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Inside the Killing of An American Terrorist

14 minute read

On Sept. 30, 2011, the United States took the unprecedented action to kill a U.S. citizen on foreign soil. Muslim cleric and Al Qaeda spokesman Anwar al-Awlaki was killed by a strike from an MQ-1 Predator while traveling by convoy in Yemen. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War, retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel T. Mark McCurley, a veteran Predator pilot who eventually rose to command the Predator squadron that executed the Awlaki mission, relates the events as they unfolded in the Predator control room that day.

The phone rang in the squadron operations center and I snatched it after the first ring.

It was my private line direct to the Joint Task Force based at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. We’d been tracking a high-profile target and I had a feeling this was the call we’d been waiting for, for weeks.

“Squirrel here,” I said.

On the line was a guy called Frog, the Predator liaison officer, or LNO. He worked for the Joint Operations Center (JOC) commander. His job was to coordinate Predator missions in the region. My squadron provided the Predators to keep watch and strike suspected terrorists and pirates.

“Launch,” the liaison officer said.

“How many?”

“All three,” he said.

Three Predators equipped with two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles each waited on the ramp. The planes were in alert status, ready to take off at a moment’s notice. The phone line wasn’t secure enough to confirm it, but I knew one thing as I hung up the phone.

Today, the wolf pack hunted.

It was Sept. 30, 2011. I was the commander of the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron at Camp Lemonnier, in Djibouti.

I hung up the phone and gave the order to launch.

I went outside to watch the launch. The thermometer near the building hovered at 95 degrees as the three aircraft started to spin up. Heat was a worse enemy to the Predators than al Qaeda. The “heat window” was upon us. If it got any hotter, the delicate electronics within the Predators could overheat and melt before reaching the cooler temperatures at higher altitudes.

Back in the operations center, I could hear over the radio as the Djiboutian air traffic control tower cleared the Predators to take off. I watched from a concrete barrier as the Predators lumbered down the runway, barely able to lift off if not for the slight incline at the end of the tarmac. Once airborne, the Predators flew out to sea before turning for Yemen.

I walked into the Task Force’s facility.

Six 50-inch plasma screens lined the walls around the JOC commander’s podium. Each showed the video feed from various Predators or Reapers flying around the region.

Some were in Africa.

Most were in Yemen.

The pilots and sensor operators flying the aircraft were based in numerous locations around the globe, digitally connected to our aircraft as if they were right down the hall.

The room buzzed with anticipation as I walked inside. The JOC commander was a short officer, standing on a central dais at the center of the room. From his position, he could see all six monitors. The Predator LNO stood at his desk a few paces to the right of the commander.

“That him?” I asked the Predator LNO, a tall Air Force major.

“Not sure,” the LNO said. “We confirmed he was active about five hours ago.”

The LNO didn’t look away from the monitors showing the Predators’ video feeds.

“We are still looking to get eyes on him right now.”

Not having “eyes on” meant we couldn’t see the target. The guys never said where the leads came from.

The target was Anwar al-Awlaki.

Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents, al-Awlaki, 38 years old, had been in contact with two Sept. 11 hijackers and was in contact with Major Nidal Malik Hasan via email before Hasan killed 13 people in a shooting at Fort Hood in Texas in 2009. Al-Awlaki also inspired Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to attempt to use an underwear bomb to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day in 2009.

After being investigated by the FBI for his connections to al Qaeda, Al-Awlaki fled to London and then to Yemen, where he worked as editor in chief of al Qaeda’s English-language recruitment magazine, Inspire. The magazine featured an article on how to make bombs. The Boston Marathon bombers would eventually use the article to carry out their attack.

On the monitor, I saw the town of Khashef, a small village north of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The village looked like a mix of mud-brick and cinder-block houses haphazardly thrown together. It was nondescript enough to serve as a hideout and close enough to the big city that conveniences were a short drive away.

“The target’s active,” said an analyst sitting nearby. “We are seeing indications he’s on the move.”

Two white Toyota HiLux trucks pulled up outside a house in the village. Both trucks had king cabs that sat about five people. The black-and-white Predator feed on the plasma screen locked onto the lead truck.

The officer gave al-Awlaki’s coordinates and I checked the feed. The two trucks sat very near the coordinates. My Predators were close enough to consider themselves as on target. We all watched closely as eight men spilled out of a nearby house and quickly climbed into the trucks. They wore garb traditional to the area, white robes and headscarves. One wore all white and climbed into the lead truck. The doors barely shut before the driver of the lead truck took off, trailing a plume of dust and exhaust. The trail vehicle followed a moment later.

“Stay on them,” the JOC commander said.

Within seconds, the other two Predator feeds shifted to the two vehicles picking their way through the village’s market. Vendors and shoppers clogged the road in the late morning, making final purchases before the noon heat made shopping unbearable. The crowd slowed the trucks as the drivers darted through breaks in the sea of people.

The goal was to hit al-Awlaki while in transit between the villages of Khashef and Marib. An isolated strike meant no witnesses and low collateral damage. It also kept civilians out of harm’s way. Al-Awlaki simply wouldn’t show up at the meeting.

The convoy made it through the market and picked up the pace as they neared the edge of the town. We had only one shot at him. If we missed, al-Awlaki would go to ground. At best, it would be months before we found him—if we found him again.

The driver took his time in the village, knowing the civilians protected him and his passengers. But once he hit the open road, speed was his only security. The convoy wound its way past the outskirts of town and into the open, driving a curvy track through smaller villages and open desert.

“Target’s clear. Any word?” Gordon said.

“Negative, Gordon,” the LNO said. “Still awaiting word.”

“Awaiting word” was a euphemism for someone who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, make a decision. This one was no light decision. We were preparing to shoot an American terrorist in a foreign country. Only the president could authorize a strike of this magnitude.

Gordon didn’t have time as he worked to keep his aircraft in prime shooting range while anticipating any sudden turns by the target. Besides, the pilot didn’t want to get into the classic “don’t tell a pilot how to fly his airplane” argument. A few seconds later, Bong, another Predator flying nearby, scanned the landscape ahead of the convoy.

The straightaway was the most logical place for the shot. The vehicles would maintain a constant speed on a predictable course. There were few ridgelines to block the missile or the targeting laser.

As expected, al-Awlaki’s convoy hit the plain and immediately accelerated. Twin rooster tails of dust kicked up behind them as they raced through sand deposited on the road by recent wind- and sandstorms.

“Ten minutes.”

Gordon’s comment was more of a query than a statement. We had ten minutes until al-Awlaki reached Marib. If the Predator was going to shoot, it needed to do so on this road. The JOC commander, headset pinned to his ear, shook his head in the negative. Each time the convoy passed a mile marker it reduced the chances of a strike.

I watched the monitor as Gordon maneuvered into position. Flying faster than the trucks, the pilot executed S-turns to keep from passing the convoy. If al-Awlaki knew we were above him, he wasn’t acting like it. The trucks sped straight down the highway.

“Gordon, say status,” the LNO said.

“Checklist complete, awaiting clearance,” Gordon said.

“Copy,” the LNO said. “Bong, get into position for an immediate follow-up attack.”

If Gordon missed, he would be unable to fire his second missile. He would be so close at impact that a second shot would be impossible for the missile to negotiate. Bong would be lurking at a good distance to follow up or hit the second vehicle if the first strike was successful.

“Five minutes and the window closes,” Gordon said. “Say status.”

I watched as the JOC commander hung up his phone.

“It’s time,” he said. “Pass the 9-Line.”

The LNO pushed “Enter” on his keyboard. He’d already typed the 9-Line, which spelled out the order to shoot in scripted lines. Each line passed specific information to the pilot. The Task Force’s joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), an Air Force airman trained to call in air strikes, came online. He had been watching the feed in the operations center. JTACs were usually on the ground, but that was impossible in Yemen. We had no troops on the ground there. Instead, the JTAC monitored missions from his desk at the operations center, coming in only before a strike.

The video feed remained fixed on the two trucks. Occasionally, the picture would tilt and rotate as the camera adjusted to the Predator’s maneuvers. Gordon didn’t respond. The pilot was briefing his sensor operator, the second man in this crew, on the shot. The sensor operator was an enlisted airman who controlled the Predator’s sensor pod near the aircraft’s nose and fired the targeting laser. He was a second set of eyes, especially when preparing to launch a missile. Everyone in the operations cell started to get nervous because the brief was going long.

Uncomfortably long.

Why hadn’t they done this already? I shifted my weight from foot to foot trying to burn off some of my nervous energy. The LNO shifted in his seat too, mirroring my discomfort. No one in the operations cell wanted to miss this chance. No one was sure when we’d get another opportunity. I checked the clock hanging over the monitors. Three minutes remained. The video tilted once more.

“Gordon’s in from the south,” the pilot said. “One minute.”

The JTAC didn’t hesitate.

“Gordon, you’re cleared hot.”

“Copy, cleared hot,” the pilot in Cannon said.

Thirty seconds passed. The two HiLux trucks grew larger in the camera’s field of view.

“Laser on,” Gordon said.

A black icon reading “LRD LASE LaseDESDes” flashed on the screen. The lead truck ferrying Al-Awlaki grew to fill the screen. The picture twitched as the proximity made the controls hypersensitive.

The second vehicle was no longer in sight.

“In three, two, one, . . .”

The familiar double– click overrode the audio as the fire signal interrupted the satellite signal. A moment later, the HUD went blank as the blinding white flash of the missile’s exhaust plume washed out the sensitive IR picture.

Immediately, the Predator banked to the right. On the computer monitor, the little blue icon for Gordon rotated until it paralleled the road. At that magnification, the aircraft looked as if it was on top of the road.

My mind wandered to the diagram I had drawn of the moving shot. So far, they were following it perfectly. The Predator flew parallel to the trucks to make it easier for the sensor to keep the laser on target. The sensor’s crosshairs pulled off the target after the rollout but quickly adjusted and placed the crosshairs about 20 yards in front of al-Awlaki’s truck. The vehicles didn’t swerve or even change speed. Al-Awlaki continued down the road as if unaware of the threat.

In my head, I started checking off my mental checklist as if I was flying. I knew the short two-second burn of the Hellfire engine accelerated the missile to nearly 1.4 Mach, creating a sonic boom. This intense acceleration subjected the missile to ten times the force of gravity. When the missile’s sensor detected enough g-forces, the warhead armed. The infrared eye opened and then looked for the laser spot.

“Ten seconds,” the pilot said.

The Predator floated alongside al-Awlaki’s truck. Had he looked up, it is entirely possible that he would have seen the aircraft as the pilot eased a little rudder to pull the nose away from the target. Distance at this point determined stability for the sensor. Too close and the crosshairs would wobble. A couple of miles out, the angle down wouldn’t be so steep and the crosshairs would remain stable.

At five seconds, the missile slowed below the speed of sound, causing a second sonic boom. The shock wave coursed in all directions, loudest in the direction of the missile’s travel. The boom washed over the two trucks. These were not large booms and would have been hard to hear if the radio was on or the window was open causing the wind to howl into the cab. The trucks sped forward.

“Five, four, three . . .”

The sensor relaxed his grip a mite. The crosshairs drifted toward the lead vehicle. The pilot paused to let the sensor focus on his crosshairs. A black streak entered the picture from above, raced downward, and slammed into the hood of the truck. It hit right where the sensor had placed the crosshairs.

Smoke mushroomed out of the hood and debris shot out of the engine in all directions. The truck skidded awkwardly, spun sideways, and rolled to a stop. The truck containing the security team frantically hit the brakes and swerved to miss the first vehicle. Bong was trailing behind. He rolled in, cleared by the Task Force JTAC, and put a missile into the hood of the second truck.

Months of tracking ended in a matter of seconds. There was little reaction in the operations center. No cheers. No high fives. The Task Force was too professional for that. Frog and I shook hands. He was smiling. We were one team. We’d earned a victory, evident by the trucks smoldering in the monitor.

Two of the Predators started the journey back to Djibouti. The third lingered for a while watching for survivors. There was no ground team to verify the kill. We had to wait for other sources. He would be missed at his next meeting and someone would think to send out a team to find him.

Verification that al-Awlaki had died came within hours.

From Hunter Killer: Inside America’s Unmanned Air War by T. Mark McCurley with Kevin Maurer. Published by arrangement with Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Thomas Mark McCurley.

Lt. Col. T. Mark McCurley a retired Air Force pilot and former intelligence operator. In 2003, he volunteered for the secretive Predator program, deploying five times to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other locations, where he has flown the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, accruing more than one thousand combat hours in flight.

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