By Brigitte L. Nacos
After a team of U.S. Special Operation Forces killed Osama bin Laden at his hide-out in Abbottabad, Pakistan, merely a few voices and organizations outside of Pakistan decried the mission as illegal and immoral. After all, the founder and principal leader of Al Qaeda was long the number one on the FBI’s and the intelligence community’s list of most wanted terrorists. And as for the charge that the killing was illegal, there was Congress’s post-9/11 “Authorization for the Use of Force against Terrorists” that authorizes the president to use appropriate force against nations, organizations, and persons involved in the 9/11 attacks. And as for international law, defenders of the killing cited Al Qaeda’s frequent threats of further attacks against Americans as justification for “neutralizing” bin Laden as an act of national self-defense.
In 1998, a U.S. Federal Grand Jury in New York issued an indictment against bin Laden alleging that he and others engaged in a long-term conspiracy to attack U.S. facilities overseas and to kill American citizens. But for more than a dozen years since then, there was simply no opportunity to try bin Laden in an American court. Instead, he and his group plotted, carried out, and inspired many lethal attacks around the world with Americans highest on their list of targets.
The Navy Seals that killed him could have tried to take him out of Pakistan alive and brought him to the United States. But this would have made their hasty get-away from bin Laden’s compound even more dangerous and indeed less likely. Based on Al Qaeda’s communications, the group and its leader continued to pose an imminent threat to the United States.
The question was and is whether this justifies targeted assassinations even as last resort.
In democracies, even those accused of the worst offenses have the right to be tried in courts. Capturing Osama bin Laden and seeing him tried in the International Criminal Court at the request of the UN Security Council would have been in line with democratic values.
But this would have meant to risk the lives of American soldiers for the lesser chance of achieving that outcome.
Should the rules of the game be different, if the terrorist operative is an American citizen? It seems that certain civil libertarians believe so. The assassination of Anwar Al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen of Yemeni descent and a leading figure in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has fueled a debate that dwells on the particular constitutional and legal protection of American citizen.
According to the New York Times,
“Jameel Jaffer, the A.C.L.U.’s deputy legal director, said that the drone strike, which killed Mr. Awlaki and another American, Samir Khan, violated United States 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,’ Mr. Jaffer said.”
Whether one supports or opposes the assassination of terrorists of bin Laden’s and Al-Awlaki’s importance--if both are posing clear and present “imminent threats” but cannot be brought into an American or an international court, why distinguish between foreign and American nationals?
I don’t mean this as an endorsement of any or of these sorts of assassinations. I do not like the method. But I prefer a world without bin Laden, Al Awlaki, and even Khan?
Just as there are times of supreme emergency in war, there may be such extraordinary times with respect to terrorism, when extraordinary measures can be justified.
Which leaves the most important and most difficult question of, who decides what constitutes an imminent threat, a supreme emergency—and whom we trust, when those decisions are to be made…