WASHINGTON — An American citizen who is a member of al-Qaida is actively planning attacks against Americans overseas, U.S. officials say, and the Obama administration is wrestling with whether to kill him with a drone strike and how to do so legally under its new stricter targeting policy issued last year.
The CIA drones watching him cannot strike because he’s a U.S. citizen and the Justice Department must build a case against him, a task it hasn’t completed.
Four U.S. officials said the American suspected terrorist is in a country that refuses U.S. military action on its soil and that has proved unable to go after him. And President Barack Obama’s new policy says American suspected terrorists overseas can only be killed by the military, not the CIA, creating a policy conundrum for the White House.
Two of the officials described the man as an al-Qaida facilitator who has been directly responsible for deadly attacks against U.S. citizens overseas and who continues to plan attacks against them that would use improvised explosive devices.
But one U.S. official said the Defense Department was divided over whether the man is dangerous enough to merit the potential domestic fallout of killing an American without charging him with a crime or trying him, and the potential international fallout of such an operation in a country that has been resistant to U.S. action.
Another of the U.S. officials said the Pentagon did ultimately decide to recommend lethal action.
The officials said the suspected terrorist is well-guarded and in a fairly remote location, so any unilateral attempt by U.S. troops to capture him would be risky and even more politically explosive than a U.S. missile strike.
Under new guidelines Obama addressed in a speech last year to calm anger overseas at the extent of the U.S. drone campaign, lethal force must only be used “to prevent or stop attacks against U.S. persons, and even then, only when capture is not feasible and no other reasonable alternatives exist to address the threat effectively.” The target must also pose “a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” — the legal definition of catching someone in the act of plotting a lethal attack.
The Associated Press has agreed to the government’s request to withhold the name of the country where the suspected terrorist is believed to be because officials said publishing it could interrupt ongoing counterterror operations.