The Magazine

Unfriendly Fire

Terrorism has its partisans, alas.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By BRUCE BAWER
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He poses as an investigative journalist and is presented in his main outlets—the Nation, MSNBC, Socialist Worker, Democracy Now!—as a foreign-affairs expert. In fact, Jeremy Scahill—a college dropout who was arrested several times in the 1990s in connection with (among other things) the occupation of a federal building and the vandalizing of a military aircraft—has never been anything but a radical ideologue out to discredit America and debilitate its defenses. 

The late Anwar al-Awlaki delivers ‘A Message to the People of the Media’ (2011).

The late Anwar al-Awlaki delivers ‘A Message to the People of the Media’ (2011).

site intelligence group / afp / getty images / newscom

In 1996, as a 21-year-old member of a “faith-based resistance community,” a disciple of the anarchist Philip Berrigan, and a fan of Fidel Castro, Scahill told the Washington Post that American sanctions were “torturing people of the world by starving them to death.” Later, after working on Michael Moore’s TV show The Awful Truth, he coproduced a documentary charging Chevron with human-rights abuses in Nigeria (the courts didn’t agree) and, in a memorable 2010 appearance on MSNBC, argued fervently with Ed Koch about the Gaza flotilla. 

What really made Scahill’s name, however, was his one-man crusade against Blackwater (now Academi). It’s no exaggeration to describe him as the seminal source of virtually every slur about that company (and its founder, Erik Prince) that has made the media rounds in the last decade. His 2007 book Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army is awash in false claims (for example, that the United States employed “tens of thousands of mercenaries” in Iraq, and that the State Department may have vetoed Blackwater protection for Benazir Bhutto, thus causing her death) that aren’t even supported by the sources he cites. His hyped-up rhetoric, meanwhile, is patently designed to make everything about Blackwater sound sinister. (While he calls the firm’s operatives “mercenaries,” and compares them to “Nazi Party brownshirts,” he labels groups like Shining Path and the Sandinistas “popular movements.”) 

The more one reads Jeremy Scahill, the plainer it is that he’s offended by the very idea of the American military—indeed, by the very idea of the United States. Which brings us to Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Blackwater makes a cameo here, but this time Scahill’s topic (not only in the book, but in a documentary of the same name that recently premiered at—where else?—the Sundance Festival) is considerably broader. After 9/11, he argues, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld introduced a new mindset, to wit: 

The world is a battlefield and we are at war. Therefore the military can go wherever they please and do whatever it is that they want to do, in order to achieve the national security objectives of whichever administration happens to be in power.

The result: secret armies, covert operations, and unauthorized killings, all of which, Scahill claims, only led more and more Muslims to become radicalized.  

To read this book, you would never know that it wasn’t America but its enemies who, acting on Koranic dictates about jihad and the “House of War,” made the world a battlefield. Consistently, Scahill prettifies Islamic ideology and jurisprudence (quoting with a straight face the claim that Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union consisted of “liberals, moderates and extremists” who shared only a determination to “stabiliz[e] the country through Sharia law”). In Scahill’s lexicon, the terrorist group Al Shabab operates “popular social programs,” while the United States forms “dark side forces” and wages “twilight wars.” If Abu Ghraib, under Saddam Hussein, was merely a “prison and torture chamber,” it became a “gulag” under the United States. 

Scahill shifts back and forth between telling the big story of America’s post-9/11 perfidy and providing an up-close-and-personal account of a representative victim of the American killing machine, namely Anwar al-Awlaki—the high profile Yemeni-American imam who, he repeatedly tells us, was “an American sentenced to death with no trial.” Awlaki returned to Yemen after 9/11, wrote for the magazine Inspire (published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula), and, in one fiery sermon after another, urged Muslims to slaughter Americans. He is known to have been involved in the 2009 plan by underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to down an airliner over Detroit, but Scahill describes his role in that plot as “unclear,” and seeks to leave the impression that Awlaki’s sole offense was preaching his religion. 

Scahill makes a special effort to stir our sympathies for Awlaki’s father, who, knowing the United States had his son in its crosshairs, took to American courts to argue that if the Great Satan killed Awlaki in Yemen, it would violate his constitutional rights. (Nowhere does Scahill recognize the absurdity of America’s enemies trying to use the U.S. justice system to cripple America’s attempt to defeat them.) Similarly, Scahill depicts Major Nidal Hasan—who frequently contacted Awlaki for theological counsel before murdering 13 people at Fort Hood in 2009—not as a jihadist whom authorities failed to finger in time because they feared being called Islamophobes, but as a man of conscience who was driven to retributive violence by American Islamophobia.

For Scahill, whose spécialité de la maison is attacking Democrats from the left, Barack Obama has been even worse than George W. Bush because, betraying his campaign promises, he “embraced the neoconservative vision of the world as the battlefield,” escalated “the covert U.S. war against al Qaeda,” and was determined to take out Osama bin Laden and, later, Awlaki. (Scahill approvingly quotes Amnesty International’s condemnation of the SEAL strike in Abbottabad.) Scahill wants us to come away despising Obama; after closing this book, however, many readers may well feel better about the president than they did before.

Dirty Wars has proven to be timely in a way that neither the author nor his publisher can be very happy about. Noting that Inspire’s 2010 debut issue contained a “Hit List” of artists who had caricatured the prophet, an article by Awlaki “encouraging Muslims to attack those who defame the image of Muhammad,” and a piece entitled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” which explained how to construct an explosive device from a pressure cooker, Scahill acknowledges American intelligence concerns that such materials might “incite young Western Muslims to commit ‘lone wolf’ acts of terror”—although the only concern Scahill himself displays is over Awlaki’s continued well-being. As it happens, Inspire’s bomb recipe has been cited as a probable resource for the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has admitted that both he and his brother were influenced by recordings of Awlaki’s sermons. 

What Scahill has given us here is, in short, an indictment of the West’s entire post-9/11 struggle against jihad. To offer serious criticism of American strategy is, of course, thoroughly legitimate. But Scahill isn’t a patriot who wants to see America triumph. On the contrary, it seems clear that the only thing he would hate more than a mismanaged war on jihad would be a successful one. Indeed, it’s hard to avoid feeling that this book’s definitive goal, like that of Awlaki’s sermons, is to swell the jihadist ranks—anything to bring down the Evil Empire with which Scahill has been at war all his professional life.

Bruce Bawer is the author, most recently, of The Victims’ Revolution: The Rise of Identity Studies and the Closing of the Liberal Mind.