Tools and Tradeoffs: Confronting U.S. Citizen Terrorist Suspects Abroad

Coauthored with Daniel Byman

By its very name, the Hellfire missile promises to visit Biblical wrath upon those on its receiving end. On September 30, 2011, it delivered just that to Anwar Awlaki, the U.S.-born preacher and an operational leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), who had plotted repeated attacks from his hideout in Yemen. The same strike also took out Samir Khan, another U.S. national and propagandist for Awlaki’s organization. A separate strike a few weeks later killed Awlaki’s teenaged son, also an American citizen. The latter two deaths were collateral damage in strikes aimed at others. Awlaki, by contrast, was not. He was specifically targeted with lethal force by a government, his own government, which had semi-publicly sought his death for months—tracking him across Yemen even as it fended off litigation by his family to remove him from the U.S. government’s targeting list.

Long before the Awlaki killing, the Obama administration had put the Bush administration’s drone program on steroids, killing hundreds of suspected militants with near-constant strikes in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Awlaki, however, was not just another dead terrorist. Because of his U.S. citizenship, his killing moved the Obama administration into an uncharted realm for counterterrorism. His seemingly straightforward killing masked innumerable complexities, and, perhaps more than any single operation, it illustrated the jump between the pre-9/11 and post 9/11 worlds. Once upon a time, Attorney General Janet Reno had fretted about whether the United States had the legal authority to kill the Saudi terrorist Osama bin Ladin, who had never set foot in the United States, but who had publicly declared war on it—demonstrating his grim intentions by planning the bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa and the USS Cole. By contrast, in killing Awlaki, the Obama administration targeted a U.S. citizen—one who had never been proven in any court to have been directly responsible for actual deaths—and it has actively resisted judicial supervision of the decision to target him.

Indeed, the administration has insisted in court that such targeting could not be reviewed, either before the strike or after—and that it cannot be forced to release publicly the memoranda that lay out its legal rationale for undertaking the strike.

The Obama administration carried out the strike not against a member of the core of Al Qaeda, but against a member of an affiliated group that had not even existed on September 11, 2001, emphasizing that the Obama administration expanded field of battle—a field expanded both geographically and conceptually—even though Obama had criticized the Bush administration for having had too expansive a concept of the War on Terror. Yemen itself, meanwhile, was both ally and enemy, helping the United States fight terrorism at times, while at other times tolerating—or even directly aiding—jihadists bent on killing Americans. And while the killing led to condemnation from human rights groups that it “violates both U.S. and international law”—some of whom had earlier brought an unsuccessful lawsuit to prevent it from happening—it barely caused a ripple of protest among the American people. More Americans agree that “terror suspects who are U.S. citizens” should “be deliberately killed by U.S. forces” than favor granting these suspects “the constitutional right given to U.S. citizens to be tried in a court of law.”

If anything, the strike made President Obama more popular at a time when the stagnating American economy showed his presidency’s popularity at a low ebb. The Awlaki strike, however, is only one of a diverse array of approaches the United States has taken towards U.S. citizens abroad who align themselves with the enemy and travel abroad to wage war. This relatively small group of people has provoked, in addition to drone strikes, a treason indictment, other terrorism prosecutions in federal courts, detention under military law, imprisonment in allied countries, and a number of instances of what we might call tolerance—a decision that the individual in question just does not merit any serious effort at either an arrest or a kill.

The handful of American jihadists active overseas against the United States present special challenges in counterterrorism, because they are comparatively free, relative to citizens actually inside the United States, to integrate themselves into enemy forces. Those who stay at home, by contrast, may find it difficult to make contact with the enemy despite their earnest desire to do so. At the same time, U.S. citizens also enjoy certain legal rights vis-a-vis the U.S. government and consequent expectations of free travel and government protection both domestically and overseas that non-citizens do not enjoy. In essence, citizens like Awlaki are potentially the most dangerous terrorists—in part because the array of U.S. policy tools to defeat them is comparatively restrictive and has gaps, while policy towards them is inconsistent.

For Al Qaeda and associated movements, however, such Americans present both a blessing and a risk. For propaganda purposes, they enable Al Qaeda to play up its appeal and underscore its claim to be a global organization. And the cultural and personal connections these Americans have to their home make them more effective propagandists and recruiters—and as operators, potentially better able to avoid suspicion. However, Americans often do not fit in neatly with the locals, not understanding the language and culture.  In addition, there is always the chance that an American might be uncommitted and thus easily suborned upon his return—or perhaps even a spy from the start. Successful terrorist groups are often paranoid ones, and trust of an American would come slowly.

In this paper, we look at American citizens abroad who join the jihadist cause and operate overseas. We do not consider those—like Jose Padilla, David Headley, or Najibullah Zazi—who returned to the United States and were captured domestically. Though such people raise some of the same issues as Americans who remain abroad, the ability to capture them domestically makes them analytically distinct in critical respects and at key moments. Rather, our focus here is on Americans who travel overseas to join the enemy and either do not attempt to return or have not yet done so—and with whom the United States must thus contend while they remain abroad.

For policymakers, American jihadists in foreign countries present several tricky policy problems compared with similar foreign terrorists. Very few scholars and commentators argue for judicial review of targeting decisions with respect to strikes on Al Qaeda leaders in general, for example. But the Awlaki case has spawned multiple calls for judicial review when the government targets a U.S. citizen. U.S. nationals are also far more politically difficult to hold in long-term military detention than are non-citizens, and the courts tend to show a greater interest in and solicitude for their cases. What’s more, they are not eligible for trial before military commissions. A few, like Awlaki, are operationally active at a senior level, enabling an administration to claim that they pose an imminent threat; but others are propagandists, engaging in behavior that is insidious but arguably more protected legally. So the options for handling U.S. nationals supporting terrorists abroad tend to be starker. As a practical matter, there are only four: In narrow legal circumstances, as in Awlaki’s case, the United States can target them with lethal force. When American forces manage to capture them, trial in federal court is a virtual certainty. Sometimes, the United States can assist the government of the country they have ensconced themselves to prosecute on their own. Beyond that, however, authorities—although they never quite say this—have to tolerate the activities of such people. These different tools each involves tradeoffs, some of them obvious and some of them subtle.

In this paper, we explore these tradeoffs—looking at the benefits and costs of criminal prosecution, lethal targeting, military detention, proxy detention or prosecution by allied forces, and toleration. We conclude, in brief, that the American counterterrorism arsenal with respect to citizens overseas is generally robust and flexible, but that it also has some notable gaps—particularly regarding enemy propagandists and recruiters. We do not propose closing these gaps, since any effort to do so would raise significant constitutional questions and the number of people involved does not justify such a step. Moreover, we similarly do not endorse proposals to create judicial review of targeting decisions like the one to kill Awlaki—and for much the same reason. These cases are, at least for now, so rare that they do not justify a major policy shift toward judicialization of overseas lethal targeting operations.

To read the whole paper, click here.

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