Creating Our Own Enemies
On September 30, a drone strike rocked Northern Yemen’s Al-Jawf province, targeting American expatriate and Al-Qaeda supporter Anwar Al Awlaki. In recent months, Awlaki had become the new face of terror, one of the most-wanted men on the U.S. hit list. But he wasn’t always an extremist, and his story may tell more about the failings of U.S. foreign policy than the threat posed by global terrorism.
In the months following 9/11, Awlaki dined at top military institutions, including the Pentagon. In 2002, he led prayers at Capitol Hill for Muslim congressional staffers. He was a staunch opponent of terrorism, and told National Geographic two weeks after September 11 that “[t]here is no way that the people who did this could be Muslim, and if they claim to be Muslim, then they have perverted their religion.”
Yet in that same interview he also expressed fear that an unconstrained response to 9/11 could strengthen radical elements of Islam. “The U.S. needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam,” he warned.
Perhaps we should have heeded his advice. Instead, the U.S. government launched a borderless war against Muslims abroad and created an environment of paranoia and skepticism towards Muslims at home. Immediately following 9/11, nearly 800 innocent Muslims were arrested. The FBI visited the homes of over 7,000 Muslim citizens and residents. National security agencies began spying on mainstream Muslim institutions.
Awlaki, like many other Muslims, felt vilified by the country in which he was raised, and moved to the U.K. in 2002. There, he taught Muslims to be skeptical of the West due to the political climate and the expansion of the global War on Terror. In 2004, Awlaki returned to his ancestral homeland, Yemen.
I first heard of Anwar Al-Awlaki in 2006. At the time, he was imprisoned in Yemen on questionable claims of involvement in the kidnapping of a Shiite teenager. Some of my Muslim friends were forwarding emails calling for his release. They were quite certain that Yemeni officials arrested him only on behalf of the CIA, which thought him to be a suspicious figure since leaving and speaking out against the American War on Terror. Lo and behold, when he was released, it was confirmed that the CIA was involved in his arrest, and the horror stories began flowing.
The mainstream American Muslim leader who once so eloquently challenged extremist ideology had undergone 18 months in solitary confinement, wherein he was interrogated and tortured not only by Yemeni officials, but also by the CIA. From then on, Awlaki’s new message was clear: America has launched a war against Islam and it is the duty of every Muslim to defend their brothers and sisters being detained and killed across the globe. The United State’s policies had turned a peaceful preacher — once a media source to learn about Islam — into a radical enemy.
In the years that followed, Awlaki would preach jihad to an English-speaking audience via the Internet, with his speeches gradually becoming more extreme. Essentially, he became Al-Qaeda’s English translator. In March 2010, he released an online audio recording, wherein he questioned Muslims living in America: “How can your conscience allow you to live in peaceful coexistence with a nation that is responsible for the tyranny and crimes committed against your own brothers and sisters? I eventually came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself just as it is binding upon every other able Muslim.”
About a year before his assassination, he was put on a U.S.-to-kill list due to his alleged connection with several terrorists, including the Ft. Hood Shooter and the Christmas Day Underwear Bomber. Their email exchanges have yet to be released, and Awlaki denied having mentored them. His operational role in Al-Qaeda is, to date, unconfirmed, and his influence across the Arab world is slim. For the most part, his title as an Al-Qaeda leader is nothing but a media creation. For most in Yemen, he remains an unknown figure — his death, largely irrelevant. As far as we know, Awlaki held a similar role as the one he had while in the United States: an Internet-savvy and charismatic motivational speaker, albeit with more radical positions and a more limited audience, namely YouTube.
But in the post-9/11 environment of paranoia — where the entire world is viewed as a battlefield to fight Al-Qaeda — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the government has ignored the rule of law by executing a U.S. citizen without due process. The White House declared itself judge, jury and executioner.
It was the War on Terror’s policies that ultimately killed off the pre-2002 Awlaki and pushed him into the role of extremist, and it is those very same policies that will continue to create more enemies. The U.S. is setting a dangerous precedent by assassinating a citizen on foreign soil in a country that we are not even at war with. We need to begin re-envisioning the world as a place of cooperation, and we need to further our attempts in working with other countries to counter terrorism. Perhaps the life of this once-peaceful preacher turned violent-extremist can provide some insight into the policies that will ultimately continue the cycle of violence, and inspire us to hold our government accountable to the highest ideals of our law.