I should take care with a word like ‘friend’. It may well be this line of work promotes a false intimacy between the subject and the interviewer. My goal is to learn, to honor, and then to share. A friendship, however, is self-contained; others may be invited in, but there is never an inside-out. If the subject has a message to share, he is inclined to be friendly, that it be given justly. I know this. All the same, the power of this line of work lies in the crafting of relationships. They may be false; I aim for them to be true. I aim also to maintain objectivity, while seeking to incline my heart.
Ahmed Omar Abdel Rahman was killed in Afghanistan on October 14, 2011, by an American drone. One of thirteen sons of the ‘Blind Sheikh’, he and his brother Mohamed followed the encouragement of his father to travel to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation. Ultimately successful in league with a chorus of such mujahideen, both foreign and local, the Egyptian contingent discovered they could no longer go home. In absentia, Egypt convicted them of plotting to overthrow the Mubarak government, at least in association with groups like al-Jama’a al-Islamiya, of which the Blind Sheikh is the spiritual head.
Mohamed was captured by the Americans when the superpowers passed the baton, and was extradited to Egypt in 2003. He spent four years in a secret underground prison in Nasr City, Cairo, with all communication between him and his family halted. Afterwards he was transferred to a public prison in Tora to the south of Cairo, current home of former Mubarak regime figures deposed since the revolution. Mohamed, however, was never a fellow inmate, as his release was granted in August 2010. He reentered society and decided to continue his education, pursuing a degree in historical literature at Cairo University.
Mohamed joined in the events of the revolution, but thereafter dedicated himself to a further goal – gaining the release of his father, the Blind Sheikh, from an American prison. It is within these efforts I met him, as well as his brother Abdullah, at a sit-in protest outside the American Embassy in downtown Cairo.
Omar Abdel Rahman, the Blind Sheikh, was imprisoned in 1993 as part of the plot to blow up the World Trade Center. He is kept, at least some of the time, in solitary confinement, though he is able to communicate with his family in Egypt. He is now old, and perhaps dying. His family sits-in day and night on the pavement outside the embassy asking the United States to allow him to return home, and for Egypt to help plead his cause.
Mohamed and Abdullah not only ask his release on humanitarian grounds, but also because they maintain his innocence. Abdel Rahman freely criticized the government of Mubarak during his residency in America. Fearing America might facilitate a triumphant return home as France allegedly did with the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Mubarak regime sent agents to the United States to incriminate Abdel Rahman. His sons argue their father never advocated violence against civilians, and is wrongly charged. In exchange for doing away with this political menace, Mubarak promised to toe the American line on Israel and other issues of concern.
I have not yet investigated these claims, nor the original case. Neither am I fully aware of the activities of Mohamed and the now deceased Ahmed in Afghanistan. Mohamed tells me they stood on the sidelines during the internecine conflict that enveloped the nation after the Soviet pullout. He states as well they were never in league with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and that their father condemned the attacks of September 11. I will need to have further conversations on these matters, as well as do my homework.
Originally, I had planned on holding the content of these early conversations until I was more fully prepared. Then the newsflash: Their brother was dead.
I have been long troubled by the use of drones, which have increased significantly during the administration of President Obama. The issue surfaced in American political consciousness when al-Qaeda strategist Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, was killed by a drone in Yemen. Meanwhile a Reuters report revealed the existence of a secret government council connected to the National Security Council, which places American citizens on a ‘kill list’ to be submitted to the president. Additionally, Turkish President Erdogan states the United States has agreed to give drones to his nation, and Saudi Arabia has asked for them. Currently, Israel flies drones over its border with Egypt.
Few Americans would lodge complaints against the nature of person killed so far in drone attacks. The profile is of the terrorist, al-Qaeda member, dedicated to killing innocent civilians. I will inquire if this was true of Ahmed.
Furthermore, there can be a logic to the use of drones. Scattered in caves in far away, unfriendly nations, such militants oversee operations that directly threaten American soil. Drones are cheaper in both expense and human lives. Our soldiers need not risk the operation necessary to apprehend the criminal.
Yet I argue this is exactly why the use of drones is dangerous. A virtue of democracy is that it is less likely to promote war, as the nation’s citizens must commit to bear the cost of its own sons’ lives. The use of drones breaks this link, placing the decision to kill squarely in the hands of the government. Yes, the government is still accountable, but it is a step removed from requiring a popular mandate. Elected representatives, we trust, are judicious in who they label an enemy, or at least in their appointment of military and intelligence officials bequeathed with this task, however extra-judicial it may be. Is there adequate monitoring? Is there transparency? If the public is largely separate from decision making, are their checks on who may be killed? Without a contingent of American troops also suffering casualties, who will care, or even know, that Ahmed is now dead?
To some degree at least, I do. Upon hearing the news I called Mohamed and Abdullah and offered my condolences. They were not grieved; they believe he died in the path of God and is now a martyr in paradise. All the same, I will render my social duty and pay them a visit soon.
The question is, will I be rendering a duty of friendship? Am I being played? Was Ahmed a terrorist? Was Mohamed? Is he still? I don’t yet know, but neither do I yet feel it.
All I have experienced so far are two men among many, with families and children, who have sat outside the American Embassy since August for the sake of their father. This is a noble act, whether or not they and their father are ignoble men. I hold the questions above as a check for my objectivity. I write with this in mind, but also with an inclined heart. I have not yet fully learned, so I cannot yet fully share. But I can honor, and I wish this plea against the use of drones to be a mark of what may become a friendship. It may be false; I aim for it to be true.