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Book Review: Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill

Published by Nation Books (2013)
Reviewed by Nick Basciano
Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 9:04 PM

Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield by Jeremy Scahill—the activist-turned journalist previously known for his exposé of the military contractor formerly known as Blackwater—is a bad book. But it’s a bad book with a significantly redeeming feature.

Scahill’s project is to depict the “dark side” of what he considers to be America’s unrestrained pursuit of security through the “institutionalization of assassination as a central component of U.S. national security policy.” His main case study for this portrait is the 2011 targeting of U.S. citizen and alleged Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula leader Anwar Al-Awlaki. Scahill weaves together the story of Awlaki’s life and death with the activities of CIA-backed warlords in Mogadishu, operations across the JSOC-infested mountains of Yemen, and the rise of a supposedly-unshackled U.S. military-intelligence complex. Scahill sees these apparently-disparate issues as coming together, and his book describes a vision of CIA and JSOC as the standard-bearers of a new and bloody counterterrorism agenda defined by assassination. Using commando raids, missile strikes, and the ultimate killing of Awlaki himself, Scahill paints what he sees as the new reality of U.S. counterterrorism policy: the entire world is a battlefield, one in which the U.S. government feels at liberty to assassinate its own citizens, without oversight, and without trial.

Let’s start with the redeeming feature: Dirty Wars contains a great deal of on-the-ground reporting from places many journalists don’t go, and Scahill had access to voices Americans don’t often hear from about the consequences of drone strikes and other military and covert operations. The book draws on interviews with sources from warlords to foot-soldiers to civilians in countries like Yemen and Somalia in portraying a Machiavellian U.S. government ready to make a deal with almost anyone willing to help strike at its enemies. Scahill blasts this end-justifies-the-means approach and the inherent duplicity of covert liaison with nasty people, which he sees as dangerously shortsighted. Many readers will be more sympathetic to the Real Politik of U.S. action than he is, and Scahill certainly is not the first person to worry that aggressive counterterorism operations may lead to radicalization. But his reporting does show how blowback from U.S. involvement in the Horn of Africa, especially a potential alliance with warlords and occupying forces from Ethiopia, may well pose significant problems to its long-term goals in the region by increasing violence and further destabilizing local governance. Similar problems exist in Yemen, where the former regime of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh played both sides of the terrorism coin—fighting terrorists energetically enough to keep control of the country but not so energetically as to defeat them and thus dry up military funding from the U.S. As American intelligence continued to grasp at any ally that would allow it to strike terrorists, Scahill claims these policies, born of fear, have a reverse effect; it is the toxic relationships and “global assassination program” that would become the “recruitment device for the very forces the United States claimed to be destroying.” This is certainly overstated, but it’s not entirely wrong, and it’s an important caution.

Perhaps the strongest part of the book are the first-hand reports Scahill has amassed of desperate and enraged family members of those killed in botched raids and strikes. In a particularly disturbing account of a failed raid, Scahill relays one survivor’s desire: “I wanted to wear a suicide jacket and blow myself up among the Americans.” The death of Awlaki’s own teenage son in an ill-directed drone strike adds an exclamation point to the argument that strikes have killed civilians in a dangerously-unaccountable manner. Such harsh realities underscore the tangible human toll strikes impart on their targets. Wholly-utilitarian or overly-legalistic defenders of attacks may criticize these depictions as nothing more than the tragedies of war or mere depictions of perfectly-lawful collateral damage. But Scahill’s personal interactions with survivors remind us that a targeting program that relies on shortsighted agreements with foreign governments, poor intelligence, and aggressive tactics can produce serious negative consequences that are detrimental to security—even if it produces short-term tactical benefits.

The trouble is that Dirty Wars aims to be far more than a mere reminder of the costs of the counterterrorism. It aims to indict the entire project with those costs, but Scahill does not count either the costs or the benefits accurately or honestly. Instead, he selectively highlights certain glaring failures from over a decade of war while failing to discuss any of its successes. There are hundreds of cases over the past several years of highly-focused and discriminate operations; they are missing almost entirely from Scahill’s account. And when they do show up, it tends to be by accident. Scahill inadvertently points to successful operations such as the capture of terrorism suspect Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, but he never dwells on the favorable outcomes of the operations in which they were captured. Comprehensive studies place civilian fatality rates for all alleged drone strikes in Yemen from as low as 5 percent and to as high as 19 percent, rates which have continued to decline over time. Even the high end of these estimates indicate that strikes are dramatically more discriminate than one would believe from Scahill’s account, in which the one group of people the United States never seems to kill are terrorists. To be sure, this fact in no way diminishes the human suffering created by failed operations, nor does it excuse the deaths of innocents or errors that have certainly taken place in certain strikes. But by exclusively describing the program’s most public failures while wholly ignoring its successes, the argument stacks the deck, severely limiting Scahill’s ability to persuade those who do not already agree with him. If you only look at the strikes in which civilians get killed, and without taking account of the person being targeted, of course high-value targeting will seem immoral or illegal.

For that matter, if one simply asserts the illegality of all terrorist targeting, as Scahill does, you can make any targeting program look pretty lawless. Scahill makes a deliberate choice to label all U.S. drone, missile, and Special Operations Forces (SOF) strikes as “assassinations”—casting a pall of illegality over all such strikes. But he never makes a real legal argument about when or why targeting is or isn’t lawful. Assassination is banned by executive order, and Scahill admits that “no president’s executive orders actually defined what constituted an assassination.” We might add, too, that authoritative statements by US government officials have said what is not covered by the assassination ban:  it does not include killings that are otherwise lawful as, for example, Reagan-era State Department Legal Adviser Abraham Sofaer stated in a famous speech and Obama administration officials have repeated several times.

Seemingly unaware of this, Scahill fails to offer any definition of his own or to engage either the U.S. government’s view of the subject or that available in academic literature. He simply asserts that the executive branch has promulgated “a blanket rebranding of assassinations as ‘High Value Targeting’.” He does not consider possibilities like an argument of self-defense, the existence of a non-international armed conflict with Al Qaeda, the proper scope of the 2001 AUMF, or the simple fact that it is an executive order, not a law, and the executive can interpret or revoke it.  Scahill also doesn’t appear to differentiate between a variety of methods, locations, and parameters that make big legal differences under any targeting program. The cruise missile attack that recklessly takes the lives of civilians is no different in his lexicon from a boot-on-the-ground capture raid or a highly-selective and discriminate drone strike. While word substitution provides Scahill a rhetorical soapbox on which to stand, it’s ultimately a pretty cheap trick. And it’s no substitute for specifying a clear legal framework as to when and why lethal tactics amount to illegal assassinations.

Scahill has a third method for making all drones strikes illegal—one that involves a significant rebranding of his own: He sometimes just suggests senior terrorists don’t pose any threat. He largely builds the argument for the illegality of targeted killing in the most unlikely figure of Anwar Awlaki. As the only known American specifically targeted for death by drone, Awlaki presents a unique model to probe Scahill’s central question: “Could the American government assassinate it [sic] own citizens without due process?” To answer this, Dirty Wars sets off to show Alwaki, widely considered one of Al Qaeda’s most dangerous terrorists, in an alternative, more favorable light. While admitting that a deluge “US media outlets, terror ‘experts’ and prominent government officials were identifying Awlaki as a leader of AQAP,” Scahill dismisses these as “dubious” allegations. So in his view, an official government statement describing how Awlaki “involved himself in every aspect of the supply chain of terrorism…training operatives, and planning attacks,” provides “no evidence” for the allegations against Awlaki. And while Scahill is happy to rely on the New York Times and other news outlets for quotes and facts when it is convenient to do so, he treats those same sources with suspicion when they suggest that Awlaki was actually a bad guy. In a particularly striking example of this tendency, Scahill cites “intelligence sources” from an NPR article as to how many times the U.S. tried to kill Awlaki, but he neglects to mention that the same sources go on in the same article to indicate that Awlaki ran a terrorist “cell” in Yemen.

Elsewhere, Scahill simply skips over facts that don’t promote his narrative of Awlaki. One such example comes in Awlaki’s relationship with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “Christmas Day Bomber” who attempted to detonate almost three ounces of PETN aboard Northwest flight 253 on its descent to Detroit. A publically-available and widely-cited sentencing memorandum for Abdulmutallab describes how Awlaki housed Abdulmutallab in Yemen and took him to AQAP’s primary bomb-maker, Ibrahim Al Asiri. There, they “discussed a plan for martyrdom mission” and Awlaki himself gave the bombing plot “final approval and instructed Defendant Abdulmutallab on it.” Awlaki’s “last instructions,” the memorandum continues, “were to wait until the airplane was over the United States and then to take the plane down.” Without dealing with this evidence from the Abdulmutallab trial, Scahill admits that Awlaki was only “in touch” with Abdulmutallab, insisting that “no conclusive evidence [was] presented, at least not publicly, that Awlaki had played an operational role in any attacks.” Why such a relevant piece of evidence isn’t included in Scahill’s retelling of the Abdulmuttallab plot is unclear, but it isn’t the only instance of turning a blind eye to evidence linking Awlaki directly to terrorism. In early 2010 Awlaki corresponded with Rajib and Tehzeeb Karim, two brothers who had plotted to plant a bomb on U.S.-bound flight. In encrypted emails confiscated from Rajib’s hard drive by British authorities, Awlaki asks Rajib to “please specify your role in the airline industry, how much access do you have to airports, what information do you have on the limitations and cracks in present airport security systems.” These questions largely contradict Scahill’s contention that Awlaki was not involved in operational planning. In another email, Awlaki names the ultimate target for smuggling a bomb on a plane: “Our highest priority is the US. Anything there, even if on a smaller scale . . . would be our choice. So the question is: with the people you have, is it possible to get a package or a person with a package on board a flight heading to the US?” These emails quite convincingly provide evidence that Awlaki was intimately involved in AQAP’s operational mission to attack America. Scahill fails entirely to mention either the Karim brother’s plot or Awlaki’s emails.

By stacking the deck through omission of evidence and unsubstantiated disbelief of official statements, Scahill claims that Awlaki was not a operational member of AQAP and therefore not an immediate threat. With this false ambiguity in hand, Scahill argues that the U.S. unlawfully killed Awlaki without due process. That the U.S. has a right to defend itself against immediate and ongoing threats, that Awlaki’s active engagement in hostilities against the United States might affect his right to due process, that Yemen was unwilling or unable to arrest him, or that any unilateral capture operation poses tremendous difficulties Scahill fails to address at all.

Dirty Wars delivers a significant argument against destructive counterterrorism operations by recounting the terrible human loss involved in at least some strikes and raids. Beyond the obvious human cost, it suggests that overly-aggressive and lethal tactics can, in some cases, play a role in increasing radicalization and thereby hampering the effectiveness of these tactics. Yet, Scahill’s depiction of American efforts to “kill its way to victory” is a crude caricature, one that fails to address countless aspects of a complex and broad set of policies and tactics on which any serious treatment would dwell at length. His wholesale disapproval of all closed-door agreements, intelligence operations, and the use of lethal force yields few viable options for dealing with the cold realities of global terrorism. The tactics of law enforcement bring hope that there is, in fact, a way forward, a way that offers protection without necessitating lethal force. But Dirty Wars utterly fails to offer the necessary clarity, balance, or sobriety in which to weigh the risks and benefits of integrating military and intelligence approaches into counterterrorism. America needs people like Scahill to remind it of the moral and human costs involved when it wages war, but it also needs those people to count those costs carefully—something Dirty Wars fails to do.

(Nick Basciano is a recent graduate of the University of Notre Dame and is currently an intern at the Brookings Institution.)