WASHINGTON – He is known as Abdullah al Shami, an Arabic name meaning “Abdullah the Syrian.” But his nom de guerre masks a reality: He was born in the United States, and the United States is now deciding whether to kill him.
Shami, a militant who U.S. officials say is living in the barren mountains of northwestern Pakistan, is at the center of a debate inside the government over whether President Obama should once again take the extraordinary step of authorizing the killing of a U.S. citizen overseas.
It is a debate that encapsulates some of the thorniest questions raised by the targeted killing program that Obama has embraced as president: under what circumstances the government may kill U.S. citizens without a trial, whether the battered leadership of al-Qaida in Pakistan still poses an imminent threat to Americans, and whether the CIA or the Pentagon ought to be the dominant agency running the United States’ secret wars.
Interviews with U.S. officials and outside terrorism experts sketch only the most impressionistic portraits of Shami.
Born in the United States, possibly in Texas, Shami moved with his family to the Middle East when he was a toddler. Obama administration officials declined requests to provide biographical information about Shami such as his real name and age – saying that the information is classified – or any specific information about where he was born or where he traveled after leaving the United States.
But his nom de guerre has a familiar ring for jihadists: An operative of al-Qaida named Abu Abdullah al Shami escaped with three other people from the U.S. military prison in Bagram, Afghanistan, in 2005 and was killed in a drone strike three years later.
He came to the attention of the U.S. authorities in 2008, around the same time that another American, Bryant Neal Vinas, was getting al-Qaida training in Pakistan, one former counterterrorism official recalled. The authorities worried at the time that a surge of people with terrorism training and Western passports might be coming to the United States. Vinas was later captured and brought back to the United States, where he pleaded guilty to terrorism charges.
The FBI investigated Shami and determined that he had been born in the United States but that he had left as a young child and had not maintained any ties to the country. In the years since then, Shami worked his way up the ranks of al-Qaida’s senior leadership in Pakistan, his ascent aided by his marriage to the daughter of a top al-Qaida leader. Last year, he appears to have risen to become one of al-Qaida’s top planners for operations outside Pakistan, including plots against U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“We have clear and convincing evidence that he’s involved in the production and distribution of IEDs,” said one senior administration official, referring to improvised explosive devices, long the leading killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Spokesmen for the Pentagon, the CIA and the FBI and a spokeswoman for the White House all declined to comment.
For someone with an elevated position in al-Qaida, Shami has kept an unusually low profile. He has made no propaganda videos, nor does he seem to have been mentioned in any of the myriad online forums that militant groups use to motivate their followers, raise money and recruit new fighters.
The debate over Shami’s fate is the first time that the Obama administration has discussed killing a U.S. citizen abroad since Anwar al-Awlaki was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.
It comes less than a year after Obama announced new guidelines to tighten the rules for carrying out lethal drone operations. When the president announced the guidelines, during a speech in May in Washington, the White House acknowledged that four U.S. citizens had been killed in drone strikes during Obama’s time in office.
As it was in al-Awlaki’s case, the Justice Department has been enlisted to evaluate whether a lethal operation against Shami is legally justified, but it appears that the Obama administration remains divided on the issue.
It is unclear what Obama’s position is on whether Shami should be targeted. U.S. officials said that as part of the new rules ordered by Obama, the Pentagon, rather than the CIA, is supposed to carry out any lethal strike against an American overseas, a provision intended to allow government officials to speak more freely about the operation after it is carried out.