Lt. Col. Mark McCurley stood tense and quiet in the operations cell in Djibouti, Africa with his eyes transfixed on the large, high-definition monitor before him. It was playing a real-time video feed from a Predator drone -- the same video McCurley said was being beamed to high-level officials in Washington, D.C., more than 7,000 miles away.
The drone, one of a small fleet of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) in the air for the mission, was tailing two white pick-up trucks as they weaved their way through a small town in a remote part of Yemen. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and senior member of al Qaeda, was in the lead car with his bodyguards. The second car purportedly held more of his entourage.
“They started driving, taking a nice winding route through the village. They went through some village square where all the shopping was going on. It was all calculated, either to lose surveillance or keep them as close to as many civilians as possible so that a strike couldn’t happen,” McCurley told ABC News this week.
But al-Awlaki eventually had to leave town and the cover of collateral damage.
“Our 10-minute window came when they left town and there was a stretch of highway between that village and the next one he was going to that we had to get the strike in,” McCurley said. “Essentially, what it turned into is once he hit that long straight-away and took off, we rolled in with two Predators, you know, one for the primary shot and one for the back up in case he missed.”
McCurley, who was in command of a reconnaissance outfit in Djibouti tasked with launching and recovering drones for missions in the area, is the first involved in the drone operation that killed al-Awlaki to speak publicly about details of the strike. Earlier in the day his men had launched three of the drones involved and once the planes were safely on their way to the target zone, McCurley’s team handed over the controls to Air Force servicemen at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico to fly the plane and take the shots. It has been previously reported that additional drones involved in the mission took off from a secret CIA base on the Arabian Peninsula.
In his recently-published book “Hunter Killer,” McCurley, now retired, makes no mention of the purported CIA involvement, but describes the strike that killed al-Awlaki from a Predator that took off from Djibouti with the call sign “Gordon,” named for Gary Gordon, an Army Delta Force soldier killed in the Black Hawk Down incident in 1993 in Somalia. McCurley said the Department of Defense reviewed and approved his book before publication.
After the first missile was fired and on its deadly path, McCurley writes that “the Predator floated alongside al-Awlaki’s truck. Had he looked up, it would have been entirely possible that he would have seen the aircraft as the pilot eased a little rudder to pull the nose away from the target.”
“Five, four, three… The sensor relaxed his grip a mite. The cross hairs drifted toward the lead vehicle… A black streak entered the picture from above, raced downward, and slammed into the hood of the truck.”
McCurley told ABC News that after the first strike, the second truck tried to “evade, but the second missile was already in flight so they really didn’t have a chance.” Among the other alleged militants killed in the strike was Samir Khan, another American citizen and the editor of an al Qaeda magazine, though the drone team did not know Khan was in the convoy at the time, McCurley said.
After the first two Predators turned to head back to base, at least one other lingered to make sure there were no survivors. No one on the ground moved. After a few reported high-profile failures to get al-Awlaki, the mission was a success.
Throughout the operation, McCurley said the operation cell, with his drone pilots and sensor operators in Djibouti, was quiet and “sterile.”
“These guys are professionals, they don’t get excited about this,” McCurley said of his men. “I don’t think anyone does in this profession. They were very calm. They wanted to get it right… It was very by-the-book. The al-Awlaki strike, we ran it just like any other strike.”
The killing of al-Awlaki, a native of New Mexico, was and continues to be controversial, as does the whole of the drone “targeted killing” program. President Obama personally approved al-Awlaki as a legitimate target year before his death. McCurley said drones had tracked al-Awlaki’s network for more than a year before the strike.
Al-Awlaki was never charged with a crime in the U.S., but had been tied to a number of domestic terror plots, including the failed Christmas Day bombing and the deadly Fort Hood shooting, both in 2009, and a cargo bomb plot in 2010. Even after his death, investigators say al-Awlaki’s online sermons are commonly found on the computers of those arrested in the U.S. on terrorism charges. After his death, U.S. officials described al-Awlaki as the chief of external operations for al Qaeda’s franchise in Yemen.
More controversial was a strike in which McCurley’s team was similarly involved two weeks later -- one that claimed the life of al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son Abdulrahman, another American citizen.
“The target was a group of al Qaeda leaders. The fact that he was there… it was indoors. We had no idea he was there,” McCurley told ABC News. He said the drone team didn’t learn that the mission had accidentally killed an American teenager until a couple days later through the local media.
‘We See War Up Close and in High-Definition’
Those missions are just two of hundreds in which McCurley was involved in his nearly decade-long career in drone operations, most of them serving as a drone pilot and trainer in the American southwest, flying missions over Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Air Force has struggled to draw pilots to the drone program, in part due to a “stigma” associated with the flying killing machines, as shown in an ABC News investigation last April.
“Let’s be honest, when people dream about flying… People in this generation didn’t grow up and say, ‘I want to fly an RPA [remotely piloted aircraft],” Air Force spokesperson Jennifer Cassidy said at the time. “They were the ones that watched re-runs of ‘Top Gun’ and said, ‘I want to be a fighter pilot.’”
McCurley said he originally wanted to write the book to dispel some myths about drone operations, to say it’s not like a videogame, that professional pilots are at the controls and that there are layers upon layers of controls and rules when it comes to flying the planes and striking targets. And even from thousands of miles away, McCurley said killing a man with a drone can be personal.
“Everything we do is graphic. We see war up close and in high-definition. One of the shots I talk about in ‘Hunter Killer’… we basically traced a guy for 30 days. There’s an intimacy to knowing everything about the guy, but in the end game, in the last five seconds, he heard the missile coming in. He actually turned and looked at me. He looked at the airplane, I mean, he looked at me. And I’m looking him in the eye in the last moments of his life. And you don’t get past that,” McCurley said. “It’s not the same as a soldier or a Marine who’s in a firefight… it’s a lower grade of issue, but you still have to walk away with the decision that I pulled a trigger and the result of that was not Hollywood special effects, but a real life being lost.”
But on that day in late September 2011, McCurley appeared to be at peace with the operation that killed al-Awlaki. Once his drones returned to base in Djibouti and controls were handed back to his team from the pilots in Cannon, McCurley personally landed “Gordon”.
“My day ended with landing the airplane. It happened to be right at sunset, so you got the nice African sunset with the big orange ball on the horizon,” he said. “But we land the airplane, we go have dinner, and well, it’s a deployed location so there’s not much else we can do except concentrate on when’s the next mission, what’s the next target, where do we need to go?”