The U.S. State Department confirmed on January 5 that the man the U.S. government once claimed was the target of the drone strike that killed American teenager Abdulrahman Awlaki in 2011 in Yemen is alive. The department announced that it has designated Ibrahim al Banna “a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) under Executive Order (E.O.) 13224.” The U.S. is offering a $5 million reward for information leading to al Banna’s killing or capture.
Al Banna’s name was floated by anonymous U.S. officials as the target of the October 14, 2011, drone strike that killed Awlaki, a 16-year-old U.S. citizen born in Colorado. Awlaki’s family insists he was having dinner with his teenage cousin and some others in Shebwah, Yemen, when they were killed in the strike. The Obama administration has never explained why Awlaki was killed, other than anonymous officials implying he was with a terror target at the time or that it was a lethal mistake. Awlaki’s estranged father, Anwar al Awlaki, was a radical pro-al Qaeda imam whose sermons influenced and inspired many terrorists in the English speaking world. The elder Awlaki, who was also a U.S. citizen, was an enigmatic figure who supported George W. Bush’s 2000 election campaign, spoke at the Pentagon shortly after 9-11, and went on to become an important propaganda figure for the growing radical Islamist movement after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. He was killed in a U.S. drone strike two weeks before his son was killed.
The younger Awlaki, who was living with his grandparents in Sanaa, had not seen his father in years at the time of his death and has never been linked to any terrorism.
The designation of al Banna by the State Department — and the confirmation he is indeed alive — once again raises an important question of the Obama administration: Why was this 16-year-old U.S. citizen killed in a drone strike authorized by the president of the United States?
Below is an excerpt from my book “Dirty Wars” that deals with Abdulrahman’s killing and the questions around al Banna:
Nasser Awlaki [Abdulrahman’s grandfather] received a phone call from his family in Shabwah. “Some of our relatives went to the place where [Abdulrahman] was killed, and they saw the area where he was killed. And they told us he was buried with the others in one grave because they were blown up to pieces by the drone. So they could not put them in separate graves,” Nasser told me. “They put three or four of them in one grave because they were cut into pieces. The people who were there could recognize only the back of Abdulrahman’s hair. But they could not recognize his face or anything else.” As the horror was setting in that their eldest grandson had been killed just two weeks after the death of their eldest child, Nasser and [his wife] Saleha watched in disbelief as numerous news reports identified Abdulrahman as being twenty-one years old, with anonymous U.S. military officials referring to him as a “military-aged” male. Some reports intimated that he was an al Qaeda supporter and that he had been killed while meeting with Ibrahim al Banna, an Egyptian citizen described as the “media coordinator” for AQAP.
Days after the killing of Abdulrahman, the United States released a statement, as usual feigning ignorance about who was responsible for the strike, even though “unnamed officials” in the United States and Yemen had confirmed the strike to almost all media outlets that inquired. “We have seen press reports that AQAP senior official Ibrahim al Banna was killed last Friday in Yemen and that several others, including the son of Anwar al-Awlaki, were with al Banna at the time,” National Security Council spokesman Thomas Vietor told the press, in a statement that strangely cast Abdulrahman as something between an al Qaeda associate and a hapless tourist. “For over the past year, the Department of State has publicly urged U.S. citizens not to travel to Yemen and has encouraged those already in Yemen to leave because of the continuing threat of violence and the presence of terrorist organizations, including AQAP, throughout the country.”
The Awlaki family members, who had declined to discuss the killing of Anwar, believed that they needed to speak out publicly about the killing of Abdulrahman. “We watched with surprise and condemnation how several prominent American newspapers and news channels twist the truth, calling Abdulrahman an Al Qaeda operative and falsely and misleadingly stating his age as 21 years old,” read a statement from the family. “Abdulrahman Anwar Awlaki was born on August 26, 1995, in Denver Colorado. He was an American citizen raised in the U.S. until 2002 when his father was forced to leave the U.S. and go back to Yemen.” They invited people to look up Abdulrahman’s Facebook page — which revealed a teenager interested in music, video games and his friends — “to see the ‘lethal terrorist’, ‘the 21 year old Qaeda operative’ the U.S. government is claiming they killed. Look at his pictures, his friends and his hobbies. His Facebook page shows a typical kid, a teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.”
For the Awlaki family, their private pain was overwhelming. After Anwar was killed, “People flocked to our house to pay condolences and show sympathy and I was in state of complete disbelief and denial,” recalled Anwar’s sister, Abir. “They kept on coming for the next two weeks, when we were yet struck again by the murder of Anwar’s oldest son, Abdulrahman. The skinny, smiling, curly-haired boy was murdered; and for what? What was he found guilty of?” she asked. “The shock of losing Abdulrahman only fourteen days after his father was unbearable. I can’t wipe the picture of my father’s reaction upon receiving the news. It is hard — hard for a father to lose his oldest son and then his first and favorite grandchild. The entire house was traumatized and hurt by every sense of the word.”
The CIA claimed that it had not carried out the strike, asserting that the supposed target, Ibrahim Banna, was not on the agency’s hit list. That led to speculation that the strike that killed Abdulrahman and his relatives was a JSOC strike. Senior U.S. officials told the Washington Post that “the two kill lists don’t match, but offered conflicting explanations as to why.” The officials added that Abdulrahman was an “unintended casualty.” A JSOC official told me that the intended target was not killed in the strike, though he would not say who the target was. On October 20, 2011, military officials presented a closed briefing on the JSOC strike to the Senate Armed Services Committee. With the exception of the statements from anonymous U.S. officials, the United States offered no public explanation for the strike. The mystery deepened when AQAP released a statement claiming that Banna was, in fact, still alive. “These lies and allegations announced by the government … are not unusual … the government has falsely declared the death of mujahedeens many times,” the statement declared. The Awlakis began to wonder if perhaps Abdulrahman was, in fact, the target of the strike.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, one of the handful of U.S. lawmakers who would have access to all intelligence on the strike, seemed to suggest that was the case when asked about the killing of the two Awlakis and Samir Khan. “I do know this,” he said on CNN, “the American citizens who have been killed overseas … are terrorists, and, frankly, if anyone in the world deserved to be killed, those three did deserve to be killed.”
Robert Gibbs, Obama’s former White House press secretary and a senior official in the president’s 2012 reelection campaign, was also asked about the strike that killed Abdulrahman. “It’s an American citizen that is being targeted without due process of law, without trial. And, he’s underage. He’s a minor,” reporter Sierra Adamson told Gibbs, during a press gaggle after a presidential debate where Gibbs was serving as a surrogate for Obama. Gibbs shot back: “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their chil- dren. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.”
The Awlakis were left only with questions about why their grandson had been killed. They wondered if somehow the US government had used Abdulrahman to find Anwar. Perhaps, as had happened with the killing of the Yemeni regime’s political opponents in the past, the United States had been fed false intelligence about Abdulrahman’s age and connections to al Qaeda. While emphasizing that they were not prone to conspiracy theories, they told me it was difficult to imagine why Abdulrahman would have been killed, especially if Banna was not there. Who, then, was the target? “It is up to the U.S. government to be sure about the kind of information they get before they make any action against anybody. So I don’t believe it was just an accident. They must have followed him,” Nasser said. “But they wanted to cover up the story, and that’s why they claimed that he was twenty-one years old, in order to justify his killing. Or maybe, as they mentioned, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” He paused before adding, “I don’t think we can buy this argument.”
An anonymous US official later told the Washington Post that Abdulrahman’s killing was “an outrageous mistake … They were going after the guy sitting next to him.” But no one ever identified who that someone was. As far as the family knows, their son was sitting next to his teenage cousins, none of whom were affiliated with al Qaeda. Decisions on “targets, drones, these are made only by the highest U.S. government authorities, the CIA and all that. Why did they specifically target these guys?” Nasser demanded. “I want answers from the United States government.”
The Obama administration would fight passionately to keep those answers secret, invoking the State Secrets Privilege repeatedly — just as President Bush had done throughout his eight years in office.