As al-Awlaki Family Mourns Abdulrahman, 16, US Develops “Kamikaze Drones” Targeting Single Humans

A portion of a photo of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki from his Facebook memorial page.

On Saturday, I wrote about a series of Friday drone attacks in southern Yemen.  The most prominent of these attacks killed Ibrahim al-Bana, who is described as the media chief for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.  This same attack, however, also killed Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American cleric targeted and killed last month in Yemen in another US drone attack.

Yesterday, the al-Awlaki family spoke out for the first time since the deaths, granting interviews with the Washington Post.  Notably, it turns out that Adbulrahman was only 16 years old, despite many media reports (including the AP report as carried in the Post that I quoted Saturday) that he was 21.  Here is how Abdulrahman’s grandfather (Anwar’s father) described the killing:

“To kill a teenager is just unbelievable, really, and they claim that he is an al-Qaeda militant. It’s nonsense,” said Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Yemeni agriculture minister who was Anwar al-Awlaki’s father and the boy’s grandfather, speaking in a phone interview from Sanaa on Monday. “They want to justify his killing, that’s all.”

And Abdulrahman wasn’t the only teenager killed in this attack.  His 17 year old Yemeni cousin also died.  In fact, the family claims the attack took place at a nighttime barbecue and several teenagers were killed:

In a separate statement Monday, the Awlaki family said that Abdulrahman “along with some of his tribe’s youth have gone barbecuing under the moonlight. A drone missile hit their congregation killing Abdulrahman and several other teenagers.”

The Post article also has a link to a Facebook page memorializing Abdulrahman.

The family disputes the description the US put out after his death that Anwar al-Awlaki was the head of al-Qaeda external operations:

The family, in its statement, said, “Anwar was never a ‘militant’ ” nor was he “the head of Al Qaeda external operations.”

Abdulrahman became the second American citizen killed in Yemen as “collateral damage” in an attack targeted at someone else, as al Qaeda propagandist Samir Khan was killed in the attack on Anwar al-Awlaki.  However, since virtually all attacks carried out by the US, including the two discussed here,  are initially characterized by US spokespeople as only killing “militants”, a big question becomes whether the intent all along was to kill the two additional Americans, even though there is no indication that either of them had been put on Obama’s “hit list”.

There are several key questions in the case of Abdulrahman.  Did the US know he was only 16?  Did the US know there were additional teenagers at the cookout?  Was there a conscious decision to kill Abdulrahman under the belief that he was a militant?

New technology that is in development has the potential to reduce the number of collateral damage deaths, if there is indeed a desire to reduce them.  AFP reported yesterday on the development of “kamikaze drones”:

A miniature “kamikaze” drone designed to quietly hover in the sky before dive-bombing and slamming into a human target will soon be part of the US Army’s arsenal, officials say.

The article notes the issues that have developed in Pakistan with the killing of innocent civilians in drone strikes that employ the larger Hellfire missiles and points out how the new drones are intended to improve that situation:

The Switchblade, however, is touted as a way to avoid killing bystanders.

“Flying quietly at high speed the Switchblade delivers its onboard explosive payload with precision while minimizing collateral damage,” the company said.

The US has a $4.9 million contract with the developer, AeroVironment, to supply the new drones “as soon as possible”.  It will be interesting to see just how popular the new drones become with their CIA and JSOC operators.  Will there be an effort to hit individuals with Switchblades when they are isolated and perhaps even in the open, or will the lure of killing a larger number of “militants” at one time (with attendant collateral damage likely) maintain the current status quo of most drone attacks hitting small gatherings?

Many years ago, Jim got a BA in Radiation Biophysics from the University of Kansas. He then got a PhD in Molecular Biology from UCLA and did postdoctoral research in yeast genetics at UC Berkeley and mouse retroviruses at Stanford. He joined biosys in Palo Alto, producing insect parasitic nematodes for pest control. In the early 1990’s, he moved to Gainesville, FL and founded a company that eventually became Entomos. He left the firm as it reorganized into Pasteuria Biosciences and chose not to found a new firm due a clash of values with venture capital investors, who generally lack all values. Upon leaving, he chose to be a stay at home dad, gentleman farmer, cook and horse wrangler. He discovered the online world through commenting at Glenn Greenwald’s blog in the Salon days and was involved in the briefly successful Chris Dodd move to block the bill to renew FISA. He then went on to blog at Firedoglake and served a brief stint as evening editor there. When the Emptywheel blog moved out of Firedoglake back to standalone status, Jim tagged along and blogged on anthrax, viruses, John Galt, Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is now a mostly lapsed blogger looking for a work-around to the depressing realization that pointing out the details of government malfeasance and elite immunity has approximately zero effect.
25 replies
  1. emptywheel says:

    Wasn’t he born in the US? Because given Section 215, among other things, I’m sure they know his DOB.

  2. orionATL says:

    this is simply inhumane.

    our government has stooped to terrorism, there is no other word that describes this behavior but “terrorism”, a drone is no different than a car bomb.

  3. floundericious says:

    There’s a sociopathic taint to this whole discussion…will they use the new super small smart drone to literally hit a person in the torso and blow them up or will they continue to use hellfire missiles to kill several at once? Nowhere do we seem to get any traction of “how do you select ‘targets’ for these strikes”? Who reviews that list? Who gave you the right to kill innocent bystanders??!

  4. rugger9 says:

    No due process for whoever the PTB decides are “terrorists” is apparently the new norm. Look at how Shrub trivialized it into “if you aren’t for us, you’re against us” in the Iraq run-up, while sending the FBI after pacifist Quakers and the Raging Grannies, among others, and calling all dissidents “traitors” in the press. Think about that power in the hands of a President Cain or Perry, and tremble for the USA.

    The first law of dirtballs is [from USN days]: they’ll always give you another chance to take them out. Capture and trial. All I am waiting for now is the Awlaki family to sue the USG on civil rights violations, noting for example that the SCOTUS has made it clear that executions aren’t allowed for 16 yr olds. If the USG hides behind state secrets, as I would expect them to do as their only feasible defense [otherwise the DOJ would have to reveal how a 16 year old made the kill list, including criteria and decision tree], the world would see the hypocrisy of the claim, and may even force their governments to do something about it. It’s not coincidental that the Question Time can be used to pry open government secrets, it’s why we know about the Downing Street memos and the Iraq justifications.

  5. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Tiny drones, imagined from a reader of Dune. Sniperless snipers. It’s a development that will have untold benefits for mankind, but which will have to be kept secret to keep us safe.

  6. Jim White says:

    @rugger9: The age issue, along with the photo in the post, hit me really hard on a personal level. I have kids who bracket him in age. He looks like any American kid whose biggest concern should be the shifting personal alliances in high school.

  7. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Mr. Obama must still be using the “proportionality” analysis regarding the legality of armed responses written by Mr. Cheney. And why not? He has adopted so many other of his thoughts and initiatives.

  8. Jeff Kaye says:

    The rot has gone fully through now. It is impossible to even discuss rationally the new “kamikaze” drones, at least as Nazi-like as the V-1 or V-2, and perhaps worse.

    The murder of teens is not surprising, since the U.S. government has shown no problem with torturing children and teens. Of course, there were the teens tortured at Guantanamo. And lately, we’ve been reminded, though it slipped through with barely a comment in the press, the UN’s recent report on the torture practices of U.S. ally Afghanistan — practices that are signed off on by the Secretary of State, in order to avoid the Leahy law, in the sense of their being some “improvement” by the security agencies involved — routinely torture children and teens, the better to bring “freedom” to that war-weary nation.

    Here’s how the UN report describes it (PDF, p. 21):

    NDS Department 90/124 used a variety of techniques that amounted to torture; this treatment was also used against child detainees (aged between 14 and 17 years). UNAMA interviewed six children who had been detained in Department 90/124; five reported they suffered torture.71 UNAMA concluded that five children experienced torture during interrogation for purposes of obtaining a confession.72 One child was not mistreated or tortured but was threatened with torture.

    The five children claimed they made false confessions regarding involvement in national security crimes to stop the torture.73 Five had been beaten with hard plastic pipes, one with a hard plastic pipe and an electric cable, one with an electric cable on his back and three had been beaten on the soles of their feet. 74 Four of the five children had also been subjected to suspension.75 One child was threatened with electric shock unless he confessed.76 One child reported NDS interrogators squeezed his testicles, while another child reported NDS officials threatened with sexual assault.

    Oh, and it wasn’t just five kids who were tortured. This is just what turned up in a RANDOM SAMPLE made by investigators.

  9. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The appellation “kamikaze” is false. A small unmanned drone that can purportedly kill a single individual but leave those near him or her unscathed is not a divine wind. Ill wind is more like it. Nor are these unmanned, civilian contractor, civilian intel, or military staff-piloted drones – remoted-piloted bullets – anything like the manned suicidal aircraft the Japanese famously used in World War Two.

    There is a similarity. The Japanese resorted to suicide bombing missions after it had lost virtually all its trained pilots and crews, after it had essentially lost the war but had no culturally acceptable way to admit defeat. Its suicide bombing missions were a last ditch, immoral effort to throw away the lives of young teenage pilots in order to avoid the inevitable. Not out of a sense of honor.

    Mr. Obama, as his other policies and initiatives have done across the board, is normally the reprehensible, making it routine and routinely necessary. It’s as if, wanting a brain for his new monster, he has purposely chosen the one marked, “A.B. Normal”.

  10. Jim White says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Thanks for that reminder about torture of children. It really does put the killing of a teenager into further perspective. I would add that we still haven’t heard a word on the status of KSM’s children, who were reported to be in US custody in March, 2003.

  11. Jeff Kaye says:

    @Jim White: If one wishes to be sick at heart about the massive hypocrisy about protecting children, one can turn their heads and hearts to the south, so to speak, and consider what U.S. ally Argentina did during their “dirty war” of the 70s-80s, a war fully backed by the U.S. government.

    Between 1976 and 1983, Argentina was governed by a repressive military dictatorship. This government considered students, intellectuals, and politicians as dissidents and the dictatorial government severely censored and brutalized members of these groups. An estimated 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured, and killed during these years….

    A particular aspect of the terror involved kidnapping pregnant women and taking them to secret detention centers where they were held until they had their babies. After giving birth, the mothers were killed and the babies were given to families that wanted children and that had close ties to the government. The children of people deemed subversive by the government were also kidnapped. Approximately 220 babies were raised in adopted homes as a result of these brutal practices.

    I have nothing but contempt for anyone who looks to the U.S. and its putative allies as some kind of moral exemplar. When history finally looks back on this time, future citizens of the world will shake their heads in wonderment at how people of our time could be so complacent.

    Thanks, Jim, Marcy, bmaz, for keeping up your work.

  12. thatvisionthing says:

    2004 Democratic Convention:

    SENATOR OBAMA: John Kerry believes in America. And he knows that it’s not enough for just some of us to prosper. For alongside our famous individualism, there’s another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.

    If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child.


    If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent.


    If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.


    It is that fundamental belief — it is that fundamental belief — I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper — that makes this country work.


    It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: “E pluribus unum,” out of many, one.

    Now one of those lines got HUGE applause and cheers and a standing ovation. Which one? Watch at 11:45.

  13. gmoke says:

    If you don’t think this drone technology will be available soon to anyone who really, really wants it, you are sadly mistaken. The Iran “plot” against the Saudi ambassador to the US is one example of this. Chris Anderson, an editor at Wired, has a side business supplying parts for small model airplanes. I brought this issue up with him a year or so ago and he didn’t have much of an answer. Reportedly, News Corpse, Rupert Murdoch’s criminal enterprise, used drones to eavesdrop on some subject in the UK. There is only going to be more of this.

    I look forward to the time when such small drones are equipped with Raman spectroscopy so that they can used DNA samples to pinpoint their victims.

  14. emptywheel says:

    @Jeff Kaye: Did you see that NYT story on a woman raised by a top general who was among those who stole babies? Her parents were activists, of course.

  15. rugger9 says:

    @Jim White: #7
    There is no way this kid was a terrorist unless the USA made him into one. No evidence of any kind has been offered to show any terrorist activity by this kid or his friends. Nothing.

    So, IMHO, the family should sue under civil rights violations, and while they are at it go for a mandamus ruling for murder by the drone operator who IS in the USA.

  16. Susan says:

    one day, the other side is going to figure out how to hack into those drones and they will turn them on the US military or US civilians.

  17. orionATL says:

    @Susan: p

    my thought exactly!

    and then there’ll be hell to pay.

    humans as a species are so damned smart and so inventive that this is bound to happen.

    the history of mankind has lots of examples of wars between technologically inequal peoples, where the least technologicalt advantaged won – vietnam being a recent example, afghanistan an impending one.

    and of course, one does not really need all the multi-million $ gizmos on u.s. drones.

    just some fuel and some c-4 and proximity to a target.

  18. prostratedragon says:

    The ethical drone that puts even the most committed and politically aware to sleep is absent.

    That is Julia Alvarez, from her Preface to Alicia Partnoy’s The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, a memoir of her time as one of the disappeared (Google books version). The forced separation of children and parents and stealing of children are features of the landscape of this memoir.

    And if you want to hear almost unbearably whiny-assed titty babies in full outcry (and who does not? After all, it’s origin is what some of our present-day feefee boys might regard as The Bigs), check out those who are questioned in connection with baby-trafficking in Margeurite Feitlowitz’s A Lexicon of Terror (goodread review page). Keep family members and significant others forewarned.

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