Inside America's Dirty Wars
By early September, however, US surveillance aircraft had pinpointed Anwar al-Awlaki’s location far from Shabwah—at a small house in Khashef, a village in Jawf about ninety miles northeast of Sana’a. Villagers began seeing drones hovering in the skies above. Washington’s drone war had kicked into full gear in Yemen, so the presence of the aircraft was not particularly out of the ordinary. But what the villagers did not know was that the White House’s counterterrorism teams were watching one specific house—watching and waiting. Once they got a lock on Awlaki’s coordinates, the CIA deployed several armed Predator drones from its new base in Saudi Arabia and took operational control of some JSOC drones launched from Djibouti as well. The plan to assassinate Awlaki was code-named Operation Troy. The name implied that the United States had a mole leading its forces to Awlaki.
As the Americans surveilled the house where Anwar was staying in Jawf, Abdulrahman arrived in Ataq, Shabwah. He was picked up at the bus station by his relatives, who told him that they did not know where his father was. The boy decided to wait in the hope that his father would come to meet him. His grandmother called the family he was with in Shabwah, but Abdulrahman refused to speak with her. “They said, ‘He’s OK, he’s here,’ but I didn’t talk to him,” Saleha recalled. “He tried to avoid talking to us, because he knows we will tell him to come back. And he wanted to see his father.” Abdulrahman traveled with some of his cousins to the town of Azzan, where he planned to await word from his dad.
At the White House, President Obama was faced with a decision—not of morality or legality, but of timing. He had already sentenced Anwar al-Awlaki to death without trial. A secret legal authorization had been prepared and internal administration critics sidelined or brought on board. All that remained to be sorted out was the day Awlaki would die. Obama, one of his advisers recalled, had “no qualms” about this kill. When the president was briefed on Awlaki’s location in Jawf and also told that children were in the house, he was explicit that he did not want to rule any options out. Awlaki was not to escape again. “Bring it to me and let me decide in the reality of the moment rather than in the abstract,” Obama told his advisers, according to author Daniel Klaidman. Although scores of US drone strikes had killed civilians in various countries around the globe, it was official policy to avoid such deaths if at all possible. “In this one instance,” an Obama confidant told Klaidman, “the president considered relaxing some of his collateral requirements.”
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Awlaki had evaded US drones and cruise missiles for at least two years. He rarely stayed in one place more than a night or two. This time was different. For some reason, he had stayed in the same house in Khashef much longer, all the while being monitored by the United States. Now the Americans had him clean in their sights. “They were living in this house for at least two weeks. Small mud house,” Nasser said he was later told by the locals. “I think they wanted to make some videotape. Samir Khan was with him.”
On the morning of September 30, 2011, Awlaki and Khan, a young Pakistani-American from North Carolina who is believed to have been the editor of Inspire, finished their breakfast inside the house. US spy cameras and satellites broadcast images back to Washington and Virginia of the two men and a handful of their cohorts piling into vehicles and driving away. They were headed toward the province of Marib. As the vehicles made their way over the dusty, unpaved roads, US drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, were dispatched to hunt them down. The drones were technically under the command of the CIA, though JSOC aircraft and ground forces were poised to assist. A team of commandos stood at the ready to board V-22 helicopters. As an added measure, Marine Harrier jets scrambled in a backup maneuver.
Six months earlier, Awlaki had narrowly avoided death by US missiles. “This time eleven missiles missed [their] target but the next time, the first rocket may hit it,” he had said. As the cars sped down the road, Awlaki’s prophecy came true. Two of the Predator drones locked onto the car carrying him, while other aircraft hovered as backup. A Hellfire missile fired by a drone slammed into his car, transforming it into a fireball. A second missile hit moments later, ensuring that the men inside would never escape if they had managed to survive.
The Yemeni government sent out a text message to journalists. “The terrorist Anwar Awlaki has been killed along with some of his companions,” it read. It was 9:55 am local time. When villagers in the area arrived at the scene of the missile strike, they reported that the bodies inside the car had been burned beyond recognition. There were no survivors. Amid the wreckage, they found a symbol more reliable than a fingerprint in Yemeni culture: the charred rhinoceros-horn handle of a jambiya dagger. There was no doubt that it belonged to Anwar al-Awlaki.
On September 30, during a visit to Fort Myer in Virginia, President Obama stepped up to a podium and addressed reporters. “Earlier this morning Anwar Awlaki, a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen,” Obama declared. “The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate.” The president then bestowed upon Awlaki a label that had never been attached to him publicly before, despite all of his reported associations with Al Qaeda: “Awlaki was the leader of external operations for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. In that role, he took the lead in planning and directing efforts to murder innocent Americans,” Obama asserted.
While the White House and some leading national security officials assured journalists and the public that the process of targeting and killing Awlaki was lawful, the administration refused to make its evidence public. Some lawmakers—whose security clearances and committee assignments authorized them to review the kill process—alleged that they were not being sufficiently briefed by the White House. “It’s important for the American people to know when the president can kill an American citizen, and when [he] can’t,” Senator Ron Wyden told me. Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, has served on the Senate Intelligence Committee since 2001 and often found himself at odds with the Bush administration over secrecy and transparency issues. Now, under a Democratic president, he found himself waging the same battles—and some new ones. Wyden said that he repeatedly asked the administration to provide its legal rationale for killing American citizens without trial, calling his attempts to extract this information ”an enormous struggle.”
Nasser al-Awlaki believed that the US and Yemeni security forces could have arrested his son, but that they did not want to see Anwar stand trial and present a defense. It is also possible, Nasser suggested, that the United States did not want to give him a platform to spread his message more widely. “How is it that Umar Farouk, who tried to blow up the airplane, or Nidal Hasan, who actually killed those soldiers, how are they now having, let us say, a fair trial?” Nasser asked. “My son did not get that fair trial.”
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