Nasser al-Awlaki: “My Grandson Was Killed by His Own Government”

While the nation grieves over the senseless death of Trayvon Martin and the missed opportunity to hold his killer responsible for that death, there is another senseless death of an American teenager of color where an attempt is continuing, after previous failures, to hold accountable those responsible for the lawless way in which this life was arbitrarily ended.

Exactly one year ago today, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit (pdf) on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki (father of Anwar al-Awlaki and grandfather of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki) and Sarah Khan (wife of Samir Khan). The defendants in the case are former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Commander of Special Operations Command William McRaven, Commander of Joint Special Operations Command Joseph Votel and former CIA Head David Petraeus. The complaint cites violation of the Fourth and Fifth Amendments as well as violation of the Bill of Attainder Clause in the targeted killings of Anwar al-Awlaki, Abdulrahaman al-Awlaki and Samir Khan. Oral arguments on the suit begin tomorrow.

Given what is known about the role of Barack Obama in these killings and his personal authorization of the “kill list” in his Terror Tuesday meetings, I find it perplexing that he is not also a defendant in this case.

The complaint seeks damages in an amount to be determined at the trial and any other relief the court deems just and proper.

Coincident with the filing of the complaint in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia a year ago, the video above was released. Today, an op-ed by Nasser al-Awlaki was published in the New York Times, helping to focus attention on tomorrow’s opening arguments. The video and op-ed are truly gut-wrenching.

From the op-ed:

I LEARNED that my 16-year-old grandson, Abdulrahman — a United States citizen — had been killed by an American drone strike from news reports the morning after he died.

The missile killed him, his teenage cousin and at least five other civilians on Oct. 14, 2011, while the boys were eating dinner at an open-air restaurant in southern Yemen.

The grandfather describes his anguish as he seeks answers to the question of why his grandson was killed:

Nearly two years later, I still have no answers. The United States government has refused to explain why Abdulrahman was killed. It was not until May of this year that the Obama administration, in a supposed effort to be more transparent, publicly acknowledged what the world already knew — that it was responsible for his death.

Nasser al-Awlaki describes the huge impact an education in the United States made on his life and how he put that education to use when he returned to Yemen. More importantly, he puts the actions of the United States in killing his son and grandson significantly at odds with the values of the United States when he was a student here:

A country that believes it does not even need to answer for killing its own is not the America I once knew. From 1966 to 1977, I fulfilled a childhood dream and studied in the United States as a Fulbright scholar, earning my doctorate and then working as a researcher and assistant professor at universities in New Mexico, Nebraska and Minnesota.


After returning to Yemen, I used my American education and skills to help my country, serving as Yemen’s minister of agriculture and fisheries and establishing one of the country’s leading institutions of higher learning, Ibb University. Abdulrahman used to tell me he wanted to follow in my footsteps and go back to America to study. I can’t bear to think of those conversations now.

The op-ed closes with a direct and haunting question:

The government has killed a 16-year-old American boy. Shouldn’t it at least have to explain why?

Sadly, we can state with confidence that even before the proceedings open the government will argue that it does not have to explain why it killed Abdulrahman. Because terror. Even more sadly, it is quite likely that the court will side with this senseless and lawless argument. Because terror.

What has our country become?

21 replies
  1. Dredd says:

    Given what is known about the role of Barack Obama in these killings and his personal authorization of the “kill list” in his Terror Tuesday meetings, I find it perplexing that he is not also a defendant in this case.


    I have been thinking about immunity in that context, because the old investive reporter mantra “follow the money” does not fit every scenario that tries to get to the source of a problem.

    So, sometimes to understand these things we have to follow the immunity to get to the source of a problem.

  2. joanneleon says:

    I think I’ve seen this interview before. Was this in the Dirty Wars movie?

    Interesting stuff about the suit. I don’t understand why they never even gave him the respect of giving him an answer of any kind.

  3. thatvisionthing says:

    From wikipedia:

    Before his inauguration, President Obama published an open letter to his daughters in Parade magazine, describing what he wants for them and every child in America: “to grow up in a world with no limits on your dreams and no achievements beyond your reach, and to grow into compassionate, committed women who will help build that world.”

  4. thatvisionthing says:

    I don’t know about you, but I do a lot of hopping around. I crash my computer all the time because I have too many windows open or something. And that’s just the computer. The piles of papers, the magazines I keep forever… fluke connections happen all the time, feel like gifts. Today I’m looking at January 1977 Quilter’s Newsletter Magazine that’s been sitting on my desk for a while, and on the cover is a bicentennial crazy quilt. Top row, third block is pieced pine tree with inset patch with tiny pine tree and words that with a magnifying glass I can read says “An Appeal to Heaven.” I like trees, been meaning to figure that out. Just did – it’s a flag from the American Revolution:

    The phrase “Appeal to Heaven” is used multiple times by John Locke in his work, Two Treatises of Government. The phrase connotes that after all other alternatives of seeking justice have been exhausted, only an “appeal to heaven” remains:

    “What is my Remedy against a Robber, that so broke into my House? Appeal to the Law for Justice. But perhaps Justice is denied, or I am crippled and cannot stir, robbed and have not the means to do it. If God has taken away all means of seeking remedy, there is nothing left but patience. But my Son, when able, may seek the Relief of the Law, which I am denied: He or his Son may renew his Appeal, till he recover his Right. But the Conquered, or their Children, have no Court, no Arbitrator on Earth to appeal to. Then they may appeal, as Jephtha did, to Heaven, and repeat their Appeal, till they have recovered the native Right of their Ancestors, which was to have such a Legislative over them, as the Majority should approve, and freely acquiesce in.”[2]

    Specifically a government that won’t kill them:

    The old question will be asked in this matter of prerogative, But who shall be judge when this power is made a right use of? I answer: between an executive power in being, with such a prerogative, and a legislative that depends upon his will for their convening, there can be no judge on earth; as there can be none between the legislative and the people, should either the executive, or the legislative, when they have got the power in their hands, design, or go about to enslave or destroy them. The people have no other remedy in this, as in all other cases where they have no judge on earth, but to appeal to heaven: for the rulers, in such attempts, exercising a power the people never put into their hands, (who can never be supposed to consent that any body should rule over them for their harm) do that which they have not a right to do. And where the body of the people, or any single man, is deprived of their right, or is under the exercise of a power without right, and have no appeal on earth, then they have a liberty to appeal to heaven, whenever they judge the cause of sufficient moment. And therefore, though the people cannot be judge, so as to have, by the constitution of that society, any superior power, to determine and give effective sentence in the case; yet they have, by a law antecedent and paramount to all positive laws of men, reserved that ultimate determination to themselves which belongs to all mankind, where there lies no appeal on earth, viz. to judge, whether they have just cause to make their appeal to heaven. And this judgment they cannot part with, it being out of a man’s power so to submit himself to another, as to give him a liberty to destroy him; God and nature never allowing a man so to abandon himself, as to neglect his own preservation: and since he cannot take away his own life, neither can he give another power to take it. Nor let any one think, this lays a perpetual foundation for disorder; for this operates not, till the inconveniency is so great, that the majority feel it, and are weary of it, and find a necessity to have it amended. But this the executive power, or wise princes, never need come in the danger of: and it is the thing, of all others, they have most need to avoid, as of all others the most perilous.

    – John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government – Sec. 168

    Ah, gift. Aulaqis, American, kin. I feel located now. Ping.

  5. JoeP says:

    “While the nation grieves over the senseless death of Trayvon Martin and the missed opportunity to hold his killer responsible for that death…” — wow! Is this kind of writing indicative of Emptywheel’s editorial agenda? I read a well-written, fair, factually-rigorous post by @bmaz analyzing the Zimmerman case last week – was that quality of writing and respect for the capacity of US citizen jurors to reach an appropriate verdict in a self-defense case atypical for this site?

  6. C says:

    @Victor Tiffany: The U.S. was involved in combat operations in Libya by direct order of the president for roughly 6-7 months. This is far far longer than the 90 days permitted by the war powers act and Obama did not even deign to ask for forgiveness let alone permission. So far not one member of congress had the stones to call this what it was a naked violation of the separation of powers.

    Congress was neutered long before Clapper was caught lying to them.

    And none of them will take this issue on because they still believe in terror as the excuse for everything.

  7. thatvisionthing says:


    Brian Hauck, a deputy assistant attorney general, told Judge Collyer of the president’s encouragement for a national discussion about the issue, but argued that “the dialogue cannot occur” during a private lawsuit in federal court. The question of whether limits should be put on the use of drones, and who may be targeted, is a political issue that the Constitution assigns solely to the president and Congress, Hauck argued. […] Hauck countered that the President had been working in tandem with Congress to keep the drone policy in check…

    IANAL, guy is saying that it’s ok because Congress can ok (has okayed?) targeted killings? Wait a sec. Is bmaz here? Because I looked at the pdf ew linked to and the Aulaqi/Khan/ACLU complaint title is: Violation of Fourth and Fifth Amendments and Bill of Attainder Clause — targeted killing (my bold)

    (I say bmaz and put Bill of Attainder in bold because we went around on this in March and he said Bill of Attainder was irrelevant because, my paraphrase, it was restraint on Congress, not Executive: )

    The complaint is dated July 2012, and I see we might have read that when emptywheel first posted link at the time: In the comment thread of that posting, pdaly linked to Mary’s comment of October 2011:


    “@MadDog: Exactly. This is the gist of the bill of attainder prohibition – – the Executive can’t execute its enemies on its own fiat and the Legislature can’t give the Executive that power either.”

    So isn’t that guy doing a shell game to the court? Pea is not under YOUR shell, so it must be under this one and/or this one?

    Except it can’t be. Congress can’t write such a law, and Executive can’t execute what Congress can’t write.

  8. thatvisionthing says:

    More at Huffington Post:

    Guy is saying Congress doesn’t have to legislate it, it just has to be informed:

    Hauck said that Congress’ knowledge of drone strikes was an effective check on the executive branch.

    Collyer seemed to shoot down that argument, at one point deviating into somewhat of a civics lesson. “I happen to be in the third [branch], you know, the one that’s normally yelled at and not given any money,” she said. “The best I can get out of you is, well, [Obama] talks to Congress.”


    The government has asserted that the strikes were legal, in part, because President Barack Obama said they were.

    The fourth-floor federal courtroom where the Friday hearing took place was completely filled, leaving only standing room for some observers. “I just want to say holy cow,” Collyer said when she saw the crowd upon entering the courtroom. “This is a really serious matter, so I shouldn’t say holy cow, but holy cow.”

    Holy cow.

  9. thatvisionthing says:

    @JThomason: Govt filing from December, thx.

    Under V. The Bill of Attainder Does Not Apply to Executive Action:

    Even if this Court determines the Bill of Attainder Clause somehow applies, special factors would preclude inferring a private right of action under that clause in this context for the same reasons no Fourth or Fifth Amendment action should be inferred. See supra Part III. In any event, Defendants are certainly entitled to qualified immunity as no such claim could be clearly established. See supra Part IV.A. Accordingly, that claim fails.


  10. thatvisionthing says:

    @JThomason: Yes, I saw that, thank you. I’m glad the gift was useful to more than just me. I was reading some more of Locke this morning. 1689! The robber quote is from section 176 in Chapter 16, Of Conquest, which starts out:

    That the aggressor, who puts himself into the state of war with another, and unjustly invades another man’s right, can, by such an unjust war, never come to have a right over the conquered, will be easily agreed by all men, who will not think, that robbers and pyrates have a right of empire over whomsoever they have force enough to master; or that men are bound by promises, which unlawful force extorts from them.

    I wonder if courts are big enough to encompass that anymore? The war was never just to begin with, so what “rights” can Obama justly claim, and what could ever have been “won”? None and nothing. Would be great if we could all get our bearings. Thinking of the Manning trial too. He’s on trial, word parsing, and the stuff he was blowing whistle on just can’t register. Govt can’t admit error or question itself; secret and immune so it’s unaccountable and unfixable; citizens can’t know or affect. It’s the death of America, and they call it national security.

    I wonder if Collyer wishes the ACLU would go there? From the scotusblog article:

    The judge, though clearly excited throughout the government’s part of the hearing, appeared far less engaged during the arguments of two lawyers for the Aulaqi family — Pardiss Kebriael of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Hina Shamsi of the American Civil Liberties Union.

    Although both of those lawyers sought to show that the lawsuit was actually very narrow in scope, and that their side and the government were not far apart on some crucial issues in the case. the judge did display some skepticism about what kind of trial she would be managing if she did reject the government motion to dismiss, and let the case proceed.

  11. thatvisionthing says:

    I’ve been quoting Locke, 1689, and looking too at the Bill of Attainder clause. But when Brennan was sworn in on Constitution without Bill of Rights, Peterr went back farther and cited the Magna Carta:

    Peterr @24

    Too bad the Archives didn’t send over the Magna Carta.

    From the National Archives’ website:

    Magna Carta was written by a group of 13th-century barons to protect their rights and property against a tyrannical king. It is concerned with many practical matters and specific grievances relevant to the feudal system under which they lived. The interests of the common man were hardly apparent in the minds of the men who brokered the agreement. But there are two principles expressed in Magna Carta that resonate to this day:

    “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.”

    “To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”

    Inspiration for Americans

    During the American Revolution, Magna Carta served to inspire and justify action in liberty’s defense. The colonists believed they were entitled to the same rights as Englishmen, rights guaranteed in Magna Carta. They embedded those rights into the laws of their states and later into the Constitution and Bill of Rights.

    Of course, maybe they did send it over and Brennan sent it back.

    Dovetails into the American Revolution flag An Appeal To Heaven I think.

    Also see @119 in that thread: George Washington’s handwritten corrections to the draft Constitution:

    Here’s “bill of attainder” on p.2 of Washington’s draft: “No bill of attainder shall be passed ———–” That’s period, Washington crossed out the rest of the sentence. (Can you bleach out ink? It looks like there’s something faintly written above it, but it’s much lighter than the other writing on the page.)

    You can see that here (Sect. 9 toward bottom): Light words must be Washington inserting “or ex post facto law” after “attainder”, just as it is in the ratified Constitution. And that’s period.

  12. thatvisionthing says:

    I looked up Bill of Attainder on wikipedia. Links to crop of the clause in the original Constitution.

    I love looking at originals. It’s on page 2. Then looked at original p. 1. You’d think I’d have noticed this before, considering how many times I’ve linked to E Pleb Neesta youtube and Captain Kirk and the tall words. But what I saw today that made me smile is that there’s no title. The first words, the tall words, are We the People. They didn’t even organize themselves under a title. They spoke the Constitution into being under their own authority.,_page_1.jpg

    Appeal to Heaven wise, you think they wrote a Constitution that would give the second branch the power to execute them without a trial of their peers? When they specifically denied that power to the first branch? Srsly? Then all I can say is, E Pleb Neesta.

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