The Corner

Who Was Awlaki?

Shannen, thanks for your question.

I notice that Mr. Awlaki, whose name (according to Gregory Johnson, a Yemen scholar at Princeton) had not once appeared in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula propaganda until the United States named him a “commander” of the organization and put him on its hit list, has received a posthumous promotion. But who was he, really?

Johnson argues that his role in al-Qaeda has been grossly exaggerated by the Obama administration:


He is far from the terrorist kingpin that the West has made him out to be. In fact, he isn’t even the head of his own organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That would be Nasir al-Wuhayshi, who was Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary for four years in Afghanistan.

Nor is Mr. Awlaki the deputy commander, a position held by Said Ali al-Shihri, a former detainee at Guantánamo Bay who was repatriated to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and put in a “terrorist rehabilitation” program. (The treatment, clearly, did not take.)

Mr. Awlaki isn’t the group’s top religious scholar (Adil al-Abab), its chief of military operations (Qassim al-Raymi), its bomb maker (Ibrahim Hassan Asiri) or even its leading ideologue (Ibrahim Suleiman al-Rubaysh).

Rather, he is a midlevel religious functionary who happens to have American citizenship and speak English. This makes him a propaganda threat, but not one whose elimination would do anything to limit the reach of the Qaeda branch.

Maybe Johnson is right. Maybe not. That is precisely the sort of thing we have trials to determine, when the person in question is an American citizen.

If Awlaki had been killed in combat, that would be a different thing. But he was not. If anybody can be designated an enemy combatant in a war in which the battleground is everywhere and the president has legally unlimited power to do as he will, and when citizens can be put to death summarily, with no checks and balances and no meaningful separation of powers, we have surrendered something important.

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