- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Obama administration is considering filing the first criminal charges against radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in the event that the CIA fails to kill him and he is captured alive in Yemen.

The decision continues the White House’s strategy of fighting terrorism both in court and on the battlefield, one that has drawn fire from liberals and conservatives alike.

Mr. al-Awlaki, a U.S. and Yemeni citizen born in New Mexico, has allegedly inspired a wave of attempted attacks against American targets and has become al Qaeda’s leading English-speaking voice for recruiting and motivating terrorists. Counterterrorism officials said Mr. al-Awlaki since mid-2009 has become a key operational figure who selects targets and gives orders.

Shortly after the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound U.S. airliner, which officials believe Mr. al-Awlaki had a hand in planning, the White House took the unprecedented step of authorizing the CIA to kill or capture him. A decision on criminal charges is expected in the next several weeks, officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the deliberations.

The Nigerian man charged with the attempted bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, suggested in a Detroit federal court Monday that he wanted to plead guilty to some charges, raising the possibility that his cooperation could form the foundation for charges against Mr. al-Awlaki.

The Obama administration has rewritten the nation’s counterterrorism strategy, treating terrorism as both a wartime issue to be handled by the military and CIA, and a legal issue to be settled in court.

That approach has, for differing reasons, angered both liberals and conservatives. Congressional Republicans have cast the administration as soft on terrorism for using criminal courts rather than military tribunals to prosecute some suspected attackers. Civil liberties groups, meanwhile, have called lethal action against Mr. al-Awlaki unconstitutional.

Mr. al-Awlaki is living in a mountainous region of Yemen, sheltered by his family and religious leaders who say he has no ties to terrorism. Yemeni officials have said they will not turn him over to the U.S. because, as a Yemeni citizen, he must be prosecuted there.

Yemen has been an unreliable U.S. partner when it comes to holding terrorists in jail, however, thus charging Mr. al-Awlaki in the U.S. would make it easier for the Obama administration to demand he be turned over.

Such charges would come with political and intelligence-gathering risks. Counterterrorism officials regard Mr. al-Awlaki as a terrorist operative, not just a preacher, but they have revealed few specifics. Charging Mr. al-Awlaki with having direct involvement in terrorism could require U.S. officials to reveal evidence gleaned from foreign wiretaps or confidential informants.

The cleric had been under scrutiny for years by FBI agents in San Diego, where he lived in the late 1990s. He also lived in Northern Virginia before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Both areas are seen as prosecutor-friendly districts for national security cases. As a U.S. citizen, he cannot be prosecuted by a military commission.