The debate about the Obama administration’s alleged “assassination” order against Anwar al-Awlaki has been almost absurdly devoid of real-world context. Critically, we need to stop using the word “assassination” to describe the killing of enemy forces overseas. It’s a vivid word, certainly, but it is intentionally politically loaded and distorts the reality of our tactical operations. We do not “assassinate” al-Qaeda terrorists. We kill them during military operations conducted in accordance with the laws of war.
Since we fight an enemy that violates the laws of war by fighting in civilian clothes and hiding behind civilians, achieving positive identification of jihadist forces is a constant struggle. Obviously, one way to positively ID the enemy is when they actually fire on us, but we can’t allow them to dictate the terms of the battle — to pick and choose when they want to fight and when they get sanctuary.
Our actual process is simple in concept but difficult and dangerous to execute: Use intelligence assets to determine the identity of your enemy, use intelligence assets to locate your enemy, then use whatever assets we have available to either capture or kill the enemy. And this is the very process no doubt underway with Awlaki.
In Iraq, our capture-kill operations were very up close and personal. Our cavalry troopers raided safe houses and sometimes engaged in house-to-house fighting as al-Qaeda leaders tried to flee for their lives (they were usually much less eager to martyr themselves than their reputation would suggest). If your target is 5 kilometers away, and you have an armored cavalry troop at your disposal, you may use one set of tactics. If the target is 2,000 kilometers away, in a safe house in Yemen or Pakistan, your tools are more limited.
So, the question is this: Given that no one seriously disputes that Awlaki is actively participating in the fight, does the Predator-drone operator not pull the trigger simply because he’s an American citizen? What if Awlaki is meeting with other known terrorists? Does his mere presence confer temporary immunity on them? If so, then American terror recruits become particularly valuable — the ultimate human shield — better than surrounding yourself with women and children. Or is he to be viewed as mere collateral damage in that context, where his killing is acceptable because he’s not the “real” target?
Let’s imagine a counterfactual. If Awlaki were alive in 1943 and had fled to Germany and donned an SS uniform, would we even be having this debate? Of course not. We’d target and kill him like any other SS officer. It is in fact his violation of the law of war — his decision to hide in civilian clothing surrounded no doubt by women and children in Yemen — that is creating the controversy. We need to stop incentivizing enemy violations of the laws of war, and one way to do that is to find them and capture or kill them no matter their location, no matter their clothing, and no matter their nationality.