The attacks, on Sept. 30 and Oct. 14, were carried out by unmanned drones armed with missiles. Such attacks are a component of US antiterrorism operations overseas, conducted and authorized by the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency.
The 17-page complaint, filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the American Civil Liberties Union, charges that the US practice of maintaining “kill lists” that target suspected terrorists — including US citizens — violates the citizens’ constitutional right to due process of law and the right to be free from unreasonable seizure by the government.
“This suit is an effort to enforce the Constitution’s fundamental guarantee against the deprivation of life without due process of law,” Jameel Jaffer of the ACLU said in a statement.
“The Constitution does not permit a bureaucratized program under which Americans far from any battlefield are summarily killed by their own government on the basis of shifting legal standards and allegations never tested in court,” Mr. Jaffer said.
Among those on the “kill list” was Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born member of the militant Islamic group Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Three others were killed in the attack on Mr. Awlaki’s car, including Samir Khan, a US citizen since 1998.
Two weeks after that fatal missile attack, Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, was killed in a drone strike at an open-air restaurant 200 miles from the attack on his father. In all, seven people died in that attack.
Abdulrahman was a US citizen by birth, having been born in Colorado in 1995. He was a freshman in high school in Sana, Yemen’s capital.
“When a 16-year-old boy who has never been charged with a crime nor ever alleged to have committed a violent act is blown to pieces by US missiles, alarm bells should go off,” Pardiss Kebriaei, a CCR staff attorney, said in a statement.
“The US program of sending drones into countries in and against which it is not at war and eliminating so-called enemies on the basis of executive memos and conference calls is illegal, out of control, and must end,” she said.
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Washington on behalf of Sarah Khan, Samir Khan’s mother. It was also filed on behalf of Nasser al-Awlaki, the father of Anwar and grandfather of Abdulrahman.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from four US officials involved in authorizing and directing drone operations — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; CIA Director David Petraeus; William McRaven, commander of the Special Operations Command; and Joseph Votel, commander of the Joint Special Operations Command.
“The US practice of ‘targeted killing’ has resulted in the deaths of thousands of people, including many hundreds of civilian bystanders,” the suit says. “While some targeted killings have been carried out in the context of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many have taken place outside the context of armed conflict, in countries including Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan, Sudan, and the Philippines.”
The lawsuit alleges that the killings of the three American citizens were unlawful because they took place at a time when the US was not engaged in an armed conflict in Yemen.
“Outside the context of armed conflict, both the United States Constitution and international human rights law prohibit the use of lethal force unless, at the time it is applied, lethal force is the last resort to protect against a concrete, specific, and imminent threat of death or serious physical injury,” the lawsuit says.
The suit says that the use of lethal force against Anwar al-Awlaki was not a last resort.
His father, Nasser, had filed a lawsuit in 2010 asking a federal judge to block the US government from targeting his son.
US District Judge John Bates ruled that the father lacked the necessary legal standing to bring such a lawsuit. He also ruled that the issue presented a political question for political leaders that was beyond the reach of a federal judge.
“This court does not hold that the Executive possesses unreviewable authority to order the assassination of any American whom he labels an enemy of the state,” Judge Bates wrote in his December 2010 decision.
“Rather, the court only concludes that it lacks the capacity to determine whether a specific individual in hiding overseas … presents such a threat to national security that the United States may authorize the use of lethal force against him,” the judge said.