In the days before a CIA drone strike killed al-Qaeda operative Anwar al-Awlaki last month, his 16-year-old son ran away from the family home in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa to try to find him, relatives say. When he, too, was killed in a U.S. airstrike Friday, the Awlaki family decided to speak out for the first time since the attacks.
“To kill a teenager is just unbelievable, really, and they claim that he is an al-Qaeda militant. It’s nonsense,” said Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Yemeni agriculture minister who was Anwar al-Awlaki’s father and the boy’s grandfather, speaking in a phone interview from Sanaa on Monday. “They want to justify his killing, that’s all.”
The teenager, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a U.S. citizen who was born in Denver in 1995, and his 17-year-old Yemeni cousin were killed in a U.S. military strike that left nine people dead in southeastern Yemen.
The young Awlaki was the third American killed in Yemen in as many weeks. Samir Khan, an al-Qaeda propagandist from North Carolina, died alongside Anwar al-Awlaki.
Yemeni officials said the dead from the strike included Ibrahim al-Banna, the Egyptian media chief for al-Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate, and also a brother of Fahd al-Quso, a senior al-Qaeda operative who was indicted in New York in the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in the port of Aden.
The strike occurred near the town of Azzan, an Islamist stronghold. The Defense Ministry in Yemen described Banna as one of the “most dangerous operatives” in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, often referred to by the acronym AQAP.
U.S. officials said they were still assessing the results of the strike Monday evening to determine who was killed. The officials would not discuss the attack in any detail, including who the target was, but typically the CIA and the Pentagon focus on senior figures in al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen.
“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,” said Thomas F. Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “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.”
A senior congressional official who is familiar with U.S. operations in Yemen and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive policy issues said, “If they knew a 16-year-old was there, I think that would be cause for them to say: ‘Gee, we ought not to hit this guy. That would be considered collateral damage.’ ”
The official said that the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command are expected to ensure that women and children are not killed in airstrikes in Pakistan and Yemen but that sometimes it might not be possible to distinguish a teenager from militants.
Nasser al-Awlaki said he was told by people in the area where the airstrike occurred that the two teenagers were about to have a meal with a small group of men when they were hit. He said he did not know who else was in the group but was told that they were mostly young people.
“The others I just don’t know. Maybe they were being targeted,” Awlaki said.
In a separate statement Monday, the Awlaki family said that Abdulrahman “along with some of his tribe’s youth have gone barbecuing under the moonlight. A drone missile hit their congregation killing Abdulrahman and several other teenagers.”
Nasser al-Awlaki said the family decided to issue a statement after reading some U.S. news reports that described Abdulrahman as a militant in his twenties.
The family urged journalists and others to visit a Facebook memorial page for Abdulrahman.
“Look at his pictures, his friends, and his hobbies,” the statement said. “His Facebook page shows a typical kid. A teenager who paid a hefty price for something he never did and never was.”
The pictures on the Facebook page show a smiling kid out and about in the countryside and occasionally hamming it up for the camera. Abdulrahman left the United States with his father in 2002.
Nasser al-Awlaki said Abdulrahman was in the first year of secondary school when he left Sanaa to find his father. He wrote a note to his mother, saying he missed his father and wanted to see him. The teenager traveled to the family’s tribal home in southern Yemen, but Anwar al-Awlaki was killed Sep. 30 in Yemen’s northern Jawf province, about 90 miles east of the capital.
“He went from here without my knowledge,” Nasser al-Awlaki said. “We would not allow him to go if we know because he is a small boy.” He said his grandson, after hearing about his father’s death, had decided to return to Sanaa.
The family also condemned the death of Anwar al-Awlaki, 40, as an “unlawful assassination,” saying that he was an American citizen who had never been formally charged with any crime.
Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico, was one of al-Qaeda’s most prominent and effective propagandists, but U.S. officials said he had also become directly involved in terrorist plots against the United States. After his killing, President Obama described him as chief of “external operations” for AQAP.
U.S. officials had tied him to the attempted bombing of a commercial aircraft on approach to Detroit and the attempted downing of two cargo planes over the United States. They said he inspired an Army officer who is charged with killing 13 people in a November 2009 shooting rampage at Fort Hood, Tex., and a Pakistani-American man who tried to set off a car bomb in New York City in May 2010.
The family, in its statement, said, “Anwar was never a ‘militant’ ” nor was he “the head of Al Qaeda external operations.”
The United States has stepped up drone operations in Yemen to counter AQAP, which it fears is exploiting the country’s chaos to plot further attacks. Violent clashes continued Monday in Sanaa between government forces and troops loyal to an army general who broke with President Ali Abdullah Saleh to protect protesters calling for his ouster.
Staff writers James Buck, Greg Jaffe and Jason Ukman and staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.