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.”
Ammar went down to the lobby and saw a tall, thin white man in a crisp blue suit. They shook hands. “Can we talk a bit?” the man asked, and the two sat down in the lobby. “I don’t actually have a gift for your wife. I came from the States, and I need to talk to you about your brother.”
“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.
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.”
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.”