An airstrike carried out by the CIA and U.S. Joint Special Operations Command that killed radical Islamist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki today in Yemen was illegal, according to University of Notre Dame international law expert Mary Ellen O’Connell, one of the world’s leading experts on targeted killing.
A key al-Qaeda leader, al-Awlaki has been in hiding in Yemen since 2007.
“The United States is not involved in any armed conflict in Yemen, so to use military force to carry out these killings violates international law,” O’Connell says. “It is only during the intense fighting of an armed conflict that international law permits the taking of human life on a basis other than the immediate need to save life. In armed conflict, a privileged belligerent may use lethal force on the basis of ‘reasonable necessity.’ Aside from armed conflict, the relevant standard is ‘absolute necessity.’