This book tells the story of radical Islamists imam Anwar al-Awlaki and the US government war against him in the backdrop of the larger issue of President Obama’s war on terror using drones for targeted killing of Al Qaeda members. The author Scott Shane is a New York Times reporter who specializes in issues of national security. Shane does a masterful job in his research for this book and his work really shows. I don’t think there’s any other book length treatment that is as detailed concerning al-Awlaki like this book thus far. Other than passing news headlines most American don’t really know about al-Awlaki and the shadowy war the US pursued against him. The subject of this book is already interesting enough to be picked up and read.
I really appreciated the amount of information that the author gathered on al-Awlaki. The author gives a good biography of how this American born Yemeni turned from a young man growing up between the cultures of Yemen and America and into a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). You get a feel of how al-Awlaki became radicalized but also the confusion of a young man in transition after September 11th. At one point al-Awlaki even condemned Al Qaeda for the attacks, even communicating to his own brother and friends that the terrorism was un-Islamic. But later you see al-Awlaki dabble more into darker themes prevalent among radicals. As I was reading this book it occurred to me how Anwar al-Awlaki walked the same paths as many other Al-Qaeda jihadists before and after him. Due to a religious crisis in their early adulthood these guys become more serious about Islam then found radical Islam appealing. They aren’t necessarily ignorant or economically impoverished contrary to some Western narratives of the undercurrent of Islamic terrorism; instead al-Awlaki, like Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri came from families who were well to do compared to most of their countrymen. Like al-Zawahiri, al-Awlaki was also educated. We must not dismiss these terrorists own claims that they were really driven by religious ideologies. Another fascinating pattern that I got from reading this book is also the prevalence of sexual immorality among certain key Al Qaeda terrorists. The book mentioned about the FBI’s survelliance on al-Awlaki when he was a cleric back in the United States and how that led them to discover how he sought the services of prostitutes. This was going on while he was an imam of a famous mosque in the Washington DC area but al-Awlaki’s activities with prostitutes goes back to his early days of being a young imam in the San Diego area in which he was arrested twice by the police for soliciting prostitutes. This was before September 11th. It reminded of how 9-11 hijacker Muhammad Atta infamously went to adult clubs and sought un-Islamic entertainment. Or 9-11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s sexuality. As the book pointed out, it wasn’t just these jihadists; Major Hasan who was involved with the Fort Hood shooting also has some embarrassing dirt in this area. The author did somewhat entertained the idea that this potential blackmail by the FBI didn’t help in al-Awlaki’s road of becoming radicalized. But I think given the intelligence the last decade and a half of jihadists and sexual immorality I don’t think we can make too much of an argument here of what caused al-Awalki’s radicalism.
I also thought the book was interesting in how it set al-Awlaki and Obama as foils given how in some sense they both have parallel similarities: Both were American citizens who have a minority background and struggled with their identity given their backgrounds. Both were educated in the states and sought to make sense of American values. Whereas Obama eventually embraced America and became the president of the United States, the younger al-Awlaki ended up vowing to attack the country instead. I appreciated the book’s discussion of the legal complexity that Obama’s administration faced concerning what to do with al-Awlaki and also Obama’s path in desiring to pursue a different course than Bush’s war on terror. Obama didn’t want to have large footprint with large contingents of American boots on the ground nor did he wanted America to be known for torture of Al Qaeda prisoners. This book tells a believable story of how Obama eventually came to see the value of the drone in targeting Al Qaeda as the alternative to Bush’s strategies. Here though I must fault the author of being at times being too “pro-Obama.” For instance, the author defended Obama for continuing his vacation in Hawaii after news of the underwear bomber that tried to down a US plane as serving the purpose of not getting the country riled up. I think there’s many other instances in which the president continued his vacation when major events happen to believe the author’s defense of the president. Certainly readers who are familiar with the political outlook of the New York Times would expect the author’s biases. The author’s biases also show when he talked about how some libertarians criticized Obama’s statists overstretched with the drones and the author said something to the effect of “libertarian fantasies.” I think these libertarians bring up legitimate concerns.
Overall I recommend this book. It is insightful to see “Al Qaeda 2.0” being described. The book makes readers think about the morality of using the drone and its setback.