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Two Americans Killed in Yemen Drone Strikes

Aired December 5, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour. Tonight the story of two American citizens killed in two separate U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, a teenage boy and his father.

Both were among more than 3,000 people estimated to have been targeted and killed in drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere in the last decade.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): The father, Anwar al-Awlaki, was born in the state of New Mexico and was a powerful inspiration to a generation of jihadis intent on attacking America, including this man, the so-called Underwear Bomber, who tried and failed to blow up an American airliner over the U.S. on Christmas Day in 2009.


AMANPOUR: Al-Awlaki had returned to his native Yemen and President Obama put him on his so-called "kill list." And two years later he was indeed killed by a drone.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): But just two weeks after that, an American drone struck again in Yemen and killed another American citizen. This was Anwar's 16-year-old son, a minor and a noncombatant. He died while eating at an outdoor restaurant along with several other people, including children.


AMANPOUR: So why was an American teenager, born in the U.S. state of Colorado, killed by his own government? By now, the U.S. drone program is infamous; it's loathed (ph) around the world, although it is popular in the United States. Suspected terrorists of different nationalities are being killed by the American government in a shadow war without a clearly delineated legal process.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Today, we're going to look into both sides of the debate over targeted killing. And we begin the discussion with my exclusive guest, Nasser al-Awlaki, who is speaking now for the first time. He's Anwar's father and the grandfather of the dead teenager, Abdulrahman.

Nasser came to the United States from Yemen on a Fulbright scholarship back in 1966. He had his children and he settled his family here for years. But now he's suing U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, former CIA Director David Petraeus and top counterterrorism officials over the killing of his grandson.


AMANPOUR: Nasser al-Awlaki joins me from Cairo, along with Hina Shamsi, a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union, who, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights, is bringing this lawsuit on al- Awlaki's behalf.

Mr. al-Awlaki, thank you very much and welcome to this program.

NASSER AL-AWLAKI: Thank you very much, Christiane. I am pleased to be in your program.

AMANPOUR: And tell me first, what do you hope to achieve? What do you hope to change by bringing this suit against top U.S. officials?

AL-AWLAKI: What I am trying to achieve from this is really to know everything what happened regarding my son and my grandson, and also to have justice from the U.S. legal system about what happened.

What I want -- I am not looking for compensation; I am not looking for money. What I am looking is justice from the U.S. court system because I feel my son and my grandson, Abdulrahman, were killed for no reason.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Al-Awlaki, can you tell me -- and now separate, if you will, your son and your grandson -- what was your relationship with your son? Why did he go off the rails? Do you accept that he was the inspiration for some of these violent acts that have -- that have been attempted?

AL-AWLAKI: Well, you know, my son, Anwar, he was born in New Mexico and, until he was 7 years old, we raised him in the United States, like any other U.S. citizen. And then we moved to Yemen. He went to high school; he was among the top students.

AMANPOUR: However, through his own words, Anwar, all over YouTube and in many of his sermons, did talk against the United States and was taken as an inspiration by the Ft. Hood alleged murderer, by the Underwear Bomber that failed on Christmas Day.

What happened? What turned him? And do you accept that he turned against the U.S.?

AL-AWLAKI: Well, I want you, Christiane, to read all his words, which he did. It was regular sermons like any preacher. And so -- but when things happened to him, he became a little bit against the United States.

And I don't really necessarily agree with what maybe some of the things which Anwar said against the United States. But does that mean they should kill him? You know, outside the law?

AMANPOUR: As painful as it was for you to see your son killed, did you, in the back of your mind, expect that to happen?

AL-AWLAKI: You know, Anwar, it was expected because he was under targeted killing.

But how in the world they will go and kill Abdulrahman, small boy, U.S. citizen, from Denver, Colorado?

You know, Christiane, I went to see his grave and they put all of them in one grave because the -- you know, when I saw the cemetery, they told me they were, you know, blown up by the -- by the Hellfire missile. And I -- they had no decent burial.

AMANPOUR: Dr. al-Awlaki, the United States has not said much about the killing of your grandson, Abdulrahman, except during the Democratic convention earlier this summer, when Robert Gibbs, who was an Obama adviser, was asked about it.

And this is what he responded.


ROBERT GIBBS, OBAMA ADVISER: I would suggest that you should have a formal responsible father if they're truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don't think becoming an Al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.


AMANPOUR: What is your reaction to that?

AL-AWLAKI: I was really astonished. How a man, who used to be the spokesman for the White House, would say something like this.

You know, Abdulrahman was raised with me. And he was raised in America until he was 7 years with his father. I was the one who raised Abdulrahman because when Anwar went to other places in Yemen, I had -- I was the one who really raised him.

How can he say something ridiculous like that?

AMANPOUR: The U.S. also suggested that Abdulrahman was a military-age militant, that he was of military age. But you produced his birth certificate, in which it shows clearly that he was born in 1995 in Denver, Colorado.

What did you make of the accusation that he was a militant? And can you be absolutely sure that he had no such connections, that he was not being drawn into --

AL-AWLAKI: Christiane --

AMANPOUR: -- militant circles?

AL-AWLAKI: Christiane, Christiane, I -- since the issue regarding Anwar came, I tried to insulate the family of Anwar from everything regarding this matter. I took care of him. And suddenly, after two years' absence from his father, he decided to go to our government in Yemen to seek information about his father.

That was the only reason he went -- and he did not tell us. He got out of the kitchen window in the third (ph), you know, floor of our house and he went without telling us. And it was the first time that he would do something like this. He was an obedient boy, very handsome boy, very nice boy.

And he left a message to his mother, in which he said, "Mother, forgive me for doing this. But I have to find some information about my father." And that's what -- he went only to look for his father.

And the thing that -- what happened, he went to the wrong place, because his father was 400 kilometers away. And then his father was killed. And he wanted to come back. But then after two days, he was also killed.

You know, he's not a militant. He's a nice boy. He has a Facebook page. And he had a lot of friends.

He's decent boy, smart boy. You know, he wear glasses since he was 7 years old. He's very gentle and soft boy. How can people would say that he's a militant?

You know, some television say he was more than 21 years. But then when I prove that he was born in 1995, then everybody became silent. And the United States government keeps silent. And they didn't say anything else about that.

And that's why I want to know why Abdulrahman was killed. He is only small boy. I wanted to send him to America, Christiane, to study like his father, like myself, like my other sons.

AMANPOUR: You have spoken a great deal about your love and respect for the United States. Do you still have that love and respect? How has it affected your relationship with the U.S., the killing of your grandson?

AL-AWLAKI: You know, it is unbelievable, Christiane; when I return back in -- to Yemen after 111/2 years in America, I -- most of my friends were the American community.

In fact when I was appointed as the minister of agriculture in Yemen, the U.S. community in Yemen, they were so happy that a man who studied in America became a minister of agriculture in Yemen.

I loved America. I loved the way America, you know, the way of life in America.

But now, really, after September 11th, it seems to me that America changed a lot. And to me, I am not really angry with the American people. I am angry because I don't -- I didn't get justice until now.

The -- and I think I will -- when I get accountability, when I get justice, I hope I will overcome everything in my heart against the U.S. government. But the U.S. people, I have no grudge with anybody in the United States.

AMANPOUR: Dr. al-Awlaki, thank you very much for joining me.

AL-AWLAKI: Thank you, Christiane.


AMANPOUR: And his attorney, Hina Shamsi, who you saw there, will join me after a break.

And to hear what Dr. al-Awlaki told me about his own government in Yemen allowing U.S. drone strikes on its territory, head to

We've just, as we've seen, heard the very personal side of this shadowy war, but it's not the only side. Some say drones may actually prevent a wider war. A spirited debate on the pros and cons of targeted killing when we return.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program as we continue to look at targeted killings by American drones.

The U.S. government insists that any action it takes, covert or otherwise, complies with all applicable laws. Here's President Obama making the case to CNN's Jessica Yellin earlier this year.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's very easy to slip into a situation in which you end up bending rules, thinking that the ends always justify the means. And that's not been our tradition. That's not who we are as a country.

Our most powerful tool over the long term to reduce the terrorist threat is to live up to our values.


AMANPOUR: Well, of course, opponents say one is on the slippery slope. But proponents say drones are much more accurate than other means of warfare and that they've killed far more suspected terrorists than they have civilians.

This war also offers great political advantages to the Obama administration. It's a fierce battle being waged from the skies, largely out of sight of the American people, while at the same time, the administration is ending unpopular ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But is this invisible killing lulling the public into thinking there are easy solutions? There is no such thing as a magic bullet, and there have been strategic setbacks.

Joining me now, Matthew Waxman. He served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, and he's now professor at the Columbia Law School.

And also again, Hina Shamsi, who's the lawyer for the ACLU. She is helping to bring the lawsuit for the al-Awlaki family, and she joins me once again from Cairo.

Welcome, both of you.

Let me go straight to you, Mr. Waxman.

You heard an impassioned plea for accountability, for justice.

Is that an unreasonable claim from Dr. al-Awlaki, the very basic accountability?

MATTHEW WAXMAN, PROFESSOR, COLUMBIA LAW SCHOOL: Well, I don't think it's an unreasonable claim. I think the question, though, is what form of accountability is appropriate in a case like this.

We're not talking about criminal justice here. We're talking about military and intelligence operations in an ongoing war or armed conflict with a transnational terrorist organization or other actions that the United States is taking, military and intelligence actions in defense of the United States.

AMANPOUR: That is certainly the U.S. position. Obviously you know there's a huge amount of controversy over it, particularly over the issue of due process and particularly when it involves American citizens.

Would you agree that when it does involve American citizens, as has been the case with the al-Awlaki family, and a minor to boot -- Abdulrahman, 16 years old -- there needs to be an extra level of due process? There needs to be extra consideration?

WAXMAN: Well, I would agree that there probably ought to be. I think there's a question of legally, as a matter of U.S. constitutional law, of what is required.

AMANPOUR: There is no indictment; there's no accusation formally or anything, I think.

Is this where the ACLU, Hina, has a problem? What is it that you specifically want to address in this lawsuit?

HINA SHAMSI, ACLU ATTORNEY: What Matt said -- and certainly it's something that our attorney general has argued -- that due process doesn't mean judicial process, we couldn't disagree with more.

There are extraordinary circumstances in which the government may use lethal force in response to an actual concrete and imminent threat. And those circumstances were not met in the case of any of the three citizens that we brought the lawsuit regarding.

And they are specifically called into question when you look at the case of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16-year-old boy, eating dinner outside; no one has made any allegation that he was engaged in wrongdoing. And his case is representative of either a wrongful targeting or the case of a civilian bystander being killed.

And our lawsuit is motivated by concerns that this is happening more broadly. Thousands of people have died in the targeted killing program, which takes place far from any actual battlefield and the lawsuit is an effort to provide transparency about the vague legal criteria the government's using and the basis on which it is carrying out that program.

AMANPOUR: So despite whether you agree or not, do you think it needs more codification? And should the Obama administration or any speak out louder about what they're doing?

WAXMAN: It may be argued that we would be better off either as a democracy or in codifying, as you said, our rules and making them more concrete, explainable and so forth. We may be better off in making them very transparent and perhaps even creating a process by which they could be reviewed by a court.

As the law stands now, that is simply not a requirement.

AMANPOUR: You were, under President George W. Bush, who started the drone program, in the National Security Council.

Let me ask you about policy now, not the law, policy.

Many believe that these drone attacks have dealt a fatal blow to Al Qaeda. And yet, given the fact that they're all popping up all over the place, it seems that, legal or not, it's also had a blowback in terms of policies, almost like Whac-A-Mole.

Does that not concern you?

WAXMAN: It concerns me a lot, and I think there are several different aspects of this, that all need to be weighed. I think the Bush administration and the Obama administration are correct, that drone strikes against targeted individuals are a very, very valuable counterterrorism tool for neutralizing threats, disrupting networks and so forth.

But they do carry risks. They carry risks of collateral damage that may have blowback effect. They carry risks that we -- that we may erode, that the perceptions of our drone program may erode respect for certain international norms. And those are important to us, not just morally, ethically and legally, but strategically.

I think we have an interest in upholding and promoting those international standards. And, again, I think that's a reason why some degree of transparency and explanation is important here, whether legally required or not.

AMANPOUR: Hina, it looks like the Obama administration is not backing away from this kind of strategy they have, the drone strategy. We know that it's cheap in terms of politics. We know that it's out of sight, so therefore out of mind amongst the American people.

And let me just tell you that 83 percent of the United States' population approve drone strikes, and 79 percent approve even against American citizens.

But picking up what Matthew says, how does it harm the U.S. in its counterterrorism when allied governments, for instance, simply don't agree and don't cooperate in this kind of process?

HINA SHAMSI, ACLU LAWYER: Well, it harms the U.S. in a number of different ways. Primarily, the idea that the United States is involved in a potentially global armed conflict, where it can declare people suspected enemies and target them for killing wherever they may be found, is not accepted by virtually any other allied government.

No other government agrees with the scope of the United States' position, which undermines its legitimacy and it shows the extent to which it is an outlier. The United States is an outlier right now.

And to whatever extent allied governments may have been publicly silent, at least, under the first Obama administration, as the administration moved to make the targeted killing program more codified, more bureaucratized, potentially more permanent, we're going to see, I think, more and more governments speak out in order to prevent the illegal and dangerous precedent that the United States is setting from being invoked by other countries.

If we don't want a world in which other nations claim the power to declare people enemies of the state and target them in different parts of the world, we shouldn't be applying that ourselves.

And former Bush administration officials as well, Robert Grenier, who used to be the head of the CIA Counterterrorism Center under the Bush administration, has said that we are being seduced by drones and that we are creating far more enemies than we are killing.

AMANPOUR: Isn't there some truth to that, that one is seduced by drones, not only creating far more enemies, but almost institutionalizing this perpetual out-of-sight war, this joystick war?

WAXMAN: Well, I wouldn't -- I wouldn't call it a joystick war, because I think that image tends to conjure the idea that the United States takes lightly, that U.S. government --

AMANPOUR: I mean literally --


WAXMAN: -- right, OK. But even thinking of the image of a computer game, I think --

AMANPOUR: But the thing is it's true.

WAXMAN: I don't think that's true. I mean, in terms of --

AMANPOUR: (Inaudible) U.S. feel that. And even the people who've been operating, there have been plenty of articles. There's an -- there's an air of unreality about what's happening.

WAXMAN: I think that there are a lot of misperceptions that the Obama administration is taking steps to try to combat and push back against.

But I think the idea that the United States military and other parts of the United States government are not taking seriously their obligations to comply with the laws of war, they are not taking seriously the idea that collateral damage or mistakes not only carries immense moral dangers, but also strategic dangers, I think that's just simply wrong, from what I've seen.

AMANPOUR: Matthew Waxman, Hina Shamsi, this is a great conversation; we wish we had more time and we will continue it, because this administration doesn't look like it's stopping its drone strategy.

Thank you both very much indeed.


AMANPOUR: And drones, as we've been discussing, have been America's counterterrorism weapon of choice, not just in Yemen but in Pakistan. But one brave Pakistani journalist spent a lifetime targeting terrorists and other homegrown enemies with a weapon of his own: believing the pen really is mightier than the drone. That's when we return.



AMANPOUR: And finally, nowhere are the politics of drones more hotly debated than in Pakistan. But terrorism and counterterrorism are hardly the only problems in that most problematic of countries.

Ardeshir Cowasjee knew that. And for a quarter of a century, he wrote a weekly column for the popular newspaper, "Dawn." He focused on the blight that afflicts ordinary lives fighting for parks and clean air while bravely exposing corruption and religious intolerance.

In a land where dissent can be punished with imprisonment or worse, the Committee to Protect Journalists says that Pakistan is the most dangerous country on Earth for reporters.

But he spoke out fearlessly against the political establishment.


ARDESHIR COWASJEE, PAKISTANI JOURNALIST: How long do you want the same people to mess up the same country again and again? How long do you think a country can resist? How resilient can the people be? How resilient can a country be? How resilient can the environment be to just bear these fellows, these useless rotters, again and again and again?


AMANPOUR: Born into a wealthy family, a member of the Zoroastrian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country, Cowasjee found his calling by writing letters to the editor. And that led to the column that made him the conscience of his country until his death at age of 86.

Pakistan and those who fear for its future will miss his courage and his wisdom.

And that's it for tonight's program. Meantime, you can always contact us on our website, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.