How Obama killed Awlaki


National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA - Scott Shane Ex­cerpted from OB­JEC­TIVE TROY: A Ter­ror­ist, a Pres­i­dent, and the Rise of the Drone by Scott Shane. © 2015 by Scott Shane. Pub­lished by Crown Pub­lish­ers, an im­print of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC.

The Lionel Gel­ber Prize is a lit­er­ary award for the world’s best non-fic­tion book in English on for­eign affairs pub­lished any­where in the world. It was founded in 1989 in mem­ory of Cana­dian diplo­mat Lionel Gel­ber. A prize of $15,000 is pre­sented an­nu­ally by The Lionel Gel­ber Foun­da­tion, in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­icy mag­a­zine and the Munk School of Global Affairs. This year’s win­ner will be an­nounced on March 1 and will present the win­ning book at a free pub­lic lecture on March 29 at the Vivian and David Camp­bell Con­fer­ence Fa­cil­ity at the Univer­sity of Toronto. In a five-part se­ries, the Na­tional Post show­cases the fi­nal­ists.

In the sum­mer of 1984, Nasser al- Awlaki spot­ted a chance to take his grow­ing fam­ily from Ye­men on an ex­tended visit to the United States, where he had spent nearly a dozen mem­o­rable years as a stu­dent and young pro­fes­sor. He grabbed it.

Dr. Awlaki ap­plied for a grant from the Ford Foun­da­tion to at­tend a month-long sem­i­nar at Stan­ford Univer­sity on a cut­ting- edge topic, ap­pli­ca­tions for the new ma­chines called “mi­cro­com­put­ers.” His years as a grad­u­ate stu­dent in New Mex­ico and Ne­braska in the 1960s had yielded a PhD in agri­cul­tural eco­nom­ics and an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor­ship in Min­nesota and pre­pared him for a dis­tin­guished ca­reer serv­ing his coun­try. He would serve as Ye­men’s agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, be named pres­i­dent of Sanaa Univer­sity, and found an­other Ye­meni univer­sity. Now he thought his chil­dren, es­pe­cially the el­dest, his 13-yearold son An­war, were old enough to ap­pre­ci­ate some of the won­ders of Amer­i­can life.

Nasser al- Awlaki was a clas­sic tech­no­crat. Like gen­er­a­tions of Mus­lims from the Middle East who had come to the United States for an education, he had found some­thing more — an en­tic­ing open­ness, free­dom from the strait­jack­ets of tra­di­tion and au­thor­i­tar­ian govern­ment, and, of course, a taste of eco­nomic abun­dance. Ar­riv­ing as a Ful­bright scholar in 1966, he had been dis­patched to Lawrence, Kansas, for English- lan­guage train­ing and was as­ton­ished to dis­cover that he could have all the milk he could drink at the stu­dent cafete­ria. Af­ter he be­gan his stud­ies at New Mex­ico State Univer­sity, his host fam­ily in Las Cruces in­vited him to both their churches — the hus­band was Protes­tant and the wife Catholic. They fed him lamb and rice for Sun­day din­ner, fig­ur­ing that menu might be fa­mil­iar and com­fort­ing for a young man so far from his Ara­bian home.

“That was my in­tro­duc­tion to Amer­ica — good fam­i­lies and good peo­ple,” he re­called, sit­ting with me in his spa­cious house in the Ye­meni cap­i­tal, Sanaa, nearly half a cen­tury later.

In the late 1970s, Nasser and his wife, Saleha, had brought home to Ye­men warm mem­o­ries of their Amer­i­can years. She took pride in bak­ing an ex­otic dessert she had mas­tered while over­seas: ap­ple pie, a recipe from her Betty Crocker cook­book. He got up early many morn­ings to watch the soft­ball in­ter­views of politi­cians and cele­bri­ties on Larry King Live — live in Sanaa, too, via satel­lite.

On their way to the Stan­ford com­puter sem­i­nar in that sum­mer of 1984, Nasser and Saleha and their four chil­dren stopped in New York City and bought a video cam­era, which was quickly com­man­deered by An­war, their skinny, book­ish teenager. “He was our cam­era­man for the whole trip,” Nasser re­mem­bered. An­war had been born in New Mex­ico when his father was a grad­u­ate stu­dent and spent his first seven years in the States, barely speak­ing Ara­bic when his par­ents moved the fam­ily back to Ye­men. Now their old­est child proudly recorded week­end vis­its to Yosemite, Dis­ney­land, and Sea­World in San Diego. He ac­com­pa­nied his father to the Stan­ford sem­i­nar, too, grow­ing fas­ci­nated with com­put­ers and their vast prom­ise.

When the Awlaki fam­ily strolled the streets of Man­hat­tan on the way west that i dyl­lic sum­mer, a l anky, brown- skinned young man a decade older than An­war was walk­ing the same crowded side­walks. At 22, Barack Obama was chaf­ing a bit at his first post- col­lege job, re­search­ing and writ­ing on busi­ness for a fi­nan­cial pub­lisher and con­sult­ing firm, half- jok­ing with his mother that he was “work­ing for the en­emy.” Soon he would fol­low his ide­al­is­tic in­stincts to the New York Pub­lic In­ter­est Re­search Group, a branch of Ralph Nader’s ac­tivist em­pire, and from there to his fa­mous stint as a com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer in Chicago.

Like An­war al-Awlaki, Barack Obama had been born in the United States to a sec­u­lar- minded for­eign father of Mus­lim back­ground who had come on schol­ar­ship to fur­ther his education. Like young An­war, he had left the United States as a child and lived in a Mus­lim coun­try. Obama stayed in In­done­sia only from ages six to 10, clearly a vis­i­tor, while An­war al-Awlaki lived in Ye­men, sur­rounded by ex­tended fam­ily, from seven to 19. When they re­turned to Amer­ica, their un­usual back­grounds and up­bring­ings led to strug­gles for both men over al­le­giance and iden­tity, with rad­i­cally dif­fer­ent out­comes. Obama would em­brace Amer­ica and ul­ti­mately vault to the pin­na­cle of power, his elec­tion as pres­i­dent in 2008 send­ing a mes­sage of em­pow­er­ment and pos­si­bil­ity that res­onated with mil­lions over­seas, in­clud­ing the Awlaki fam­ily. Awlaki would briefly sam­ple Amer­i­can fame, be­com­ing a na­tional me­dia star as a sen­si­ble-sound­ing, even elo­quent cleric af­ter 9/11 when Obama was still an un­known. Later, he would grad­u­ally and then de­ci­sively re­ject Amer­ica and fi­nally de­vote him­self to its de­struc­tion. The men would never meet, ex­cept vir­tu­ally, clash­ing in the pub­lic bat­tle­ground of ideas, where the cleric’s mas­tery of the In­ter­net would serve his ji­had­ist cause, and vi­o­lently, when Obama dis­patched the drones that car­ried out Awlaki’s ex­e­cu­tion.

Awlaki’s death se­cured him a place in his­tory: at least since the Civil War, he was the first Amer­i­can ci­ti­zen to be hunted down and de­lib­er­ately killed by his own govern­ment, on the ba­sis of se­cret in­tel­ligence and with­out crim­i­nal charges or a chance to de­fend him­self in court. Many Amer­i­cans wel­comed his demise, but its ex­tra­or­di­nary cir­cum­stances, and the un­set­tling prece­dent it set, sparked a de­bate about law and prin­ci­ples that would go on for years.

When Nasser al- Awlaki brought his fam­ily to Ron­ald Rea­gan’s Amer­ica, “Is­lamic ter­ror­ism,” a loaded phrase that would be­come a ubiq­ui­tous cliché af­ter 9/11 and that An­war al-Awlaki would do so much to seed in the English-speak­ing world, was al­ready well known. In 1983, cat­a­strophic bomb­ings by Iran-backed mil­i­tants had hit the Amer­i­can em­bassy and Marine bar­racks in Beirut, killing some 258 Amer­i­cans. In Septem­ber 1984, shortly af­ter the Awlakis had headed home to Ye­men, the Beirut em­bassy an­nex would be at­tacked, with 24 dead. But the U. S. home­land — a word then rarely used, per­haps be­cause for many Amer­i­cans it car­ried an un­seemly whiff of Nazism — still seemed safe from at­tack, pro­tected by oceans from for­eign en­e­mies. The threat of such ter­ror­ism was dis­tant and not so for­mi­da­ble. It had not yet re­made the govern­ment, drained the fed­eral bud­get, sat­u­rated pop­u­lar cul­ture, and over­whelmed all other as­so­ci­a­tions of Is­lam.

This book grew from an ob­ses­sion with three ques­tions. Why did an Amer­i­can who spent many happy years in the United States, launched a strik­ingly suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a preacher, and tried on the role of bridge builder af­ter the 9/11 at­tacks end up ded­i­cat­ing his fi­nal years to plot­ting the mass mur­der of his fel­low Amer­i­cans? How did a pres­i­dent and for­mer pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional law, who ran against the ex­cesses of Ge­orge W. Bush’s coun­tert­er­ror­ism pro­grams and vowed to forge a new re­la­tion­ship with the Mus­lim world, come to em­brace so ag­gres­sively the tar­geted killing of sus­pected ter­ror­ists, some­times with the em­pha­sis on “sus­pected”? And what was the role of the tech­nol­ogy that would link Obama and Awlaki, the armed drone, which was cre­ated to meet the chal­lenge of ter­ror­ism, killed some very dan­ger­ous peo­ple, got over­sold and overused, and fur­ther poi­soned re­la­tions with Mus­lims world­wide?

As one of the many Amer­i­can re­porters thrown into the mael­strom of ter­ror­ism and coun­tert­er­ror­ism af­ter 9/ 11, I wanted a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the dis­turb­ing arc of re­cent his­tory. The life of An­war al-Awlaki, who knew two of the fu­ture 9/ 11 hi­jack­ers at his San Diego mosque in the months be- fore their plot un­folded, and who was killed a decade later af­ter a high- tech, no- holds­barred man­hunt, seemed to en­com­pass the era. His story spanned four pres­i­den­cies, raised in pointed ways the dan­gers of both ter­ror­ism and the reac­tion to it, and seemed em­blem­atic of the defin­ing con­flict be­tween Amer­ica and an ex­treme school of Is­lam.

To the baf­fle­ment and alarm of many Amer­i­cans, the big­oted and mur­der­ous ide­ol­ogy of Al Qaeda and its im­i­ta­tors, in­clud­ing the self- de­scribed Is­lamic State, has shown strik­ing re­silience. Mil­i­tants who, like Awlaki, seem to of­fer mainly an anachro­nis­tic theoc­racy and a pedan­tic de­vo­tion to religious law, en­forced with ex­treme vi­o­lence, are still win­ning devo­tees and mak­ing head­lines in Syria, Iraq, Pak­istan, Afghanistan, Libya, Ye­men, and else­where. In the United States and Europe, some of Awlaki’s fer­vent ad­mir­ers have fol­lowed his teach­ings with lethal ef­fect, at the fin­ish line of a road race in Bos­ton and at an edi­to­rial meet­ing of an ir­rev­er­ent news­pa­per in Paris. His own un­likely evo­lu­tion and in­flu­ence of­fer a case study in a phe­nom­e­non that is still shap­ing world his­tory and un­set­tling the West, which has long as­sumed that its own an­swers to ex­is­ten­tial and prac­ti­cal ques­tions held uni­ver­sal ap­peal.


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