JEREMY SCAHILL is national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. He wrote the bestseller Blackwater: Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He’s reported from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere, and he’s appeared regularly on The Rachel Maddow Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, and Democracy Now! His new book is Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. It entered The New York Times bestseller list on May 12 at number five.
JON WIENER: The State Department urges US citizens not to travel to Yemen because of “the high security threat level due to terrorist activities and civil unrest.” The State Department says, “U.S. citizens currently in Yemen should depart.” Nevertheless you went to Yemen. What was that like?
JEREMY SCAHILL: The first time I arrived in Yemen I was quite pleasantly surprised about how warm and welcoming the people were. That’s true of a lot of places we’re told are dangerous. Yes there are lawless regions of Yemen, and yes, we were in some hairy situations when we were down in the south of Yemen where Al Qaeda has a stronger base of operations. But we were able to travel freely around that country and met a lot of people from different tribes. It kind of warmed my heart: you’d go from one place to another, and you’re sort of passed off from one tribe to another tribe, and everyone takes very seriously your protection. If you’re open and honest about your intentions there, my experience is that most people welcome you so that you can tell their story.
Wiener: You were there to tell the story of the family of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen killed by a drone attack on orders from Obama. What crimes had he been charged with?
Wiener: What rationale were we given for this killing?
Scahill: That Awlaki was the head of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. That’s what President Obama said after he was killed.
Wiener: What about “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty or property without the due process of law”? Isn’t that what the Constitution says?
Scahill: Yes, and of course President Obama is a constitutional law professor by trade and won the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama authorized the killing of a US citizen without charging him with a crime and without presenting any evidence publicly that he was involved with potential terrorism against the US. The story here is not so much about who Awlaki was but rather about who we are. You have this situation where there’s a lot of smoke around Awlaki involving the underwear bomber, the deranged Nigerian guy who tried to blow up a plane over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009. Awlaki praised the Fort Hood massacre where Major Nidal Hassan shot up more than a dozen of his fellow soldiers.
Awlaki may be guilty of everything they ever said about him in the press. But the question for me, and why I found his story so fascinating, is this: why not just indict him, and charge him with a crime? Why not demand his extradition from Yemen? If Yemen refuses to extradite him, then you have a serious case to make to the American people: we have this citizen who we think poses a grave danger to our security. And then you have a debate about it. But we just skipped right to the death penalty without having the trial.
Wiener: You talked to Anwar al-Awlaki’s father.
Scahill: I met Dr. Nasser al-Awlaki in Sana. He is an upstanding academic who had come to the US in 1966 as a Fulbright scholar and still, to a degree, adores the US. He was a grad student in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. He showed me a picture of a young Anwar al-Awlaki at a public school in St. Paul pointing at a globe in the classroom, showing where Yemen was.
Nasser al-Awlaki told me that, when he found out that his son was on a kill list, he wrote a letter to President Obama and said basically “Can’t we resolve this some other way? If my son did something, can’t you present the evidence?” He got no response. So he filed a lawsuit, challenging Obama’s assertion that he could kill this American citizen without presenting any evidence. Then Leon Panetta, the CIA Director at the time, and Robert Gates, the defense secretary, submitted declarations to the judge that said, “We have evidence against Anwar al-Awlaki that is very damning. But to make it public would threaten the security of the United States.” They hid behind the state secrets privilege. Bush and Cheney had loved using this privilege, and Obama has used it quite a bit.
Wiener: The most shocking part of the story of the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki is that we also killed his son, who was also an American citizen. I had thought the son was with the father and that his death was what our leaders call “collateral damage.” But it turns out there was a completely separate targeting killing of the son. What were his crimes? Was he involved in promoting terrorist attacks on the US?
Scahill: Not at all. The son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed two weeks after his father at a restaurant that was nowhere near where his father had been killed. When Robert Gibbs was asked in 2012 about the killing of this kid, he said, “He should have had a more responsible father.”
This was a kid who was a normal teenager, who was not political, was not involved in any terrorist actions, had no connections other than his name to anything vaguely resembling terrorism. This is a story of a kid coming of age, he turns 16, he hasn’t seen his father in years, his father is an outlaw on the run being hunted by the most powerful government in the world, which also is the government of their citizenship. He runs away from home to try to find his dad. A few days after that, his father is killed — in the north of Yemen. He was looking for him in the south of Yemen. At that time there was an uprising in Yemen, the Arab Spring was going on, the roads were shut down, so he had to stay with relatives in this remote area. He’s there for a couple of weeks, he’s having dinner outside with a cousin and some other young people, when a drone appears in the sky above them and blows them up.
Initially a US military official leaked to the press that he was 21-years-old, and at an Al Qaeda meeting when he was killed. The next reports said he was meeting with one of the propagandists with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula when they were killed. But it turns out that guy is still alive.
I start investigating this story. We got his birth certificate from the state of Colorado, which shows that he is 16-years-old and that he’s an American citizen. His family showed me home videos. They show him to be a normal, goofy kid. I interviewed his friends and family members. He had a dream of coming to the US and going to a university.
Wiener: So why was the kid killed?
Scahill: I don’t know the answer. It seems like something out of Greek mythology, to first kill the father and then the son. I do know that no one from the White House will explain why they killed 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. It seems outrageous to me.
Wiener: Those of us who voted for Obama like to think this whole global war on terror thing was created by George W. Bush, or actually by Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and Obama inherited this mess. And that he’s been doing his best to bring this to an end.
Scahill: For me one of the enduring legacies of this administration is that it has made assassination a central part once again of what’s called “US National Security policy.” It’s true that Obama did inherit an enormous mess. Under Cheney and Bush it was like Murder, Inc. — it was a lawless and incredibly stupid foreign policy. The destruction of Iraq should be a stain on our country for many decades to come. The Democrats also were complicit in a lot of this. Let’s remember that Joe Biden was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the time when we were supposed to be having a debate about whether to go into Iraq, and he refused to call critical witnesses who could have provided expert witness on the lack of WMD in Iraq.
Once President Obama came into office and issued those executive orders to dismantle the torture program and the secret prisons and to close Guantanamo, he was presented with a challenge by General McChrystal, saying, “We’ve got people around the world who are engaged in these plots against us, that want to do harm to America. What are you going to do about it?” President Obama didn’t want to deploy larger numbers of US troops. He thought a smarter way of waging this war is to surgically take out anyone who’s involved with organizing plots against the US. So they start to rely heavily on drones. They start in Pakistan. Then Yemen. Then Somalia. And a lot of liberals are under the impression that this is a smarter way of waging war. But when you kill 20 or 30 terrorists and declare victory, you forget that you’ve also killed several hundred other people who were not terrorists. They have family members and neighbors. I believe we are creating more new enemies than we are killing terrorists.
This interview, originally on KPFK, has been condensed and edited.
Jon Wiener is a historian and a regular contributor to the LA Review of Books.