LOS ANGELES — The killing of two Americans by a U.S. strike in Yemen has reignited a debate about whether targeting U.S. citizens — even terrorists — is legal under the rules of war, or constitutes an extrajudicial execution that ignores their rights.
The Obama administration contends that U.S.-born militant Anwar al-Awlaki was a legitimate target because he played an operational role in al-Qaida, alleging that, among other plots, he directed a 2009 Christmas Day plan to blow up a Detroit-bound jetliner.
But some human rights advocates and legal scholars said the administration had never produced evidence to back up that claim.
Friday's drone attack also killed Samir Khan, a U.S. citizen and anti-American propagandist who ran an al-Qaida-linked website that called for attacks on the United States.
Diane Marie Amann, a University of Georgia law professor who has monitored terrorism trials for the National Institute for Military Justice, said the debate over whether al-Awlaki's killing was legal hinges on whether the war against al-Qaida is an armed conflict or an international police action.
"Viewed through the lens of ordinary criminal justice, for the government to kill a suspect rather than put him on trial is summary execution, clearly forbidden by U.S. and international law alike," Amann said. "Viewed through the lens of armed conflict, the result is different, however: The laws of war permit a state to kill its enemies."
Some international law experts defended the legality of the airstrike.
"There is strong linkage between Awlaki and the Christmas Day bomber," said Duke law professor Scott Silliman, a former Air Force staff judge advocate, referring to the young Nigerian reportedly groomed by al-Awlaki ahead of his attempt to detonate explosives smuggled aboard the plane in his underpants.
"We do know there were also some e-mail links between Awlaki and Maj. (Nidal) Hasan at Fort Hood," Silliman said of the U.S. Army psychiatrist accused in the Nov. 5, 2009, shootings that left 13 dead at the sprawling U.S. military base in Texas. "When you put that together, and with some indications in the intelligence community that he was the head of or at least very active in the leadership of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, I think it was clear he was more than just a propagandist. That type of activity puts him in the category of a legitimate target."
The killing of al-Awlaki was "the latest of many affronts to domestic and international law," said Vince Warren, executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.