How Obama killed Awlaki
IN THE RUN-UP TO THE AWARDING OF THE LIONEL GELBER PRIZE, THE NATIONAL POST PRESENTS EXCERPTS FROM ALL FIVE NOMINATED BOOKS. TODAY: SCOTT SHANE ON THE CONTROVERSIAL USE OF DRONES IN WARFARE
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.
THE CLERIC’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.