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POLITICS: Yemen Refuses to Hunt Al-Awlaki for U.S.

Charles Fromm

WASHINGTON, Apr 13 2010 (IPS) - Last weekend, authorities in Yemen said they would not participate in the extrajudicial killing of U.S.-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was recently targeted by military and intelligence agencies in Washington.

“Anwar al-Awlaki has always been looked at as a preacher rather than a terrorist and shouldn’t be considered as a terrorist unless the Americans have evidence that he has been involved in terrorism,” Yemen’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, told reporters in the capital city of Sa’na.

However, al-Qirbi also told Al Jazeera television that al-Awlaki “is wanted by Yemeni justice for questioning, so that he can clear his name … or face trial.”

Though Al-Awlaki is a U.S. citizen, born in New Mexico, he lived in Yemen with his family for most of his early life. He returned to attend college and graduate school and it was during this period he began serving as an imam for various mosques around the country.

Al-Awlaki admits to supporting – but not encouraging – the recent attacks of Umar Abdulmutallab and Maj. Nidal Hasan on military and civilian targets within the U.S. His sermons are known to be extremely critical of U.S. foreign policy and military intervention in Muslim countries.

“Although we don’t have the high-level homegrown threat facing Europeans, we have to worry about the appeal that figures like Anwar al-Awlaki exert on young American Muslims,” said Dr. Mathew Burrows, counselor to the National Intelligence Council, during a recent press briefing, referring to al-Awlaki’s reputation as a charismatic and thoughtful speaker.

The Barack Obama administration took a somewhat extraordinary step last week in authorising the targeted killing of the cleric.

A handful of intelligence and counterterrorism officials briefed members of the press on the decision last week, during which Reuters quoted government officials as saying that “Al-Awlaki is a proven threat,” and that “he’s being targeted”.

Though known only as an Islamic scholar, espousing controversial views, U.S. intelligence officials cited new information on his direct involvement with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) as justification for his targeting.

“He’s gotten involved in plots,” an unnamed official told the New York Times last week. “The danger al-Awlaki poses to this country is no longer confined to words,”

Rep. Jane Harman, chair of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence, told Reuters that Awlaki’s U.S. citizenship made going after him “certainly complicated”.

Though controversial as it may seem, this would not be the first time a U.S. citizen has been extra-judicially killed by U.S. forces in Yemen.

In November 2002, Kamal Darwish, a dual U.S.-Yemeni national, was assassinated in a drone strike as he rode in a car with the main target of the operation, Abu Ali al-Harith, who was believed to be al Qaeda’s highest ranking member in Yemen, as well as the mastermind of the USS Cole attack in 2000.

Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen wrote an article for Newsweek on Tuesday contending that the 2002 operation, which resulted in the deaths of Darwish, al-Harith and four others, was ultimately unnecessary and had little effect on al Qaeda as an organisation.

“Ultimately, their deaths meant little. Al Qaeda was hobbled for a while but eventually resurrected itself stronger and more durable than its previous incarnation,” said Jonhsen, referencing AQAP’s recent resurgence. “Assassinating al-Awlaki may make us feel safer, but it won’t make us be safer.”

Other analysts also believe that although al-Awlaki may be a legitimate target, an extra-judicial killing could set a dangerous precedent.

“He certainly is an instigator of jihadi-style violence, so I think that in that sense he is a legitimate target,” counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation, Brian Fishman, told IPS.

But Fishman also expressed reservations. “I wish that this process was better understood by the general public, because we have to trust the judgment of our leaders… How is this going to be applied in 30 years? What are the implications of it down the road?” he added. “It’s complicated.”

On Monday, al-Awlaki’s father attempted to reach out to officials in Washington regarding his son’s fate, saying his son would halt his anti-U.S. messages if Washington removed him from its hit list.

“If Washington stops targeting [him] by threatening to abduct, capture, or kill him, Anwar will cease his statements and speeches against it,” Nasser al-Awlaki, a former minister of agriculture and rector at the University of Sa’na, told Al Jazeera.

Though his father has ties to the government, al-Awlaki has been at odds with the authorities in Yemen for years and reportedly spent time in jail for terrorism-related offences there before going into hiding several years ago.

In an interview with Al Jazeera Arabic in February, al-Awlaki made it clear that he believed the charges against him to be ideologically motivated and not based on any evidence of wrongdoing or violence.

“The charge is ‘incitement’,” said al-Awlaki, when asked about why he thought U.S. authorities would want to kill him. “All this comes as part of the attempt to liquidate the voices that call for defending the rights of the Umma [Muslim nation].”

“They reject the principle of pride and demanding justice, they want to promote the principle of humiliation and compliance,” he said.

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