Built in the late 1800s, Fort Myer is an army post in the US, situated next to the Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac from Washington DC.
In 1908, the base got the distinction of being the site of the first flight of an aircraft at a military installation, anywhere in the world. Around that time, it also became the location of the first aviation fatality in history, when a Lt. Thomas Selfridge was killed while on a demonstration flight with Orville Wright. It is reported that at an altitude of about 100 feet, the balsa wood propeller split and the aircraft dropped out of the sky like a stone. Selfridge suffered a concussion in the crash and later died, becoming the first person to die in a powered fixed-wing aircraft. Wright suffered broken ribs and a fractured leg, but survived.
Fort Myer is great for military ceremonies too, being a stone’s throw from the White House. US Presidents find it easy to hop over by chopper and zip back in a few hours.
September 30, 2011, was no different and President Obama had taken the short flight in Marine One, a heavily armed and armored Sikorsky CH-60N ‘White Hawk’ that is reserved for the President’s exclusive use.
This time the ceremony was a ‘Change of Office’ – a farewell to the then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, who was retiring from office. (1)
Obama had reason to be extra buoyant. 2011 had given the Americans what they would like to call, a ‘double whammy’. Just five months after killing Osama Bin Laden, here was another very high value target liquidated – ‘vaporized’ would be a more appropriate word.
The President stepped up to the podium, but before he held forth with his eulogy to the Admiral, he began with this announcement….
“I have some important news to share with you. Earlier this morning, Anwar al-Awlaki – a leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was killed in Yemen. (***Applause***) The death of Awlaki is a major blow to Al Qaeda’s most active operational affiliate, the AQAP. Awlaki was the leader of external operations for AQAP and in that role, he personally directed the planning and execution of the murder innocent Americans. He plotted the failed attempt to blow up an airplane on Christmas Day in 2009 (***the underwear bomber***) and he directed the failed attempt to blow up U.S. cargo planes in 2010. (***explosives in printers onboard UPS cargo planes***).”
Stepping back a bit……..
The Awlaki announcement went largely unheralded. It was quite unlike the euphoria after the Bin Laden killing, the night of May 2nd, when thousands of Americans had gathered in New York’s Times Square, cheering at the top of their voices. Hundreds had stood in front of the White House, screaming, “USA! USA! USA!” All over America, folks had spontaneously taken to the streets, laughing, shouting and beating their chests in relief and joy. The last time when the streets of America had resounded that loudly was exactly sixty-six years prior, on V-E Day.
Almost overnight, one agency of the US government, till then shrouded in secrecy, became the new rock stars and a household name – the elite Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Hollywood rushed in – Disney attempted to trademark the term SEAL Team Six and the producers of Zero Dark Thirty, an account of the Bin Laden takedown, were even given unprecedented access to sensitive classified material, to help them make the movie. Conflicting accounts of how (and if at all) the master terrorist had been killed began to do the rounds of every news outlet in town.
History has a way of bringing clarity to even qualitative assessments, but with regard to Obama’s confirmation about the ‘major blow’, it still remains unclear as to exactly how big a blow Bin Laden’s or Awlaki’s killings have been, to violent jihad as a whole and whether on the contrary it has only made things worse.
Nothing energizes failing zeal more than a stray success and so it was with the Bin Laden killing. Moreover, it was May of 2011 and the 2012 Presidential election campaign was gearing up right then. The prospects of a propaganda goldmine from the Bin Laden killing were not lost on Barack Obama. He decided to get himself personally involved in a massive surge in the planning of more lethal operations against so-called high value targets, chief among whom was Anwar Al-Awlaki, an American citizen of Yemeni descent, born in Las Cruces, New Mexico. (To read more about this creep’s background, check out Part-1 of this piece).
Before he got blown to smithereens, Awlaki had been the most influential English-language recruiter for the world of jihad. His influence knew no linguistic bounds. Even today, on YouTube, he can be seen staring into the camera with hooded, impassive eyes, speaking in carefully measured tones in a comfortable American twang, his monotone often superimposed by voice-overs in French, German and other European languages.
He is also acknowledged as the father of ‘freelance, do-it-yourself terrorism’, his message to wannabes – ‘you don’t have to fly to a Yemeni or Pakistani training camp and become an official Al-Qaida member, in order to carry out terrorist strikes against the infidel anymore. Instead, do your own thing – walk out into the streets – set off pressure cooker bombs, fire indiscriminately into crowds, whenever and wherever you want – anything is good and anybody fair game, for the umma.’
The dust at Fort Myer, kicked up by the Marine One’s rotor blades, hadn’t even settled when Obama’s counter-terrorism team presented him with an urgent intelligence update on Awlaki.
Along with signals intercepts by JSOC and the CIA and humint inputs from a reward-thirsty snitch in Yemeni intelligence, the White House now had an address in Yemen which it believed was where the cleric had parked his sorry ass. The window to act was a tiny one, given that the ass—le slept at different locations every other night of the week.
JSOC would run the operation. US military aircraft were standing by when Obama gave the green light. Almost immediately, the massive military might of the US was brought to bear in an awesome display of firepower…..
From a carrier that had been hovering in the Gulf of Aden, just 20 nautical miles from the Yemeni coastline, two AV-8A Harrier VTOL jump jets had already launched and were now stationed at 15000 feet over the barren Yemeni brushland in a holding pattern, awaiting the word. Just fifteen minutes prior their twin Rolls Royce Pegasus-11 engines had quenched their thirst, their tanks topped up by a Gibraltar-based KC-130 tanker of the RAF, which had appeared out of the mist, like a malevolent St Bernard.
Under each Harrier’s wing was slung an AGM-65 Maverick missile with a 300-lb blast fragmentation warhead – powerful and accurate, ideally suited for hitting large stationary targets, like farm houses.
The Harriers were not alone. Hours prior, two MQ-1 Predator drones had lumbered down an uneven asphalt runway that shimmered in the 49°C East African haze and lifted off in their typical albatross-like ungainly gait from Camp Lemmonier, a nominally French air base that has been leased out to the CIA, in Djibouti, 250 kms to the west over the Horn of Africa. With a capability to remain aloft for 20 hours at a stretch, they had a lot of juice in them for the mission. Attached to each of their underbellies was a single AGM-114 Hellfire missile that may not have been as powerful as the Maverick but it was ideally suited for small moving targets like trucks, SUVs and even a lone bad guy. Effective only in clear weather, they didn’t have to worry on that score. The weather over Yemen wasn’t going anywhere – it was always clear.
The mission would be led by a real badass – a JSOC-operated Lockheed MW130 Dragon Spear gunship armed with a nose-mounted Bushmaster Mk44 cannon that spewed 30mm high explosive, armor piercing shells at the rate of five every second, each in fact a tiny missile. Perhaps they would not be needed. The Dragon Spear’s real babies were two wing-mounted precision guided AGM-176 Griffin missiles. They say that if a Griffin has a lock on you, it will get you, no matter where or how fast you flee.
Launched from the Khamis Mushayat Air Base in Saudi Arabia, the Dragon Spear had blasted into Yemeni airspace within minutes of take-off, heading straight for the Shabwah Province, to the south, where it had a date with an ass–le named Anwar Al Awlaki.
Rounding off the attack was the eye in the sky – a Northrop RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance UAV that would hover above, to relay a live video feed of the takedown, back to the mission planners at the JSOC.
They missed…….but you don’t miss Part-3. It’ll be out soon as I can catch my breath……
(1) – Currently, besides being a professor at Princeton University, Admiral Mullen is also on the board of several large US defense contractors. Last month, there were even rumors that he was being vetted for the position of VP by Ex-New York Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, when he was toying with the idea of running for President in 2016.