Patrick Symmes writes:
It was the first drone attack in Yemen in a decade. On May 5, three days after Osama bin Laden was killed, a weaponized unmanned aircraft flew at 20,000 feet over the cracked and broken topography of Yemen. The target was a pickup truck carrying two men, one of them an American-born cleric named Anwar al-Awlaki.
U.S. intelligence had been tracking him for years. Last July, Awlaki had been seen in Shabwa Province, a restive Al Qaeda stronghold in southern Yemen, where he was said to have recruited hundreds of young loyalists. This May the Yemeni government tipped off U.S. forces that Awlaki was there again, hiding in the village of Abdan. About seventy-five American Special Forces are in Yemen, supposedly on a training mission. When a pickup truck carrying the cleric left Abdan, the drone controlled by either the CIA or Joint Special Operations Command followed. Somebody took a shot at Awlaki.
And another shot. And another shot.
Incredible luck? Expert off-road driving? However it happened, Awlaki survived the first, the second, and the third drone strikes. All three missiles missed. The pickup truck was said to be “lightly damaged,” according to a village source, and Awlaki was unharmed.
By now he could be anywhere—a shepherd’s hut outside Mar’ib, the Al Qaeda capital of Yemen; a comfy pad outside cities like Aden or Taiz; or as a senior Western diplomat in Sanaa suggested, hiding among his ancestral clan members, the Awlakis, a powerful tribe that has ruled parts of southern Yemen for generations.
Wherever he is, Awlaki is only hiding physically. Unlike Bin Laden, who limited himself to the occasional thumb drive, Awlaki has spent the last two years going online routinely, firing off e-mails and posting web videos. His sermons, given in beautiful idiomatic English, are sold in sixteen- and eighteen-part CD collections, with sweet-sounding themes like Islamic motherhood or “Tolerance—A Hallmark of Muslim Character,” but he reaches quickly for the big stick. “Allah will take those false gods,” he says of non-Muslims, in a sermon ostensibly about police brutality, “and throw them in hellfire, and their people will have to follow them.”
“In the West, Bin Laden’s preaching is not effective,” says Saeed Ali al-Jemhi, a kind of one-man anti–Al Qaeda think tank whom I met with in Yemen in March, when Bin Laden was still alive. “But Awlaki, they listen to him once or twice, they are in. He’s the radical magnet. He gave Al Qaeda a fifty-year push forward, an evolution.”