The Magazine

Unfriendly Fire

Terrorism has its partisans, alas.

May 20, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 34 • By BRUCE BAWER
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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.