Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the 16 yr. old American who was killed in Yemen by a drone strike.
By Tom Junod
It was a pre-emptive strike against a pre-emptive strike.
When Nasser al-Awlaki found out in early 2010 that his American-born son Anwar was on American kill list, he responded in a very American way: He sued. "I used every legal means possible to stop the killing of my son," he said in an interview this past spring. Snd so — despite the notoriety of Anwar al-Awlaki and the success of Anwar al-Awlaki in inspiring terrorist attacks against the United States — he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights, and they eventually filed a suit that attempted to enjoin the Obama Administration from carrying out its plans to kill him before he could carry out his alleged plans to kill Americans.
Nasser al-Awlaki did not win. Legal pre-emption was no match for the policy of lethal pre-emption. A federal judge ruled in December 2010 that despite the "profound questions" raised by the lawsuit, the father lacked the legal standing to sue on behalf of his son, and that the policy of targeted killing was a political issue outside the purview of the court. The hunt for Anwar al-Awlaki proceeded apace, and he was executed, by drone, on September 30, 2011, in the mountains of Yemen.
So was Samir Khan, an American citizen who'd left Charlotte, North Carolina, to travel by Anwar al-Awlaki's side as an Al Qaeda propagandist and web editor.
And so, two weeks later, was Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who was Anwar al-Awlaki's son and Nasser al-Awlaki's grandson. He was an American citizen who was on his way home from an unsuccessful month-long journey to find his father before his father was killed. He was 16-years-old, and had never been accused of any terrorist associations.
Today, Nasser al-Awlaki is returning to American courts, in the form of a federal lawsuit being filed on his behalf — and on behalf of the family of Samir Khan — by the ACLU and the CCR. According to an ACLU media advisory, the lawsuit claims as defendants "senior military and CIA officials," and seeks to hold them liable for the "wrongful deaths" of Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, and Samir Khan.
Though lawyers from the ACLU and the CCR are providing details of the lawsuit this morning at 10:00 on a telephone conference call, I was able to speak yesterday to one of them, the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer, about what led the ACLU to characterize as "wrongful" the killings that the Obama administration has gone to great lengths to both justify and to keep secret — the killings that, indeed, serve as the basis of the Lethal Presidency.
"It's a landmark case," Jaffer told me, "because it's a landmark policy. There's no precedent for our government targeting its citizens in this way, and no precedent for this lack of acknowledgement.
"We filed a case two years ago related to the contemplated killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. This case is different because that killing has taken place. It's not an injunctive case. It's not seeking an injunction for something that might happen in the future, but accountability for something that has happened already.
"The main reason we're bringing the case," Jaffer continued, "is to get some kind of accountability, in the most basic sense of the word. The government has killed three of its citizens and we think the government has to account for its actions, first to acknowledge, then to explain.
"We believe that if you accept that the government has the authority to kill its own citizens without acknowledging its actions, you have set up an authority that will one day be abused. Once you create this power, this power will sit around available to every single future president.
"It is a wrongful death lawsuit, which means that it is a damages lawsuit. In U.S. courts, there are two vehicles: one is injunctive, the other is for damages. We've already filed an injunctive lawsuit. This is for damages.
"But neither of plaintiffs is filing the lawsuit because they believe that their loss can be compensated. They lost family members. What they want is an explanation."
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was an innocent whose death has never been acknowledged by Obama administration. Samir Khan was a self-described traitor who was never a vetted entry on an American kill list but who "deserved to die," in the chilling post-mortem provided by Senator Harry Reid. Anwar al-Awlaki, however, was, after Osama bin Laden, the most notorious of America's enemies — and the troubling fact of his American citizenship is what necessitated the Obama administration's argument that the deliberations carried out within the executive branch over the question of whether an American citizen could be killed without "judicial process" count as due process. His infamy made him the poster boy for the Lethal Presidency — the poster boy for the Obama administration's assertion that virtually all the deaths it has ordered in the name of saving American lives are rightful ones.
Nasser al-Awlaki failed to stop the administration from killing his son. It will be a steeper task still to prove that his son's death was wrongful.
This article originally appeared on Esquire.com on July 18, 2012.