The Uneasy Line Between Terrorist and Citizen: Who is Protected?

A few weeks ago Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair spoke to the House Intelligence Committee on the issue of targeting US citizens abroad.

For years, the “hunt and destroy” nature of US counterterrorism efforts overseas has drawn criticism from some who consider the tactic a form of targeted assassinations, rather than lawful warfare. But the stigma around the use of this tactic becomes even more complicated as the number of US citizens traveling abroad to engage in terrorist activities increases.

Director Blair’s comments came on the heels of what was, at the time, thought to be a fatal airstrike on Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki is of Yemeni descent, but was born in the US and therefore has US citizenship. He has spent time both in the US and abroad as an Imam and has ties to some of the 9/11 hijackers and to Malik Nadal Hasan. The FBI has labeled him a “senior al-Qaeda recruiter.”

Blair’s intent was to calm the committee and citizens. The US will not indiscriminately target US citizens — only those who are really terrorists. He specifically sought to pacify objectors by mentioning that the DoD and all US agencies “follow a set of defined policy and legal procedures that are very carefully observed.” They have to ask permission.

Unlike many people, my objection to Blair’s comments does not lie in the fact that the US government can target a US citizen abroad who is engaged in terrorist activities. It lies in a deep rooted concern that we have begun to stratify “citizenship.” Viscerally, a Yemeni man who happens to be born in New York but moves back to Yemen at age 2 and becomes the leader of a large terrorist cell is a very different type of citizen than a man who owns a ranch in Kansas and has lived in the same house for 60 years. And it does seem sensible to give one more due process than the other. But that is a very, very dangerous road to walk down.

In a case less clear than al-Awlaki’s the prospect of the current system would be particularly troubling. At some point along the line of targeting requests someone will make a decision – and that decision will effectively be made by asking the following question: “is this person enough of a US citizen to protect?”

What person or process is capable of making that decision?

3 thoughts on “The Uneasy Line Between Terrorist and Citizen: Who is Protected?

  1. Alex,

    As a fellow masters candidate (only at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy), I am hesitant to quibble with such an interesting post — but I feel that you may be taking DNI Blair’s comments a bit out of context, and extrapolating and assumptive conclusion from them. Targeted attacks against foreign terrorist leaders are worthy of our scepticism on many accounts, but I doubt very much the calculus employed by POTUS or the NSC regarding whether an American citizen abroad may be targeted are centered around race or parental national origin. Also, let us not forget that by giving aid or comfort to a group like AQAP (as is the case with al-Awlaki) is a renunciation of citizenship. I don’t point this out to mitigate the decision to attempt his assasination, but rather to place it in context — particularly if the determination is made that he presents a clear and present danger. I, personally, don’t see DNI Blair’s comments creating “stratified citizenship”, but would very much enjoy hearing more of your argument on this issue. I would also love to invite you to guest post on this issue on our security blog [link removed]
    Thank you for a very thought provoking work here!

  2. Alex says:

    I would actually like to offer push-back on both of those points.

    1. The choice to target may not be based on race or parental origin, but it will be based on citizenship. And citizenship is obviously based on parental citizenship, place of birth, etc, so those factors do matter. At the very least, these elements will indirectly alter the targeting approval process. I did not mean to suggest that race (independent of citizenship) would play a role.

    2. Aiding or participating in a subversive group can be grounds for loss of citizenship. I am not a lawyer, but I think the process is called “denaturalization” and is a judicial (rather than administrative) process for situations related to this discussion. These processes (should) take time — which targeting operations sometimes cannot afford. But there are many factors to consider in that judicial process; and activities are not even consistent across time. For example, I think there are provisions to distinguish subversive activities which occur before and after the 5 year mark of naturalization. My non-legal assessment is “it’s really complicated.”

    The case of al-Awlaki may in fact have been clear cut had the decision gone through a judicial process. If the target is well known, the review may take place well before the “assassination.” Let’s assume that due process would produce the “correct” response. However, it is easy to imagine a much less clear example. Take, for example, a US citizen who provides spiritual guidance to an al Qaeda operative abroad, but it is unsure whether this was done knowingly or unknowingly. What if that citizen is in close proximity during an air strike targeting the operative? Even if we decrease the citizen from “target” to “collateral damage” I can imagine the calculus of appropriate level of proportionality changing. That means that the knowingly killing (let’s not call it assassination in this case) a US citizen hinges on their activities — what kind of citizen have they been?

    I unfortunately do not know enough about the laws surrounding citizenship and targeting to debate this topic at that level. The purpose for my brief post was just to spark discussion about a concern that the US has never really had to deal with — US citizens actively engaging in coordinated subversive activities with foreign nationals both at home and abroad.

    Thank you for the comment!

  3. Alex —

    Thanks for your response! I can safely say that your post has most definately sparked the kind of debate and analysis that it was its intent! As to your pushback, I find it interesting to say the least! I think at this point, I would love to sit down for a beer with you and continue our discussion, Fletcher vs. KSG style.

    Please keep the excellent debate coming!



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