In 2015, Donald Trump said the U.S. should kill terrorists’ family members.
On Saturday, one such 8-year-old girl was killed in an American raid on an alleged al Qaeda hideout in Yemen.
Nawar al-Awlaki was just 3 years old when her father, al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, and her 16-year-old brother, Abdulrahman, were killed in separate drone strikes. As Awlaki’s death at American hands amplified his message to inspire terror, so too may his daughter’s death—not least because of Trump’s statements in the run-up to his election.
The New Mexico-born cleric climbed the ranks of al Qaeda to become one of the world’s most infamous jihadists. To true believers, Awlaki’s message of America vs. Islam might look prophetic. In his first week in office, America’s president banned refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries. A year before taking office, Trump advocated killing terrorists’ innocent families as a deterrence measure. Even if Nawar’s death was accidental, it will further seem to validate his claims.
Awlaki was the victim of the first targeted assassination of an American citizen abroad, authorized by President Barack Obama in 2009. (It also killed his acolyte, another skilled American al Qaeda propagandist, Samir Khan.) But his martyrdom story, coupled with an American drone strike that killed his 16-year-old son just weeks later, only served to make his propaganda more potent. Awlaki’s sermons found a life of their own online; the numerous photos and screenshots of the gifted orator were overlaid with quotes for his adherents to share.
Awlaki’s strength was in synthesizing jihadi thought for an English-speaking audience. He translated arcane concepts into language understandable to youth, and he did it with a voice and manner of speaking that commanded attention. It’s an easily accessible entry point to jihadi ideology for those drawn to the topic, like one of his most popular lectures, “The Battle of the Hearts and Minds.”
He preached to three of the 9/11 hijackers, got emails from Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hassan, and directed with underwear bomber Umar Abdulmutallab. Even five years after his death, he continues to feature prominently in terror cases in the U.S. Awlaki is said to have inspired San Bernardino shooter Syed Farooq, Chattanooga shooter Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez, and the Boston Marathon bombers. References to him were even found in the notebooks of alleged New York and New Jersey bomber Ahmad Rahami.
It looks like he’ll continue to inspire.
“This is just going to support that desire,” Victor Asal, a political science professor at SUNY Albany and co-director of the Project on Violent Conflict, told The Daily Beast. “The hatred is there, the anger is there, the legend is there.”
Some Yemeni numbers put the total death toll after Saturday’s raid as high as 59. An American servicemember, Chief Petty Officer William “Ryan” Owens, was also killed during the raid, which was aimed at “site exploitation.” In other words, the U.S. wasn’t out to kill top-level leaders. The operation was carried out primarily to gather intelligence.
J.M. Berger, a fellow with the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism—The Hague, cautioned that Nawar’s death might refocus al Qaeda’s attention on the United States, which had taken a backseat to more local conflicts.
“This situation, which would be terrible under any circumstances, is tremendously aggravated by President Trump’s campaign promise to target the families of terrorists,” Berger said. “While I would hope U.S. military personnel would disobey an illegal order to intentionally kill civilians, the fact that the president made that promise during the campaign means that people around the world will assume this was an intentional act.”
Indeed, just over a year ago, Trump called for killing terrorists’ families as a deterrence measure.
"The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” Trump declared on Dec. 2, 2015. “They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, reporters asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer if Trump stood by that statement. He dodged an answer.
But Spicer drew a red line about purposefully targeting U.S. citizens.
“No American citizen will ever be targeted,” Spicer said.