Denmark, the CIA, and the Killing of Anwar al-Awlaki

The Open Society Justice Initiative this week filed a formal request with the Danish authorities for all information and records relating to the Danish government’s knowledge of and involvement in the operation to track and kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in September 2011.

The Danish government’s involvement in the U.S. operation to track and kill Anwar al-Awlaki has been a matter of intense public debate in Denmark since October 2012, when details first appeared in the Danish media. This involvement reportedly began well before and continued after January 2010, when it was publicly reported that the United States had placed al-Awlaki on a “kill list.”

A wealth of evidence demonstrates that the Danish intelligence services, known as Politiets Efterretningstjeneste (PET), recruited a Danish citizen and friend of al-Awlaki’s, Morten Storm, as a double agent.

The evidence includes text messages and audio recordings of Storm’s communications with both PET and CIA agents. One of Storm’s many tasks as a double agent was to work closely with the CIA and PET to track down al-Awlaki so that he could be killed in a U.S. drone strike.

Storm went to great lengths to track al-Awlaki, including by finding him a Croatian wife on Facebook and arranging for a tracking device to be placed in her suitcase when she went to join al-Awlaki in Yemen. Publicly available video recordings of al-Awlaki and his future wife communicating with each other further corroborate this account.

While the U.S. government has publicly acknowledged killing al-Awlaki, the Danish government has refused to acknowledge its role in the operation, despite overwhelming evidence of this role. The Danish authorities have refused to specifically respond to numerous questions posed on this subject by the Danish Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee. (Significantly, a U.S. Appeals Court recently required the U.S. Department of Justice to publicly release part of a previously classified legal memo justifying the targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki).

The Danish government should come clean about its role in this operation, not least because it may have violated Danish and international law. The Danish public has a right to know the truth about the nature and extent of its government’s involvement.

More generally, the information and records requested are critical for answering serious questions about the rule of law and democratic oversight of counterterrorism practices not just in Denmark but also more broadly in Europe.

Denmark is not the only European government that has been implicated in collaboration with the U.S. drone program. According to recent reports, Germany provides logistical support for U.S. drone strikes in Africa through its hosting of a U.S. airbase in Ramstein. A former U.S. Air Force sensor operator involved in drone missions commented that “the entire drone war of the U.S. military wouldn’t be possible without Germany.”

The United Kingdom reportedly shares intelligence concerning drone strike targets with the United States, and Yemen’s president stated that UK representatives are present with the United States, Yemen, and NATO in a “joint operations room” where decisions about the future targets of drone strikes in Yemen are made.

In February 2014, the European Parliament passed a resolution on the use of drone strikes “outside a declared war by a state on the territory of another state without the consent of the latter or of the UN Security Council” as “a violation of international law.”

The resolution further calls on European Union member states to “oppose and ban the practice of extrajudicial targeted killings” and to “ensure that the Member States, in conformity with their legal obligations, do not perpetrate unlawful targeted killings or facilitate such killings by other states.”

Denmark, along with Germany, the UK, and other European states, should heed this resolution. Since September 11, 2001, European governments have all too often bowed to the United States and have become complicit in torture and secret detention as part of the so-called “war on terror.” We cannot let U.S. drone killings become the next chapter in this dark history of collaboration behind closed doors.

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