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Q. Have American citizens been killed by drone strikes?

To date, the United States has killed about seven of its own citizens through drone strikes, three in Yemen and four in Pakistan. The strikes in Yemen were headlined by the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki on September 11, 2011, making him the first US citizen to be killed in a US drone strike. According to US officials, Al-Awlaki was involved with Al-Qaeda as a recruiter and promoter of radical thought. He maintained a blog, a YouTube channel, and a magazine (Inspire), all of which are often cited as inspiration for terrorist attacks. At the time, he was central in organizing Al-Qaeda's foreign operations.45 Attorney General Eric Holder wrote that, of the four US citizens killed in Yemen, only Al-Awlaki was intentionally targeted.46

While the others killed in Yemen were not deliberate targets, most had some suspected ties to terrorism. Al-Awlaki's son, Abdulrahman, who was born in Denver, Colorado, was killed on October 11, 2011. By all accounts, the strike was not targeting Abdulrahman; many US officials, including Barack Obama, were allegedly "surprised and upset" that Abdulrahman was killed.47 Al-Awkali's son had no known ties to terrorism and was apparently out looking for his father, with the actual target supposedly being an Egyptian named Ibrahim Al-Banna, who was suspected of being a senior operative in Yemen's Al-Qaeda affiliate, AQAP.48

Samir Khan, on the other hand, who was killed in the same attack as Anwar Al-Awlaki, appeared to be somewhat more closely tied to terrorist activities. Khan, who was born in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, had been raised in Queens, New York, later to move with his family to Charlotte, North Carolina. He had been maintaining a jihadist blog in his parents' basement when he moved to Yemen in 2009. There he became involved in the magazine, Inspire, the first online jihadi magazine in English writing in "a comfortable American vernacular," as the New York Times described it.49 One passage declared that "it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I [am] Al Qaeda to the core."50 Although not directly targeted in the strike that killed Aw-Awlaki, he would certainly have been on the radar of American counterterrorism officials.

There were two instances in which Americans were killed in Pakistani drone strikes. The first was on November 16, 2011, which killed Jude Kenan Mohammed. Mohammed was the son of an American mother and Pakistani father and grew up in North Carolina. In 2008, a few weeks before his 20th birthday, Mohammed left the United States to visit his father in Pakistan. He then disappeared in Pakistan, likely to join and train with Al-Qaeda. In 2009 Mohammed was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted list for providing material support to terrorists. The government reports that he was not specifically targeted, but clearly was considered to be of interest to the United States' counterterrorism officials.51

Although several of these individuals targeted seem like they were not merely in the wrong place at the wrong time, two others killed in Pakistan were just that. In April 2015, the United States reported that it had accidentally killed an American and an Italian, both aid workers who were being held hostage. The United States reported that it "had no reason to believe either hostage was present" during the operation, which intended to target two suspected American Al-Qaeda leaders who were thought to be in the compound. Despite near-continuous surveillance, the United States had not seen the hostages brought into the compound, thus inadvertently putting the two innocent individuals in the crosshairs.52

The same strike that killed the aid workers also killed Adam Gadahn, known as the American mouthpiece of Al-Qaeda for speaking against the country and in support of the terrorist organization. The US government reported that Gadahn was not a specific target but was in the Al-Qaeda compound that had been housing the aid workers who were also killed. A separate strike in April 2015 killed another American suspected of being an Al-Qaeda militant, named Ahmed Farouq, although he too was not specifically targeted.53

In his memoir, Panetta addressed at least the intentional killing of Americans, specifically that of Awlaki. He writes without remorse that Awlaki "actively and repeatedly took action to kill Americans and instill fear. He did not just exercise his rights of speech, but rather worked directly to plant bombs on planes and in cars, specifically intending those to detonate on or above American soil. He devoted his adult life to murdering his fellow citizens, and he was continuing that work at the time of his death."54 In February 2013, a white paper seeking to clarify and institutionalize the general conditions for striking Americans was leaked to NBC News. That Department of Justice white paper sought to provide the legal reasoning behind targeting American citizens with drones.

The memo pointed to legal circumstances based on the belief that an individual is a "senior operational leader" of Al-Qaeda or "an associated force." Belief does not require specific intelligence about a plot to attack the United States. Indeed, the memo states that the United States does not need "clear evidence that a specific attack on US persons and interests will take place in the immediate future." The conceptualization was therefore thought to present "a more expansive definition of self-defense or imminent attack" than had been stated in public speeches.55

It was this question of targeting Americans that Senator Rand Paul used as the fulcrum for his filibuster of John Brennan's nomination as Director of the CIA. In one of the longest filibusters in recent Senate history, beginning at 11:47 am and ending around 12:30 am, Senator Paul raised the specter that drones were a threat to US citizens on US soil.56 "No American should be killed by a drone on American soil without first being charged with a crime, without first being found guilty of a crime by a court," Paul said. "How can you kill someone without going to a judge, or a jury?"57 When the filibuster ended, the vote to confirm Brennan proceeded and he became the next CIA director.

Less than a year later, news outlets reported that the US counterterrorism community was tracking an American working for Al-Qaeda and debating whether to target this individual. Although President Obama was due to make the final decision, on targeting Abdullah Al-Shami, translated as "Abdullah the Syrian," some members of Congress were allegedly informed. As Mazzetti and Schmitt put it, Abdullah Al-Shami's "nom de guerre masks a reality: He was born in the United States" before becoming a militant and fighting with Al-Qaeda in Pakistan.58 The United States also moved aggressively to find Jehad Serwan Mostafa, another US citizen, thought to be involved with Al-Shabab in Somalia. The Justice Department offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture or conviction. Based on US policy, the killing would be justified if the alternative of capture was not feasible or if he was considered an imminent threat.

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