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The Al-Awlaki affair


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Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born cleric linked to al-Qaeda's Yemen-based wing. — File Photo
Anwar al-Awlaki, a US-born cleric linked to al-Qaeda's Yemen-based wing. — File Photo

THE group of drones that scouted and killed Anwar al-Awlaki took off from southern Saudi Arabia. It was a morning in September 2011 and the sun was shining clear and bright.

In the account published of Al-Awlaki’s infamous death, the American-born Yemeni preacher and his cohorts had just finished breakfast and boarded the trucks that were transporting them.

On that day two of the Predator drones pursuing them pointed their lasers at the targets and two armed Reaper drones took aim. Within minutes of the fatal shot, fired by a pilot thousands of miles away, everyone in the convoy was killed. Al-Awlaki was among them, one of two Americans killed that day.

This, of course, is the story of Al-Awlaki’s end, and in recent months, as the controversy over the legality of US drone attacks has gathered steam, this portion of his story has garnered the most attention.

Several lawsuits filed by American civil rights groups in US courts have sought more information about the attack and the events that led to it. Several legal arguments have been propounded, questioning the constitutionality of a drone strike that targets a US citizen to kill him without granting him the constitutionally mandated due process of law under the US constitution. While Al-Awlaki was not the first US citizen killed by a drone, the legal controversies surrounding his death have dominated the debate over targeted killings.

The question of how he died is only half the story. As a new book written by American journalist Jeremy Scahill reveals, the questions of how Al-Awlaki lived and became radicalised may be just as important as how he perished.

In Dirty Wars: the World is a Battlefield, Scahill spends several chapters tracing Al-Awlaki’s development from an American kid who loved to swim at his local YMCA, to a firebrand cleric connected to Al Qaeda and condemning all Americans as evil right up to his death.

It is what happened to Al-Awlaki in the interim that is worthy of attention. In Scahill’s meticulous telling, we learn of how Al-Awlaki returned with his parents to Yemen when he was a young boy of six or seven. Growing up in Sanaa, neither he nor his family were particularly religious.

He studied hard and when the time came for him to pursue higher education, his father’s connections with Americans in Yemen helped Al-Awlaki score a USAID-funded scholarship to the US. He returned, this time to Colorado, to study engineering.

The beginning of his religious career was in fact accidental; after being asked to give a Friday sermon for the Muslim Students Association, Al-Awlaki discovered that he had a penchant for public speaking and that he wanted to do more of it. Indeed, his love of attention, rather than his affinity with faith, may well have directed his path.

The beginning of his career in preaching did not mean instant radicalisation. In fact, after 9/11, Al-Awlaki was emphatic not only in his denunciation of the attacks but also of America’s right to retaliate against those who had chosen to target innocent civilians.

At the mosque where he preached, he encouraged Muslims to donate blood and to support the victims of the horrific attacks in any way that they could. Nor did Al-Awlaki seem to be poised against US government institutions. He led prayers held at the US Capitol and, according to his father, even considered joining the US army to attend to the faith needs of American Muslim soldiers.

It is a bit after this point, in early 2002, when Al-Awlaki began to change. Interestingly, it is also the time, in late 2001 and early 2002, when the USA Patriot Act, the legal basis for profiling and targeting thousands of American Muslims, was passed and when Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded.

According to Scahill’s account, Al-Awlaki’s criticism of post-9/11 policies was not incidental; hundreds of people in his congregation were questioned by the FBI, and he himself became the subject of scrutiny because two of the 9/11 hijackers had prayed at his mosque in San Diego. In June 2002, Al-Awlaki became the subject of investigation again, as the FBI focused on the funding of Muslim charities.

By now, nearly two years after the attacks, Al-Awlaki’s faith in the US, whose right to even violent self-defence he had championed, seems to have begun to dwindle.

His sermons begin to reveal his dejection and radicalisation, now criticising the increased and arbitrary profiling of American Muslims and denouncing what he has begun to see as a broad US war, generally targeting Muslims rather than particularly focused on eliminating Al Qaeda.

In 2002, Al-Awlaki left the US. While he would return for a short while before moving to Yemen for good, his love for the United States had vanished.

There is no doubt that by the time he was designated as a target and killed by a US drone in 2011 Al-Awlaki was radicalised and politically aligned against the US.

In the wake of the Boston bombings, as political analysts in the US pore over every detail of the Tsarnaev brothers’ path to radicalisation, it is even more instructive to study Al-Awlaki’s trajectory. Unlike previous assertions, Al-Awlaki’s path to radicalisation seems to have been motivated by a frustration with US policies and the anti-Muslim paranoia that gripped the US in the immediate years after the attacks.

If early reports indicating that the Tsarnaev brothers acted alone are true, then it could disprove some American beliefs about radicalisation.

Taken cumulatively, the cases of the Tsarnaev brothers and Al-Awlaki may indeed suggest that radicalisation may not always be the brainwashed product of a foreign group in a remote land, but also a particularly American problem, born of a specifically American context of alienation and suspicion.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Comments (14) Closed

Anwar Sadat May 01, 2013 07:05pm
An equally good question to ask, along with the ones you have asked quite appropriately I might add, how many Indian Muslims or Christians do you find in the US turning toward radicalism?
Qureshi May 01, 2013 09:27pm
Muslims should not live in non Muslim world. They can't adjust
BRR May 01, 2013 04:04pm
For someone trying to make excuses for the Awlaki's of the world, blaming the victim, in this case the US, seems to be a habit. It is a known fact that anti-US sentiments are openly encouraged and fostered in most muslim countries. It is a known fact that some mosques in the US have been the breeding grounds of militancy in the US and in the UK. Isn't there a need then to make sure more militants are not created and supported by the mosques? Racial profiling would not be an issue if some races did not indulge in blatant "namak haram" style behavior - like Awlaki - that bites the hand that feeds it.
LOL May 01, 2013 03:53pm
Was his 14years old son also a radical to be killed without due process? Do Americans now, like Pakistanis and Muslims, don't require a legal process and death warrant to be executed...a right the most heinous of non-Muslim murderers and criminals have always had in America..?
MilesToGo May 02, 2013 02:31am
same could be said for Osama or Kasab or Quadri -
Anon May 01, 2013 11:57pm
Only option: Keep Muslims out of US and West .......
Q&A May 02, 2013 05:50pm
Your one sided argument does not carry wait. Perhaps you have not studied his work, manifesto, and cause.
schochi May 01, 2013 04:53pm
How many other faiths are profiled?
Parvez May 01, 2013 09:44am
Brilliant stuff this...............makes one wonder if this American policy is flawed or is it designed so.
RAW is WAR May 01, 2013 12:28pm
"radicalisation may not always be the brainwashed product of a foreign group in a remote land, but also a particularly American problem, born of a specifically American context of alienation and suspicion." Excellant thesis raffia. How many Radical Hindus or Sikhs do you find in US?
a.k.lal May 01, 2013 02:58pm
and murder of sarabjit
Arvind May 01, 2013 01:01pm
Must admit- very good observation & opinion. Keep it up.
Homeland May 01, 2013 11:47am
So r you justifying Radicalization and turning violent? By that standards shouldnt all minorities follow the same path and be justified. Racial profiling in USA is bad, but isnt it rampant at home?
Ahmed May 01, 2013 12:05pm
What the literati in Pakistan fail to understand is - no civilized country will tolerate the murder of innocent people (as Awlaki tried to do, including bringing down an airliner full of people, e.g.). That is only possible in Pakistan where the murderers of 40,000 innocent people is ignored in all the intellectual discussions.