Inside America's Dirty Wars

Anwar al-Awlaki's youngest brother, Ammar, was nothing like him. While Anwar embraced a radical interpretation of Islam and preached jihad against the United States, Ammar was pursuing a career at an oil company in Yemen. Ammar was Canadian-educated and politically well connected. He dressed in blue jeans, wore hip Armani eyeglasses and sported a goatee. His hair was slicked back, and he had the latest iPhone. In February 2011, Ammar told me, he was in Vienna on a business trip. He had just returned to his hotel after sampling some of the local cuisine with an Austrian colleague when the phone in his room rang. "Hello, Ammar?" said a man with an American accent. "My wife knows your wife, and I have a gift for her."

"I'm guessing you're either FBI or CIA," Ammar said. The man smiled. Ammar asked him for identification. 

"Come on, we're not FBI, we don't have badges to identify us," the man said. "The best I can do is, I can show you my diplomatic passport…. Call me Chris," the American added.

"Was that your name yesterday?" Ammar replied.

Chris made it clear that he worked for the CIA. He told Ammar that the United States had a task force dedicated to "killing or capturing your brother"—and that while everyone preferred to bring Anwar in alive, time was running out. "He's going to be killed, so why don't you help in saving his life by helping us capture him?" Chris said. Then he added, "You know, there's a $5 million bounty on your brother's head. You won't be helping us for free."

Ammar told Chris that he didn't want the money, that he hadn't seen Anwar since 2004 and had no idea where he was. The American countered, "That $5 million would help raise [Anwar's] kids."

"I don't think there's any need for me to meet you again," Ammar told Chris. Even so, the American told Ammar to think it over, perhaps discuss it with his family. "We can meet when you go to Dubai in two weeks," he said. Ammar was stunned: his tickets for that trip had not yet been purchased, and the details were still being worked out. Chris gave Ammar an e-mail address and said he'd be in touch.

Ammar returned to Yemen and talked to his mother. "You stop it. Don't even reply to them, don't contact them again," she said. "Just stop." When Chris began e-mailing him after their meeting, Ammar didn't respond.

On May 2, 2011, the night President Obama informed the world that Osama bin Laden had been killed by a team of Navy SEALs in Pakistan, thousands of Americans poured into the streets in front of the White House and in New York's Times Square, chanting, "USA, USA, USA!"

The families of people killed on 9/11 spoke of bin Laden's death bringing closure. But the Al Qaeda leader's demise breathed new life into Washington's global "war on terror." The elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), once shrouded in secrecy, became a household name overnight. The Disney Corporation tried to trademark the term "SEAL Team Six," and Zero Dark Thirty, a high-profile Hollywood film, was hastily rewritten to focus on the operation; the filmmakers were even given access to sensitive material.

While the battle over leaks concerning the operation—as well as the various contradictory stories on how bin Laden was killed—raged in the media, the White House was deeply immersed in planning more lethal operations against so-called "High Value Targets." Chief among these was Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen of Yemeni descent born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. 

Three days after Obama's news conference on bin Laden, the president's counterterrorism team presented him with an urgent intelligence update on Awlaki. Along with signals intercepts by JSOC and the CIA and "vital details of Awlaki's whereabouts" from Yemeni intelligence, the White House now had what it believed was its best shot to date at killing the radical cleric, whose fiery speeches denouncing the United States—and praising attacks on Americans—had placed him in the cross-hairs of the US counterterrorism apparatus. 

US military aircraft were at the ready. Obama gave the green light. JSOC would run the operation. A Special Ops Dragon Spear aircraft mounted with short-range Griffin missiles blasted into Yemeni airspace, backed by Marine Harrier jets and Predator drones, and headed toward Shabwah Province. A Global Hawk surveillance aircraft would hover above to relay a live feed back to the mission planners.

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.

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