How we tracked Awlaki

Posted by: Phineas on October 1, 2011 at 9:20 pm

**Posted by Phineas

At Big Peace, the Investigative Project on Terrorism (1) provides the inside story of how we tracked down Al Qaeda’s rising star, Anwar al-Awlaki:

Awlaki lived in the southern Yemen province of Shabwa, an area beyond the reach of Yemen’s military and central government. Much of Yemen is like the Wild West, with no central governing authority. The numerous tribes settle disputes among themselves. Awlaki came from the Awalik tribe.

Intelligence gathered last year from Yemeni authorities and from debriefings with several American converts who returned to the United States after training with Awlaki, helped narrow Awlaki’s location to a 100 square mile area. He moved at night, often in convoys of armored SUVs in order to prevent U.S. drones and surveillance from determining which vehicle he was in. But the drones, which have advanced in the ability to recognize faces on the ground, hovered above the area where Awlaki was believed to be. Electronic intelligence – including telephone intercepts –also were used, although Awlaki was said to be careful in limiting his use of electronic communication, aware that he could be tracked that way.

In the past several months, American drone operators were confident they had identified Awlaki as he moved from among a series of underground bunkers. An initial drone missile targeting him was fired at an al-Qaida training camp but missed him.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agents collected as much personal data about Awlaki as they could from his extended family living in western countries. For example, he had an ex-wife living in Ireland that no one knew about until a close relative living in the United States identified the family tree for agents in early January. The relative proved to be a goldmine of information about Awlaki’s siblings, parents, wives, and children.

Intelligence officials learned about the American relative in January through other Yemeni expatriates living here who knew her. She agreed to cooperate and provided extensive information about close relatives living either with him, elsewhere in Yemen, or in different parts of the world. Telephone numbers belonging to a close relative living in Yemen’s capital Sanaa that the American relative provided to U.S. intelligence officials proved the most critical.

The relative knew that Awlaki called that number. The National Security Agency (NSA) quickly was able to triangulate the phone numbers and determine almost exactly where Awlaki was when he called the Sanaa number. The American relative also provided information on other Awlaki relatives who apparently had direct contact with Awlaki, either through email or other electronic means. That knowledge helped track other communication and confirm Awlaki’s whereabouts.

I’m not surprised the ex-wife was willing to talk, given this deeply spiritual man’s preferred hobbies.

It really is a fascinating story: once they had a good idea of the area Awlaki was hiding in, they flooded the skies with drones and kept watching. We also had informants on the ground posing as his students. (2) Finally they got word he was moving in a convoy during the day from one bunker to another. The CIA had passed on earlier shots before, out of fear of too many civilian casualties, but this one looked good and so…

Bye-bye, Anwar. (3)

I draw a few lessons from this:

  • I’ve read elsewhere that the investigative work was carried out by the same group that tracked down bin Laden. These guys are good.
  • If you make a name for yourself among jihadists and you take us on, we will find you and you will either take a bullet to the head or go boom. Our choice, not yours.
  • If you’re going to live the life of a terrorist on the run, stop calling family! On second thought, scratch that. Make all the calls you want.

Be sure to read the whole thing.

Footnotes:
(1) The IPT is Steve Emerson‘s outfit. They do great work.
(2) In other words, we have spies in their midst. Your first thought may be to ask why we’re revealing this, but consider: whether fact or disinformation, it plays with AQAP’s minds and throws a heaping helping of doubt and suspicion into their internal operations. Whom can they trust, even among their “brothers?”
(3) Bite me, Glenn Greenwald. (Among others.)

(Crossposted at Public Secrets)

RSS feed for comments on this post.

5 Responses to “How we tracked Awlaki”

Comments

  1. Carlos says:

    Since half the world’s people are archived by either Google or Yahoo! (and the other half would know a computer from a rock), seems to me those honorable and patriotic US companies could be of a little more service to their country.

    Oh, I forgot! They are big-time Democraps.

  2. Jiji says:

    Yup. AOL is democrap too since it was absorbed by Huff and Puff.

    Isn’t it alarming that the govt can loiter one or more drones out of sight and recognize your face? In the future it might not be safe to write an email critical of the administration.

  3. Aarradin says:

    Some stories shouldn’t be told. At least, not for a few decades. There’s no shortage of jihadis that will be reading this as a training manual on how to avoid getting caught.

  4. omapian says:

    I find it hard to follow the logic of the administration that claims credit for a hit on a terrorist yet rejects the value of some interrogation techniques. It is ok to kill them – just don’t ask questions without providing them with a lawyer!!!

  5. walter says:

    So, expose the ex-wife as the source of critical intel, when she turns up dead , don’t expect others to talk.