Category Archives: Al-Qaeda

Free Speech or Treason: Finding the Correct Standard for Material Support

Free Speech or Treason: Finding the Correct Standard for Material Support

Abigail Castleberry

            On February 13, 2004, Dr. Tarek Mehanna returned to his home in Boston after a ten-day trip to Abu Dhabi and Yemen. Prosecutors pointed to this trip in arguing that Mehanna provided himself as personnel to Al-Qaeda, though no proof of actual contact was presented to the jury. Later in 2005. Mehanna, at the request of an acquaintance, provided English translations of Arabic-language materials for a website. Mehanna also disseminated certain Arabic texts raising points of Islamic doctrine and opposition to the United States’ actions in Iraq. No evidence was presented at trial showing that any of this material was solicited by Al-Qaeda, and most of the evidence pointed to Mehanna’s actions being an expression of his own personal views. Mehanna was arrested in November of 2008, right before departing to Saudi Arabia for a clinical pharmacy position. After Mehanna refused to serve as an informant, the government filed terrorism charges. Mehanna was convicted of providing “material support” to a terrorist organization, the charge most often used in federal terrorism cases. [1] The statute forbids four types of material support: training, expert advice or assistance, service, and personnel. [2] Prosecutors argued that Mehanna’s translations and postings provided a service to Al-Qaeda. Mehanna was convicted and sentenced to seventeen years, and he appealed to the First Circuit  Court of Appeals which affirmed the conviction. [3] Mehanna has applied for certiorari from the United States Supreme Court.

The foundation of the case is the meaning of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.[4] In Humanitarian Law Project, the Court held that the material support statute could constitutionally prohibit “coordinated” speech such as the direct, interactive teaching. [5] Furthermore, the court defined “service” to “cover advocacy performed in coordination with, or at least at the direction of, a foreign terrorist organization.” [6] However, the Court made it clear that individual advocacy could not be covered by the statute.[7] Humanitarian Law Project did leave open the exact definition of “coordination,” noting that the “’gradation of fact or charge would made a difference as to criminal liability,’ and so adjudication of the reach and constitutionality of the statute must await a concrete situation.”[8] Mehanna claims his case is the ideal for testing the contours of the “material support” statute.

The essential question in this case is how broadly or narrowly the Court will define “coordination.” According to the government’s argument, speech is unprotected when the purpose is in support of the enemy. Therefore, moral support is essentially “coordination” according the government. Such a broad definition likely violates Mehanna’s First Amendment rights. However, there are multiple standards in defining “coordination,” and depending upon the standard that is applied, the outcome of Mehanna’s case could potentially have drastic variations. The standard asserted by the government is likely too broad and difficult to apply. Determining whether speech is in support of the enemy would be an extensively subjective analysis. Under this standard, even a mild condoning of the enemy’s action could be construed as aiding the enemy. Therefore, under this standard, Mehanna’s conviction would likely stand. Though Mehanna had no direct connections with Al Qaeda, his translations likely were read by members and potential trainees. Therefore, the postings and translations would meet the government’s standard for coordination.

The best standard, and the one that likely adheres to the wording of the material support statute, would require actual contact and dealing with the enemy. This standard is supported by the Humanitarian Law Project in which the Court stated that individual advocacy could not be construed as falling under the material support statute. Unlike the government’s standard, requiring contact and dealing with terrorist groups is beneficial on two fronts. First, the standard respects the First Amendment. Those who voice an opinion in support of a terrorist group’s actions will be protected. However, the standard also follows treason jurisprudence by supporting the proposition “trafficking with the enemy, in whatever form, is wholly outside the shelter of the First Amendment. Congress may make criminal any type of dealing with the enemy which in its judgment may have the potentiality of harm to our national interest.”[9] Furthermore, the narrower application of the material support statute would focus law enforcement resources in pursuing individual who pose an actual threat.

The Court is waiting on arguments from the government before deciding to grant certiorari. Even if the Court refuses to grant certiorari, the issues surrounding this case pose a fundamental question on what our nation sees as treason. At a time when America faces new and unpredictable threats, the Court needs clear precedent in guiding law enforcement about the rights of citizens in this new environment.


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 2339B (2012).

[2] Id.

[3] United  States v. Mehanna, 735 F.3d 32 (1st Cir. 2013).

[4] 560 U.S. 1 (2010).

[5] Id. at 2709.

[6] Id. at 2709-10.

[7] Id. at 2709.

[8] Id. at 2722.

[9] Chandler v. United States, 171 F.2d 921, 939 (1st Cir. 1948).

Obama Administration Justified in Targeted-Killing

Jared Miller

Jared Miller, Junior Editor, Alabama Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Law Review

Anwar al-Awlaki (Awlaki) is dead. Before September 29, 2011, this leader was relatively unknown to most citizens of the United States. However, Awlaki’s story has quickly developed and been publicized due to America’s demand for instantaneity and aggressiveness from its news sources. Why Awlaki was killed, who killed him, and the nature of his killing was exposed in two days. The covert operations penetrating his life, the intelligence leading to his demise and the subsequent blow to his constituency has been plastered across various print and electronic media. Everything from his religious beliefs, the way he lived his life, schools he attended, and the scope of his marriages are in steady conversation rotation across the country. As these facts continue to come to light, it is Awlaki’s citizenship which will most likely have the most significant impact in the foreseeable future.

Awlaki was an admitted member of al-Qaeda. He had every right to join al-Qaeda and promote the beliefs of his organization. Awlaki had free will to support al-Qaeda and encourage their direction. He routinely expressed his hatred for America and Western Civilization. Awlaki used his radical influence to cause harm and continue a jihadist “holy war” against America.  U.S. military officials have called him a master propagandist and said he had immense ability to harm our country.  Subsequently, his dedication led him to become a supremely powerful figure within their ranks. However, it was Awlaki’s actions, not beliefs, which led to his being targeted. Al-Qaeda’s destructive actions and operational tactics have been widely held as terroristic in America. Their attacks on American soil and around the world have led the U.S. government to classify them as a legitimate threat to our national security. Awlaki’s speeches indicate he knew of al-Qaeda’s extremist reputation and he used his position to perpetuate these actions himself. He publicly praised numerous attacks on the nation and was charged with plotting attacks. President Obama even described Awlaki as the “leader of external operations for Al-Qaeda.”  Awlaki was perceived as such a threat that he was approved for targeted killing by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Naturally, he met the same fate as most do when they are placed on this list.

The death of Awlaki came early Friday morning while he was hopping into a pickup truck.  He was caught in the crosshairs of an armed CIA drone and there was nothing he could do.  His death was carried out in Yemen and has been widely praised by their government. It is broadly speculated that the Yemeni Government helped carry out this military operation. Nonetheless, the U.S. Government has not given the exactness of their intelligence. Yemeni officials have commented that Awlaki was a threat to all and that his death was the direct consequence of his actions.  This rationale aligns with the comments being made by United States officials.  However, there is an increasingly growing underlying conversation being had in America about this military action.  Anwar al-Awlaki was born in New Mexico, making him an American citizen.

The conversation being had is the legality of the U.S. government killing an American citizen without judicial process.  The critics of Awlaki’s killing point to the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution that states no one shall be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” These critics argue that there was not a single legal process that led to Awlaki becoming the first U.S. citizen placed on the CIA’s targeted killing list. They argue that this is America and in America actions such as these have to be fulfilled through a legal process. Further, critics point to the potential precedent this targeted listing and killing imposes. It is believed this opens the door to expanded executive authority to the killing of Americans. The American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said, “It is a mistake to invest the President — any President — with the unreviewable power to kill any American whom he deems to present a threat to the country.” Decriers say Awlaki’s murder goes against the framework of our country and has severely eroded the power of the judiciary.  The ACLU filed a lawsuit last year challenging the constitutionality of adding an American citizen to the targeted killings list. The lawsuit was dismissed and the federal judge noted that Awlaki had shown no interest in pursuing a claim in a U.S. justice system “he despised.” However, these conflicting views on the legality of the targeted killing of Americans has not been limited to the parties involved in litigating the preceding laws.

Presidential candidate Ron Paul has even expressed skepticism. He stated U.S. leaders must analyze “assassinating American citizens without charges” even if they do have strong terrorist ties and affiliations. Individuals with similar views of Ron Paul and the ACLU argue that there is no nexus between Awlaki’s actions and superseding the constitution. It is clear that he was implicated in various terrorist acts around the world, but Awlaki never was convicted in an American courtroom. It is this point that is fueling the debate. The critics of the killing argue that the Fifth Amendment requires a trial and conviction in court in order to kill any American citizen.

A quick resolution to this debate seems bleak since no real precedent exists.  Members of the legal community have tried to compare it to the detention of Americans who sided with our enemies in World War II. The precedent established by the actions taken in that point in history is unlikely to gain popularity because a lot of people do not accept America’s conflict with al-Qaeda as a real war. Robert Chesney, a law professor at the University of Texas who specializes in national security law, said that he does not believe “there has ever been a case quite like this.” With that said, most people opposed to Awlaki’s killing are not contentious about the circumstances surrounding his death. These people understand that he was a radical man and did not view America in the best light. However, they are worried about the slippery slope his placement on the targeted list has created.

Nevertheless, the Obama administration has heard the critics and has taken a position to rebut them. The Obama administration claims they were justified in placing Awlaki on the CIA’s targeted killing list because of his shifted focus and subsequent actions. They claim he went from a role of propagandist to operationally active during wartime. They point to Awlaki’s influence within the al-Qaeda sector in the Arabian Peninsula and his role in al-Qaeda in developing terrorist plots against America. The administration focused on three elements to support their argument when they rebutted ACLU’s lawsuit. First, they established that Awlaki was an imminent threat to American citizens. They produced evidence of his participation in plots to blow up specific American based airliners and cargo planes. Next, the administration relied upon the fact Awlaki was fighting with the enemy in armed conflicts against American forces. This was said to further his direct threat against America. Finally, and most importantly, the administration pinpointed the fact that they could not find a feasible way to arrest him. Awlaki’s dual citizenship, allegiance of followers, fleeing ability and pure determination to avoid capture made him “a hard target.” A hard target that was inevitably hit.

“If you’re a terrorist, you’re a terrorist,” exclaimed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta when commenting on Awlaki’s killing. Anwar al-Awlaki was a terrorist.  He was a threat to anyone in this country and anyone whose religious and cultural views did not align with his. His preaching of violence and hate was heard around the world and became more threatening every day. He was just one man, but his influence inspired countless. My views support the officials around the globe acknowledging a safer world without him in it. A stereotype of the al-Qaeda network does not lead me to believe this way. My reasoning comes solely from the words out of his mouth. Awlaki’s destructive words and slant towards violence against America is unacceptable. And I fully agree with the Obama administration legal justification.

It is the federal government’s duty to protect the sovereignty of our nation and provide safety from threats.  Awlaki’s influence and his own hands were an immediate threat to American citizens. He preached for our deaths and took up arms against our troops. His actions were a direct threat against every citizen in the United States and considered treason in the U.S. Constitution (Article 3, §3). The Constitution further signifies that treacherous behavior is punishable by death.  Although Awlaki was not convicted of treason, his words and admittance to crimes made his traitorous stance clear. Furthermore, he was a wanted man and could have turned himself in to clear his name. Awlaki made the choice to elude law enforcement and forgo the judicial process.  America gives any citizen charged with a crime an opportunity to turn themselves in. Clearly, rectifying actions have to be taken when a charged party neglects this right, especially when federal organizations classify this party as a threat. It is true, Awlaki was not given a trial and this seems to cut against the Fifth Amendment. However, the Constitution has to be read and interpreted in the aggregate when the situation warrants. We know of at least three constitutional arguments that arise from Awlaki’s killing. His killing was executed without the exercise of the judicial process. Awlaki was thought to have committed treason. And it is the federal government’s duty to protect its citizens from foreign and domestic threats.

The Obama administration fulfilled their duty by adding Awlaki to the targeted killing list and executed their agenda. Taking away a President’s authority to order someone placed on the targeted killing list would not make America safer. I believe it would impede the national government’s duty to keep its citizens safe. Extreme measures are needed when time is of the essence and threats are imminent. The country elects our leaders to make the hard choices and sometimes they have to be made for our protection. It is a fallacy to demand constitutional protection from threats as an American citizen but chip away at the weapons used to protect us. I am sure the administration would have loved to minimize the Awlaki threat in a more judicially sound way, but CIA drones do not carry handcuffs.

Sources:

http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/story/2011-09-30/awlaki-legal/50620240/1

http://www.bendbulletin.com/article/20111001/NEWS0107/110010372/

http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/yemeni-al-qaeda-took-a-blow-but-remains-a-threat-to-us/2011/10/01/gIQAw9OmDL_story.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anwar_al-Awlaki

http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2011/10/01/killing-awlaki-was-illegal-immoral-and-dangerous/

http://www.denverpost.com/nationworld/ci_19022223

http://nationalinterest.org/blog/paul-pillar/the-killings-yemen-the-rule-law-5963

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treason

http://cnnpressroom.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/30/panetta-if-youre-a-terrorist-youre-a-terrorist/

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