Objective Troy tells the gripping and unsettling story of Anwar al-Awlaki, the once-celebrated American imam who called for moderation after 9/11, a man who ultimately directed his outsized talents to the mass murder of his fellow citizens. It follows Barack Obama’s campaign against the excesses of the Bush counterterrorism programs and his eventual embrace of the targeted killing of suspected militants. And it recounts how the president directed the mammoth machinery of spy agencies to hunt Awlaki down in a frantic, multi-million-dollar pursuit that would end with the death of Awlaki by a bizarre, robotic technology that is changing warfare—the drone.
Scott Shane, who has covered terrorism for The New York Times over the last decade, weaves the clash between president and terrorist into both a riveting narrative and a deeply human account of the defining conflict of our era. Awlaki, who directed a plot that almost derailed Obama’s presidency, and then taunted him from his desert hideouts, will go down in history as the first United States citizen deliberately hunted and assassinated by his own government without trial. But his eloquent calls to jihad, amplified by YouTube, continue to lure young Westerners into terrorism—resulting in tragedies from the Boston marathon bombing to the murder of cartoonists at a Paris weekly. Awlaki’s life and death show how profoundly America has been changed by the threat of terrorism and by our own fears.
Illuminating and provocative, and based on years of in depth reporting, Objective Troy is a brilliant reckoning with the moral challenge of terrorism and a masterful chronicle of our times.
Reviewed by William M. ArkinShane, who for over a decade has covered terrorism for the New York Times, may not be responsible for a bland title or a journalist's lack of emotion, but in his second book (after Dismantling Utopia), such flaws weaken the impact of a monumental event and an otherwise well-reported work. Shane's subject is Anwar al-Awlaki: an American citizen, imam, and propagandist assassinated by the U.S. in cold blood and under secret order. Awlaki was a fanatic and possibly even a traitor, but once he was labeled a terrorist, he was stripped of his rights and transformed into a high-value target like any other with judge, jury, and executioner descending in the form of a drone-borne Hellfire missile.Shane tells how Awlaki went from peacemaker and post-9/11 White House guest to the Yemen-based inspiration for a spate of terror plots, including those of Fort Hood soldier-shooter Nidal Hasan in November 2009 and of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber, a month later. And he tells the story of President Barack Obama, a man who promised much yet whose "cerebral approach" became a "ruthless" pragmatism as he yielded to the world of "reflexive secrecy."Struggling valiantly to parallel Awlaki and Obama, Shane's account becomes an inside-the-Beltway reporter's book. The whys of American conduct and war against Muslims are not given sufficient consideration. Meanwhile, Awlaki's why is couched in personal flaws and professional disappointment, and even mixed bureaucratic signals; having dispensed with his "pedantic devotion" to his beliefs in the prologue, Shane reports extensively the views of an embarrassed and disappointed (and Westernized) family who are flummoxed by how their favorite son went so wrong.Shane ably tells Washington's side: the deliberations, the politics, and the desktop derring-do. Though Washington insiders considered Awlaki the "single most dangerous threat to the United States," the terror-hunters seem on an emotional crusade to avenge embarrassing blind spots exposed early in Obama's administration. Shane makes a convincing case that in 2009 the fate of Obama's presidency felt like it was "hanging in the balance," which sounds more plausible than a dispassionate assessment of imminent threat. And, as Shane points out, even after Awlaki was killed in 2011, his online teachings inspired the Boston Marathon bombers and were quoted by ISIS.The usual Washington suspects justify or second-guess at the end, offering reassurance that lawlessness has been expunged. Awlaki is gone and Obama will soon be too. Yet the "war on terrorism" persists, America is not better off, and a first draft of history does not seem to see the obvious. William M. Arkin is the national security editor at Gawker Media and author of Unmanned: Drones, Data, and the Illusion of Perfect Warfare (Little, Brown).CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review misquoted Shane's book; we've removed the quotation in question. The review also mistakenly noted that Objective Troy is Shane's first book; it is his second.