Drone Strike That Killed Awlaki 'Did Not Silence Him,' Journalist Says In Operation Troy, author Scott Shane details the life, death and influence of Anwar al-Awlaki. "His status as a martyr has given his message even greater authority," Shane says of the propagandist.
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Drone Strike That Killed Awlaki 'Did Not Silence Him,' Journalist Says

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Drone Strike That Killed Awlaki 'Did Not Silence Him,' Journalist Says

Drone Strike That Killed Awlaki 'Did Not Silence Him,' Journalist Says

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This is the call to jihad issued from Yemen by the American-born imam Anwar al-Awlaki in 2010.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANWAR AL-AWLAKI: I was a preacher of Islam involved in non-violent Islamic activism. However, with the American invasion of Iraq and continued U.S. aggression against Muslims, I could not reconcile between living in the U.S. and being Muslim. And I eventually came to the conclusion that my brothers in al-Qaida have already reached a few years earlier. I came to the conclusion that jihad against America is binding upon myself, just as it is binding on every other able Muslim.

GROSS: When that was recorded, President Obama had already given his approval to place Awlaki on the kill list - the list of people targeted for assassination by the Joint Special Operations Forces. They hit their target four years later when a drone strike killed Awlaki. But the many videos and DVDs he left behind continue to call people to jihad. ISIS uses his voice and pictures in its efforts to recruit English speakers. The Boston Marathon bombers learned some of their ideology and bomb-making skills from Awlaki's online work. One of the two men who massacred the staff of Charlie Hebdo cited Awlaki as an inspiration for the attack.

My guest, Scott Shane, has written a new book about Awlaki, how he became radicalized, how he was tracked by American intelligence and how he was assassinated. It's called "Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, And The Rise Of The Drone." Objective Troy was the codename given to Awlaki as a reference to the deception and betrayal of the mythological Trojan horse.

Scott Shane, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Awlaki has been dead for four years. Why do you think it's important to consider his story now?

SCOTT SHANE: Well, partly I took a look at Anwar al-Awlaki because he's just a fascinating character. But he embodies the trip that people have taken with al-Qaida or ISIS from a sort of mainstream Islam to an extreme form of Islam. Here's a guy who spent many years in the United States, very successful, seemingly quite happy, and ends up spending his last years plotting to kill Americans. So the question is, why? And his story is particularly important in the debate over drones and targeted killing because it seems the government did not accomplish what it set out to accomplish when it killed him.

GROSS: So what was his importance - just refresh our memories - what was his importance as a propagandist and recruiter for al-Qaida?

SHANE: Well, he was by far the most popular, most influential, English-language recruiter from al-Qaida and for the whole jihadist cause. And in a way, his influence has spilled outside English. You can - if you go on YouTube, you find him translated into French, into German, to other languages. He also worked in Arabic. And so he just became one of the most powerful and effective voices persuading people to join al-Qaida or to join its cause.

GROSS: And he encouraged freelance terrorism - like, you didn't have to, you know, fly to Yemen and get training from al-Qaida and be an official member. He encouraged people to just, like, do your thing and, you know, set off bombs or whatever where you want to do it.

SHANE: Exactly. He sort of pioneered a do-it-yourself approach in a very explicit way. He and another American - Samir Khan - started putting out an English-language magazine, a slick magazine, on the web called Inspire in 2010. And it - every issue featured - and still features 'cause it's still coming out - the instructions on how to mount attacks yourselves. If you need to know how to build a bomb, you know, they have articles on that. And in some ways, he pioneered what we're now seeing from the Islamic State, from ISIS, in terms of encouraging people in the West not to wait for instructions but to just go ahead and come up with an attack.

GROSS: So, you know, it's interesting that Anwar al-Awlaki - he was not from, like, a poor, disenfranchised family. His father was very - is very accomplished. His family is from Yemen. He was born in the United States while his father was a graduate student here. His father went on to become Yemen's agricultural minister, the president of Sana'a University - Sana'a is the capital of Yemen - and the founder of another university in Yemen. So he's from a very privileged background. And Awlaki's father wanted him to become an engineer and help Yemen. He didn't want him to become a radical preacher. How did he end up becoming an imam as opposed to following in his father's footsteps?

SHANE: Yeah, the family story here is one of the most interesting parts of his saga, really. It's an extremely pro-American family, historically. His father, Nasser, who's close to 70 now, came to the U.S. on a Fulbright, got his education here, still speaks with great warmth about the reception he got here in the '60s. He stayed for 11 or 12 years, got a PhD in agriculture science and actually taught as an assistant professor for a while before returning to Yemen, as was his plan, to sort of help his impoverished and struggling country with issues like water and that sort of thing.

So he's - Nasser al-Awlaki, the father, sent Anwar, his eldest son, to the U.S. in 1990, expecting him essentially to follow in his own footsteps. He went to Colorado State and majored in civil engineering. And things seemed to be going according to plan, but Anwar, who was a very good student at home in Yemen, was quite bored with engineering. And, you know, like a lot of kids that age, he was trying out different things, thinking about different possible careers, and he was also from a conservative religious country - family's quite secular. And so he would go to the little mosque at the edge of the Colorado State campus. And it was a little operation without the money to hire a professional imam, so professors and students would take turns giving the Friday sermon. And he discovered that he had quite a knack for it and started paying more and more attention to Islam.

GROSS: So when Awlaki starts preaching, it's pretty mainstream. But it then later becomes a much more radical style of preaching. After 9/11, he preaches that no matter what sins the U.S. has committed against Muslims - and he says, and they have - they've, you know - that's no excuse to have murdered Americans. At the same time, two of the 9/11 hijackers prayed at a mosque in San Diego where, at the time, Awlaki was the imam. Do we know if there's any direct connection between Awlaki and the hijackers, or, to put it another way, between Awlaki and 9/11?

SHANE: Well, this has been a mystery that's lingered for many years. And there are different views of it. What I found is that there were some members of that congregation in San Diego who remembered Awlaki sort of sitting in his office and talking to one of the two hijackers. And of course, no one knows what they were saying to each other. There's also a little bit of circumstantial evidence that he may have helped them, these two guys who didn't speak much English when they first landed in the states. But of course, he could've been asked to help them without having any clue what they were up to. You know, what I concluded was that he was not in on the plot - that's also what the FBI concluded - and that he was sincere in his condemnation of the plot after it took place, that it took him by surprise and that what he said publicly was pretty much what he was saying privately.

He had actually sent an email to his younger brother, who was studying in the states at the time, a few days after 9/11, and he called it horrible. And so I think he was - you know, what he was saying within his family to intimate acquaintances and friends was pretty much the same thing he was saying out loud. But the FBI didn't know that, of course, at the time. And as everyone will remember, everyone was terrified that there was another attack coming to follow up on 9/11. So they put a surveillance team on him 24 hours a day to try to find out whether he somehow had connections to al-Qaida.

GROSS: And one of the remarkable things they found out was that he was actually having a lot of visits with prostitutes, and the FBI was keeping track of what sex acts he did with which prostitute at what day (laughter). Did we know about this before you found out? I mean, are you the person who broke that story?

SHANE: No. It was floated from a couple of arrests in San Diego that actually came out a few years after - after 9/11. But it's only in recent years that, as a result of freedom of information requests, that hundreds and hundreds of pages documenting his visits to prostitutes around the Washington area have become public.

GROSS: Did you read those documents?

SHANE: Yes. I must say, I spent a whole lot of time reading about Anwar al-Awlaki's sex life, you know, and it's hard to fault the FBI. I don't think they were particularly interested in his visits to prostitutes. But they were following him to see if he was meeting with, you know, suspicious characters who might be related to al-Qaida. They found no connections to terrorism, and they ultimately closed the terrorism investigation. But they were left with this massive file on his visits to prostitutes.

GROSS: What fascinates me about that is, A, the hypocrisy because al-Awlaki preaches, you know, like, purity in marriage and, you know - and here he is having all these visits with prostitutes. But what I wonder is, why didn't the FBI use that information to show what a hypocrite he was? Maybe that would have - once he became radical, maybe that would have undermined him and maybe would have prevented having to kill him with a drone strike if they were able to discredit him by pointing out truthful things underscoring his hypocrisy.

SHANE: Well, that's actually a point that has been raised by a number of Muslim commentators starting with the first news reports that Anwar al-Awlaki had been put on the kill list, which was of course particularly controversial because he was an American citizen. And some people warned at the time that killing him would make him a martyr and would actually enhance the power of his message, whereas using the prostitution files would have undercut his message, undercut his authority.

What's clear from these massive FBI files is that there was some consideration to charging him with a prostitution-related offense. Prostitution is usually treated as a local crime, but the feds had the option of using something called the Travel Act, which essentially would charge him from traveling from his Virginia home into D.C. to visit prostitutes. And there was a document asking permission to use information gathered on him to - for a criminal prosecution. But in the end, they didn't do it. But of course in the - at the time, he was not considered a threat. They were finding no connection to terrorism, and so there was no real motivation at that point to charge him. Later on, I think where it becomes more of a question is when he emerges in 2009-2010 as this extremely eloquent, persuasive voice calling for attacks on America. And as evidence emerges that he's very much part of al-Qaida, you know, the question does arise, why would the FBI not have tried to use that information then?

GROSS: So did the FBI surveillance of Awlaki have anything to do with him leaving the U.S. and going to England?

SHANE: Yes, as it turns out, it did. The conventional wisdom has been that the reason Awlaki left the U.S. was he was put off by the wave of anti-Islamic feeling in the U.S. after 9/11 and the heavy hand of the government. There'd been some raids on Islamic institutions in Virginia where he was preaching. And shortly after that, he takes off for England and doesn't come back except for one visit.

But what I discovered was first of all, that he was actually quite happy with his life in the states. He was becoming a national figure in the media. He enjoyed his - you know, his family life in Virginia. And he really was pleased with his career. He told a younger brother that he had no plans to leave. He was planning to spend his life in the states. Suddenly, he leaves. The real reason he left, it turned out, is that one of the managers of the escort services that was providing the prostitutes that he was visiting called him up and told him, the escort manager, that he'd just been visited by an FBI agent who had made it clear that they had been following Awlaki to all these visits to prostitutes and that they had a big, fat file on all of these misdeeds of his. And this totally panicked Awlaki, according to the younger brother who talked to him at the time. And he suddenly changed his mind about staying in the states and took off for the U.K. where he would stay for most of the next couple of years.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Shane. He's a national security correspondent for the New York Times and author of a new book about Anwar al-Awlaki called "Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, And The Rise Of The Drone." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Scott Shane. He's a national security correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Objective Troy." And it's about Anwar al-Awlaki. It's subtitled "A Terrorist, A President, And The Rise Of The Drone." Let's talk about how Awlaki becomes radicalized. Where we had left off, he had just gone to England. You write that it's in England that Anwar al-Awlaki becomes a real radical imam. Why in England? Like, what changed when he went to England?

SHANE: Well, in England, there was much higher tolerance for radical preaching at that time than there was in the states. The states, of course, had suffered 9/11. And even preachers who were inclined towards radical views greatly toned down their sermons for fear of, you know, detention from the authorities. But in England, until a couple of years later - 2005, when there was the attack on buses and the subway in London - Awlaki began to try out a more radical message. But he also did it through a sort of scholarly lecture series on in Islamic history. And when you go back and you listen to some of the stuff and you talk to people who were there at the time, it becomes clear that he began to use history as a way of talking safely about the present.

So, for example, he gave a whole series of lectures on an ancient Islamic book called "The Book Of Jihad." And he begins by saying, let me make clear that, you know, we're talking about a historic book and this has nothing to do with anything that's happening today. But there's a little bit of a wink-wink tone in his voice. And having talked to some of the people who listened to him at that time, it was very clear to them that he was talking about current events. He was talking about the sort of justice of jihad and the importance of jihad in Islam. He was not yet calling for anything like specific terrorist attacks, but he was beginning to incline in that direction.

GROSS: When does he start talking about specific terrorist attacks? Is that after he's imprisoned in Yemen?

SHANE: What's interesting is he built up quite a reputation in the U.K. as a preacher. But eventually - partly out of a little more scrutiny from the U.K. government, partly out of just running out of money - he came to Yemen. He moved to Yemen where his extended family was and began to kind of poke around there for what he was going to do with his life.

He was going to invest in real estate; he lost some of his father's money doing that. But meanwhile, he was still very dedicated to his preaching career, and he began to get quite a following among young people in Yemen as well.

The trouble was he was also getting quite a bit of attention, at that point, from the Yemeni government, which was under pressure from the American government, which was beginning to be quite worried about his message. We're talking about by, say, 2006. And so the Yeminis actually arrested him. He was locked up in the political security prison in the Yemeni capital, mostly in isolation. And he stayed there for 18 months without charges. And, initially, the U.S. government encourage the Yemeni government to keep him locked up, which, when you think about it, is a fairly - in a way, an outrageous thing - to encourage another government to hold an American citizen without charges. But that was sort of the tenor of the times, and U.S. counterterrorism officials were beginning to be worried about this guy.

Finally, he was released from Yemeni prison at the end of 2007. And when he got out, he found that he was followed by Yemeni security folks all over the place. And apparently, they were somewhat more obvious about it than the FBI had been when he lived outside Washington. And he just got sort of fed up with it and decided to move out of the capital to his family's ancestral village in a far more rural part - tribal part - of Yemen, called Shabwah province. And Shabwah province was actually where the al-Qaida branch in Yemen - al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula - was essentially hiding out. And so it's unclear exactly when they first made contact. It may have been when he was still in the capital, or it may have been after he moved out there. But soon enough, he was in communication with al-Qaida, and not long after that, he was part of the organization.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Shane, a national security correspondent for The New York Times and author of a new book about Anwar al-Awlaki called "Objective Troy." After we take a short break, we'll talk about the Obama administration's legal justification for killing Awlaki and how, even after Awlaki's death, his videos and CDs continue to inspire people to join the jihad. I'm Terry Gross, and this FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Scott Shane, a national security correspondent for The New York Times and author of a new book about Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam, whose videos and CDs calling for jihad made him al-Qaida's most popular and effective English-language recruiter. ISIS has used his recordings to persuade people to join their cause. His many videos and CDs enable him to continue recruiting, even though he was killed by an American drone strike in Yemen four years ago. He was the first American citizen since the Civil War to be hunted down and killed by his own government.

Part of your book is about how the Obama administration justified the drone strike against Awlaki, who was an American citizen. You were able to read, through the Freedom of Information Act, the legal memo justifying that drone strike. Was that document that you got through the Freedom of Information Act?

SHANE: That's right, yeah. I mean, we - I filed a freedom of information request in 2010 when we first heard that Awlaki had been put on the kill list. And I asked for all legal opinions from the Justice Department about targeted killing - not just about Americans, but in general. And it was denied, we went to court, The New York Times represented me and we joined in with a parallel claim from the ACLU. And after four years of fighting in court, the Obama administration was ordered by a judge to - an appellate court to turn over the two opinions. So we got redacted versions of two opinions about why the government felt that it was legal and constitutional to kill an American citizen in this circumstance.

GROSS: Can you summarize you learned?

SHANE: Well, generally speaking, it's got a lot of different elements. But, you know, the kind of core argument is that Anwar al-Awlaki was posing a continuing, imminent threat to Americans, to the United States. And that while he was entitled as an American citizen to due process under law before they deprived him of life or liberty, which is what the Constitution says, that you could give due process by simply an internal executive branch secret examination of the evidence against him. Normally, we think of due process as your day in court, you know, your right to be - to confront your accusers, to be charged criminally, to be judged by a jury of your peers and so on. But what the Justice Department - Obama's Justice Department decided was that it was adequate due process for the CIA and other agencies to, you know, sort of assess what Awlaki had done, to judge him to be an imminent threat and that would justify his killing.

GROSS: Why was Awlaki added to the Obama administration's kill list?

SHANE: Well, if you talk to administration officials, they say it was because he had sort of turned the corner from being just a propagandist - a very effective propagandist for al-Qaida - to being a, you know, an active plotter of violent attacks against the U.S. And the centerpiece of their evidence is the so-called underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23-year-old Nigerian who tried to blow up the plane over Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009. There is strong evidence including Abdulmutallab's testimony that Anwar al-Awlaki, you know, essentially helped recruit him for that mission, coached him for that mission, told him specifically to wait until he was over U.S. soil before he blew up the plane. So that was the triggering mechanism that began the legal process that put Awlaki on the kill list.

GROSS: And he also seemed to have a connection - correct me on if I'm wrong here - to the so-called - was it the printer bombs?

SHANE: Yeah, printer bombs. Yep. Yep.

GROSS: Yeah, where there were bombs, like, embedded in printers on cargo planes, and a Saudi tip prevented that plot from coming off successfully. But it came awfully close.

SHANE: That's right. And in Awlaki's magazine, Inspire Magazine, there was an essay from a person called the head of foreign operations. And from the style and from certain hints in that essay, it very much looks like Awlaki was taking credit for the attack and sort of gloating - even though the bombs didn't go off - you know, bragging about the disruption to the air cargo system that had been caused.

GROSS: So this - the drone strike that takes out Awlaki is considered, you know, a big success in the Obama administration. But two weeks later, there's another drone strike that supposed to take out an al-Qaida leader. But that al-Qaida leader isn't at the site of the drone strike that day. But two people who were there and who were killed by the drone strike was Awlaki's 16-year-old son and the son's cousin. You spoke to Awlaki's family - you spoke to his father and to his uncle, to his brother. Was there any evidence that the son was considering joining al-Qaida or was sympathetic to the cause? I mean, why was he in the place that was targeted for a drone strike, which I assume was a place that had - that was an al-Qaida location?

SHANE: It's a complicated story, and it's impossible to be certain about this. But it's certainly clear that Abdulrahman had been an ordinary kid, by all accounts, a very sweet kid in Sunna - no connections to terrorism, no connections to radicalism. But I talked to a Yemeni journalist, who is very close to al-Qaida, and there were also al-Qaida statements to the effect that after he learned of his father's death - that the U.S. had killed Anwar al-Awlaki in a drone strike - that the 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman, essentially said, well, you know, that's it, I'm joining the jihad - and that he was with some characters who were, you know, associated with al-Qaida, certainly not at a high level. And they did not include the person who the U.S. was targeting. But at the time, they were hit by the drone strike.

The family's version is that it was just a bunch of friends and nobody had any connection to al-Qaida. But there is certainly some circumstantial evidence that the 16-year-old, not surprisingly in the kind of tribal culture in this area - and of course, he'd been asking for help finding his father, that meant making contact with al-Qaida. You know, a son in a situation like that would be under heavy pressure to vow to avenge his father's death and, you know, there are certainly credible accounts that that is what had happened. But that was his first, you know - he essentially - if he had joined al-Qaida, he had just joined al-Qaida. He had none of that in his history. And the U.S. had absolutely no intention, I'm told, of targeting him and no idea that he was there.

GROSS: My guest is Scott Shane, his new book about Anwar al-Awlaki is called "Objective Troy: A Terrorist, A President, And The Rise Of The Drone." We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Scott Shane, author of a new book about Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born imam who was killed by an American drone strike in Yemen four years ago, but his videos and CDs continue to inspire people to join the jihad.

So I want to get back to a turning point in al-Awlaki's life, which is when the FBI gets on to his visits with prostitutes. And then they start following him, they start recording what sex acts he does and everything. It is, I think, very revealing and fascinating that the 9/11 hijackers, al-Awlaki - they're all spending time either at strip clubs or with prostitutes. And yet, their cause is all about purity and sexual purity, and there's such a very deep level of - not only hypocrisy, but probably repression that, you know, comes into play here - like sexual repression...

SHANE: Yeah, I, you know....

GROSS: ...That manifests itself as, like, well I can't have sex in a legit way, so I'll go to prostitutes.

SHANE: Yeah. I mean, it's certainly a subject that's worthy of study because it's a pattern that you see again and again. And, I mean, you know, I've noticed in putting together this book and sort of looking at the timeline, that Anwar al-Awlaki - when he lived outside Washington did a video for The Washington Post about Ramadan, explaining the holy month of Ramadan. It's a beautiful thing, you can still find it on YouTube, of course. And he says among other things that Muslims abstain from sex from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. And so it was interesting to find him going off to visit a prostitute at 2:30 in the afternoon during the month of Ramadan. You know, he's not around to ask about it, but - and I don't want to play psychiatrist, but you do wonder whether part of his ultimate hatred for America was sort of what the American culture had seduced him into - you know, how he had violated his own principles repeatedly and whether he sort of blamed America - American culture for that. That's at least one way of looking at, you know, one of his motivations, perhaps.

GROSS: You know, we haven't spoken much about Obama during this interview. But, you know, part of your book is about how Obama went from, you know, vowing to create better relations with Muslim countries and to end or downscale the wars that were started by the previous administration. But, you know, the situation changes, and he ends up, you know, using more drone strikes than President Bush did, including the drone strike, of course, that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and that killed his - al-Awlaki's son.

Have you had a chance to talk directly with President Obama about his use of drone strikes and about what it's like for him when people who were not targeted are killed, people such as Anwar al-Awlaki's son?

SHANE: I have not had an opportunity to talk to President Obama. You know, I asked the White House for an interview, and it was turned down, not surprisingly, I think, on this topic. But he has - President Obama has actually spoken a good bit about drones and particularly in a 2013 speech that was devoted to this, sort of the heart of the speech is about al-Awlaki. Unfortunately, the President mentions other American citizens having been killed but does not - did not address then and has not addressed publicly the - you know, what American officials consider to be a tragic mistake in killing the 16-year-old son. One thing - Obama ran against the big wars that George W. Bush had started - the big war in Afghanistan and the big war in Iraq which he saw as, you know, counterproductive in many different ways. And, you know, he arrived wanting to pull out of both wars and, you know, for the most part, he's done that. But he also recognized that the terrorist threat was real and that a successful terrorist threat against the United States had the possibility of, you know, upending his presidency and, you know, dominating everything that he was trying to do.

So he actually saw drones, even before he became president, as potentially the right answer to this problem. He often told his aides, let's kill the people who are trying to kill us. In other words, let's not kill, you know, tens or hundreds of thousands of civilians with a giant ground war that lasts for 10 years and, you know, probably produces as many radicals as it kills. Let's use the drone to precisely kill the small number of terrorists who really represent a threat to the United States. That is a very, you know, seductive notion, and I think he saw it as - you know, as really the answer to balancing the need to keep America safe with his desire to get out of these big wars and not to get into another one.

GROSS: So after al-Awlaki was killed by the drone strike, he was seen as a martyr. How has his martyrdom affected the power and the reach of his message?

SHANE: Well, if you go on YouTube today and put his name into the search engine, you come up with tens of thousands of videos and many of them are actually tributes to him as a martyr. You know, it'll say Sheikh Anwar al-Awlaki, the martyr. And there are really quite impressive collections that mix his lectures and sermons from different parts of his life to sort of adoring pictures of him. And it's very clear that his status as a martyr has given his message, including the message that it's the obligation of every Muslim to attack America, even greater authority. In other words, the drone strike that killed him, did not silence him. He's all over the Internet now, putting out the same message, and that message is being heard. In case after case, you find that al-Awlaki was a crucial influence behind young Muslims in America, in Britain, in Canada and in the rest of Europe sometimes - in convincing people that violent jihad is their duty as Muslims.

You find his influence, in the years since his death in 2011, not only in dozens of small cases, where the plots actually never came to fruition, but you find his influence powerfully in the Boston Marathon bombing, where the Tsarnaev brothers got both their bomb making instructions and their ideology from Anwar al-Awlaki. And then in 2015, the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris - at the satirical newspaper in Paris - those guys were French. Their first language was not English, but they were big fans of al-Awlaki. And one of the brothers had actually gone to Yemen and met al-Awlaki and claimed, before he was shot by police, that al-Awlaki had financed their mission. So some of the biggest and most devastating terrorist plots in the West since al-Awlaki was killed, very much were a reflection of his influence.

GROSS: Has ISIS been using al-Awlaki's videos as recruiting tools?

SHANE: You know, ISIS, while its got an extremely sophisticated media operation and social media operation, has not been able to replace al-Awlaki. It doesn't have any English speaking, you know, jihadist voice with anything like al-Awlaki's power. So interestingly, they have drawn on al-Awlaki and in particular there's a very slick English-language recruiting video that uses al-Awlaki's voice and picture sort of as the centerpiece. So his influence is very much a part of the Islamic State's recruiting success.

GROSS: I want to ask you a reporting question. You write that your research for this book about al-Awlaki and the drone strike that killed him has underscored just how far the federal government has drifted from the openness that is the lifeblood of democracy and that President Obama promised in 2009 when he came to the White House. Can you expand on that?

SHANE: Yeah, I think it's a combination of the chilling effect of the - I think we're up to eight prosecutions under the Obama administration of current or former government employees for leaking classified information to the press. You know, you find that people, understandably, are very worried about even getting into a sensitive area like drone strikes. And the tone is set from the top, it's perplexing to me that it required a four-year fight in court to get the legal opinions that the government was using to justify killing an American in a drone strike. We were not seeking the sensitive intelligence that, you know, showed his connections to al-Qaida. We were simply asking for the government's legal arguments, and that was denied. And only because, you know, we won in court did we get a glimpse of what the government's official reasoning was.

GROSS: Scott Shane, thank you so much for your reporting and for this interview.

SHANE: You're very welcome.

GROSS: Scott Shane is a national security correspondent for The New York Times and author of the new book, "Objective Troy." Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by composer and drummer Harris Eisenstadt. This is FRESH AIR.

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