In Objective Troy the New York Times national security correspondent Scott Shane tells two intertwined stories. One recounts the life path of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam killed in a CIA drone strike in Yemen in 2011. The second recounts Barack Obama’s troubled love affair with the drone as an instrument of war, which is part of a larger story about the president’s tortured attitude toward the use of American power in the world.
Anwar al-Awlaki has to be counted as the greatest English-speaking pied piper in the history of radical Islam. His sermons and disquisitions, distributed first on C Ds and later far more widely on social media, influenced—and continue, posthumously, to influence—scores of aspiring terrorists. The Boston Marathon bombers, the Fort Hood shooter, and the Charlie Hebdo gunmen in Paris all pointed to Awlaki’s summons to violence as inspiration for their deeds. As Shane also makes plain, Awlaki’s reach extended well beyond the ranks of such active jihadists.
For every young Western Muslim who crossed the line and began plotting violence or traveled to Yemen or Pakistan to join al Qaeda, there were hundreds or thousands more . . . intrigued by the battle with the supposed enemies of Islam but too fearful or ambivalent to act. By sweeping huge numbers into that recruiting pool, Awlaki added new recruits to the small minority who would take the next step and join the battle.
Shane adduces case after case, like that of Roshonara Choudhry, a 21-year-old honor student who in 2010 stabbed a member of British Parliament, Stephen Timms, with a six-inch kitchen knife in retribution for his vote in support of the Iraq war. She had been listening, obsessively, to Awlaki’s recordings for more than a hundred hours.
Drawing on exhaustive research and a wealth of interviews, Shane traces Awlaki’s movements and intellectual evolution through various stations on his lethal path. Early childhood in the United States was followed by a spell, from age 7 to 18, in his parents’ native Yemen. He then returned to the United States for a college degree in civil engineering, pursued with no distinction but punctuated by a visit with anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan, and followed by a burgeoning career as an imam in various American locales.
Shane argues persuasively, and against what some U.S. government investigators continue strongly to suspect, that Awlaki was not in on the 9/11 plot, despite the fact that he had been in close touch with two of the hijackers who had worshipped at his San Diego mosque. In the late 1990s, Awlaki was already flirting with extremist ideas, but by September 11, 2001, was not yet fully under their spell, calling the attacks “horrible” in a private communication to his brother, a sentiment repeated in some public utterances.
Whatever the ultimate truth regarding Awlaki’s involvement with the hijackers, 9/11 had the counterintuitive effect of bolstering his career. Beforehand, he was known among American Muslims as a charismatic preacher; afterward, he emerged as a highly visible presence in the mainstream media. A crisp native speaker with a reputation as a “moderate,” Awlaki was sought out for appearances by the major television networks and was regularly quoted by leading newspapers as an authority on all things Islamic. If one were to summarize his outlook in a nutshell at that moment, it would be that Islamic terrorism is an understandable if regrettable reaction to even more regrettable American and Israeli aggression against the Muslim world.
With national prominence, and having by 2001 assumed a position in a well-attended Virginia mosque, Awlaki might have continued in the same direction, building on his success as a preacher-pundit. But Awlaki was leading a double life. Intermittent FBI surveillance had never been able to nail him for terrorist plotting, but the agents trailing Awlaki found something else. Even as he sermonized against the sin of zina (fornication) in his mosque, and especially castigating American television for broadcasting nudity and licentiousness across the globe, behind his wife’s back, and on his modest salary, he had become habituated to engaging in zina with Washington-area prostitutes at up to $400 an hour.