In Objective Troy the New York Times national security correspondent Scott Shane tells two intertwined stories. One recounts the life path of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The second recounts Barack Obama’s troubled love affair with the drone as an instrument of war, which is part of a larger story about the president’s tortured attitude toward the use of American power in the world.
Anwar al-Awlaki has to be counted as the greatest English-speaking pied piper in the history of radical Islam. His sermons and disquisitions, distributed first on C Ds and later far more widely on social media, influenced—and continue, posthumously, to influence—scores of aspiring terrorists. The Boston Marathon bombers, the Fort Hood shooter, and the Charlie Hebdo gunmen in Paris all pointed to Awlaki’s summons to violence as inspiration for their deeds. As Shane also makes plain, Awlaki’s reach extended well beyond the ranks of such active jihadists.
For every young Western Muslim who crossed the line and began plotting violence or traveled to Yemen or Pakistan to join al Qaeda, there were hundreds or thousands more . . . intrigued by the battle with the supposed enemies of Islam but too fearful or ambivalent to act. By sweeping huge numbers into that recruiting pool, Awlaki added new recruits to the small minority who would take the next step and join the battle.
Shane adduces case after case, like that of Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old honor student who in 2010 stabbed a member of British Parliament, Stephen Timms, with a six-inch kitchen knife in retribution for his vote in support of the Iraq war. She had been listening, obsessively, to Awlaki’s recordings for more than a hundred hours.
Drawing on exhaustive research and a wealth of interviews, Shane traces Awlaki’s movements and intellectual evolution through various stations on his lethal path. Early childhood in the United States was followed by a spell, from age 7 to 18, in his parents’ native Yemen. He then returned to the United States for a college degree in civil engineering, pursued with no distinction but punctuated by a visit with anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan, and followed by a burgeoning career as an imam in various American locales.
Shane argues persuasively, and against what some U.S. government investigators continue strongly to suspect, that Awlaki was not in on the 9/11 plot, despite the fact that he had been in close touch with two of the hijackers who had worshipped at his San Diego mosque. In the late 1990s, Awlaki was already flirting with extremist ideas, but by September 11, 2001, was not yet fully under their spell, calling the attacks “horrible” in a private communication to his brother, a sentiment repeated in some public utterances.
Whatever the ultimate truth regarding Awlaki’s involvement with the hijackers, 9/11 had the counterintuitive effect of bolstering his career. Beforehand, he was known among American Muslims as a charismatic preacher; afterward, he emerged as a highly visible presence in the mainstream media. A crisp native speaker with a reputation as a “moderate,” Awlaki was sought out for appearances by the major television networks and was regularly quoted by leading newspapers as an authority on all things Islamic. If one were to summarize his outlook in a nutshell at that moment, it would be that Islamic terrorism is an understandable if regrettable reaction to even more regrettable American and Israeli aggression against the Muslim world.
With national prominence, and having by 2001 assumed a position in a well-attended Virginia mosque, Awlaki might have continued in the same direction, building on his success as a preacher-pundit. But Awlaki was leading a double life. Intermittent FBI surveillance had never been able to nail him for terrorist plotting, but the agents trailing Awlaki found something else. Even as he sermonized against the sin of zina (fornication) in his mosque, and especially castigating American television for broadcasting nudity and licentiousness across the globe, behind his wife’s back, and on his modest salary, he had become habituated to engaging in zina with Washington-area prostitutes at up to $400 an hour.
Discovering that the FBI was in on his secret, and fearing that his world would collapse in disgrace, Awlaki left the United States, traveling first to England and then to Yemen. With his life in shambles, his disaffection ratcheted up a notch: He was now preaching hatred of infidels and, in particular, hatred of Americans for supposedly waging war on Islam, disseminating this incendiary message to a worldwide audience via the Internet. Affiliating with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Awlaki took an additional step that sealed his fate: He became actively involved in organizing terror plots. His most notorious escapade was assisting Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, in his near-successful attempt, on Christmas Day 2009, to bring down an Airbus A330 over Detroit with 290 passengers on board.
With the evidence of his complicity in terror flowing in, Barack Obama gave a green light to a drone strike on “Objective Troy,” the military’s code name for Awlaki. After a fair amount of searching by the CIA, Awlaki turned up in the crosshairs of a Predator drone. His abrupt incineration in a vehicle traversing the Yemeni wilds earned him the dubious distinction of being the first American citizen tracked and killed by his own government, without trial, since the Civil War.
Scott Shane’s account of how the Obama administration came to execute an American citizen in this fashion is a no less compelling story. As Shane demonstrates, the drone fit easily into President Obama’s minimalist conception of the American role in the world, offering him (in Shane’s words) “the middle ground he wanted between the wasteful big wars and doing nothing.” Thus, even as Obama dismantled features of the Bush-Cheney counterterrorism machinery and withdrew forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, he made himself very much commander in chief of the drone warfare program, immersing himself in its details.
Those details are not pretty. Certainly, the drone is an “exquisite weapon” that allows one to be both “effective and moral,” as General Michael Hayden explained to Shane in an interview. But war is war, and, inevitably, despite the drone’s promised surgical precision, noncombatants still get caught in the death radius of its warhead.
Obama’s first two strikes, both in Pakistan, were performed with flawless accuracy, but, nevertheless, seem to have dispatched a number of children along with their specified targets. A strike in Yemen in December 2009 successfully obliterated a top al Qaeda operative (and possibly as many as 13 of his associates) but also hit the tents of two Bedouin families, taking the lives of 41 civilians, with 9 women—5 of them pregnant—and 21 children among them. President Obama was getting a lesson in the horrendous difficulties and agonizing choices sometimes entailed in defending America.
Not that he consistently acknowledged those difficulties, or adopted a more charitable view of his predecessors, who had faced their own set of agonizing choices amid the terrifying uncertainty following 9/11. Indeed, for this unremitting critic of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, drone attacks were a subject fit for presidential mirth at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, and the decision to take the life of an American citizen by means of such an attack was, as Obama casually explained, “an easy one.”
Much of the government’s brief creating a legal roadmap to kill an American citizen with a drone strike remains secret. What is not secret is that it was written by two professors of law—David Barron of Harvard and Martin Lederman of Georgetown—who in previous years had both been strident critics of the Bush administration for doing exactly what they now found themselves doing in the Obama Justice Department: that is, claiming extraordinary constitutional power for the president to defy statutory restrictions on his war powers.
Obama, himself a former professor of constitutional law, came into office a severe critic of the alleged executive overreach of Bush and Cheney. But without the slightest acknowledgment that he was performing a pirouette, and never deigning to erect any sort of legal scaffolding rooted in constitutional principles, this self-declared progressive proceeded to exercise a measure of unilateral authority in national security that would make even the most ardent devotee of executive power shrink. With the Iran nuclear deal, for example, the president effectively maneuvered to sidestep the treaty-ratifying powers of the Senate on a matter of utmost gravity for the future of American security, dealing a blow to our constitutional architecture. And in waging war in Libya and against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, Obama has shredded the War Powers Act and accreted presidential war-making power to a breathtaking degree, setting precedents that the country—and certainly many liberals—may one day come to regret.
Not that those liberals are clamoring in protest. Indeed, in the face of Obama’s imperial presidency, the silence of those who made careers out of vilifying John Yoo for supposedly adumbrating a theory of infinitely expandable executive power is particularly galling. And although it is certainly not Shane’s direct intention, Objective Troy performs a public service in highlighting the gross disjunction between the words and deeds of a president who learned late in the day that with power comes responsibility and who, in the course of that still-incomplete education, continues to excoriate his predecessors while he makes a hash of American foreign policy.
As for Scott Shane, he strives for journalistic neutrality throughout. This is not to say that he withholds his opinions and judgments; indeed, he freely dispenses them, but for the most part also aims to ground them in the formidable body of evidence he has assembled. I found myself quarreling with some of his conclusions, but not the central ones. The story he tells of Anwar al-Awlaki’s life and death is deeply instructive, as is his account of Barack Obama’s decision-making. Anyone interested in understanding the allure of radical Islam, and thinking about ways to counter it both on and off the battlefield, would do well to study this work.
Gabriel Schoenfeld is the author of, among other titles, Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.