Skip to main content

Still no justice for American teenager killed ten years ago by US in Yemen

On the tenth anniversary of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki's killing, legal advocates say the US' legacy has been 'impunity for civilian deaths'
Abdulrahman al-Awlaki
Sixteen-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was killed in a US drone strike in southern Yemen in 2011 (Facebook page dedicated to his memory)
By Umar A Farooq in Washington

On 14 October 2011, 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was spending the evening enjoying dinner with his cousins at a restaurant in southern Yemen.

An American citizen born in Denver, Colorado, Awlaki had spent the first seven years of his life in the United States and was described by his grandfather as a caring child with a mop of curly hair and a wide, goofy smile.

"We had heard really great stories about how sweet a boy he was," Brett Max Kaufman, a senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, told Middle East Eye.

Yemenis seek justice for 'unlawful' US drone strike killings
Read More »

Yet his age and his US citizenship did not protect Awlaki from a fate shared by many civilians living in areas devastated by the American-led war on terror.

After dinner, Awlaki planned to travel back to his grandfather's home. He never made it. During his meal, he was killed by a US drone strike, with his body "blown to pieces", according to local residents.

A decade later, Washington has done little more than admit he was an unintended victim, advocates say. No compensation has been given to the family, no US official has been held accountable, and the government's targeting killing programme has continued.

"The case revealed just how dominant and impenetrable the culture of secrecy is inside the intelligence community, and the CIA in particular," Kaufman said.

"As a young boy with a lot of promise, and a bright future, his life was taken away by the US government.

"The government hasn't been willing to publicly and on the record come to terms with that. That is a failure of the responsibilities of public officials."

Unintended target

Awlaki's killing came just two weeks after his father, Anwar, was also killed in a US drone strike. That time, however, the US had intended to kill Anwar, who they accused of being a high-level al-Qaeda operative. He was the first US citizen to be targeted and killed in the US drone programme.

In 2012, Nasser al-Awlaki, Anwar's father and Abdulrahman's grandfather, filed a lawsuit with the Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU against the US government over the killings.

Nasser had hoped to receive justice, saying of his grandson that he "never thought that this nice boy would be killed by his own government".

"We were really in a very sad situation and we're still suffering today," he said at the time. "I hope that any American will look to what happened to my grandson as an injustice."

The lawsuit, however, was thrown out after a court ruled "the judiciary has an exceedingly limited role" in matters of war and national security.

'I have no faith left in a judiciary that refuses even to hear whether Abdulrahman, an American child, was wrongfully killed by his own government'

- Nasser al-Awlaki

"Here we have the killings of US citizens abroad, and the courts found they weren't going to review them, basically abdicating their role," said Maria LaHood, deputy legal counsel at the CCR. LaHood was a counsel for the lawsuit.

Nasser ultimately chose not to appeal the case, saying he had no confidence in the American court system.

"I have no faith left in a judiciary that refuses even to hear whether Abdulrahman, an American child, was wrongfully killed by his own government," he said in 2014.

"Although the court failed to fulfill its role in this case, my family and I continue to hope that answers to our questions about why our son and grandson were killed will someday see the light of day, and that there may someday be accountability for the government's actions."

But, far from accountability for the killings, Nasser would see only more tragedy.

In 2017, US commandos killed his eight-year-old granddaughter, Nawar, also a US citizen, during a raid in Yemen that was approved by Trump.

After a decade in which he saw his son, grandson and granddaughter killed; and having failed in his quest for justice in the American court system, Nasser passed away last month.

'Spotlight on drone killings'

LaHood noted that the two drone strikes which killed father and son had brought the issue of the lethal strike programme to national attention.

"The case definitely put a spotlight on drone killings and focused attention on the US policy behind them, and forced some transparency and information being released around the killings," she said.

After the case, the Obama administration introduced measures to increase transparency and limit civilian casualties, but ultimately continued to conduct strikes at a consistent rate.

US senators call on Biden to end lethal force outside war zones
Read More »

From 2012 to 2016, the US conducted 138 further strikes in Yemen, killing at least 41 civilians, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

In 2017, President Donald Trump got rid of the transparency measures and the number of US strikes in Yemen tripled from those conducted in 2016.

Now, US President Joe Biden has issued a new interim guidance on these strikes, and his administration is conducting a review of its policy.

An NSC spokesperson told MEE the "review is ongoing" and that it "will seek to ensure appropriate transparency measures, and ensure we are taking all possible steps to prevent civilian deaths and injuries".

However, legal advocates say despite the review, there has been no attempt at holding the US accountable for the damage that it has caused.

"Because of the secrecy and the lack of accountability that has surrounded the US drone programme for more than a decade, there has been no real attempt to grapple with the true impact of it on the communities targeted," said Jennifer Gibson, a lawyer at the human rights organisation Reprieve.

Killings continue

Just like Awlaki, thousands of civilians have been killed as a result of US bombings. According to a report released last month by the group Airwars, at least 22,679 people have been killed as a result of US air and drone strikes in the 20 years of the "war on terror".

That number could even be as high as 48,308 civilians, the large gap between the two numbers highlighting the lack of transparency "when it comes to civilian harm in war".

"The legacy of the US drone programme is impunity for civilian deaths," Gibson said.

"For the hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent men, women and children killed in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere, there has not only not been an apology - there has been absolutely no engagement from the US at all.

'True accountability requires the US to reckon with the hundreds of other innocent men, women and children it has killed'

- Jennifer Gibson, Reprieve

"Time and again, the US intelligence has been wrong and innocent people have been killed, including children. Yet nobody has ever been held accountable. So the killing continues."

There have been many calls by lawmakers, rights groups, and the victims of US drone strikes themselves to end the use of lethal force, particularly outside of active war zones.

Biden, has however repeatedly touted US air power as a means of being able to maintain a bulwark against militant groups without having a physical presence in certain parts of the world.

The most recent known killing of civilians took place in the Afghan capital, Kabul, in August when the US conducted an air strike that it initially said targeted a high-level Islamic State (IS) militant. It later admitted, however, that it mistakenly took the lives of 10 civilians, all members of the Ahmadi family.

Gibson noted that while accountability for a US killing is welcome, whether it be Abdulrahman al-Awlaki or the Ahmadi family, the US cannot reconcile the past decades of civilian harm with one-off apologies.

"It's never too late for accountability. But true accountability requires the US to reckon with the hundreds of other innocent men, women and children it has killed, and with the impact on their families. They too deserve full accountability," she said.

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.