Washington (AP) - The Obama administration is considering filing the first criminal charges against radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki in case the CIA fails to kill him and he is captured alive in
The decision continues the White House's strategy of fighting terrorism both in court and on the battlefield.
Shortly after the failed Christmas Day bombing of a Detroit-bound
The Nigerian man charged with the attempted bombing, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, suggested in
The Obama administration has rewritten the nation's counterterrorism strategy, treating terrorism as both a wartime issue to be handled by the military and CIA, and a legal issue to be settled in court.
That has alternately angered both liberals and conservatives. Congressional Republicans have cast the administration as soft on terrorism for using criminal courts rather than military tribunals to prosecute suspected attackers. Civil liberties groups, meanwhile, have called lethal action against al-Awlaki unconstitutional.
Al-Awlaki is living in a mountainous region of
Such charges, however, would come with political and intelligence-gathering risks. Counterterrorism officials regard al-Awlaki as a terrorist operative, not just a preacher, but they have revealed few specifics. Charging al-Awlaki with having direct involvement in terrorism could require the
The best case scenario for the government would be for Abdulmutallab to plead guilty. He has already told the FBI that al-Awlaki was involved in the airliner bomb plan, and a plea deal would allow Abdulmutallab to become a witness against him. But Abdulmutallab, who fired his lawyers Monday and was given approval to represent himself, has yet to strike a deal and would probably seek a reduced prison sentence in exchange for his help.
Another option, given al-Awlaki's increasingly violent sermons and his collaboration with al-Qaida's propaganda efforts, would be charging him with supporting terrorism. But that charge carries only a 15-year prison sentence, leaving the administration open to questions about how the president can authorize the CIA to essentially impose the death penalty for such a crime.
Al-Awlaki had been under scrutiny for years by FBI agents in
If the Justice Department decides to charge al-Awlaki, it's likely he would not be indicted. Rather, charges are more likely to take the form of an FBI complaint. That's because an indicted suspect automatically gets the right to an attorney if he is captured, making it harder for authorities to question him.
The Justice Department used a similar strategy last week when it announced a criminal complaint against the self-proclaimed emir of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud. He is accused of planning a deadly December 2009 suicide attack on a CIA base in