WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The families of U.S.-born al Qaeda militant Anwar al-Awlaki and two other U.S. citizens who were killed in Yemen are questioning the deaths in court in the latest challenge to President Barack Obama’s conduct of drone attacks abroad.
The lawsuit filed on Wednesday tests the Obama administration’s position that, under the laws of war, it can target for secret, lethal strikes Americans who join al Qaeda or an affiliate if there is an imminent threat to the United States and capturing them is not feasible.
A drone strike in Yemen in September 2011 killed Anwar al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born Muslim cleric who joined al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, and Samir Khan, a naturalized U.S. citizen who moved to Yemen in 2009 and worked on Inspire, an English-language al Qaeda magazine.
The next month, another strike killed Anwar al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S.-born 16-year-old living in Yemen, and at least six others as they were sitting at a restaurant, the lawsuit says.
U.S. authorities have not publicly detailed evidence against the three. In response to lawsuits requesting information about targeted killings, the Obama administration has declined to confirm the program’s existence, although news outlets including Reuters and The New York Times have reported some details of it.
Relatives said in their lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that the three deaths violated U.S. legal guarantees, including the right to due process.
“There is something terribly wrong when a 16-year-old American boy can be killed by his own government without any accountability or explanation,” said Pardiss Kebriaei, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights, in a conference call with reporters. Her group is representing the relatives, with the American Civil Liberties Union.
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said in an e-mail on Wednesday: “We’ve seen the complaint and are reviewing.” Senior officials at the Defense Department and the CIA who were named as defendants in the lawsuit, declined to comment.
The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages, but as significant for the two civil liberties groups, it is designed to force disclosure of more information about targeted killings.
“Ten years ago, extrajudicial killing by the United States was exceptional. Now it’s routine,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director.
The two groups posted on YouTube on Wednesday a video of Nasser Al-Awlaki, father and grandfather of two of those killed, calling his grandson’s death an “injustice.”
An earlier lawsuit brought by Nasser al-Awlaki, seeking to halt the U.S. program that in 2011 was publicly known to be targeting his son, failed in December. U.S. District Judge John Bates said the questions involved were political or military ones that courts could not address.
Kebriaei said she thinks the new lawsuit does not have the same issue because there are no ongoing military operations regarding the three who were killed.
In a March speech, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder defended the general authority of a president to order such killings, saying he “may use force abroad against a senior operational leader of a foreign terrorist organization with which the United States is at war - even if that individual happens to be a U.S. citizen.”
The case is Nasser Al-Aulaqi, et al, vs. Leon Panetta, et al, U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. There is no case number yet.
Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart; Editing by Eddie Evans and Jackie Frank