The Killing of an American Jihadi

What made Awlaki such a compelling figure for extremists? He was charismatic and glib, but the key was his fluent English.

Wall Street Journal

SEP 22, 2015



By Scott Shane

(Tim Duggan, 396 pages, $28)

Since the rise of Islamic State, it’s been easy to overlook terrorist organizations like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Yet not long ago AQAP was the terrorist group most feared by American officials—and it is still the one most focused on American targets.

Much of its international prominence came from the late Anwar al-Awlaki, who was not AQAP’s leader but instead a terrorist guru cited as inspiration by a veritable rogues’ gallery. His disciples include Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian “underwear bomber,” who tried to blow up a passenger jet en route to Detroit in 2009; Maj. Nidal Hasan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 people in a shooting spree at Fort Hood in 2009; Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Chechen immigrants who set off bombs at the Boston Marathon in 2013 (killing three and injuring 264); and Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the French-Algerian brothers who attacked the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in 2015, murdering a dozen people.

What made Awlaki such a compelling figure for so many extremists? He was charismatic and glib, but the key was his fluent English. He was born in Las Cruces, N.M., in 1971, while his Yemeni father was doing graduate work at New Mexico State University, and was raised in Nebraska and Minnesota. Awlaki’s clever packaging of pro-terrorist messages in an American idiom made him a cult figure among Western jihadists. The Tsarnaev brothers were radicalized by his YouTube videos, and they learned how to make a bomb from the instructions in his glossy magazine, Inspire.

By the time the Boston Marathon bombers struck, however, their idol was no more: Awlaki was incinerated in Yemen by Hellfire missiles from a CIA-operated Reaper drone on Sept. 30, 2011. He thus became, notes the New York Times reporter Scott Shane in “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone,” the first U.S. citizen at least since the Civil War “to be hunted down and deliberately killed by his own government, on the basis of secret intelligence and without criminal charges or a chance to defend himself in court.”

In 2010 Awlaki’s father, a university professor in Yemen who had also served as the country’s minister of agriculture, petitioned a federal court to compel the U.S. government to give his son the rights normally enjoyed by a criminal defendant. Neither the courts nor the Obama administration were swayed, because, as a Justice Department legal opinion concluded, Awlaki had become a “continued and imminent threat” to the U.S. Not only did he incite violence against Americans, but he personally participated in planning attacks. By his own actions, Awlaki had put himself outside the protections of the U.S. legal system.

In “Objective Troy” (the title comes from the U.S. military’s code name for Awlaki), Mr. Shane reprises Awlaki’s life and the decisions that led to his death. His authorial conceit is to juxtapose the terrorist’s story with that of the president who ordered him killed: “Like Anwar al-Awlaki,” he writes, “ Barack Obama had been born in the United States to a secular-minded foreign father of Muslim background who had come on scholarship to further his education.” But the parallels don’t stretch very far, and the administration side of the story isn’t compelling, because, as President Obama reportedly said, the case was “an easy one.” Mr. Shane does not add much to what is already on the public record and had no access to the inner thoughts of either Awlaki or Mr. Obama. The book reads like an extra-long magazine essay.

It is only when Mr. Shane delves into Awlaki’s personal story that “Objective Troy” comes to life. The future terrorist attended Colorado State University from 1990 to 1994, initially on a U.S. government scholarship. But he refused to become the hydrologist his father expected. Instead, Awlaki was drawn to preaching. He became imam of a mosque in San Diego and then in northern Virginia. After 9/11, he achieved a small measure of celebrity as a moderate Muslim who denounced the attacks. Yet by the end of 2002 he had left the U.S.

As justification for his move, Awlaki cited the post-9/11 climate that supposedly made the U.S. unwelcoming to Muslims. In reality, as Mr. Shane reveals, he was one step ahead of the FBI. Two of the hijackers had (briefly) attended his mosque and the bureau discovered that this married father of three with a reputation for piety was a habitual patron of prostitutes. When Awlaki learned about the investigation, he fled first to Britain and then to Yemen. “In other words,” Mr. Shane writes, “his main reason for leaving the United States was not Americans’ anti-Islamic prejudice, as many have assumed, but his own anti-Islamic behavior.”
Awlaki quickly shed any pretense of being a moderate and began calling openly for attacks on the U.S. He was imprisoned in Yemen in 2006-07 on terrorism charges, an experience that some blame for his radicalization. But Mr. Shane shows that he was not mistreated in jail and that “his endorsement of violence clearly had begun before his 2006 arrest.” Mr. Shane performs a valuable service by stripping many myths that surround Awlaki.

Where he is less successful is in raising questions about the morality of drone strikes. While he is right that some innocents are killed, “collateral damage” is far higher in every other type of warfare. The Awlaki case is a strong argument for drone attacks. Yet, even so, his elimination dealt no lethal blow to AQAP: The terrorist organization continues to make inroads amid the chaos of Yemen, and Awlaki’s Internet sermons continue to inspire would-be jihadists.