“Objective Troy” was the name the Pentagon assigned to Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born Muslim cleric whose rhetoric and politics evolved from moderate to murderous during the first decade of the 2000s and led to his being killed in Yemen in 2011 by a drone strike President Obama authorized personally.
Drawing on public records, declassified documents and interviews with Awlaki’s family, New York Times reporter Scott Shane minutely links Awlaki’s trajectory of radicalization to Obama’s increasing reliance on drone technology to execute those he designates as terrorists. Since the Predator drone strikes began in 2001, they have been controversial. They made the carnage of war too remote, easy and antiseptic, some critics contended. And, as others pointed out, they were not always accurate, often killing innocent civilians and ramping up anti-Americanism.
But in Awlaki’s case there was the added question of constitutionality. As an American citizen, did he have the right to due process before he could be condemned to death? There is no question that Awlaki courted his own martyrdom by openly advocating and assisting in plots to kill Americans. Both Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the so-called “underwear bomber,” and Nidal Hasan, the army psychiatrist who massacred 13 people at Fort Hood, Texas, sought his guidance and encouragement—as did many other aspiring but ultimately unsuccessful jihadists.
Fortified by approving legal opinions, just as President Bush had been in his decision to allow torture of detainees, Obama finally concluded Awlaki was a legitimate target. After the killing, he stated, “When a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.”
While Shane displays Awlaki in all his venom and charming arrogance, he also takes Obama to task for his too eager embrace of drones and lack of promised transparency.