Back in May, when The Wall Street Journal noted how a U.S. drone strike in southern Yemen barely missed the U.S.-born Al Qaeda leader Anwar al-Awlaki, the account went something like this: In a span of 45 minutes, the U.S. military fired three errant rockets at Awlaki's pickup truck, two Yemeni brothers and Al Qaeda sympathizers appeared and helped Awlaki switch vehicles, another U.S. missile hit the pickup truck Awlaki had just abandoned, and Awlaki escaped.
But that tale is downright boring compared to a new version of that fateful day in May published by ABC News on Tuesday night. According to ABC's Martha Raddatz, the U.S. military turned "a fearsome array of heavily armed warplanes" on Awlaki, only for the mission to be marred by epic errors. When U.S. crews couldn't keep the laser they use to guide their missiles locked on Awlaki's pickup truck, resulting in a failed missile strike, vehicles rushed to the scene to confuse the U.S. military, Raddatz explains. That's when Awlaki brushed off a humongous fireball "inches" away from 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.
When the Harriers ran out of gas, the remaining planes faced one more improbable obstacle: clouds.
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.
Making the The Journal's account look even more staid, ABC recreated the scene in a video (the account begins about 50 seconds in):
ABC's Hollywood blockbuster-esque account of the Awlaki raid has drawn a fair amount of skepticism and mockery from analysts on Twitter. "My favorite bit was the part where Awlaki caught the Hellfire missile with his bare hand and threw it back at the Predator," Foreign Policy's Blake Hounshell writes. "If you believe ABC, Anwar al-Awlaki drove through a missile strike unscathed and outran drones," Al Jazeera's Gregg Carlstrom adds, speculating that Awlaki "used his extensive military experience to calculate the exact moment when he'd be shielded by cloud cover." Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen thinks Awlaki emerges from the story as a "one-man A-Team," while Yemen-based journalist Tom Finn is simply incredulous. "Marine Harrier jets, predator drones & Griffin missiles. sounds like they're after Harry Potter not Awlaki," he observes."