Book review: Dirty Wars (2013) by Jeremy Scahill

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.

Abdulrahman-al-AwlakiHis 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.


  1. says

    And it is a war that spawns more terror.

    That’s what I don’t get about the militarists. They don’t seem to understand that you can’t bomb someone until they love you.

  2. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Has war ever been clean?

    War ain’t good. War is famously hell.

    War is also, sadly, something that is in our nature and probably always will be. Would that it were otherwise. But w’ere human and thus messed up so badly just by being what we are.

  3. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @Marcus Ranum : Huh?

    When someone tries to bomb someone else its very rare indeed that they are being bombed with love potions.

    The reason people bomb others is to kill them – to take them out. It ain’t to get their love.

  4. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    @Dunc : “Militarists” eh? Who are you meaning by that exactly?

    Al Qaida? Hamas? The Knights Templar?

    The militaries of who and where and for why and what?

    Ya think there’s such a thing as some abstract generalised “militarists” somewhere and there are somewhere caricatures made real flesh who twirl waxed moustaches and just wish to kill others for the sheer evil fun of it?

    The world is not a pantomine of either Right or Left wing politics and I don’t think things are half as simple as those who follow ideological lines on either side of that divide believe.

  5. Dunc says

    mil·i·ta·rism: noun \ˈmi-lə-tə-ˌri-zəm\: the opinions or actions of people who believe that a country should use military methods, forces, etc., to gain power and to achieve its goals.

    a : predominance of the military class or its ideals
    b : exaltation of military virtues and ideals

    : a policy of aggressive military preparedness
    — mil·i·ta·rist noun or adjective
    — mil·i·ta·ris·tic adjective
    — mil·i·ta·ris·ti·cal·ly adverb

  6. Dunc says

    As for this:

    Ya think there’s such a thing as some abstract generalised “militarists” somewhere and there are somewhere caricatures made real flesh who twirl waxed moustaches and just wish to kill others for the sheer evil fun of it?

    No, obviously not. However, if someone always proposes the same approach to dealing with almost any problem, regardless of what the problem actually is or the likelihood of the approach in question of actually solving or mitigating it, then I begin to suspect that they have an irrational bias towards that approach. You are familiar with the concept of irrational biases, yes?

    Also, my one-liner up there was not actually intended to be a thorough exposition on the roots of violence. It was snark. Welcome to the internet.

  7. G. Priddy says

    For those who want war (either for ideological or profiteering reasons) the war on terror would seem to be the perfect war. It clearly will never be “won” in the conventional sense of winning a war, and the harder it’s fought, the more targets are created by virtue of radicalizing those who had previously been neutral, sympathetic, or moderate.

    I can’t see an end game in this war, but neither can I imagine (or maybe don’t want to imagine) a future where this conflict has no end.

  8. invivoMark says

    Ah, the inevitable excuse of the Obama-defenders, used to duck dodge and weave around the responsibility of actually thinking about the problem!

    Yup, War Is Hell, therefore we should just accept that innocent brown people are dying at the hands of our own government with a shrug. Go Team America!

  9. says

    Learned something new. I’d always thought that Abdulrahman had died in the same attack that killed his father, which would make more sense when they defended it with the bullshit about his father making different choices. Still bullshit, but you could follow the logic.

    But why would they make a strike to kill his kid?

    Just imagine the reaction if an Iranian empire was using drones to kill anti-Iranian USans in the US, or anywhere else they might be found. The US has been sowing a lot of wind these last few years.

  10. trucreep says

    That’s why we have procedures in place to make sure that we go to war for legitimate reasons. Yes, “war is hell,” war is fucked up, and that’s why Congress must authorize it, because the people of the United States must authorize it in a way.

    That’s why this “excuse” or explanation or whatever it is you’re trying to say is not valid. We are in these perpetual “states of conflict” where there are no rules, no limits, no end in sight. There is a reason that we place a high burden on going to war, precisely because of what you said; war is fucked up. This new trend of just going where we please, killing who we please, and keeping it a secret gets you exactly where we are today.

  11. trucreep says

    That is exactly what the players pushing this type of war want. They want perpetual conflict, unending bloodshed. Whether it’s an excuse to shape a country in a certain way, or to influence a certain outcome, in the end, it is all about money. It is a way for players to make money. And innocent people die for it.

    It is all done in our name. When people hear “America” and think of murderers, you can thank the spineless fucks that brought us here.

  12. trucreep says

    “Why would they make a strike to kill his kid?”

    Jeremy Scahill wrestles with that question somewhat. He postulates [?] that it’s like the Greek myth, the sins of the father paid by the son. You can apply your own analogy to it, one of my friends likened it to the Godfather; kill him before he can become disenfranchised or angry. You can think of Bane from Batman as well, whichever works for you.

    Needless to say, Barack Obama has Abdulrahman’s blood on his hands. He has the blood of hundreds of children on his hands.

    There is a scene in Dirty Wars that brought tears to my eyes (well, several scenes); he visits the site of the cluster bomb attack in Yemen. There are corpses of children, their eyes still open. One of them is a one-year-old…Seeing a dead one-year-old next to pieces of a missile with American companies on it is just sick, it makes you sick to your fucking stomach.

  13. says

    I’m guessing you’d be a bit less blase about it, if you were on the receiving end. It doesn’t take much of a reality check to reveal moral nihilist posturing as mere selfishness.

  14. says

    Another point: “war is hell” might stand as some kind of excuse, if the parties in the fight were both experiencing the same awfulness. You might be able to argue that (as Sherman did) letting war be brutal and horrifying is the best way of shortening the whole thing. But to do so you’d have to ignore the fact that it’s never the loser’s desire to ratchet the unpleasantness up just a little bit more, for some reason or other. Does that sufficiently reveal your comment as the flimsy excuse of the winning side, which seeks to justify unnecessary misery inflicted on the loser?

    If you seek to justify the cruelty of the drone-war as part of some warrior tradition, why don’t you visualize it as a fully armored knight in plate armor on a horse, riding down unarmed peasants. Because, that’s what this is – the drone pilots may suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome or sweat a bit if the air conditioning is too low, but the knight on the horse (even though we’d all consider him a brute and a coward for riding down unarmed peasants) at least could potentially be hurt. The force imbalance in the drone wars is so vast that it’s outside of the domain of warfare – it’s outright butchery. It is cowardice of the most profound form, to attack and kill with utter impunity, and to wear the uniform of a warrior instead of the leather apron of a worker in an abattoir.

  15. colnago80 says

    Of course the alternative to the drone war is to send in special forces as was done with the Pennsylvania poopy head’s hero Osama bin Laden. I see no reason to risk the lives of American forces just to satisfy the desires of the Ranums of the world to give the opposition an even chance. We didn’t give the Germans of the Japanese an even chance in WW2 so why should we give terrorists an even chance?

  16. trucreep says

    Consider another alternative – working with the local authorities to bring in suspected terrorists. The whole problem with night raids and drone strikes is that there are almost always civilian casualties. And they just turn the victims against us and make the Taliban or Al-Qaeda more appealing.

  17. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    I gather those sarcasm meters are too fragile and malfunction to frequently to be worth it from what I hear.

  18. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Not an excuse, just an acceptance that that is’ the reality.

    Look, its not my choice or preference that there’s war and that things are this way. Its how it is and I don’t get any say in it and precious few if any of us here ever do or will.

    Oh & I’m an Aussie not an American citizen for whatever little that’s worth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *