The past month has been murder in Yemen. The country is without a president or cabinet after a coup led by the Houthi minority. And the American-led drone campaign is back in full force; on Thursday, the local al Qaeda affiliate announced the death of one of its most influential clerics.
On the sidelines all along has been a Western-educated, English-speaking, deeply connected observer who peppers his Facebook feed with images of Islamic radicals—but remains a fanboy of Disney movies and knows Katy Perry lyrics by heart.
Ammar al-Awlaki is the brother of the notorious al Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a 2011 drone strike but remains influential to this day. The 32-year-old Ammar al-Awlaki so far has avoided his brother’s radical path, instead taking his father’s advice and earning engineering degrees while trying to help his country thrive. Incredibly, the brother of the extremist martyr has maintained a low profile. But deep in the crannies, he’s a central Yemeni player—and a hidden helper to many Westerners in the country.
A half-dozen Western reporters contacted by The Daily Beast say Awlaki has helped them arrange meetings with key tribal, government, and insurgent leaders. None of these reporters were comfortable speaking on the record for this story.
Awlaki’s many roles make for some rather unusual juxtapositions on his Facebook feed. As news trickled out about the latest drone strike in Yemen, Awlaki, who serves in the country’s ministry of environment and water resources, was posting pictures from the Palace of Nations in Geneva, where he’s attending a UN Climate Conference from Feb. 8-13. According to his Facebook post, he’s there to “represent Yemen changes.”
But sandwiched between the tourist snapshots was a vintage teenage photo of likely Anwar al-Awlaki's mop-haired, bespectacled son. And though Ammar al-Awlaki did not mention the most recent attack on al Qaeda, he memorialized the historic strikes that took out his brother and nephew and even used the words “Hell Fire”—as in the missiles fired by America’s killer drones.
Anwar al-Awlaki was killed on September 30, 2011, when a pair of Predator drones fired on his car with multiple Hellfire missiles. Anwar's son was slain in a strike weeks later.
“They burned him to death,” Ammar Al-Awlaki writes by what appears to be a photo of Anwar al-Alawki’s teenage son who also died in a drone attack. “The missile that “set on fire” this adolescent is called “Hellfire Missile,” or “Fire of Hell” missile, as the American army calls it.”
He quickly lays down a stinging indictment for the slaying of his 15-year-old nephew, who was killed two weeks later while having dinner.
“Abdul Rahman al-Awlaqi, who was born in the U.S. but of Yemeni origins had no fault whatsoever.”
“On the 14 of October, 2011, just after he reached 15 years of age, he was eating lunch on the side of the road with friends his age in the district of Shabwa. There were no wanted persons among them, and neither one of them had any military ambitions.”
Then Ammar al-Awlaki blasts the U.S. for snuffing out his kin. “Several ‘Hellfire’ missiles fell on them.”
Recovering the remains, Ammar al-Awlaki writes, was superfluous since they were reduced to charred bones. “Nothing identifiable remained of his innocent body with the exception of the scalp of his head connected to a small piece of skin. They barely mourned for him.”
Until that point, Ammar al-Awlaki had evinced a relatively carefree spirit on his Facebook account, which he started back in 2007 and now boasts more than 5,000 friends. Awlaki showed off pictures of his young kids online like a typical proud dad. The posts were typed in English. Hallmark moments on Halloween featured his son dressing up as Charlie Chaplin. There was a photo of his daughter playing dress-up with her mom’s headscarf. His wife was never seen.
Family portraits showed happy Awlakis frolicking in the tundra of Canada, the same place where Ammar once studied. Hints of his Western roots appeared often. According to his Facebook page, Awlaki studied electrical engineering at New Mexico State University. The Daily Beast contacted the school’s registrar’s office and after offering various spellings of his first and last name, a representative confirmed he did study electrical engineering at the school from 2001 to 2003 but did not graduate. Public records also show an Ammar al-Awlaki with a U.S. Social Security number who resided in Las Cruces, New Mexico, from 2001 to 2003.
Ammar al-Awlaki did not respond to repeated requests to comment for this story.
A spokesman at the Yemeni Embassy in Washington, D.C., Mohammed Albasha, at first confirmed he had passed messages on to Awlaki. But by Thursday, Albasha said the chaos in his country had undermined his ability to do his job.
“Unfortunately I’m not able to speak about [counterterrorism] activities at this point,” he emailed. “My counterparts in Yemen have quit.”
In the past few months, Awlaki has been posting on Facebook several times a day. On Jan. 7, when jihadis stormed the Paris headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and left 11 dead and an additional 11 injured before fleeing, he chimed in.
Awlaki called the Paris killers token martyrs.
“They are just a group of impostors,” he wrote on his Facebook account about Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, the alleged Hebdo attackers.
Awlaki also said he understood why the magazine became a bullseye.
“If there is any actor, writer, or magazine offended with the Jews or the State of Israel that doubts the Holocaust, they will gain shame and destruction,” he wrote. “There is no one around the world that have the ability to criticize the Son of Zion, but the Islam and its characters are daily subject in magazines there.”
The Paris killers allegedly were followers of his brother’s teachings, but Awlaki deflected after the Paris spree. He became incensed that an attack on the capital of his country, in which two bombs wiped out dozens, was virtually a blip on the news. “If they care about human life why didn’t they know about these murders?” he wrote. “Where is the censure and seriousness about this?”
Then, weeks later, Yemen’s government fell apart, with President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi ousted.
“Tonight we have no president. How to sleep? ;)” Awlaki wrote. “Surprise: President Hadi resigned from office. The future is worse, worse, worse.”
Then Hadi’s cabinet resigned en masse and the Yemeni government collapsed around him.
“I woke up a few seconds ago shocked,” Awlaki wrote. “We are facing a Yemen in a state of splitting apart. Very sad.”
Awlaki has reason to be upset. He is, after all, a member of the Yemeni government, a deputy minister. He is currently tasked with preventing his country from dying of thirst.
“The ministry is very important,” Charles Schmitz, a professor of geography at Towson University in Baltimore, told The Daily Beast. “He’s dealing with important issues—something that is real.”
According to a 2009 report (PDF) on the water crisis in Yemen’s rural areas, “only 49 percent have access to safe water,” and the drought is most critical “in the western part of the country, where 90 percent of the population live.” While the capital Sana’a is one the highest groundwater yielders, places like Rub Al Kali and Socotra are dry as a bone.
Schmitz, who met with Ammar and Anwar’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki, a decade ago at the family’s home, said the state of Yemen’s water supply is unstable at best—and, at worst, dire. Some villages and cities, he said, are trucking in water.
Rather than adopt more progressive means to ensure all citizens receive water, Yemen’s “mismanagement,” as Schmitz called it, is quickly drying up its aquifers to levels that may be very difficult to reverse.
“They have been borrowing on their water future, and some places are hitting the bottom,” Schmitz said. “Without a capable state and government that is looking out for everybody’s best interests, they can’t regulate the withdrawal such that the aquifers can replenish. That’s what needs to happen.”
Awlaki was quickly aware that his nation was in trouble after last month’s unrest. Immediately following the cabinet’s resignation, he wrote: “Are you aware what happened to us guys? No president. No council of deputies/No government/no ministers/no legitimate deputy president/no security forces/no unified army/no superior commander of the army/no ports no outlets/no oil or gas production/no budgets/no actual constitution.”
Perhaps a shake-up might be best, Awlaki suggested:
“Let’s get separated. The separation declaration will give Al Huthy the legitimate excuse to invade the South and subdue it with the power of the cannons and tanks, air force and… will unify many Al Huthy enemies in the north who are separated by power but unified by common interests.”
The name Awlaki carries currency in Yemen. Ammar al-Awlaki lives in the country’s capital, Sana’a, and is respected by locals because of the family’s lineage. The Awlakis are part of a powerful tribe who are linked to a kind of Yemeni Camelot known as the al Farid bin Naser, a “Sheikhly family” whose members have historically gone on to become tribal leaders.
But Ammar al-Awlaki hasn’t forgotten about his love for Western culture. On Twitter, he compared a controversial ports opening agreement in Aden with the Katy Perry song “Hot ‘n Cold.”
This past year, he paired a photo of his son wearing oversize, dark, thick-rimmed glasses with one of a young Carl Fredricksen from the Disney movie Up.
Then, on Oct. 30, Awlaki posted claims that he dodged a threat on his life. He uploaded a series of pictures—including one of a bullet hole that pierced the window of his ministry office in Sana’a.
The stray bullet “broke the glass off my office in the ministry,” he wrote. He said he’d be forced to adopt “armored” precautions for the future because of the incident.
Awlaki’s followers on Facebook appear to be a split of moderate and hardline Muslims. Most of them appear to admire him and show deference to his family. They refer to his brother as “Sheikh Anwar,” as Awlaki does. Many on his Facebook page believe Anwar al-Awlaki to be an exemplary martyr.
“God bless his soul, and home to paradise,” wrote one Abumhassan Awlaki.
In the 2013 book Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill writes that Awlaki was propositioned by a spy during a business meeting in Vienna just eight months before the drone strike that ended both his brother and his nephew’s lives.
The spy, a white man in a blue suit, referred to himself as “Chris,” Scahill writes, and offered Awlaki a deal: Give up Anwar in return for an enormous bounty. “You won’t be helping us for free,” Chris told Awlaki. “That $5 million would help raise [Anwar’s] kids.”
On Facebook, Awlaki returned to the incident in January 2013.
“The meeting was in a [Vienna] coffee shop, not a cellar underground as intelligence officers do in Arab states,” he wrote.
Chris allegedly wasn’t alone. He was with another “senior official,” and Awlaki said they were trying to win him over. “Their goal was to gather more information about Anwar’s state of mind, his personality and most importantly to gather information on his whereabouts,” he wrote.
The alleged spy appeared impressed by Anwar al-Awlaki’s charisma and influence. That, Ammar al-Awlaki said, was when he realized his brother was a bigger deal than he’d realized. In his retelling, Chris said: “I probably should not say this because he stands against us, and we couldn’t make him disappear from the Western world because his charisma is vast and he has a large impact on people.”
With money on the table, Ammar al-Awlaki claimed he hadn’t seen his brother since 2004 and didn’t know where he was.
Years after the strike, he kept coming back to how he and his older brother were portrayed as monsters, he wrote: “They think that he was a leader of al Qaeda and he came from Afghanistan after Sept. 11 attacks and a lot of other incorrect information.”
His brother, Awlaki said on Facebook, was a preacher and dedicated scholar who attained degrees all the way up to the doctoral level. But his crowning achievement was his ability “to inspire Muslims to prosper.”
His brother, Awlaki wrote, could have been used to “lead Islamic youth’s powers against Western hegemony and guide them toward their real enemy and launch a spark toward Islamic revival and return authority back to their owners.”
Like both Anwar and Ammar, patriarch Nasser al-Awlaki was a respected academic who had laid down roots throughout America’s heartland while pursuing advanced degrees in agriculture. He ended up becoming Yemen’s minister of agriculture.
He’d hoped Anwar, his firstborn son, would follow in his footsteps and concentrate on studying “civil engineering, particularly hydraulics, and the problem of water resources in Yemen,” Nasser al-Awlaki told Scahill. “Because Yemen is really suffering from the water shortage.”
Laura Kasinof wasn’t researching Yemen’s water shortage when she landed in Yemen as a reporter. But she certainly had good reason to contact Ammar al-Awlaki. His grief over his brother was still raw, and she described Ammar as “the brother of the man touted as the new Osama bin Laden” who also knew all of Yemen’s power brokers “because he had grown up with them.”
Awlaki encountered Kasinof in Sana’a, and he showed up with slicked-back hair. She remembers him sipping a cappuccino.
In Kasinof’s book, Don’t Be Afraid of the Bullets, she describes Ammar al-Awlaki’s “wealthy Yemen gut”—the polar opposite of his brother’s frail frame. Their coincidental meet was at a café in Change Square, and gunfire erupted. The two hid together in a near by apartment until the bloodshed was over.
Not long after her near-death experience, Kasinof met with Awlaki again. They spoke off-the-record about the injustice of his losing his nephew at such a young age in a drone attack. While talking, they were interrupted by an activist who knew Ammar al-Awlaki only on social media.
“I’m really happy to have had a chance to meet you. I’ve always wanted to,” he said.
Awlaki wryly responded with a warning.
“It’s probably not safe to hang out with me, huh?”
Editor's Note: This story has been amended to clarify the circumstances behind the death of Abdulraman and particulars in Laura Kasinof’s book.