The Evidence Against Awlaki

This week the U.S. Justice Department, in advance of Umar Farouk Adulmuttalab’s sentencing for the Christmas Day 2009 Underwear bombing plot, issued a 37 page document describing the role of Anwar al-Awlaki in designing and implementing the failed terrorist attack on a flight over Detroit.  The memo clearly outlines Awlaki’s role from recruitment to execution.  More importantly, the memo confirms the operational structure of AQAP’s external operations branch properly diagrammed by Thomas Hegghammer in this November 2010 article.

Here’s Hegghammer’s description:

Awlaki is most likely part of a small AQAP cell — the Foreign Operations Unit –which specializes in international operations and keeps a certain distance to the rest of the organization. We are probably dealing with a classic case of functional separation of tasks: While most AQAP fighters are busy fighting Yemeni security forces and attacking Western targets in Yemen, the Foreign Operations Unit lies low and plans international operations slowly and carefully. The unit likely counts no more than 10 people and hides in a different physical location from that of the top AQAP leadership. This is why Awlaki appears only on the margins of the radar of those who follow the day-to-day operations of AQAP proper. This is probably also why the magazine Inspire differs somewhat in style and content from AQAP’s main magazine Sada al-Malahim.

Frank Cilluffo and I argued similarly in our article last June supporting the need for drone operations to pursue a known U.S. terrorist seeking to kill Americans.  Many countered that Awlaki was a mostly innocent preacher – peripheral to AQAP’s attacks.  However, Abdulmutallab’s confession clearly ends the debate on Awlaki’s role. While I agree with some of the arguments for increased transparency, improved planning and limited use of drone operations only in the presence of clear intelligence, I have no delusions that the U.S. can wait indefinitely to apprehend terrorists like Awlaki while they continue to plan repeated attacks to kill Americans.

Moving forward, I do hope the U.S. government can more clearly restructure the rules for going after terrorists such as Awlaki.  Omar Hammimi presents another case, similar to Awlaki, of an American citizen operating with an al Qaeda affiliate.  Likewise, it’s been more than two years since Abdulmuttalab’s detention on Christmas day 2009 and this memo, had it been released 18 months ago, might have quickly clarified the debate over pursuing Awlaki and mitigated the conspiracy surrounding America’s pursuit of a known terrorist.

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