Killing Anwar Al-Awlaki: Another Chapter Of American Exceptionalism And State Terrorism


By Reza Pankhurst

With the extra-judicial illegal murder of Anwar Al-Awlaki by the United States as part of their ongoing War of Terror, we are revisiting a piece originally published back in June regarding the Obama administration’s adoption of the predator drone as their favoured weapon. If confirmed – the murder of al-Awlaki highlights the two points made in the article – firstly the disregard that the American government has for any idea of rule of law and the continued belief in their exceptionalism, and secondly the complicity of the Yemeni government with the Americans in killing their own citizens illegally. The question asked is whether this was the price paid by Ali Abdullah Saleh to return home with continued American backing?

With more drone strikes carried out in Pakistan during his first year in office than were carried out in the whole second term of his predecessor George W. Bush, and the number of attacks in 2010 more than double those in 2009, extra-judicial killing seems to have become the modus operandi of the Obama administration.

The first week alone after the death of Bin Laden witnessed three drone attacks in Pakistan and one in Yemen killing numerous civilians. As such the execution of Bin Laden is a red-herring in more ways than one. The combination of his high profile, the method used and the subsequent explanations given by the American administration about the affair are what have generated international reaction, rather than the global significance of its impact, which has been largely overplayed for domestic consumption.

Already used extensively in Pakistan, the Washington Post has reported how the American’s now intend to significantly extend the use of Predator drones in Yemen as well. That the country is undergoing a revolution which is likely to end with the overthrow of its current incumbent Ali Abdullah Saleh is of no concern. As we now know courtesy of Wikileaks – this was a man whose government told the Americans to kill whom they pleased in Yemen with their drones, and that they would tell the people in Parliament that they were the ones who did so.

You would think that the loss of such a servile client may force a change in American policy. It has. The drone program in Yemen will be shifted to CIA control, since – as mentioned by the Post – “The CIA operates under different legal restrictions, giving the administration a freer hand to carry out strikes even if Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, now receiving medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, reverses his past approval of military strikes or cedes power to a government opposed to them.” What the Post fails to mention, typical of most American media’s shameful silence with respect to most of the transgressions in the so-called “war on terror” – is that this even if the Yemeni’s have given approval for military strikes within their country the use of predator drones is still an illegal extrajudicial killing (irrespective of the target). The fact that a particular government accedes to the US’s criminality is perhaps a clue as to why so many of the region’s dictators are either overthrown or on the way out.

If there was any argument over the legality of the killing of Bin Laden, the large number of innocent civilians killed by remote control is surely indisputably criminal – along with being morally repugnant, even cowardly. The report in the Guardian that the US government has teams of appointed lawyers who decide when the Pentagon has the legal right to murder someone is as ludicrous as it sounds. The United States has form on this – the previous Attorney General legalised torture, doctors work alongside interrogators while the torture was being administered, and so on. This facade of civilised behaviour – groups of lawyers lending legitimacy to what is by any standard murder, doctors giving aid and health-checks to the enemy while they are being to various forms of torture – indicates the further decline of the proclaimed American civilisation, and again highlights the dirty reality that is normally kept under wraps – that it is willing to operate in exactly the same manner as any of the oppressive Arab dictatorships that are currently being overthrown across the Middle East.

The public has consistently been informed by media and politicians that the difference between “us” (the civilized West) and “them” (the barbaric terrorist) is adherence to the rule of law.  What is clear from practice, extending well before the execution of Bin Laden, is that the rule of law is to be applied amongst peers (“us”) while others are left to the arbitrary justice of the powerful. Such organized hypocrisy is not limited to politicians, with polling in the United States taken after the news that information from so-called “harsh interrogation” may have yielded information leading to Bin Laden confirming steady support for torture of terrorist suspects between approximately 50% to 60% over the last year, with another previous survey indicating that about a quarter of Americans believe that intentionally killing civilians can at least sometimes be justifiable. Thus, the leadership of the US government has been responsible for encouraging further moral ambivalence amongst its own citizens. By trying to legitimise murder, torture, and other forms of illegal behaviour through the use of teams of lawyers and judges, they have shown that their actions are driven solely by the logic of consequences, while they dress their discourse and words according to the logic of appropriateness.

The irony is that through its actions America has shown itself to be a reflection of everything that it claimed was evil about Bin Laden. The ‘war of terror’ is a more apt description of their response since 9/11 than the coined ‘war on terror’, and the United States simply appears to be accelerating down a path which surely only leads to self-destruction as the contradiction between their avowed values and apparent actions becomes too heavy to bear.


[This is an abridged and updated version of a guest editorial in the academic journal Political Theology which was entitled “Osama and Obama: Between Predator Drones and the Arab Spring“, which includes full references]

Reza Pankhurst is the editor of New Civilisation. He is also contributing writer on Foreign Policy Journal. He has a Masters in the History of International Relations and a PhD from the London School of Economics and Political Science, Government department. He was a political prisoner of the previous Mubarak regime in Egypt, spending 4 years in jail between 2002 and 2006. He resides in the UK where he is currently completing work on his forthcoming book.

New Civilisation

New Civilisation is an online political journal which provides a unique source of insight and critical analysis regarding the pressing political, economic and ideological issues of the time. Its motivation is to provide an authentic alternative to the standard analysis often found in mainstream outlets – opening a channel for advocates of alternative Islamic political models to present their critiques of other understandings and put forward their own opinions while allowing them to be discussed and challenged within an environment of informed and respectful discourse.

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