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Do We Even Have the Full Story About Abdul Awlaki's Death?

One of the incidents which prompted Sen. Rand Paul’s day-long filibuster last week was the drone strike that killed Abdul Rahman Anwar Awlaki. Abdul was the 16 year-old son of Anwar Awlaki. He was killed in an airstrike on October 14th, 2011, supposedly a bystander to an attack aimed at a major al Qaeda figure named Ibrahim al-Banna.

Looking into it over the weekend I was surprised how unclear the circumstances surrounding Abdul’s death remain. The NY Times published a story Saturday detailing some of the justification used in the killing of the father, but information on Abdul’s death is vague:

On Oct. 14, a missile apparently intended for
an Egyptian Qaeda operative, Ibrahim al-Banna, hit a modest outdoor
eating place in Shabwa. The intelligence was bad: Mr. Banna was not
there, and among about a dozen men killed was the young Abdulrahman
al-Awlaki, who had no connection to terrorism and would never have been
deliberately targeted.

It was a tragic error and, for the Obama administration, a public
relations disaster, further muddying the moral clarity of the previous
strike on his father and fueling skepticism about American assertions of
drones’ surgical precision. The damage was only compounded when
anonymous officials at first gave the younger Mr. Awlaki’s age as 21,
prompting his grieving family to make public his birth certificate.

The airstrike which the Times says was “apparently” aimed at Ibrahim al-Banna was actually a series of five separate strikes in the area (some sources say three) which took place on the evening of Oct. 14th. The first strike hit a house where a meeting of militants had just broken up. No one was killed.

The next strike reportedly hit two SUVs one of which was believed to be carrying al-Banna. The AP story makes it sound as if the SUVs were on the move at the time. They relay information from a tribal elder who tells them “The two vehicles were completely destroyed and the men’s bodies were charred.” The AP reported in the same story that Abdul Awlawki was among the dead, presumably killed in the strike on the SUVs.

However the NY Times story from this weekend, and several others, say Abdul Awlaki was killed at an “outdoor eating place.” Is this the same strike or a separate strike? It’s unclear. What we do know is that Ibrahim al-Banna, who was the target of the strikes, was not in the SUV caravan and was not killed that night.

It’s perhaps understandable that al-Banna’s absence from the wreckage was not immediately clear, especially if the bodies were “charred” as AP reported. However, it seems Awlaki’s presense was clear very quickly. Was Awlaki riding in an SUV caravan with al-Banna? Or was he killed in a separate strike at an outdoor eating establishment? If there were five strikes, where were the other 3 (or 2) and who were the targets? Considering how much attention this story has received from the left and the right, it’s surprising how little we know about exactly what happened.

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