(Should owning one of these exempt you from a CIA drone strike?)
It appears that as well as Anwar al-Awlaki, the drone strike that killed him also killed Samir Khan, a US citizen who was responsible for producing Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Inspire magazine. It is also reported that Ibrahim Hassan al-Asiri, AQAP's master bomb-maker was also killed in the same attack. Does it make any difference that al-Asiri was a Saudi, rather than a United States national?
As a matter of international law - and I am not in a position to comment on the position under US domestic law - I can't see that nationality is the problem, (or indeed, even relevant) to the question of the legality of the attack. The key element point of LOAC is either is one of combatant status in an International Armed Conflict* (IAC), or either having a "Continuous Combat Function" or Directly Participating in Hostilities in an Non-International Armed Conflict** (NIAC). Discrimination between combatants and non-combatants has is customary international law binding on all States. If there is no armed conflict taking place, then LOAC does not apply, and the use of force must be justified under International Human Rights Law (IHRL).
So to answer the first question, in international law, the nationality of the targets is immaterial: what matters is their status as combatants, or if this is a law enforcement situation, then their nationality is irrelevant to the crimes. Hence, US nationality is not per se a bar to being killed by a CIA drone strike.
Therefore, the legal basis of the attack that killed al-Awlaki, Khan and (reportedly) al-Asiri has two hurdles to cross. First, what was their combatant status or otherwise? Second, did the attack itself meet the proportionality, discrimination and military benefit requirements under the jus in bello tests. (In policy terms, there should also be a third test: "Is this a good idea?", but that's not explicitly a legal question.)
(A very interesting study, though one not without controversy)
What was the combatant status of al-Awlaki, Khan and al-Asiri?
The analysis of the combatant status (or not) of these three men begins with the characterisation of the conflict. Three are possible:
- There is an IAC underway between Al Qaeda and the United States, and that AQAP is an active constituent of this IAC in the ungoverned spaces of Yemen.
- There is a NIAC underway in Yemen, in which AQAP is in rebellion against the legitimate Government, and that the US was acting in collective self-defence at the request of the Yemeni Government.
- There is no armed conflict in Yemen, but that AQAP are operating as a terrorist group, and that this was a law enforcement operation in which there was no other way to defeat an immediate threat to life other than by killing al-Awlaki, Khan and al-Asiri.
(Chatham House, centre of much common sense and good work.)
What sort of conflict is actually going on?
The characterisation of the conflict is a key element in the legality of the strike. And this is why Chatham House's forthcoming study on the characterisation of conflict is so important - it's central to the targeting decisions of what / who can you hit, and when can you do it? Let's look at the three options in turn.
(Aftermath of an armed attack: USS COLE towed from Aden)
International Armed Conflict?
The US could note that it had been attacked by AQ in Yemen in the attack on the USS COLE on 12 Oct 2000 (nearly a full year before the US 9/11 attacks), and that since that time, AQ, in the form of AQAP has been engaged in an IAC against the US from bases in Yemen, which Yemen has been unwilling or unable to suppress, and therefore the US has the right to self-defence against these attacks.
This argument is considerably strengthened if it counts AQAP as an element of AQ, as a number of small scale terrorist attacks would not meet the threshold for armed conflict themselves, though a larger number of such attacks can. In recent years AQAP has been one of the most dangerous AQ elements, with the "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attack on 25 Dec 2009, and the Toner Cartridge Bomb Plot discovered and disrupted in October 2010. Moreover AQAP's leading ideologue - Anwar al-Awlaki was also cited by Roshonara Choudry (jailed in London in 2010 for attempting to kill the British MP Stephen Timms) as a key influence.
However, the legal impact of declaring that the US in engaged in an IAC with AQ/AQAP would be that the US would have to accept that AQAP was a belligerent, meaning that any AQAP prisoners would have to have POW status until such time as an Article 5 Tribunal (so-named because it comes from Article 5, Third Geneva Convention 1949) has determined whether or not they were entitled to it. And in any event, even if such a Tribunal were to deem that AQAP prisoners were not POWs (e.g. they were mercenaries), then they are still covered by the basic guarantees of Art 75 of AP I as detailed in Art 45(3) of AP I. This is not something that the US has, to date, accepted (see: Guantanamo Bay).
Non-International Armed Conflict?
Under Art 1(1) of AP II, NIAC occurs between the:
... armed forces [of a High Contracting Party] and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.
Per the ICRC Commentary the insurgent group needs sufficient control of territory in order to be able to implement the Protocol's requirements. It is possible that in south eastern Yemen AQAP does indeed control the required territory, and that in the process it could do so. Under this characterisation, Yemen could request US assistance, and provided that there was sufficient evidence to conclude that these individuals were "direct[ly] participating in hoslities" then they could be attacked, subject to the usual jus in bello tests. But it is hard to see this as the best characterisation of the conflict, not least because of the explicitly international - and, indeed, US-specific - orientation of many of AQAP's operations.
(Others who have had trouble differentiating between law enforcement and the use of force...)
Criminals subject to a Law Enforcement Operation?
There are significant policy attractions to characterising AQAP as a criminal gang, and addressing the problem as a law enforcement problem, and not a military one - and not the least of which is that criminals are criminals, and that the US would deny AQAP the kudos of having a legitimate military struggle. Kevin Jon Heller of the University of Melbourne over on Opinio Juris thinks that what is going on against AQAP is "not an armed conflict at all".
It is certainly true that AQAP members and affiliates have committed acts that US and UK governments have classed as criminal, as the life sentence handed down to Roshonara Choudry in 2010 for attempting to kill the British MP Stephen Timms after reportedly being radicalised by Awlaki's video sermons, and the forthcoming trial of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab demonstrate. But this glosses over a problem: in trying them as criminals tied to AQAP, the US and UK Governments are explicitly making the case that this is not a conflict, because if it was, these individuals would either be combatants, or the Governments involved would have to show why they were not - and why they should therefore be facing criminal trials. As combatants, let us be clear, they could still face war crimes trials for attempted murder - it's difficult to see either Northwest Airlines Flight 253 or Stephen Timms MP as legitimate targets.
What was the applicable law in the view of the US in this case?
We don't know yet, as this hasn't been released (and if it has please let me know). It should be, for transparency's sake. However, with that large caveat in place, the operationally easiest thing would be for the US to decide that the correct characterisation of the conflict is that it is an IAC, such that they could target Awlaki et al as combatants at any time or place - which is where Jack L. Goldsmith (a former assistant attorney general in the George W. Bush) comes in.
But if true, what is troubling is the notion that there are two characterisations of the conflict - one for the leadership as an IAC or a NIAC - and one for the footsoldiers like Abdulmutallab, both of which would work in our favour. This feels like a legal nonsense, and it needs to be cleared up.
(NB: Reapers don't just carry missiles - this one has 2 x GBU-12 Paveway II 500lb LGBs, too.)
At one level, many - indeed most westerners - may shrug their collective shoulders and conclude that Awlaki et al:
- These were bad guys;
- Thought that they were fighting a war and got killed by their opponents,
- Everyone who didn't agree with their worldview is safer (and probably better off)
- Besides, frankly these guys had it coming to them
This makes legal arguments at once irrelevant, and, to the extent that they constrain similar action in future, arguably dangerous. Therefore, there is not a particular problem in killing them, and we should be good with that. From a strictly realist / utlitarian viewpoint, there may be something to this position.
But as an international legal proposition, it is very dangerous, and for (at least) two reasons.
First, knowingly creating a legal black hole to get around the law is a flagrant violation of the central tenets of the rule of law, and is always fraught with the opportunities for abuse - see Guantanamo, CIA black sites - precisely because it makes the accountability of the State that the rule of law is based on virtually impossible.
Second, being able to vary the legal characterisation of a conflict depending on who you're targeting is nonsense; unless there is a clear difference between the types of conflict that Awlaki and Abdulmutallab were involved in, it is nonsensical to use radically different legal characterisations of the conflict in order to make the use of force easier, whilst retaining the criminal option when you want to use it.
For those who doubt either proposition, remember that international law is fundamentally about reciprocity. How would we feel about these propositions being applied to us by another power?
And for the record, I think the conflict with AQAP could be an IAC (though this raises interesting questions about POW status), could be a NIAC (though this raises difficulties about the relationship with Yemen, and whether AQAP actually controls any territory) or (my personal preference) it could be criminality below the level of a NIAC that requires police action - which raises all sorts of other questions over the legality of killing Awlaki et al.
But what it can't be is more than one at once.
* See Article 4 A (1), (2), (3) and (6) of the Third Geneva Convention and in Article 43 of the First Additional Protocol of 1977 (AP I) for the definition of a combatant in an IAC. Article 50 of AP I defines a civilian, and Article 48 of AP I restates the rule that military authorities shall direct their operations only against military objectives.
** See Article 13(3) of the Second Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions 1977.