Barack Obama’s choice: to kill or not to kill US-born ‘terrorist’ hiding in Pakistan

Decision would call into question President’s plan to limit drone strikes against al-Qa’ida in Pakistan

Ten months after President Barack Obama vowed that the “war on terror” must eventually end and promised new limits on the use of drones against overseas targets he is reportedly considering taking a step in the other direction – killing a man who was high in the ranks of al-Qa’ida in Pakistan but was born in Texas.

Authorising such an extraordinary kill – a mission to execute a US citizen deliberately without an attempt at capture or trial – would suggest that any plan to curb drone operations against al-Qa’ida remains more theoretical than real. It would not be unprecedented, though. In September 2011, the US-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen, triggering instant controversy in the United States.

Rumours of another US-born suspect rising to the top of Washington’s target list have been circulating for weeks. “We are extremely concerned about this individual,” one official anonymously told Fox News last month. “He’s a really bad guy.”

Several government agencies, he said, including the Justice Department and the Pentagon, were involved in an elaborate review to determine whether such action would be legal.

Where that review stands now is unclear. But The New York Times now reports that the man in question goes by the name of Abdullah al-Shami, or “Abdullah the Syrian”, and that he consolidated his prominence in the network by marrying the daughter of one its top leaders.

American intelligence believes he helps run the planning of al-Qa’ida attacks overseas. Crucially, however, it would appear he is American by birth,  although he was taken out of the US as a young boy by his parents and raised somewhere in the Middle East. “We have clear and convincing evidence that he’s involved in the production and distribution of IEDs,” one senior administration official told The Times, referring to improvised explosive devices, which have proved particularly deadly to Americans deployed in Afghanistan.

None of the agencies involved, the White House included, have agreed to talk further about the case or provide any additional biographical details about Mr Shami, including his precise birthplace or even his age.

The apparent dilemma that Washington finds itself in over Mr Shami is not helped by the sense of muddle that has prevailed since Mr Obama gave his speech at the National Defence University last May. In it, he said that the US must get off a “perpetual wartime footing” and that he was issuing new guidelines for drone warfare, which he embraced as the best means of destroying al-Qa’ida soon after being elected.

The new guidelines, US officials explained, would transfer most of the responsibility for carrying out drone attacks away from the CIA, which had been widely criticised for high levels of collateral civilian deaths, to the Department of Defence, particularly where US-born targets are involved. The apparent rationale is that the Pentagon can talk more freely about such operations than the spy agency. But the CIA seemingly continues to run all missions in Pakistan. So who would strike Mr Shami, the CIA or the Pentagon? The shift to the Pentagon many not have gone well.

“The ‘new rules’ as they are applied in practice make no sense to me,” Jack Goldsmith, a national security police expert at Harvard University, said yesterday on the Lawfare blog. “By all accounts (though for reasons I do not understand), DOD-controlled drone strikes have for a while resulted in more (perhaps many more) targeting errors than CIA-controlled strikes.

“In fact, government officials do not talk more freely about DOD strikes than about CIA strikes.”

Much of Mr Obama’s latitude in pursuing the war on terror derives from a 60-word authorising law passed by Congress just three days after the 9/11 attacks. Named the Authorisation for Military Force (AUMF), it has never been revised or even revisited by Congress.

In his speech, Mr Obama noted: “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us... Unless we discipline our thinking, our definitions, our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers.” So far evidence that such discipline is being exerted is hard to find.

Everything, indeed, seems to remain entirely fungible when it comes to al-Qa’ida and its associates. (The AUMF pertains solely to destroying the network that Osama bin Laden created and “associated groups”.) And in that context, with so much fog still in the air, legally and politically, it isn’t a surprise that the debate, which reportedly has already been raging behind closed doors in Washington for six months, on whether to target someone born in the US is taking so long to resolve. Which way Mr Obama is leaning is still not known. But the call will ultimately be his.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
tv
Sport
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Voices
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine