Inside America's Dirty Wars
Anwar al-Awlaki gives a religious lecture in an unknown location in this still image taken from video released by Intelwire.com on September 30, 2011. Reuters/Intelwire.com
On the evening of May 5, Awlaki and some friends were driving through Jahwa, in rural southern Shabwah, when their pickup truck was rocked by a massive explosion nearby, shattering its windows. Awlaki saw a flash of light and believed that a rocket had been fired at their vehicle. “Speed up!” he yelled at the driver. Awlaki looked around the truck and took stock of the situation. No one was hurt. The back of the pickup was filled with canisters of gasoline, yet the vehicle had not exploded. Alhamdulillah, Awlaki thought, according to his detailed account of the incident that later appeared in Inspire, the English-language magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). “Praise God.” He called for help.
While Awlaki and his colleagues scrambled to get away from what they thought was an ambush, JSOC planners watched via satellite as his truck emerged from the dust clouds that the Griffin missile had caused. They’d missed—there had been a malfunction in the targeting pod, and the missile’s guidance system was unable to keep a lock on Awlaki’s vehicle. It would now be up to the Harriers and the drones. Strike two: a massive fireball lit up the sky. Just as the celebrations at JSOC were about to begin, the mission’s planners watched in shock as the truck emerged once again from the smoke. Its back bumper had been damaged, but the truck was on the run. The Harriers were running low on fuel and had to abandon the mission. The third strike had to come from one of the drones. Awlaki peered out the window, looking for the perpetrators of the ambush. It was then that he saw it: a drone hovering in the sky. As smoke and dust engulfed the area, Awlaki told the driver not to head toward any populated areas. They pulled into a small valley with some trees.
Two brothers, Abdullah and Musa’d Mubarak al Daghari, known among the members of AQAP as the al Harad brothers, were speeding to Awlaki’s rescue. As the drone hovered overhead, the US personnel running the op could not see what was happening below. A former JSOC planner, who read the after-action reports on the strike, told me that the mission had satellites that provided only “top-down imagery.” With such satellites, he said, “You’re looking down at ants moving. All they saw were vehicles, and the people in the vehicles were smart.” Dust, gravel, smoke and flames had shielded the High Value Target. The Harad brothers quickly marshaled Awlaki and his driver into their Suzuki Vitara SUV and took Awlaki’s vehicle. They gave Awlaki directions to a mountain area where he could take shelter. Awlaki hastily said goodbye and sped off in the Suzuki. The Harad brothers then headed in the opposite direction, driving in the truck the Americans had tried to blow up moments earlier.
As the two vehicles took off in opposite directions, the Americans running the operation had to decide which one to follow. They stuck with Awlaki’s truck. Awlaki looked up and saw the drones still hovering. He managed to make it to the mountains. From there, he watched as another round of missiles shot out of the sky and blew up the truck, killing the Harad brothers.
As JSOC celebrated what it thought was a successful hit, Awlaki performed his evening prayers and reflected on the situation. That night, he later recalled, had “increased my certainty that no human being will die until they complete their livelihood and [reach their] appointed time.” He fell asleep in the mountains.
As news spread of the attack, anonymous US officials confirmed that the strike had been aimed at Awlaki. And for a time, they thought they had accomplished the mission. The US drone operators “did not know that vehicles were exchanged and resulted in the wrong people dying and [that] Awlaki [was] still alive,” a Yemeni security official told CNN.
The Americans who were after Awlaki were not deterred by the failure of the strike in Shabwah, and thanks to intensive intelligence gathering, they soon would have another chance. “I want Awlaki,” President Obama reportedly told his counterterrorism team. “Don’t let up on him.”
In April 2011, Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali man with alleged links to his country’s militant Islamic group Al Shabab, was captured by JSOC forces in the Gulf of Aden. He was taken to a military brig aboard the USS Boxer, where Warsame was held incommunicado for more than two months before being transferred to New York and indicted on charges of conspiracy and providing material support to Al Shabab and AQAP. Warsame had recently met with Awlaki, and his interrogation sessions in JSOC’s custody, along with his seized computers and drives, yielded intelligence about the latter’s movements in Yemen.
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Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the oldest son of Anwar al-Awlaki, was born in Denver. Like his father, he spent the first seven years of his life in the United States, attending American schools. After he moved to Yemen with his family, his grandparents—Anwar’s mother and father—played a major role in his upbringing, particularly after Anwar went underground. Anwar “always thought that it is best for Abdulrahman to be with me,” Anwar’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, told me. Anwar believed that his wife and children “should not be involved at all in his problems.”
Abdulrahman admired his father and had even chosen Ibn al Shaykh, “Son of the Sheik,” as his Facebook user name. But Abdulrahman was not his father; he loved hip-hop music and Facebook and hanging out with his friends. They would take pictures of themselves posing as rappers, and when the Yemeni revolution began, Abdulrahman wanted to be a part of it. As massive protests shook Yemen, he would spend hours hanging out in Change Square with the young, nonviolent revolutionaries, sharing his vision for the future and, at times, just goofing off with friends. But as the revolution continued and the government was brought to the verge of collapse, Abdulrahman decided to follow his urge to see his father.
One day in early September, Abdulrahman woke up before the rest of the house. He tiptoed into his mother’s bedroom, took 9,000 Yemeni rials—roughly $40—from her purse, and left a note outside her bedroom door. He then snuck out the kitchen window and into the courtyard. Shortly after 6 am, the family’s guard saw the boy leave but didn’t think anything of it. It was Sunday, September 4, 2011, a few days after the Eid al-Fitr holiday marked the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Nine days before, Abdulrahman had turned 16.
A short while later, Abdulrahman’s mother woke up. She started to rouse his siblings for morning prayers and then went to wake him, but Abdulrahman was not in his bedroom. She called for him and, while searching the house, found his note. In it, he apologized for leaving without telling her and said that he missed his father and wanted to find him. He also said he was sorry for taking the money. “When his mother told me about the letter, it was just like a shock for me,” Abdulrahman’s grandmother Saleha told me. “I said, ‘I think this will be just like bait for his father.’” The CIA, she feared, “might find his father through him.” The family called around to Abdulrahman’s friends, but he had already boarded a bus at Bab al Yemen, in the old city in Sana’a. His destination was Shabwah, the family’s home province and the scene of repeated US airstrikes aimed at killing his father.
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