Deaths of Hostages and American Extremists Renew Focus on Drone Strikes

04/23/2015 12:09 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Three Americans, including two al Qaeda members and an American hostage, Warren Weinstein, 73, were killed in January, along with an Italian hostage in two drone strikes at an al Qaeda compound in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, the White House announced today. Adam Gadahn, 36, an Al Qaeda spokesperson wanted for treason was killed in one attack, while another lesser known American, Ahmed Farouq, a leader in Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, was killed in another that also appeared to kill the Western hostages. Neither of the American al Qaeda members were said to be specifically targeted in the drone strikes.

A somber president addressed the nation on the hostages' deaths this morning on national television following a report about the incidents in the Wall Street Journal.

This morning, I want to express our grief and condolences to the families of two hostages, one American, Dr. Warren Weinstein, and an Italian, Giovani Lo Porto, who were tragically killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation. Warren and Giovanni were aid workers in Pakistan, devoted to improving the lives of the Pakistani people. After Warren was abducted by Al Qaida in 2011, I directed my national security team to do everything possible to find him and to bring him home safely to his family. And dedicated professionals across our government worked tirelessly to do so....

As president and as commander-in-chief, I take full responsibility for all our counterterrorism operations, including the one that inadvertently took the lives of Warren and Giovanni. I profoundly regret what happened.

On behalf of the United States government, I offer our deepest apologies to the families.

Warren Weinstein, a former Peace Corps worker and contractor working on counter poverty efforts in Lahore, Pakistan for USAID, was kidnapped by gunmen in August 2011 and held hostage ever since. Weinstein, whose Jewish faith was mentioned by his captors, pleaded for the United States to agree to calls by al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri for a cessation of airstrikes and the release of extremists in Western custody in a 2012 video.

His wife, Elaine, released a statement today, saying, "We are devastated by this news." She severely criticized Pakistan as well some of parts of U.S. response to her husband's seizure as "disappointing." Another humanitarian aid worker, Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian citizen who was taken hostage in 2012, was also reported killed, although neither bodies or DNA from either men were recovered. The tragic deaths of these hostages come after other Western hostages have been killed recently while being held by Salafist extremists or in unsuccessful rescue operations to free them.

Drone Strikes Used Against American Extremists Before

Drone strikes have killed other Americans, as well as civilians, in a controversial policy used by the Obama administration in recent years. He defended January's operations during his press briefing today: "We believed that this was an Al Qaeda compound, that no civilians were present and that capturing these terrorists was not possible. And we do believe that the operation did take out dangerous members of Al Qaeda."

Anwar Al-Awlaki, 40, an influential English speaking New Mexico-born radical Yemeni cleric who harnessed the Internet to promote violent Jihad, most recently on behalf of his terrorist organization, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), was the first American to be killed, in September 2011, in a targeted drone strike on his convoy in Yemen. He had been a target of the CIA and American military for some time and narrowly escaped a similar strike just days after Bin Laden's killing earlier that year. Al-Awlaki was designated a global terrorist and marked for assassination by President Obama despite a previous unsuccessful federal court challenge and the fact he is an American born citizen. Another American al Qaeda member Samir Khan, 25, not specifically targeted, was also killed in the strike. He was an editor and web specialist for Al Qaeda's internet magazine, Inspire.

Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the issue of targeted drone strikes against American citizens at Northwestern Law School in 2012:

Let me be clear: an operation using lethal force in a foreign country, targeted against a U.S. citizen who is a senior operational leader of al Qaeda or associated forces, and who is actively engaged in planning to kill Americans, would be lawful at least in the following circumstances: First, the U.S. government has determined, after a thorough and careful review, that the individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States; second, capture is not feasible; and third, the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles...

The evaluation of whether an individual presents an "imminent threat" incorporates considerations of the relevant window of opportunity to act, the possible harm that missing the window would cause to civilians, and the likelihood of heading off future disastrous attacks against the United States.

President Obama indicated today that changes to policy may be afoot:

Already, I have directed a full review of what happened. We will identify the lessons that can be learned from this tragedy, and any changes that should be made.

We will do our utmost to ensure it is not repeated, and we will continue to do everything we can to prevent the loss of innocent lives, not just innocent Americans, but all innocent lives, in our counterterrorism operations.

While Not Targeted, an American Al Qaeda Mouthpiece Silenced

Al Qaeda spokesperson Adam Yahiye Gadahn, aka Azzam the American, was killed in one of the January 2015 drone strikes, though he was not specifically targeted. He was a Muslim convert and the only United States citizen in over one half century to be charged with treason.

Born in Oregon to a Protestant father and Catholic mother, Gadahn was raised and home schooled on a rural isolated goat farm in Winchester, CA, 85 miles Southeast of Los Angeles. His paternal grandfather, Dr. Carl Pearlman, who died in 1998, was an Anti-Defamation League Board Member and a Jewish supporter of Israel. Gadahn, who was a fan of death metal music as a youth, developed a difficult relationship with his parents. As a teenager he moved in with his grandmother in neighboring Orange County. Once there, the seventeen-year-old, who spent part of his childhood without phone service, explored religion over the Internet on America Online and turned to Islam.

In November 1995 he converted to Islam at a local mosque. Gadahn soon came under the fold of offshoot extremists and was kicked out of the mosque months later after he was arrested for assaulting a mosque official who objected to his selling items on the grounds. He soon left America for Pakistan coming back once, and then never returning. While in Pakistan he married an Afghan, reportedly had a child, and became associated with Abu Zubaydah, who shuttled recruits to al Qaeda training camps over the border in Afghanistan. He would also later meet with Khalid Sheikh Mohhamed, the mastermind of the 9/11 terror attacks who suggested that he help with one.

Starting in 2004 he emerged as one of al Qaeda's chief English language spokespersons. Over the past decade he has delivered a series of fiery videotaped threats over the Internet from his suspected Pakistan hideout. In October 2005 at the age of 27 he was indicted by a federal grand jury in Orange County, California on charges of treason and providing material support to a designated terrorist organization. Treason, providing aid and comfort to an enemy, is the only modern offense whose requirements are set forth in the Constitution. Gadahn is the first person charged with treason since a World War II era case from 1952. That same day he was also added to the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists List. "Adam Gadahn represents a new breed of home-grown extremist, who has chosen to betray the country of his birth, and align with the al Qaeda terrorist network," explained then FBI Executive Assistant Director Willie Hulon, of the National Security Branch.

"The War on Terror is a fight for hearts and minds, and Gadahn gave himself to our enemies in al Qaeda for the purpose of being a central part of their propaganda machine. By making this choice, we believe Gadahn committed treason -- perhaps the most serious offense for which any person can be tried under our Constitution," noted then Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty. "Adam Gadahn is a U.S. citizen who made a choice to join and act as a propagandist for al Qaeda, an enemy of this country responsible for the horrific deaths of thousands of innocent Americans on Sept. 11, 2001," McNulty further explained.

According to New Yorker reporter Raffi Khatchadourian, "Adam Gadahn, though he tries to adopt the composure of a statesman, exudes the zealotry of a convert, and of youth. Sometimes his syntax is so baroque, his sentiment so earnest, that he sounds like a character from The Lord of the Rings."

In his first tape in 2004 Gadahn stated that his new allegiance was to "a movement waging war on America" whose goal was "killing large numbers of Americans." He also warned that "the streets of America shall run red with blood." He never rose very high in the ranks of al Qaeda and his Internet presence and limited influence was overtaken by more web savvy American born Salafists like Anwar al Awlaki, Younes Mohammed, and Samir Khan. Be that as it may, despite recurrent rumors of his death or capture, Gadahn was still at it until January. In June 2011 in a YouTube video he again urged Americans once again to kill their own:

America is absolutely awash with easily obtainable firearms. You can go down to a gun show at the local convention center and come away with a fully automatic assault rifle without a background check and most likely without having to show an identification card. So what are you waiting for?

For all his notoriety, Gadahn was not a particularly appealing spokesperson. He was soon eclipsed by al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, as well as homegrown American group Revolution Muslim. These internet successors were tied to numerous plots and were more sought out by extremists, before ISIS became the go to web presence for angry disaffected radicals.