Inside America's Dirty Wars

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.

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.

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."

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." 

Tags: dirty wars, drones, jeremy scahill, nation books, somalia, yemen