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The Al-Awlaki affair

May 01, 2013
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.