The US Killings of Abdulrahman and Nawar al-Awlaki

Nearly a decade ago, President Barack Obama set a shocking new precedent when he ordered the assassination of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. Anwar, who was born in New Mexico, had been accused by the US of being a member of al-Qaeda, and was placed by the president, without due process, on a CIA/JSOC kill list. It was quite the fall from grace for a man who had been the first imam to perform a prayer service at the Capitol Building, and had even been interviewed by the New York Times and National Geographic for his “moderate” Muslim views. But none of that mattered anymore, since according to American officials, Anwar was connected to a number of terrorist plots. However, the US refused to provide any evidence for his alleged crimes, stating that the information was too dangerous to be shared publicly. Moreover, Anwar’s father Nasser al-Awlaki, a scholar and politician in Yemen, as well as civil rights groups such as the ACLU, fought in vain to remove the condemned preacher from the kill list. While Nasser disagreed with his son’s jihadist sermons, he vigorously denied Anwar’s connection to al-Qaeda. Nevertheless, the US government went ahead with its plans and killed Anwar via a drone strike in al-Jawf, Yemen on September 30, 2011.

Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen

While Anwar’s killing was illegal under the US Constitution, it should not be surprising that Washington disregarded its own laws when it came to an Arab Muslim-American who was voicing a violent opposition to the nation. Obama himself was known for his brutal drone program, which carried out ten times more strikes than that of George W. Bush’s, and had by some estimates killed over 800 civilians. Of course, those killings took place in countries such as Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen—Muslim nations, whose citizens’ lives the imperialist West assigns little value to. Yet, despite all of this, on an emotional level someone could simply argue that Anwar al-Awlaki was an evil man, who ended up paying the price for, what was at least, jihadist preaching. Thus, while the imam’s killing set an extremely dangerous precedent for all American citizens, his death would pale in comparison to what was to come.

Two weeks after Anwar’s assassination, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman al-Awlaki would himself fall victim to a US drone strike. Abdulrahman was born in Denver, Colorado, but had moved to Yemen with his mother at the age of seven in order to live with his grandparents. He was by all accounts a normal kid, and had been estranged from his radical father. In Abdulrahman’s New York Times obituary, his grandfather, Nasser, writes, “He was a typical teenager—he watched ‘The Simpsons,’ listened to Snoop Dogg, read ‘Harry Potter’ and had a Facebook page with many friends. He had a mop of curly hair, glasses like me and a wide, goofy smile.” Abdulrahman was certainly no terrorist.

Abdulrahman al-Awlaki

But what led to this typical teenager being murdered by the most powerful country on the planet? According to Nasser, Abdulrahman decided to leave home one day in hopes of seeing his estranged father. The teenager left a note for his mother, telling her that he was sorry for leaving without permission, but that he missed his father and wanted to look for him. Perhaps the boy was afraid that he would never again get the chance to see his hunted father. Nevertheless, soon after Abdulrahman left home, his family learned that he was safe and staying with cousins. Moreover, after hearing news of his father’s death, Abdulrahman called his family to tell them that he was on his way back home. But the 16-year-old would never see his mother or grandparents again.

On October 14, 2011, while Abdulrahman and his teenage cousin were eating dinner in Shabwah, they, along with five other civilians, were killed by a missile launched by a US drone. According to Nasser, Abdulrahman’s remains were so mangled from the strike that the only recognizable thing remaining of him was his curly hair.

Yet, why had the US decided to kill a minor who had nothing to do with terrorism? Perhaps it is as Jeremy Scahill puts it in the documentary Dirty Wars: “Like a tale from Greek mythology, Abdulrahman was killed not for what he’d done, but for who he might one day become.” In other words, the US had possibly assassinated the boy out of fear that he may in the future choose to follow in his father’s footsteps, and become a thorn in its side.

Unfortunately, the White House was not forthcoming with the reasons behind the drone strike that killed Abdulrahman and six others. This, of course, was not surprising, since the Obama administration had been keen on hiding the truth when it came to US military activities in Yemen. In fact, Obama in February of the same year had even personally called Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in order to encourage him to keep journalist Abdulelah Haider Shaye in prison under the false charges of working with al-Qaeda. Shaye’s real crime, however, had been to reveal that it was the US, and not the Yemeni government, that had been behind the earlier al-Majalah massacre, which had killed fourteen women, twenty-one children, and a number of elderly. It was clear that Washington was willing to do whatever it took when it came to hiding its war crimes.

We did, however, hear claims from anonymous US officials that the attack that killed Abdulrahman had been intended to eliminate the Egyptian al-Qaeda leader Ibrahim al-Banna—who, by the way, is still alive today. There were also the deranged comments from Obama’s press secretary Robert Gibbs, who, after being pressed by a reporter on why Abdulrahman had been killed, said, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well-being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al-Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.” It seems that according to the press secretary’s twisted logic, the US bore no responsibility for Abdulrahman’s death. Gibbs’s statement brings to mind the mentality of some sort of corrupt gangster who thinks it reasonable to punish the innocent families of those who cross him. Furthermore, to make matters worse, the US did not stop there when it came to killing Anwar al-Awlaki’s children.

In 2017, Donald Trump would succeed Barack Obama as US President, but little would change in terms of the violence perpetrated by the US against the Islamic world. In fact, almost immediately upon taking office, Trump would approve a raid on the village of al-Ghayil in Yakla, Yemen. While the raid itself would be carried out on the night of January 29, 2017, the planning for it began under Obama in November of the previous year. The goal of the operation was apparently to gather intelligence on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), as well as to capture or kill its emir Qasim al-Raymi. Although then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer would hail the operation as having been “very successful,” the significance of the intelligence found is debatable, and al-Raymi, who mocked Trump after the attack, seems to have not even been in al-Ghayil. On the other hand, Yemeni civilians had just experienced another night of American terror.

Children in al-Ghayil, Yemen standing among the rubble left by the US attack Photo: Iona Craig

According to eyewitness reports from the night of the raid, US attack helicopters razed buildings where sleeping families lay, as about thirty Team 6 SEAL members descended upon the impoverished village. While some Yemenis, whom the US claims were members of al-Qaeda, returned fire on the invading forces, a number of civilians desperately scrambled for cover. Mothers are described as running with their children before being cut down by American bullets. An elderly woman from the village named Nesma al-Ameri said that the US forces fired indiscriminately upon the people. The civilian casualties that night included at least six women and nine children under thirteen years of age. Among the young dead in al-Ghayil was also the American-born 8-year-old daughter of Anwar, and the half-sister of Abdulrahman, Nawar “Nora” al-Awlaki. The child, who was staying with her mother at the time, had been shot in the neck during the raid, and left to bleed to death over the course of two hours. As Glenn Greenwald put it at the time, “In a hideous symbol of the bipartisan continuity of U.S. barbarism, Nasser al-Awlaki just lost another one of his young grandchildren to U.S. violence.” Moreover, despite the fact that Trump had voiced his support for murdering the families of suspected terrorists before winning the presidency, Nasser did not believe that his granddaughter had been specifically targeted by the US. However, he did not understand why the Americans had used such a large commando strike on the tiny village. In fact, he claimed that any arms moving that was happening in the area was not for al-Qaeda, but for the opposition forces fighting the Shia Houthis, who had taken control of the government through revolution.

Nawar al-Awlaki

Nasser’s claim that al-Ghayil was simply a place of potential opposition against the Houthis, and not some sort of al-Qaeda encampment, demonstrates the absolute madness behind the US’s undeclared war in Yemen, which cost Abdulrahman and Nawar, along with countless others, their lives. The reason is that Washington has seemingly been fighting both sides in the Yemeni conflict. While the US is killing civilians who are located near alleged members of terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda, as well as other anti-Houthi groups, the Americans have also simultaneously been a key ally in the Saudi-led genocide in Yemen, which is designed to undermine the Houthi movement and to reinstate the pro-Saudi government. It seems that Yemen is just another nation in the Middle East for the US to help cause chaos in an attempt to assert its hegemony.

In the end, Abdulrahman and Nawar were innocent children, whose lives were brutally stolen from them by a country that, regardless of who the president is, does not value the lives of Yemenis, or nearly anyone else in the Muslim world. The reality is that until the American people begin to hold Washington accountable for its crimes against humanity, those in Yemen will continue to be at the mercy of US terror, and that will mean the tragic deaths of countless more innocent Yemeni men, women, and children.  

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