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Jeremy Scahill: journalism and war

Journalist Jeremy Scahill on the US government's kill list and the cold war on terror

TextKaren OrtonPhotographyZara Mirkin

Taken from the December issue of Dazed & Confused:

2009 election promise to intensify the war on terror got the attention of American investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill. He went to Afghanistan with filmmaker friend Richard Rowley and met witnesses of horrific night raids gone wrong in Afghan villages, carried out by a secret military unit. The duo followed a trail that led to drone strikes killing civilians in Yemen, warlords on the CIA payroll in Somalia, and finally to Anwar al-Awlaki, the first American assassinated by his own country. Tying this together was the Joint Special Operations Command (JSoc), an elite secret US military unit with a mandate to “find, fix and finish” anyone on its kill list; very few knew of its existence until it killed Bin Laden. Scahill and Rowley’s investigation became this year’s Dirty Wars, a Sundance award-winning documentary uncovering Obama’s war on terror that is also a book of the same name.

Dazed Digital: JSoc was used in US operations in Latin America during the cold war. why has it become central to the US military strategy now?

Jeremy Scahill: If you look at it in a very practical light, President Obama came into office with limited foreign-policy experience, no military experience, and was briefed by the most powerful figures in the modern US military history. They painted this picture of a world of thousands of concurrent plots against the US and said that if he doesn’t act aggressively, the homeland will be hit. They basically said JSoc should become the policy. It was meant to be used in small surgical operations no one would talk about, and there were some epic successes. Then all of a sudden it became this kill-your-way-to-victory programme. Politically, people don’t want troops deployed around the world, and they’re getting fed up of the cost. Drones and small teams of special operators are being sold as a more effective way to fight American enemies.

DD: But the operations aren’t always a success, as your film points out.

Jeremy Scahill: It’s one thing if you’re actually taking out someone involved in an imminent plot to attack civilians, it’s another when you’re saying that in this region of Pakistan or Yemen, we’re going to declare people terrorists and kill them even if we don’t know their identities and have no evidence – we’re going to posthumously declare them terrorists. 

DD: Is the kill list growing to include people impacted by botched raids rather than just people taking 
up a cause?

Jeremy Scahill: I have clear evidence of people whose loved ones were killed or maimed by drones who are not saying, ‘I’m going to join Al-Qaeda,’ but, ‘I want to put on a suicide vest and blow myself up in front of the Americans.’ A lot of people would react in a similar way. If someone came into your home in the middle of the night and did a raid, killed your pregnant wife then dug bullets out of her body in front of you, and then handcuffed you and drove you to another province, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh well, I understand they had bad intelligence.’ At the end of the day, our national security policy is degrading our national security. We’ve hit a point where we’re making more new enemies than we are killing terrorists. What’s become clear, particularly in Afghanistan and Yemen, is that the US has very bad intelligence, and people are getting targeted based on flimsy evidence or flat-out falsehoods that have been said intentionally to American or multinational forces.

“If someone came into your home in the night and killed your pregnant wife, you’re not going to say, ‘Oh well, they had faulty intelligence’”

DD: Why do you think the intelligence is worse there than in other places? 

Jeremy Scahill: Friends of mine in the military and intelligence community tell me this all the time: Afghans who want to settle scores know they can send three different people to an American base on different days to tell the same story about someone being Taliban or making explosive devices and the Americans will trigger a night raid. In Yemen there have been multiple incidents when the Yemeni government has fed the US false intelligence, saying individuals are Al-Qaeda when in reality they’re domestic political opponents of the dictatorship.

DD: Why did you choose to focus on an American, Anwar al-Awlaki?

Jeremy Scahill: His story is a metaphor for everything that has happened since 9/11. He was pro-American and was then radicalised by America’s response to 9/11. His story tells us about what is happening among western Muslims globally. I don’t believe that American lives are worth a dime more than non-American lives, but how a nation treats its own people is a pretty good gauge for how it views the treatment of other people around the world. If they’re willing to go to those lengths to kill an American citizen, they’re not going to think twice about killing a non-American. Obama’s whistling past the graveyard. It’s just such a false notion that you can kill your way to victory. 

DD: Personally, what were some of the most challenging parts of this investigation? Jeremy Scahill: he years I have been a reporter, I’ve apologised to hundreds of people who have been victims of military action orchestrated by the US. Someone from our society has to apologise to them, because no one from the government is going to do that. Also, I was shocked at how true the clichéd portrayals of Mogadishu (in Somalia) are, the absolute insanity of that place. You can be walking down the street and suddenly a bullet will come flying by for no reason. We’d get up at five in the morning, film and get back by two or three in the afternoon because that’s when people start chewing the stimulant khat and the shots start ringing out. Rick narrowly missed being shot during a gun battle while filming. It’s just this little kingdom run by warlords. It felt like you were in a movie, and not a movie you wanted to be in. At one point, we were sitting in a cafe in Mogadishu and ten minutes after we left, a bomb went off across the street and blew up a bus full of university students. There’s a scene in the film where we go to the hospital morgue, but we couldn’t show it because it was far too graphic. It was a non-air-conditioned morgue with dead bodies and flies and I think about it every single day. It’s seared into my head, what those bodies looked like.

DD: Why did you tell the story of Abdulelah Haider Shaye, the imprisoned young Yemeni journalist?

Jeremy Scahill: Abdulelah Haider filmed the corpses of women and children and the missile parts, revealing that it was a US attack because Yemen did not have those weapons. He was convicted of being an Al-Qaeda affiliate and Obama himself called the Yemeni president to ensure he was not released. If you put this into context with the NSA scandal, the US government intentionally monitoring journalists and the cracking down on whistleblowers, this is a war on journalism.

DD: Are you under increased surveillance?

Jeremy Scahill: Any journalists doing sensitive work, working with confidential sources, particularly whistleblowers from the government or military, have to presume that their conversations are being monitored. All of us have had to become proficient in encryption, off-the-record software chat. 
You meet a lot more people in person – no one wants to be around a phone for fear that the microphone can be remotely activated.

DD: What role do shows like Homeland play in how the public views the war on terror? 

Jeremy Scahill: The racial politics are problematic and it portrays people on the other side of the barrel of US foreign policy in a cartoonish manner, but as someone who works in this world, I wait every week to see it. I like to watch a good piece of propaganda as much as anybody else. The issue for me is that we don’t have enough actual reporting on these issues to balance it out, so fiction becomes reality for a lot of people. We have less and less good international reporting. It’s a real crisis, because in a democratic society you need to have a vibrant, free, aggressive press.

DD: How do you see the war on terror developing in the next ten or 20 years? 

Jeremy Scahill: We called it Dirty Wars because you're going to have a lot more covert action. Warfare is going to become more robotic, less human: I think we are going to move into an era of a cold war on terror. There will be proxy wars between the US and China, Russia and other powers, with proxies fighting it out in Africa or Latin America. It’s going to be a world of espionage, casual violence with occasional large-scale acts of violence on both sides.