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Anwar al-Awlaki: Is it legal to kill an American in war on terror?

Anwar al-Awlaki is an American hiding in Yemen. Tied to the Fort Hood shooting and Christmas Day bomber, he is thought to be plotting attacks on the US. In fighting the war on terror, the Obama administration has put him on the kill-or-capture list.

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Over the past year, the US has increased the number of militants it has killed or captured, with those killed seeing the most pointed rise, says Thomas Sanderson, deputy director of the transnational threats program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. That rise is due to a “confluence of factors,” including better intelligence, more targeting, and increased cooperation between the US and Pakistan, he says.

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Message: 'We are willing to play hardball'

Announcing that Awlaki is an important new target is probably good public relations in the war on terrorism, he adds. “It sends a message to extremists that we are willing to play hardball.”

It wouldn’t be the first time a US citizen was targeted in Yemen.

In 2002, Ahmed Hijazi, an American citizen, was killed in a drone attack conducted by the CIA. Mr. Hijazi was suspected of leading the group of individuals captured near Buffalo, N.Y., for plotting a terrorist attack.

But for many legal experts, the question remains: Is it legal for the US to target an American citizen?

Targeting Awlaki probably legal

The answer probably is yes, says Mike Newton, a law professor at Vanderbilt University. If the US could prove that Awlaki is a “direct participant” in a conflict – terrorist operations against the US, for example – then killing Awlaki would probably pass legal muster, he says.

“By making that declaration, the administration has at least admitted the possibility that the fundamental obligation of the executive to protect the American people trumps the basic right to life of that individual,” says Mr. Newton.

Since the incidents last year at Fort Hood and Detroit, Awlaki’s stature has risen within the counterterrorism community. He now represents a top leader of Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula, or AQAP, which is emerging as a dangerous new franchise of Al Qaeda globally.

While the fact that Awlaki is an American citizen may raise legal questions about killing him, targeting him outside the US may make it more tenable, says Newton.