The book came out earlier this year and a documentary film with the same name was released in June and is available on demand on Netflix. Both cover the same ground but in different ways and are invaluable for anyone who wants to understand how the war of terror has evolved and where it is heading. In short, it is headed in the direction in which ‘the world is a battlefield’ (the subtitle of the book) and the US is now engaged in fighting eruptions of what it sees as terrorism in over 70 countries around the globe.
The book interweaves two stories. One is the story of the radicalization of Anwar al Awlaki, the US-born Muslim cleric who was murdered by a US drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The other is the growth of JSOC (Joint Special Operations Command), the shadowy army that has become the US president’s means for waging covert and not so covert wars around the globe, largely free from the limitations imposed by the normal military chain of command and governmental oversight, and to a great extent out of the media spotlight until the death of Osama bin Laden thrust it into the limelight.
While the book interweaves the two stories, the film naturally has a different emphasis and is mainly told as Scahill’s slowly growing realization of the existence of this vast counter-terrorism force known as JSOC, with the story of Awlaki occupying just the last quarter. In this review of the book, I will discuss the Awlaki story while the later review of the film will discuss JSOC and its activities.
The patriarch of the Awlaki family Nasser al Awlaki was a Fulbright scholar from Yemen who came to study agricultural economics in New Mexico in 1966. After getting his bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in the US, along the while having his eldest child Anwar born in 1971, he returned to Yemen in 1977 in order to help his struggling country. He worked with US aid agencies in Yemen and eventually became the country’s minister of agriculture.
Nasser was a big fan of the US and wanted his son to grow up with American values and to be ‘an all American boy’ so in 1990 he sent him to the US to study civil engineering in Colorado. Anwar, like the rest of his family, was not particularly religious but the invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War made him more conscious of his Muslim identity and more religious. After graduating in 1994 and marrying his cousin, Anwar became an imam of a mosque in Denver where his son Abdulrahman was born in 1995. He later moved around as an imam at various mosques, ending up in the Washington, DC area.
In the wake of 9/11, he condemned the attacks and became the face of the so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ and was the go-to person in the media for statements about what the Islamic community in the US was thinking. The Washington Post even had a profile of him in 2001. In early 2002 he was even invited to lead a prayer service at the US Capitol and later that year was invited to a luncheon at the Pentagon to speak to Department of Defense officials. He was a little miffed that George W. Bush did not invite him to the White House along with other leading Muslim clerics during Ramadan because he had been a supporter of Bush and had urged Muslims to vote for him in 2000 because he felt that the values of Bush and conservative Republicans were closer to those of Islam than those of Democrats. His closeness to the US government was such that there were suspicions at one time that he was a secret informant on the government payroll.
But the invasion of Iraq in 2003 changed him. As the war went on, he became increasingly convinced that the US was not targeting selected people for specific crimes but was engaged in a general war against Islam. He became more strident in his criticisms of US actions in Iraq and elsewhere. He was apparently a dynamic and charismatic speaker who had a huge following among the young English-speaking Muslim diaspora who bought his videotapes in large numbers. He eventually moved back with his family to his father’s home in Sana’a in 2004 and continued his preaching via the internet, and thus became the target of the US government
The president of Yemen Ali Abdullah Saleh was a wily leader skilled at the art of playing tribes against each other and using the Americans’ obsession with fighting terrorism to get money and weaponry from them to use against his domestic enemies and thus retain power. The turning point came in 2006 when the US-backed Yemeni forces arrested Awlaki and put him in prison for a year and a half, half of it in solitary confinement underground in an 8ft by 4ft cell where he never saw the sun, and with no writing materials or exercise but only the Koran to read for the first two months.
Despite the fact that Nasser appealed to the US embassy to intervene and have this US citizen released, they did not do anything and even sent the FBI to interrogate him. When the influential Nasser asked the Yemeni government why they continued to hold his son, he received word that it was for his own good and that if he was released he would be killed by a drone, words that proved prophetic.
This prison experience radicalized Anwar further and when he was released he became a much harsher critic of the US, applauding any acts taken against US forces and calling upon Muslims around the world to rise up against them. The US started treating him as some kind of al Qaeda mastermind and key figure in their operations. While al Qaeda undoubtedly benefited from his sermons against the US, there is no evidence that he had any formal position in their structure or did anything more than preach inflammatory sermons. Knowing that his life was in danger, he went into hiding in the mountainous tribal areas of his family and was the first American placed on president Obama’s infamous ‘kill list’, even though no charges were ever filed against him and no evidence given. After several attempts on his life that killed other innocent people, a drone strike in Yemen in 2011 finally ended his life.
His son Abdulrahman, also born and educated in the US, was nine years when he was taken back to Yemen by his parents. He grew up as a normal boy in his grandfather Nasser’s home in Sana’a with little contact with his father who was either in prison or in hiding. In 2011, at the age of 16 he ran away from his grandfather’s home, leaving a note to say that he wanted to try to find his father. But he was not successful, his father dying before he made contact.
When the news emerged of his father’s death, his grandmother, who was inordinately fond of him, pleaded with him to come home and he told her he was returning. But just two weeks after his father’s death, as he was eating an evening meal in the open air with some friends, he was blasted to bits by another drone strike that was so devastating that there was nothing left of him. He was identified by a patch of skull that had his distinctive tuft of hair. To this day, the US government has never given any explanation of why it murdered a 16-year old boy, a US citizen, whose only crime was that he had a father who had antagonized the US government. Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former press secretary callously dismissed it by suggesting that it was his father’s fault for not being more responsible, even though the son was killed in a separate attack from the father at a different time and place.
The story of Anwar al Awlaki is a classic one of how the war on terror has become so indiscriminate and spawned so many casualties in its wake that it is radicalizing more and more Muslims around the globe. The book and the documentary film describe the rage of many people in Iraq, Afghanistan Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan at the deaths wreaked on them by US drones and cruise missiles and their vows of vengeance. Even Malala Yousafzai told president Obama that the drone attacks are not helping, saying “I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.”
But we are Americans. We don’t do education because our real expertise is elsewhere. As a US-backed Somali warlord told Scahill, “America knows war. They are war masters.” There are a lot of unsavory characters around the world who are benefiting greatly from the US’s never-ending global war on terror. And it is a war that spawns more terror.
Next: The film Dirty Wars and the rise of JSOC.