AMY GOODMAN: We have flown from Washington, D.C., from the inauguration, to Park City, Utah, to cover the Sundance Film Festival. It’s the 10th anniversary of the documentary track. And we’re going to start off by getting response to President Obama’s inaugural address. On Monday, President Obama declared a decade of war is now ending and that lasting peace does not require perpetual war. But he never mentioned the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan by name.
There was also no mention about the secret drone war that’s vastly expanded under President Obama. On the same day he gave his inaugural address, a U.S. drone strike killed three people in Yemen east of the capital, Sana’a. Also Monday, President Obama officially nominated John Brennan to be director of the CIA, succeeding retired Army General David Petraeus, who resigned. Nicknamed the “assassination czar” by some, Brennan was the first Obama administration official to publicly confirm drone attacks overseas and to defend their legality. Four years ago, John Brennan was a rumored pick for the CIA job when Obama was first elected but was forced to withdraw from consideration amidst protests over his role at theCIA under the Bush administration. Obama also officially nominated Chuck Hagel to head defense and John Kerry to become secretary of state on Monday.
Well, joining us here in Park City, Utah, is Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. He is featured in and co-wrote the new documentary Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Jeremy’s latest book, with the same title, is due out in April.
We’re also joined by Dirty Wars director Richard Rowley, independent journalist with Big Noise Films. The film premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. documentary competition section. And when we flew into Salt Lake City last night, we went directly to the Salt Lake City Library, where there was a packed, sold-out crowd to see the—a showing of Dirty Wars. We want to congratulate you, Jeremy and Rick, on this absolutely remarkable film.
RICK ROWLEY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: And I think it’s very appropriate to begin our four days of broadcasting here at Park City, on this day after the inauguration of President Obama, to begin with Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.
Jeremy, talk about President Obama’s first four years and where we’re going now. You got a chance to hear his inaugural address; what you thought of it?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, you know, I think if we look back at the—at the first term of the Obama administration, what we saw was you had this very popular Democratic president that had—who had campaigned, in terms of his broader rhetoric during the presidential campaign against John McCain, on the notion that he was going to transform the way that the U.S. conducted its foreign policy around the world. And, you know, he then proceeded to double down on some of the greatest excesses of the Bush administration. If you look at the use of the state secrets privilege; if you look at the way the Obama administration has expanded the drone wars; has empowered special operations forces, including from JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, to operate in countries where the United States is not at war; if you look at the way in which the Obama administration has essentially boxed Congress out of any effective oversight role of the covert aspects of U.S. foreign policy, what we really have is a president who has normalized, for many, many liberals in the United States, the policies that they once opposed under the Bush administration. And, you know, this really has been a war presidency.
And, you know, yesterday, as the—as President Obama’s talking about how we don’t need a state of perpetual war, multiple U.S. drone strikes in Yemen, a country that we’re not at war with, where the U.S. has killed a tremendous number of civilians. Rick and I have spent a lot of time on the ground in Yemen. And, you know, to me, most disturbing about this is John Brennan, who really was the architect of this drone program and the expansion of the drone program—these guys are sitting around on Tuesdays at the White House in “Terror Tuesday” meetings, discussing who’s going to live and who’s going to die across the world. These guys have decided—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, “Terror Tuesday” meetings?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, that’s what they’re referred to. You know, senior—when this first came out, senior White House officials said that they internally refer to them as “Terror Tuesdays,” where they meet and they go over the list of potential targets. And they have them, you know, on baseball cards in some cases. And they’re identifying people that they want to take out and that are on the U.S. kill list. And we have an ever-expanding kill list. You know, after 9/11, there were seven people on the U.S. kill list, and then we had the deck of cards in Iraq and Saddam and his top people. I mean, now there are thousands; it’s unknown how many people are on this kill list. And U.S. citizens—three U.S. citizens were killed in operations ordered by the president in late 2011, including, you know, as we reported on Democracy Now! before, the 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
And, you know, so the appointment of Brennan to CIA, to me, is the greatest symbol of how deeply invested in covert war and an expansion of wars around the world and the notion that was popularized under the neocons of “the world is a battlefield,” that notion that the United States can strike in any country across the world, wherever it determines that terrorists or suspected militants may reside. The most disturbing part of this policy, to me—and I think also to people within the intelligence community who are looking at this—is that there are regions of Yemen or Pakistan where President Obama has authorized the U.S. to strike, even if they don’t know the identities of the people that they’re striking, the so-called “signature strike” policy. The idea that being a military-aged male in a certain region of a particular country around the world, that those people become legitimate targets based on their gender and their age and their geographic presence, that those are going to be legitimate targets is—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, this was something that started under the Bush administration, and when President Obama first took office, he was briefed on this by the then-director—the outgoing director of the CIA, Michael Hayden. And he described to him this policy that they had developed called “signature strikes,” where they were looking at patterns of life. If an individual had contact with certain other individuals, if they were traveling in a certain area at certain times, if they were gathering with a certain number of people, that there was a presumption that they must be up to no good, that they are suspected militants or suspected terrorists and that the U.S. could take preemptive action against those people—and by “preemptive action,” I mean killing them with a missile—that there was authorization to do that. In some cases, the president has actually pre-cleared the CIA to authorize these strikes without being directly notified.
But President Obama, my understanding from sources, you know, within the intelligence and military world, has really sort of micromanaged this process. And, you know, Brennan has been—Brennan is basically the hit man of this administration, except he never has to go out and do the hitting himself. He orders, you know, planes and missile strikes and AC-130 strikes to, you know, hit in Somalia, in Yemen, in Pakistan. You know, we’re looking right now at a reality that President Obama has essentially extended the very policies that many of his supporters once opposed under President Bush. And I think it says something about the bankrupt nature of partisan politics in this country that the way we feel about life-or-death policies around the world is determined by who happens to be in office. I mean, that’s—that, to me, is a very sobering reality.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a first clip of your film, Jeremy and Rick. The story of Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki features prominently in Dirty Wars. His 16-year-old son became the third U.S. citizen to be killed in a drone strike in Yemen in October 2011. President Obama called the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki a, quote, “milestone.”
JEREMY SCAHILL: Aden—Yemen’s ancient port city was nothing like Kabul. In Afghanistan, life was defined by the war. Everything revolved around it. But in Yemen, there was no war, at least not officially. The strikes seem to have come out of the blue, and most Yemenis were going about life as usual. It was difficult to know where to start. The Yemeni government claimed responsibility for the strikes, saying they had killed dozens of al-Qaeda operatives. But it was unclear who the targets really were or who was even responsible.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Jeremy Scahill in Yemen in the film that has just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival called Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Jeremy?
JEREMY SCAHILL: So what we were seeing there was a scene where we’re first getting into what’s happening on the ground in Yemen, and we learn about these—this series of missile strikes, cruise missile strikes, that had happened in December of 2009, the first time that Yemen had been bombed by the United States in seven years. And in the process of looking at who the targets were, we understood that Anwar al-Awlaki, that there had been an attempt to kill him, and in fact that the—that it had been announced that Awlaki had been killed. And that’s how we discovered that Anwar Awlaki was in fact on the kill list. And, of course, Anwar Awlaki is a U.S. citizen.
The first bombing that happened, on December 17th, 2009, where President Obama directly authorized the strike, was on this village of al-Majalah in southern Yemen, and 46 people were killed, including two dozen women and children, in that strike. And so, what Rick and I did is we went down to the heart of where these strikes were happening, and we met with people on the ground, and we interviewed survivors of these—of these missile strikes. And we gathered evidence, and we actually filmed the cruise missile parts. And the U.S. had—did not claim responsibility for those strikes; in fact, the Yemeni government claimed responsibility for the strikes. And we know from the WikiLeaks cables that were released that General David Petraeus essentially conspired with senior Yemeni officials, including the former president of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to cover up the U.S. role in what would become a rapidly expanding U.S. bombing campaign inside of Yemen. And, you know, this administration has continued to pummel Yemen.
Today or—I think today, they claimed for probably the dozenth time in the past couple of years to have killed Said al-Shihri, one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And, you know, maybe he has been killed this time; maybe he hasn’t. But what we saw on the ground is that the United States and Yemen claim to be killing al-Qaeda leadership—and they’ve killed a handful of them in Yemen—but for the most part, it seems that the drone strikes are hitting in areas where they’re killing civilians. And what it’s doing is it’s turning people in Yemen that might not be disposed, have anything against the United States, into potential enemies that have a legitimate grudge against America. And that’s—we saw that repeatedly.
AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley, your filmmaking is truly remarkable, and you’ve shown that in your previous films, for example, Fourth World War. But in Dirty Wars, that you take this one camera, and you and Jeremy travel the world, as you’ve been covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for years, going to places that the entire U.S. press corps—I mean, with their armed guards—has rarely been, if ever at all, to track what has been secret until now. Talk about that journey through Yemen.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I—the global war on terror is the most important story of our generation, you know, and it’s a story that’s been completely not covered. It remains invisible and hidden from most Americans. I mean, this is a war—this is the longest war in American history. It’s a war in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed. But it’s happening in the shadows. And so, Dirty Wars — in Dirty Wars, Jeremy and I are trying to make this invisible war that’s being fought in our name, but without our knowledge, visible to the American people. And in order to do that, we had to leave the safety of the Green Zone and go out to where—where the war takes place, talk to the civilians on the ground in places like Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen about how this war is affecting their lives.
So, in Yemen, as a result of the—all these drone strikes, as the backlash against these drone strikes in the south was huge, when we arrived in Yemen, an entire province in the south had been taken over by an al-Qaeda-affiliated organization because of the massive popular anger over the drone strikes and the government’s complicity in the strikes, which, you know, turned the south of Yemen into a terrifying place. I mean, these missile strikes, these night raids destabilize the countries that they happen in, and they turn them into places where it becomes very dangerous to move and to operate. So, in Yemen—I mean, in Afghanistan, as well, Jeremy and I had to travel—it was only possible for us to work as a crew of two, because we had to keep a low profile and try to travel under the radar. We couldn’t roll—I mean, rolling around with security would only make it more dangerous for us.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Rick had to actually—he had to train one of the—our Afghan colleagues in how to use a second camera, so that we could have someone filming me while Rick was filming, you know, the people that we were interviewing, because we wouldn’t have been safe to bring more people than that. So Rick actually was training people on the fly in multiple countries on how to do other things, because of some of the limitations, for security purposes, of having to travel very lightly.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that humbles both of us is that, you know, when you arrive in a village in Afghanistan and knock on someone’s door, you’re the first American they’ve seen since the Americans that kicked that door in and killed half their family. And yet, time and time again, those families invited us in, welcomed us and shared their stories with us, based on—you know, we promised them that we would do everything we could to make their stories be heard in the U.S. And so, it’s actually really—it’s amazing to be here at Sundance, because finally we’re able to keep those promises.
AMY GOODMAN: Afghanistan, Gardez, Jeremy, talk about one of the central focuses of Dirty Wars.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, you know, we—when we began working on this film, it was a very different film. And, you know, I mean, Amy, we—both Rick and I have been on Democracy Now! I mean, I feel like I grew up at Democracy Now! On my Facebook page, I list Democracy Now! as my university, and really, really view it that way. And you know, because we were talking to you at the time, that we had started on a very different journey. And we had read about this raid that happened in Gardez, in Paktia province, because a very, very brave reporter named Jerome Starkey, who’s a correspondent for The Times of London, who now is in Africa covering the latest sort of expansion of the not-so-covert war in Mali—
AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll talk about that in a minute.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And we’ll talk about that, yeah. So we had read about this night raid that took place, and it was a horrible massacre. And what happened in Gardez was that U.S. special operations forces had intelligence that there were—you know, a Taliban cell was in a—was having some sort of a meeting to prepare a suicide bomber. And they raid this house in the middle of the night, and they end up killing five people, including three women, two of whom were pregnant, and another person that they killed in the house, Mohammed Daoud, turned out to be a senior Afghan police commander who had been trained by the U.S., including by the mercenary—or the private security company MPRI, Military Professional Resources Incorporated. They weren’t even Pashtun, the dominant—the almost exclusive ethnicity of the Taliban. They spoke Dari. And they’re—and what was happening that night was not preparing a suicide bomber; they were celebrating the birth of a child. And they were dancing and had music, and they had women without head covers on.
And they—and so the soldiers raid this house, and they kill these people. And instead of realizing that they had made a horrible mistake and that the intelligence was wrong and it resulted in these people being killed, they actually covered up the killings. And we interview the survivors of this raid, including a man who watched, while he was zip-cuffed, soldiers, American soldiers, digging bullets out of his wife’s dead body. And they then tried to—
AMY GOODMAN: And they did that because?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, so just to finish this part of it, they kill the people, they dig the bullets our of the bodies, then they take into custody all of the men of the house, including a man who has just watched his sister and his wife and his niece killed, and they fly them to a different province, and they’re interrogating them, trying to get them to give up some information that would indicate that the Taliban had a connection to that family. I mean, it shows you how horrid the intelligence is. I mean, these people weren’t even Pashtun. You have a senior police commander. They’re dancing, playing loud music, and they have women without head cover in the house. And what happened is that NATO then issues a press release and made statements anonymously in the media where they said that the U.S. forces had stumbled upon the aftermath of a Taliban honor killing, and they implied that the family—that the women were killed by their own murderous families.
And so, in the course of the film, we investigate that night raid, and we learn that the individuals who did that raid were members of the Joint Special Operations Command. And we know that because the then-head of the Joint Special Operations Command, Vice Admiral William McRaven, showed up in this village with scores of Afghan soldiers and U.S. forces. And they—there’s a scene, and we show this in the film, where they offload a sheep, and they offer to sacrifice the sheep to say—you know, ask for forgiveness. It’s an Afghan cultural tradition, and it was meant to be a gesture of reconciliation. And they offload the sheep, and they’re offering to sacrifice it in the very place where the raid had taken place. And then Admiral McRaven goes into the home and says his men were responsible for killing the women and the police commander, and he asks for forgiveness from the head of the family, Haji Sharabuddin. Had a brave photographer named Jeremy Kelly not been there to snap the photographs that you see in our film of Admiral McRaven in Gardez, we may never have known who the actual killers were that day.
And both Jerome Starkey and I have filed Freedom of Information Act requests. We’ve tried to get information out of the U.S. military. My requests have been bounced all around the military. And the most current update I have is months old from them. They said that it’s in an unnamed agency awaiting review. We don’t know if anyone was disciplined for the action. We don’t know if anyone was ever held accountable for the action. All we know is that Admiral McRaven and a bunch of soldiers showed up with a sheep and said, “We did this, and we’re sorry.”
AMY GOODMAN: And tried to destroy Jerome Starkey’s reputation, meanwhile, back in Kabul in a news conference.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, Jerome Starkey—there’s a couple of journalists in our film who really emerge as the heroes of the story that we’re telling. Another one is currently in jail in Yemen right now, and we can maybe talk about him, named Abdulelah Haider Shaye—and we’ve talked about him on the show before—in jail because President Obama intervened, when he was about to be pardoned, to keep him in jail after he exposed the role, U.S. role, in certain missile strikes.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean he intervened, if you could just say for a moment?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, there was—the journalist who first exposed the missile strike I was talking about earlier in al-Majalah, Yemen, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, had taken photographs of the U.S. missile parts, and that’s how we first learned that it was in fact U.S. cruise missiles. And Yemen doesn’t have cruise missiles. And so, after he did his reporting and continued to report on the expanding U.S. air war in Yemen, he was snatched from his home by the U.S.-backed Yemeni counterterrorism units and then was put on trial for allegedly being an al-Qaeda facilitator or propagandist and was sentenced to five years in prison. There was huge protests as his trial was denounced as a sham by international human rights and media organizations. And he was about to be pardoned by the Yemeni president, because there was tremendous pressure in the country, and then President Obama called President Ali Abdullah Saleh and expressed his concern over the release of Abdulelah Haider Shaye.
AMY GOODMAN: The reporter.
JEREMY SCAHILL: The reporter. And then the pardon was ripped up after that. And his lawyers say, clearly, that he’s in jail because of Obama’s intervention, that he would have been released. And lest you think this is some kind of a conspiracy theory, you can hop onto the White House website and see the readout of the phone call from that day. The White House put it openly. When I called the State Department to ask them about the case, they said, “We stand by President Obama’s position on—initial position on this,” regarding this journalist. They don’t even refer to him as a journalist, “regarding this individual.” He had worked with ABC News, The Washington Post — you know, very small, unknown media outlets. And I heard from a very—someone inside of a very prominent news organization in the U.S. told me that they had been called by the administration when they were working with Abdulelah Haider Shaye and told that “You should stop working with him, because he takes his paychecks and gives them to al-Qaeda.” I mean, they tried to slander this journalist behind the scenes and in front.
But you asked about Jerome Starkey. When Jerome Starkey first exposed the cover-up of Gardez,NATO publicly attacked him by name and accused him of lying. And then, when more information started to come out about who did it, then they changed their story, but they never apologized to Jerome Starkey.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Rick Rowley, you have this remarkable footage. Aside from you both going to Gardez and interviewing survivors, talk about the video footage you retrieve there and the hands of the U.S. soldiers that you see.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, one of incredible things in Gardez, the family gave us cellphone videos that they had taken the night of the raid. And there was one clip in particular. It was early in the morning. It’s a shaky video. And we just thought it was just another sort of shaky video of the bodies. But then you can hear voices come over it, and they’re American-accented voices speaking about piecing together their version of the night’s killings, getting their story straight. And, I mean, you hear them trying to concoct a story about how this was something other than a massacre.
AMY GOODMAN: And you see their hands.
RICK ROWLEY: And you see their hands moving the corpses around and photographing the bullet holes. But we never get to see their faces. All we have are their voices. We spent a long time actually trying to analyze the audio to figure out, because a name is mentioned in one part of it, but it’s too thin and distorted on the cellphone to find out. I mean, these are the—these are the scraps and pieces that we have to use to reconstruct the story of these wars, because everything is systematically hidden from us. I mean, all we had to go on were these pictures that Jeremy Kelly took, this cellphone video, and that—
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Kelly is the photographer, videographer for Jerome Starkey.
RICK ROWLEY: For Jerome, yes, who is now the Kabul bureau chief—
JEREMY SCAHILL: Afghan correspondent.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah. All we had were these tiny little scraps of clues that weren’t even supposed to exist, and pictures of a person who was unknown at the time. I mean, Admiral William McRaven, you know, no one knew who he was. I mean, that was the first sort of shock here—looked at him, see his rank, read his name. But he’s not—he wasn’t from the NATO command. He wasn’t from the Eastern Regional Command that owns that battle space. He was not even—I mean, why was this elite force operating, kicking in the doors on farmers? I mean, that is the sort of the—the mystery that begins the investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: And then you take this forward, Jeremy, back to the United States and show McRaven a photograph.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. And so, you know, after—after we learn that this figure, William McRaven, was the leader of this raid, it sort of—our film was sort of in the—this journey was sort of like pulling on the tail of an elephant that’s behind a hidden wall. And you’re pulling on it, and you’re pulling on it, and the cracks start to show this behemoth that’s behind a wall, and you realize that this is part of a much bigger story. And really, that kicked off a journey that took us to Yemen and Somalia and elsewhere.
And, you know, for us, I mean, the sort of—just this incredible looking-glass moment happened when Osama bin Laden was killed. And all of a sudden, everyone is talking about JSOC. It’s everywhere. I mean, we had spent so much time embedded in this story, where there was very little being written about it, except for a small circle of journalists. And all of a sudden, the people that—whose journey we’d been tracking had become national heroes. And Disney tried to trademarkSEAL Team 6, and, you know, the Hollywood producers got in bed with the CIA to make their version of the—you know, the events, the sort of official history.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re saying that’s the film…?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Oh, Zero Dark Thirty. I mean, it’s—and we can talk about that film later. But, I mean, the relationship between the CIA and Hollywood over this issue is one that I think needs to be very, very thoroughly debated. And I’m thankful that we are debating it. And, you know, one great thing that has happened as a result of Zero Dark Thirty is that people are actually talking about torture and what has happened in the past. But for us to see, you know, McRaven sitting in front of Congress and JSOC being talked about publicly was really an incredible experience, because we had seen this other side. Our film is about all these things that these same units did that almost never get talked about. What Americans know about JSOC is overwhelmingly limited to what happened in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. And, you know, Rick often points out sort of the irony of the way that that’s covered versus the role these forces play around the world.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, I mean, we’re flooded with details about one raid, the—on May 2nd, 2011. We know everything about it. We know how many SEALs were in the helicopters. We know what kind of helicopters they were. We know what kind of rifles they were carrying. We know that they had a dog with them that was a Belgian Malinois named Cairo. We know everything about this raid. But that same year, there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan. So, we know everything about this, but those—those are all hidden from us.
AMY GOODMAN: The great Somali Canadian, K’naan, singing “Somalia,” his home country. This isDemocracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, and we’re with two great journalists: Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill. Jeremy, a longtime Democracy Now!correspondent and national security correspondent for The Nation. Rick Rowley, videographer, filmmaker, who has been in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years. They have now put together this film, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. And it has premiered here. In fact, K’naan was here celebrating the first night. And I want to talk about Somalia and Mali, but let’s start with a clip of this film in Somalia. Jeremy, can you introduce it?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, we—what we discovered in Somalia was that the U.S. had been for years outsourcing its kill list in Somalia to local warlords. And in our film, you meet two of those warlords: Mohamed Qanyare and Indha Adde. And Indha Adde at one time was protecting people who were on the U.S. kill list, and he was an ally of the al-Qaeda and al-Shabab figures within Somalia. And he has been flipped and is now working with the U.S. So, here we meet Indha Adde, this notorious warlord who’s working on the side of the U.S.
JEREMY SCAHILL: In an earlier life, Indha Adde had been America’s enemy, offering protection to people on the U.S. kill list. But the warlord had since changed sides. He was now on the U.S. payroll and assumed the title of general.
So he’s saying that the fiercest fighting that they’re doing right now is happening right here.
The men fired across the rooftops, but it didn’t make sense to me what we were doing here—or what the Americans were doing here in Somalia, arming this warlord-turned-general for what seemed like a senseless war.
UNIDENTIFIED: We’ve got to move.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So these were Shabab fighters you buried here.
GEN. INDHA ADDE: [translated] If we capture fighters alive, we give them medical care, unless they are foreigners. The foreigners, we execute.
JEREMY SCAHILL: If you capture a foreigner alive, you execute them on the battlefield?
GEN. INDHA ADDE: [translated] Yes. The others should feel no mercy.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S.-backed Somali warlord Indha Adde. Journalist Jeremy Scahill there in Somalia, Rick Rowley filming. Jeremy, talk about Somalia and Mali, as we—the world learns about Mali now, with the French attacks on Mali and what’s happened in Algeria, and how that ties into the central theme of your film about JSOC.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I mean, one thing that’s interesting, you know, we have some people from within the JSOC community whose identities we protect in the film, and we’re talking to them. And we actually, you know, two years ago, were considering going to Mali, because we were hearing from our sources that there were covert operations that were happening inside of Mali tracking these—the spread of these al-Qaeda affiliates. And, you know, this is something that we’re seeing throughout the Horn of Africa and in places throughout the Sahel and North Africa, where these groups are getting stronger and stronger. And so, you know, the U.S. is increasingly getting itself involved in these dirty wars in Africa. And, you know, we could have easily gone to Uganda or Somalia or Mali and reported on this, but there’s—you know, since AFRICOM was created as a full free-standing command, like Southern Command and Central Command, AFRICOM has been expanding these wars.
AMY GOODMAN: And McRaven, where he is now?
JEREMY SCAHILL: McRaven is the commander of the Special Operations Command. He is—William McRaven is the most powerful figure in the United States military. He is an incredibly brilliant man. He is very shrewd. He understands media. And he is in charge of the most elite force the U.S. has ever produced, and he has been given carte blanche to do what he believes is right around the world, empowered much more under President Obama than they were under President Bush. In fact, you see someone who has worked within JSOC saying that to us in our film. And out of Camp Lemonnier, which is in Djibouti, the U.S. has been expanding these covert wars in Africa. And most of what—most Americans, what they know about Somalia is Black Hawk Down. And I think in our film you’re going to see a very different reality, and you’re going to see the hellscape that has been built by a decade of covert war.
AMY GOODMAN: Is it too cynical to say—I mean, this is the fourth anniversary of President Obama promising to close Guantánamo. It hasn’t happened. There’s still scores of men there, 166 men. Something—more than 80 of them have been cleared, yet they’re still there. Is it too cynical to say that this “dirty war,” as you call it, the targeted killings, are a way to end all of these prisons? Because you don’t detain prisoners, you simply kill them.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, that’s what people like Jack Goldsmith and other, you know, former Bush legal advisers and national security team—I mean, the irony of these guys, who have no moral standing to talk about these issues, are saying, “Well, Obama is just killing these people. At least we stuck them in some sort of a prison.” I mean, it’s devastating that this is what these Bush people are saying about Obama. That’s what they’re alleging.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, devastating is your film, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It has premiered here at the Sundance Film Festival, has just been picked up IFC, Sundance Selects, which means it will go out to scores of movie theaters around the country. This is just the beginning. And I congratulate you both, Jeremy Scahill, Rick Rowley, of Big Noise Films and The Nationmagazine and Democracy Now! What an amazing film. This is our first day at the Sundance Film Festival. I thank all for all the work they’ve done.
TRANSCRIPT: SECOND INTERVIEW
As the Senate holds its first-ever public hearing on drones and targeted killings, we turn the second part of our interview with Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book, “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.” Scahill charts the expanding covert wars operated by the CIA and JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, in countries from Somalia to Pakistan. “I called it ‘Dirty Wars’ because, particularly in this administration, in the Obama administration, I think a lot of people are being led to believe that there is such a thing as a clean war,” Scahill says. He goes on to discuss secret operations in Africa, the targeting of U.S. citizens in Yemen and the key role WikiLeaks played in researching the book. He also reveals imprisoned whistleblower Bradley Manning once tipped him off to a story about the private security company Blackwater. Scahill is the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and longtime Democracy Now! correspondent. For the past several years, Scahill has been working on the “Dirty Wars” film and book project, which was published on Tuesday. The film, directed by Rick Rowley, will be released in theaters in June. Click here to watch Part 1 of this interview.
We turn now to Jeremy Scahill, the national security correspondent for The Nation magazine and longtime Democracy Now! correspondent. For the past several years, Jeremy has been working on a book and film project called Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. The book came out on Tuesday. The film, which is directed by Rick Rowley, will be released in theaters in June. The book follows Jeremy to Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and beyond as he chases down the hidden truth behind America’s expanding covert wars operated by the CIA and JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command. We turn now to part two of Amy Goodman’s interview with Jeremy. She began by asking him about the title of his book.
I called it Dirty Wars because, you know, particularly in this administration, in the Obama administration, I think a lot of people are being led to believe that there’s—there is a such thing as a clean war and that the drone and what’s called targeted killing—I mean, I use that term myself, but it’s actually not—if you think about it, it’s actually not a very appropriate term for what’s going on, because it’s—as we know, these strikes are anything but targeted, in many cases, and we don’t know the—we don’t even know the identities of many of the people that we’re killing in intentional strikes. So, I called it Dirty Wars because there is no such thing as a clean war, and drone warfare is not clean, but also as a sort of allusion to how we’ve returned to the kind of 1980s way of waging war, where the U.S. was involved in all these dirty wars in Central and Latin America, in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and beyond. And we’re using—you know, we’re in a world right now where the U.S. is using proxies, that effectively are death squads, in Somalia to hunt down people that the U.S. has determined are enemies. We’re using mercenaries. President Obama continues to use mercenary forces in various wars, declared and undeclared, around the world. You also have the aiding of dictatorships and other, you know, right-wing governments around the world and propping them up. It’s very similar to what Reagan and company were doing in Central America.
And you have an increasingly paramilitarized CIA. You know, the CIA served a major paramilitary function for many decades at the beginning, from the 1950s through the 1970s. And then, because of the scandals of assassinations and the Church Committee hearings and the House Committee on Political Assassinations, you had a generation of CIA people that came up sort of feeling like, “Wow, covert action—we should be careful about getting into this business.” After 9/11, the CIA has been on a constant sort of curve back to paramilitarization. So you have the CIA functioning as a paramilitary organization, and JSOC has become very, very powerful.
And so, to me, the concept of The World Is a Battlefield actually is not something I thought up; it’s a doctrine, actually, a military doctrine called “Operational Preparation of the Battlespace,” which views the world as a battlefield. And what it says is that if there are countries where you predict, where the military predicts that conflicts are likely or that war is a possibility, you can forward deploy troops to those countries to prepare the battlefield. And under both Bush and Obama, the world has been declared the battlefield. You know, the Authorization for the Use of Military Force that was passed after 9/11 is technically the law that President Obama and his administration point to when they say they have a right to drone strike in Yemen, because these people are connected to the 9/11 attacks. But in reality, one of the enduring legacies of the Obama presidency is going to be that he solidified this Cheneyesque view of the U.S. government, which says that when it comes to foreign policy, that the executive branch is effectively a dictatorship and that Congress only has a minimal role to play in oversight. I mean, Cheney didn’t want Congress to have any role in it. Obama’s administration plays this game with Congress: Certain people can go into the padded room and look at this one document, but, oh, not this other document, and you’re not allowed to bring in a utensil to write with, and you can’t ever tell anyone what you said. That’s congressional oversight on our assassination program. But they have doubled down on this all-powerful executive branch perspective. And that’s why we see this stuff expanding.
GOODMAN: What about this kill list and the elevation of John Brennan, who worked with President Obama in the Oval Office? And how much do you understand about what does take place around defining who will die—and who will live?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, you know, we now know that there’s these things that are called Terror Tuesdays, where they look at rosters of potential targets and present them to the president. And the president, my understanding, is very, very involved with plucking names off and deciding who stays on. And, you know, you have a working group that is—that’s essentially focused around the clock on figuring out who to kill next around the world. And what’s—what I think is really both disturbing and interesting is that there are multiple—I know that there are at least three separate sets of kill lists. There’s the kill list that the CIA has, and then there’s the Joint Special Operations Command, and then there’s another National Security Council list that contains certain high-value individuals that the U.S. wants taken out. And so, in a country like Yemen, you have both the CIA and JSOC conducting operations. In Pakistan, that’s been true for a very long time. In Somalia, JSOC has conducted operations on the ground, the CIA has done drone strikes, and JSOC has also come in by helicopter and launched missiles at people.
AMY GOODMAN: Of course, JSOC is extolled because of the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was, what, SEAL Team 6. And where did they get SEAL Team 6, that name?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, and Disney tried to trademark the name SEAL Team 6 after the killing of Osama bin Laden, and then they lost that battle.
I mean, really, the story of JSOC is in many ways the story of Admiral William McRaven, who I think is one of most powerful military figures in—certainly in modern U.S. history. But McRaven was an original member of SEAL Team 6, which, you know, now is known as the Naval Warfare Development Group, DEVGRU, for short, D-E-V-G-R-U. He was an original member of SEAL Team 6, and at the time there were, I think, only two SEAL teams, but they decided to call it SEAL Team 6 as sort of to throw the Russians off, so that—it was Cold War politics. They wanted the Soviet Union to believe that there were more teams of these elite SEALs than there were. And, you know, SEAL Team 6 is probably the most elite unit that’s ever been trained and brought up in the U.S. military. And for much of its lifetime, since it was created in the early 1980s, SEAL Team 6 has operated discreetly in missions, like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, that never make it into the newspaper, very active in Central and Latin America, in Africa and elsewhere.
And so, McRaven was an original member of SEAL Team 6 and would have been one of the people forward deploying to Afghanistan very early on after 9/11, except that a few weeeks before the September 11th attacks, McRaven had injured his back in a parachuting accident and couldn’t deploy to Afghanistan. So instead, McRaven was tapped by General Wayne Downing—this is very early on after 9/11—to come in and advise the National Security Council, which is basically the president and the secretary of defense and then there’s staffers on the National Security Council, but to be at the center of developing the policy for how the U.S. would hunt down those responsible for 9/11. So, McRaven, because of this back injury, is right there in the front row in the White House and helped to shape the policy that he would later implement as the commander of JSOC.
So he’s there in the NSC, very close. He sees how the political wheels spin inside the White House and has a sort of upfront education to how the White House works, then goes back into the field—McRaven does—and is the guy that led the hunt and eventual capture of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. And he also, along with General Stanley McChrystal—he was McChrystal’s deputy at JSOC at the time, for much of the Iraq War—they ran a Murder Inc. operation in Iraq, where they were—they were hunting down the deck of cards, but they were also—they were using intelligence gained from one raid to lead them to the next raid, and they also were running a secret prison in Baghdad called Camp NAMA, which stood for “Nasty A— Military Area.” I’m not sure that I can say that word on the air, but—and it was effectively a secret prison where high-value detainees were brought. Saddam Hussein was held there originally when he was brought, and McRaven, the night Saddam was arrested, had a cigar with one of the intelligence chiefs of JSOC outside of Saddam’s cell in what was an old Saddam torture chamber that JSOC then turned into its own torture chamber. And they would bring high-value detainees there. And I get into great description about this in my book from people that were working at the prison at the time and other interrogators that had been there.
And that became the sort of model for—that took hold and spread around. You know, you had torture happening at Guantánamo. You had torture happening at Abu Ghraib. You had this sort of spread of these torture tactics. But a lot of it was because JSOCimplemented torture techniques at Camp NAMA in Iraq that were developed from something called the SERE training, which is Survival—it’s a survival program that all special operators go through. And it’s effectively—they are tortured themselves. They’re waterboarded. The guys have had their ribs broken and other limbs broken. Sometimes you’re abducted. The curriculum was developed based on studying the torture techniques of communist China, the North Vietnamese, going all the way back to the Civil War. They have all this institutional knowledge in the U.S. military of torture techniques of the enemy. And they train U.S. soldiers to prepare to endure those torture techniques if—
AMY GOODMAN: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, right. Right, that’s the SERE, S-E-R-E, program. So, this is this training program where it’s to prepare U.S. soldiers for it. What they did is they reverse-engineered it, and they said, “We’re going to start using the tactics that we’ve taught you to endure against our enemy.” So, in effect, they became the lawless enemy. And they would use these—that’s where waterboarding came from. They would use these techniques on detainees. And that just—that spread. And so, the standard operating procedures, the SOPs that were used at Camp NAMA, were also used then at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. And there were dissidents within the interrogator community who would try to stand up to this, and then they would have their lives threatened, or they would be blackballed. You know, and no one was allowed to access these prisons.
And to this day, the U.S. military is operating what they call filtration sites, because they’re not categorizing them as prisoners. They’re categorizing them as people who have intelligence that could lead to saving of lives. So they hold them incommunicado and say, “Oh, no, no, they’re not prisoners. These are people that we’re interrogating.” And they do it sometimes for months. Under President Obama, people have been held on Navy brigs in ships in the Indian Ocean for months at a time incommunicado while they’re being interrogated. So, you know, these stories, you know, some of them have been out in the press, but we haven’t even been able—started to come to terms with all that has taken place in sort of the world that’s been created over these two administrations, Bush and Obama.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, you did original reporting. You discovered a secret prison, U.S. prison, in Somalia.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, it wasn’t a U.S. prison. It was—when I flew into Aden Adde Airport in Mogadishu in the summer of 2011, when we landed, Rick Rowley and I, we saw this large—I don’t know how to describe it other than it looked like a forward operating base that you would see in Afghanistan, but it had this sort of pink paint on it, and Somalis call it the “pink house.” And we discovered that it was a new counterterrorism center that the CIA and military intelligence were running in Somalia, and they were training and preparing a Somali task force to go down and hunt members of the radical group Al Shabab, which pledged its allegiance to al-Qaeda. And they were paying the Somalis $200 in cash each month to work on this task force.
And so, as I started to investigate that, I met people who were working with the CIAthat were Somalis, and they described for me a prison that’s in the basement of Somalia’s National Security Service, which is funded and backed by the United States. And in this basement, high-value prisoners are held in a bedbug-infested hellhole, and they are interrogated at times by CIA interrogators and French and other foreign interrogators. And I also met journalists that were put into that prison and saw the U.S. interrogators there, and they were put in that prison for filming things that the U.S.-backed Somali government didn’t want filmed. And so, when we—when I did that reporting, and I called a—you know, we’re not allowed to say who we call—I called a U.S. official, I guess I have to say, and the first thing he said to me is, “Yeah, that sounds right,” and, you know, that we’re doing that. And eventually they released a statement to me saying, you know, it makes perfect sense that we would partner with them, and admitted that they were doing interrogations there, but said it was very limited and that they sit in on debriefings with Somali agents.
But I wrote about the case of one man who was snatched in Nairobi, Kenya, from his home, taken to Wilson Airport in Nairobi, and then flown to Somalia, where he was then held in that prison. And he was a guy that was believed to be the right-hand man of one of the leaders of al-Qaeda in East Africa. But the U.S. told the Kenyans, “Go pick him up.” This is under Obama. “Go pick this guy up.” They go pick him up. They render him to this prison, where then U.S. agents interrogate him.
So, how far have we come? Well, under Bush, they were running secret prisons in Poland and Thailand and elsewhere, these so-called black sites, where they were torturing people. Under President Obama, you have the U.S. directing another government to snatch the person, so it’s not U.S. agents that are doing it, but you say, “We want you to go and take them,” and put them in this prison in a third country, where they don’t live, and then they’re going to be put into this hellish prison, the conditions of which constitute, I think, torture, when you don’t give anyone access to sunlight ever and you have them in a bedbug-infested, you know, filthy circumstances. And then U.S. agents can go in and interrogate them. How huge of a difference are those two things? Because, you know, we tend to think that—or I think the collective wisdom is that President Obama rolled back all of these Bush-era policies with his initial executive orders. In reality, there’s been cosmetic changes to a lot of this. And there’s—
AMY GOODMAN: And he said he wanted to close secret prisons.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, he—in fact, there was an order to close the secret prisons. And I believe it was in April of 2009, Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, said that we’re out of the business of secret prisons. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but what I do know is true is that we’re using other people’s secret prisons, other countries’ secret prisons, to do the same kind of dirty deeds that liberals were so rightly outraged about when President Bush was doing it around the world. So, you know, I think that because—because it’s a popular Democratic president, I think people have been convinced that things have really radically shifted, and in reality, they haven’t. And I think a lot of the Bush people stand in awe of what President Obama has been able to do, because they know that they probably wouldn’t have been able to get it done themselves. So, you know, there are ways in which Obama pushed the Cheney agenda far beyond what a President McCain or a President Romney would have been able to do, because he had his base of supporters.
AMY GOODMAN: And to those who say you have to fight lawless terrorists without using the constraints of law?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, then we’re a different nation. I mean, if that’s true, then we have to—we have to step back. I mean, if the majority of Americans believe that, which I don’t believe they do, then we’re a different nation. Then we should go back and write a new constitution, and we should have a totally different concept of what it means to have a justice system or have a judiciary that’s supposed to give access to due process, where you’re allowed to face your accusers.
I mean, one of the things that was most fascinating to me in researching this book was to read about the Clinton era. I cut my teeth in journalism, as you know, Amy, because I started working for you, in the ’90s when Clinton was president. And I went back, and I read some of the memos that have been declassified, when the Clinton people were first looking at this question of assassination. And Richard Clarke, you know, who was a counterterrorism adviser in many administrations, Democratic or Republican, said that it was almost like a Talmudic sort of system with how detailed they were in if this, then this, then this, you know, in order to justify an assassination, that you had to have like—know what kind of lock was on the door in the house that you wanted the SEALs to go in and raid to take the person down. The Clinton people look like pacifists, basically, compared to what’s happening under this administration, where on Tuesday you get together and decide who’s going to live or die around the world.
But, you know, so this has evolved so radically from one Democratic president, Clinton, to the next, in President Obama. I mean, President Obama looks like a ferocious hawk compared to Clinton or Jimmy Carter or any of these other presidents, which makes it so hilariously ironic the sort of line that a lot of these right-wingers have about Obama, that he’s like a Kenyan Mau Mau socialist or whatever. You know, President Obama is a very hawkish, hard-hitting president when it comes to counterterrorism policies, when it comes to assassination, when it comes to the U.S. reserving the right to bomb countries that it’s not at war with, and, most importantly, when it comes to convincing the American people that these things are all lawful and right and are smarter than the Bush-era big wars.
AMY GOODMAN: What about JSOC and the covert wars on the African continent?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, this is a—this is an interesting story that’s only starting to come out into light right now. I mean, JSOC, for some years, has been involved in Mali in fighting against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and you have actions going on in Mali and Mauritania and, you know, very small-scale, discreet presence, working alongside French special operations forces. And, you know, the U.S. has been looking at doing drone strikes also in Africa.
But JSOC has a base in Kenya, and in fact that was where the operation to take down the pirates in April of 2009 took place, when the Somali pirates had taken the Maersk Alabama, which was a defense contractor ship, which seldom gets mentioned, that part of it. And the SEAL Team 6 was deployed from, you know, Kenya, and they went, and they sniper-shot the Somalis, and they rescued the captain. And that was one of the first times that Obama really understood the full power of JSOC, like the kind of force that he had, and, you know, had McRaven into the White House after that, and they had this whole sort of solidification of their relationship.
But a lot of the activity in Africa for the first part of the Obama administration centered in East Africa. And under President Obama, a number of leading al-Qaeda figures were assassinated. You had Saleh Ali Nabhan, was killed in September of 2009. President Obama authorized JSOC to actually go into Somalia in helicopters, and they went in, and they gunned him down, and then they landed. And they took Nabhan’s body—and I tell this whole story in the book. They took Nabhan’s body, and they flew it out to the sea, and they buried him at sea. We know that that’s the story about what happened with Osama bin Laden’s body.
They did that—actually, Obama and company did that in September of ’09 with the head of al-Qaeda in East Africa. He was then succeeded by a fascinating guy whose story would take too long to tell, but it’s in the book, Fazul Mohammed, who was this sort of brilliant con artist/master of disguise, who was one of the main plotters of the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, then goes on to become the head of al-Qaeda in Somalia and had a serious battle going on between him and the local Somali jihadists. And when I was in East Africa in 2011, he was killed at a checkpoint in Somalia by a random militia. This was a guy who was a leading al-Qaeda figure, who had eluded—or had evaded CIA and JSOC capture or killing for his entire adult life, from 1998 to the present, and is killed at a random checkpoint.
And it was interesting because it was a huge sort of benefit—I mean, the U.S. was very happy about it. Hillary Clinton made this big statement about how amazing it was. But the U.S. didn’t even kill him. He was killed by—I met the guys who killed him. Rick and I—Rick Rowley and I went and met these guys at a—and had lunch with them and talked to the guys that killed him. And they were just militia guys. And they had stolen all of this leading al-Qaeda figure’s computer equipment and took it back to their village. And so, when the Somali intelligence service realized that this, you know, very important guy, who was traveling on a South African passport under the name Daniel Robinson—and he’s actually from Comoros, the Comoros—they realized that they’ve killed Fazul, this internationally wanted terrorist going back to the Clinton administration. And they said, “Well, where’s all of his stuff in his car?” And they’re like, “Well, the militia guys looted it.” So then they had to go back and not tell the guys, “Hey, you know, you have this intelligence stuff.” They had to go and say, “We’re looking for computers,” and they go into their village, and they paid them, you know, thousands of dollars just to buy back the computers and the memory sticks and the cellphones.
And then they downloaded all of this information that showed the communications between Fazul and Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden, the number two man in al-Qaeda. And in the book, I talk about what these documents said. And none of these, you know, have really been published. But Fazul was advocating that the Al Shabab stop trying to take control of Somalia and engage in targeted assassinations and to give the appearance of total instability around the country. And they’re all subscribers to this document that is one of the sort of main manifestos of al-Qaeda called “The Management of Savagery.” And the actual author of it is unknown, but it’s basically the al-Qaeda manual. And Fazul wanted to implement “The Management of Savagery” in Somalia.
And you’ve seen, Al Shabab has been weakened. They’ve been pushed out of Mogadishu. But they’re able to strike at the heart of the government in Mogadishu, blowing up buildings, attacking courtrooms, killing dozens of people at times. And, you know, it’s—to me, Somalia is, in a way, a window into the future of warfare, because you have mercenaries, drone strikes, special ops, U.S. on the ground working with proxies, but trying to not have a major U.S. footprint, and then you have an enemy that’s engaged in asymmetric warfare. And so, the United States has—is increasingly engaged in this kind of warfare where it’s going to be not large-scale military deployments; it’s going to be bin Laden raid-type operations that you’ll never hear about, in countries that most people probably can’t point out on a map.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you wrote Blackwater before you wrote Dirty Wars. You focused on Erik Prince and, overall, the whole issue of the rise of mercenary armies. Can you talk about how that informs what you’re reporting on today? For example, Blackwater in—in Africa, but larger than that, these private contractors in Africa?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I mean, studying the Blackwater, you know, history and then doing reporting on Blackwater was really my gateway into looking at the world of Joint Special Operations Command and CIA paramilitaries, because a lot of the guys that worked for Blackwater in their earlier life were doing the similar things for the U.S. government or were Navy SEALs or Army Rangers or Delta Force guys. And I actually met several people that, as a result of my reporting on Blackwater, that are from the actual U.S. military and had served and despise Blackwater and feel like they’ve cheapened the image of the American soldier by turning it into a for-profit entity and by taking—cashing in on all of the training they received in the U.S. military. So, actually, some people that really helped to inform me and are in this book—and some of them I can’t name—because I’ve gotten to know them, are people that have serious political disagreements with me but really cannot stand mercenaries and, for that reason, decided to reach out to me or to agree to talk to me.
AMY GOODMAN: Blackwater called now Academi?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, they’ve gone through many name changes. They were Blackwater, then Academi—or then Xe, then Academi. And who knows what it will be? The, you know, Fluffy Bunny Brigade next week. They’re constantly rebranding.
AMY GOODMAN: And where is Erik Prince today?
JEREMY SCAHILL: I actually think—I heard a rumor that Erik Prince is supposed to be coming to the Tribeca Film Festival because of a movie about Somali piracy, the anti-piracy force that he has been involved with operating. But I don’t—you know, I don’t know. I mean, you know, he’s not under any indictment that we know of, although the top five people under him all were indicted on conspiracy charges and weapons charges and got—
AMY GOODMAN: And he did leave the country.
JEREMY SCAHILL: —and got house arrests. And Erik Prince left the country in—I think it was 2010. He left the United States. In fact, I’ll tell you a story that I’ve never—I’ve never told publicly before. The way I found out about Erik Prince—you know, he was the head of Blackwater. His company was being investigated by multiple entities for all sorts of reasons, and they had conducted the Nisoor Square massacre in Baghdad in September of 2007, where they gunned down more than a dozen Iraqis, including a nine-year-old boy. And so, there was all this pressure. There were congressional hearings, and there was a firestorm about Blackwater being involved with the assassination program, running parts of the assassination program. And so Erik Prince decides to leave the United States and goes to Abu Dhabi.
Well, I found out about that before I even—before it was ever public, because I got an email from a young man, from a guy, who said, you know, “I’ve read your book, and I’ve seen you on TV, and I really respect your work, and I have a personal connection to someone who is—because of what he does, has information about the Prince family.” And I can’t say more than that about it, but just—so this person says to me, “I have information about that, and I think the two of you should be in touch.” And through that contact, I learned that Erik Prince was preparing to leave the United States.
And the person that wrote me that email was Bradley Manning, who is of course now being prosecuted for allegedly leaking all of the diplomatic cables and the “Collateral Murder” to WikiLeaks. Bradley Manning was the person that sent me that email. It wasn’t based on any classified information. He wasn’t sending me a document. It was a personal friend of his that had some attachment to—had some knowledge, because of what he does, of the Prince family’s movements. And it was because of Bradley Manning that I found out about that. And then The New York Times had, you know, followed up on the story after I wrote it in The Nation some weeks later and confirmed that Erik Prince had in fact left the United States. So, win-win.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about Erik Prince in Africa?
JEREMY SCAHILL: And Erik Prince in Africa, he—so, when he left the United States, he—well, first of all, he had—even when he was at Blackwater, he had bought this ship that he called “The McArthur,” and he envisioned it as this sort of counter-piracy vessel that could be used to protect shipping companies as they moved in and out of—you know, around the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. And that didn’t end up materializing and didn’t end up going operational. But then Prince got involved with this company called Saracen, which was a mercenary force that was working in various parts of Somalia. And Prince’s latest venture also is targeting Africa, includes, my understanding from his own—from reporting that happened in the Chinese press, is that he he has some wealthy Chinese investors that have—that are working with him on a project. And, you know, they’re looking at counter-piracy. They’re looking at counterterrorism.
You know, Africa is a major story, going forward, in everything that we’re discussing right now. You’re going to—I predict that you’re going to see a real uptick in covert operations in Africa, which is also why—part of why, when I write about it, it’s “dirty wars.” I mean, look at what happened in Africa, you know, with the anti-colonialist struggles and the CIA’s involvement with killing people like Patrice Lumumba and the dirty business that went on in South Africa and the Rhodesian mercenaries. I mean, there’s a real history of the CIA and the U.S. military in Africa that I think is important to study as we look into the future of what the U.S. program is in Africa. AFRICOM, which was created in 2007, is a combatant command now. It’s its own area of operations based in Djibouti, which is this tiny African nation, you know, right next to Somalia. And drone strikes are launched out of Djibouti. Special operations teams are in Djibouti. The CIA is in Djibouti. And they took over an old French base called Camp Lemonnier. And that’s where a lot of the covert actions on the African continent are based out of now.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, you mentioned Bradley Manning. And in your extensive footnotes, you do cite WikiLeaks documents. The significance in your covering dirty wars, covert wars, JSOC, of the information that’s come out from WikiLeaks?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Impossible to even like quantify how significant WikiLeaks has been to our understanding of overt and covert U.S. actions. I mean, when I was preparing initially to go to Somalia, we went through and researched on the WikiLeaks cables and found various warlords identified in the cables as being on the U.S. payroll or that the U.S. was working with, and then we went and tracked them down and found them. And, you know, you see that in our film. Two of those warlords were people that we discovered through the WikiLeaks cables.
And also, on the Somalia cables that were released, you know, there is a recognition that the U.S. was using these warlords to hunt down people and that it had caused great problems within the State Department, that they—you had internal debates going on where the CIA and the special operations forces were doing things that U.S. diplomats didn’t want them to be doing and that were counter to what the intelligence available to the U.S. government at the time indicated the threats were and the level of the threat.
But just in terms of our understanding of how the covert apparatus works, I mean, WikiLeaks was indispensable. And I think it’s—we’re going to look back decades from now and realize that because of the release of those documents, there was a huge shift in how we understand some of the more hidden aspects of U.S. policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy, as we begin to wrap up, what most surprised you in your investigation of these covert wars, and particularly looking at JSOC? And what do you want people to understand from your book?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, I think that we have rolled back the clock, in some ways, to an era where you have multiple covert paramilitary forces that are operating in secret away from—largely away from journalists or congressional oversight, and they’re engaged in actions that are going to cause blowback. This is going to boomerang back around to us. You can’t launch these so-called signature strikes, killing people in pre-crime, you know, in countries around the world, and think that we’re not going to create a whole new generation of enemies that have an actual grievance against us—not that want to kill us for our McDonald’s or our freedom, but have an actual score to settle. I mean, a lot of the al-Qaeda leadership—you know, Obama likes to talk about how he—you know, “Ask the top 20 leaders of al-Qaeda that I’ve taken down, you know, if I have resolve,” was something that he said during the campaign. And fair enough, they’ve—you know, they killed Osama bin Laden. They’ve killed heads of al-Qaeda in East Africa twice. They’ve killed the number three man in al-Qaeda, you know, probably a dozen times. All that’s very true. But, to me, they’re—out of the ashes of all of this could rise a force that is much more difficult to deal with, and that is disparate groups of people that have actual scores to settle with the United States. And I think we’re going to see more asymmetric war on our own—in our own country. And I think some of it is going to be inspired by what we’ve done over these past 10, 12 years.
And I’m—I mean, as a New Yorker, too, I mean, I think that you can’t be paralyzed by the fear of an explosion happening. I mean, we’ve all of course watched, you know, with great horror what happened at the Boston Marathon. And, you know, I haven’t said anything about it, because I don’t think—I think it’s not right to comment on motivations of people until you actually know. And I think that there was a lot of racism in the response that happened after Boston, and I think there was a real rush to judgment, and I think there’s still a rush to judgment that’s going on. We need to understand all of the facts. But separate from that, I think we’re living in a world where we are not going to be immune to the payback for some of the things that we’ve done. And unless—unless we, as a society, completely re-imagine what an actual national security policy would look like, one that recognizes the dignity of other people around the world or the rights of people to practice their religion or determine their form of government, unless we’re willing to re-imagine how we approach the world, we’re doomed to have a repeat of a 9/11-type attack or something that’s smaller-scale but constant.
You asked me about what surprised me. The depth and texture of so many of the characters that populate the landscape of this story over the past 10 years—I mean, from Admiral McRaven and General McChrystal to Mohamed Qanyare, a warlord in Somalia, to Emile Nakhleh, who was one of the people running the CIA’s political Islam division, who’s a character in my book—you know, the way that their lives intersect at various points is incredible. And, you know, the story of the Awlaki family is the one that I think I was invested in most, because I felt like it was a—we only know about the last three years of Anwar al-Awlaki’s life, and it was a watershed moment. The two-week period when the U.S. killed three U.S. citizens, to me, we crossed a—you know, we sort of crossed a line there, and you can’t turn back on it. And I think it was important to understand who was this guy whose death was so important that the Obama administration was willing to cross such a serious line to end his life. Who was that man, and why was he so significant that he needed to be taken out?
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Robert Gibbs. In October, the former White House press secretary and then Obama campaign adviser, Robert Gibbs, was asked about the U.S. killing of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the U.S. teenage son of Anwar al-Awlaki. In response, Gibbs blamed the elder Awlaki for his son’s assassination by U.S. drones. He was questioned by reporter Sierra Adamson.
SIERRA ADAMSON: Do you think that the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, who was an American citizen, is justifiable?
ROBERT GIBBS: I’m not going to get into Anwar al-Awlaki’s son. I know that Anwar al-Awlaki renounced his citizenship—
SIERRA ADAMSON: His son was still an American citizen.
ROBERT GIBBS: —did great harm to people in this country and was a regional al-Qaeda commander hoping to inflict harm and destruction on people that share his religion and others in this country. And—
SIERRA ADAMSON: That’s an American citizen that’s being targeted without due process of law, without trial.
ROBERT GIBBS: And again—
SIERRA ADAMSON: And he’s underage. He’s a minor.
ROBERT GIBBS: I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father. If they’re truly concerned about the well-being of their children, I don’t think becoming an al-Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.
AMY GOODMAN: He “should have a far more responsible father.” Those are the words of Robert Gibbs as a surrogate for President Obama when he was running for president in October. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, he should be—he should be ashamed of himself for what he said. I mean, first of all, Awlaki had left his son in the care of his grandparents, who were—did not share his worldviews at all. He actually had—didn’t have his family on the run with him. He did exactly what Gibbs said he should have done. He was responsible. He left him with his grandparents, who are prominent, upstanding citizens who had great affection for the United States, actually. They were raising that kid, and their dream was for him to go to the United States and go to college in the United States. And to say that a child can pay for the sins of their parents is this old tragedy of history. It’s the worst, most despicable justification that you could ever put forward for killing a child, to say that it’s because of who their parent was. And, I mean, I—to me, and I am not going to stop working on this until we get an answer from this administration—the fact that they will not come out and say why that young man was killed should be viewed with a collective sense of shame in our country, because it shows just how far this has gone. And there are very legitimate questions that are being—that need to be raised about this, and too few people are raising them, particularly in Congress
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield . Please visit democracynow.org to hear part one of Amy Goodman’s interview with Jeremy.
Jeremy Scahill: The Secret Story Behind Obama’s Assassination of Two Americans in Yemen
The Obama administration’s assassination of two U.S. citizens in 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old Denver-born son Abdulrahman, is a central part of Jeremy Scahill’s new book, “Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield.” The book is based on years of reporting on U.S. secret operations in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. While the Obama administration has defended the killing of Anwar, it has never publicly explained why Abdulrahman was targeted in a separate drone strike two weeks later. Scahill reveals CIA Director John Brennan, Obama’s former senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, suspected that the teenager had been killed “intentionally.” “The idea that you can simply have one branch of government unilaterally and in secret declare that an American citizen should be executed or assassinated without having to present any evidence whatsoever, to me, is a — we should view that with great sobriety about the implications for our country,” says Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation magazine. Today the U.S. Senate is preparing to hold its first-ever hearing on the Obama administration’s drone and targeted killing program. However, the Obama administration is refusing to send a witness to answer questions about the program’s legality. “Dirty Wars” is also the name of a new award-winning documentary by Scahill and Rick Rowley, which will open in theaters in June. We air the film’s new trailer. Click here to watch Part 2 of this interview.
AMY GOODMAN: The U.S. Senate is preparing to hold its first-ever hearing today on the Obama administration’s drone and targeted killing program. However, the Obama administration is refusing to send a witness to answer questions about the program’s legality. At today’s hearing, a Yemeni man whose family village was just hit by a U.S. drone strike is testifying alongside one of the key figures in developing President Obama’s counterterrorism policy, retired James Cartwright.
Well, today we spend the hour with Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent at The Nation magazine, longtimeDemocracy Now! correspondent. For the past several years, Jeremy has been working on a book and film documenting America’s expanded covert wars and targeted killing program. This is the just-released trailer to his new film, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. It’s directed by Rick Rowley.
JEREMY SCAHILL: I got a strange phone call. Someone from the inside was reaching out to me, someone close to the heart of the president’s elite force.
ANONYMOUS SOURCE: There are hundreds of covert operations on multiple continents in full support of the White House.
JEREMY SCAHILL: It’s hard to say when the story began.
Greetings from Kabul, Afghanistan.
This was supposed to be the front line in the war on terror.
U.S. SOLDIER: What’s the name of this village out here?
JEREMY SCAHILL: But I knew I was missing the story. There was another war, hidden in the shadows. A night raid.
So there’s the two men in the guest house with the first people killed.
GARDEZ RESIDENT 1: Mm-hmm.
GARDEZ RESIDENT 2: [translated] One woman was four-months, the other was five-months pregnant.
JEREMY SCAHILL: You saw the U.S. forces take the bullets out of the body?
MOHAMMED SABIR: [translated] Yes.
U.S. SOLDIER: On your face! On your face!
JEREMY SCAHILL: Who were these men that stormed into Daoud’s home? And why would they go to such horrifying lengths to cover up their actions?
ANONYMOUS SOURCE: Terror strikes, targeted killings—a lot it was of questionable legality.
JEREMY SCAHILL: How had a covert unit taken over the largest war on the planet?
RACHEL MADDOW: Joining us now is Jeremy Scahill.
LOU DOBBS: Jeremy Scahill.
PAT BUCHANAN: They’re dismissing what you’ve done.
JAY LENO: Why are you still alive? Are you paranoid? Is that the guy we did Maher with? Oh, he’s dead. What happened? He had an accident.
JEREMY SCAHILL: The list of raids read like a map of a hidden war.
MATTHEW HOH: The right guys would get targeted. Plenty of other times, the wrong people would get killed.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Algeria, Indonesia, Thailand, Jordan.
MUQBAL AL-KAZEMI: [translated] If children are terrorists, then we are all terrorists
ANONYMOUS SOURCE: What we have essentially done is created one hell of a hammer. And for the rest of our generation, this force will be continually searching for a nail.
GEOFF MORRELL: Despite whatever conspiratorial theories, there is nothing to it.
MALCOLM NANCE: If they are dangerous, if they are too strong, definitely has a missile in its future.
SEN. RON WYDEN: It’s important to know when the president can kill an American citizen and when they can’t.
UNIDENTIFIED: [translated] If the Americans do this again, we are ready to shed our blood fighting them.
MOHAMED QANYARE: When you are fighting the enemy, any option is open. No mercy. America knows war. They are war masters.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the first time this trailer has been broadcast globally on television and radio. This is the trailer to Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, a new film by Rick Rowley and Jeremy Scahill. The film opens in theaters in June.
Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars, is being published today. Jeremy takes a deep look at America’s new covert wars operated by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. From Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond, Jeremy shines a light on America’s unregulated and increasingly unilateral global assassination program. Two central figures in the book are Anwar al-Awlaki and his Denver-born 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, two American citizens killed in separate U.S. drone strikes in Yemen in 2011.
Today, an exclusive hour with Jeremy Scahill. I began by asking him to talk about cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Anwar al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen who was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. His father is quite an extraordinary guy. He, Dr. Nasser Awlaki, had come as a very young student to the United States, and he studied English as a young man in Lawrence, Kansas, and ended up getting a number of degrees in the United States. In fact, he was the alum of the year in 2002 at New Mexico State University, where he got one of his degrees. Very distinguished person in Yemen. And as a young man growing up in—as he put it, in a country that didn’t have a name yet, growing up in the south of Yemen, he dreamt of going to the United States, and his dream came true as a young man.
And so, he was a college student in the United States when his young—when Anwar was born, in 1971. And he really wanted to raise Anwar as an American. He viewed America as the—you know, to quote Reagan, sort of a paraphrased Reagan—the shining city atop the hill. I mean, he really did view it that way. And I looked at his essays from when he first came to the United States, and all of the international students wrote essays about, you know, what it was they wanted to get out of it. And he said that “the progressivism of America was electric, and I wanted to be a part of that, and I wanted to take my education and go back to my very poor country and to make something of my life.” And so he started to build this family, and they lived in Minneapolis. And they showed me pictures of Anwar pointing out Yemen on the globe in his classroom, and he couldn’t pronounce the teacher’s name, so he just called her “Mrs. M.” And, you know, there were photos of him at Disney World and—or, Disneyland in California.
And so, you had this family that really wanted to do two things. They wanted to raise their children in the tradition of the American spirit, but they also wanted to give back to their country. And when Dr. Nasser Awlaki got his engineering degrees, he went back to Yemen and became the minister of agriculture and engineering in Yemen, and he actually built an entire faculty at the university. He founded this department, working with USAID and other U.S. officials to build this school of agricultural engineering. And his main life’s work has been to deal with the water crisis in Yemen, because Yemen is running out of water.
So, Anwar moved back with him, went to an international school in Yemen, where he was studying in both English and Arabic. His English was stronger than his Arabic, because he had spent the first seven years of his life in the U.S. So he was in a very international atmosphere. In fact, Anwar Awlaki went to school with the men who would end up working on the kill program, from the Yemeni side, to try to hunt him down, with the children of the country’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He went to school with some of them. And so, then later in life, their paths would cross again.
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t he go to school with Saleh’s son?
JEREMY SCAHILL: He did, yes, and I write about that in the book. And it’s sort of—you know, Yemen, in a way, is a very small neighborhood and—when you’re dealing with government ministers. This was a school, actually, that Nasser al-Awlaki helped to found in Yemen, this primary school, and it, to this day, remains one of the top schools in Yemen.
So when Anwar finished high school, he wanted to go to the United States, and originally he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps, and he was going to study engineering. And he arrived in the United States and was detained at the airport when he flew back into the United States, because there was a discrepancy on his passport. His Yemeni passport said that he was born in Yemen, and his American passport said that he was born in the United States—actually, the other way around. His American passport said that he was born in Yemen. And the reason it did is because a U.S. official had told Nasser al-Awlaki, “If you want to get your son a scholarship in the United States, we should say that he’s born in Yemen, so you can have his birth certificate reissued in Yemen, and then he can get the travel documents.” So, he ran into trouble because his passport—there were some discrepancies with his paperwork, so that was sort of his first run-in with law enforcement. But it was resolved, and he was released, and he ended up going to school in Colorado.
And this was right at the time when the mujahideen war in Afghanistan—you know, of course, the United States on the side of the mujahideen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—was sort of coming to an end, and the 1991 Gulf War was beginning. And Anwar had never been a particularly religious guy, and he had never been a particularly political guy, but he, like a lot of people—and, I mean, I remember this myself; I was in high school when the Gulf War started. It was really the first time that I came to terms with the fact that these wars happen, and I remember being very scared myself. And I think that, you know, Anwar, that deeply affected him, and he saw the destruction of Baghdad the first time around, and started going to antiwar meetings and was invited to go and speak at a local mosque about the war and about student organizing. And the imam at that mosque said, “You know, you have a real gift for speaking,” and started to invite him back. And Anwar, this sort of fire was lit in him, and he decided he wanted to change course in life and decided to study to become an imam, and he immersed himself in Islamic scholarship and, in fact, became an imam, and eventually moved to San Diego and started his family. And his eldest son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was born in 1995. He was actually born in Denver, Colorado. And the Awlakis started to build a life for themselves, and Anwar was an imam.
When 9/11 happened, Anwar al-Awlaki was living in Virginia, and he was the imam at a very large, prominent mosque, the Dar Al-Hijrah religious center in Falls Church, Virginia. And when 9/11 happened, Awlaki became the go-to imam for large, powerful corporate media outlets in the United States to understand the experience of American Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks. And Awlaki passionately denounced the 9/11 attacks, said the United States had a right to hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice. He was someone that was profiled by The Washington Post for a piece that they did about Ramadan. He was on PBS and NPR and was talking about this, the feelings of many American Muslims, which is that you hear a president in George Bush saying it’s a crusade and basically putting a number of Muslim countries, you know, in the crosshairs around the world, the start of the rumblings toward the invasion of Iraq, the initial invasion of Afghanistan, clearly sort of turning into something that was going to be a much longer-term presence. And Awlaki was affected by all of this. And when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, you saw a real sort of tilt toward a radicalization in Awlaki.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be back with war correspondent Jeremy Scahill on his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Freedom,” sung by Richie Havens in 1969. He died yesterday at the age of 72 at his home in New Jersey. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re continuing our conversation with Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book,Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, the book coming out today. We return to Jeremy talking about Anwar al-Awlaki and his time in the United States.
JEREMY SCAHILL: There’s this a whole other part of this story, which is that Awlaki, at his mosque in San Diego, two of the 9/11 hijackers had been—had attended services at his mosque, and a third one had also attended services with one of the other guys at his mosque in Virginia. And the FBI—he was already on their radar, but they brought Awlaki in a number of times for questioning, and they basically cleared him and said that he had—you know, had nothing to do with those guys except knowing them peripherally in his mosque. But that’s been the source of a lot of—of intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the attack and everything that happened with Awlaki, because some people believe that he was directly attached to the 9/11 attacks, which I think is a preposterous—I mean, it’s nonsensical to think that these guys would have keyed in Anwar Awlaki to the 9/11 attacks at a time when he was viewed as a very moderate guy. He endorsed George Bush for president in the 2000 election. In fact, Bush had a lot of support in the Arab-American community, because many people felt that he would be better than Al Gore on the issue of Palestine. And so, you know—but Awlaki had had this contact with these 9/11 hijackers. He also had been busted twice on solicitation of prostitute charges, and then those were resolved through community service and probation. But—
AMY GOODMAN: And were they real?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, we don’t know. Awlaki says that they weren’t, that it was a—that it was a setup. You know, I’ve—
AMY GOODMAN: To try to flip him?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, so what happened is that he gets busted, I think the first time in ’96 in San Diego on a solicitation charge, and then he’s pulled in. And he claimed—Awlaki claimed that the FBI tried to get him to start informing on people in his mosque and keeping an eye on them and telling them who was coming in and out of his mosque, and, you know, claimed that he told them to get lost. There was actually an interesting sort of development with this whole story, in that Awlaki had repeated interactions with the FBI. And I talked to a former senior FBI agent who had worked the Awlaki case, and said he believed that the bureau was trying to flip him or that they maybe had in fact gotten Awlaki to start doing some informing.
And so, when Awlaki then, years later, leaves the United States, he’s looking—you know, in terms of his public persona, he’s looking at the impending invasion of Iraq, he’s looking at Guantánamo starting to grab headlines around the world and the images that we saw coming out of that, people being dressed in orange jumpers with hoods on their head, and, you know, eventually then the Abu Ghraib photos. But he also had this private battle that he was waging with the FBI. They were really putting pressure on him to become a full-blown informant.
And so, Awlaki, for a combination of reasons, ends up leaving the United States, spends a number of years in Britain, is a very prominent figure, popular at Islamic centers and mosques, and still is preaching a message that was very much in line, I think, with mainstream antiwar thinking and also was in line with how a lot of Muslims around the world were feeling about the—about the increasing global wars. And that’s really when Awlaki started to end up on the radar of the U.S. counterterrorism community, because they viewed him as someone who was speaking a language that a lot of diaspora Muslims, English-speaking Muslims around the world, could relate to. And they saw him sort of becoming more and more radical.
Awlaki then goes back to Yemen, where his father was living and was at the university. And his parents build him an apartment for him and his young family in their compound in Sana’a. And I’ve visited, and I’ve been in the apartment. It’s sort of a big compound, and the family has—each of the siblings have their families within this compound. And so, Awlaki was there, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. His dad—and it was sort of joking, but he’s like, “Anwar had these dreams of getting involved with real estate.” And he always had some, you know, idea of how he was going to make money, but really he was just trying to—he was a man trying to figure himself out. And he started preaching at some mosques in Yemen and attended classes at a university there.
And then, in 2006, he is arrested on trumped-up charges of having intervened in a tribal dispute in Yemen, and he spends 18 months in prison in Yemen, 17 of them in solitary confinement. And he comes out a totally changed man. And I get into the book his prison writings. And they would only allow him, you know, certain books, but he read the book by Michael Scheuer, the former CIA operative, his writings about bin Laden. He read a lot of Dickens and was—made comparisons of the U.S. government to various characters in Great Expectations. And, you know, he did food reviews of the prison food. But he—you could really see that when came out, he was a changed man.
AMY GOODMAN: And why was he imprisoned?
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, he was—my understanding is that he was arrested initially on a request from the United States that—and I heard from a former senior Yemeni official that there was a meeting with John Negroponte, who at the time was the director of national intelligence, with Bandar Bush, you know, the Saudi ambassador, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington, one of the most powerful diplomats in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Very close to the Bush family.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Very close to the Bush family. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Who, two days after 9/11, was having cigars with President Bush on the Truman balcony.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Exactly. And, of course, the Saudis run a huge portion of the U.S. counterterrorism operations to this day in Yemen. I mean, the U.S. has basically outsourced anything vaguely resembling intelligence in Yemen to a network of Saudi spies and to Saudi intelligence. I mean, that’s a whole other fascinating story. But there was this meeting in Washington with Yemen’s ambassador, Bandar Bush and John Negroponte, where Negroponte said that they wanted, according to my sources, Awlaki kept in prison for four or five years so that people would forget about him, because he was starting to become popular at that time. His books and his speeches were on sale in airports around the Middle East and also very popular in London and elsewhere. And they basically just wanted him to go away. And so, he was kept in prison for 18 months without charge. The United Nations investigated his imprisonment and declared that it was wrong and that it was an unlawful imprisonment. And the FBI came to interrogate Awlaki when he was in prison and, you know, were trying to ask him questions about the 9/11 attacks, and effectively trying to convince him to shut his mouth.
So, Awlaki comes out of prison and starts a blog, and essentially becomes—and that’s why people often refer to Awlaki as like the YouTube imam or the Internet imam. You know, he comes out, and he starts pontificating on the state of affairs in the world, and he has a vibrant comments section in his website, and young Muslims around the world are asking him questions about different interpretations of the Qur’an or the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad. And Awlaki becomes this sort of figure on the Internet. And his mosque was the Internet. And as the U.S. wars intensified, Awlaki’s rhetoric intensifies.
And really the turning point in this story was in 2009, when Major Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, on his fellow soldiers. He was an Army psychiatrist and gunned down more than a dozen of his fellow soldiers and wounded many, many others. And he, himself, was shot and paralyzed. It emerged, after Nidal Hasan did this massacre in 2009, that he had been in email contact with Anwar al-Awlaki.
AMY GOODMAN: In Yemen.
JEREMY SCAHILL: While Awlaki was in Yemen. And so, the story was floated in the media, and it continues to this day, that Awlaki helped to plan the Fort Hood shooting. There has never been a shred of evidence produced publicly that Awlaki had anything to do with the Fort Hood shooting before it happened.
What we now know, because the emails have been released, the communications between Awlaki and Nidal Hasan, that Nidal Hasan was sort of a pathetic man who was writing to Awlaki saying everything from—asking him everything from questions about the proper conduct of a Muslim in a military—one of them should have caught the eyes of investigators. He was asking Awlaki, basically, is it OK to shoot a fellow soldier if you think that they’re engaged in, you know, crime against Islam, you know, if they’re going to be going to another country? But he was putting it in the context of Israel and Palestine, and not sort of directly asking about himself. But he also asked Awlaki if he could help find him a wife. And then he tried to donate money to Awlaki and said, “I want to give a prize in your name for the best essay.”
AMY GOODMAN: But as you point out in your book, he actually had interaction with this man 10 years earlier.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, Awlaki—so, in one of the emails, Nidal Hasan says, “You might not remember me, but I met you once at your mosque in Falls Church, Virginia.” And Awlaki didn’t remember him, but it turned out that Nidal Hasan’s parents were members of Awlaki’s mosque, and they had gone to Awlaki concerned about their son at one point, that he wasn’t—I don’t want to mischaracterize it, because I haven’t talked to the Hasan family. But in any case, they went to Awlaki, and they asked him for some guidance for their son, and so Awlaki had met him at one point, but it wasn’t—you know, he was the imam at a big mosque, and this would happen. And Awlaki said that, you know, he didn’t remember him.
Then, you know, the shooting happened, the discovery of the emails between Awlaki and Hasan comes out, U.S. intelligence reviewed them, said there was nothing to indicate that Awlaki had anything to do with it, yet the story still persisted in the media. Then the shooting happens, and Awlaki writes a blog post that says Nidal Hasan is a hero, and he praises the Fort Hood attack and says, “This should be a sort of a model for Muslims in the military going forward,” and essentially calls on other soldiers to do this. And that’s—he hit the tripwire there when he did that. And then it became a thing from being concerned about Awlaki’s speech and the idea that he would radicalize young people to actually praising this killing and calling on other Muslims in the U.S. military to do the same thing. The U.S. intelligence then got Awlaki’s blog shut down, and Awlaki started to be harassed by Yemeni intelligence, and he eventually went to his family’s province of Shabwa in southern Yemen to basically lay low.
And while Awlaki is there, he has numerous interactions with the U.S.-backed Yemeni intelligence. The Awlaki family is in communication with the U.S.-backed Yemeni dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh. And they’re saying to the Awlaki family, these U.S. proxies in Yemen, “Look, if you don’t get Anwar to come back to Sana’a, to the capital of Yemen, and we’re going to put him in prison here, the Americans are going to kill him. They’re going to kill him with a drone. So you have a choice: He can either live under the protection of our intelligence services in a prison, and we’ll treat him nicely until the Americans forget about him, or he can continue doing what he’s doing, running around in the mountains, and the Americans are going to kill him with a drone.” And they said this years before Awlaki was killed by a drone. And Anwar’s father, the last time that he talked to him, I believe, was in May of 2009. He went down to Shabwa, Nasser Awlaki and his wife, and they tried to convince Anwar to come back, because they were concerned that the U.S. government was going to kill him. And their position was: You haven’t done anything that’s criminal, and if you have, then you should be able to face the evidence. And Awlaki said to his family, “I will not allow the Americans to tell me which way to position my butt at night. You know, I was born free, and I’m going to die free. And I’m not going to allow the Americans to do this.” And he said, “I’m going to continue to do what I believe is right.”
And that was the last conversation that Nasser Awlaki had with his son, because in December of 2009, the U.S. started bombing Yemen for the first time in seven years. Bush had bombed Yemen once. It was a drone bombing in 2002, November, and ended up killing a U.S. citizen in that strike, though he wasn’t the target of the strike. So the first time that the U.S. did a targeted strike that killed a U.S. citizen in Yemen that we know of was under Bush in November of 2002. In December of 2009, President Obama authorizes a series of missile strikes, not just drone strikes. The most deadly one that we know of was December 17th, 2009, cruise missile attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah, and it killed 46 people, three dozen of whom were women and children, which is stunning and horrifying. And we have video footage in our film of the aftermath of that strike, interviews with the survivors of when the missile hit. But it was in pursuit of one person that they said was an al-Qaeda operative, and they wiped out an entire Bedouin village. And we went there, and the cruise missile parts are still strewn across the desert. They’re there to this day just rusting out there. But the U.S. also used—
AMY GOODMAN: How many people were killed?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Forty-six people were killed, and I think 35 or 36 of them were women and children. And I was leaked the official parliamentary investigation in Yemen with the names and ages of all of the dead. And I have it—I have it stained in my head, the images that I’ve seen of the videos that people I met there had taken on the scene. You know, one tribal leader, Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, who’s the head of the Aulaq tribe in Yemen, he went there right after the attack. And he said to me, “If someone had weak heart, they would collapse, because you saw meat, and you couldn’t tell if it was goat meat or human meat. And you saw limbs of children.” And he, himself—and he’s this older man—actually found body parts and helped to bury—try to bury people with dignity. And he’s this incredibly wealthy man who went there himself and is the main reason why there still is agitation for justice for the victims of the Majalah bombing, that—because these tribal leaders have said, “We will not forget what you did to this village of nobodies, one of the poorest tribes in all of Yemen.”
Who knows why the U.S. bombed it? It could have been that the Yemeni government was under pressure from Obama’s administration, and they said, “No one will care about these people. Let’s just say this is an al-Qaeda camp, because it’s in the middle of nowhere. No one is going to care about them, and no one’s going to go there to investigate.” But when we went there, we saw it. The cluster bombs, these are flying land mines, they’re banned. And yet the United States continues to use them, and they shred people into meat. I saw it in Yugoslavia in the ’90s, and I’ve seen it again now in Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: So the weapons used were?
JEREMY SCAHILL: The weapons used? They used a Tomahawk cruise missile, and they used cluster bombs. And the cluster bombs are—they are like flying land mines. And they drop in these parachutes, and they explode, and they can shred people. I mean, it’s their—they’re probably the most horrifying weapon I have ever seen the aftermath of in a war zone.
So, this is the first strike that President Obama authorizes, and it’s unclear who the real target even was. They claimed it was this one man and that he was killed. When I talked to people in Yemen, they said, “That guy is old—that guy is—yeah, he was a mujahideen in Afghanistan, but he had nothing to do with the leadership.”
AMY GOODMAN: Mujahideen, who the U.S. worked with.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Who the U.S. worked with, right. You know, Yemenis went to Afghanistan in the ’80s in huge numbers. And, you know, they have a very serious fighting spirit, and there were a lot of Yemenis that had gone there and fought on the same side as the United States. But the point I’m getting at here is that—so, the Obama administration starts to intensify this bombing in Yemen. They bomb al-Majalah. And then, seven days later, they—but remember that the Yemeni government claimed responsibility for the strike, and Obama’s administration released a statement praising Yemen for this attack. Yemen doesn’t have cruise missiles. Yemen doesn’t have cluster bombs.
So, but for, you know, some brave local journalists going there and photographing it initially, we probably would—never would have been able to prove that it was a U.S. strike. And we could talk about him later, but Obama, President Obama, is directly responsible for the first Yemeni journalist to report on this story, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, continuing to be in prison. He was arrested after he exposed the Majalah bombing, and he remains in prison to this day. In fact, the last line in my book is to say that he’s still in prison, and he should be set free. This was a journalist that had worked with major U.S. media outlets, broke this huge story that the U.S. had bombed Yemen for the first time in seven years, using cluster bombs, and then he ends up in prison on trumped-up terrorism charges, put on trial in a court that was set up specifically to prosecute journalists, and then when he was going to be pardoned, President Obama called Ali Abdullah Saleh and said, “We don’t want him released,” and he remains in prison to this day. So, he was the first journalist to do that. He’s in prison.
Seven days after that bombing, the Yemeni government puts out a press release saying they’ve conducted these air strikes in Shabwa and Abyan province and that among the dead is Wuhayshi and Shihri, the two heads of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Anwar al-Awlaki. So the first time that we know of that the U.S. intended to kill Anwar al-Awlaki was in December of 2009. This is before we understood that he had actually been officially put on the kill list. We didn’t find out about that until two months later. So, this first strike, Yemeni government takes responsibility, but in fact it was a U.S. strike. Then Awlaki knows that they’re trying to get him. Drones start appearing all throughout Yemen. There hadn’t been drone strikes in Yemen since 2002. So drones start appearing over Shabwa and over Abyan, and people start seeing them, and there’s an intensification of these attacks.
Then, in January of 2010, a story leaks to The New York — to The Washington Postthat there are a number of U.S. citizens that have been put on the kill list that’s maintained by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, and that among these, most prominently, is Anwar al-Awlaki. And after the Post published that story, they had to run a correction, because the CIA got in touch with the Post and said that we don’t have Americans on our kill list. So then they had to clarify that it was the Joint Special Operations Command, and then, in fact, there were two separate kill lists. So, once Awlaki knew that he was a target, he went totally underground and spent the remaining two years of his life on the run.
And his father, Nasser al-Awlaki, wrote a letter to President Obama begging him not to kill his son and saying, “We could—there’s another way to resolve this. And if there’s evidence that my son is involved with any criminal activity, make it public.” And the head of the Aulaq tribe said, “If Anwar is guilty of anything, we’ll execute him ourselves. But we want to see the evidence, because we don’t think that the United States has the right to simply say someone should be given the death penalty without ever giving them a trial.”
And, I mean, they understood something that barely registered a blip on the radar of the U.S. Congress. When they—when we learned that Awlaki was on the kill list, Congressman Dennis Kucinich put forward a bill that simply stated—didn’t even mention Awlaki—that Americans have the right to due process and that the government does not have a right to execute or assassinate American citizens without having tried them or presented evidence. And only six members of Congress signed onto it with Dennis Kucinich, and no senators, which is interesting because then years later, Rand Paul does this filibuster, and all these tea party and Republican people are all up in arms about, you know, “Is President Obama going to hunt them down and kill them in the United States?” when at the time none of them ever said—none of them said anything about it. It was basically just Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, who at the time was waging an insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination for president, that said anything about this. And, you know, so it’s sort of how times change.
So, Awlaki is on the run, and the U.S., by my count, tried to kill him more than a dozen times. And I write in the book about one incident in May of 2011 where Awlaki very nearly was killed. He was in Shabwa. He was driving in a two-car convoy. And the U.S. had drones and other special ops aircraft, and they were doing this sort of bee swarm on him to try to get him. And they—there was a misfire, and the drone—the drone missed Awlaki’s vehicle. And they were driving in a car, in a vehicle that had gasoline canisters, which is common in a lot of countries where there’s not just gas stations everywhere you travel. So if it had hit it, it would have just, you know, blown. So Awlaki and his cohorts believed that they’re being ambushed. They don’t know that it’s a drone strike. They feel an explosion; they think someone maybe has launched an RPGat them. So they try to do some evasive maneuvers. Meanwhile, the U.S. aircraft are circling back around, and they shoot—they fire another missile, and it misses again. And now there’s this huge dust up. Awlaki calls for backup.
These two brothers, the Harad brothers, come to the rescue. And there’s—they’re in the—there’s a chaotic scene. There’s all of this smoke and clouds. And the Harad brothers get into Awlaki’s truck, Awlaki gets into their Suzuki, and then they—it’s something like out of—out of like, you know, some Hollywood movie. They drive in opposite directions away from the smoke. And I talked to a JSOC planner who saw the after action reports. He said, “We only had the top-down imagery. It looks like ants. So we didn’t know.” And they had to make a decision which truck to follow. So they follow the original one, and they blow that one up. But, of course, Awlaki wasn’t in it, and Awlaki watched his car with the two brothers in it blow up while he was on a sort of cliff in the mountains. And then he slept overnight there, and then he made his way to the home of a friend of his. And he said that night, you know, that he counted 11 missiles, and he said they all missed their target, but the next one could be a direct hit.
And sure enough, in—on September 30th, 2011, just a few months later, Awlaki was in Jawf province in the north of Yemen, which was interesting because the U.S. always was looking for him in the south, and he and another American, Samir Khan, who is widely believed to have been the editor of Inspire magazine, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula magazine, were getting into their car and driving, and then the U.S. launched a drone strike and killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in one strike. And U.S. officials said that Samir Khan wasn’t a target, but one congressman said it was a “two-fer,” you know, that they got both of them at the same time. And I talked to the Khan family also, Samir Khan’s family. They’re from North Carolina, Pakistani Americans. And they said that the FBI had met with them repeatedly and said that Samir is not—hasn’t committed any crimes. A grand jury did not return an indictment against him. And they were trying to encourage the family to get him to come home. So this U.S. citizen, whose family had been told he hadn’t done anything criminal that they knew of, was actually killed that day with Anwar al-Awlaki.
AMY GOODMAN: “Lives in the Balance,” sung by Richie Havens, who died on Monday at the age of 72. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with The Nation correspondent, Democracy Now! correspondent, premier war correspondent Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. We turn now to President Obama speaking September 30th, 2011, announcing the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate. Awlaki was the leader of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans. He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to President Obama, Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I think one of the things that we have to understand about Anwar al-Awlaki is that no evidence was ever presented that he played an operational role in any of these attacks. I’m not saying that I know that he didn’t. Maybe he did. But under our legal system, American citizens should have a right to respond to the evidence presented against them. And Awlaki was never afforded that. Nidal Hasan is getting a trial. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is in the justice system having, you know, something resembling a trial. John Walker Lindh was given access to the U.S. legal system and had—and if he had wanted to not take a plea agreement, he could have fought the charges against him in court. Anwar al-Awlaki, though, was sentenced to death by a president who served as judge, jury and ultimately as executioner, and also prosecutor in public. They litigated Anwar al-Awlaki’s death penalty case with leaks to the media. They never gave him a chance to respond to it.
So, I don’t know what his role was in the so-called underwear bomber, the Abdulmutallab case. I know from my own reporting on the ground in Yemen that Awlaki had met with [Umar] Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was a very, I think, deranged young man, this Nigerian who came and tried to bring down this airliner. But it cuts to the heart of something else interesting: Was Anwar al-Awlaki a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? He never claimed it himself. He referred to them as his brothers. And Nasser Awlaki said, “I know my son, and if he had been a member of that organization, he would have said, ’I’m a member of that organization.’” My sense, on the ground, is that Awlaki was around those circles, that they respected him as someone who was definitely preaching things that were in sync with their agenda. But when leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tried to get Osama bin Laden to name Awlaki as the head of AQAP, bin Laden basically said, “We need to see his résumé. He’s untested. I don’t—I mean, I know who this guy is, but I don’t know anything about him. So, you keep—you’re still the head of the organization. Don’t try to—don’t try to bring this to me until he’s tested on the battlefield.” So my response to President Obama is, if all of this is true, what would the harm be in presenting that evidence to the American people or having presented that evidence to Anwar al-Awlaki? Why—
AMY GOODMAN: That he couldn’t get him.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Why not seek an indictment against him?
AMY GOODMAN: That he couldn’t get him. That would be Obama’s, perhaps, his response.
JEREMY SCAHILL: But why not seek an indictment against Anwar al-Awlaki, if he’s guilty of all of these things, and then demand his extradition? And if Yemen is not going to extradite him, then you could have sent in a team of Navy SEALs to snatch him. Or you could have, I mean, probably had a much easier time justifying his killing if you actually had presented evidence against him. That title that Obama bestowed on Anwar Awlaki, no one—I talked to—no one had ever heard of that before, that Awlaki was the head of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If Awlaki was anything within al-Qaeda, he would have been very low-level management. We in the United States get obsessed with Inspire magazine and Anwar al-Awlaki because they’re speaking in English, and so we can get scared of their words because they’re in English. If you read in Arabic what has been produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and you study who is important in that organization, Anwar al-Awlaki is a nobody, in terms of the actual Arabic-speaking jihadist population that is sort of in the circle of AQAP. He was someone that was convenient because he was preaching in English to a wider audience.
AMY GOODMAN: You quoted a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst about his role, about Awlaki’s role.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, just saying that, you know, he’s mid-level management and that he—that he doesn’t do—he wouldn’t do anything without them telling him what to do. He’s not a decider. He’s not making those decisions.
AMY GOODMAN: So, September 30th, 2011, Awlaki is killed in a drone attack along with another American citizen, Samir Khan.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Then talk about what happened two weeks later.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. So, around the time a little bit before Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed, Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, who was living with his grandparents and his mother in their house in Sana’a, he had just turned 16, and one morning he went into his mother’s purse before anyone had gotten up, and he took the equivalent of $40 out of her purse and left a small note saying, you know, “Please forgive me. I miss my father, and I want to go and try to find him. I’m sorry that I took the money, and I’ll pay it back.” And then he climbed out the kitchen window. And I went into their house and saw his bedroom, and I saw the kitchen, and I sort of recreated what had happened. And he jumped out their kitchen window, and the security guard in their family compound saw him leaving early in the morning and didn’t think much of it at all. And so he goes to Babel Yemen, in the old city in Sana’a, and he gets on a bus, and he goes to Shabwa, where he believes his father is.
AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t seen him for a few years.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And hasn’t—hadn’t seen him since 2009. And, you know, this was a kid who was born in Denver, Colorado, and grew up—I mean, I saw these videos of Anwar teaching his son how to ride a horse and playing at the beach with him. And, I mean, the Awlakis showed me their family home movies. And this kid clearly adored his father. And then, you know, his dad becomes this outlaw and is on the run. And he’s sort of coming of age and decides that he wants to go and find his father. And so he takes a bus to Shabwa, where they have family, and was going to wait there and try to connect with his father.
Anwar al-Awlaki’s mother, Saleha, told me that she was in a panic when she found out that he had left, because she thought that it was possible that the CIA was trying to use Abdulrahman to find his father, that they could have been tracking him via text messages if he had been involved, you know, with finding his dad or emails and that they were being monitored. In fact, when we went to the Awlaki home in Sana’a the first time to film with them, Rick Rowley, the director of the film, couldn’t find an open frequency on the—on our recording system, because all of the radio waves were being used, so they’re just being monitored intensely by all sorts of intelligence agencies. So, you know, I know that every member of that family was being watched in some way or another by intelligence.
So, Abdulrahman Awlaki goes to Shabwa to wait for his father. And when he’s there, his father is killed and—nowhere near Shabwa. He’s killed in the north of Yemen. And then he calls back to speak to his grandparents, and his grandmother, you know, said, “Abdulrahman, it’s finished. Your father is dead. You have to come home.” And at the time, it was the—you know, the so-called Arab Spring. These uprisings were happening, and it was happening in Yemen, too. The roads were all blocked, so he had to stay in Shabwa for a couple of weeks while he waited for things to calm down so he could safely travel back to Sana’a, which is a treacherous sort of stretch of territory where there’s a lot of fighting. And, you know, he’s depressed, and his family members there are encouraging him to get out and to go out into the world and do stuff, and so he goes with his teenage cousins to an outdoor restaurant to eat, and they’re there on the night of October 14th when a drone appears above them and launches a missile and blows up 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki and his teenage cousins.
And, you know, Nasser Awlaki, Anwar’s father, loses his firstborn son, and then, two weeks later, his eldest grandson is killed. And he said that when they got the phone call the next day, that their relatives in Shabwa told them that they—that they couldn’t identify the bodies completely because they were all shredded and blown up to pieces and that they only could find part of Abdulrahman’s head. And they knew it was him because he had this very distinct afro. He had this very large head of hair that his family had always—his mom and grandparents were saying, “Cut your hair,” and he was a rebellious teenager. And, you know, on his Facebook page, which, you know, the family gave me all of his Facebook posts, this was a kid who was into hip-hop music, who had lots of pictures posing as a rapper with his friends, was into video games; when the revolution was happening in Yemen, would go to the Change Square to hang out and was a part of the—wanted to be a part of that change in his country. And he was killed in this drone strike. And the U.S., to this day, has never publicly said who they were going after in that drone strike.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Anwar al-Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, the grandfather of Abdulrahman. In this video, made for the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, he spoke about the U.S. killing of his 16-year-old grandson, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
NASSER AL-AWLAKI: I want Americans to know about my grandson, that he was very nice boy. He was very caring boy for his family, for his mother, for his brothers. He was born in August 1995 in the state of Colorado, city of Denver. He was raised in America, when he was a child until he was seven years old. And I never thought that one day this boy, this nice boy, will be killed by his own government.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Nasser al-Awlaki, the grandfather of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. So, after he was killed, the story that we all know in the public now is that U.S. officials leaked stories to the press saying that he was 21 years old. He wasn’t; he had just turned 16, and we have the birth certificate to prove that. He was born in Colorado in 1995. Then they said that he had been with Ibrahim al-Banna, who is an Egyptian member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And the dominant story that’s been floated is that the U.S. was trying to kill al-Banna and that Abdulrahman Awlaki just happened to be next to him, which is an incredible coincidence that this 16-year-old kid, whose father was killed two weeks earlier in a targeted assassination by the U.S. government, is then killed himself while in the company of another member of AQAP. The CIA said that al-Banna wasn’t even on their target list, so opening up the speculation that it was a unilateral JSOC operation, Joint Special Operations Command operation. When I spoke to—I spoke to a JSOCguy who was in Yemen at the time working on that strike, and he wouldn’t tell me any of the details, but he said, “The guy we were trying to get, we didn’t get.” And I said, “Well, what—how did you feel when you saw that this teenage American citizen had been killed?” And he goes, “Well, there’s a reason I’m not doing this anymore.” And so, we don’t know who it was. Was Ibrahim al-Banna there? If he was, AQAP says he’s very much alive, and that it was lies that he was killed, if that’s the claim.
Then the U.S. said, “Well, it was an outrageous mistake.” This is all anonymous, though. They’ll never—they’ll never talk about it. President Obama has never been asked about the killing of this teenager. My new reporting, though, that I did very recently, suggests that there—this was a great controversy within the White House. I understand from a former senior official of the administration who worked on this program at the time that when it became clear that Abdulrahman Awlaki had been killed, that President Obama was furious and that John Brennan, who at the time was the president’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, the guy running all of these operations, that Brennan believed or suspected that it was an intentional hit against Anwar Awlaki’s son, this 16-year-old kid, and ordered a review. And I asked this former senior official what happened with the review, and he said, “I don’t know.” And then when I got in touch with the White House recently and I exchanged a series of emails with the National Security Council spokesperson, she told me that she wouldn’t discuss any of the specifics about this and said that they’re not going to talk about operational details or any of the reviews, and then pasted a boilerplate response about drone strikes into the email.
But then, when I asked this former senior official, “So, if the narrative on this is that it was a mistake, then why didn’t you say that? Why didn’t you say, you know, this 16-year-old U.S. citizen was killed as collateral damage, or, you know, we were intending to get someone else, and we didn’t do it?” And he said, “Look, we had just killed three U.S. citizens in a two-week period, two of whom weren’t even targets—Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. It doesn’t look good. It’s embarrassing.” That’s what this official said to me. So, what my understanding is now is that they killed these three U.S. citizens, two of whom weren’t targets, one of whom was a 16-year-old kid whose Facebook page you can look at online and photos you can look at online and see what kind of a person he was, and the best thing to come up with is: “We haven’t said anything to his family because it was embarrassing for us politically.” And that says a lot about where we’re at with these drone strikes.
I also think it’s possible that Abdulrahman Awlaki was killed in what’s called a signature strike, which, to me, is the most egregious part of the whole drone program. Because the United States doesn’t have any actual intelligence on the ground in Yemen, they’ve taken to doing these signature strikes where they develop a pattern of life, and they say, if people are in a certain region of Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia—if people are in a certain region and they’re of military age—they could be anywhere from 15 to 70 years old—and they fit some kind of a pattern of other people we believe to be terrorists, then they become legitimate targets. So it’s the most horrific form of pre-crime. They don’t know the identities of the people that they’re killing. They don’t know whether they’ve been involved with any activity. They’re killed for who they might be or they might one day become. And so, for whatever reason Abdulrahman Awlaki was killed that day, the message that was sent is that the U.S. will operate with impunity in pursuit of a small number of people, and even U.S. citizens can be killed, with no explanation as to why, by their own government.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play the clip of Attorney General Eric Holder, who offered the Obama administration’s most spirited defense of its policy authorizing the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad, speaking last March at Chicago’s Northwestern University.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that some of the threats that we face come from a small number of United States citizens who have decided to commit violent attacks against their own country from abroad. Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down during World War II, as well as during this current conflict, it’s clear that United States citizenship alone does not make—does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Attorney General Eric Holder. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, I also—I want to—I mean, we’ve talked a lot about U.S. citizens, but I also feel it’s necessary to point out that the vast majority of the people being killed in these operations are not in fact U.S. citizens, they’re Pakistanis, they’re Yemenis, they’re Somalis and, you know, others. I mean, I think it’s ironic that you have a president that is a constitutional law expert and that you have, you know, this attorney general who was very well respected in the field of law coming forward to put together the defense of the—a defense of the stripping of the most basic rights in our Constitution. I mean, the idea that you can simply have one branch of government unilaterally and in secret declare that an American citizen should be executed or assassinated without having to present any evidence whatsoever, to me, is a—we should view that with great sobriety about the implications for our country. The idea that you don’t give people the chance to respond to charges against them or to see the evidence against them should be shocking to all Americans.
When Anwar Awlaki’s father tried to file a lawsuit before his son was killed, before Anwar Awlaki was killed, challenging the government’s right to assassinate him, CIADirector Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary Gates, DNI—Director of National Intelligence James Clapper all submitted briefs to the court saying that if the evidence was to be made public, it would threaten the security of the United States, and they hid behind the state secrets privilege. So their response to a U.S. citizen’s petition to understand why they were put on the kill list was to say, “We have evidence, but it’s too secret to—it’s too sensitive to be made public.” And that’s essentially what it’s come down to.
And, you know, I’m a believer in societies being defined by how they treat the least of their people or their most reprehensible members of their society. Anwar Awlaki said things that I find utterly despicable and disgraceful, and I think that there probably would have been grounds to charge him with some form of a—with some kind of a crime. His lawyers have never contended he’s an innocent man or he’s this noble figure that should be held up. He called for the killing of cartoonists who had drawn the Prophet Muhammad, listed specific names of people. He did things that are offensive to me and should be offensive to all humans. But that’s not—but that, itself, is not a death penalty case. You know, you have to look at how you treat people that you despise and what access do you give them and what rights do you give them in a society. That defines who you are, just like when a president is in power who you support, or maybe you voted for, or you think is a great guy, your principles are tested by where you stand when they’re doing things or implementing policies that you would have opposed if the other guy had won. And so, you know, we have a crisis of conscience right now in our country also, where people are—it’s like, you know, partisan lemmings just going off the cliff. If McCain had won that election, there’s no way that you’d see polls—70 percent of liberals supporting drone strikes. No way. Obama has sold liberals a bill of goods and has convinced them that this is a smarter, cleaner way to wage wars. And it’s just not.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Tomorrow we’ll play highlights from today’s first-ever Senate drone hearing and air part two of my interview with Jeremy on secret U.S. operations across the globe, including Somalia and Pakistan.
You can visit our website to read an excerpt of Jeremy’s book, Dirty Wars.
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