Inside the National Security Agency’s massive headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland—a complex so large that the U.S. Capitol Building could easily fit inside it several times over—analysts wearing earphones sit twisting dials and scanning frequencies, hoping to lock on to one of their assigned targets. On November 3, 2002, in Room 3E132, personnel assigned to the agency’s Special Support Activity, which provides sensitive assistance to military commanders around the world, were in constant touch with a Cryptologic Support Group team in Yemen. The CSG—an NSA in microcosm, designed to be sent to critical areas on short notice—was part of a U.S. National Intelligence Support Team working with Yemeni intelligence officials to try to track down al-Qaeda members. Completing the team were Yemen-based CIA officials and their battery of unmanned Predator drones, each armed with deadly Hellfire missiles, based across the Red Sea in Djibouti. From there, the drones could easily reach anywhere in Yemen.
The CSG team was also patrolling the ether, hunting for any signals linked to its targets. High among those targets was Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, a native Yemeni suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda and planning the attack on the USS Cole two years before. But like most of the NSA’s new targets, Harethi knew that the United States was searching for him with an electronic dragnet, hoping to snag a brief satellite phone call and determine his location. He carried with him up to five phones—each one, analysts suspect, equipped with multiple cards to change its number. The NSA had a partial list of his numbers and, because Harethi was such a high-priority target, had set up an alarm to go off if any of them was used.
That afternoon, the alarm sounded—by some accounts, both at NSA headquarters and in the CSG’s compound in Yemen. The analysts were surprised: the number had not been used for a considerable period of time. Using the Global Positioning System, they pinpointed the signal in the province of Marib, a remote, sand-swept landscape that was controlled by well-armed tribal chiefs and was largely off-limits to Yemeni police. Almost immediately, CIA operators in Djibouti began directing a Predator toward the target.
But the NSA analyst who was monitoring the satellite call was disappointed. Having listened many times over the years to tapes containing the voice of Harethi, he was convinced that the person on the phone was not him. Then he heard another sound. “He’s in the backseat, and he’s giving the driver directions!” the analyst said excitedly, according to an intelligence official familiar with the operation. “That’s him!” shouted the analyst, as a colleague was quickly called over to confirm his opinion. Even though the conversation lasted a brief six seconds, both analysts were sure it was Harethi. Immediately, the information flashed to the Predator command in Djibouti. With the car in plain sight through the Predator’s video sensors, the operators quickly fired a Hellfire missile, turning the vehicle into a ball of flames and killing all six of its occupants.