Hunting Down Anwar al-Awlaki, Public Enemy No. 1

He's called bin Laden 2.0, but Anwar al-Awlaki's true identity is far more complicated.

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In May, forces in Yemen tried to hit AQAP again, this time reportedly with pilotless drones. A missile fired at a car driving through the mountainous Maarib region found its mark, but there were no terrorists inside. Instead, the victim was a deputy Yemeni governor who had been acting as a mediator, trying to get al Qaeda members to surrender. The killing enraged the slain man's tribe, who blew up an oil pipeline in retaliation, costing the Yemeni government $3 million per day in lost oil. The matter was settled only when the government paid off the tribe with a shipment of cars and weapons, says one Yemeni official. There haven't been any drone strikes since.

But the kill-or-capture-Awlaki strategy continues, even as it faces even more obstacles than those presented by the struggles of the Yemeni government. In the United States, the legality of the targeted assassination program has not been explicitly tested in open court. The government claims the authority to target people like Awlaki based on the authorization of military force granted by Congress in 2001, which allows for the targeting of al Qaeda members wherever they are found. In federal court recently, Awlaki's father, Nasser al-Awlaki, joined by the American Civil Liberties Union, challenged the reported inclusion of his son on the Pentagon's kill list, saying that the authority of the U.S. government to kill without a public trial and due process are strictly limited to the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.

[See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.]

The geographic limits of the battlefield and the criteria for deciding who is actually a member of al Qaeda, and thus a legitimate target, are important issues that have not had a full public airing, civil libertarians note, especially as the Obama administration has greatly expanded the use of drones in its campaign against al Qaeda. But the hunt for the man intelligence officials call dangerous, even if they don't agree to what extent, is one that won't end until the military has Awlaki in custody, or dead.

  • See photos of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
  • Check out our editorial cartoons on Afghanistan.
  • See a slide show of 6 vulnerable terrorist targets.