact that he was a U.S. citizen — born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents and educated at Colorado State University — has led some to question whether he was entitled to some sort of legal due process before being placed on the Obama administration’s terrorist hit list.

The answer to that question seems to hinge on precisely how involved Mr. al-Awlaki was in planning or ordering AQAP’s terrorist operations. Certainly, his role as an inspirational figure for al-Qaida followers is clear. His English-language sermons and computer savvy made him a powerful and persuasive proselytizer in recruiting and encouraging those who would do harm to the United States, and he reportedly was so adept as a blogger and activist on social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube that he earned the sobriquet the “Osama bin Laden of the Internet.”

But there’s a difference between merely talking about violent jihad and actually engaging in the planning and execution of violent attacks. American officials say the prominence Mr. al-Awlaki achieved as a propagandist led directly to al-Qaida’s decision to elevate him to the status of an operational commander for terrorist plots against the U.S., a job they say he was well suited for due to his having lived in this country. They have linked him to a number of militants who attacked or tried to attack the West, including Nidal Hassan, the man accused of killing 13 and wounding 29 at Fort Hood, Texas; and accused underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who allegedly tried to detonate plastic explosives on an airliner over Detroit in 2009. Mr. al-Awlaki is also said to have spoken with, among others, three of the hijackers who took part in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

There is no question that Mr. al-Awlaki was a traitor to his country and wished harm on Americans. He belonged to a fanatical group that had sworn to make war on the U.S. and considered the murder of innocent civilians a legitimate means of achieving its goals. But in order to judge whether it was appropriate to target him as an enemy combatant, it’s important to know whether he did more than to serve as an inspiration for those who have sought to attack us, and the administration needs to lay out a full accounting of the facts justifying its action. Killing a terrorist mastermind who orchestrates the murder of innocent people is one thing; assassinating a propagandist — however vile he may be — simply because we don’t like what he says is another thing entirely.

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