How is a ter­ror­ist cre­ated?

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - RE­VIEW BY DEB­O­RAH PEARL­STEIN Deb­o­rah Pearl­stein is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tional and in­ter­na­tional law at Car­dozo Law School in New York.

The drive to un­der­stand what leads men and women to com­mit acts of ter­ror­ism has an­i­mated the work of nu­mer­ous schol­ars and in­spired much po­lit­i­cal rhetoric in re­cent decades. Even as re­peated stud­ies re­fute the no­tion of a sin­gu­lar cor­re­la­tion be­tween eco­nomic pri­va­tion or gov­ern­ment re­pres­sion and a per­son’s de­ci­sion to kill in­no­cent civil­ians, the hope re­mains that if we could only iden­tify the so­cial or po­lit­i­cal pathogen that pro­duces vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism, we could de­velop a cure.

New York Times reporter Scott Shane asks a ver­sion of this am­bi­tious ques­tion in his new book, “Ob­jec­tive Troy,” the code name given Amer­i­can An­war al-Awlaki by the U.S. mil­i­tary’s Joint Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand that killed him. Al­though Shane’s book, like sev­eral oth­ers, also de­tails the pres­i­dent’s role in de­cid­ing to make Awlaki a tar­get and the cir­cum­stances of his killing by re­motely pi­loted drone, its more im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion is the light it sheds on the larger puz­zle of ter­ror­ism. As Shane poses the ques­tion, “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?”

Shane makes no pretense of link­ing a grand the­ory of ter­ror­ism to the be­hav­ior of one man. But as he knows acutely, Awlaki was not just any ter­ror­ist. He re­mains a pow­er­ful global in­flu­ence, cred­ited with plot­ting mul­ti­ple ter­ror­ist at­tacks against the United States, in­clud­ing the at­tempted bomb­ing of a Detroit-bound air­liner on Christ­mas Day 2009. As a study found ear­lier this year, al­most one quar­ter of ter­ror­ism sus­pects pros­e­cuted by fed­eral author­i­ties in the United States in re­cent years have been in­flu­enced by Awlaki’s mes­sage, eas­ily avail­able via the In­ter­net. Un­der­stand­ing the “why” in Awlaki’s case would be no small insight.

In many ways, Awlaki was an or­di­nary Amer­i­can boy, born in New Mex­ico to im­mi­grant par­ents. His fa­ther was a Ful­bright scholar to the United States who earned a PhD in agri­cul­tural eco­nom­ics and was com­mit­ted to see­ing that his chil­dren had the ad­van­tages of the Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. Awlaki re­turned with his fam­ily to Ye­men at age 7, and his fa­ther even­tu­ally be­came the coun­try’s min­is­ter of agri­cul­ture. But the fam­ily con­tin­ued to em­brace its Amer­i­can ties, watch­ing Larry King by satel­lite from Sanaa and re­turn­ing to visit both coasts of the United States as tourists. When Awlaki en­rolled as a fresh­man at Colorado State Univer­sity, he pur­posely left his prayer rug in Ye­men and spent his first se­mes­ter par­ty­ing with friends. Al­though he turned away from his fa­ther’s pref­er­ence for him, en­gi­neer­ing stud­ies, to pur­sue a ca­reer as an imam — even­tu­ally at one of the coun­try’s largest mosques, in the North­ern Vir­ginia sub­urbs — he con­tin­ued to em­brace his Amer­i­can ties. In a mid­night e-mail to his brother on Sept. 11, 2001, he ex­pressed his hor­ror at the at­tacks. And in early 2002, he ac­cepted the De­fense Depart­ment’s in­vi­ta­tion to the Pen­tagon when Sec­re­tary Don­ald H. Rums­feld asked for a lun­cheon pre­sen­ta­tion by a “mod­er­ate Mus­lim.”

In Shane’s ac­count, two pe­ri­ods emerge as cru­cial to un­der­stand­ing Awlaki’s tran­si­tion from fresh­man-year drink­ing buddy to in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ist in­spi­ra­tion. The first came over win­ter break in 1990, af­ter his first se­mes­ter of col­lege. Awlaki, in Shane’s words, had “fallen in” with an evan­gel­i­cal group of Is­lamists, Tab­lighi Ja­maat, or “so­ci­ety for spread­ing the faith.” He re­turned to cam­pus as a reli­gious con­ser­va­tive, crit­i­cal of his room­mate’s less fer­vent com­mit­ment to their shared re­li­gion. Al­though the book of­fers lit­tle insight into Awlaki’s un­der­stand­ing of this fresh­man trans­for­ma­tion, it is not hard to imag­ine his ex­pe­ri­ence as be­ing like that of many un­der­grads who be­come seized by a re­li­gion or pol­i­tics or sex­u­al­ity — and then pur­sue it with the unique fer­vor of a young stu­dent far from home. One sum­mer dur­ing col­lege he trav­eled to Afghanistan to fight with the mu­jahideen against the re­mains of the Rus­sian­backed gov­ern­ment.

More im­por­tant was Awlaki’s sec­ond tran­si­tion, from prom­i­nent Amer­i­can Mus­lim teacher with a suc­cess­ful ca­reer and fam­ily firmly em­bed­ded in the United States to self-im­posed ex­ile in Ye­men ad­vo­cat­ing vi­o­lence against the United States. Awlaki had found suc­cess as a preacher soon af­ter col­lege, de­vel­op­ing a se­ries of en­gag­ing lec­tures on the lives of the prophets that even­tu­ally won him speak­ing in­vi­ta­tions na­tion­wide, and job of­fers at ma­jor mosques in Cal­i­for­nia and, later, Vir­ginia. At the same time, his grow­ing pro­fes­sional promi­nence, in­clud­ing as an imam at a San Diego mosque that two of the 9/11 hi­jack­ers at­tended, placed him firmly on the FBI’s radar screen af­ter the at­tacks. While FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tors found at best pass­ing con­nec­tions to rad­i­cal Is­lamists, they un­earthed Awlaki’s ac­tive pa­tron­age of a se­ries of pros­ti­tutes. The women later pro­vided the FBI with de­tailed de­scrip­tions of mul­ti­ple sex­ual en­coun­ters with the imam. Shortly af­ter Awlaki learned of the FBI’s dis­cov­ery, he sud­denly left his high-pro­file job in Vir­ginia and moved away from the United States per­ma­nently.

On its face, this story seems to of­fer a ready an­swer to the ques­tion Shane poses at the out­set. Fac­ing per­sonal and pro­fes­sional ruin brought on by his own re­li­giously for­bid­den sex­ual be­hav­ior, Awlaki turned against his adop­tive home and joined the ef­forts of the al­ready rad­i­cal­ized in at­tack­ing it. But Shane sagely in­sists on ex­plor­ing an­other set of ex­pla­na­tions, one that should be pro­foundly more trou­bling to U.S. coun­tert­er­ror­ism pol­icy: that it was the first U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq (over win­ter break of Awlaki’s fresh­man year) fol­lowed by the U.S. re­sponse to the at­tacks of 9/11, that drove his rad­i­cal­iza­tion. In­deed, as the U.S. gov­ern­ment ex­panded its post-9/11 in­ves­ti­ga­tions, round­ing up Mus­lim im­mi­grants, raid­ing dozens of Is­lamic in­sti­tu­tions and homes, in­clud­ing Awlaki’s, his ser­mons turned from talk of bridge-build­ing to anger. The 2001 U.S. in­va­sion of Afghanistan per­haps was un­der­stand­able to him. The 2003 in­va­sion of Iraq was not. Awlaki didn’t hate U.S. free­doms, as Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush would say of ter­ror­ists; he counted on them. What he hated was U.S. pol­icy.

Yet as sig­nif­i­cant a con­clu­sion as this might be, and con­sis­tent with the warn­ings of dozens of coun­tert­er­ror­ism ex­perts who reg­u­larly point out the strate­gic down­side of ex­ces­sive de­ten­tion and tar­get­ing, Shane also de­ter­minedly avoids the pat an­swer that Awlaki was driven to vi­o­lence by the United States’ ac­tions. Rather, the why in Awlaki’s case is an un­avoid­able mix of mo­tives, po­lit­i­cal, yes, but also reli­gious, sex­ual and ul­ti­mately per­sonal. The book is in this re­spect an ad­mirable em­brace of hu­man com­plex­ity and an ac­knowl­edg­ment that there are as­pects of Awlaki’s think­ing we may never fully know. The book delves deeply into a sin­gle life and still comes up with ques­tions. This is per­haps its great­est ser­vice. It is an ob­ject les­son in the lim­its of the search for a root cause.

By Scott Shane Tim Dug­gan Books. 396 pp. $28 OB­JEC­TIVE TROY A Ter­ror­ist, a Pres­i­dent, and the Rise of the Drone

An­war alAwlaki at a mosque in Falls Church, Va., in 2001.

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