When Barack Obama took office as President of the United States in January 2009, the US was still heavily engaged in ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His first year in office was marked by new terrorist attacks, including those of Nadal Hisan at Fort Hood, Texas (13 killed and many more injured), the shootings at Little Rock (one killed) and plots to blow up synagogues, federal buildings, and attack the New York City subways. Then at Christmas that year came the underwear bomber’s attempt to blow up a plane near Detroit. But Obama entered office with the substantial hope of limiting the use of US troops while continuing to strike at Al Qaeda and other terrorists overseas: in his view the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, better known as drones, might provide a better approach. The American-born cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki was behind the underwear bomber’s attack, and his story provides the New York Times reporter Scott Shane with the framework for his thoughtful examination of the evolution of US policy.
Anwar Al-Awlaki was the son of a Yemeni studying in the US. His father, Nasser, later went on to high government positions in Yemen, and hoped for a similar career for his sons. But only Anwar’s brother, Ammar, has followed their father’s path. Anwar went another route, becoming more religious, and studying the Koran and Muslim scriptures. He was somewhat entrepreneurial, recording English-language sermons and translations of Islamic stories. He married and became an iman, first at a mosque in San Diego and later in Washington, DC. That’s where he was on 9/11, and Anwar Al-Awlaki was a media presence in the days immediately after, serving as what he called a bridge between Muslims and Americans, one who could show that not all Muslims advocated violence.
But not all was it seemed. Al-Awlaki had a habit of visiting prostitutes, and the FBI had proof. Further, several of the 9/11 hijackers had been in one of his mosques or the other. Shane is careful to show that it’s not clear whether they attended services among throngs or had closer contact with Al-Awlaki. What Shane makes crystal clear is that Al-Awlaki continued to move toward violence. He left the US for Yemen, most likely because of the threat of exposure or even prosecution, and spent time in London before returning to Yemen for good. His sermons, which continued in English, moved from cassette to video to YouTube to his own website, and were re-posted on social media throughout the world. They appealed to a wide range of disaffected young men and a few young women.
At the same time, the Obama administration was undertaking its own somewhat more cautious journey, attempting to repair relations with the Muslim world and preparing to withdraw troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The increasing use of drones was only one part of that policy, and was immensely complicated. Drones may be better able to pinpoint a particular small target like a car than bombs launched from airplanes, but the operator has to be pretty sure of the target. Drones need less time to reach the target, but need to be launched from somewhere fairly nearby. Then there are the legal questions: can the US use deadly weapons on another country’s soil with its government’s permission? Without? What if the target is a US citizen, as Al-Awlaki was? There are moral questions, too, and political ones. Shane raises and addresses these issues in careful prose, with details that support but don’t overwhelm. Here is Shane’s description of the impact of drone strikes on operators which was,
paradoxically, far greater than on those who flew traditional fighters and bombers . . . Modern warfare had largely gotten away from the hand-to-hand combat of earlier epochs, and killing at a distance was the norm . . . the team of drone operators not only saw the target, they lingered over it. [Shane quotes an essay from a former operator, who says] ‘when you recommend that target folder for approval, you do so with the explicit knowledge that you are recommending the death of not just an enemy of our nation, but a person.’
(An interesting fictional exploration of that topic is “I Saw a Man” by Owen Sheers, which follows three families devastated by the intended and collateral damage of a drone strike. If you’ve read it, let us know in the comments what you think.)
Ultimately, Al-Awlaki climbed to the top of the administration’s kill list and, after a near-miss, was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011. Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, his son, a 16-year-old who had gone in search of the father he hadn’t seen in several years, was killed in a subsequent strike targeting members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The best explanation Shane has unearthed was that the killing was accidental, that the US ‘didn’t know he was there.’
It was a damning excuse. In two weeks, the United States had killed three Americans in Yemen. By its own account, only one of the killings had been intentional. It undercut claims that the [drones] . . . allowed drone operators to examine and identify the faces of those on the ground. They were killing people whose identity they didn’t know, often on the basis of sketchy intelligence, hunches, and guesswork.
Shane concludes that such killings generated hostility in Yemen and sympathy for Al Qaeda, and hastened and supported ISIS recruiting. He argues quite persuasively that by keeping the development of the drone program secret, instead of ensuring a public debate about US policies of how and when we kill citizens who are foreign combatants, we are both endangered and lessened. The drone program has kept the US use of killing almost an abstraction, which Shane points out is in contrast to Osama bin Laden death – a difficult, dangerous operation that provided proof of death. Our government kills in our name, as part of its response to terror. We need to be aware of this policy, to discuss it, and to accept its implications. Scott Shane’s book is an important contribution to the debate.
by Alexandra Bowie
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