July 19, 2011 — -- Just days after the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the U.S. came within inches of taking out the next big target on their terror hit list, the man considered the biggest threat to America.
It was a tip from the Yemeni government that sent U.S. aircraft over the wilds of southern Yemen's Shabwa province in search of Anwar al-Awlaki, the U.S.-born radical Islamic cleric and al Qaeda leader who has been linked to several deadly plots against America.
ABC News has learned that on May 5, the U.S. military dispatched a fearsome array of heavily armed warplanes including Marine Harrier jets, predator drones and a special operations aircraft carrying short range Griffin missiles to follow a pickup truck in which Awlaki was a passenger.
But unlike the successful mission that eliminated bin Laden, this raid would be marred by what an official described to ABC News as a series of "errors." Crews tracking Awlaki were unable to keep the laser from the targeting pod, which guides missiles into their targets, locked on the moving truck. The first missile came, launched from the special operations aircraft, missed.
The miss gave Awlaki time to call additional al Qaeda operatives for help. More vehicles descended on the area to confuse those tracking him.
With Harriers and a predator drone still overhead, the U.S. fired another missile at Awlaki. This time a huge fireball engulfed the pickup truck. The U.S. military trackers thought they had their man.
But then they watched, stunned, as the truck drove straight out of the fireball to safety. The missile had only grazed the back bumper.
The Harriers, which were almost out of gas, had to leave. The remaining aircraft tried to keep following Awlaki to take another shot. But then cloud cover got in the way. Awlaki was able to exploit a moment of hesitation while the targeting pods and the surveillance aircraft were refocusing to jump out of his pickup truck and move to another.
When the U.S. did finally manage to hit the original truck with missiles, killing the men inside, Awlaki was not one of them. Two operatives died, but Awlaki got away. There has been no sign of him since.
In early 2010, the Obama administration authorized the CIA and the U.S. military to kill Awlaki even though he is a U.S. citizen. Born in New Mexico, Awlaki moved to Yemen in 2004. Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad said he was inspired by Awlaki, and accused Ft. Hood shooter Maj. Nidal Hasan exchanged emails with Awlaki. In January 2010, Awlaki said he had had contact with Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the would-be "underwear bomber" accused of trying to blow up Northwest flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.