Drone Strikes and the Boston Marathon Bombing

The more we learn about the Boston Marathon bombing, the more reason there is to doubt the wisdom of Obama's drone-heavy approach to fighting terrorism.
Protesters loyal to the Shi'ite al-Houthi rebel group burn an effigy of a U.S. aircraft during a demonstration to protest against what they say is U.S. interference in Yemen, including drone strikes, in the Old Sanaa city April 12, 2013. (Reuters)

In 2011, after President Obama used a drone to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen who was recruiting jihadists from his perch in Yemen, many hailed the assassination as a powerful blow against terrorism.

"The death of al-Awlaki is the last nail in the coffin of the al Qaeda brand,"wrote Lisa Merriam (a "brand consultant") in a piece for Forbes. "Yes, bombs are what we think of when we think of al Qaeda, but powerful bombs require a powerful brand. The al Qaeda brand has been the key to raising awareness, raising an army of recruits, raising money, and raising terror. Now that the brand is dead, all of those goals are out of reach."

Tell that to the people of Boston. The more we learn about the Boston Marathon bombing--and the accused bombers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev--the more reason there is to doubt the wisdom of Obama's drone-heavy approach to fighting terrorism. Not only did his hundreds of drone strikes fail to prevent the bombing; they've probably made this kind of terrorism--home-grown terrorism, committed by longtime residents of America--more likely.

Many have noted that a recipe for the type of bomb used in Boston was published three years ago in Inspire, the online magazine aimed at getting American Muslims to commit terrorism. Inspire is associated with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and al-Awlaki is thought to have been involved in the magazine's creation.

So the Boston bombing is, for starters, a reminder that killing al-Awlaki didn't magically expunge that bomb recipe from the internet. And the fact that another issue of Inspire came out last month is a reminder that killing al-Awlaki didn't kill his magazine or his message or the al Qaeda brand.

In fact, if you look at the contents of that most recent issue, you'll find evidence that this and other targeted killings have strengthened the al Qaeda brand, or at least the jihadist brand more generically, by making it more appealing to vulnerable American Muslims (not most American Muslims, of course, or even many of them, but the very few unstable, disaffected ones who are susceptible to the lure of radical Islam).

The point of this issue of Inspire--and all issues of Inspire--is twofold: to suggest effective forms of violence and convince these vulnerable Muslims that violence is warranted. That second goal rests on a simple narrative that gained momentum via the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts: America is at war with Islam. President Obama may think he's draining that narrative of its power by extracting troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. But his strategic substitute for ground troops--a hugely expanded program of drone strikes in various Muslim countries--is also substituting for those troops in the jihadist narrative.

This latest issue of Inspire says America uses drones in a "cowardly" way:

In Yemen, they roam over Muslim houses, terrorizing children, women and the weak. Moreover they bombard 'suspected' targets in villages, towns and cities. Why? Because far from Yemen, in the Whitehouse [sic], Obama took a decision. He decided to start a new chapter, a chapter more savage and barbaric than the previous chapters of the crusade on Yemeni Muslims. A chapter which relies on the strategy of the unmanned drones, 'the strategy of signature strikes'.

This strategy allows officials in the CIA and the PTSD army to carry out attacks on any human, vehicle or building in Yemen if 'suspected' to be a threat to the security of the US without the need to identify the real identity of the target, whether Al-Qaeda or not. This includes women and children. Just because an American 'feels' this person poses danger. Whenever they have this 'feeling' they order for a 'Hell Fire missile' to be launched.

These missiles are usually carried by the unmanned drones to kill this or that target cold-bloodedly. Of course! Obama is declaring a crusade! These missiles have no eyes and their launchers are more blind. They kill civilians more than mujahideen.

Obviously, there's some exaggeration here; that's the way propaganda works. But propaganda is most powerful when it's at least within shouting distance of the truth--and, unfortunately, that's the case here. Obama's drone strikes have killed, if not more civilians than mujahideen, lots of civilians, including women and scores of children. Every time such killing happens, the jihadist narrative, the narrative that seems to have seized the minds of the Tsarnaev brothers, gains a measure of strength.

Presented by

Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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