Inside 'Dirty Wars': Exclusive Interview With Investigative War Reporter Jeremy Scahill

Last week, we published Part 1 of our PolicyMic interview with award-winning investigative war reporter, Jeremy Scahill, about his new film, Dirty Wars. From Afghanistan to Somalia, the film follows Scahill through the shadows of America’s counterterrorism strategy and puts him face to face with the repercussions of American foreign policy on the ground. In addition to Scahill, the production team of Dirty Wars includes an all-star team of journalists, filmmakers, and activists, from Richard Rowley of Big Noise Films to Anthony Arnove of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal.

In this three-part PolicyMic series, we speak with Jeremy Scahill about Dirty Wars, the American counterterrorism program, as well as his advice for young people interested in these fields. In Part 2, Scahill elaborates on the case of the Al Awlaki family, two members of which were killed by U.S. drone strikes despite their status as American citizens. Stay tuned the rest of the week for Part 3 and check out Part 1 here

Anna Therese Day (ATD): Your investigation into the cases of the Awlaki family — American citizen, Anwar Al Awlaki as well as his slain 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman Awlaki — plays a major role in the narrative of Dirty Wars and in your personal narrative. In the film, you state that upon your return to Sanaa, Yemen, that you weren’t sure if you were returning to complete another investigation or to apologize. For those of us who are unfamiliar with the story, can you explain a little more about the Awlaki family’s cases, particularly the background and radicalization of Anwar Awlaki, but also why this became such a striking and haunting part of your investigation?

Jeremy Scahill (JS): Anwar Al Awlaki was a U.S. citizen who was born in Los Cruces, New Mexico. His father had come to the United States as a Fulbright Scholar in 1966, had gotten several degrees in the United States and really was a great lover of American history. He viewed the United States as a progressive force in the world and really wanted to raise his children in the spirit of America. With Anwar his son, born in New Mexico when his father was at school there, he began raising him as an American: his first language was English, he went to Disney Land, he took swimming lessons at the YMCA. 

His father decided to go back to Yemen to help deal with the country’s water crisis, and he ends up starting the Department of Agricultural Engineering at the University of Sanaa. They were a very prominent family, and Anwar moves to this school with really the creme of the crop of the diplomatic crowd in Yemen when they return. Anwar goes back to the United States just as the Gulf War is starting to go to college in America in Colorado, and he first becomes politicized by watching the bombing of Baghdad on CNN. He had never been political and wasn’t a particularly religious guy, but he starts going to anti-war meetings and gets invited to speak at a mosque in Denver. He gives a speech there, and the imam at the mosque tell him that he’s got a great gift for this, he should consider pursuing a religious life, becoming an imam, so Anwar actually leaves his academic studies and starts to become an Islamic scholar and ultimately becomes an imam. He then starts his own family in Colorado and his oldest son, AbdulRahman was born in 1995. 

Well fast forward to 9/11, and Anwar Awlaki is a major public figure in the United States being interviewed on television shows, radio shows, profiled by newspapers like the Washington Post. So he’s head of this large mosque, and he’s being interviewed on all these tv shows because what he was doing was condemning the 9/11 attacks, saying that al Qaeda had perverted the religion of Islam, and also talking about the experience of American Muslims facing hate crimes and investigations by the FBI. So he was this very popular figure and was such an accepted member of society that he was actually invited to the Pentagon to give a speech inside the Pentagon.  

What ended up happening was that, there are people that allege that Al Awlaki was always a kind of an al Qaeda sympathizer and that he may have had something to do with the 9/11 attacks, and I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that this is true - I mean I don’t know that it’s not true, but I just want to put it out there in the interest of transparency. There are people that say oh he was always a radical, he was sort of a sleeper cell - but if you watch old videos of him, if that was true, then he was an incredibly good actor. Again, he was a very public figure in condemning in the 9/11 attacks. 

As the war in Iraq starts and the horrors of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo come out, Awlaki becomes more and more militant in his sermons across the United States. He ultimately decides to leave the United States, and he goes back to Yemen, starts taking classes there, as he’s recording sermons and distributing them to English-speaking Muslims around the world. He becomes a pretty popular figure: he’s leading with pop culture references, with his analysis on Israel-Palestine, America’s wars, and his name starts to pop up in terror investigations in the U.S., Canada, and Britain. The U.S. starts to become concerned that Awlaki speeches might inspire local terrorists and they start putting pressure on the Yemeni government to shut him up. In 2006, Awlaki is thrown in prison in Yemen on trumped up charges that he’d intervened in a tribal dispute, and he spends 17 of his 18 months in prison in solitary confinement. He comes out of prison a totally changed man. 

He starts a blog, on his blog he is openly praising attacks against the U.S., against Israel, he’s writing in defense of suicide bombing, and then the Fort Hood massacre happens in November of 2009, and it comes out that Awlaki had been in email touch with Nidal Malik Hasan, the guy who committed that massacre. Now U.S. intelligence said that the e-mails don’t show at all that Awlaki had anything to do with the plot, but just the fact that he had been in email touch with the guy was enough for the court of public opinion to say that Awlaki had a role in that. Then Awlaki didn’t help matters by the very next day posting a blog that Nidal Malik Hassan was a hero and called on other Muslims in the U.S. military to kill their fellow soldiers. That was the last blog post he’d ever write because the CIA shut his blog down. 

Then the Christmas Day bomb plot happened in 2009, and Awlaki admits that he had met with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian guy who tried to blow up that plane. Awlaki said he didn’t have anything to do with the plot but that he supported it, and once that happened, it emerged that Awlaki was now on a U.S. kill list. From December 2009 to September 30, 2011, the U.S. tried to kill Anwar Awalaki upwards of a dozen times, and eventually they succeeded and killed him in a drone strike with another American citizen, Samir Khan, who was a Pakistani American from North Carolina. 

There were basically two reactions in Washington to this killing: silence or passionate support. Hillary Clinton sounded just like John McCain in praising the killing of Anwar Awlaki. Awlaki had never been charged of a crime by the United States in connection with any terrorist plot, there was no indictment against him, and he was basically sentenced to death without having even been charged with a crime. 

ATD: In the film, you quote Senator Ron Wyden affirming the right of the president to kill American citizens, and recently on DemocracyNow!, you spoke about Attorney General Holder’s response to a leak to the New York Times of a letter between him and members of Congress that admits to the deaths of four American citizens by drone strikes. Can you explain the significance of these statements?

JS: First of all, it took the United States 600 days after the killing of Anwar Awlaki to actually admit or acknowledge publicly that the U.S. had in fact killed him — just to give you a glimpse into how ridiculous the secrecy around this stuff is. Holder and Obama have tried to argue that it was perfectly legal to kill an American citizen without charging with a crime because Awalaki really wasn’t an American, that he had declared war against the United States and was aiding the enemy, that he was some kind of active plotter against the United States and that was their rationale for why they could kill him. 

But then they acknowledged they killed three other American citizens, Jude Mohammad in Pakistan who was a guy who actually had been indicted (he was the only one of any of the Americans killed who had been indicted), Samir Khan who was killed alongside Anwar Awalaki, and then Abdulrahman Al Awlaki, Anwar Al Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who was not killed with his father. Many people erroneously believe he was like hanging out with his dad and that he was collateral damage. He was killed two weeks later while sitting in a restaurant with his teenage cousin, and the Obama administration has never explained why that kid was killed. There have been leaks from officials trying to put forward various reasons for why he was killed but there’s never been a clear explanation. 

Eric Holder in his letter to Senator Leahy said that, with the exception of Anwar Al Awlaki, the three other Americans were “not specifically targeted,” that’s the exact phrase, “not specifically targeted.” It’s really Orwellian if you think about it, what does that even mean? Does it mean that they were collateral damage? Does it mean that this was a signature strike, one of these drone strikes where we’re targeting people whose identities we don’t know and against whom we may not have any evidence that they’re involved in a terrorist plots or criminal activity, but we kill them because we expect that they might be terrorists

For me, the fact that the administration won’t come out and clearly explain why this 16-year-old American citizen was killed in a strike authorized by the president, it’s really unacceptable. I think that it’s not just their family that deserves to know why their 16-year-old kid or grandson was killed, but all of us should have the right to know why these kinds of actions are deemed necessary by the president.

For more of our interview with Jeremy Scahill, check out Parts 1 and 3 (coming out tomorrow!). His film, Dirty Wars, premiered last Friday and is screening in locations across the United States.