What Was the Evidence Supporting the First Strike on Anwar al-Awlaki?

According to the William Webster report, the FBI’s understanding about Anwar al-Awlaki’s operational role developed only after the UndieBomb attack.

As of January 7 and June 16, 2009, the FBI knew anwar al-Aulaqi was an anti-American, radical Islamic cleric and the subject of a Tier <redacted> FBI counterterrorism investigation. San Diego believed [<redacted> that Aulaqi was [developing ambitions beyond radicalization] <redacted>. WFO viewed him at that time as merely inspirational. The FBI’s full understanding of Aulaqi’s operational ambitions developed only after the attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009. [72; emphasis mine]

On December 24, 2009–the day before FBI began to understand Awlaki’s operational ambitions–a JSOC strike in Yemen missed Anwar al-Awlaki.

Dana Priest’s report revealing Awlaki was subsequently added to a JSOC kill list, published three days before Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab started cooperating again with the FBI, claims Awlaki was not the target of that December 24, 2009 strike.

As part of the operations, Obama approved a Dec. 24 strike against a compound where a U.S. citizen, Anwar al-Aulaqi, was thought to be meeting with other regional al-Qaeda leaders. Although he was not the focus of the strike and was not killed, he has since been added to a shortlist of U.S. citizens specifically targeted for killing or capture by the JSOC, military officials said. The officials, like others interviewed for this article, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the operations. [my emphasis]

But Ali Abdullah Saleh, speaking with David Petraeus three weeks before Priest’s report, sure seemed to treat Awlaki as one of two targets of the strike.

Saleh praised the December 17 and 24 strikes against AQAP but said that “mistakes were made” in the killing of civilians in Abyan. The General responded that the only civilians killed were the wife and two children of an AQAP operative at the site, prompting Saleh to plunge into a lengthy and confusing aside with Deputy Prime Minister Alimi and Minister of Defense Ali regarding the number of terrorists versus civilians killed in the strike. (Comment: Saleh’s conversation on the civilian casualties suggests he has not been well briefed by his advisors on the strike in Abyan, a site that the ROYG has been unable to access to determine with any certainty the level of collateral damage. End Comment.) AQAP leader Nassr al-Wahishi and extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki may still be alive, Saleh said, but the December strikes had already caused al-Qaeda operatives to turn themselves in to authorities and residents in affected areas to deny refuge to al-Qaeda. [my emphasis]

Given that we blamed Saleh for the strike, you have to assume he knew who the targets were. And he seems to suggest that both Wuhayshi and Awlaki were the intended targets.

Which would suggest the US targeted Awlaki before the FBI, at least, believed him to be operational.

Now, perhaps Saleh was wrong and Priest’s sources were right. Or perhaps JSOC had intelligence they didn’t share with FBI. Perhaps one of our partners in the region–either Yemen or Saudi Arabia–shared evidence we used to target Awlaki (presumably that partner was the same one that led us to believe that just an AQAP operatives’ wife and kids–and not an entire clan of Bedouins–had died in the al-Majala attack). Perhaps someone at NSA saw the electronic communication mentioning a Nigerian who might work with Awlaki to attack, and shared it with DOD but not FBI.

Or perhaps we didn’t have any intelligence that Awlaki was operational when we first targeted him.

One more thought. If that’s the case–if JSOC targeted Awlaki before they had intelligence he was operational–then it is not insignificant that David Petraeus, then the head of CentCom, now heads the CIA, which refuses to release any details about when it had information supporting Awlaki’s killing (remember that JSOC responded to ACLU’s FOIA by noting that everything they did would have been at the direction of CentCom). That is, if we did target Awlaki before we had evidence he was operational, then the guy at the heart of the Administration’s stonewalling on drone killing was the guy in charge of that earlier attempting killing.

Update, August 17: The assessment of FBI (and the Intelligence Community more generally) learning that Awlaki was operational after the Abdulmutallab attack is repeated, in more clear terms, after 1:50 in the testimony of Mark Giuliano to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security on August 1.

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.

8 replies
  1. BSbafflesbrains says:

    Is this the precedent for the standard of proof for “suspected” terrorists? How long until “suspected” domestic terrorists fall under this standard? And who is watching the watchers? I shudder to think it is Senator Feinstein. If al awlaki was such a threat why wasn’t it handled like Osama with the Seal team six assassination squad? Drones for “suspected” and Seal Team six for “Convinced they did it” terrorists.

  2. MadDog says:

    Another Emptywheel timeline touchdown!

    With Dana Priest’s version, it sounds just like the weasel-wording lawyers at the DOJ who said torture wasn’t torture unless one had the intent to torture, and the same weasel-wording lawyers at the DOJ who said that capturing US persons’ communications doesn’t violate the 4th Amendment if they weren’t the target of the surveillance.

    Or shorter: “The crimes we commit aren’t really crimes because we’re pure of heart.”

  3. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Yeah, and all that’s before they fed David Ignatius the line that the Yemenis wanted to go after Awlaki as early as December, and we refused.

    If it were about 2 months later, I might have thought it was an attempt to preempt the Petraeus/Saleh cable coming out.

  4. bell says:

    is there a reason the word ‘kill’ is used instead of ‘murder’ which is more what it actually is, especially when involving innocent civilians?
    JSOC kill list……….
    i guess that is the sanitized word to use to suggest it is all cool..as in ‘a lot of people were killed in aurora’..

  5. MadDog says:

    @bell: Good point! I tend to use the word assassination with regards to Awlaki as that seems to fit the act, but murder might be even better.

  6. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I didn’t remember that Ignatius post, but a minor correction. The Yemenis supposedly wanted the CIA to go after Awlaki as early as October 2009.

    It begs the question that if the Yemeni government (basically Ali Abdullah Saleh and his cohorts) wanted so badly to take Awlaki down, why in hell didn’t they do it themselves?

    And one of those answers is of course that Saleh would rather have the blood on our hands as opposed to his. Just call up the CIA or JSOC and rent an assassin or killer drone. Quantity discounts available.

  7. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: Some Yemen experts tell me that’s bullshit. And when you consider that Saleh told Awlaki’s father he had nothing to do with his death, it may be right.

    But I wonder whether that wasn’t an attempt to claim that the Yemenis were responsible, not the US. This was before the ACLU/CCR sued, but not that much before. If they were being wiretapped, DOD/CIA would have known.

  8. Frank33 says:

    How did al-Awlaki become a menace to the empire. He had a website promoting Jihad. This is the Muslim equivalent of the Project for a New American Century, who promote their own Jihad. But the most dangerous person, who could commit mass murder, is or was, al-Asiri, the Saudi Bombmaker. It was al-Asiri who gave Undie 1.0, his Undie Bomb. This information was obtained from Abdulmutallab without torture.

    Torturer Michael Hayden criticized the FBI because the CIA torturers did not question Undie first. The FBI immediately discovered the bomb was made by al-Asiri. There should have been a world wide criminal hunt for Asiri. But the Saudi Bombmaker was ignored by the Intelligence and Law Enforcement until they needed a new Al Qaeda leader. Then Asiri became the latest “evil genius”.

    Al-Awlaki has a few mysteries, such as his visit to the Bushie Vulcans in the Pentagon. But Asiri has received material support from someone, to enable him to become a Leader Of Some Al Qaeda Franchise. Would you believe he taught himself bombmaking from the internet? Would you believe he invented a detonator superior to anything else? Of course, most of Asiri’s attacks have failed.

    He is a highly skilled and self-taught (via manuals and the Internet) explosives expert who is determined to pull off a successful attack against the United States…

    His latest technological breakthrough — a non-metallic explosive device with an advanced detonator superior to anything else ever fielded — demonstrates he is closer to getting there.

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