Traveling from secret bases on opposite sides of Yemen, armed drones from the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command converged above Anwar al-Aulaqi’s position in northern Yemen early Friday and unleashed a flurry of missiles.
US officials said the CIA was in control of all the aircraft, as well as the decisions to fire, and that the operation was so seamless that even hours later, it remained unclear whether a drone supplied by the CIA or the military fired the missile that ended the al-Qaeda leader’s life.
The Washington Post's Africa bureau chief, Sudarsan Raghavan, reports from Yemen about what Anwar al-Aulaqi's death means for the Yemens and for the long-term U.S.-Yemen relationship. (Audio)
One of the world's most wanted terrorists has been killed, according to the Yemeni government. U.S. born al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Aulaqi was killed. Tribal leaders say an air strike targeted an al-Qaeda convoy. (Sept. 30)
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Aulaqi’s death represents the latest, and perhaps most literal, illustration to date of the convergence between the CIA and the nation’s elite military units in the counterterrorism fight.
President Obama described Aulaqi’s death as “a tribute to our intelligence community” and gave credit to Yemeni security forces who, he said, had “worked closely with the United States over the course of several years.”
But after a decade of often inconclusive efforts against al-Qaeda, the Obama administration has relied on new levels of collaboration between the CIA and JSOC to push the terrorist network closer to collapse.
In May, U.S. Navy SEALS who serve under JSOC killed Osama bin Laden during a raid deep into Pakistan that relied on intelligence and covert action authority from the CIA.
At the same time, the administration has sought to put new pressure on al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Somalia by surrounding those countries with a constellation of drone bases. These include a new CIA facility in the Arabian peninsula that played a key role in Friday’s operation. U.S. drones also fly from military installations in Djibouti, Ethiopia and the Seychelles.
Even leadership ranks have begun to blur: Former CIA director Leon E. Panetta is now secretary of defense; David H. Petraeus, previously the military commander in Iraq and Afghanistan, is just weeks into his new assignment as head of the CIA.
The attack on Aulaqi blended capabilities from both sides and was carried out under CIA authority that allowed for greater latitude in conducting lethal operations outside conventional war zones. The military aircraft came across the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti, which has been the primary base for JSOC drones patrolling Yemen for much of the past year.
U.S. officials said that CIA drones involved in the strike took off from an agency base in the Arabian peninsula so new that it had become operational only in recent weeks.
The opening of that base was part of a two-pronged strategy by the administration to exploit JSOC’s ability to work closely with Yemen’s counterterrorism units on the ground while pushing the CIA to replicate aspects of its lethally efficient drone campaign in Pakistan.
The Post has agreed not to disclose the exact location of the new CIA drone base at the request of the Obama administration. Even before that facility was completed, the agency was escalating pressure on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the group’s Yemen-based offshoot is known.