Ever since Dennis Blair revealed that there’s a procedure within the Obama administration for killing American citizens during counterterrorist operations, I’ve been thinking about the complexities of the circumstances envisioned. As a basic proposition, Glenn Greenwald is right: it’s unacceptable to set the standard for the killing of an American citizen at “the government says he’s a danger.” Anwar al-Awlaki, for instance, is an American citizen who supposedly provides encitement and encouragement to jihadis to kill Americans. Assume it’s all true (as I do). That is more than enough to warrant his arrest and trial. But is it enough to warrant his summary execution? I can’t accept that.

Consider now the case of Omar Hammami, the Alabama-raised 20-something now known as Abu Mansour al-Amriki, a member of Somalia’s al-Qaeda-aligned al-Shebaab militia. I didn’t initially take Abu Mansour al-Amriki seriously: he recorded a ridiculous rap video that Noah Shachtman and I laughed at last year. But after reading Andrea Elliott’s amazing New York Times Magazine profile tracing Hammami’s journey from whipsmart Alabama sophomore-class president to southern-Somalia holy warrior, he’s no laughing matter.

Hammami isn’t like al-Awlaki. al-Awlaki, to my knowledge, is not linked to any specific terrorist activities.* Hammami, as Elliott reports, is: he’s an actual fighter in al-Shabaab. al-Shabaab’s links to al-Qaeda are unclear and may be a matter of mutual boasting. But al-Shabaab itself is a terrorist organization, designated as such by the State Department since early 2008. All of its activities to date are Somali-centric. But its aspirations — if not its capabilities — go beyond that benighted country, as documented in this (discomfortingly sympathetic) al-Jazeera profile. “We will establish Islamic rule from Alaska and Chile to South Africa, Japan, Russia, the Solomon Islands and all the way to Iceland,” Ibrahim Almaqdis, identified as a Shebaab leader, preached to followers in the Somali port city of Marka. “Be warned: we are coming.”

That ambition is a parody of fanaticism, but Hammami’s fanaticism is real. He is anything but an accidental guerrilla. Elliott documents extensively how deliberate his path is. He begins with a desire to resolve his identity dislocations as an American Southerner with Syrian heritage through ever-austere Salafi Islam. He comes to view the stricter application of a facsimile of “authentic” seventh-century Islam as a panacea for life’s challenges. (No indication, despite Hammami’s evident intelligence, of the obvious contradictions contained in such a choice.) He extends that worldview to politics and war. His evident outrage over America’s war in Iraq, I think it’s fair to conclude from Elliott’s piece, is pretextual, an opportunity for him to live out his fantasies of a purposeful existence, something he measures through killing and subjugating people for what he considers religion. There is no evidence that he actually threatens Americans right now, although he certainly threatens poor Somalis whose hands and feet al-Shabaab publicly amputate as penalties for theft. But it would ignore the trajectory of Hammami’s life to say he will somehow be satisfied with his actions in Somalia. “We espouse the same creed and methodology of al-Qaeda,” he told Elliott in an email through an interlocutor. “All of us are ready and willing to obey his commands… It’s quite obvious that I believe America is a target.”

I don’t really know what to say about this. The guy considers himself a warrior and boasts about the legitimacy of targeting his fellow Americans. Yet he’s not done anything that rises to the level of a battlefield act of war against America. His deliberate and voluntary participation in al-Shebaab is a criminal activity. Based on what the evidence is right now, Hammami ought to be targeted for arrest, prosecution, and conviction. But we surely can’t go down the path of simply trying to murder him. American citizenship has to count for more than that. Otherwise, why not just murder all criminals here at home?

Update: I feel the need to caveat the *’d contention. Abdulmutallab, in cooperating with the FBI, has said that he was in contact with al-Awlaki. al-Awlaki confirmed that contact — Abdulmutallab, apparently, was a student of his — but denies any involvement in the attempted bombing of Northwest flight 253.  While he has a natural interest in that denial, such an interest does not establish guilt. I write this update in the interest of being comprehensive about the facts as they’re known.