In the first known US targeted assassination outside of a conventional battlefield and using a drone, a CIA Predator launched from Djibouti struck a car in Annaqaah, Marib governorate, on the evening of November 3rd 2002, killing six Al Qaeda suspects. A seventh individual escaped alive, and was later cleared of involvement in an October 2000 terrorist attack on the USS Cole – the stated reason for the drone attack. No civilian harm was reported.
The dead included Al Qaeda leader Qa’id Salim Sinan al Harithi, also known as Abu Mi (one of the alleged masterminds behind the USS Cole attack) and Abu Ahmad al Hijazi, a naturalised US citizen also known as Kemal or Kamal Darwish. Darwish, a US-born Yemeni, was suspected of being the recruiter of a terror support cell that had recently been rounded up in Buffalo, New York state.
The other four killed allegedly belonged to the Aden-Abyan Islamic Army, and were identified as Salih Hussain Ali al Nunu or Zono (aka Abu Humam); Awsan Ahmad al Tarihi (aka Abu al Jarrah); Munir Ahmad Abdallah al Sauda (Abu Ubaidah); and Adil Nasir al Sauda (Abu Usamah, initially identified as al-Qia’gaa). All six names were released by the Yemen government three weeks after the attack. A seventh man survived the attack with injuries, and was later named as Abdul Rauf Nassib.
The strike reportedly targeted one of two SUVs as they travelled along a highway towards Marib city, 100 miles (or 160 kilometres) east of Yemeni capital Sana’a. The drone was one of the first reportedly launched from Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, the main base of US drone operations in the area.
The Hellfire missile, launched from the Predator drone, obliterated the vehicle and burned most of those inside. A US official told the Washington Post that considerable damage was caused by an “unexplained secondary explosion”, possibly indicating that “the occupants were carrying arms, explosives or extra gasoline”.
A tribesman told the Associated Press that he had seen Al-Harithi’s body in the destroyed car. “I know him like I know myself. That was him.” Al-Harethi reportedly fought alongside Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan, serving as his bodyguard, before becoming a key AQAP “operative” in Yemen.
At the time, the Associated Press reported that Al Harithi had been hiding from US forces in Husn al-Jalal, Marib, between August and November 2001, where he lived with Mohammed Hamdi al-Ahdal, another suspect in the USS Cole bombing. Both had reportedly escaped from a Yemeni special forces raid on the area in December 2001.
Multiple US agencies and representatives reportedly coordinated with the Yemeni government to locate Al-Harithi. US Ambassador Edmund Hull paid local tribal figures for information on Al Harithi’s whereabouts, according to Christian Science Monitor. Yemeni officials were reportedly displeased with this US “freelancing” in rural areas, but felt there was little that could be done to prevent it.
Nonetheless, US sources told the Washington Post that the strike was carried out with the “cooperation and approval” of the Yemeni government. Yemeni officials told reporters that their own agents were cooperating with the US to find Al-Harithi. According to an article in The New Yorker, “Manhunt”, a US-Yemeni “joint intelligence team, working out of a situation room in Yemen – a Yemeni official would say only that the site was not visible from the air – had been tracing al-Harethi’s satellite telephone calls for weeks”. Al Harithi was reportedly found with five mobile phones on his body, likely an attempt to evade telecommunications tracking efforts.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the CIA learnt prior to the strike that Harithi was about to drive across the country, affording an opportunity to conduct a strike without civilians in the area. Additionally, it was learnt, reportedly from a Yemeni ground agent, that the men in the group had taken one car, while the women had all taken a second car. “If the women hadn’t gotten into another car, we wouldn’t have fired,” one official later said.
“Our special-ops had the compound under surveillance,” recalled General Michael DeLong, then deputy commander of US Central Command, in an article by The Nation. “They were ‘preparing to storm in when Ali exited with five of his associates. They got into SUVs and took off'”.
As reported by The Atlantic and others, Al Harithi’s location was confirmed by the NSA. Surveiling a phone call on a number linked to Al Harithi, an analyst reportedly heard his voice giving directions to the driver of the car. Though only a six-second conversation, this was sufficient to identify the target prior to the strike.
Though the CIA reportedly conducted the strike, there did appear to be some level of coordination between the CIA and US Central Command. Speaking with PBS Frontline, General DeLong said: ‘George Tenet [director CIA] calls me one morning and said, “We’ve got our target.” I said, “OK, we’re good. I’m going down to the UAV room.” [in Tampa, Florida]. I’m sitting back like this, looking at the wall and talking to George Tenet. And he goes, “You going to make the call?” And I said, “I’ll make the call.” He says, “This SUV over here is the one that has Ali in it.” I said, “OK, fine.” You know, “Shoot him.” They lined it up and shot it. It’s a pretty good-size explosive. In an SUV, you can imagine a big explosion. So we knew everybody in the vehicle was dead.’
A US official, however, later told the New Yorker that intelligence “mistakes” had twice almost led to civilians being harmed. “In one case, the joint-intelligence center found a group of Bedouins whose armed pickup trucks—pickups are the main mode of travel in the desert—included at least one vehicle that was mounted with a heavy machine gun. The Americans were about to hit the truck with a Predator, the Yemeni official said, “but we had someone tracking it, too. He was asked by phone, ‘Who are those people?’ He said, ‘Bedouins. Not Al Qaeda.’”
US officials told CNN that the CIA had been unaware that US citizen Kemal Darwish was in the car at the time of the strike. A US official later labelled Darwish’s death as “collateral damage”, according to ABC News – he “was just in the wrong place at the wrong time”. Darwish was born in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1973; he returned to Lackawanna, N.Y., his hometown, in 1998. While there, he reportedly began to recruit young men to Al-Qaida.
In a 2010 Washington Post article, however, Dana Priest noted that the CIA did, in fact, know that Darwish was in the targeted vehicle. “My recollection is that Harithi was the primary target and their attitude was, that he was such a big deal and it was such a difficult thing to arrange that whoever else was there with him was a legitimate target too,” Priest told Airwars Director Chris Woods, published in Sudden Justice.
US officials did not initially publicly comment on the strike. Unofficially, US officials told press agencies that it had been conducted by a CIA drone. At a campaign rally in Arkansas, CNN reported, President Bush stated that the US was pursuing “international killers”. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, similarly, did not respond directly to questions about the attack, and said that “it would be a very good thing if he were out of business”.
On March 5th 2002, however, US Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told CNN’s Maria Ressa, in an on-air interview, that the strike was “a very successful tactical operation”. He continued: “…we’ve just got to keep the pressure on everywhere we’re able to, and we’ve got to deny the sanctuaries everywhere we’re able to, and we’ve got to put pressure on every government that is giving these people support to get out of that business”.
Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz’s comment on the strike reportedly infuriated the Yemeni government by violating a secrecy agreement between the two states. “This is why is it so difficult to make deals with the United States,” Brig. Gen. Yahya M. Al Mutawakel, the deputy secretary general for the ruling People’s Congress party in Yemen, told Christian Science Monitor. “This is why we are reluctant to work closely with them. They don’t consider the internal circumstances in Yemen. In security matters, you don’t want to alert the enemy.” President Saleh responded by banning US Predator drones from operating in Yemen.
General DeLong later told The Nation that “We didn’t want publicity. If questions did arise, the official Yemeni version would be that an SUV carrying civilians accidentally hit a land mine in the desert and exploded. There was to be no mention of terrorists, and no mention of missiles fired”.
Following the strike, a statement from Yemeni President Saleh was read on national television, calling on AQAP members to come forward and avoid what happened to Al-Harithi. A later Yemeni government statement on November 19th 2002 confirmed US-Yemeni “security cooperation” in the conducting of the strike, and named those killed.
According to an article in the New York Times, “Threats and Responses”, the strike was conducted under “broad authority” granted to the CIA by President Bush, meaning that the President was not required to specifically approve the November 3rd strike. Senior officials, furthermore, justified the strike as reflecting “the broader definition of the battlefield on which the campaign against Islamic terrorism would be conducted”. According to the report, the CIA “did not consult law enforcement officials” prior to the strike.
Legal questions surrounding the strike led the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to register their concern that the strike set “an alarming precedent… for extrajudicial execution”. Opposition groups in Yemen also voiced their disapproval of the strike, indicating that the US had violated Yemeni territorial sovereignty. A Yemeni official told the New Yorker that “there was no thought of blockading the highway and attempting to capture al-Harethi and his passengers, because he had evaded earlier attempts and because ‘it was suspected that they were going to a target'”.
Immediately following the strike, Yemeni officials removed the targeted vehicle. According to the New Yorker, the bodies were transported “to a military hospital in Sana’a… where American officials collected DNA samples for processing at a military laboratory in the United States”.
The sole survivor of the strike, Abdul Rauf Nassib, was arrested in February 2004, only to be acquitted by Yemen’s Special Penal Court of charges regarding his involvement in the USS Cole bombing. In Sudden Justice, Airwars Director Chris Woods wrote that, “despite his acquittal, Yemen continued to hold Nassib under US pressure for two additional years. By the time he was re-apprehended in 2012 he had allegedly risen to become a local commander with Al Qaeda”.
Following this event, the US would not conduct another known strike against AQAP in Yemen until 2009, seven years later.
Due to the nature of both CIA and US military involvement in Yemen, and the lack of official acknowledgement by the CIA for their involvement, Airwars grades this event as “declared” due to the comments made by US government sources to media, in lieu of public reporting on CIA actions.
The incident occured in the evening.
Sources (43) [ collapse]
Reports of the incident mention that the vehicle was travelling on a highway in the Marib province, and was struck at around 160km east of the capital of Yemen, Sana’a. The coordinates given are of the highway running through Marib province at 160km east of Sana’a. Due to the limited satellite imagery and information available to Airwars, we were unable to verify the location further.
US Forces Assessment:
Original strike reports
“It’s a very successful tactical operation, and one hopes each time you get a success like that, not only to have gotten rid of somebody dangerous but to have imposed changes in their tactics and operations and procedures" - Deputy Secretary Wolfowitz