“Inside America’s Dirty Wars” — Jeremy Scahill

From “Inside America’s Dirty Wars” by Jeremy Scahill (The Nation, May 13, 2013):

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.

[…]

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.

Read the rest of the article here.