Syrians may have just experienced the first suicide bombing by an American jihadist.
Al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria, the Al Nusrah Front, made the statement May 25, the non-profit organization The Long War Journal reported Tuesday. An official with the terrorist organization announced the attack via Twitter, saying that it was done in conjunction with attacks by three other bombers.
The Long War Journal reported that the suicide bombing was yet to be confirmed by the groups directly responsible for the attack, but that a picture of “Abu Hurayra Al-Amriki,” (“The American”) was posted on Twitter on Tuesday with the caption: “Performed a martyrdom operation in Idlib, Jabal Al-Arba’een. May Allah accept him.”
The story, as yet unverified, raises the question at the heart of the debate concerning our use of drones: If we can locate overseas an American jihadi preparing a suicide bombing, should we take him out with a drone or let him kill innocents? The example reported in the Washington Times is particularly apt because there is no accessible government in Syria in control of the entire country with which we can exchange intelligence information and we have no troops there.
In his most recent anti-drone iteration, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) threw in the qualifier that his version of the Constitution did not prohibit killing an American “on the battlefield.” I don’t know where he came up with that qualifier as a constitutional matter (as previously discussed the Constitution gives the executive broad powers to wage war, and the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed by Congress has been invoked 30 times in the war against jihadist terror), but in the real world in which we face jihadist lone wolves, al-Qaeda groups and loosely affiliated groups and individuals, what is the “battlefield”? (The idea of a “battlefield” — as if we are fighting a World War II battle — suggests a lack of appreciation for the range of al-Qaeda threats.)
Let’s make this concrete. If the American jihadist is setting the bomb, is it acceptable to drone him then? What if he is building the bomb? What about Anwar al-Awlaki, who recruited and inspired American jihadists to set bombs or slaughter unarmed soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex.? One might have personal judgments about each of these cases, but does the Constitution really micromanage the executive to make hair-line distinctions? (Moreover, such an argument falsely assumes that we can, with pinpoint accuracy, strike the terrorist only in the “act” and that we have unlimited opportunities to strike him.) This is only one example of the danger of attaching criminal jurisprudence to war. It’s bad law, and it’s bad national security.
The issue shouldn’t be lightly discarded. Every presidential candidate should be asked whether he or she would have voted for the AUMF and whether the candidate would use a drone to prevent an American jihadi suicide bomber somewhere in the Middle East from, say, taking down an airliner, in a situation in which we could not apprehend him.
The AUMF has for some time been the subject of debate. Some would argue that when we leave Afghanistan it should be explicitly reaffirmed so that the president, our armed forces and our intelligence community can continue to defeat our jihadist enemies. Others are laying the case that the AUMF should disappear altogether after the last of our troops exit Afghanistan, thereby radically restricting the United States’ ability to defend itself and its allies. That seems to be precisely what the Obama administration is contemplating. Candidates should be asked about this as well.
A more realistic view would acknowledge the ongoing war against jihadist terror, the dangers, for example, in letting the Guantanamo prisoners out (if the AUMF disappears, surely they’d press for their freedom), and the plethora of threats we still face, which even the Obama administration now admits have spread geographically and now encompass a myriad of groups. The candidates should, of course, be asked about this as well.
It is no secret that the far left and right think that the war on terror has been overblown and that our own intelligence agencies pose a bigger threat to us than terrorists. In a campaign, they should make that case and let the voters decide whether we want to go back to a pre-9/11 footing with a metastasizing al-Qaeda on the prowl.