Osama bin Laden’s death was cheered, I suspect, by 99.99% of Americans. But there was that 0.01% — and a slightly higher number abroad — who doubted the legality of simply pumping two bullets into the Al Qaeda leader rather than trying to arrest and Mirandize him.
Likewise, amid the general rejoicing over the death of Anwar Awlaki, one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a few civil libertarians are raising questions about whether the U.S. government had the right to kill an American citizen without a trial. And it wasn’t just the New Mexico-born Awlaki, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Yemen, who died in a CIA drone strike in Yemen on Friday. Also killed was Samir Khan, a propagandist for the group who was born in Saudi Arabia but grew up in New York and North Carolina and retained American citizenship. How could President Obama order their assassinations?
That’s like asking if it was lawful to kill Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg. Like the rebels during the Civil War, Awlaki and Khan gave up the benefits of American citizenship by taking up arms against their country. They, and other Al Qaeda members, claim to be “soldiers” in the army of Allah; it is only fitting that their avowed enemy, the Great Satan, would take their protestations seriously and treat them just like enemy soldiers. If it’s lawful to drop a missile on a Saudi or Egyptian member of Al Qaeda, it’s hard to see why an American citizen should be exempt.
The pressing question is not whether killing Awlaki was the right thing to do — it was — but what impact his killing will have. That’s a tougher call. Other terrorist organizations have been able to survive, even thrive, after the deaths of important leaders.
Hezbollah’s secretary general, Abbas Mussawi, was killed by an Israeli helicopter strike in 1992, but his successor, Hassan Nasrallah, turned out to be an organizational genius. Today, under Nasrallah’s leadership, Hezbollah has become the dominant force within Lebanon. Likewise Hamas has consolidated its control of the Gaza Strip despite the loss of numerous senior leaders to Israeli missiles, bombs and hit teams. And Al Qaeda in Iraq only became more deadly after its founder, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed in an American airstrike in June 2006.
It remains to be seen whether Al Qaeda’s central organization will survive the loss of Bin Laden — it might not — but if so, Al Qaeda would be the exception to the rule. Most terrorist groups have shown enough resiliency to go on killing even after the loss of top leaders.
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula surely will fall into the resilient category, unless the U.S. can bring a lot more pressure on the group than is currently the case. U.S. drone strikes in Yemen are not unprecedented, but they are rare; they are nowhere near as common as strikes in Pakistan, which have managed to kill one senior Al Qaeda leader after another. (Being Al Qaeda’s operational chief is said to be the most dangerous job in the world.)
The U.S. may be ramping up to carry out a similar campaign against AQAP; there are published reports about the CIA building a new airfield in the Persian Gulf region for such a purpose. If the CIA is able to put more Predators and other drones over the skies of Yemen 24/7, it can do considerable damage to AQAP and slow its ability to make up for leadership losses. Even then, however, it is unlikely that AQAP can be defeated from the air.
Both the American and Israeli experiences in their respective wars on terror have clearly taught one lesson: The only way to stamp out a determined insurgency is to put boots on the ground. When the Israeli army reentered the West Bank en masse in 2002 in response to the second intifada, it was able to stamp out Palestinian terrorist cells. Because the Israelis are unwilling to reoccupy Gaza, they cannot defeat Hamas. Likewise, Al Qaeda in Iraq was only defeated (if not eliminated) by multiple “surges” of ground troops — not only of U.S. forces but also of Iraqi security forces and the Sunni militia known as the Sons of Iraq.
But, barring another 9/11, there is scant chance of U.S. troops invading Yemen. And the ramshackle Yemeni government, which is facing its own internal rebellion, is in no position to police its territory. As a result, AQAP has accomplished something that Al Qaeda central never achieved: It has been able to control ground. Its growing dominance in southern Yemen is unlikely to be shaken by Awlaki’s demise.
The challenge for American policymakers is to figure out how to fill the security vacuum in Yemen. That’s much tougher than using a Predator to fire a Hellfire missile, but unless we come up with some way to bring a modicum of stability to this turbulent land, the death of Awlaki is likely to be a fleeting victory.
Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.