A US-born al-Qaeda militant hiding in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan is at the centre of a debate inside the government over whether President Barack Obama should once again take the “extraordinary step” of authorising the killing of an American citizen overseas.
Abdullah al-Shami was born possibly in Texas but moved with his family to the Middle East when he was a toddler.
Shami has now worked his way up the ranks of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan. His position in the terrorist group strengthened after he married the daughter of a group leader.
He appears to have risen to become one of al-Qaeda’s top planners for operations outside Pakistan, including plots against American troops in Afghanistan, the New York Times reported.
“We have clear and convincing evidence that he’s involved in the production and distribution of IEDs,” the NYT quoted a senior administration official as saying, referring to improvised explosive devices that have long been used to kill American troops in Afghanistan.
The debate to whether the US should use drones to kill Shami “encapsulates some of the thorniest questions raised by the targeted killing programme that Obama has embraced as president: under what circumstances the government may kill American citizens without a trial, whether the battered leadership of al-Qaeda in Pakistan still poses an imminent threat to Americans, and whether the CIA or the Pentagon ought to be the dominant agency running America’s secret wars.”
Shami came to the attention of American authorities in 2008, when another American Bryant Neal Vinas was being trained by al-Qaeda in Pakistan.
An FBI probe revealed that Shami had left the US as a young child and had not maintained any ties to the country.
Even as the Obama administration remains divided on the issue, the Justice Department has been asked to evaluate whether killing Shami in an operation is “legally justified”.
Several officials said the CIA has long advocated killing Shami, and that the Pentagon, while initially reluctant to put him on a target list, has more recently come to the CIA’s position.
The debate over the fate of Shami comes less than a year after Obama announced new guidelines to tighten the rules for carrying out lethal drone operations.
As part of the new rules ordered by Obama, the Pentagon and not the CIA is supposed to carry out any lethal strike against an American overseas.
“This has complicated discussions about Shami, since the CIA alone carries out drone strikes in Pakistan, under the agency’s covert action authority,” the report said, adding this was one of the conditions of a bargain that the spy agency struck in 2004 with then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to allow the CIA to carry out drone strikes.
The debate over Shami’s fate is the first time that the Obama administration has discussed killing an American citizen abroad since American-born terrorist leader Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011.