Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone by Scott Shane

Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone BY Scott Shane. Tim Duggan Books. Hardcover, 416 pages. $28.
The cover of Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone

When Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez opened fire on two US military centers in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July, killing four Marines and a Navy sailor, he was acting, at least in part, at the suggestion of a man who had been dead for four years. Among Abdulazeez’s possessions, investigators reportedly found various CDs of sermons by Anwar al-Awlaki, a bookish, US-born al-Qaeda cleric who spread a vernacular, and thus deeply effective and reproducible, call for global jihad. Though Awlaki, who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen in 2011, never committed an act of terrorism himself, his name has come up in connection with some of the most brazen attacks in recent history. The 7/7 London bombers listened to his sermons. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit using explosives in his underpants in 2009, claimed he had acted under Awlaki’s tutelage. Nidal Hasan wrote Awlaki several breathless emails before embarking on a shooting spree at Fort Hood that killed thirteen of his fellow soldiers and wounded thirty-two others. The cleric is said to have seeded the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Boston Bombers watched his YouTube videos. Even ISIS has allegedly named a battalion in his honor. It was only mild hyperbole when, in 2010, an NYPD intelligence analyst declared that Awlaki was “the most dangerous man in the world.”

What’s most remarkable about Awlaki’s violent ascent and fall, which is chronicled in a dark and fascinating new book, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone by Scott Shane, is that he might have just as easily become a champion of reconciliation. As a cleric in San Diego and Virginia in the 1990s and early 2000s, Awlaki “praised American liberties and described Islam as a religion of peace,” writes Shane. In the aftermath of 9/11, he entreated his congregation, located just a few miles from the Pentagon, to serve as “the bridge between America and 1 billion Muslims worldwide.” His rejection of the radical elements of his faith earned Awlaki widespread acclaim, even as the FBI investigated him for what Shane, a seasoned national security correspondent for the New York Times, describes as an unconvincing and yet “perplexing skein of connections” to the 9/11 attackers.

“Then,” writes Shane, “suddenly and dramatically, something changed.” In the space of three years, Awlaki’s gospel of peace morphed into an “open and unconditional” call for violence. Employing the same charisma that had gained him early success as a moderate imam, he began to argue for the murder of civilians, and his sermons, which Shane describes as “relentlessly logical,” found a large international audience. Like Osama bin Laden, Awlaki came from a wealthy and powerful family. His father, Nasser, whom Shane interviewed extensively, calls Awlaki’s childhood “beautiful.” He could have become, Shane suggests, “a respected American spokesman for Islam.” Why would he throw it all away for a hateful ideology and an attendant lifestyle that, in the age of the drone, he knew would be unsustainable?

The question has high stakes. Often and boldly, Shane returns to “the tangle of factors” that radicalized Awlaki. Some of the strongest evidence suggests that it was America’s pugnacious response to 9/11 that turned the moderate cleric sour. If that was the case, then this book ought to give policymakers further grounds to reconsider anti-terror strategies such as targeted killings, extraordinary renditions, and dragnet surveillance. Though these efforts do indeed deliver short-term victories (the death of a senior leader here, a foiled plot there), they also provide the basis for the kind of radicalization that perpetuates the war on terror. It lends further credence to the oft-repeated view that for every jihadi taken off the map by a drone strike or a probing FBI investigation, multiple young men and women will be so maddened by these actions that they will join the fight against the US. (Shane also points out that, judging from the number of terrorist plotters who claimed to have been inspired by the “martyr” Awlaki, the cleric’s killing appears to have only redoubled his influence.)

But that’s not the whole story. There are, after all, plenty of moderate imams who don’t become radicals, despite being subjected to the same influences as Awlaki. Recognizing this, Shane also describes deeper, less knowable factors that pulled the cleric toward violence. Here, it is harder to point fingers at the policies of recent memory. Shane’s Awlaki is a deeply troubled and bitter man, one who couldn’t even be redeemed by the logic of tolerance that he had once espoused. As an undergraduate at Colorado State in the early 1990s, he smashed his roommate’s television when he found him watching an American movie. He was found to regularly meet with prostitutes, even as he was preaching conservative Islamic values in San Diego and Virginia. He resisted his father’s tender efforts to build for his son a secular and stable career in the Yemeni government.

There is a second and concurrent story of transformation in Objective Troy, just as perplexing as Awlaki’s. In 2002, Barack Obama was a peaceful constitutional law professor who warned that invading Iraq would “only fan the flames of the Middle East.” On his first day in office, he signed an executive order banning torture. And then, suddenly and dramatically, he became the chief advocate and executor of America’s most extensive, expansive, and deadly paramilitary campaign, the targeted-killing program. Many observers have tried to explain Obama’s “exquisitely ironic” embrace of the drone, but Shane’s investigation into what he describes as the president’s radicalization is one of the most thorough and level-headed that has been penned to date. Drawing from previously overlooked evidence—the syllabus from a seminar that Obama taught at the University of Chicago, a passage from The Audacity of Hope, an op-ed he wrote for a local Chicago paper when he was a state senator—Shane concludes, convincingly, that contrary to the analysis of a host of commentators who felt “surprised by Obama’s decision to escalate drone strikes,” the president’s “intentions were hidden in plain sight.”

The transformations of both Awlaki and Obama, whose backgrounds the author calls arrestingly similar, lend Objective Troy a neat dramatic symmetry. And the story’s culmination is appropriately climactic. By 2010, the president’s targeted-killing program had reached its zenith, and the cleric, who was living in a remote province in Yemen, had become “a celebrity unequalled in the counterterrorism universe by anyone other than Bin Laden.” Obama had many enemies, “but above all,” according to Shane, “he wanted Awlaki.” “This,” Obama reportedly told aides of the decision to kill Awlaki with a drone strike, was “an easy one.”

In fact, it was far from easy. As a US citizen, Awlaki was technically entitled, under the Constitution, to due process. But after a lengthy analysis, a team of White House and Justice Department lawyers reasoned that it was legal to kill the cleric without a trial because he posed an imminent threat to the US and its interests, and because capturing him was impossible. The decision to eliminate Awlaki, as Shane writes, “on the basis of secret intelligence and without criminal charges or a chance to defend himself in court” was enormously controversial. Rand Paul, in a thirteen-hour filibuster protesting the targeted-killing program, suggested that it would be only a matter of time until the administration, using the same legal reasoning, began to extrajudicially assassinate US citizens within the United States. Shane’s even-handed treatment of the debate puts him somewhere between those who argued that targeting Awlaki “would be like a justified police shooting of an armed and threatening criminal,” and those who warned that to do so would “violate some of the country’s most cherished principles.” Conceding ground to both arguments, Shane invokes Sartre’s “dirty hands” theory: “An act,” he writes, “could be simultaneously morally required and morally forbidden.”

That may be an unsatisfying conclusion, but it’s probably the closest we can get to resolving the debate right now. It might instead be more fruitful to ask what made this “nerdish American” so dangerous in the first place that the administration would see fit to stretch the Constitution to its very limit in order to eliminate him. “Awlaki,” writes Shane, answering this question, “had devised a particularly potent formula,” combining mastery of both traditional Islamic sacred texts and the modern, colloquial English of his target audience. More crucially, he figured out the best medium to reach that audience. Speaking from deep in Yemen’s Shabwah province, he pioneered a paradigm of Internet-enabled global terrorism that was as futuristic and disruptive as the drone that killed him. The effect of Awlaki’s innovation was spectacular. Shane points out that despite efforts to scrub Awlaki’s toxic teachings from the Web, a search of his name on YouTube today still produces tens of thousands of results. As long as his message is accessible online, young men and women will keep reading his blog posts and watching his sermons, and some will take up arms. And as long as the Internet remains the most important frontier in the war on terror, Awlaki’s story will remain relevant, and Objective Troy a crucial read.

Arthur Holland Michel is a writer and researcher covering defense, technology, and culture. He is the co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.