Objective Troy (2015)
Not previously reviewed for CBR.
On September 30, 2011, the US assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Kahn in Al Jawf, Yemen. Both men were American citizens, though only Awlaki had been targeted by the US government. Two weeks later, Awlaki’s 16-year old son, Abdulraman al-Awlaki, was also killed in a drone strike in Yemen, though he wasn’t specifically targeted. He, Awlaki, came to national prominence as a “moderate voice” of Islam following the devastation of 9/11, giving numerous interviews to the media; though he had attained some renown in the Muslim community for producing English language recordings of popular Muslim stories. But Awlaki was a more nuanced person than his national image demonstrated, and he held more moderate views than was widely known. This side of him would overwhelm him after he discovered that the FBI had been keeping tabs on him, and that his carefully cultivated life in America was in danger. He growing extremism, and decision to flee the country, led him down a dark path that would ultimately cost him his life. The most riveting part of this book traces Awlaki’s circuitous route from a childhood in New Mexico with a pro-Western father, to advocating jihad from the unforgiving and barren landscape of Houthi-Yemen.
New Hampshire state representative and Donald Trump advsior, Al Baldasaro, recently called for the execution of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for treason. Trump, among many other things, has called for not only the return of torture by the US government, but an expansion of the practice and expressed his belief that Edward Snowden should be executed.
What’s truly terrifying about the Obama administration’s decision to assassinate a US citizen is not, in my opinion, that he actually followed through with the extrajudicial killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, but that there is now a legal framework by which the executive branch can justify the targeted killing of people who would otherwise be protected by the US constitution. In short, if you trust Obama with the power, do you also trust Donald Trump?
Make America great again.
Drones have been used before to hunt Americans, and now robots are used to kill Americans. It’s not fair to lay the entirety of the burgeoning envelopment of America’s police forces by the Military Industrial Complex at the feet of Barack Obama, but there is no arguing that he greatly expanded questionable policies of the US military while simultaneously denouncing other practices by his predecessor. This book is about the president’s approach to fighting the war on terror (specifically in countries we aren’t at war with), and centers around three questions:
1) Why did Anwar al-Awlaki become the fanatical mouthpiece for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula when he had previously espoused the belief that American Muslims should serve as the bridge between the two worlds?
2) How did Obama end up embracing extrajudicial targeted killings across the Muslim world when he argued so vehemently against the excesses of the Bush White House?
3) What was the role of the technology that would link Obama to Awlaki, and how did it poison the relationship between the US and the Muslim world?
The interesting thing here for me is that Shane draws parallels between Obama and Awlaki that I hadn’t previously considered. They both were born in the US to immigrant fathers and raised, for a time, in Muslim countries. Both sought to bridge the divide between the United States and world’s one billion Muslims. Both decried abuses under the Bush administration. Both irrevocably turned their backs on peaceful reconciliation by embracing the very acts that inflamed animosity and fear. These similarities belie the fundamental differences between the two: Awlaki embraced a terrible ideology that has cost countless lives while Obama has embraced a technology that, while terribly divisive and damaging to the goodwill he sought to generate, is unquestionably far less destructive than more traditional forms of warfare.
I think Shane does a superb job of delineating between the impact of drone warfare on the people of Pakistan and Yemen (he briefly touches on Iraq, Syria, and Somalia, where drones have also been used) and the fact that Obama sees it as the less destructive option, while also demonstrating how these strikes have been largely counterproductive and self-defeating.
We’re all the protagonist in our own story, and while it’s easy to see how Obama thinks his policies are the best option for America (whether you agree with him or not), it’s not always clear where the terrorists are coming from. That’s simply not something we’re good at – both as a species and as a nation. Understanding our enemies is often an after-thought. But for Anwar al-Awlaki, he’s the hero. In his version of the end of his life, he gave everything he had for his people – his umma – and sacrificed his life to fight a terrible evil. That you and I may find his beliefs abhorrent makes them no less powerful to those who think the way he does.
In many ways, I think this book touches on the underlying turmoil of this war: who do we want to be? Do we want to be a people who will expend every resource in the vain hope that we can reclaim the illusion of safety we all felt on 9/10? Or do we want to hold close those guiding principles that we’ve so ardently glorified as American: truth and justice? Those are big questions, I think, and there are no easy answers – answers which this book doesn’t claim to have.
But it does clearly and, I think, honestly lay them before us so that we may attempt to answer them for ourselves.