(Anwar al-Awlaki taken from his online magazine Inspire)
Scott Shane is a New York Times national security reporter whose new book OBJECTIVE TROY explores the evolution of the American use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) as its main weapon to counter Islamic terrorism. After invading Afghanistan and Iraq and having both incursions turn out poorly the Obama administration came into office with the fervent belief to avoid further use of “boots on the ground” in any large number in the Middle East. Events in the region did not necessarily cooperate with President Obama’s vision and threats from the region necessitated a shift in strategy. The choice was rather simple; let the jihadists have their way and do nothing or reassert American troop strength. A middle road emerged, that of applying drones to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East and Southwest Asia to decapitate the leadership of groups that threatened the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. The implementation of the drone strategy successfully decimated al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, but the United States was confronted with a new enemy in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). One of the ramifications of this new geo-political threat was the emergence of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen educated in the United States and Yemen, who headed three separate mosques in America emerging as a radicalized jihadist who would be killed by a drone attack in 2011.
The book centers on whether the U.S. government has the constitutional right to assassinate an American citizen if it deems them a threat to its national security. Shane explores the rise of al-Awlaki as a person who opposed the 9/11 attacks in 2001, seeing himself as a bridge between Islam and America. However, by 2005, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. support for Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his stay in London where his students were much more radical than those in the United States, al-Awlaki grew increasingly radicalized and became a jihadi spokesperson who by 2007 was calling for attacks against the United States as he concluded that his religious beliefs and the ummah (community of believers in Islam) took precedence over his loyalty to his country. After fleeing the United States because the FBI had learned he was not following his own moral code by engaging his sexual appetites he grew increasingly strident in calling for jihad against America. Once he was linked to Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood, TX, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s attempt to blow up an airplane with 289 passengers as it approached Detroit’s Metro Airport at Christmas in 2009, the Obama White House realized what a threat he had become. Further examination brought the realization in the Justice Department that it seemed no matter what the incident, be it 9/11, or other operations, Anwar al-Awlaki’s name seem to come up. The question for President Obama was how to counter act the growing threat.
Shane explores the evolution of Obama’s thought process and the Justice Department’s reasoning as to the legality of killing an American citizen and the morality of killing by remote control. He discusses Obama’s comments as a law professor, state senator, and United States Senator to formulate how to deal with extremism. He approved of the attacks on al-Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11, but was against President Bush’s detention, rendition, and interrogation program which he immediately eliminated upon assuming the presidency. However he did not do away with the drone program. Obama was not an ideologue as some on the right have painted him, but a ruthless pragmatist when it came to the use of drones. Obama’s Justice Department’s finding concluded that al-Awlaki could be targeted because he posed “a continued and imminent threat” to American national security.
In 2008 al-Awlaki set up a web site that markedly expanded his exposure “as his Islamic teaching was kindling volatile emotions across the English speaking world.” (177) His lectures appeared on You Tube and the Internet reaching everyone interested in his message, a message that was successful because of American actions in Iraq and Pakistan. His further success was due to his command of English and his knowledge of Arabic sacred texts, along with his disarming informal way of speaking. He employed the motivating power of religion with the universal quest of the young for identity as he created an attractive message for disaffected Muslims who saw him as their spokesperson, and many were willing to answer his call for jihad.
(Nidal Hassan, convicted FT. Hood,TX killer)
Perhaps al-Awlaki’s most successful propaganda tool was his creation of Inspire, an online magazine that was written in a breezy style to promote suicide bombings and other terror tactics. Shane discusses its slick presentation and internet appeal providing instructions on how to make a bomb and calling for attacks against the west. Shane goes on to discuss the effect Inspire had on jihadi recruitment, future attacks, and how the western intelligence community tried to figure out how to respond.
(Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by an American drone in 2011)
Shane does an exceptional job summarizing the constitutional arguments for and against the use of drones. He also discusses the legal arguments that were pursued by Anwar’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki who went to federal court to try and get his son removed from the drone “kill list.” Shane is very effective in discussing the legal nuances and reasoning whenever he brings up the constitutionality of whether an American citizen could become an assassination target by its government.
By 2010 AQAP was a greater threat to the United States than al-Qaeda. With the links between the Detroit bomber and Fort Hood killings it was just a matter of time before the United States would kill al-Awlaki. In the end al-Awlaki has probably had a greater impact on the Jihadi world in death than when he was alive. His life, writings, and speeches continue to carry a great deal of influence on the web where he has an achieved a “prophetic martyrdom.” All you have to do is point to the Boston Marathon bombers-the Tsarnaev brothers who learned how to make a bomb from a pressure cooker on al-Awlaki’s website.
(US drone firing a missile over Yemen)
Shane has written a very useful book that provides a great deal of insight into Obama and al-Awlaki and their approach to dealing with events in the Middle East. Further, he has provided a strong narrative for the reader to understand the future legal implications of what Obama has done by targeting the Muslim preacher. If there is a major criticism I can offer concerning the book it would be the illogical chronological approach that Shane presents. Approaching al-Awlaki’s life by offering his middle years first, leads to repetition as he discusses the other stages of his development. A straight chronology would have greatly benefited the reader in understanding the main subject of the book. Apart from that, I recommend Objective Troy to anyone who wants to understand the constitutional, social media, and world political issues that confront the United States in a region that brought us the “Arab spring,” but continues to fall into chaos.