- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Yemen’s government has announced it will not extradite Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born jihadist cleric who is credited with inspiring the recent wave of anti-American terrorist plots by al Qaeda recruits.

Over the weekend, Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al Qirbi said Mr. al-Awlaki would be tried in the Arabian Peninsula state once he is captured.

“The man the U.S. wants to be extradited will stand trial in Yemen under the national law,” Mr. al Qirbi was quoted as saying in the Yemen state news agency, al Saba.

Earlier in the weekend, Mr. al Qirbi told the Kuwaiti newspaper al-Dar that “because of his recent terrorist activity, al-Awlaki is now wanted by the Yemeni government. Hence, he must be tried … in his homeland, but never by other governments.”

Mr. al-Awlaki, who is both a Yemeni and U.S. citizen, is considered a high-value target in President Obama’s war on al Qaeda. Earlier this year, Dennis C. Blair, the director of national intelligence, told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence that the United States could, under special circumstances, order a lethal attack on U.S. citizens who join al Qaeda.

On Christmas Eve, the United States launched an armed drone attack on a compound in Yemen where Mr. al-Awlaki was thought to be staying. The attack missed him.

Mr. al-Awlaki is the spiritual leader of the group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. The group is thought to have several thousand armed followers and operates in areas of Yemen that are not under the full control of the San’a government.

Andy Johnson, a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in an interview that Mr. al-Awlaki is like Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, because of his success in radicalizing recruits.

“Awlaki clearly is a driving force in the effort to recruit and radicalize people to carry out jihadist or extremist attacks,” said Mr. Johnson, who is now director of national security programs for the think tank Third Way.

Mr. al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was in e-mail contact with Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who is charged in the killings of 13 people and woundings of 30 others at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5.

Mr. al-Awlaki also was involved in recruiting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian national who is charged in the Christmas Day attempt to detonate a bomb aboard a Northwest Airline flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The Washington Times first reported in December that Mr. al-Awlaki personally “blessed” the operation.

Faisal Shahzad, the suspect in the attempted car bombing in New York’s Times Square, reportedly told investigators that he was inspired by Mr. al-Awlaki’s online sermons on jihad.

Mr. al-Awlaki is widely credited with bringing al Qaeda’s narrative that the U.S. is at war with Islam to an English-speaking audience on the Internet.

A former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, Barbara Bodine, said the United States lacked a formal extradition treaty with Yemen, and that it was against Yemeni law to extradite a Yemeni national to stand trial in a foreign country.

“There is a constitutional prohibition against turning over any Yemeni citizen to a foreign country,” said Ms. Bodine, who is now diplomat in residence at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs. “Unless we want them to go against their constitution, they cannot do it.”

Ms. Bodine said she did not think the announcement over the weekend was a sign that Yemen was backsliding in its counterterrorism cooperation with the United States.

State Department spokesman Phillip J. Crowley agreed. Asked about the Yemeni foreign minister’s remarks, he said, “We are encouraged by Yemen’s willingness to take action against various extremist groups, especially over the last year.”

Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said that if there were a choice between Mr. al-Awlaki’s capture and his execution by drone strike, U.S. counterterrorism officials probably would prefer his capture.

“It’s not obvious at all that they would choose to kill him,” Mr. Malinowski said. “Letting the Yemeni authorities arrest and put him on trial might strike some people as risky, because five years from now he could buy his way out. But at least you get the opportunity to interrogate him, plus his computer could be exploited, which would be incinerated in a drone attack.”

Mr. Malinowski added, however: “In reality, they are targeting him anyway.”

Since 2002, U.S. counterterrorism authorities have used drone strikes inside Yemen against suspected al Qaeda and other jihadist targets. The standard under international law is that the person authorizing the strike must determine that the attack would not cause disproportionate harm to civilians. Yemen’s cooperation with the U.S. on counterterrorism is shrouded in secrecy by both sides.

Mary Habeck, a former special adviser for strategic planning at the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said Yemen’s government is “quite sensitive to Sunni radicalism as a threat.”

“They would like to get rid of Awlaki and the extremists in general, but at the same time they cannot be seen as bowing to American demands. It opens them up to charges that they are lackeys of the Americans,” she said.

Ms. Habeck, now a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, added: “This leaves few options for us and makes more understandable the Obama decision to target Awlaki.”

• Eli Lake can be reached at elake@washingtontimes.com.

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