Analysis: Who killed Anwar al-Awlaki – and why?

Assuming that Anwar al-Awlaki’s death is confirmed – and both US and Yemeni sources now seem certain that he perished in an attack on September 30 – who is likely to have killed the radical cleric, and why?

First off, it’s worth discounting Yemen’s own airforce as being responsible for Awlaki’s death. Yemen’s mostly Russian-made MiG jets are not rated for their precision strikes. The country’s military is also riven with internal dissent in the wake of a popular uprising against President Saleh.

Although many are fingering the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for the attack, that was initially thought unlikely. The CIA may run covert drone strikes in Pakistan, but in Yemen (and nearby Somalia) the Pentagon runs the show – or at least had until today.

Nevertheless there are reports that the CIA’s finger was on the trigger, and that one of its drones carried out the attack. That would suggest that the CIA’s new drones base in the Arabian Gulf is already operational.

But it seems likely that the CIA would have solicited help from another candidate in Awlaki’s killing: JSOC. The US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) is the ultra-elite division of US Special Forces Command (USSOCOM). It was JSOC troops that killed Osama bin Laden in June. And it has been leading the US ‘war on terror’ campaign in Yemen for almost a decade.

JSOC has its own fleet of lethal Reaper drones, which it operates mainly out of Camp Lemonnier, a nominally French airbase in nearby Djibouti.

Yemen witnessed the first ever US targeted killing by a drone when, in 2002, a Predator killed Ali Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, an al Qaeda operative thought to be responsible for a deadly attack on the USS Cole two years earlier.

Also killed that day was Ahmed Hijazi, a naturalised US citizen.  This perhaps set a precedent for the killing of al-Awlaki.

The CIA was responsible for that first strike, with the assistance of JSOC spotters on the ground. But soon afterwards responsibility for counter-terror strategy in Yemen passed exclusively to JSOC, as the CIA concentrated instead on Pakistan and Iraq.

Radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki had twice escaped death at the hands of JSOC. A bloody attack using Cruise missiles on 24 December 2009 killed an estimated 30 people, although Awlaki escaped unharmed. And on 5 May 2011, a drone strike missed Awlaki’s vehicle. Whether CIA- or JSOC-controlled, a US drone almost certainly killed Awlaki on September 30.

Why kill him?
With the death of Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki had risen to become US Enemy Number One, at least in the public’s eyes. Many prosecution cases of alleged jihadists in the US today declares an alleged Awlaki link. Fort Hood shooter Major Hasan reportedly listened to his sermons and exchanged emails with him, for example.

That fear wasn’t confined to the US. Twenty-three Australians were recently revealed to be under restriction for alleged contacts with Awlaki, according to WikiLeaks. In the UK, numerous terror plots have been linked to the radical cleric. And Awlaki’s two-year stay in the UK from 2002-2004 is still not fully understood.

But what, exactly, was Awlaki’s role? Although he is often described as an “al Qaeda commander” or “a leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” (AQAP) it is not clear that he was ever either of these things.

Awlaki did claim to have attended a jihadist training camp in Afghanistan in the 1990s while still a student in the US, though no clear proof of this has ever emerged. In the run-up to 9/11 he also encountered some of the hijackers at two mosques he preached at – encounters which until recently had been thought to be circumstantial. The US Attorney-General has recently been urged to re-examine those meetings.

After 9/11, Awlaki was so trusted by the US government for a time that he was even invited to lead prayers at the Pentagon one day in 2002, as Fox News revealed earlier this year.

Awlaki’s alleged crimes were more recent. A popular preacher, his sermons began to circulate widely on the web. As anti-US sentiment rose in the wake of the invasion of Iraq, the sermons’ content became more militant. Copies of his sermons have been found in the possession of a number of terrorists arrested in recent years – not a sign of guilt, but certainly an indicator of Awlaki’s popularity in dark corners.

What role did Awlaki actually play in al Qaeda? None, according to some. ‘They [the western media] have claimed he’s going to be the next leader of al-Qaida, but it’s nonsense. Anwar is not a leader, he’s just a man with strong views and a big mouth,’ his father told The Guardian this year.

In a report presented to the UN General Assembly earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Christof Heyns, raised serious doubts about the Awlaki case, pointing out that the cleric had been investigated by US officials on numerous occasions:

Mr. al-Awlaki was arrested and imprisoned by the Yemeni authorities for 18 months from 2006-2007 at the request of the United States Government after he sought to mediate a tribal dispute. During his imprisonment, he was reportedly repeatedly questioned by FBI agents. As subsequently reportedly admitted by United States Government officials, John Negroponte, then Director of national intelligence, told Yemeni authorities that the United States did not object to Mr. al-Awlaki’s continued detention. At the end of 2007 United States officials reportedly conveyed to the Government of Yemen that the United States no longer insisted on Mr. al-Awlaki’s continued imprisonment, and he was released.

It was some time after his release in 2007 that Awlaki is reported to have allied himself directly with AQAP and was allegedly linked to three plots to blow up Western airliners. JSOC first reportedly tried to kill him in December 2009.
In May 2010, then-CIA director Leon Panetta confirmed what many had suspected, telling ABC News: ‘Awlaki is a terrorist and yes, he’s a US citizen, but he is first and foremost a terrorist and we’re going to treat him like a terrorist. We don’t have an assassination list, but I can tell you this. We have a terrorist list and he’s on it.’

The American Civil Liberties Union tried to bring a case against the government, challenging its right to kill US citizens at will. That case was struck down. And rumours persist that a small number of other US citizens have also been approved for assassination – a subject on which the government remains silent.