Government Finally Releases Narrative of Anwar al-Awlaki’s Role in UndieBombing Plot

As part of its sentencing memo asking for multiple counts of life imprisonment against Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the government has finally officially laid out how it claims Anwar al-Awlaki was involved in Abdulmutallab’s plot. I’ve included the entirety of the account below the rule.

I agree with Evan Perez. Now that they’ve made this narrative available, surely they can make the OLC memo authorizing Awlaki’s death available (note, the narrative says only that Awlaki and Samir Khan died, not that we killed them).

One more thing I’m interested in. I assume that Abdulmutallab, in this response to this filing, will object if he finds any of this inaccurate (so I assume it is accurate). He appears to have objected to this narrative in the presentencing report (and therefore, here), but he doesn’t say they were inaccurate.

Defendant states that the objected-to paragraphs contain “information obtained during plea negotiations in this matter and can not at this stage be used against him, for sentencing purposes.”

But given certain vague aspects of the narrative, I’m wondering how much corroborating evidence they have (particularly since several of the people mentioned in it are dead–and even Ibrahim al-Asiri, the bombmaker, was rumored to be). For example, the initial communication with Awlaki would involve data evidence. Did they get that after the fact? Or were they tracing it in real time and missed that too? Some of it might depend on other witnesses who have since returned to Saudi Arabia. And I wonder if the government has tracked down (for example) the unnamed middle man who put Abdulmutallab in touch with Awlaki? We know they have physical proof of Asiri’s involvement. What other evidence is out there?

Anyway, it’s high time the government release this information officially. And now that it’s released, they should do more and release the OLC memo.


In August 2009, defendant left Dubai, where he had been taking graduate classes, and traveled to Yemen. For several years, defendant had been following the online teachings of Anwar Awlaki, and he went to Yemen to try to meet him in order to discuss the possibility of becoming involved in jihad. Defendant by that time had become committed in his own mind to carrying out an act of jihad, and was contemplating “martyrdom;” i.e., a suicide operation in which he and others would be killed.

Once in Yemen, defendant visited mosques and asked people he met if they knew how he could meet Awlaki. Eventually, defendant made contact with an individual who in turn made Awlaki aware of defendant’s desire to meet him. Defendant provided this individual with the number for his Yemeni cellular telephone. Thereafter, defendant received a text message from Awlaki telling defendant to call him, which defendant did. During their brief telephone conversation, it was agreed that defendant would send Awlaki a written message explaining why he wanted to become involved in jihad. Defendant took several days to write his message to Awlaki, telling him of his desire to become involved in jihad, and seeking Awlaki’s guidance. After receiving defendant’s message, Awlaki sent defendant a response, telling him that Awlaki would find a way for defendant to become involved in jihad.

Thereafter, defendant was picked up and driven through the Yemeni desert. He eventually arrived at Awlaki’s house, and stayed there for three days. During that time, defendant met with Awlaki and the two men discussed martyrdom and jihad. Awlaki told defendant that jihad requires patience but comes with many rewards. Defendant understood that Awlaki used these discussions to evaluate defendant’s commitment to and suitability for jihad. Throughout, defendant expressed his willingness to become involved in any mission chosen for him, including martyrdom – and by the end of his stay, Awlaki had accepted defendant for a martyrdom mission.

Defendant left Awlaki’s house, and was taken to another house, where he met AQAP bombmaker Ibrahim Al Asiri. Defendant and Al Asiri discussed defendant’s desire to commit an act of jihad. Thereafter, Al Asiri discussed a plan for a martyrdom mission with Awlaki, who gave it final approval, and instructed Defendant Abdulmutallab on it. For the following two weeks, defendant trained in an AQAP camp, and received instruction in weapons and indoctrination in jihad. During his time in the training camp, defendant met many individuals, including Samir Khan.9

Ibrahim Al Asiri constructed a bomb for defendant’s suicide mission and personally delivered it to Defendant Abdulmutallab. This was the bomb that defendant carried in his underwear on December 25, 2009. Al Asiri trained defendant in the use of the bomb, including by having defendant practice the manner in which the bomb would be detonated; that is, by pushing the plunger of a syringe, causing two chemicals to mix, and initiating a fire (which would then detonate the explosive).

Awlaki told defendant that he would create a martyrdom video that would be used after the defendant’s attack. Awlaki arranged for a professional film crew to film the video. Awlaki assisted defendant in writing his martyrdom statement, and it was filmed over a period of two to three days. The full video was approximately five minutes in length.10

Although Awlaki gave defendant operational flexibility, Awlaki instructed defendant that the only requirements were that the attack be on a U.S. airliner, and that the attack take place over U.S. soil. Beyond that, Awlaki gave defendant discretion to choose the flight and date. Awlaki instructed defendant not to fly directly from Yemen to Europe, as that could attract suspicion. As a result, defendant took a circuitous route, traveling from Yemen to Ethiopia to Ghana to Nigeria to Amsterdam to Detroit. Prior to defendant’s departure from Yemen, Awlaki’s last instructions to him were to wait until the airplane was over the United States and then to take the plane down.

9 Khan later came to be involved with AQAP’s Inspire magazine. Both Khan and Awlaki
were killed in September 2011.

10 The Court has seen the thirty-four-second excerpt of the video that was subsequently
released by AQAP as part of its video America and the Final Trap.

 

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

17 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    “…For example, the initial communication with Awlaki would involve data evidence. Did they get that after the fact? Or were they tracing it in real time and missed that too?…”

    My guess is perhaps both.

    Assume for sake of discussion that the NSA captured all cellphone text messages originating in Yemen in late summer 2009. Then assume that when Abdulmutallab was apprehended, the FBI got his cellphone too.

    Finally, assume that as a result of “debriefing statements defendant made to FBI agents from January to April 2010”, the US government went back through its NSA haul from Yemen from late summer 2009 and only then through forensic analysis located the confirming text message from al-Awlaki that Abdulmutallab described in his “debriefing”.

    My guess is that this was the likely process.

    Otherwise, it would mean we have to assume that the US government had knowledge of al-Awlaki’s cellphone number back in late summer 2009 and did nothing with it. While possible, that seems too unlikely.

    I think that we should view the NSA’s general communications collection efforts (as opposed to their intercepts of deliberately targeted communications) as primarily sucking up billions if not trillions of individual bits of data per day, and still wrestling with rather primitive computer programs to sniff out the gold from the overwhelming amount of useless dross.

  2. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog:We know they were getting Awlaki’s emails, bc they got Nidal Hasan’s. Wouldn’t that given them some pinpointing for his cell phone?

  3. rugger9 says:

    One wonders why the methods and criteria secrecy excuse isn’t apparently claimed here, or did I miss something?

  4. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Good question! That would mean identifying al-Awlaki’s geolocation potentially of his email source (likely a computer, but also could’ve been his cellphone) and connecting that with a likely “burn phone” cellphone.

    But I’m still of the view that most, if not all, of the stuff the US government does is conducted by forensic backtracking analysis rather than real-time awareness.

    For example, as you indicated by your reference to Nidal Hasan, I’m assuming that the US government only made his electronic connection to al-Awlaki after the fact by going back to the NSA collected and stored email traffic.

    It would seem likely that had the US government been monitoring al-Awlaki in real-time, his demise would have been far sooner rather than later.

    As one who worked in the computer industry for a good long while, and specifically as a Marketeer for a number of years, the overwhelming amount of hyperbole that is both used by its purveyors, and unhesitantly believed by its consumers is almost beyond belief.

    I am of the firm opinion that most if not all of the current “connect the dots” software offerings hyped and sold to the US government is at best wishful thinking and state of the art stone-age.

  5. MadDog says:

    @rugger9: Just like with the US government charges against former CIA officer John Kiriakou, the US government is at times happy to declassify stuff when doing so cements their case against the accused.

  6. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: Really? I guess I missed that about Hasan’s calls. I knew that the US government went through his email after the fact, but I wasn’t aware of a real-time monitoring of his calls.

    Was this the result of the Awlaki tap?

  7. rugger9 says:

    @MadDog: #5
    Conveniently preventing discovery motions when needed to keep the case together.

    However, there’s no reason that Awlaki couldn’t be brought into court via covert ops if the government had this level of tracking. They’d know where he was, who he was with and probably how well armed. Which is why the “collateral damage” in the various strikes over the last year in particular [or friendly fire as well] is even less excusable. Jerryy’s at least right about that.

  8. MadDog says:

    @rugger9: Speaking of “collateral damage” with these US drone strikes, I’m sure all remember CIA’s acting general counsel John Rizzo’s description of the CIA’s process for doing US drone strikes.

    The reason I bring that up in relation to “collateral damage” is that recent news reports stated that the al-Awlaki assassination was done by both CIA-operated drones and JSOC-operated drones with the typical anonymous sources stating that both fired and that they didn’t know which actually did the kill.

    Other recent news reports stated that al-Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, was killed by a US drone operated by JSOC and was considered “collateral damage” since he wasn’t the specific intended target.

    Which get’s me back to that John Rizzo piece and the process used to decide to OK the kill and whether there is too much “collateral damage” (or not enough).

    Based on the John Rizzo piece, we have a smidgen of knowledge about how the CIA targets people for death via US drones and the CIA’s purported process for the minimization of “collateral damage”.

    However, there is nothing public as far as I know about how JSOC operates its drones in targeting people for death, and whether there is a similar or different emphasis on minimization of “collateral damage”.

    It’s just a guess on my part, but if one were to take the killing of al-Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, by a JSOC-operated drone as evidence, one might conclude that minimization of “collateral damage” is different when drone strikes are done by JSOC than done by the CIA.

    But then, who know? Perhaps the apparent difference on “collateral damage” is a mirage and that neither organization is all that careful.

  9. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I was re-reading Nidal Hasan’s Wiki entry to see if I could find some info about the US government tracking his calls. No smoking gun, but there was a reference to an ABC News piece where it was stated:

    “A senior government official tells ABC News that investigators have found that alleged Fort Hood shooter Nidal Malik Hasan had “more unexplained connections to people being tracked by the FBI” than just radical cleric Anwar al Awlaki. The official declined to name the individuals but Congressional sources said their names and countries of origin were likely to emerge soon…”

    I wonder if that “tracking” might be the tied to those calls you mentioned. I didn’t find any further info about who those other targets were or any status of the FBI tracking.

    Just thought I mention it as food for thought.

  10. MadDog says:

    @MadDog: Had to sniff around a bit via Google, but here’s the WaPo story that stated al-Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, was killed by a JSOC-operated drone rather than a CIA-operated drone:

    “…On Sept. 30, Awlaki was killed in a missile strike carried out by the CIA under Title 50 authorities — which govern covert intelligence operations — even though officials said it was initially unclear whether an agency or JSOC drone had delivered the fatal blow. A second U.S. citizen, an al-Qaeda propagandist who had lived in North Carolina, was among those killed.

    The execution was nearly flawless, officials said. Nevertheless, when a similar strike was conducted just two weeks later, the entire protocol had changed. The second attack, which killed Awlaki’s 16-year-old son, was carried out by JSOC under Title 10 authorities that apply to the use of military force.

    When pressed on why the CIA had not pulled the trigger, U.S. officials said it was because the main target of the Oct. 14 attack, an Egyptian named Ibrahim al-Banna, was not on the agency’s kill list. The Awlaki teenager, a U.S. citizen with no history of involvement with al-Qaeda, was an unintended casualty.

    In interviews, senior U.S. officials acknowledged that the two kill lists don’t match, but offered conflicting explanations as to why.

    Three senior U.S. officials said the lists vary because of the divergent legal authorities. JSOC’s list is longer, the officials said, because the post-Sept. 11, 2001, Authorization for Use of Military Force, as well as a separate executive order, gave JSOC latitude to hunt broadly defined groups of al-Qaeda fighters, even outside conventional war zones. The CIA’s lethal-action authorities, based in a presidential “finding” that has been modified since Sept. 11, were described as more narrow.

    But others directly involved in the drone campaign offered a simpler explanation: Because the CIA had only recently resumed armed drone flights over Yemen, the agency hadn’t had as much time as JSOC to compile its kill list. Over time, officials said, the agency would catch up.

    The administration official who discussed the drone program declined to address the discrepancies in the kill lists, except to say: “We are aiming and striving for alignment. That is an ideal to be achieved…”

  11. rugger9 says:

    @MadDog: #10
    I’m sure JSOC has different rules and IIRC they aren’t under any defined oversight as CIA is minimal though it be. And I’m sure we will never hear about the JSOC rules either. What we can surmise however is that the orders come from on high. That means Obama will own it even if he doesn’t specifically order it.

  12. Bob Schacht says:

    @MadDog:

    It’s just a guess on my part, but if one were to take the killing of al-Awlaki’s son, Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki, by a JSOC-operated drone as evidence, one might conclude that minimization of “collateral damage” is different when drone strikes are done by JSOC than done by the CIA.

    I’d be willing to bet that the judgment of collateral damage was being done by different people in JSOC vs. CIA. If the judgment was the same, then that would indicate to me that the evaluation was being made pretty high up. Even if their guidance rules are written the same, implementation would differ by different people.

    Bob in AZ

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    It would have been more credible had the government that killed him released its claims against al-Awlaki beforehand. I suppose to do so would have been inconvenient. Allowing a defendant to rebut the charges against him, after seeing all the purported evidence to be used in attempting to convict him of a capital crime (or, indeed, any crime), are customs too quaint for our constitutional lawyer president and the security establishment he obeys to follow.

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