a correction and some additional thoughts

Yesterday, in talking about the drone war, I linked to this story in Esquire for the proposition that Anwar Al-Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, was killed in the strike that killed Awlaki himself. That’s not correct. I blame the error on sleepiness — I was blogging late at night, which is foolish — but however it happened, I misunderstood the timeline. Abdulrahman was killed two weeks later in a separate strike. Since my point was that the attack on Awlaki involved the death of innocents, obviously it weakens my argument. But, having stopped to collect some facts, I’d like to look at the way the (correct) narratives of these two strikes reflect some of what I was trying to say yesterday.


Let’s start with Abdulrahman. He died after his father, in a separate drone attack aimed at Ibrahim Al-Banna, who was said by U.S. officials to be “a senior operative in Yemen’s al-Qaeda affiliate.” Unfortunately, Al-Banna wasn’t on the scene and is, in fact, still at large:

On that night, though, they were all celebrating Abdulrahman’s last night in his ancestral village near the Arabian Sea. He had been waiting for Yemen’s political unrest to die down before heading home. Now the way seemed clear, the roads less perilous, and he was saying goodbye to the friends he’d made. There were six or seven of them, along with a seventeen-year-old cousin. It was a night lit by a bright moon, and they were sitting around a fire. They were cooking and eating. It was initially reported that an Al Qaeda leader named Ibrahim al-Banna was among those killed, but then it was reported that al-Banna is still alive to this day. It was also reported that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a twenty-one-year-old militant, until his grandfather released his birth certificate…. [W]hen the sun rose the next morning, the relatives of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki gathered his remains — along with those of his cousin and some teenaged boys — so that they could give a Muslim funeral to an American boy.

So Abdulrahman’s death doesn’t stand for the thing I thought it stood for. He did not die in the attack that killed his father. Nonetheless, his death tells us some interesting things.

Intelligence is fallible. One danger in these strikes — not the only one, but a significant one — is that we think we’ve got a serious target in our sights (for the sake of argument, let’s assume Ibrahim Al-Banna was, indeed, a worthwhile target), and instead what we’ve got is some teenage boys having a barbecue.

When we do something wrong, there’s likely to be a cover story. Why did the U.S. insist for several days that Abdulrahman was in his 20s? If they were targeting him, it seems likely they would have known his age, given that he was the son of one of the most wanted men in the world. So this doesn’t look like a mistake. It looks like an attempt to cover up the fact that they fired a missile at a bunch of underage kids.


Now look at Anwar Al-Awlaki. First, let’s start with the timeline of his radicalization. Here I’ll lean heavily on Tom Junod’s excellent Esquire piece:

Anwar al-Awlaki, firstborn son of Nasser, never lost his American citizenship, though he eventually gained his Yemeni one. In 1991, he got his own scholarship to Colorado State University…. [Quoting Nasser:] “His first son was born in August 1995, in Denver, Colorado. My wife and my mother went to Colorado for the birth and stayed six months. He was a beautiful, lovable little boy — and of course we were all very happy that he was born in America….”

Anwar al-Awlaki was an American father to his American son. When he moved his family from Colorado to California, he spent a lot of time with the boy. “He used to take Abdulrahman ocean fishing,” says Nasser al-Awlaki….

But Anwar al-Awlaki did not go to San Diego simply to get his master’s degree at San Diego State University and go fishing. He had begun the serious study of Islam during his college days in Colorado, and he became the imam of a large San Diego mosque. What his father had always noticed about him — his easy fluency in both En-glish and Arabic — attracted followers, especially among the young. He recorded a series of popular lectures explicating the life of the Prophet; he also preached to two of the men who became 9/11 hijackers and was twice arrested for soliciting prostitutes….

[H]e moved in 2001 to the nationally prominent Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church, Virginia…. He was an American whose birthright expressed itself even when he extolled the Prophet, and as imam he was expected to become an ambassador for Islam at a time when Islam was both expansionary and vulnerable. After his move to Virginia, Al Qaeda attacked America, and… al-Awlaki tried to fulfill his obligation as an ambassadorvery publicly condemning the 9/11 attacks… even giving an invocation at the Capitol one day in 2001…. [But] the FBI discovered that one of the 9/11 hijackers had followed him from California to Virginia. He was questioned at least four times, and he complained to his father that he was under surveillance. When he resigned from the mosque, a young associate named Johari Abdul-Malik tried to prevail upon him to stay….

“It didn’t wash with me,” Abdul-Malik says. “I was like, ‘You speak English, dude. You’re an American. You’re going to do more for Islam in Yemen?’ But I didn’t know then that he’d been busted for soliciting. When I found out, I thought, Okay, he’s afraid of being exposed. He was afraid the FBI was going to expose him.

But Abdul-Malik had another encounter with al-Awlaki soon after al-Awlaki left America with Abdulrahman and the rest of his family. “I was taking the pilgrimage to Mecca. I was on the bus and heard a familiar voice. I looked up and saw that our spiritual guide was Anwar al-Awlaki. He recognized me and invited me to split the preaching with him. He never spoke of politics during the pilgrimage, and he couldn’t have been more gracious. I didn’t see him again until I checked him out on the Internet after he became so controversial. He was not only saying that it was the duty of Muslims to kill Americans; he was saying that it was the duty of Muslims to kill Muslims who didn’t believe as he did. I thought, He’s talking about me….

In 2002, Awlaki was also briefly under suspicion of providing false information to obtain a Social Security card, having enigmatically put “Yemen” down as his place of birth rather than (the correct answer) Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Some years later, in 2006-2007, Awlaki was imprisoned by Yemeni authorities “under U.S. pressure.” This seems to have been the point at which, as the Times says, Awlaki “hardened into a fully committed ideologist of jihad, condemning non-Muslims and cheerleading for slaughter.”

Shortly thereafter, Awlaki become well-known to American news junkies for his alleged involvement in two violent attacks on America soil in 2009: the first was the mass shooting at Fort Hood, Texas by Nidal Hasan; the second was the Christmas “underwear bombing” by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. Awlaki corresponded with Hasan in 2008-2009 and praised his actions after the fact, but denied encouraging the attack. There was, however, evidence tying him directly to the Christmas bombing. Abdulmutallab fingered Awlaki and said he had helped Abdulmutallab get to an Al-Qaeda training camp, and according to unnamed “officials,” the NSA intercepted traffic about Awlaki meeting with “the Nigerian” prior to the attack.

In 2010, Awlaki was put on a “kill list.” And in 2011, he was killed by a drone strike, along with Samir Khan, publisher of the Al-Qaeda-linked magazine Inspire, and two other men described by the Yemeni government as “Al-Qaeda operatives.”

This is a long and dense narrative, but it does illuminate several important points.

Terrorists are grown, not hatched. As detailed here by the New York Times (and in the Esquire article), Awlaki’s road to radicalization was a long one. He grew up in the U.S. and Yemen, the son of a moderate intellectual immigrant. In his 20s, while in San Diego, he became immersed in Islam, but apparently also had trouble with sexual continence. He attempted to be an ambassador for his faith, but then felt attacked and betrayed when the FBI questioned him and, as he saw it, put him under surveillance. He left the country and for years preached a message that was anti-American and pro-armed struggle — but that’s not a crime, especially in America. For years before the underwear bombing, according to NPR, he was routinely cited by British universities as a voice for Islam — albeit a radical one. What I’m saying is, it took a long time for Awlaki to become THE MONSTER AWLAKI. Could he have taken a different turn if we had been different? If prostitution were a quiet, private matter instead of a criminal enterprise, would he have been publicly humiliated in a way likely to make a religious man more religious still? If the FBI hadn’t antagonized him, would he have left America? If the Yemenis hadn’t imprisoned him to please the U.S.? Would he have radicalized to the same degree? Asking the question is just interrogating the void — we have no way of knowing. But the question hangs there anyway.

We, the public, will almost never get good evidence about the justification for these kinds of kills. The direction Awlaki was headed certainly seems to have been that of increased radicalization. But what is the evidence that he actually planned or implemented the underwear bombing? Largely, it comes from sources whose motives are not exactly above question. Most of the information seems to have come from Abdulmutallab himself — and what motive would a guy who’s been caught trying to blow up a plane have to lie? Why would he cooperate with the U.S. government? What motive could he have had in fingering the very guy his captors hated with a passion? As for the unnamed officials leaking cryptic NSA intercepts…. I think what’s frustrating here is that I’m entirely willing to believe that Awlaki had crossed the line from philosopher to operational terrorist. But the other narrative — the one where intelligence analysts and administration officials create the Awlaki they feel sure must exist — that one seems pretty compelling, too. And because these decisions are all made in secret, based on evidence we’ll never be allowed to see, let alone cross-examine, we have ultimately very little reason to trust the process. Either you believe the government knows a terrorist when it sees one, or you have doubts. But there will be no facts forthcoming in support of either position.

Everybody hates a good communicator. I can’t help but be struck by the fact that the government got a two-for-one deal in the drone strike that killed Awlaki. Not only did they take down a cleric whose sermons and philosophizing inspired jihadists around the world, but they got the publisher of a jihad-inspiring magazine, too. It was a good day for the U.S. government — maybe better, operationally, than the killing of Bin Laden. Bin Laden, after all, was essentially retired; these guys were inspiring hundreds or maybe thousands of would-be warriors. But what was it that they did? What were their chief weapons? This credulous ABC profile yields clues:

“There’s no question that Anwar al-Awlaki was the modern day terrorist,” said Seth Jones, a terror analyst at the RAND Corporation and U.S. government consultant. “He used a combination of involvement in operations… and an almost unparalleled use of social media — YouTube, broader internet sites, Facebook, Twitter — to get his propaganda messages out….”

[Jones goes on to push the same story of Awlaki’s involvement with the underwear bombng. But….]

In some cases, al-Awlaki did not have to speak directly to the recruit at all.

In July 2011, a Brooklyn man was convicted of planning to travel to the Middle East to join the jihad and kill U.S. soldiers there, according to the FBI. In the course of their investigation, federal officials found “the defendant had been radicalized, in part, by Internet speeches by Anwar al-Awlaki…”

“The tone, the subject, then his ability to push it out through multiple media made him really an unprecedented al Qaeda terrorist,” Jones said.

There you have it — a “U.S. government consultant” twice associates speech and media facility with being a “terrorist.” The operational aspect seems, frankly, incidental to Jones’s analysis.


This is too long. I was embarrassed by my simple mistake yesterday and spent too much of today doing research. And now I’m too tired to have opinions about this. I don’t know what Anwar Al-Awlaki was at the end of his life. But however you view this story, there’s a lot that doesn’t reflect well on the U.S., and there’s a lot that seems to tell a familiar story about how our enemies become our enemies, and why people in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran and Palestine and Saudi Arabia and Egypt just don’t see Americans as the benevolent world policemen we see ourselves as. And buried in all of this, I fear, are the roots of something really bad for us down the line — not only because we’re providing bad legal precedent to the rest of the world, but because we’re building pathways in our collective moral consciousness that will make it easier to kill in this secretive, oversight-free way. We’re building muscle memory for this. I feel that can’t be good — no matter who Awlaki may have been.

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