The first eleven years of his life were as normal as it gets for a boy from an intellectual, well-connected, multi-national family. And then, normalcy ended.
Abdulrahman, a first born son, was delivered in Denver in 1995, while his father was serving as an Imam at the Denver Islamic Society. His father Anwar, though from Yemen, was also a US citizen as he was born here while his father, Abdulrahman’s grandfather — attended university. This was a family who had, for two generations before his birth, pursued their education in the US.
Until age seven, the boy was raised, mostly in California, with his father, Egyptian born mother, and the siblings that followed him. There he enjoyed the times that he spent hiking and fishing with his father — an avid fisherman.
When his father left him to embark on a lecture tour of the United Kingdom, Abdulrahman moved with his mother and siblings to Yemen. His father reunited with them two years later in their ancestral village in the Shabwa province. There, Abdulrahman had the opportunity to develop relationships with some of his relatives and the tribal community.
Up to age eleven, Abdulrahman had known his father as an Imam, as a university lecturer and, most importantly, as father — a father critical of government possibly, but the radical Anwar al-Awlaki — Al-Queda leader? Not yet. Although his father had been investigated in the United States for terrorist connections, the allegations of illegal activities had been dropped. But this time, his father was taken to a Yemeni jail on charges of kidnapping a teenaged boy for ransom and for being involved in an Al-Queda plot to kidnap a US official. Under very different circumstances than a lecture tour, Abdulrahman was separated from his father again.
Freed a year and a half later by intercession from his tribe, Abdulrahman’s father again reunited with the family. That togetherness lasted a little over a year when his father, wanted for continuing terrorist activities, left. This time to go into hiding.
Abdulrahman, with his mother and siblings, moved to the capital city of Sana to live with his paternal grandfather Nasser al-Awlaki. Nasser is a man of wealth and renown, a Fulbright scholar, a past Yemeni Agriculture Minister and a university professor.
An easy teen to raise, Abdulrahman was obedient and not tough as would be expected from a boy who had been through so much. Both his grandfather and mother often worried that he was a little too shy and soft. Nonetheless, by age fourteen he had developed many friends and common teenaged interests.
Abdulrahman and his grandfather often discussed what he would do after high school. Like his grandfather and father before him, the boy looked forward to returning to the United States for his university education. His grandfather had the means to make that possible, but the promise was still a long way off to a sixteen year old boy.
More immediately on Abdulrahman’s mind was that he hadn’t seen his father for two and half years and that his father was on the President Obama’s hunt-to-kill list. His grandfather had tried to intercede for his son, writing President Obama and leveraging his connections within his own government. Yet, no assurances were forthcoming.
Abdulrahman wanted to reunite with his father again. So the boy wrote his mother a letter.
I am sorry for leaving in this kind of way. Forgive me. I miss my father and want to see if I can go and talk to him. I will be coming back in a few days.
Early in the morning, Abdulrahman set out on his journey. While the family was still asleep, he snuck out of a second floor kitchen window, jumping to a soft landing in the garden below, and left through the front gate. The family guard had seen him go, but did not find it suspicious enough to awaken anybody in the household. Abdulrahman then caught an early morning bus for the six hour journey to his cousin’s house back in the Shabwa province.
Twenty seven days later, on the day after a US drone targeted and killed his father, Abdulrahman called his mother from the same ancestral village that they had lived in, far away from where his father had been taken out, and told her that he was coming home. Because it was not safe to travel during the political unrest that followed his father’s death, he decided to wait for a few weeks before leaving the security of his relatives and tribal community.
On October 14, 2011, the night before he was to embark for home, Abdulrahman joined his seventeen year old cousin and six others to share a farewell barbeque. As they gathered on that moonlit night, cooking, eating and talking, a US drone attacked them. The boy was finally reunited with his father.
In the initial US news release listing those killed, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was claimed to be a twenty something military aged Al-Queda terrorist. When it was revealed that he was a sixteen year old US citizen looking for his father, it was claimed that he was unfortunately next to a targeted terrorist. When it was determined that the targeted terrorist was not present at the barbeque, the US government’s explanations as to why Abdulrahman al-Awlaki was a victim of a drone attack went silent. Except this – Obama adviser and past press secretary Robert Gibbs, on video, claimed “the boy should have had a more responsible father.”