Inside America's Dirty Wars

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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As the Awlaki family mourned the death of Anwar, their attention turned to their grandson, Abdulrahman. He had gone to Shabwah to find his father, and now his father was dead.

After Abdulrahman heard the news of Anwar's death, he called home for the first time and spoke to his mother and grandmother. "That's enough, Abdulrahman. You have to come back," his grandmother Saleha told him. "That's it." The conversation was brief. Abdulrahman said he would return home soon, but that he wanted to wait for the roads to clear. There were police checkpoints and fighting along the route, and he did not want to be detained or caught up in any violence.

As Abdulrahman mourned, the boy's family members in Shabwah tried to comfort him and encouraged him to get out with his cousins. That was what Abdulrahman was doing on the evening of October 14. He and his cousins had joined a group of friends outdoors to barbecue. There were a few other people doing the same nearby. It was about 9 pm when the drones pierced the night sky. Moments later, Abdulrahman was dead. So, too, were several other teenage members of his family, including Abdulrahman's 17-year-old cousin Ahmed.

Early the next morning, Nasser al-Awlaki received a phone call from his family in Shabwah. "Some of our relatives went to the place where [Abdulrahman] was killed, and they saw the area…. And they told us he was buried with the others in one grave because they were blown up to pieces by the drone. So they could not put them in separate graves," Nasser told me. 

With the horror setting in that their eldest grandson had been killed just two weeks after their eldest child, Nasser and Saleha watched in disbelief as numerous news reports identified Abdulrahman as being 21 years old, with anonymous US officials referring to him as a "military-aged" male. Some reports intimated that he was an Al Qaeda supporter and that he had been killed while meeting with Ibrahim al-Banna, an Egyptian citizen described as the "media coordinator" for AQAP.

When I visited Nasser after Abdulrahman was killed, he showed me the boy's Colorado birth certificate, which states that he was born in 1995 in Denver. "When he was killed by the US government, he was a teenager; he wasn't 21. He wouldn't have been able to enlist in the military in the US. He was 16," Nasser told me. Days after the killing of Abdulrahman, the United States released a statement, as usual feigning ignorance about who was responsible for the strike, even though "unnamed officials" in the United States and Yemen had confirmed it. "We have seen press reports that AQAP senior official Ibrahim al-Banna was killed last Friday in Yemen and that several others, including the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, were with al-Banna at the time," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told the press, in a statement that strangely cast Abdulrahman as something between an Al Qaeda associate and a hapless tourist. "For over the past year, the Department of State has publicly urged US citizens not to travel to Yemen and has encouraged those already in Yemen to leave because of the continuing threat of violence and the presence of terrorist organizations, including AQAP, throughout the country."

While the Awlakis opposed Anwar's killing and believed that the United States had exaggerated its claims about his involvement with Al Qaeda, Nasser told me that his family understood why the United States wanted Anwar dead. "My son believed in what he did," Nasser said, "but I am really distressed and disappointed by the killing, the brutal killing, of his son. He did nothing against the US. He was an American citizen. Maybe one day he would have gone to America to study and live there, and they killed him in cold blood."

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