Challenging Unlawful U.S. Killings in the Continuing “War on Terror”

Since 9/11, the United States has not only detained thousands of people without charge in the name of a global “war” against Al Qaeda, the Taliban and “associated forces,” but killed thousands more. These killings, mostly but not exclusively using armed drones, and conducted by the CIA and the covert Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) of the U.S. military, have been carried out not only on recognized battlefields like Afghanistan, but far from those areas – in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and perhaps elsewhere. While the Obama Administration refuses to make virtually any data publicly available about where and how many strikes have been carried out, and how many have been killed, credible non-governmental sources show between 2,500 and over 4,000 people have been killed. And as many as 200 or more were children.

The government claims this killing authority on the basis of domestic law – the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (“AUMF”) – and international law. But in passing the AUMF in response to the attacks of 9/11, Congress did not hand the Executive a blank check to engage in endless war against a potentially infinite number of groups. And international law generally prohibits lethal force in the absence of due process – except as a last resort to address imminent threats, or in situations that meet the threshold of armed conflict. The government’s killing program expands these limited exceptions in dangerous and unprecedented ways that give license to other countries to follow suit.

In August 2010, CCR and the ACLU brought the first legal challenge to the U.S. killing program, in Al-Aulaqi v. Obama. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of the father of U.S. citizen Anwar Al-Aulaqi, challenged Al-Aulaqi’s addition to secret CIA and JSOC “kill lists,” which we argued amounted to a standing order to kill him in violation of his constitutional rights. The district court in Washington, D.C. dismissed the case in April 2010, finding in part that the legal claims presented – concerning the government’s constitutional authority to kill one of its own citizens in the absence of due process – amounted to “political questions” best left to the political branches.

On September 30, 2011, U.S. drone strikes targeted and killed Al-Aulaqi in Yemen, along with three others, including another U.S. citizen, Samir Khan. Two weeks later, on October 14, 2011, U.S. drones killed Al-Aulaqi’s 16 year-old son, Abdulrahman, as he was eating dinner outside with his teenage cousin. Following these killings, CCR and the ACLU filed a subsequent lawsuit, Al-Aulaqi v. Panetta, challenging the legality of the killings of these U.S. citizens under the Constitution. While this time the district court rejected the government’s “political question” defense, it found that the court still could not decide the legal issues because national security-related “special factors” precluded judicial review. The case was dismissed in April 2014.

Our efforts to challenge this program include out-of-court advocacy. CCR signed on to coalition letters to President Obama on April 11, 2013 and December 4, 2013, urging his Administration “to publicly disclose key targeted killing standards and criteria; ensure that U.S. lethal force operations comply with international law; enable meaningful congressional oversight and judicial review; and effectively investigate, track and respond to allegations of unlawful strikes and civilian harm.” In September 2014, CCR participated in an expert panel at the United Nations Human Rights Council on the international law obligations of states in using lethal force through armed drones. In advance of the panel, CCR and other human rights and civil liberties organizations submitted a joint letter to the Council outlining concerns with “targeted killings” and making recommendations for greater transparency and accountability.

The UN discussion was an important step toward bringing to bear further international scrutiny on the U.S. program. In statements during the discussion, a number of countries affirmed the adequacy of existing international legal norms and cautioned against rewriting or relaxing those standards; and virtually all called for accountability and greater transparency, including of investigations into civilian harm. The UN issued a statement following the panel, summarizing statements made by panelists, member states and civil society organizations.

These killings have terrorized and devastated families and communities, distorted the law, and set dangerous precedent for the international community. Keep checking with us to learn more about our efforts to end unlawful U.S. killings, and how you can help.







Last modified 

September 25, 2014