The Secret Story Behind Obama’s Assassination of Two Americans in the Name of Fighting the 'War on Terror'
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The Obama administration’s assassination of two U.S. citizens in 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old Denver-born son Abdulrahman, is a central part of Jeremy Scahill’s new book, "Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield." The book is based on years of reporting on U.S. secret operations in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. While the Obama administration has defended the killing of Anwar, it has never publicly explained why Abdulrahman was targeted in a separate drone strike two weeks later. Scahill reveals CIA Director John Brennan, Obama’s former senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security, suspected that the teenager had been killed "intentionally." "The idea that you can simply have one branch of government unilaterally and in secret declare that an American citizen should be executed or assassinated without having to present any evidence whatsoever, to me, is a — we should view that with great sobriety about the implications for our country," says Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation Magazine. On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate is preparing to hold its first-ever hearing on the Obama administration’s drone and targeted killing program. However, the Obama administration is refusing to send a witness to answer questions about the program’s legality.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars, is being published today. Jeremy takes a deep look at America’s new covert wars operated by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC. From Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia and beyond, Jeremy shines a light on America’s unregulated and increasingly unilateral global assassination program. Two central figures in the book are Anwar al-Awlaki and his Denver-born 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, two American citizens killed in separate U.S. drone strikes in Yemen in 2011.
Today, an exclusive hour with Jeremy Scahill. I began by asking him to talk about cleric Anwar al-Awlaki.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Anwar al-Awlaki was a U.S. citizen who was born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. His father is quite an extraordinary guy. He, Dr. Nasser Aulaqi, had come as a very young student to the United States, and he studied English as a young man in Lawrence, Kansas, and ended up getting a number of degrees in the United States. In fact, he was the alum of the year in 2002 at New Mexico State University, where he got one of his degrees. Very distinguished person in Yemen. And as a young man growing up in—as he put it, in a country that didn’t have a name yet, growing up in the south of Yemen, he dreamt of going to the United States, and his dream came true as a young man.
And so, he was a college student in the United States when his young—when Anwar was born, in 1971. And he really wanted to raise Anwar as an American. He viewed America as the—you know, to quote Reagan, sort of a paraphrased Reagan—the shining city atop the hill. I mean, he really did view it that way. And I looked at his essays from when he first came to the United States, and all of the international students wrote essays about, you know, what it was they wanted to get out of it. And he said that "the progressivism of America was electric, and I wanted to be a part of that, and I wanted to take my education and go back to my very poor country and to make something of my life." And so he started to build this family, and they lived in Minneapolis. And they showed me pictures of Anwar pointing out Yemen on the globe in his classroom, and he couldn’t pronounce the teacher’s name, so he just called her "Mrs. M." And, you know, there were photos of him at Disney World and—or, Disneyland in California.
And so, you had this family that really wanted to do two things. They wanted to raise their children in the tradition of the American spirit, but they also wanted to give back to their country. And when Dr. Nasser Aulaqi got his engineering degrees, he went back to Yemen and became the minister of agriculture and engineering in Yemen, and he actually built an entire faculty at the university. He founded this department, working with USAID and other U.S. officials to build this school of agricultural engineering. And his main life’s work has been to deal with the water crisis in Yemen, because Yemen is running out of water.
So, Anwar moved back with him, went to an international school in Yemen, where he was studying in both English and Arabic. His English was stronger than his Arabic, because he had spent the first seven years of his life in the U.S. So he was in a very international atmosphere. In fact, Anwar Awlaki went to school with the men who would end up working on the kill program, from the Yemeni side, to try to hunt him down, with the children of the country’s dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He went to school with some of them. And so, then later in life, their paths would cross again.
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t he go to school with Saleh’s son?
JEREMY SCAHILL: He did, yes, and I write about that in the book. And it’s sort of—you know, Yemen, in a way, is a very small neighborhood and—when you’re dealing with government ministers. This was a school, actually, that Nasser al-Aulaqi helped to found in Yemen, this primary school, and it, to this day, remains one of the top schools in Yemen.
So when Anwar finished high school, he wanted to go to the United States, and originally he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps, and he was going to study engineering. And he arrived in the United States and was detained at the airport when he flew back into the United States, because there was a discrepancy on his passport. His Yemeni passport said that he was born in Yemen, and his American passport said that he was born in the United States—actually, the other way around. His American passport said that he was born in Yemen. And the reason it did is because a U.S. official had told Nasser al-Aulaqi, "If you want to get your son a scholarship in the United States, we should say that he’s born in Yemen, so you can have his birth certificate reissued in Yemen, and then he can get the travel documents." So, he ran into trouble because his passport—there were some discrepancies with his paperwork, so that was sort of his first run-in with law enforcement. But it was resolved, and he was released, and he ended up going to school in Colorado.
And this was right at the time when the mujahideen war in Afghanistan—you know, of course, the United States on the side of the mujahideen fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan—was sort of coming to an end, and the 1991 Gulf War was beginning. And Anwar had never been a particularly religious guy, and he had never been a particularly political guy, but he, like a lot of people—and, I mean, I remember this myself; I was in high school when the Gulf War started. It was really the first time that I came to terms with the fact that these wars happen, and I remember being very scared myself. And I think that, you know, Anwar, that deeply affected him, and he saw the destruction of Baghdad the first time around, and started going to antiwar meetings and was invited to go and speak at a local mosque about the war and about student organizing. And the imam at that mosque said, "You know, you have a real gift for speaking," and started to invite him back. And Anwar, this sort of fire was lit in him, and he decided he wanted to change course in life and decided to study to become an imam, and he immersed himself in Islamic scholarship and, in fact, became an imam, and eventually moved to San Diego and started his family. And his eldest son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was born in 1995. He was actually born in Denver, Colorado. And the Awlakis started to build a life for themselves, and Anwar was an imam.
When 9/11 happened, Anwar al-Awlaki was living in Virginia, and he was the imam at a very large, prominent mosque, the Dar Al-Hijrah religious center in Falls Church, Virginia. And when 9/11 happened, Awlaki became the go-to imam for large, powerful corporate media outlets in the United States to understand the experience of American Muslims in the aftermath of the attacks. And Awlaki passionately denounced the 9/11 attacks, said the United States had a right to hunt down those responsible and bring them to justice. He was someone that was profiled by The Washington Post for a piece that they did about Ramadan. He was on PBS and NPR and was talking about this, the feelings of many American Muslims, which is that you hear a president in George Bush saying it’s a crusade and basically putting a number of Muslim countries, you know, in the crosshairs around the world, the start of the rumblings toward the invasion of Iraq, the initial invasion of Afghanistan, clearly sort of turning into something that was going to be a much longer-term presence. And Awlaki was affected by all of this. And when the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, you saw a real sort of tilt toward a radicalization in Awlaki.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be back with war correspondent Jeremy Scahill on his new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: "Freedom," sung by Richie Havens in 1969. He died yesterday at the age of 72 at his home in New Jersey. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re continuing our conversation with Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book,Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, the book coming out today. We return to Jeremy talking about Anwar al-Awlaki and his time in the United States.
JEREMY SCAHILL: There’s this a whole other part of this story, which is that Awlaki, at his mosque in San Diego, two of the 9/11 hijackers had been—had attended services at his mosque, and a third one had also attended services with one of the other guys at his mosque in Virginia. And the FBI—he was already on their radar, but they brought Awlaki in a number of times for questioning, and they basically cleared him and said that he had—you know, had nothing to do with those guys except knowing them peripherally in his mosque. But that’s been the source of a lot of—of intense scrutiny in the aftermath of the attack and everything that happened with Awlaki, because some people believe that he was directly attached to the 9/11 attacks, which I think is a preposterous—I mean, it’s nonsensical to think that these guys would have keyed in Anwar Awlaki to the 9/11 attacks at a time when he was viewed as a very moderate guy. He endorsed George Bush for president in the 2000 election. In fact, Bush had a lot of support in the Arab-American community, because many people felt that he would be better than Al Gore on the issue of Palestine. And so, you know—but Awlaki had had this contact with these 9/11 hijackers. He also had been busted twice on solicitation of prostitute charges, and then those were resolved through community service and probation. But—
AMY GOODMAN: And were they real?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, we don’t know. Awlaki says that they weren’t, that it was a—that it was a setup. You know, I’ve—
AMY GOODMAN: To try to flip him?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, so what happened is that he gets busted, I think the first time in '96 in San Diego on a solicitation charge, and then he's pulled in. And he claimed—Awlaki claimed that the FBI tried to get him to start informing on people in his mosque and keeping an eye on them and telling them who was coming in and out of his mosque, and, you know, claimed that he told them to get lost. There was actually an interesting sort of development with this whole story, in that Awlaki had repeated interactions with the FBI. And I talked to a former senior FBI agent who had worked the Awlaki case, and said he believed that the bureau was trying to flip him or that they maybe had in fact gotten Awlaki to start doing some informing.
And so, when Awlaki then, years later, leaves the United States, he’s looking—you know, in terms of his public persona, he’s looking at the impending invasion of Iraq, he’s looking at Guantánamo starting to grab headlines around the world and the images that we saw coming out of that, people being dressed in orange jumpers with hoods on their head, and, you know, eventually then the Abu Ghraib photos. But he also had this private battle that he was waging with the FBI. They were really putting pressure on him to become a full-blown informant.
And so, Awlaki, for a combination of reasons, ends up leaving the United States, spends a number of years in Britain, is a very prominent figure, popular at Islamic centers and mosques, and still is preaching a message that was very much in line, I think, with mainstream antiwar thinking and also was in line with how a lot of Muslims around the world were feeling about the—about the increasing global wars. And that’s really when Awlaki started to end up on the radar of the U.S. counterterrorism community, because they viewed him as someone who was speaking a language that a lot of diaspora Muslims, English-speaking Muslims around the world, could relate to. And they saw him sort of becoming more and more radical.
Awlaki then goes back to Yemen, where his father was living and was at the university. And his parents build him an apartment for him and his young family in their compound in Sana’a. And I’ve visited, and I’ve been in the apartment. It’s sort of a big compound, and the family has—each of the siblings have their families within this compound. And so, Awlaki was there, and he wasn’t sure what he was going to do. His dad—and it was sort of joking, but he’s like, "Anwar had these dreams of getting involved with real estate." And he always had some, you know, idea of how he was going to make money, but really he was just trying to—he was a man trying to figure himself out. And he started preaching at some mosques in Yemen and attended classes at a university there.
And then, in 2006, he is arrested on trumped-up charges of having intervened in a tribal dispute in Yemen, and he spends 18 months in prison in Yemen, 17 of them in solitary confinement. And he comes out a totally changed man. And I get into the book his prison writings. And they would only allow him, you know, certain books, but he read the book by Michael Scheuer, the former CIA operative, his writings about bin Laden. He read a lot of Dickens and was—made comparisons of the U.S. government to various characters in Great Expectations. And, you know, he did food reviews of the prison food. But he—you could really see that when came out, he was a changed man.
AMY GOODMAN: And why was he imprisoned?
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, he was—my understanding is that he was arrested initially on a request from the United States that—and I heard from a former senior Yemeni official that there was a meeting with John Negroponte, who at the time was the director of national intelligence, with Bandar Bush, you know, the Saudi ambassador, then the Saudi ambassador to Washington, one of the most powerful diplomats in the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Very close to the Bush family.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Very close to the Bush family. And—
AMY GOODMAN: Who, two days after 9/11, was having cigars with President Bush on the Truman balcony.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Exactly. And, of course, the Saudis run a huge portion of the U.S. counterterrorism operations to this day in Yemen. I mean, the U.S. has basically outsourced anything vaguely resembling intelligence in Yemen to a network of Saudi spies and to Saudi intelligence. I mean, that’s a whole other fascinating story. But there was this meeting in Washington with Yemen’s ambassador, Bandar Bush and John Negroponte, where Negroponte said that they wanted, according to my sources, Awlaki kept in prison for four or five years so that people would forget about him, because he was starting to become popular at that time. His books and his speeches were on sale in airports around the Middle East and also very popular in London and elsewhere. And they basically just wanted him to go away. And so, he was kept in prison for 18 months without charge. The United Nations investigated his imprisonment and declared that it was wrong and that it was an unlawful imprisonment. And the FBI came to interrogate Awlaki when he was in prison and, you know, were trying to ask him questions about the 9/11 attacks, and effectively trying to convince him to shut his mouth.
So, Awlaki comes out of prison and starts a blog, and essentially becomes—and that’s why people often refer to Awlaki as like the YouTube imam or the Internet imam. You know, he comes out, and he starts pontificating on the state of affairs in the world, and he has a vibrant comments section in his website, and young Muslims around the world are asking him questions about different interpretations of the Qur’an or the hadiths of the Prophet Muhammad. And Awlaki becomes this sort of figure on the Internet. And his mosque was the Internet. And as the U.S. wars intensified, Awlaki’s rhetoric intensifies.
And really the turning point in this story was in 2009, when Major Nidal Hasan opened fire at Fort Hood, Texas, on his fellow soldiers. He was an Army psychiatrist and gunned down more than a dozen of his fellow soldiers and wounded many, many others. And he, himself, was shot and paralyzed. It emerged, after Nidal Hasan did this massacre in 2009, that he had been in email contact with Anwar al-Awlaki.
AMY GOODMAN: In Yemen.
JEREMY SCAHILL: While Awlaki was in Yemen. And so, the story was floated in the media, and it continues to this day, that Awlaki helped to plan the Fort Hood shooting. There has never been a shred of evidence produced publicly that Awlaki had anything to do with the Fort Hood shooting before it happened.
What we now know, because the emails have been released, the communications between Awlaki and Nidal Hasan, that Nidal Hasan was sort of a pathetic man who was writing to Awlaki saying everything from—asking him everything from questions about the proper conduct of a Muslim in a military—one of them should have caught the eyes of investigators. He was asking Awlaki, basically, is it OK to shoot a fellow soldier if you think that they’re engaged in, you know, crime against Islam, you know, if they’re going to be going to another country? But he was putting it in the context of Israel and Palestine, and not sort of directly asking about himself. But he also asked Awlaki if he could help find him a wife. And then he tried to donate money to Awlaki and said, "I want to give a prize in your name for the best essay."
AMY GOODMAN: But as you point out in your book, he actually had interaction with this man 10 years earlier.
JEREMY SCAHILL: So, Awlaki—so, in one of the emails, Nidal Hasan says, "You might not remember me, but I met you once at your mosque in Falls Church, Virginia." And Awlaki didn’t remember him, but it turned out that Nidal Hasan’s parents were members of Awlaki’s mosque, and they had gone to Awlaki concerned about their son at one point, that he wasn’t—I don’t want to mischaracterize it, because I haven’t talked to the Hasan family. But in any case, they went to Awlaki, and they asked him for some guidance for their son, and so Awlaki had met him at one point, but it wasn’t—you know, he was the imam at a big mosque, and this would happen. And Awlaki said that, you know, he didn’t remember him.
Then, you know, the shooting happened, the discovery of the emails between Awlaki and Hasan comes out, U.S. intelligence reviewed them, said there was nothing to indicate that Awlaki had anything to do with it, yet the story still persisted in the media. Then the shooting happens, and Awlaki writes a blog post that says Nidal Hasan is a hero, and he praises the Fort Hood attack and says, "This should be a sort of a model for Muslims in the military going forward," and essentially calls on other soldiers to do this. And that’s—he hit the tripwire there when he did that. And then it became a thing from being concerned about Awlaki’s speech and the idea that he would radicalize young people to actually praising this killing and calling on other Muslims in the U.S. military to do the same thing. The U.S. intelligence then got Awlaki’s blog shut down, and Awlaki started to be harassed by Yemeni intelligence, and he eventually went to his family’s province of Shabwa in southern Yemen to basically lay low.
And while Awlaki is there, he has numerous interactions with the U.S.-backed Yemeni intelligence. The Awlaki family is in communication with the U.S.-backed Yemeni dictatorship of Ali Abdullah Saleh. And they’re saying to the Awlaki family, these U.S. proxies in Yemen, "Look, if you don’t get Anwar to come back to Sana’a, to the capital of Yemen, and we’re going to put him in prison here, the Americans are going to kill him. They’re going to kill him with a drone. So you have a choice: He can either live under the protection of our intelligence services in a prison, and we’ll treat him nicely until the Americans forget about him, or he can continue doing what he’s doing, running around in the mountains, and the Americans are going to kill him with a drone." And they said this years before Awlaki was killed by a drone. And Anwar’s father, the last time that he talked to him, I believe, was in May of 2009. He went down to Shabwa, Nasser Aulaqi and his wife, and they tried to convince Anwar to come back, because they were concerned that the U.S. government was going to kill him. And their position was: You haven’t done anything that’s criminal, and if you have, then you should be able to face the evidence. And Awlaki said to his family, "I will not allow the Americans to tell me which way to position my butt at night. You know, I was born free, and I’m going to die free. And I’m not going to allow the Americans to do this." And he said, "I’m going to continue to do what I believe is right."
And that was the last conversation that Nasser Aulaqi had with his son, because in December of 2009, the U.S. started bombing Yemen for the first time in seven years. Bush had bombed Yemen once. It was a drone bombing in 2002, November, and ended up killing a U.S. citizen in that strike, though he wasn’t the target of the strike. So the first time that the U.S. did a targeted strike that killed a U.S. citizen in Yemen that we know of was under Bush in November of 2002. In December of 2009, President Obama authorizes a series of missile strikes, not just drone strikes. The most deadly one that we know of was December 17th, 2009, cruise missile attack on the Yemeni village of al-Majalah, and it killed 46 people, three dozen of whom were women and children, which is stunning and horrifying. And we have video footage in our film of the aftermath of that strike, interviews with the survivors of when the missile hit. But it was in pursuit of one person that they said was an al-Qaeda operative, and they wiped out an entire Bedouin village. And we went there, and the cruise missile parts are still strewn across the desert. They’re there to this day just rusting out there. But the U.S. also used—
AMY GOODMAN: How many people were killed?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Forty-six people were killed, and I think 35 or 36 of them were women and children. And I was leaked the official parliamentary investigation in Yemen with the names and ages of all of the dead. And I have it—I have it stained in my head, the images that I’ve seen of the videos that people I met there had taken on the scene. You know, one tribal leader, Sheikh Saleh bin Fareed, who’s the head of the Awlak tribe in Yemen, he went there right after the attack. And he said to me, "If someone had weak heart, they would collapse, because you saw meat, and you couldn’t tell if it was goat meat or human meat. And you saw limbs of children." And he, himself—and he’s this older man—actually found body parts and helped to bury—try to bury people with dignity. And he’s this incredibly wealthy man who went there himself and is the main reason why there still is agitation for justice for the victims of the Majalah bombing, that—because these tribal leaders have said, "We will not forget what you did to this village of nobodies, one of the poorest tribes in all of Yemen."
Who knows why the U.S. bombed it? It could have been that the Yemeni government was under pressure from Obama’s administration, and they said, "No one will care about these people. Let’s just say this is an al-Qaeda camp, because it’s in the middle of nowhere. No one is going to care about them, and no one’s going to go there to investigate." But when we went there, we saw it. The cluster bombs, these are flying land mines, they’re banned. And yet the United States continues to use them, and they shred people into meat. I saw it in Yugoslavia in the '90s, and I've seen it again now in Yemen.
AMY GOODMAN: So the weapons used were?
JEREMY SCAHILL: The weapons used? They used a Tomahawk cruise missile, and they used cluster bombs. And the cluster bombs are—they are like flying land mines. And they drop in these parachutes, and they explode, and they can shred people. I mean, it’s their—they’re probably the most horrifying weapon I have ever seen the aftermath of in a war zone.
So, this is the first strike that President Obama authorizes, and it’s unclear who the real target even was. They claimed it was this one man and that he was killed. When I talked to people in Yemen, they said, "That guy is old—that guy is—yeah, he was a mujahideen in Afghanistan, but he had nothing to do with the leadership."
AMY GOODMAN: Mujahideen, who the U.S. worked with.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Who the U.S. worked with, right. You know, Yemenis went to Afghanistan in the '80s in huge numbers. And, you know, they have a very serious fighting spirit, and there were a lot of Yemenis that had gone there and fought on the same side as the United States. But the point I'm getting at here is that—so, the Obama administration starts to intensify this bombing in Yemen. They bomb al-Majalah. And then, seven days later, they—but remember that the Yemeni government claimed responsibility for the strike, and Obama’s administration released a statement praising Yemen for this attack. Yemen doesn’t have cruise missiles. Yemen doesn’t have cluster bombs.
So, but for, you know, some brave local journalists going there and photographing it initially, we probably would—never would have been able to prove that it was a U.S. strike. And we could talk about him later, but Obama, President Obama, is directly responsible for the first Yemeni journalist to report on this story, Abdulelah Haider Shaye, continuing to be in prison. He was arrested after he exposed the Majalah bombing, and he remains in prison to this day. In fact, the last line in my book is to say that he’s still in prison, and he should be set free. This was a journalist that had worked with major U.S. media outlets, broke this huge story that the U.S. had bombed Yemen for the first time in seven years, using cluster bombs, and then he ends up in prison on trumped-up terrorism charges, put on trial in a court that was set up specifically to prosecute journalists, and then when he was going to be pardoned, President Obama called Ali Abdullah Saleh and said, "We don’t want him released," and he remains in prison to this day. So, he was the first journalist to do that. He’s in prison.
Seven days after that bombing, the Yemeni government puts out a press release saying they’ve conducted these air strikes in Shabwa and Abyan province and that among the dead is Wuhayshi and Shihri, the two heads of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Anwar al-Awlaki. So the first time that we know of that the U.S. intended to kill Anwar al-Awlaki was in December of 2009. This is before we understood that he had actually been officially put on the kill list. We didn’t find out about that until two months later. So, this first strike, Yemeni government takes responsibility, but in fact it was a U.S. strike. Then Awlaki knows that they’re trying to get him. Drones start appearing all throughout Yemen. There hadn’t been drone strikes in Yemen since 2002. So drones start appearing over Shabwa and over Abyan, and people start seeing them, and there’s an intensification of these attacks.
Then, in January of 2010, a story leaks to The New York — to The Washington Postthat there are a number of U.S. citizens that have been put on the kill list that’s maintained by the CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command, and that among these, most prominently, is Anwar al-Awlaki. And after the Post published that story, they had to run a correction, because the CIA got in touch with the Post and said that we don’t have Americans on our kill list. So then they had to clarify that it was the Joint Special Operations Command, and then, in fact, there were two separate kill lists. So, once Awlaki knew that he was a target, he went totally underground and spent the remaining two years of his life on the run.
And his father, Nasser al-Aulaqi, wrote a letter to President Obama begging him not to kill his son and saying, "We could—there’s another way to resolve this. And if there’s evidence that my son is involved with any criminal activity, make it public." And the head of the Awlak tribe said, "If Anwar is guilty of anything, we’ll execute him ourselves. But we want to see the evidence, because we don’t think that the United States has the right to simply say someone should be given the death penalty without ever giving them a trial."
And, I mean, they understood something that barely registered a blip on the radar of the U.S. Congress. When they—when we learned that Awlaki was on the kill list, Congressman Dennis Kucinich put forward a bill that simply stated—didn’t even mention Awlaki—that Americans have the right to due process and that the government does not have a right to execute or assassinate American citizens without having tried them or presented evidence. And only six members of Congress signed onto it with Dennis Kucinich, and no senators, which is interesting because then years later, Rand Paul does this filibuster, and all these tea party and Republican people are all up in arms about, you know, "Is President Obama going to hunt them down and kill them in the United States?" when at the time none of them ever said—none of them said anything about it. It was basically just Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, who at the time was waging an insurgent campaign for the Republican nomination for president, that said anything about this. And, you know, so it’s sort of how times change.
So, Awlaki is on the run, and the U.S., by my count, tried to kill him more than a dozen times. And I write in the book about one incident in May of 2011 where Awlaki very nearly was killed. He was in Shabwa. He was driving in a two-car convoy. And the U.S. had drones and other special ops aircraft, and they were doing this sort of bee swarm on him to try to get him. And they—there was a misfire, and the drone—the drone missed Awlaki’s vehicle. And they were driving in a car, in a vehicle that had gasoline canisters, which is common in a lot of countries where there’s not just gas stations everywhere you travel. So if it had hit it, it would have just, you know, blown. So Awlaki and his cohorts believed that they’re being ambushed. They don’t know that it’s a drone strike. They feel an explosion; they think someone maybe has launched an RPGat them. So they try to do some evasive maneuvers. Meanwhile, the U.S. aircraft are circling back around, and they shoot—they fire another missile, and it misses again. And now there’s this huge dust up. Awlaki calls for backup.
These two brothers, the Harad brothers, come to the rescue. And there’s—they’re in the—there’s a chaotic scene. There’s all of this smoke and clouds. And the Harad brothers get into Awlaki’s truck, Awlaki gets into their Suzuki, and then they—it’s something like out of—out of like, you know, some Hollywood movie. They drive in opposite directions away from the smoke. And I talked to a JSOC planner who saw the after action reports. He said, "We only had the top-down imagery. It looks like ants. So we didn’t know." And they had to make a decision which truck to follow. So they follow the original one, and they blow that one up. But, of course, Awlaki wasn’t in it, and Awlaki watched his car with the two brothers in it blow up while he was on a sort of cliff in the mountains. And then he slept overnight there, and then he made his way to the home of a friend of his. And he said that night, you know, that he counted 11 missiles, and he said they all missed their target, but the next one could be a direct hit.
And sure enough, in—on September 30th, 2011, just a few months later, Awlaki was in Jawf province in the north of Yemen, which was interesting because the U.S. always was looking for him in the south, and he and another American, Samir Khan, who is widely believed to have been the editor of Inspire magazine, the al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula magazine, were getting into their car and driving, and then the U.S. launched a drone strike and killed Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan in one strike. And U.S. officials said that Samir Khan wasn’t a target, but one congressman said it was a "two-fer," you know, that they got both of them at the same time. And I talked to the Khan family also, Samir Khan’s family. They’re from North Carolina, Pakistani Americans. And they said that the FBI had met with them repeatedly and said that Samir is not—hasn’t committed any crimes. A grand jury did not return an indictment against him. And they were trying to encourage the family to get him to come home. So this U.S. citizen, whose family had been told he hadn’t done anything criminal that they knew of, was actually killed that day with Anwar al-Awlaki.
AMY GOODMAN: War correspondent Jeremy Scahill on his new book, out today, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. We’ll continue our conversation in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: "Lives in the Balance," sung by Richie Havens, who died on Monday at the age of 72. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our conversation with The Nation correspondent, Democracy Now! correspondent, premier war correspondent Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. We turn now to President Obama speaking September 30th, 2011, announcing the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The death of Awlaki is a major blow to al-Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate. 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. He directed the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009. He directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. And he repeatedly called on individuals in the United States and around the globe to kill innocent men, women and children to advance a murderous agenda.
AMY GOODMAN: Your response to President Obama, Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, I think one of the things that we have to understand about Anwar al-Awlaki is that no evidence was ever presented that he played an operational role in any of these attacks. I’m not saying that I know that he didn’t. Maybe he did. But under our legal system, American citizens should have a right to respond to the evidence presented against them. And Awlaki was never afforded that. Nidal Hasan is getting a trial. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is in the justice system having, you know, something resembling a trial. John Walker Lindh was given access to the U.S. legal system and had—and if he had wanted to not take a plea agreement, he could have fought the charges against him in court. Anwar al-Awlaki, though, was sentenced to death by a president who served as judge, jury and ultimately as executioner, and also prosecutor in public. They litigated Anwar al-Awlaki’s death penalty case with leaks to the media. They never gave him a chance to respond to it.
So, I don’t know what his role was in the so-called underwear bomber, the Abdulmutallab case. I know from my own reporting on the ground in Yemen that Awlaki had met with [Umar] Farouk Abdulmutallab, who was a very, I think, deranged young man, this Nigerian who came and tried to bring down this airliner. But it cuts to the heart of something else interesting: Was Anwar al-Awlaki a member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula? He never claimed it himself. He referred to them as his brothers. And Nasser Aulaqi said, "I know my son, and if he had been a member of that organization, he would have said, ’I’m a member of that organization.’" My sense, on the ground, is that Awlaki was around those circles, that they respected him as someone who was definitely preaching things that were in sync with their agenda. But when leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula tried to get Osama bin Laden to name Awlaki as the head of AQAP, bin Laden basically said, "We need to see his résumé. He’s untested. I don’t—I mean, I know who this guy is, but I don’t know anything about him. So, you keep—you’re still the head of the organization. Don’t try to—don’t try to bring this to me until he’s tested on the battlefield." So my response to President Obama is, if all of this is true, what would the harm be in presenting that evidence to the American people or having presented that evidence to Anwar al-Awlaki? Why—
AMY GOODMAN: That he couldn’t get him.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Why not seek an indictment against him?
AMY GOODMAN: That he couldn’t get him. That would be Obama’s, perhaps, his response.
JEREMY SCAHILL: But why not seek an indictment against Anwar al-Awlaki, if he’s guilty of all of these things, and then demand his extradition? And if Yemen is not going to extradite him, then you could have sent in a team of Navy SEALs to snatch him. Or you could have, I mean, probably had a much easier time justifying his killing if you actually had presented evidence against him. That title that Obama bestowed on Anwar Awlaki, no one—I talked to—no one had ever heard of that before, that Awlaki was the head of external operations for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. If Awlaki was anything within al-Qaeda, he would have been very low-level management. We in the United States get obsessed with Inspire magazine and Anwar al-Awlaki because they’re speaking in English, and so we can get scared of their words because they’re in English. If you read in Arabic what has been produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and you study who is important in that organization, Anwar al-Awlaki is a nobody, in terms of the actual Arabic-speaking jihadist population that is sort of in the circle of AQAP. He was someone that was convenient because he was preaching in English to a wider audience.
AMY GOODMAN: You quoted a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst about his role, about Awlaki’s role.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right, just saying that, you know, he’s mid-level management and that he—that he doesn’t do—he wouldn’t do anything without them telling him what to do. He’s not a decider. He’s not making those decisions.
AMY GOODMAN: So, September 30th, 2011, Awlaki is killed in a drone attack along with another American citizen, Samir Khan.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Then talk about what happened two weeks later.
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. So, around the time a little bit before Anwar Awlaki and Samir Khan were killed, Awlaki’s son, Abdulrahman, who was living with his grandparents and his mother in their house in Sana’a, he had just turned 16, and one morning he went into his mother’s purse before anyone had gotten up, and he took the equivalent of $40 out of her purse and left a small note saying, you know, "Please forgive me. I miss my father, and I want to go and try to find him. I’m sorry that I took the money, and I’ll pay it back." And then he climbed out the kitchen window. And I went into their house and saw his bedroom, and I saw the kitchen, and I sort of recreated what had happened. And he jumped out their kitchen window, and the security guard in their family compound saw him leaving early in the morning and didn’t think much of it at all. And so he goes to Babel Yemen, in the old city in Sana’a, and he gets on a bus, and he goes to Shabwa, where he believes his father is.
AMY GOODMAN: Hasn’t seen him for a few years.
JEREMY SCAHILL: And hasn’t—hadn’t seen him since 2009. And, you know, this was a kid who was born in Denver, Colorado, and grew up—I mean, I saw these videos of Anwar teaching his son how to ride a horse and playing at the beach with him. And, I mean, the Awlakis showed me their family home movies. And this kid clearly adored his father. And then, you know, his dad becomes this outlaw and is on the run. And he’s sort of coming of age and decides that he wants to go and find his father. And so he takes a bus to Shabwa, where they have family, and was going to wait there and try to connect with his father.
Anwar al-Awlaki’s mother, Saleha, told me that she was in a panic when she found out that he had left, because she thought that it was possible that the CIA was trying to use Abdulrahman to find his father, that they could have been tracking him via text messages if he had been involved, you know, with finding his dad or emails and that they were being monitored. In fact, when we went to the Awlaki home in Sana’a the first time to film with them, Rick Rowley, the director of the film, couldn’t find an open frequency on the—on our recording system, because all of the radio waves were being used, so they’re just being monitored intensely by all sorts of intelligence agencies. So, you know, I know that every member of that family was being watched in some way or another by intelligence.
So, Abdulrahman Awlaki goes to Shabwa to wait for his father. And when he’s there, his father is killed and—nowhere near Shabwa. He’s killed in the north of Yemen. And then he calls back to speak to his grandparents, and his grandmother, you know, said, "Abdulrahman, it’s finished. Your father is dead. You have to come home." And at the time, it was the—you know, the so-called Arab Spring. These uprisings were happening, and it was happening in Yemen, too. The roads were all blocked, so he had to stay in Shabwa for a couple of weeks while he waited for things to calm down so he could safely travel back to Sana’a, which is a treacherous sort of stretch of territory where there’s a lot of fighting. And, you know, he’s depressed, and his family members there are encouraging him to get out and to go out into the world and do stuff, and so he goes with his teenage cousins to an outdoor restaurant to eat, and they’re there on the night of October 14th when a drone appears above them and launches a missile and blows up 16-year-old Abdulrahman Awlaki and his teenage cousins.
And, you know, Nasser Aulaqi, Anwar’s father, loses his firstborn son, and then, two weeks later, his eldest grandson is killed. And he said that when they got the phone call the next day, that their relatives in Shabwa told them that they—that they couldn’t identify the bodies completely because they were all shredded and blown up to pieces and that they only could find part of Abdulrahman’s head. And they knew it was him because he had this very distinct afro. He had this very large head of hair that his family had always—his mom and grandparents were saying, "Cut your hair," and he was a rebellious teenager. And, you know, on his Facebook page, which, you know, the family gave me all of his Facebook posts, this was a kid who was into hip-hop music, who had lots of pictures posing as a rapper with his friends, was into video games; when the revolution was happening in Yemen, would go to the Change Square to hang out and was a part of the—wanted to be a part of that change in his country. And he was killed in this drone strike. And the U.S., to this day, has never publicly said who they were going after in that drone strike.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Anwar al-Awlaki’s father, Nasser al-Aulaqi, the grandfather of Abdulrahman. In this video, made for the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, he spoke about the U.S. killing of his 16-year-old grandson, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.
NASSER AL-AULAQI: I want Americans to know about my grandson, that he was very nice boy. He was very caring boy for his family, for his mother, for his brothers. He was born in August 1995 in the state of Colorado, city of Denver. He was raised in America, when he was a child until he was seven years old. And I never thought that one day this boy, this nice boy, will be killed by his own government.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Nasser al-Aulaqi, the grandfather of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. So, after he was killed, the story that we all know in the public now is that U.S. officials leaked stories to the press saying that he was 21 years old. He wasn’t; he had just turned 16, and we have the birth certificate to prove that. He was born in Colorado in 1995. Then they said that he had been with Ibrahim al-Banna, who is an Egyptian member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And the dominant story that’s been floated is that the U.S. was trying to kill al-Banna and that Abdulrahman Awlaki just happened to be next to him, which is an incredible coincidence that this 16-year-old kid, whose father was killed two weeks earlier in a targeted assassination by the U.S. government, is then killed himself while in the company of another member of AQAP. The CIA said that al-Banna wasn’t even on their target list, so opening up the speculation that it was a unilateral JSOC operation, Joint Special Operations Command operation. When I spoke to—I spoke to a JSOCguy who was in Yemen at the time working on that strike, and he wouldn’t tell me any of the details, but he said, "The guy we were trying to get, we didn’t get." And I said, "Well, what—how did you feel when you saw that this teenage American citizen had been killed?" And he goes, "Well, there’s a reason I’m not doing this anymore." And so, we don’t know who it was. Was Ibrahim al-Banna there? If he was, AQAP says he’s very much alive, and that it was lies that he was killed, if that’s the claim.
Then the U.S. said, "Well, it was an outrageous mistake." This is all anonymous, though. They’ll never—they’ll never talk about it. President Obama has never been asked about the killing of this teenager. My new reporting, though, that I did very recently, suggests that there—this was a great controversy within the White House. I understand from a former senior official of the administration who worked on this program at the time that when it became clear that Abdulrahman Awlaki had been killed, that President Obama was furious and that John Brennan, who at the time was the president’s homeland security and counterterrorism adviser, the guy running all of these operations, that Brennan believed or suspected that it was an intentional hit against Anwar Awlaki’s son, this 16-year-old kid, and ordered a review. And I asked this former senior official what happened with the review, and he said, "I don’t know." And then when I got in touch with the White House recently and I exchanged a series of emails with the National Security Council spokesperson, she told me that she wouldn’t discuss any of the specifics about this and said that they’re not going to talk about operational details or any of the reviews, and then pasted a boilerplate response about drone strikes into the email.
But then, when I asked this former senior official, "So, if the narrative on this is that it was a mistake, then why didn’t you say that? Why didn’t you say, you know, this 16-year-old U.S. citizen was killed as collateral damage, or, you know, we were intending to get someone else, and we didn’t do it?" And he said, "Look, we had just killed three U.S. citizens in a two-week period, two of whom weren’t even targets—Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki. It doesn’t look good. It’s embarrassing." That’s what this official said to me. So, what my understanding is now is that they killed these three U.S. citizens, two of whom weren’t targets, one of whom was a 16-year-old kid whose Facebook page you can look at online and photos you can look at online and see what kind of a person he was, and the best thing to come up with is: "We haven’t said anything to his family because it was embarrassing for us politically." And that says a lot about where we’re at with these drone strikes.
I also think it’s possible that Abdulrahman Awlaki was killed in what’s called a signature strike, which, to me, is the most egregious part of the whole drone program. Because the United States doesn’t have any actual intelligence on the ground in Yemen, they’ve taken to doing these signature strikes where they develop a pattern of life, and they say, if people are in a certain region of Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia—if people are in a certain region and they’re of military age—they could be anywhere from 15 to 70 years old—and they fit some kind of a pattern of other people we believe to be terrorists, then they become legitimate targets. So it’s the most horrific form of pre-crime. They don’t know the identities of the people that they’re killing. They don’t know whether they’ve been involved with any activity. They’re killed for who they might be or they might one day become. And so, for whatever reason Abdulrahman Awlaki was killed that day, the message that was sent is that the U.S. will operate with impunity in pursuit of a small number of people, and even U.S. citizens can be killed, with no explanation as to why, by their own government.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me play the clip of Attorney General Eric Holder, who offered the Obama administration’s most spirited defense of its policy authorizing the assassination of U.S. citizens abroad, speaking last March at Chicago’s Northwestern University.
ATTORNEY GENERAL ERIC HOLDER: It is an unfortunate but undeniable fact that some of the threats that we face come from a small number of United States citizens who have decided to commit violent attacks against their own country from abroad. Based on generations-old legal principles and Supreme Court decisions handed down during World War II, as well as during this current conflict, it’s clear that United States citizenship alone does not make—does not make such individuals immune from being targeted.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Attorney General Eric Holder. Jeremy Scahill?
JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, I also—I want to—I mean, we’ve talked a lot about U.S. citizens, but I also feel it’s necessary to point out that the vast majority of the people being killed in these operations are not in fact U.S. citizens, they’re Pakistanis, they’re Yemenis, they’re Somalis and, you know, others. I mean, I think it’s ironic that you have a president that is a constitutional law expert and that you have, you know, this attorney general who was very well respected in the field of law coming forward to put together the defense of the—a defense of the stripping of the most basic rights in our Constitution. I mean, the idea that you can simply have one branch of government unilaterally and in secret declare that an American citizen should be executed or assassinated without having to present any evidence whatsoever, to me, is a—we should view that with great sobriety about the implications for our country. The idea that you don’t give people the chance to respond to charges against them or to see the evidence against them should be shocking to all Americans.
When Anwar Awlaki’s father tried to file a lawsuit before his son was killed, before Anwar Awlaki was killed, challenging the government’s right to assassinate him, CIADirector Leon Panetta, Defense Secretary Gates, DNI—Director of National Intelligence James Clapper all submitted briefs to the court saying that if the evidence was to be made public, it would threaten the security of the United States, and they hid behind the state secrets privilege. So their response to a U.S. citizen’s petition to understand why they were put on the kill list was to say, "We have evidence, but it’s too secret to—it’s too sensitive to be made public." And that’s essentially what it’s come down to.
And, you know, I’m a believer in societies being defined by how they treat the least of their people or their most reprehensible members of their society. Anwar Awlaki said things that I find utterly despicable and disgraceful, and I think that there probably would have been grounds to charge him with some form of a—with some kind of a crime. His lawyers have never contended he’s an innocent man or he’s this noble figure that should be held up. He called for the killing of cartoonists who had drawn the Prophet Muhammad, listed specific names of people. He did things that are offensive to me and should be offensive to all humans. But that’s not—but that, itself, is not a death penalty case. You know, you have to look at how you treat people that you despise and what access do you give them and what rights do you give them in a society. That defines who you are, just like when a president is in power who you support, or maybe you voted for, or you think is a great guy, your principles are tested by where you stand when they’re doing things or implementing policies that you would have opposed if the other guy had won. And so, you know, we have a crisis of conscience right now in our country also, where people are—it’s like, you know, partisan lemmings just going off the cliff. If McCain had won that election, there’s no way that you’d see polls—70 percent of liberals supporting drone strikes. No way. Obama has sold liberals a bill of goods and has convinced them that this is a smarter, cleaner way to wage wars. And it’s just not.
AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, author of the new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield. Tomorrow we’ll play highlights from today’s first-ever Senate drone hearing and air part two of my interview with Jeremy on secret U.S. operations across the globe, including Somalia and Pakistan.