The CIA later claimed that it did not carry out the strike, asserting that the supposed target, al-Banna, was not on the agency's hit list. That led to speculation that the attack that killed Abdulrahman and his relatives had been a JSOC strike. According to The Washington Post, senior US officials acknowledged that "the two kill lists don't match, but offered conflicting explanations as to why." The officials added that Abdulrahman was an "unintended casualty." A JSOC official told me that the intended target was not killed in the strike, though he would not say who that was. On October 20, 2011, military officials presented a closed briefing on the strike to the Senate Armed Services Committee. With the exception of the statements from anonymous officials, the United States offered no public explanation for the attack. The mystery deepened when AQAP released a statement claiming that al-Banna was still alive. The Awlakis began to wonder if perhaps Abdulrahman was, in fact, the target of the strike.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid, one of the handful of US lawmakers who would have access to intelligence on the strike, seemed to suggest that this was the case when asked about the killing of the two Awlakis and Samir Khan. "I do know this," he said on CNN, "the American citizens who have been killed overseas…are terrorists, and, frankly, if anyone in the world deserved to be killed, those three did deserve to be killed."
Robert Gibbs, former White House press secretary and a senior official in President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, was also asked about the strike that killed Abdulrahman. "It's an American citizen that is being targeted without due process of law, without trial. And he's underage. He's a minor," reporter Sierra Adamson said. Gibbs shot back: "I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don't think becoming an Al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business."
While emphasizing that they were not prone to conspiracy theories, the Awlakis told me it was difficult to understand why Abdulrahman would have been killed, especially if al-Banna was not there. Who, then, was the target? "It is up to the US government to be sure about the kind of information they get before they take any action against anybody. So I don't believe it was just an accident," Nasser said.
An anonymous US official later told The Washington Post that Abdulrahman's killing was "an outrageous mistake…. They were going after the guy sitting next to him." But no one ever identified who that was. As far as the family knows, their grandson was sitting with his teenage cousins, none of whom had an affiliation with Al Qaeda. Decisions on "targets, drones—these are made only by the highest US government authorities, the CIA and all that. Why did they specifically target these guys?" Nasser demanded. "I want answers from the United States government."
The Obama administration would fight passionately to keep those answers secret, invoking the "state secrets" privilege repeatedly—just as George W. Bush had done throughout his eight years in office.
A former senior official in the Obama administration told me that after Abdulrahman's killing, the president was "surprised and upset and wanted an explanation." The former official, who worked on the targeted killing program, said that according to intelligence and Special Operations officials, the target of the strike was al-Banna, the AQAP propagandist. "We had no idea the kid was there. We were told al-Banna was alone," the former official told me. Once it became clear that the teenager had been killed, he added, military and intelligence officials asserted, "It was a mistake, a bad mistake." However, John Brennan, at the time President Obama's senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, "suspected that the kid had been killed intentionally and ordered a review. I don't know what happened with the review."
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, would not answer questions about the former official's assertions, saying that she "can't address specific operational matters and won't go into our internal deliberations," adding: "We cannot discuss the sensitive details of specific operations." In an e-mail, she pasted a lengthy statement citing the public pronouncements of various US counterterrorism officials, much of which had already become part of the White House's boilerplate response to any media inquiries regarding the drone strikes.
Brennan, who is now director of the CIA, recently answered an inquiry from the Senate Intelligence Committee on such after-strike reviews. When civilians are killed, Brennan said, "we not only take account of the human tragedy, but we also go back and review our actions." Analysts "draw on a large body of information—human intelligence, signals intelligence, media reports, and surveillance footage—to help us make an informed determination about whether civilians were in fact killed or injured," Brennan asserted in his written response. "In those rare instances in which civilians have been killed, after-action reviews have been conducted." No such review of Abdulrahman's killing has ever been made public.
The consensus that has emerged from various anonymous officials commenting on Abdulrahman's killing was that it was a mistake. I asked the former senior administration official why, if that was the case, the White House didn't publicly acknowledge it. "We killed three US citizens in a very short period," he told me. "Two of them weren't even targets: Samir Khan and Abdulrahman Awlaki. That doesn't look good. It's embarrassing."
This article is adapted from Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, just published by Nation Books.