On Another Awlaki Diatribe, and the Insatiable Need to Inflate the Threat

Foreign Policy has a piece up by J.M. Berger about Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born Muslim living in Yemen that has been targeted for extra-judicial assassination by the Obama administration. Fundamentally, the piece doesn’t distinguish itself remarkably from any of the other exposés indicting Awlaki and serving to dramatically inflate the threat from him and others like him. Awlaki has officially been accused of no crime, but is suspected of being the ideological inspiration for this or that attempted terrorist attack. I don’t intend to hash that out here, as it’s been done quite competently elsewhere.

The point of Berger’s entire piece, however, seems to hinge on what Glenn Greenwald wrote in a July 27 column about Awlaki – that Awlaki was evidently seen by the U.S. government as “the face of moderate Islam” and was radicalized to the point of advocating violent jihad only after 9/11 and the subsequent threatening, murderous, criminal American response. In order to prove Greenwald wrong, Berger presents a number of events and quotations before and after 9/11 trying to prove Awlaki’s shift to radical and dangerous Islam was a part of a long process that started prior to 9/11.

The first illustration Berger presents of Awlaki’s early turn to extremism is that “Awlaki was born in the United States, but spent his formative teen years in Yemen, during the height of the jihad against the Soviets” and that “he reportedly grew up watching videos of the mujahideen as entertainment.” I’m lost on why this is such an indictment. The Afghan mujahideen, as is common knowledge, were supported vigorously by the United States through the Pakistanis. So put another way, Awlaki spent his formative years admiring America’s allies fight in a war against America’s sworn enemy. Many on Capitol Hill were doing the same thing. Maybe we should write a hit piece on when the United States government was radicalized?

Berger then cites a claim by Awlaki’s college roommate that he “spent one summer at a jihadi training camp in Afghanistan during the early 1990s,” but admits “that claim has not been independently corroborated.” According to Berger, Awlaki’s sermons in Colorado in the 1990s inspired a Saudi college student to “join jihadists in Bosnia and Chechnya.” The direct connection between Awlaki’s sermons and this young man’s decision to fight in Bosnia and Chechnya seems tenuous at best. Absolutely horrible things were happening to Muslim populations in both of those places in the 1990s and the inspiration of a single college student to go off and fight against those atrocities is simply not possible to pinpoint on Awlaki. Furthermore, if he inspired a kid to go and fight for Muslims in Bosnia, he again would have been perfectly in line with American foreign policy, so I am again missing why this ought to be seen as an indictment by Berger.

Berger mentions an alleged connection between Awlaki and an al Qaeda recruiter. This was apparently noticed by the FBI, but Berger drops that with “that investigation was closed for lack of evidence…”

Berger then quotes various sermons given by Awlaki, some he admits are perfectly peaceful, moderate religious orations. Others can be conceived of as threatening. One of them, presumably taken as extremist by Bergen, is a perfectly sane and accurate reiteration of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed by U.S.-imposed sanctions in the 1990s. Certainly has nothing to do with being an extremist or a criminal worthy of assassination. Another of Awlaki’s sermons that Berger presents as proof of his extremism strongly condemns the 9/11 attacks as immoral murder of civilians, and then proceeds to explain that the U.S. has been responsible for many more innocent lives as a result of its policies towards the Middle East (Iraq and Palestine being two examples). Again, this is not only historically accurate, but it is the type of analysis that can be heard across the political spectrum and all throughout academia. I won’t take the time and blog space to go through all of them, but the worst of them could easily be propped up next to various sermons by Pat Robertson and seem tame. Yet we don’t see a propaganda campaign to discredit him. And he certainly is not being targeted for assassination by the U.S. government.

The most convincing evidence Berger presents is that Awlaki apparently gave sermons to two of the 9/11 hijackers, having also helped them “find an apartment and open bank accounts” since they were new in town and new to his mosque. Berger admits this claim “is not enough to infer a connection,” but it may successfully serve as evidence of extremist connections. Maybe.

Even if it does, so what? What does this even prove? That Glenn Greenwald was off by a few years? Although I don’t think any of this really proves that at all, especially since Greenwald was merely led by the evidence that Awlaki was invited to the Pentagon for a luncheon just months after the 9/11 attacks “meant to ease tensions with Muslim-Americans after the terror attacks” and that they had no idea of any extremism or terrorist ties. But even if Berger’s piece did prove that, who cares? The whole piece was written, researched and published, hinging on this one column Greenwald had written about the chronology of Awlaki’s radicalization. This is an obvious indication that Berger misses the point.

The point, as I see it, is two-fold. First, that the Islamic terrorism America faces is the result of aggressive interventionist foreign policies towards Muslim lands. This is the opinion of everyone who knows even the slightest bit about the issue, from the State Department, to the CIA, to all of the academic literature written on the subject, to al Qaeda themselves. Second, there is nothing in Awlaki’s record – an American citizen, note – that justifies an unconstitutional, extra judicial assassination, and the constant right-wing haranguing about him is something akin to media hype which inflates the true nature of the threat he poses and ignores all of the relevant constitutional restraints to which our government is legally obligated to adhere.

Whether or not Awlaki was radicalized pre- or post-9/11 seems to me a trivial point. And to a certain extent, Berger’s piece validates my points and the points that Greenwald has made repeatedly.