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Scott Shane on “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone”

Web ExclusiveMarch 18, 2016
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In this web exclusive interview, New York Times reporter Scott Shane discusses his new book, “Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone.” It just won the 2016 Lionel Gelber Prize. The book tells the story of the first American deliberately killed in a drone strike, Anwar al-Awlaki, and examines why U.S. counterterrorism efforts since 9/11 seem to have backfired.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We continue our conversation with Scott Shane, the national security reporter for The New York Times. His new book is called Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone. It just won the 2016 Lionel Gelber Prize. The book tells the story of the first American deliberately killed in a drone strike, Anwar al-Awlaki, and examines why U.S. counterterrorism efforts since 9/11 seem to have backfired.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, why don’t you start off with the title of the book, Objective Troy?

SCOTT SHANE: Yeah. If you are added to the kill list, the list of suspected terrorists that, in the Obama administration, have been targeted for killing in drone strikes, the military calls you an “objective” and gives you a codename. And in Anwar al-Awlaki’s case, he was given the name “Objective Troy.” You know, at first I wondered if that was some reference to the Trojan horse or something literary or symbolic, but it turns out that they gave the people targeted in Yemen the names of Ohio towns. So Anwar al-Awlaki became Objective Troy because of Troy, Ohio, small town in Ohio.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what this program was, what the Obama administration did and the whole thesis of, well, the subtitle, A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone.

SCOTT SHANE: Well, you know, I wanted to take a look at both sides of the kind of problem that has dominated U.S. foreign policy for 15 years, and that is the threat of terrorism and what the U.S.’s response has been. And the story of Anwar al-Awlaki sort of captures both sides of this, because, on the one hand, he was an American who spent about half of his 40 years in the U.S., had a quite happy life here, had a very successful career as an imam here, denounced 9/11, called for bridge building after 9/11, and yet he ended up with al-Qaeda in his last years plotting attacks on the U.S. So I wanted to sort of understand that trajectory and what made him take that course.

And on the other side, I guess, as a reporter, I’ve been struck by the fact that just about everything the U.S. has done against the terrorist threat or in connection with the terrorist threat since 9/11, whatever its contribution to the U.S. security, has also generated this sort of backlash that has played into the hands of al-Qaeda and, more recently, ISIS. So, you know, I’m talking about the CIA’s black sites, interrogation and torture at Guantánamo, the prison at Guantámao Bay, and, you know, especially under Obama, the drone strikes. You know, all of these things have become sort of recruiting tools for al-Qaeda and ISIS, proof that—you know, for those groups, that the U.S. is at war with Islam, as they say, and therefore, you know, a generator of recruits for the very groups that the U.S. is trying to fight.

And Awlaki’s case also provided insight into that. You know, he was killed in 2011. It took them almost a year and a half to find him. In Yemen, you know, a drone found him. He was killed along with another American acolyte, Samir Khan, and two Yemeni guys from al-Qaeda. And I think, at the time, the Obama administration saw this as a real victory, a sort of feather in their cap. A few months earlier, they had caught and killed Osama bin Laden. But in retrospect, while Anwar al-Awlaki was removed as an operational terrorist—he wasn’t going to actually participate, obviously, in any more terrorist plots—he was a guy whose greatest importance was as the most effective ideologue, propagandist recruiter for al-Qaeda, in English, you know, in its history. And he has lived on on the Internet. I went on YouTube yesterday and put his name into the search engine, and you come up with 67,000 videos, most of which are his life’s work, from the early days when he put out mainstream boxes of CDs, 53 CDs on the life of the Prophet Muhammad, all the way through to the al-Qaeda stuff at the end of his life, when he was instructing Muslims in the West and in the United States that it was their religious obligation to stage attacks. And it’s all there, and it remains very powerful, very influential, more than four years after his death. And not only that, but by killing him, the U.S. government inadvertently promoted him to martyrdom in the eyes of his fans. So if you go on YouTube, you find that they have posted and reposted his videos with tributes to Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, the great martyr. So he speaks from beyond the grave with even more authority and influence than when he was alive.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, let’s go back to Anwar al-Awlaki in November 2001. He spoke to The Washington Post then about the significance of Ramadan.

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: Ramadan is a chance for us to get away from the worldly indulgence in everything that is material. It’s a chance for us to have a more austere life. I think that, in general, Islam is presented in a—in a negative way. I mean, there’s always this association between Islam and terrorism, when that is not true at all. I mean, Islam is a religion of peace.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, less than 10 years later, Anwar al-Awlaki released this al-Qaeda video, “A Call to Jihad.”

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: Do not be deceived by the promises of preserving your rights from a government that is right now killing your own brothers and sisters. Today, with the war between Muslims and the West escalating, you cannot count on the message of solidarity you may get from a civic group or a political party, or the word of support you hear from a kind neighbor or a nice co-worker. The West will eventually turn against its Muslim citizens. Hence my advice to you is this. You have two choices: either hijra or jihad. You either leave or you fight.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That’s Anwar al-Awlaki. So, Scott Shane, can you talk about his transformation and how he came to work with al-Qaeda? And also, that video, where was it recorded?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, the first video was recorded by The Washington Post when—at a time right after 9/11, when the media in Washington discovered that there was this young, charismatic imam who spoke native English and native Arabic and was available to explain Islam to Americans, who suddenly had a great interest in this topic. And, you know, he was suddenly in The New York Times and The Washington Post. He was on TV, he was on the radio. And he—you know, he was sort of on a trajectory to become a major public figure in the U.S. He was well on his way—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, he was invited to the Pentagon, right?

SCOTT SHANE: He spoke—he was a luncheon speaker at the Pentagon. He preached at the Capitol. And, you know, looking back, I have often thought that he might have been a national voice for American Muslims in the last 15 years, a voice that has not really existed at the highest level, sort of on the Sunday TV shows and that kind of thing. He was certainly capable of that. And I think that was where he was headed. But some personal things and some external sort of world developments intervened.

The first personal thing that happened was he discovered—he was actually planning—he was very happy in the U.S. He was planning to stay and keep his career going. The FBI, which had looked into him after 9/11, had concluded he had no ties to al-Qaeda and no ties to the 9/11 plot, even though a few of the hijackers had prayed at his mosques, and so they were worried about that, but they had essentially cleared him. But what he found out was that in the process of following him around to see if he had any ties to al-Qaeda, they had discovered that he had the habit of visiting prostitutes in Washington hotels on a regular basis. And one of the managers of one of these escort services that he had been using called him out—called him up and told him the FBI knew all about these visits. And he panicked. And he—you know, he was a conservative preacher with a conservative congregation, and he just could not stand the idea that he would be exposed as a hypocrite before the world. And he flew off to the U.K. and abandoned his career in the U.S. And so, we had this guy with a lot of talent and a lot of ambition, and he was sort of in play at this point, and he was looking for a new place to take his career.

And the other thing that happened, while he was in the U.K. preaching and taking an increasingly radical line, although it was always shaped at that point in terms of Islamic history and sort of the history of jihad in Muhammad’s—in the Prophet Muhammad’s time—but the other thing that happened, of course, was the U.S. had invaded Afghanistan, which Anwar al-Awlaki denounced, but in a fairly modest way, mild way. But when the U.S. invaded Iraq, that had a huge impact on him. And, you know, I think he began to think about what bin Laden had already said, which was that there was a war between the U.S. and Islam, and you had to take sides.

And eventually he ended up in Yemen. He was in prison for a year and a half without charges, in part with the encouragement of the United States, which was worried about his influence as a radicalizer. And when he got out of prison, not long after that, he moved to the tribal territories in Yemen and hooked up with al-Qaeda. And so, when he made that second video, he was, you know, a quite influential member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and he was a part of a small cell within that group that was focused, not as the bulk of the group was on the Yemeni government and the Saudi monarchy, but on the so-called far enemy, as al-Qaeda called it, the United States. So he played a significant role in organizing the underwear bomb attack on Christmas Day in 2009, as folks will remember, when a young Nigerian tried to blow up a plane over Detroit. He played a role in sending two bombs in printer ink cartridges aboard cargo planes addressed to Chicago, clearly chosen because of the association with Obama.

So, you know, you had this peculiar situation where Obama had given the kill order, and the American drones were looking for Awlaki, to send a missile his way in Yemen. And he was, in effect, sending, you know, airplanes back at the U.S. loaded with bombs. But actually, the plots he was involved in all failed. And as I mentioned, he was killed at the end of September in 2011.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Scott Shane, could you talk about the 2010 legal opinion, which made it, in fact, legal and constitutional to kill Anwar al-Awlaki? You write in Objective Troy, “Before 9/11, anyone proposing to use missiles in a country where we were not at war to kill suspected terrorists week after week would have been met with strong opposition.” So could you tell us about the people who wrote this opinion, David Barron and Marty Lederman?

SCOTT SHANE: Yeah. I mean, what is sort of striking about the drone program, in general, is the, in my opinion, excessive secrecy that has been attached to it. So, it took years before there was any congressional debate. We still don’t know what the government itself thinks is the record of the drone program. And it took us—I filed a FOIA, a Freedom of Information, request in 2010 for all the Justice Department legal opinions on targeted killing, and it took a long court fight before an appeals court gave us—ordered the government to release redacted copies of two legal opinions that justified the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki. So, you know, there’s been a great deal of secrecy even around the legal opinions that the government—in which the government explains why it believes these actions are legal and constitutional.

But in this particular instance, after the evidence emerged connecting Anwar al-Awlaki to the underwear bomb plot in December of 2009, President Obama essentially asked the Justice Department to take a look at whether it would be legal and constitutional for him to give the order to kill this guy, because he was an American citizen. And, you know, on the face of it, the Constitution makes it impermissible to deprive someone of life or liberty without due process of law. So, Marty Lederman and David Barron were both sort of liberal legal academics who had been highly critical of the Bush administration and its approach to counterterrorism. So, they suddenly found themselves with the job of, in great secrecy, deciding whether it was legal to target and kill Anwar al-Awlaki. And they concluded that it was, and gave the word to the White House. And the White House approved—the president approved on February 5th, 2010, the legality of killing this guy. That was based on one legal opinion, which they completed in written form in February.

Then, out in the world, it had been leaked that Anwar al-Awlaki was on the kill list, and some legal scholars, you know, criticized this decision. And they came up with another legal opinion in July of 2010 sort of plugging the holes that people had poked in this argument. But, you know, what’s interesting is, for my book, with the help of a friend who teaches constitutional law, I organized a sort of unofficial, informal poll of people who had taught or do teach constitutional law, professors of constitutional law. And of about three dozen, I asked them only the question: “Was it legal and constitutional for the U.S. government to kill Anwar al-Awlaki?” And the answers came back very divided. About a third said, yes, it was. About a third said, no, it was not. And about a third said it depended on the details. So, this is far from a settled question—

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean if it’s not, Scott?

SCOTT SHANE: —certainly in the scholarly community.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, what does it mean, if it’s not?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, it means that this—that this act, certainly in the opinions of the critics, that it violated the Fifth Amendment and maybe the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. And some would also argue that it violates some statutes, including one called the foreign-murder statute. And so, you know, how this will play out in future administrations, we’ll have to see. But the precedent has been set.

AMY GOODMAN: So then, it could be that President Obama, if it was found not to be legal, could be brought up on war crimes.

SCOTT SHANE: I think that’s highly unlikely, because it’s hard to imagine, you know, how this ever comes before a court. Anwar al-Awlaki’s father Nasser, the former agriculture minister and chancellor of universities in Yemen, twice went to U.S. court. He felt—he was a big fan of America, had spent a dozen years living here, and he felt that he wanted to hold the U.S. to what he saw as its principles, which he had always admired. And so, he went to court twice, first to get his son off the kill list and then to force the government to sort of present the evidence on which—on the basis of which it had killed his son and, actually, his grandson, who had been killed in a second drone strike. And both those cases were dismissed. And so, you know, this question, as has happened often since 9/11, you know, a major question that you would hope and think that American courts would sort of weigh in on, has not actually found a way to come before the justice system.

AMY GOODMAN: And that point you just made about—and then his son was killed. I mean, two weeks later, a 16-year-old boy, right, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who went out to find his father in the desert, who’s sitting at an outdoor cafe, is then killed in a drone strike, born in Denver, Colorado. What is the explanation of this?

SCOTT SHANE: I mean, the explanation that I heard repeatedly from people inside the government was that this was a tragic and colossal screw-up. You know, the claim is—and I believe this—that they had no idea who they were shooting at, which unfortunately has happened too often in the drone war. They believed that they were shooting at a kind of mid-level al-Qaeda guy, an Egyptian named Ibrahim al-Banna. He turned out not to be there. There is some evidence that some of the people—some of the seven men killed in that strike were affiliated with al-Qaeda, but two of the others there were 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki and his 17-year-old cousin.

Abdulrahman, who by all accounts was a very sweet kid, a great kid with no history of any association with radicalism or terrorism, as you say, he had left home. He was living with his grandparents. He had left home to find his father. And this was after—you know, everybody remembers the spring of 2011 and a lot of young people coming out onto the central squares in Arab capitals, including in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. And young Abdulrahman had been part of that and had sort of had a political awakening. And I think that led to his desire to find his father, talk to his father about all these big issues. You know, his father was, by then, essentially a notorious member of al-Qaeda. He did not find his father, but while he was looking for him, he got word that his father had been killed in an American drone strike in another part of Yemen. There is evidence that at that point this 16-year-old kid, you know, said, “That does it, I’m joining the jihad,” and that that may be one reason why he was with al-Qaeda figures when he was killed.

But it remains also the case that he was not on any American kill list and that Obama was reportedly furious when he heard that this had happened, because he understood that while a lot of Yemenis understood the death of Anwar al-Awlaki—I mean, he was seen as trying to kill Americans, and the Americans got to him first, and Yemen is a tribal land where people kind of understand that. The death of the 16-year-old made a huge impression. And when I was reporting for the book in 2014 in Yemen, you know, I found that that was still something that caused huge outrage and grief and remained a kind of stain on the American reputation in Yemen, and certainly had played into the hands of al-Qaeda there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, people in the Obama administration, including Obama himself, have in fact justified the use of drones and targeted killings by saying that it vastly diminishes the number of civilian casualties, or what’s referred to as collateral damage. What do you make of that?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, certainly, in the history of warfare, if you take a long view and you look back at World War I or World War II and the firebombing of Tokyo and of Dresden, let alone the atomic bombs, if you even look at Vietnam, you know, with the Americans dropping huge tonnage of bombs on Vietnamese villages, I mean, the killing in those wars was incomparably greater than in the drone program. And I think what drew Obama to the drone was the idea that you would fit the weapon to the target. He thought the big wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had been, you know, essentially failures, disasters, had not really contributed to making the U.S. safer from terrorism and had these colossal civilian casualties and casualties for American troops, civilian casualties in the hundreds of thousands. So, he thought, if a drone could kill three terrorists, five terrorists, you know, that would—without turning a country upside down, that would make a lot of sense.

I don’t think he has given up on that belief. He’s said to believe that, you know, real attacks on the West had been averted by drone strikes. But I think the administration has also learned that it’s impossible to get perfect intelligence to tell who’s who on the ground thousands of miles away. And so that these drone strikes have, in some cases, [inaudible] maybe as many of—you know, of 10 or 20 percent of the people killed have been innocents. And that’s produced a huge backlash. And the question of sort of the invasion of other countries’ sovereignty has produced a big political backlash in Yemen and Pakistan. So, you know, sort of the bottom line on this program remains to be, you know, judged. What is clear is I’m told that there are now six countries that have used armed drones. You know, the example the U.S. has set is being copied around the world. And I don’t think this weapon is going to go away. So the path that the U.S. has sort of pioneered is going to play out, and we’ll see what the consequences are.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, we don’t have much time, but I wanted to ask about another thread through Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone, in this parallel in the lives of Anwar al-Awlaki and President Obama in how they grew up, their family backgrounds. Can you talk about this and the different paths they took?

SCOTT SHANE: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think—I don’t want to make too much of this. It’s, in a way, a somewhat random observation. But it is remarkable that both Barack Obama and Anwar al-Awlaki were born in the U.S. to fathers of Muslim background who had come to the United States to study as graduate students. Both of them then were taken by their families overseas to Muslim countries, and then they came back to the U.S. Barack Obama, of course, went to Indonesia and came back with his mother. Anwar al-Awlaki came back to go to—was sent back by his father from Yemen to attend college at Colorado State.

And interestingly, this caused them both, I think it’s fair to say, some confusion about identity, some sort of identity crisis, which Obama has famously described in his book, Dreams from My Father. And Obama actually talks in that book about the temptation of radicalism, of militancy, that he felt as a young man, as a young black man in America, with this very colorful and sort of mixed-up background. Anwar al-Awlaki clearly also, ultimately, felt the temptation of radicalism and ended up taking, you know, a very different path from Barack Obama. But it’s sort of fascinating. President Obama wouldn’t talk to me for this book, but maybe after he’s out of office, I would love to sit down with him and talk to him about how he sees all of this.

AMY GOODMAN: And what most surprised you in writing this book, in writing Objective Troy?

SCOTT SHANE: You know, I guess what struck me was—and I guess this is true of all of our lives, but the sort of random twists and turns that have such a profound effect on an individual life and sometimes on the course of history. I think if that escort service manager had not called Anwar al-Awlaki and sent him on the path that ended with al-Qaeda in Yemen, we might be as tired of seeing Anwar al-Awlaki on Meet the Press as some people are of seeing Senator McCain on Meet the Press, and he might be, you know, a sort of prominent American political voice and perhaps a useful voice, given the events of the last 15 years. So, you know, it just struck me in a way how contingent life is, how random life is and how very small events can have profound outcomes.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Shane, we want to thank you so much for being with us. Scott Shane is national security reporter for The New York Times. Along with Jo Becker, he recently wrote a two-part series [part one, part two] in the Times, “The Libya Gamble,” but he’s also author of the brand new book, Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone. The book just won the 2016 Lionel Gelber Prize. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Thanks for joining us.

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