Anwar al-Awlaki Is the New Aluminum Tube

Mark Mazzetti, Charlie Savage, and Scott Shane team up to provide the government’s best case — and at times, an irresponsibly credulous one — for the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki and the collateral deaths of Samir Khan and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki.

Yet even in a 3,600 word story, they don’t present any evidence against the senior Awlaki that was fresher than a year old — the October 2010 toner cartridge plot — at the time the Yemeni-American was killed. (I’m not saying the government didn’t have more recent intelligence; it just doesn’t appear in this very Administration-friendly case.) Not surprisingly, then, the story completely ignores questions about the definition of “imminent threat” used in the OLC memo and whether Awlaki was an “imminent” threat when he was killed.

The “linked in various ways” standard for killing Americans

Moreover, the case they do present has various weaknesses.

The story provides a fair amount of space to Awlaki’s celebration of the Nidal Hasan attack (though it does make it clear Awlaki did not respond enthusiastically to Hasan’s queries before the attack).

Investigators quickly discovered that the major had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki, though the cleric’s replies had been cautious and noncommittal. But four days after the shootings, the cleric removed any doubt about where he stood.

“Nidal Hassan is a hero,” he wrote on his widely read blog. “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”

It uses far vaguer language to describe Awlaki’s role in the Faisal Shahzad and toner cartridge plots.

Meanwhile, attacks linked in various ways to Mr. Awlaki continued to mount, including the attempted car bombing of Times Square in May 2010 by Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized American citizen who had reached out to the preacher on the Internet, and the attempted bombing by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula of cargo planes bound for the United States that October.

“Linked in various ways” seems to be the new standard for killing an American. That, in spite of the fact that Shahzad’s tie to Awlaki seems to be the same Hasan had: an inspiration, but not any involvement in the plot. And while Awlaki is reported to have had some role in the toner cartridge plot, reports from Saudi infiltrator Jabir al-Fayfi apparently fingered others in AQAP as the chief plotters.

I guess that would be too much nuance to include in a 3,600 word article.

NYT doesn’t care about problems with the Abu Tarak explanation

Which leaves the UndieBomb attack as the sole attack in which the NYT presents evidence about Awlaki’s direct role. But there’s a problem with their claims there, too.

The would-be underwear bomber told F.B.I. agents that after he went to Yemen and tracked down Mr. Awlaki, his online hero, the cleric had discussed “martyrdom and jihad” with him, approved him for a suicide mission, helped him prepare a martyrdom video and directed him to detonate his bomb over United States territory, according to court documents.

In his initial 50-minute interrogation on Dec. 25, 2009, before he stopped speaking for a month, Mr. Abdulmutallab said he had been sent by a terrorist named Abu Tarek, although intelligence agencies quickly found indications that Mr. Awlaki was probably involved. When Mr. Abdulmutallab resumed cooperating with interrogators in late January, an official said, he admitted that “Abu Tarek” was Mr. Awlaki. With the Nigerian’s statements, American officials had witness confirmation that Mr. Awlaki was clearly a direct plotter, no longer just a dangerous propagandist.

I don’t doubt that Awlaki was directly involved in this attack in some way. And I got the same explanation about Abu Tarak from “an official” back when I first noted the discrepancy between DOJ’s public claims (thanks for not crediting me on that one, NYT boys). But either Abdulmutallab said something beyond “Abu Tarak was Awlaki,” or the entire explanation is not credible.

That’s because Abdulmutallab’s initial interrogation — according to the version presented by Jonathan Tukel in the opening arguments of Abdulmutallab’s trial — said Abu Tarak did the following:

  1. Spoke daily with Abdulmutallab about jihad and martyrdom
  2. Suggested to Abdulmutallab that he become involved in a plane attack against the United States aircraft
  3. Gave him training in detonating the bomb
  4. Told him to make sure he attacked a U.S. aircraft and make sure the attack takes place over the United States

Yet according to the version of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation presented in his sentencing memo, here’s who did those things:

  1. Awlaki and Abdulmutallab discussed martyrdom and jihad
  2. Defendant and Ibrahim Al Asiri discussed defendant’s desire to commit an act of jihad; Asiri discussed a plan for a martyrdom mission with Awlaki, who gave it final approval
  3. Asiri trained defendant in the use of the bomb
  4. 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

That is, the things Abdulmutallab attributed to Abu Tarak in his first interrogation include two things the government now says Awlaki did — talk about martyrdom and gave final instructions about attacking the US — and at least one thing Asiri did — train him on the bomb (the government narrative seems to suggest Asiri was the one who first approached Abdulmutallab about the plane attack, too, but that is perhaps deliberately left more vague).

Moreover, Abdulmutallab also said he met Abu Tarak at a mosque and stayed with him for a period in Sanaa, which is totally inconsistent with the government narrative of how and where he met either Awlaki or Asiri.

Abu Tarak is not simply Awlaki. Perhaps Abdulmutallab said Abu Tarak was an amalgam of three different people he met in Yemen. Perhaps he never said anything to explain the Abu Tarak reference, and DOJ just claims he did because some of what he attributed to Abu Tarak he later attributed to Awlaki. But the NYT presents a claim — that Abdulmutallab said Abu Tarak was Awlaki — that is not consistent with the public records and the government’s own claims about what that public record represents.

Add in the fact that the government’s own expert, Dr. Simon Perry, after having read 18 or 19 of Abdulmutallab’s interrogation reports, including the ones where he reportedly implicated Awlaki, seemed to believe that Abu Tarak was someone different than Awlaki. Perry further pointed out that one of the few public statements Abdulmutallab ever made about his attack — accusing Americans of being guilty at his trial — contradicts the claims he made in February 2010 interrogations where he said Awlaki chose his target.

For example, in his statement to the court he claims that his attack was an outcome of the fact that the “American people are guilty of the sin, and Obama should pay for the crime”.  In contradiction to this statement made in court, UFAM previously, in his FBI debriefing, claims that he did not specifically target the U.S. for his mission.


Once again as explained above (p.9 [sic] of this memorandum) what UFAM said when interviewed by FBI agents is a direct contradiction to later statement in court upon the entry of his guilty plea.

None of this proves that Abdulmutallab didn’t implicate Awlaki. I think he probably did. But what it does prove is the NYT took a single anonymous source’s word as reason to dismiss real (albeit minor) inconsistencies with the government’s public story, even though that anonymous source’s explanation introduced more problems than it solved. That is, the way NYT treated the Abu Tarak reference doesn’t necessarily say anything about the evidence against Awlaki, but it does show how uncritically it took the claims made by sources.

NYT finally finds a WikiLeaks cable it doesn’t like!

There’s one other really irresponsible piece to this story. Here’s how they describe the December 24, 2009 strike when the government missed Awlaki.

On Dec. 24, 2009, in the second American strike in Yemen in eight days, missiles hit a meeting of leaders of the affiliate group. News accounts said one target was Mr. Awlaki, who was falsely reported to have been killed.

In fact, other top officials of the group were the strike’s specific targets, and Mr. Awlaki’s death would have been collateral damage — legally defensible as a death incidental to the military aim. As dangerous as Mr. Awlaki seemed, he was proved to be only an inciter; counterterrorism analysts did not yet have incontrovertible evidence that he was, in their language, “operational.” [my emphasis]

It was not just “news accounts” that said one target was Awlaki. Then Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh strongly implied as much, in the days after the attack, in a conversation with David Petraeus (who apparently didn’t dispute his understanding) recorded in a WikiLeaks cable. Now, that doesn’t disprove the NYT’s claim that the justification the US used for targeting Awlaki at a time they believed him not to be operational is that he would be known collateral damage in a strike ostensibly targeted at someone else. But introducing the cable (this is the NYT! They never pass up an opportunity to rely on WikiLeaks cables!) would have undermined the rest of their article.

That’s because the cable provides a great deal of evidence that the government has used a “sitting next to baddies” justification for killing (or, in this case, trying to kill) Americans against whom they don’t have enough evidence to target directly. That’s almost certainly what happened with Kamal Derwish back in 2002, too.

If the US does use a “sitting next to baddies” excuse for killing Americans against whom the government doesn’t have adequate evidence to justify killing directly, then what is the value of all this blather?

The missile strike on Sept. 30, 2011, that killed Mr. Awlaki — a terrorist leader whose death lawyers in the Obama administration believed to be justifiable — also killed Mr. Khan, though officials had judged he was not a significant enough threat to warrant being specifically targeted.


In April 2011, the United States captured Ahmed Abdulkadir Warsame, a Somali man who worked closely with the Qaeda affiliate in Yemen. He was held aboard a naval vessel for more than two months and spoke freely to interrogators, including about his encounters with the former North Carolina man now editing the group’s magazine, Samir Khan.

While the United States had long tracked Mr. Khan, the new details from the Warsame interrogation raised the question of whether another American citizen should be considered for targeting. There was still scant evidence tying Mr. Khan to any specific plot, so the administration left him off the list. But events would not turn out so neatly.


Mr. Khan, whom they had specifically decided not to add to the kill list, was dead, too. While the lawyers believed that his killing was legally defensible as collateral damage, the death cast a cloud over all those months of seemingly cautious efforts to analyze who should go on the list and who should not.

The NYT article strongly implies that in response to the Warsame intelligence, the government considered putting Khan on a targeting list at a time when he fit the same category Awlaki had been in when the government first tried to kill him under a “sitting next to baddies” standard: a propagandist who was not operational. And yet the NYT concludes from that that Khan’s death — which the government had apparently wanted but not found a way to justify legally — “cast a cloud” over the Awlaki killing?

Likewise, given the evidence the government does use a “sitting next to baddies” standard to kill people who are inconvenient, what is the credibility of this sob story?

Then, on Oct. 14, a missile apparently intended for an Egyptian Qaeda operative, Ibrahim al-Banna, hit a modest outdoor eating place in Shabwa. The intelligence was bad: Mr. Banna was not there, and among about a dozen men killed was the young Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who had no connection to terrorism and would never have been deliberately targeted.

It was a tragic error and, for the Obama administration, a public relations disaster, further muddying the moral clarity of the previous strike on his father and fueling skepticism about American assertions of drones’ surgical precision. The damage was only compounded when anonymous officials at first gave the younger Mr. Awlaki’s age as 21, prompting his grieving family to make public his birth certificate.

He had been born in Denver, said the certificate from the Colorado health department. In the United States, at the time his government’s missile killed him, the teenager would have just reached driving age.

Um, fellas? You note that the Administration had a cover story ready for Abdulrahman’s death (rather than remaining silent, which is what they normally do), but from that you conclude the government treats this as a horrible mistake?

Mind you, the NYT makes their job — which, in addition to claiming critics of the legal case behind the Anwar al-Awlaki killing are simply confused, seems to be inventing narratives to make the Khan and Abdulrahman deaths less appalling — much easier by ignoring that WikiLeaks cable. But ignoring it does the same thing their demonstrably credulous acceptance of the Abu Tarak story does: it demonstrates how hard the NYT worked to preserve the narrative the government fed them, public evidence to the contrary.

It’s all very convenient, that the NYT worked so hard to preserve the Administration’s narrative spinning its action as reasonable, just before Obama will reportedly make a speech about it. Any bets that what Obama says will match the story told here?

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 Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, 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 in Grand Rapids, MI.

28 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    It’s all very convenient, that the NYT worked so hard to preserve the Administration’s narrative spinning its action as reasonable, just before Obama will reportedly make a speech about it. Any bets that what Obama says will match the story told here?

    I’m so old I remember when Dick Cheney’s practice of planting a story in the press and then citing it later as confirmation of what he wanted to say was considered to be an evil ploy.

  2. P J Evans says:

    If the government is going to make shit up to justify its actions, why should we trust its word on anything? (This is a good question for every presidential candidate.)

    also typo alert: in the ‘graph beginning “Abu Tarak is not simply Awlaki”, it should be ‘public records’.

  3. peasantparty says:

    The nameless, faceless Town Criers that step out from the DC curtain to give this propaganda, er, news help to facilitate more cover-ups.

    IMO, they are all war criminals. Just do what is right and start chipping away at the opinions they are hiding behind to excuse their crimes. Repeal the AUMF! H.R. 198 is a perfect start.

  4. Frank33 says:

    Oh the irony. The President and his people want MOAR TRANZPARENT DRONZ. But the Secret Government just says MOAR DRONZ. Damn secret bureaucrats always keep things under wraps.

    The irony is that Obama and most of his top aides are personally in favor of more rather than less transparency. But in the end, they have repeatedly deferred to secrecy obsessed spooks and handwringing lawyers whose default position has been to keep things under wraps. “It’s clear that the president and the attorney general both want more transparency,” says Matthew Miller, a former senior Justice Department official. “But the bureaucracy has once again thrown sand in the gears and slowed that down.”

    Or not. Previously Klaidman has told us the President was stalking Awlaki.

    Al-Awlaki obsessed Obama after the success of the attack on bin Laden, Klaidman reports, telling advisers at a weekly counterterrorism meeting, “I want Awlaki. Don’t let up on him.” According to sources, the president even considered allowing for some collateral damage if it meant taking out Awlaki, asking that advisers keep him apprised of any opportunity to eliminate the cleric.

  5. beowulf says:

    Its like Blackstone said 300 years ago:
    “Wantonly to kill the greatest of malefactors, a felon or a traitor, attainted or outlawed, deliberately, uncompelled, and extrajudicially, is murder.”

  6. Roman Berry says:

    This formulation — ‘If the US does use a “sitting next to baddies” excuse for killing Americans against whom the government doesn’t have adequate evidence to justify killing directly… — really bothers me. A lot.

    When people are sitting around plotting a crime, they are criminals. No matter how much evidence of their plotting the government has, I see nothing in the Constitution or law that allows for what amounts to summary execution, i.e. “adequate evidence to justify killing directly.”

    Engaging in a thought process that even included a formulation like “adequate evidence to justify killing directly” strikes me as following the US government down the rabbit hole. Please don’t go there.

    If the government has evidence that someone is engaged in criminal acts (and that’s what terrorism is), then let the government charge them and present that evidence at trial. (Yes, sometimes it’s hard to effect an arrest of an accused criminal. Are we headed towards where “hard to effect an arrest” means a grant of governmental license to simply murder the accused?)

    Don’t mean to be nit-pick what is a very valuable post, it’s just that even engaging in thoughts that the government can ever have adequate evidence to just unaccountably kill someone they accuse (without charge or trial) of being involved in a crime or plotting future criminal acts is a place I find I absolutely do not want to go. But enough of that…

    I’m with you on the reporting of the NYT being done in a way such that certain elements which have actually nothing to do with the alleged crimes but simply seem designed to make readers conclude that the killing was/is perfectly OK by inflaming their emotions get into this story. Your first excerpt is a perfect example:

    Investigators quickly discovered that the major had exchanged e-mails with Mr. Awlaki, though the cleric’s replies had been cautious and noncommittal. But four days after the shootings, the cleric removed any doubt about where he stood.”Nidal Hassan is a hero,” he wrote on his widely read blog. “He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”

    They go from “Mr. Awlaki…had been cautious and noncommittal” to condemning Awlaki not because they have any evidence he was actually involved but because he said Nidal was a “hero.”

    The inclusion of Awlaki’s attitude towards Nidals acts (“…a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”) doesn’t tie him to those acts, it merely inflames reader emotions. What the reporters seem to be doing here is actively trying to help the government make its case. They are saying “Look readers! He thought Nidal was a hero!”

    The “killing for sitting next to baddies” standard seems to amount to “So sorry, but too bad. Be more careful where you sit.” How far removed is that from former Obama White House press secretary Robert Gibbs telling WeAreChange.Org that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki should have had a “more responsible father”? Bad choice of seating to bad seed. In neither case is the dead responsible, but killing them is OK even if regrettable?

    I’m not satisfied with debating what is happening in these cases on a field defined by the government. I think we have to change the field. Move the Overton Window to a different place such that any argument about when the government is justified in killing its citizens without charge or trial is a non-starter because the idea that the government has such a right is just plainly unacceptable.

  7. ess emm says:

    NYT: “While the lawyers believed that [Khan’s] killing was legally defensible as collateral damage, the death cast a cloud over all those months of seemingly cautious efforts to analyze who should go on the list and who should not.”

    I understand ew’s criticism of the NYT’s inability to see the USG’s crocodile tears for what they are; but maybe the lawyers really do feel some bureaucratic pride in their legal justifications.

    I mean, they must be thinking why go to all the trouble to invent the very controversial kill-list “process” when it’s spoiled by the CIA because CIA operators do not use any standard of care to avoid killing innocent civilians.

    Why bother with justification if the USG can just shrug and get away with it when bystanders are killed. Like the shrugging they’re doing now for Khan and Abdulrahman.

    Or at least that’s a possible interpretation of what the cloud is.

  8. fatster says:

    EW, I kept checking in last night as soon as I saw the NYT article because I knew you’d be zooming in on it. And so you have–twice, already. No way I could wrap up today’s Roundup without your analysis. Your excellent analysis, I should more accurately say. Many thnx.

  9. ess emm says:

    @peasantparty: “Repeal the AUMF!”

    As our host keeps explaining, the President’s lawyers do not think they are limited by the AUMF. They point to Article 2.

    Still, I wonder if amending the War Powers Act would be helpful. Congress retain its right to declare war except maybe in case of a massive nuclear attack. And amend the National Security Act too.

  10. thatvisionthing says:

    whoever wrote this is an idiot

    further muddying the moral clarity of the previous strike on his father

    but mud does that to you

  11. thatvisionthing says:

    @ess emm:

    As our host keeps explaining, the President’s lawyers do not think they are limited by the AUMF. They point to Article 2.

    Right, but if they repeal the AUMF, then Article II has to step up and stand alone and speak its name. Next thing you know, the Gloves Off Memo of Notification or the finding or whatever has to show up and speak its full name, which I think (Marcy, help?) is something like “The president told me to do it.” That thing that DOJ lawyers go screaming to judges to keep secret. And of course the judges do. Having forgotten their oath or affirmation to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

    Because only the eyes of a chief may see the E Pleb Neesta:

  12. ess emm says:


    I agree that repealing AUMF would stop pundits from conflating it w Article II. It might help them to focus. But people are already saying Article II loud and clear; it’s an eff yoo to Congress and the courts.

  13. joanneleon says:

    You are getting some exquisite reviews on this article on Twitter:

    “A masterful takedown of the NYT”, “brilliant dissection”, “The govt case falls apart under even light scrutiny”, “pokes a bunch of holes in NYT’s “administration-friendly” story on Awlaki’s killing”, “sees the Times front-page Al-Awlaki story as a trial balloon for Obama’s upcoming speech on killing”, “deeply (IMO correctly) skeptical analysis”, “Watch the media get in line to tell the administration’s canned story. As usual start with the NYT”, ” NYT, Lawfare & MSNBC in 3-way tie for Obama admin BFF status”, “Marcy Wheeler subjects the NYT’s government-mimicking Awlaki story to exactly the contempt it deserves”.

    And many more. Boy oh boy are a lot of people watching this Awlaki story or what? Tons of journalists reading Marcy’s analysis, and sending it out there on Twitter.

    Brilliant work, Marcy, and thanks for it.

  14. orionATL says:

    – doesn’t the justice department have the new york times over a barrel(s) regarding the investigative reporting of certain “national security” events by some of its star reporters?

    – with respect to that eric holder lackey just fingered for the entire illegal killing fckup (taking place over a 3 yr time span!),

    this is classic obey-admin behavior of the same sort as “i trusted my economic advisors to give me good advice”.

  15. orionATL says:

    Mazzetti, savage, and shane?

    They’re the best the nyt could do?

    Where was sweet-judy-blew-lies when that rag needed a real propaganda pro?

    Our new york times – all the pravda that’s to print.

  16. Snoopdido says:

    An obvious question not yet answered:

    Did the New York Times provide the Obama administration with prior review and approval rights before publishing this story?

  17. Snoopdido says:

    @Snoopdido: In naming unnamed names, were Denis McDonough, President Obama’s newest current Chief of Staff, formerly the Deputy National Security Advisor, formerly the National Security Council Chief of Staff, and formerly the National Security Council’s head of Strategic Communication, and Thomas E. Donilon, President Obama’s current National Security Advisor involved in planting this story with the New York Times?

  18. xpostfactoid says:

    what do you think of pushback from Greg and Will E. in comments on the Kevin Jon Heller post?

  19. beowulf says:

    @ess emm:
    “I mean, they must be thinking why go to all the trouble to invent the very controversial kill-list “process” when it’s spoiled by the CIA because CIA operators do not use any standard of care to avoid killing innocent civilians.”

    No, its spoiled because collateral damage is a military term relevant to military pilots with combatant privilege (John Kerry could travel back to Vietnam w/o fear of being arrested for murder even though everyone knows he shot a dude in the back, that’s combatant privilege). CIA personnel are not in the military and have no such legal immunity.

  20. beowulf says:

    @ess emm:
    Article II refers to President’s Commander in Chief authority, but that’s over the Armed Forces. Again, the CIA is a civilian agency not a branch of the military. The Administration would have been much firmer ground legally if all drone strikes were carried out by the Air Force. Some people just like to live dangerously and take unnecessary risks I guess, YOLO and all that.

    It’d still be illegal but just like with FL’s Stand Your Ground law, it’d muddy the water for any prosecutor.

  21. Gary D says:

    The NYT policy of providing spin from anonymous government sources with no analysis or fact-checking hasn’t changed in 15 years or longer.

  22. ess emm says:

    While I’m still thinking about Scott Shane. He was on Democracy NOW and said that Anwar al-Awlaki admitted to “training Abdulmutallab”.

    Is that true? All I could find was a 2010 NYT article where Awlaki was quoted as saying, “Umar Farouk is one of my students; I had communications with him,” Mr. Awlaki can be heard saying on the recording. “And I support what he did, as America supports Israel’s killing of Palestinians, and its killing of civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

    And beowolf, I completely agree with you about the different legal status of people who kill for CIA and people who kill in the military.

  23. Shahid Buttar says:

    Great piece. I linked to it from, where I further explain why “on both torture and drone strikes, transparency remains inadequate” and how “the unaccountable use of targeted assassination continues in secret.” The piece explores why “[m]ere disclosure of some OLC memos to some Senators is insufficient,” as well as “[h]ow the facts suggest elastic powers,” and explains the implications of Padilla’s detention with respect to the NDAA and why that parallel reflects a disturbing vector for the evolution of the power to assassinate Americans without trial.

  24. ess emm says:

    Thanks for the response, ew. Why would Shane lie? THe go easy on me about the leak stuff makes some sense.

    Just for posterity’s sake here is my transcription of what Shane said on Democracy NOW!

    “He [Awlaki] didnt hide his uh approval for the Ft. Hood shootings. Um, he actually spoke of his helping train Abdulmutallab to attack the airliner. So it wasnt… it not you know… his intentions were not mysterious or hidden behind the classification that you know has obscured a lot of this.”

    Jesselyn Radack didnt challenge Shane on the training.

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