Denver Teen’s Death by Drone Remains Shrouded in Secrecy

Photo from Facebook group "Abdulrahman Anwar al-Awlaki - A Crime We'll Never Forget"

A lawsuit brought by the teenager’s grandfather provides details. He was born in Denver, Colorado on August 26, 1995. The American teen grew up in the United States. In 2002, he moved to Yemen with his family. He was in his first year of high school in Sana’a, where he lived with his mother, siblings, grandmother and grandfather. He was killed by a drone at a restaurant near Azzan in the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa on October 14, 2011.

The teen killed was Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki. He had left home nine days before he turned sixteen to find his father, Anwar al-Awlaki—a Muslim cleric who the Obama administration had placed on a kill list. The teen left a note for his mother, which the Toronto Star’s Michelle Shephard reported begged for forgiveness. The note also explained he missed his father and wanted to talk to him.

Abdulrahman “crawled out a second-story kitchen window and dropped to the garden below” and “crossed the front yard past potted plants and a carnival ride graveyard — Dumbo, Donald Duck, an arched seal balancing a beach ball — debris from his uncle Omar’s failed business venture to install rides in local shopping malls.”

The family guard spotted Abdulrahman, as he left around 6:30 am on September 4, but Abdulrahman was not stopped. He caught a bus to “a cousin’s house in Shabwa province in the south.”

Why Did the US Put My Father on a Kill List? 

It is not entirely known what happened on his journey, but Abdulrahman did not make it to his father before a US drone killed him on September 30. According to Tom Junod of Esquire, “The next day, Abdulrahman called his mother from the ancestral village near the Arabian Sea. He had heard about what happened to his father. He was coming home.”

Political unrest had been heightened. Abdulrahman waited two weeks for roads to become safer so he could make his way home. The night before he was to begin his trip back home he said goodbye to new friends and celebrated with six or seven people, “along with a seventeen-year-old cousin.” They sat by a fire under the moonlight and cooked and ate food. That night he was eliminated in a drone attack.

Anwar al-Awlaki’s sister told Junod, “Abdulrahman was very aware who his father was and knew that the US government was trying to kill him.” His son probably wondered why his father was being targeted. His grandfather said they used to finish in the ocean when they moved to California. They would catch fish and hike in the mountains. “Abdulrahman was very attached to his father.” Why the US government would want to kill his father may have been a question he “thought about all the time,” even if the US had pressed Yemen to keep him in prison after he was arrested in 2006.

Concealing Details on the Attack That Killed Abdulrahman

Just over a year later, there is no reasonable justification for Abdulrahman’s death and the Obama administration has not released information on what the administration knew about the people, who would ultimately be killed in the attack on October 14.

The Obama administration initially claimed Ibrahim al-Banna, an Al Qaeda leader, had been killed but then there were reports after the attack that he was still alive. Additionally, the administration attempted to cover up the killing by saying Abdulrahman had been in his twenties and called him a “military-age male.” Awlaki’s family posted his US birth certificate showing he had been sixteen.

Despite comments by Abdulrahman’s family, the State Department refused to confirm to the press eleven days after his death that he had even been killed. Spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, “We are aware of media reports that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki has been killed; however, we have not received confirmation of his death from the government of Yemen. We have no additional information at this time.” One wonders if they were ever going to get confirmation, if they received confirmation and if the confirmation is in a file somewhere that the government hopes the press, public and Awlaki’s family will never see.

There was very little coverage in the press of this attack. Shockingly, Daniel Klaidman, a correspondent for Newsweek, wrote a book on the Obama administration’s targeted killing policy called Kill or Capture and nowhere is Abdulrahman’s name mentioned. David Sanger of the New York Times wrote a book on Obama’s secret wars called Confront and Conceal but the American teenager’s name appears nowhere in the book.

An Unlawful Killing

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The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have filed two suits in the aftermath of Abdulrahman’s death—one seeking information on the decision to launch the attack that killed him and one alleging then-CIA director Leon Panetta, JSOC Commander William H. McRaven, JSOC Commander Joseph Votel and General David Petraeus violated his rights by depriving him of his life without due process of law.

In the lawsuit for information, the groups alleged, “The government has refused to release its legal or evidentiary basis,” for the strikes that killed Abdulrahman (and two other Americans, Samir Khan and Abdulrahman’s father). It asserted there had been no explanation on whether Abdulrahman  had been “killed ‘collaterally'” or “targeted.” There had also been no information provided on whether any efforts were taken to “minimize the possibility that individuals not targeted would be killed.”

The lawsuit alleging violation of Abdulrahman’s rights argued:

…Abdulrahman was not engaged in any activity that presented a concrete, specific, and imminent threat of death or serious physical injury; nor was he directly participating in hostilities.  If he was killed because the government was targeting another individual, his killing was unlawful because, upon information and belief, Defendants authorized and directed the strike without taking legally required measures to avoid harm to him.  Even in the context of an armed conflict, the government must comply with the requirements of distinction and proportionality and take all feasible measures to protect bystanders.  Upon information and belief, Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi was killed because Defendants failed to take such measures…

Despite this legal argument, Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who was likely briefed on the attack that killed Abdulrahman, reportedly told Junod, “My understanding is that there was adequate justification…It was justified by the presence of a high-value target.”

“Fair Game”

Like Junod has described:

 …[T]he Obama administration has been legally innovative in the cause of killing. It has called for the definition of an “imminent threat” to be broadened and for the definition of “collateral damage” to be narrowed. An imminent threat used to be someone who represented a clear and present danger. Now it is someone who appears dangerous. Collateral damage used to be anyone killed who was not targeted. Now the term “collateral damage” applies only to women and children. “My understanding is that able-bodied males of military age are considered fair game,” says the former administration official, “if they’re in the proximity of a known militant.”…

But, even if they are legally “fair game,” what if the “militant” being targeted is not actually present at the site of the attack? What if people are killed and that “militant” was never there? Or, what if that “militant” escapes?

Attorney General Eric Holder and the Obama Justice Department have sought to redefine the definition of “due process” so drones could assassinate people, like Abdulrahman, and be justified. Holder said in a speech at Northwestern University just over five months after Abdulrahman was killed:

…Some have argued that the President is required to get permission from a federal court before taking action against a United States citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces. This is simply not accurate.  “Due process” and “judicial process” are not one and the same, particularly when it comes to national security. The Constitution guarantees due process, not judicial process…

To anyone with minimal knowledge of the Constitution, this should have sounded dubious. Every person in America accused of a crime typically is supposed to have a right to a trial. Additionally, even if one accepts the Authorized Use of Military Force passed after the September 11th attacks gives President Barack Obama this power (as Holder argues), the country is not at war with Yemen. Though, as satirist Stephen Colbert said, “If we’re going to win our never-ending war against terror, there are bound to be casualties and one of them just happens to be the Constitution.”

He Was Killed by the “Perfect American Weapon”

Abdulrahman is one of three US citizens, who have been killed by drones (the others being his father and Samir Khan). The legal justification for those killings—without judicial process—are just as shady yet concerns are met with cold-blooded talking points.

This is because the Obama administration has benefited from the proliferation of what Tom Engelhardt calls “the perfect American weapon.” It is perfect because it fits the militaristic culture of America by giving Americans the ability to be completely detached from war. It indicates a shift from large-scale military occupations where thousands of American lives will be lost to remote control warfare, where US soldiers do not have to even leave America to fight “the enemy.” Americans also do not have to worry about hearing unpleasant reports of carnage because the government carries out these drone attacks by the CIA or JSOC with as much secrecy as possible. The press can barely get a name of the alleged militant leader targeted and killed in some cases.

This Denver-born teenager was killed, his death was covered up, and, when his family challenged the official story of his death, the Obama administration became coldly silent. It has continued to callously ignore what it did on October 14. In fact, the US government has barely acknowledged that it actually killed him. There have been no hearings by Congress on this specific attack or drones in general. However, the administration has leaned on the new president of Yemen and won approval for continued drone strikes against alleged militants the administration contends are tied to Al Qaeda and its affiliates.

Rights groups have ongoing efforts to achieve some kind of justice for the Awlaki family, but it could be years before any success. Meanwhile, in the throes of an election, the two presidential candidates from the nation’s most prominent parties campaign for a position that now affords them the power to order US citizens to be killed. And they keep their lips tight about this Executive Branch expansion.

Though President Barack Obama and his presidential campaign proudly boast about the assassination of Osama bin Laden and the fact that he is now at the bottom of the ocean, though Obama is completely comfortable with utilizing the tool of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings, neither Obama nor Romney spend any time publicly mulling over the problems and travesties that arise from drone warfare. Neither wants to draw much attention to the reality that the next president—re-elected or newly elected—will upon inauguration be able to act as Executioner and could be responsible for the death of the next US teenager, who is killed in a “secret” drone strike.

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