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Jeremy Scahill: Anwar al-Awlaki & How He Became an American the US Government Targeted & Killed

Screen shot from “Democracy Now!” interview with Jeremy Scahill

Journalist and national security correspondent for The Nation, Jeremy Scahill, appeared on “Democracy Now!” this morning for the entire program to discuss his project, Dirty Wars, which explores the United States’ global assassination program.

The project consists of a book and film. The book was released today. The film has been screening at film festivals and events around the country and the trailer for the film premiered on “Democracy Now!”.

Scahill spends the hour outlining in detail the life of US-born Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was targeted and assassinated by a US drone strike in September 2011. He also discusses Anwar’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, who mounted an effort to have evidence for why Anwar was placed on a “kill list” disclosed. Later in the program, he recounts the killng of Anwar’s 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, who was born in Denver, Colorado, and the justifications and excuses the US government have uttered in relation to their deaths.

Nasser came to the United States to go to college and Anwar al-Awlaki was born in 1971. Nasser wanted to raise him as an American because he believed America was a “shining city atop the hill,” as President Ronald Reagan would say. They lived in Minneapolis and wanted to “raise their children in the tradition of the American spirit” and wanted to give back to Yemen. And, according to Scahill, once Nasser had his engineering degree, he went back to Yemen and became the Minister of Agriculture and Engineering in Yemen and built an entire faculty at the university and built a School of Agriculture and Engineering with USAID. He worked on addressing the water crisis in Yemen.

Scahill shares that, when Anwar came back with his father, he “went to school with the men who would end up working on the kill program from the Yemeni side to try and hunt him down.” He went to school with Yemen dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh’s son. He wanted to go the US when he finished high school.

Anwar went to school in Colorado. He saw the the destruction of Baghdad during the Gulf War and started to go to antiwar meetings. He went to a mosque to speak about the war and organizing and the imam told him he had a gift for speaking and started to invite him regularly. This led him to change course and study to become an imam. He immersed himself in Islamic scholarship.

After 9/11, he was an imam at Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church, Virginia. He became “the go-to imam for large powerful corporate media outlets to understand the experience of American Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks.” He denounced the 9/11 attacks and the “US had a right to hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice.” The Washington Post profiled him for a piece on Ramadan. He would go on NPR and PBS and talk about “feelings of American muslims,” that President George W. Bush was casting the war as a “crusade” and they saw him waging that “crusade” against Muslim countries.

Scahill highlights how he became a target of the FBI after 9/11 and that essentially played a role in his decision to leave the US and return to Yemen.

…Awlaki at his mosque in San Diego two of the 9/11 hijackers had attended services at his mosque and a third one had also attended services with one of the other guys at his mosque in Virginia. And the FBI – he was already on their radar – but they brought Awlaki in a number of times for questioning. And they basically cleared him and said he had nothing to do with those guys except knowing them peripherally in his mosque, but that’s the soruce of a lot of intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the attack and everything that happened with Awlaki because some people believe that he was directly attached to the 9/11 attacks, which I think is preposterous. It’s nonsensical to think these guys would have keyed in Anwar al-Awlaki to the 9/11 attacks at a time when he was viewed as a very moderate guy. He endorsed George Bush for president in the 2000 election…

Anwar was busted on prostitution charges, according to Scahill. Was this part of some setup to flip him?

…What happens is he gets busted the first time in San Diego on a solicitation charge and he’s pulled in and Awlaki claimed the FBI tried to get him to start informing on people in his mosque and telling them who is coming in and out of his mosque and claiming that he told them to, “Get lost.” There is actually an interesting sort of development with this story in that Awlaki had repeated interactions with the FBI and I talked to a senior FBI agent who had worked the Awlaki case and he said that he believed Bureau had tried to flip him or that maybe they had gotten Awlaki to do some informing…

Not only did Anwar have the impending invasion of Iraq influencing his public persona, but Scahill adds that he had this “private battle he was waging with the FBI,” where they “were putting pressure on him to become a full-blown informant.”

It is about this time that he became someone on the radar of the counterterrorism community in the US because he was ” speaking a language that a lot of English-speaking Muslims” could understand. Scahill reports a former senior Yemeni official told him there was a meeting with John Negroponte, who at the time was the Director of National Intelligence, with Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabian ambassador to the US. “Negroponte said they wanted Awlaki kept in prison for four or five years” so that people would forget him. He was becoming too popular and they hoped this would make him go away.

Awlaki was imprisoned for 18 months without charge. The United Nations investigated his imprisonment and declared it was wrong and unlawful. “The FBI came to interrogate him and tried to ask questions about the 9/11 attacks and effectively tried to convince him to shut his mouth,” Scahill adds. And it was after this that he begins to develop his reputation as a “figure on the Internet,” who was delivering these preaches where his rhetoric intensifies.

Nidal Hasan went on this rampage at Fort Hood in 2009 and that was a turning point, Scahill says. The media has tried to suggest Anwar had something to do with planning the attack, but there has never been any evidence that he had anything to do with it. Hasan did ask Anwar for advice on what was proper for a Muslim in the military, whether a soldier should shoot another soldier if they’re committing a crime againsta a country and he also asked for help finding a wife. However, after the rampage, Anwar praises the attack and says it should be a model and that amps up the fear in the US government that his speech will radicalize others to commit further attacks

Finally, in the interview, Scahill suggests that, “by his count,” the US tried to kill Awlaki “more than a dozen times.” He recounts an attempt to kill him where forces did a kind of “bee swarm” and missed Anwar. He was driving in a car with gasoline canisters. Anwar thought this was an ambush and “someone launched an RPG.” Evasive maneuvers are attempted. Another missile is fired and misses again. The Herod (sp?) brothers come to his rescue and they switch cars. The US conducting attacks can only see what look like ants. The two cars go off in different directions and a decision has to be made on which one to follow. The car with the two brothers is hit.

Nasser tried to save Anwar. US-backed Yemen intelligence advised if he was not brought to Sanaa he would be killed by a drone. If he went to prison, he could be kept safe there and he would not be killed.

Importantly, Scahill challenges the widely believed notion that has been promoted by US officials speaking anonymously in media—that Anwar was a senior operational leader in Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). He notes Anwar never claimed it himself and was likely connected to people in AQAP, who “respected him as preaching things in sync with their agenda.” Yet, there is still no evidence from the US government, even after his execution, that he was a senior operational leader in AQAP.

There is much more in the interview, but the journalism on Anwar al-Awlaki’s life and how he became a target of the US government is incredible. It stands out and, for as long as the US was tracking his development as a figure in the Muslim world, they could have at any moment issued an indictment with charges against him. Instead of giving him due process and the chance to defend himself in a court, they relentlessly pursued him and executed him without charge or trial. And, he was killed with another US citizen, Samir Khan, who was also the subject of monitoring by the FBI for the radical views he was espousing online.

It is exactly right what Scahill argues. Societies should be defined by how they treat the “most reprehensible in society.” Anwar called for cartoonists who drew the Prophet Muhammad to be killed. There were grounds to charge him for a crime. And Americans should look at how their government treats people they despise and what access they are given to due process and what rights they are given in society.

Watch the full interview on “Democracy Now!” here. This was only Part 1. There’s a Part Two that will air tomorrow.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."