An American Casualty

by by Malcolm Burnley

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Bugles didn’t burst with taps when Samir Khan died in Yemen last month, yet another American casualty of the War on Terror. No crisply folded flag arrived at his family home in suburban North Carolina.  And there was no honorary mention of his name in newsprint, as is customary for slain servicemen, but rather a slew of unsentimental obituaries the next day to decipher the implications of his passing. “The death of Samir Khan in Yemen marks the end of a key figure in Internet jihad,” was one such assessment on Foreign Policy’s website.

Unlike the high school portraits so often re-printed in memoriam, the photos above Khan’s obituaries were less charming.  Five-year old pictures show the 25-year-old Pakistani-American stooping to avoid the lens, wearing a canary yellow Polo around his plump torso, along with slicked-back hair and scragly stubble.

Khan was, by many measures, a typical  member of Generation Y.  He experienced 9/11 in high school, receiving a diploma from W.T. Clarke on Long Island, and graduated with emboldened opinions about America and its global hegemony.  But instead of enlisting with Uncle Sam under patriotism, he slipped towards extremism, onto a path of martyrdom.

When his parents moved to Charlotte in 2004, Khan blogged from their basement, posting anti-Western commentary on Islamic social media sites.  His online presence eventually impressed Anwar Al-Awlaki, the radical preacher and figurehead of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  In 2009, Khan fled the US for Yemen to join AQAP, a potent branch of Osama Bin Laden’s Iraqi-based network, and took an apprenticeship under Al-Awlaki.

“I am proud to be a traitor to America,” he wrote in 2010, in Inspire, the online magazine he created to attract Westerners toward jihad, called “Cosmo for jihadists” by NPR.

On September 29, Khan’s picaresque narrative ended in an American-operated C.I.A. drone strike targeting Al-Awlaki, who was also American and a graduate of Coloroda State University. Together, they became the first Americans ever killed through drone technology in the War on Terror: Al-Awlaki as a target, Khan as collateral damage, along with two other men.

When the Obama administration controversially placed Al-Awlaki on the C.I.A.’s “capture or kill” list in 2010 (another first-time distinction for an American citizen), the Justice Department had to waive his fifth-amendment right not to “ deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law.” A secret legal review granted this permission, on the grounds that if Al-Awlaki could not be reasonably captured,  his assassination was warranted.

Khan received no such scarlet letter as an obscure online editor, which makes his extraordinary death a dubious precedent.  Even more than Al-Awlaki’s killing, it suggests an escalation of federal power under the Patriot Act, and a willingness to eliminate terrorist sympathizers, even those who are Americans.  Because the strike was a covert C.I.A operation, the Obama administration has refused to offer details on Khan’s death, and hasn’t clarified whether the go-ahead was given with consideration to his constitutional rights.

When no announcement was received regarding his remains, Khan’s parents voiced their concerns in a public statement.  “We feel appalled by the indifference shown to us by the government,” they said. “Was this style of execution the only solution? Why couldn’t there have been a capture and trial?”


While Bin Laden used television to entice a 21st-century audience to experience jihad, Al-Awlaki summoned the internet – specifically, YouTube videos – and Khan represented the next step with his editorialized online content, epitomizing Al Qaeda 2.0.  “Simply put, Khan was the node, connecting various networks within the online jihadi community,” wrote Aaron Y. Zelin in Foreign Policy.

A week before his death, he published the seventh and final issue of Inspire. The magazine aimed for English-speaking Muslim men, like Khan, who were tech-savvy and ripe for jihad. Sleek minimalist design, photo essays, and image-heavy content catered to a Western audience like National Geographic, with assault rifles and terrorist training camps replacing animals in their natural habitats.

In the final issue, an alternative commemoration of the 9/11 attacks titled “The Greatest Operation of All Time,” Bin Laden penned one piece posthumously, Al-Awlaki another.  One of several articles  penned by Khan (or aliases attributed to him) lashed out against President Ahmadinejad of Iran, for claiming that 9/11 was a conspiracy perpetrated by the US government: “Iran and the Shi’a in general do not want to give Al Qaeda credit for the greatest and biggest operation ever committed against America because this would expose their lip-service jihad against the Great Satan.”

Despite the ferocity of language, Khan’s sway never reached the level of Al-Awlaki, whose sermons inspired the Fort Hood shooter and Christmas-day underwear bomber.  Though Khan was linked to a planned attack on Chicago in 2009, the FBI released him without incriminating evidence.  And his attempts through Inspire to instigate violence received a lukewarm reception.  In its first year of publication, Bin Laden fumed about the magazine, deeming it unfit for Al Qaeda’s style of jihadist propaganda.  According to documents recovered from Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound, he was particularly critical of the “indiscriminate slaughter” it promoted, referring to an article written by Khan that imagined a tractor mowing-down non-believers of Islam.

J.M. Berger, an American journalist and global terrorism investigator who authored “Jihad Joe: Americans who Go to War In the Name of Islam”, wrote a scathing review of Inspire on his blog in 2010, upon its release. “Inspire isn't new. None of this is new, and it's not really news,” he wrote.  “More importantly, jihadists today have access to the Internet for distribution. This, more than anything, opens the door for amateur jihad enthusiasts to put out products like Inspire.“

More than legitimately threatening American lives, Khan’s aggressive Internet protests  advocated violence, but provoked little.  His death has become an unlikely rallying cry for an eclectic group of anti-war preachers.  Senator Ron Paul (R. Texas), the influential progressive organization American Civil Liberties Union, and Al Qaeda have joined to denounce the targeted killing as unconstitutional under American law.

“If the American people accept this blindly and casually, we now have an accepted practice of the president assassinating people who he thinks are bad guys,” Senator Paul said. “I think it’s sad.”


9/11 was a seminal moment in the life of Samir Khan, planting the seeds for his outsized aspirations to wage Internet jihad.  His 2003 senior yearbook page lists JV football credentials, a quote by Sal Alinksy, and Khan’s self-identified nickname foreshadowing his impending radicalizaition, “Mujahid.”

In 2007, while living in Charlotte, he began using the alias “Insha Allah Shaheed,” (God Willing to be a Martyr) and briefly enrolled at a community college, before insulating himself in online circles.  He sharpened his voice in the Islamic Networking Forum, a mostly Muslim social network, before branching out into several original blogs, including one titled The Ignored Puzzle Pieces of Knowledge.

Most of his early online material has been removed, but an early post from 2007 indicates Khan’s growing frustration with censorship from the government: “They can attack us 100 times if they want; in the end, they will see us coming from many different positions to continue the media Jihad of speaking the truth. So let them bite their nails in frustration. We say to them: Perish in your rage O filthy disbelievers.”

As cyber-barriers cropped up around him, his language grew more lethal and his style more seductive. Khan groomed Inspire from a laughable infancy into a powerful branch of AQAP’s propaganda division.  Its initial release on June 30, 2010 became a snafu when British officials hacked into the 67-page issue and replaced Khan’s content with recipes for cocktail deserts.  Only the first three pages appeared legibly, with the rest showing scrambled or coded text.  Once the kinks in cyber-security were smoothed, Khan crafted pieces in colloquial English, mixing quotes from  the Q’uran with diagrams for home-brewing explosives.

In an early issue, a bomb-making demo is presented like an IKEA diagram—“Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom”—using nails, Duracell batteries, an alarm clock, and explosive powder. Another page has an off-to-summer-camp checklist titled “What to Expect In Jihad” that offers advice like “bring your essential bodily-cleansing items” and, “bring a companion.”


About halfway through the first issue of Inspire, there is an awkward and haunting color spread of two disembodied heads floating in the clouds—Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, who stares out of the page, and Bin Laden looking at him, paternally.

On October 12, Abdulmutallab pled guilty to his attempted bombing of an airliner over Detroit, and was convicted in civilian court. The Justice Department adamantly supported a civilian trial over a closed-door military procession, arguing that Abdulmutallab was an American citizen and had legal protections worth honoring.

Samir Khan received a fate closer to Bin Laden’s, despite lesser acclaim and record. Khan was accepted as collateral damage in the pursuit of Al-Awlaki.  But given that the C.I.A. tracked Al-Awlaki’s movement for weeks before carrying out the order, the C.I.A might have known about Khan’s proximity, ignoring his right to life bearing trial.

Either scenario leaves a lasting blemish for the Obama Administration, which otherwise boasts a weighty resume with Al-Awlaki and Bin Laden as trophies.  It took President Obama only hours to announce the successful drone strike, but five days for the State Department to make the condolence call to Khan’s parents, a normally automatic practice for American citizens killed abroad.

A former neighbor of the Khan family weighed- in to the Charlotte Observer, and remembered a young Samir who played basketball in the street.  He then apologized for the government’s behavior: “We look the other way when we learn that there’s one less terrorist that can threaten us. We don’t admonish our government for being shamed into acknowledging a family’s pain,” he said.

MALCOLM BURNLEY  B‘12 is a drone dodger