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Secret War and Collateral Damage

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

Our “secret” drone war in Yemen is a continuing puzzle, and worse. Last October, I wrote about the drone killing the week before of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was born in Denver in 1995. I followed up two months ago with the report of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on drone killings of civilians in Pakistan and a month ago regarding Attorney General Holder’s defense of drone killings of US citizens, as reported by Charlie Savage in the NYT, “if officials deem them to be operational leaders of Al Qaeda who are planning attacks on the United States and if capturing them alive is not feasible.”

I am returning to the subject in this post in order to draw your attention to Michelle Shephard’s piece in the Toronto Star yesterday (hat tip: emptywheel) on Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. It is essential reading.

At one point, Shephard recalls Leon Panetta’s statement about drones in 2009, when he was the CIA director, that “these operations have been very effective because they have been very precise in terms of the targeting and it involved a minimum of collateral damage.” Shephard’s reporting adds to the evidence that Abdulrahman was not an operational leader of Al Qaeda planning attacks on the US who could not be captured alive. In fact, he was by all evidence just a kid.

His grandfather, Nasser al Awlaki, a Fulbright scholar, former agricultural minister and prominent figure in Yemen, said Abdulrahman had nothing to do with his father since he had gone into hiding in 2009.

Nasser al Awlaki has never apologized for his son’s radical views, but said he had also worked hard to insulate his grandchildren from the controversy. He attempted, he said, to give them a “normal life.”

It later emerged, but was not widely reported, that the strike did not kill its purported target, AQAP’s media chief, Egyptian Ibrahim al Bana.

The U.S. administration has refused comment.

It is unclear whether Abdulrahman was the target or if the U.S. had bad information and was going after Bana, or someone else. Either way, Awlaki said he wants answers.

So do the student demonstrators who forced former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from power, many of whom knew Abdulrahman. They carried posters in Change Square with his picture last year and the words: “The Assassination of Childhood.”

“We just don’t know why they did that,” Awlaki said of the U.S. strike. “Is it because Abdulrahman was there? It’s very possible, but I cannot claim with certainty what happened. Is it a blunder on their side?

“They cannot claim he’s collateral damage.”

Drones and U.S. directed missions have killed hundreds in Yemen in the past four years, some hitting AQAP targets, many more striking civilians.

The Obama administration, of course, continues to refuse comment. National security and all that.

The killing of Abdulrahman, his father and American citizen Samir Khan, the editor of AQAP’s English-language online magazine who was also killed in the September strike, offers an opportunity to challenge the drone program in American courts. The American Civil Liberties Union has led this fight for information, but has had little success.

“When we file Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation, the CIA’s response is that the drone program is a state secret, that confirming its existence would jeopardize national security,” said ACLU’s Jameel Jaffer.

“And yet,” noted Jaffer, “The CIA, or administration more generally, routinely discloses information to the public, to the press, that is meant to make people feel comfortable, that the program is closely supervised, effective, necessary.”

The law doesn’t apply when it comes to our never-ending wars, especially our secret wars.

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