One morning in late September 2011, a group of American drones took off from an airstrip the C.I.A. had built in the remote southern expanse of Saudi Arabia. The drones crossed the border into Yemen, and were soon hovering over a group of trucks clustered in a desert patch of Jawf Province, a region of the impoverished country once renowned for breeding Arabian horses.
A group of men who had just finished breakfast scrambled to get to their trucks. One was Anwar al-Awlaki, the firebrand preacher, born in New Mexico, who had evolved from a peddler of Internet hatred to a senior operative in Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen. Another was Samir Khan, another American citizen who had moved to Yemen from North Carolina and was the creative force behind Inspire, the militant group’s English-language Internet magazine.
Two of the Predator drones pointed lasers on the trucks to pinpoint the targets, while the larger Reapers took aim. The Reaper pilots, operating their planes from thousands of miles away, readied for the missile shots, and fired.
So starts a fascinating, meticulously researched and documented and bound-to-be-debated-ad-infinitum piece in Sunday’s New York Times on what has become one of the most controversial and hotly argued issues in recent weeks: The use of drones to kill American citizens abroad as wartime enemies, without judicial process.
Focusing on the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the article discusses in detail the “years of painstaking intelligence work, intense deliberation by lawyers working for President Obama and turf fights between the Pentagon and the C.I.A.” that converged and culminated in “what was apparently the first time since the Civil War, the United States government had carried out the deliberate killing of an American citizen overseas, as a wartime enemy and without a trial.”
While the Times’ account probably will not change many minds on this issue, it is nevertheless a must-read account if for nothing else than to get a glimpse into how these operations are conceived, deliberated, internally justified, approved, planned, conducted — and kept secret.
If for nothing else than to get a glimpse into how a potential target “progresses” from propagandist, to “inciter” to “direct plotter” and finally becomes “operational” and “lawful target.”
Read an “account of what led to the Awlaki strike, based on interviews with three dozen current and former legal and counterterrorism officials and outside experts, [an account that] fills in new details of the legal, intelligence and military challenges faced by the Obama administration in what proved to be a landmark episode in American history and law. [An account that] highlights the perils of a war conducted behind a classified veil, relying on missile strikes rarely acknowledged by the American government and complex legal justifications drafted for only a small group of officials to read.”
Finally, read how the killing of al-Awlaki’s young son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, “who had no connection to terrorism and would never have been deliberately targeted,” by a missile apparently intended for an Egyptian Qaeda operative, became, 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,” and how “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.”
The young Awlaki, born in Denver, was only 16.