I just watched the video of a talk on drone warfare that was delivered a couple weeks ago by Scott Shane, a NYT reporter and the author of Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President, and the Rise of the Drone, which is embedded above. You can read an account of the talk here: The Pros and Cons of Drones in Counterterrorism.
In addition to discussing drones as a counterterrorism tool in place of a strategy, Shane also pointed out the hugely counterproductive result of killing Anwar al-Awlaki, the premier Islamist propagandist, and U.S. citizen, who had fled the United States for Yemen.
Contrary to expectations, the strike proved that in the Internet age, a propagandist’s operational value could never be truly eliminated. In fact, Awlaki, in death, gained greater lasting relevance. “Ultimately, his real home was on YouTube, and it is today,” Mr. Shane said, citing the 67,000 videos to his name on the site, ranging from a 53-CD set on the life of the Prophet Mohammed to one entitled “the Cult of Jihad.”
“Killing the messenger by no means kills the message,” he said. “He speaks from the Internet today with greater authority than when he was alive, because like Christianity, Islam has a tradition of martyrdom, and if you look at the stuff his fans post, they often call him ‘the martyr Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki.’ His influence has been absolutely remarkable.”
So, our whacking of al-Awlaki, while it might have given us some emotional satisfaction, resulted in amping up his message and giving it the added authority of coming from a martyr to the cause. A big backfire.
And this massive fail occurred despite all the hoopla about countering violent extremism, or counter radicalization, or strategic messaging, or information operations, coming from nearly every agency of the U.S. government today. Are we serious about countering the messages of an al-Awlaki, or are those just buzz words used in budget justifications and grant requests?
To make matters worse, the USG had the means all along to kill the message itself by discrediting the messenger and causing him to lose credibility with his audience. Al-Awlaki, it turns out, patronized prostitutes like he was a Secret Service agent on TDY in Thailand.
But more than Muslim persecution motivated his abrupt departure. The FBI had been surveilling Awlaki because two of the 9/11 hijackers had attended a mosque he led in San Diego. By monitoring him 24/7, the FBI had concluded that he was not, at that time, affiliated with al-Qaeda. They had, however, observed his un-Islamic secret—that he enjoyed the regular company of prostitutes. His fear of being discredited before his conservative followers was the greatest influence in his decision to leave, Mr. Shane learned from Awlaki’s brother and newly declassified documents. Awlaki discovered the FBI had found him out from a Washington madam, who called him to complain he had brought scrutiny upon her business.
“He couldn’t take that kind of humiliation, so he took off, and [that] was not intended by the FBI,” Mr. Shane said. He added: “Talk about unintended consequences. This guy could have been part of the discussion here, in the tent, ended up very much outside the tent and a very dangerous character.”
There is also another angle that could have been pursued had the USG cared to deal with al-Awlaki as a political threat. It seems his U.S. citizenship might not have been quite completely legal. Back in 2002, Diplomatic Security Service Special Agent Fournier had initiated a passport fraud case against al-Awlaki. The U.S. Attorney in Denver issued an arrest warrant in that case, but ultimately declined to pursue a prosecution. Another opportunity lost.
Had we revoked his citizenship and deported him back then, that might have disrupted some of al-Awlaki's subsequent operations. At the very least, it would have relieved the legal and political embarrassment that resulted from the USG targeting him for an extrajudicial killing.
As Casey Stengel said to the 1962 Mets, can't anybody here play this game? This is why it matters that the USG has a law enforcement agency where we need a security agency, something along the lines of the British MI-5 or Israel's Shin Bet. An agency that seeks to infiltrate, control, disrupt, counter, frustrate, confuse, render ineffective, or otherwise deal with - even extrajudicially - threats to national security. Instead, we have lawyers and law enforcement agents who apparently just cannot get on the same wavelength as our sub-state adversaries.