At least 54 Islamist-inspired terror plots aimed at the United States have been thwarted since the Twin Towers fell. Several of these would-be attacks were inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki. A U.S.-born cleric, al-Awlaki ran the "the Foreign Operations" unit for al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen from his Middle East hideout.
At least three attacks on the United States can be linked to the Foreign Operations Unit. Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan of Fort Hood infamy colluded with al-Awlaki. The 2009 Christmas underwear bomber and the 2010 "ink cartridge bomb plot" also have links to Yemen. It is likely that Al-Awlaki also aided preparations for the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
In 2011, he was killed by hellfire missiles fired from U.S. drones. Such strikes and other covert operations overseas have helped keep al Qaeda at bay and unable to bring the fight to our shores effectively for several years.
From a legal perspective, there is nothing unique about employing drones to go after declared enemy combatants. Their use is completely consistent with the rules of war that the U.S. has followed for many decades. For example, the fact that al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen is irrelevant to a discussion as to whether or not he was a fit target. During World War I and World War II, American citizens returned to Germany to fight against us. Once they joined the other side, they became a combatant like any other enemy and rated no different treatment.
The fact that al-Awlaki might not have been plotting against the U.S. at the moment of his death raises no red flag either. During both world wars, we bombed the enemy while they slept in their trenches. There is no requirement that we must wait to fire until our foes have their fingers on the trigger and U.S. citizens in their cross-hairs. Any enemy combatant is a legitimate target for as long as he is active on the battlefield. (An enemy ceases to be active on the battlefield only after an affirmative action - for example, if he surrenders.)
But, some object, the drone strike that killed al-Awlaki may also have killed innocents. The death of innocents is deplorable, of course, but not automatically disqualifying. The rules of war require combatants to use force proportionally and not intentionally target civilians. But the rules also recognize a tragic yet unavoidable risk of warfare - that innocents may suffer, be injured or killed. The obligation under the rules of war is to use force responsibly.
In reality, the rules of war work the same for any weapon, be it a brick, a bullet, a cruise missile or a drone strike. The obligation always is to follow the rules.
Drone strikes and other covert operations clearly serve a military purpose: defending the U.S. against real, legitimate threats of armed violence. Yet, the president's drone wars raise some serious concerns. They have become this administration's primary means for battling transnational terrorism - and they are inadequate.
Al Qaeda is not simply about attacking the U.S. That is just a means to an end. The terrorist organization is part of a global Islamist insurgency, dedicated to seizing power and territory and ruling in a manner that is contrary to the vital national interests of this nation. It will rule without humanity or prudence, bringing war and crushing freedom wherever its shadow can spread.
So even though we are preventing them from attacking our homeland, it doesn't mean we are winning. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are making progress on other fronts - in the Caucuses, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.
Further, just killing its leadership won't stop al Qaeda. This organization is a human web. Killing a few nodes in the web - just like cutting a few strands in a real web - won't take it down.
Worrying about the legality of drone wars is distracting concern from what Washington really ought to be worried about: the very real possibility that it may be losing the larger war against radical Islamism.
-James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in Politix.