Review: Scott Shane’s ‘Objective Troy,’ on Killing the American Jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki

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In September 2011, in northern Yemen, C.I.A. Predator drones killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who was then 40 years old. He was a skinny, charismatic preacher educated at Colorado State University. As a younger man he had displayed a weakness for prostitutes and had devoured books about leadership like “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen R. Covey. At the time of his death, Mr. Awlaki advocated killing fellow Americans in the name of jihad. He had embraced Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and had participated in plots to blow up American airplanes.

In his authoritative, nuanced chronicle of Mr. Awlaki’s life and the Obama administration’s decision to end it, Scott Shane, a New York Times reporter who covers terrorism and national security, calls Mr. Awlaki’s deliberate killing by his government, without a trial or court order, an example of the “dirty hands” concept in ethics. The decision was an act “simultaneously morally required and morally forbidden.” President Obama’s choice has stained his legacy even if it was the least-bad alternative he faced, Mr. Shane suggests.

As a rule, terrorists are not a subtle species, but Mr. Awlaki presented many challenging complications. His principal gift was gab. As Mr. Awlaki became more radical and more violent, his talent as a digital-era communicator in English made him distinctively threatening to a terror-rattled American society that protects free speech.

Mr. Awlaki’s fluency in American idioms explains some of his charisma — he pushed his ideas amid winking references to Michael Jackson and other icons of global popular culture. His influence flowed as a one-man brand across multiple, evolving Internet platforms. If Osama bin Laden was a media pioneer in the age of transnational satellite television, Mr. Awlaki updated his methods for YouTube.

Mr. Shane provides the first full biography of Mr. Awlaki, drawn from diverse sources; his account of Mr. Awlalki’s radicalization is admirably restrained about his subject’s elusive inner motivations, yet also engagingly detailed. After drifting through college, Mr. Awlaki discovered that he was a gifted storyteller. Initially, when he served as an imam in San Diego and Northern Virginia, the sermons he distributed in CD boxed sets were traditional, as Mr. Shane describes them, offering “stirring tales of the early heroes” of Islam or self-help advice.

Mr. Awlaki came to the attention of the F.B.I. because two of the Sept. 11 hijackers passed through his mosques. That fact has raised questions about Mr. Awlaki’s possible role in the attacks on New York and Washington. Yet Mr. Awlaki said repeatedly that he had never met the hijackers, and documented remarks he made in the fall of 2001 indicate that he did not endorse Al Qaeda’s violence at that time. Mr. Shane helpfully sorts and weighs the conspiracy evidence like a lawyer arguing both sides of a trial. In the end, Mr. Shane finds the allegation that Mr. Awlaki collaborated with the Sept. 11 plotters “unpersuasive.”

Mr. Awlaki preached rectitude but conducted his private life on other terms. He should have known that after Sept. 11, the F.B.I. was watching him, yet he remained a cheerful and persistent customer of Washington-area prostitutes. The F.B.I. photographed him clandestinely and interviewed the women who served him.

When Mr. Awlaki realized that the F.B.I. had a book on him, making him vulnerable to exposure or coercion, he left the United States in 2002 and never returned. Mr. Shane speculates artfully about the humiliation, anger and fear Mr. Awlaki might have experienced at this turning point. In London, his initial destination, Mr. Awlaki joined an environment of more inflamed anti-Western preaching as the war in Iraq unfolded. Later, returning to his family’s homeland, Yemen, he made his way toward violent action with Al Qaeda.

Mr. Shane juxtaposes the story of Mr. Awlaki’s rise with that of President Obama’s evolution as a counterterrorism strategist. The pairing proves to be unsatisfying. Mr. Awlaki is an original, vivid subject, whereas Mr. Shane’s take on Mr. Obama feels more indirect and familiar. Yet Mr. Shane rescues the Washington strand of his narrative with a well-sourced, judicious chronicle of the administration’s historic decision to kill Mr. Awlaki.

If an American moves abroad, declares war against his country, and participates in violence directed at fellow citizens, common sense might suggest a right to reply in kind. The laws of war generally allow nations to defend themselves against an imminent violent threat of the sort Mr. Awlaki posed in the final years of his life. President Obama reportedly called his decision to kill Mr. Awlaki “an easy one.”

Mr. Shane’s account exposes that complacency. While assessing the vital constitutional issues and trade-offs with as much detail as the record available allows — the Obama administration has resisted transparency, citing national security — Mr. Shane provides a publicly accessible account of the decision. In essence, Mr. Shane makes clear, the president arrogated to himself in secrecy the right to unilaterally waive an American’s Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process, if that guarantee is understood to include a day in court when facing capital charges, as one might hope it does.

Mr. Obama concluded that capturing Mr. Awlaki in Yemen for trial was “infeasible,” an eye-of-the-beholder judgment, without clear standards or any mechanism for outside review, that weighed a citizen’s constitutional protections against the risks of a military capture operation. The availability of lethal drones tilted the decision toward killing because the machines seemed antiseptic. The president’s lawyers tried to narrow their advice to emphasize Mr. Awlaki’s particular, urgent danger and to avoid setting a broad precedent, Mr. Shane reports. Yet the reader cannot help noting that a precedent has been written nonetheless, a template that might well tempt future presidents during a crisis or an episode of deep domestic unrest.

Mr. Shane ends his tale by observing that as a terrorist, Mr. Awlaki has survived his own execution. His videos remain accessible online and more than a dozen young men who have participated in violent attacks since Mr. Awlaki’s death have “considered Awlaki their posthumous mentor,” in Mr. Shane’s words. These included the French-Algerian brothers whomurdered a dozen people in the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January. The Islamic State has now adapted Mr. Awlaki’s library of incitement for its communications campaign. Mr. Obama eliminated the man, but not the threat he posed.

Seven in ten Americans say crime is rising in US: Gallup

WASHINGTON: Seven in 10 Americans say there is more crime in the US now than there was 12 ...

Learn more