Anwar al-Awlaki: A Dissent
Was the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki legal? Was it wise and did it make Americans safer?
Gregory Johnsen, a former Fulbright Fellow in Yemen, is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. Johnsen has written for a variety of publications on Yemen including, among others, Foreign Policy, The American Interest, The Independent, The Boston Globe, and The National. He is the co-founder of Waq al-Waq: Islam and Insurgency in Yemen Blog. In 2009, he was a member of the USAID's conflict assessment team for Yemen.
Since the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, the debating lines surrounding him have hardened. Some have kept the conversation civil; many have not.
There are, as I see it, two main questions around his death.
1. Was it legal?
2. Was it wise? Or, to put it slightly differently, will his death make Americans safer?
Broadly speaking there are three groups weighing-in on these questions: legal scholars, al-Qaeda watchers, and observers of Yemen.*
My opinion on al-Awlaki is fairly well known, but it is also, it seems, a minority one. Given how many smart people have lined up on the other side of the debate I thought it would be wise to re-examine my thinking and look for things I may have overlooked, which is what I've been doing for the past several days.
Now, I'm obviously not a legal scholar, and while the legal aspects are intriguing, I can't comment on them in any sort of an expert fashion. However, it reads to me, as if the legal scholars are split.
On the other side, at least provisionally, are people like Jack Goldsmith and Robert Chesney, both of whom write at, among other places, Lawfare. I would also recommend this probing essay from Daniel Bentham.
However, on the second question - was it wise/does it make America any safer? - I do have opinions that are grounded in years of research and scholarship.
There are, as I mentioned above, basically two groups I've been reading on this. The first group is al-Qaeda watchers (I hesitate to call them counterterrorism experts because of the frauds that use the title). This group - and I'm thinking of smart people with years of experience like Thomas Hegghammer, Will McCants and Clint Watts - has largely come down in the affirmative.
Yes, killing Anwar al-Awlaki was necessary, wise, and will likely go a long way towards making the US safer.
Probably the most articulate and comprehensive proponent of this view has been Thomas Hegghammer, who wrote this piece in Foreign Policy countering my NYT op-ed.
Thomas and I went back-and-forth a bit in private and also here at Waq al-waq. But his basic point remains that A.) Anwar al-Awlaki is AQAP's Head of Foreign Operations and B.) if protecting the homeland is a priority, then dismantling AQAP's Foreign Operations Unit should be at the top of America's counterterrorism agenda in Yemen.
And it seems that it was. The Obama administration called Awlaki, as Thomas did, the "head of the Foreign Operations Unit."
Interestingly Thomas makes the argument that the US should seek to arrest Awlaki, which apparently the US came to the conclusion was not feasible.
The third group has been Yemen watchers, and here - although I may have missed some (its a pretty small group of people with both language and experience in the country) - most seem to come down on the other side, arguing that the strike on Awlaki was neither wise nor would it likely make the US any safer.
Now each of these two groups bring their own biases to bear on the question, which is why I have taken so long (re)thinking through the question.
First, as I argued in my op-ed, Awlaki was a threat and someone who called for the death of Americans, but I thought then and I still believe now that he was not the most dangerous individual within AQAP when it comes to US national security. There are men who are still alive and at-large in Yemen, who represent, in my view, a much greater threat to US national security.
Does this mean the US should not have killed him? I don't know, but I do know that I worried that the US would think it could protect itself from an attack out of Yemen by a few well-placed drone strikes.
And now we have this from the Washington Post:
"U.S. officials, in turn, express little interest in the insurgency in Yemen and say their counterterrorism efforts are limited to what they describe as a minority within al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate that is focused on U.S. attacks."
as well as:
"The United States will not become involved in the latter in Yemen, where there “is a veritable stew of counterinsurgencies, different political elements and competing factions,” the official said, adding that the United States would fight AQAP only to prevent it from attacking the United States and its interests."
"AQAP leaders focused on attacking the United States and its allies number only “a couple of dozen, maybe,” White House counterterrorism adviser John O. Brennan said last month."
As I re-examined both my thinking as well as the open-source evidence, several things struck me. One was the chronology.
Shortly after AQAP's attempt to bring down the airliner on Christmas Day 2009, I remembered Brennan saying the US had made a mistake in underestimating, basically believing the group was limited to the Arabian Peninsula and not a threat cable of projecting power across the Atlantic.
One of the key questions of the review was: how had the US missed this threat? In looking back, I wonder if in searching for the missing piece of the puzzle if US intelligence analysts seized on the one of Anwar al-Awlaki.
He was the missing piece. The US knew AQAP had the "aspiration" to hit at the US, but it didn't believe it had the talent. Well, from the point of view of harried intelligence analysts, Awlaki was that talent. He had years of experience in the west, which the September 11 attacks had taught was necessary for a strike on the US.
Basically, you can look at the Christmas Day plot in 2009 one of two ways. Either it is a dramatic new turn for an organization, or it is the natural evolution of a growing organization.
If you take the former view, then it is easy to use Anwar al-Awlaki to explain why AQAP could suddenly target the US when it had never done so previously. But if you took the later view than it was less Awlaki's existence than the group's growing strength that was important.
Here too, I think US analysts were at a disadvantage, in the years 2006 - 2008 few in the US government were focused on the AQ threat in Yemen. It was only after the attack on the embassy in Sanaa in September 2008 that the US re-awoke to the threat. Given that short view - the one that looks at AQAP as a new organization, instead of an older, evolving one - I think also led analysts to seize on Awlaki as the key reason for AQAP's focus on the US.
I thought then, and I continue to think that this was a mistake. Little in the west is known about Nasir al-Wihayshi - the leader of AQAP - and that is the shame, but this is the guy that is coming after the US. Wihayshi, as interviews with fighters from Afghanistan lay out, was bin Laden's personal secretary for nearly four years. According to these interviews, Wihayshi was rarely apart from bin Laden.
Do we really think that an apprentice, really an understudy, who would one day go on to build an al-Qaeda affiliate based on the blueprints bin Laden used in Afghanistan really needed Anwar al-Awlaki to attack the US?
Not that Awlaki didn't play a role but that he was dispensable?
There are a number of other things that just don't seem, at least to me to add up. The US claims that it targeted Awlaki as the head of the Foreign Operations Unit, but at the time the legal justification was being written (circa June 2010) the issue of Inspire with the article that may or may not have been written by Awlaki had yet to be published.
There are also the now admissions by officials in the US government that some of the evidence for Awlaki's operational role was "patchy," at least according to this Reuters report.
There is also this:
"Awlaki was also implicated in a case in which a British Airways employee was imprisoned for plotting to blow up a U.S.-bound plane. E-mails retrieved by authorities from the employee's computer showed what an investigator described as " operational contact" between Britain and Yemen.
Authorities believe the contacts were mainly between the U.K.-based suspect and his brother. But there was a strong suspicion Awlaki was at the brother's side when the messages were dispatched."
I'm not really sure how the US judged that Awlaki was standing next to someone who was typing.
There is still, in my opinion, much more that we don't know about Anwar al-Awlaki and his role in AQAP than what we know.
After my ten-day personal review, I'm still convinced that the US got AQAP wrong. It saw it as a group that was moving one way and then veered in a completely different direction. This understanding of AQAP, I believe, led analysts to fixate on Awlaki. And he was a threat, but not nearly the most significant threat to US national security out of Yemen.
*There are, of course, many more groups talking about Anwar al-Awlaki - everyone has an opinion - but these are the three groups I'm reading and listening to.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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