U.S.-born militant impels drone debate

Published Feb. 28, 2014

WASHINGTON — He is known as Abdullah al Shami, an Arabic name meaning "Abdullah the Syrian." But his nom de guerre masks a reality: He was born in the United States, and the United States is now deciding whether to kill him.

Shami, a militant who U.S. officials say is living in the barren mountains of northwestern Pakistan, is at the center of a debate inside the government over whether President Barack Obama should once again take the extraordinary step of authorizing the killing of a U.S. citizen overseas.

The debate encapsulates some of the thorniest questions raised by the targeted killing program Obama has embraced as president: under what circumstances the government may kill U.S. citizens without a trial, whether the battered leadership of al-Qaida in Pakistan still poses an imminent threat to Americans, and whether the CIA or the Pentagon should be the dominant agency running the United States' secret wars.

Born in the United States, possibly Texas, Shami moved with his family to the Middle East as a toddler. Administration officials declined to provide his real name and age, saying the information is classified.

Shami worked his way up the ranks of al-Qaida's leadership in Pakistan, aided by his marriage to the daughter of a top Qaida leader. Last year, he appears to have become one of al-Qaida's top planners for operations outside Pakistan, including plots against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The debate over Shami's fate is the first time the Obama administration has discussed killing a U.S. citizen abroad since Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in September 2011. It comes less than a year after Obama announced new guidelines to tighten the rules for lethal drone operations.

At that time, the White House acknowledged four U.S. citizens had been killed in drone strikes during Obama's time in office, but said only al-Awlaki had been targeted.

As in al-Awlaki's case, the Justice Department has been enlisted to evaluate if a lethal operation against Shami is legally justified, but it appears the Obama administration remains divided on the issue.